King John of England is pitted against the united powers of France, Brittany, Austria, and the Papacy. Will England be destroyed by his fatal indecision? As alliances are made, broken, and remade, the paranoid and erratic John reveals his weakness and reliance on those around him - including his powerful mother, Queen Elinor, and Faulconbridge, the cynical and witty bastard son of the dead King Richard I. In this early history play, King John is played by Michael Feast, the Bastard by Michael Maloney, and Constance by Eileen Atkins.
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One of Shakespeare's few artistic failures. The characters are cardboard and the dramatic construction surprisingly inept. It's generally dated to around 1595, but it feels more like prentice work.
In the central sequence, France and England meet on a battlefield near the city of Angiers. They both demand the support of the city, but the civic leaders are in no rush to pick sides. So the two armies decide to join together in an attack on the city, raze it, then return to the attack on each other.
But wait: the city leaders propose that King John's daughter Blanche marry the French dauphin Louis, and thus settle the disputes amicably. The two kings immediately agree.
But then Pandulph, a papal legate, enters the scene and demands that the French King abandon his alliance with John, because John - held up, anachronistically, as a kind of Protestant hero - refuses to accept the Pope's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury.
And so reluctantly, after the hurly burly, we're right back where we started: France and England are at odds and are about to fight a battle.
In the battle that follows, King John takes Prince Arthur prisoner. Arthur is his nephew and another claimant to the throne. John wishes he could communicate his intentions mentally to Arthur's jailer, Hubert, rather than speaking them out loud. But Hubert plays dumb and forces John to say that he wants Arthur dead. Hubert agrees to do it.
But when we next meet Hubert and Arthur, the irons are in the fire - literally - and Hubert has a signed warrant to put out Arthur's eyes. What happened to the plans to kill him without writing anything down? Arthur pleads for mercy, and Hubert backs off.
But then he goes to tell John that Arthur is, in fact, dead. He hopes to secrete Arthur somewhere safe. John, aware now that killing Arthur was a mistake, turns on Hubert and berates him. But, says Hubert, "here is your hand and seal" for the deed. Clearly he shows a warrant to John; but which one? The one he showed to Arthur - the one that says Arthur is to be blinded? Or the one that says Arthur is to be killed - a warrant that John explicitly refused in the earlier scene to provide?
In any case, don't worry, says Hubert, I didn't really do it after all. Arthur is still alive and safe.
But in the meantime, unbeknownst to Hubert, Arthur tries to escape by leaping from a window and dies on the rocks below. So once again, after all the hurly burly, we're right back where the story was headed anyway.
It's almost as if two playwrights were working on the play but not exchanging notes while they worked. You definitely need a dance card for this one. SparkNotes has a good scene by scene summary.
The cast is great: Eileen Atkins, Michael Maloney, Trevor Peacock, Bill Nighy. They do their best. It's not their fault.