The Life and Death of King John by Shakespeare

Sooooo….less than one week in on my Classics Club challenge and I’m already making a change to my list! I started A History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill for the club (I know, some people might argue it’s validity as a classic, but I say it’s a nonfiction classic that every Anglo-phile needs to read), and I decided I needed to give some of Shakespeare’s histories another chance. I “read” either 3 or 4 of them in my Shakespeare class in college and HATED them (“read” is in quotations because I started reading them and hated them so much that I just took copious notes in the lecture and studied my butt off in order to pass the test…the fact that I can’t even remember the exact number that we studied should indicate my level of commitment to this part of the syllabus). So, after reading the section in Churchill’s book about King John, I decided I’d just whip out my old college copy of Riverside Shakespeare and give it a good read.

king-john-of-england

I’m pleased to say that my level of tolerance for this type of play has significantly increased. This wasn’t one I “read” in college (I remember because there were no notes, highlights or “study this section!!!!” notes in the margins). This play covers the part of King John’s reign when John is battling with the King of France all while his right to the throne is being challenged by his nephew Arthur. Much of this matched up pretty well with what I’d read in Churchill. Shakespeare took a few liberties, but I was able to know what was going on thanks to having read a nonfiction account ahead of time (maybe that was my problem in college…I had no earthly idea of the history or the context for these plays!)

I think my favorite part of this play was the cat fight between King John’s mom Queen Elinor and Arthur’s mom Constance. They are, obviously, fighting over whose son is the rightful king of England. It gets pretty hairy:

Elinor: Who is it thou dost call usurper, France?

Constance: Let me make answer: thy usurping son.

Elinor: Out, insolent, thy bastard shall be king that thou mayst be a queen and check the world!

Whoa, whoa, retract the claws, ladies. Can’t we support each other as sisters? As just a couple ladies trying to make it in a man’s world? No? Well, whatevs.

My other favorite part was Constance’s big speech when she fears her son has been killed. It is an incredibly touching moment that, as a mother, really stood out to me.

“Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost. I am not mad, I would to haven I were! For then ’tis like I should forget myself. O, if I could, what grief should I forget!”

I got really irked when the King of France tells her she’s as fond of grief as she is of her child…I feel like that is really belittling a mother’s right to fear for and worry after the safety of their children…but maybe I misread part of her speech as sincerity when it was really just a show.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this play. I didn’t swoon for it, but I’m glad I read it.

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