The Bardathon: 10 – King John

I had, I know, read all of these plays before this reading project. So I know I must have read King John. But I remembered absolutely nothing about it. And, just within a week or so since reading it this time round, I found my memory of it fading. Has Shakespeare ever written a more forgettable play?

I don’t mean it’s a bad play: one remembers bad plays. I’d class Titus Andronicus as a bad play, but it’s – unfortunately – unforgettable. King John is not like that. It is put together competently; it is well-paced, and the narrative and characters are clear throughout. And if there are any obvious flaws to it, I can’t spot any of them. And yet, I can’t find anything of interest to say about it.

Apparently, it was very popular in Victorian times: odd bunch, those Victorians! I wonder what they liked about it. Yes, the scene where Prince Arthur pleads to Hubert is quite touching (Hubert had been ordered to put out the young prince’s eyes), and I suppose there’s some poignancy to Prince Arthur’s subsequent death while trying to escape; and Faulconbridge (referred to throughout – rather endearingly, I thought – as “the Bastard”) has about him an irreverent vitality that foreshadows Hotspur. And his patriotic speeches towards the end of the play must have appealed greatly in the decade following the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But these are hardly enough to make for a fully satisfying drama.

As with Richard II, Shakespeare has narrowed the scope from the broad panorama of the Henry VI plays to depicting a handful of major characters. And, like Richard II, King John here is a most inadequate king. However, Shakespeare found some interesting depths to the character of Richard: John appears not to have interested Shakespeare at all.

It’s strange that this play should have been written during a period when Shakespeare was producing some of his finest works. At around the same time as this play, Shakespeare was also writing Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, and the magnificent Henry IV plays. I can only guess that this particular project did not fire Shakespeare’s imagination. Being a professional, he turned in a thoroughly professional job, but I couldn’t really find anything in this particular play to indicate a writer of genius.


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