King John isn't on the Shakespearean "most-played list," but the plot will be familiar to anyone interested in the House of Plantagenet. Which is to say: any self-respecting human. What with the outrageous real-life history of the dynasty and the fiction it inspired — including the Robin Hood legends and many of George R. R. Martin's mind grapes — it's no surprise that Shakespeare was as obsessed with these weirdos as the rest of us.
Allow me to summarize. The play kicks off with a French ambassador showing up at King John's doorstep with news that John's teenage nephew, Arthur, has a way more legit claim to the English throne (true story). John isn't having any of that, so he tells the ambassador that he should be "the trumpet of our wrath" and warn France that "the thunder of my cannon will be heard." John's mother Elinor says, "told you so" and admits that she has to whisper into John's ear to keep him and his not-so-legitimate kingship in line. What with already imagining King John in cartoon form, it was impossible to not think of Elinor as Hiss from then on.
At first, Elinor tells both men that they shouldn't run around spreading rumors about their Mom being a slut, but they say, "with all due respect, she is." Mr. Legit tells Elinor that Daddy Faulconbridge was away on a long campaign, during which Richard the Lionheart happened to stop by to keep his mother company. Elinor suddenly sees the resemblance between her late and favorite son and the bastard, and she's really stoked about this new grandkid. She asks the bastard why he wants to be a dumb old Faulconbridge when he can be a fucking Lionheart? He catches her drift, and is knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet on the spot. SUCCESS KID!
Act II is set in Angiers, an English settlement in France. King Philip of France is moving in on the town to supplant John as the monarch and replace him with Arthur. John and Philip argue with the townspeople about whether they'd like to be ruled by Arthur or John, but the townspeople don't want to pick sides. Meanwhile, Elinor and Constance (Arthur's mother), both of whom are total firecrackers, have an epic bitch fight. Par example:
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 cheque the world!
Constance: My bed was ever to thy son as true
As thine was to thy husband; and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geffrey
Than thou and John in manners; being as like
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think
His father never was so true begot:
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.
Elinor: There's a good mother, boy, that blots thy father.
Constance: There's a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.
Elinor: Come to thy grandam, child.
Constance: Do, child, go to it grandam, child:
Give grandam kingdom, and it grandam will
Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig:
There's a good grandam.
Arthur: Good my mother, peace!
I would that I were low laid in my grave:
I am not worth this coil that's made for me.
Elinor: His mother shames him so, poor boy, he weeps.
Constance: Now shame upon you, whether she does or no!
His grandam's wrongs, and not his mother's shames,
Draws those heaven-moving pearls from his poor eyes,
Which heaven shall take in nature of a fee;
Ay, with these crystal beads heaven shall be bribed
To do him justice and revenge on you.
Elinor: Thou monstrous slanderer of heaven and earth!
Constance: Thou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth!
Call not me slanderer; thou and thine usurp
The dominations, royalties and rights
Of this oppressed boy: this is thy eld'st son's son,
Infortunate in nothing but in thee:
Thy sins are visited in this poor child;
The canon of the law is laid on him,
Being but the second generation
Removed from thy sin-conceiving womb.
Bastard: Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur's title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part,
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who, having no external thing to lose
But the word 'maid,' cheats the poor maid of that,
That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world...
Stay tuned for the end of the speech, when the time is right.
Act III kicks off with Constance bolting back onto the stage, thoroughly pissed off that Philip of France has decided to make peace with John instead of fighting to instill Arthur to the throne. She literally sits down on the floor and refuses to move until she gets her way. When Philip tries to placate her, she delivers a ferocious rant, proclaiming that "peace is to me is a war." The speech is packed full of the perfectly calibrated disses that we've come to expect from her. I gotta say, I love Constance so very much. She really has no fucks left to give. In every scene, her emotional decibel level is about a thousand times what anyone else can muster. In fact, I practically expected her to kick open the book just so she could insult me personally. That would have been a true honor.
Constance caps off her latest tantrum by shooting the Plantagenets this bunch of word-daggers: "Thou wear a lion's hide! doff it for shame, and hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs." It's so brutal that Bastard Lionheart can't resist riffing on it for the rest of the scene, repeating the line four more times to expertly mock both Constance and Austria (a French ally he particularly hates). The bastard's dialog is full of these little linguistic callbacks — it's like he's a living, breathing villanelle or something. Pretty neat.
To exacerbate the delicate situation further, religion is thrown into the mix. A representative of the Pope named Pandulph shows up and tells France they better be prepared to lose the support of the Catholic Church if they're going to be making deals with heathens like the Plantagenets. So everything falls back into war again, especially once Bastard Lionheart reappears with Austria's head, laying it before John like a cat giving its master a stinky dead mouse.
The balance is further shifted in England's favor when John captures Arthur. He instructs his servant Hubert to kill the teenager quietly, because that's not morally dubious at all. Hubert, with a heavy heart, enters Arthur's cell with a group of executioners. But Shakespeare manages to make this scene really hilarious despite its grim underpinning. Arthur knows what's coming, so he delivers one of the most expert guilt trips the world has ever known. I mean, this is Arthur's opener as his executioners enter his cell: "Are you sick, Hubert? you look pale to-day: in sooth, I would you were a little sick that I might sit all night and watch with you: I warrant I love you more than you do me." Yeah. And that's just the first chord Arthur plays on Hubert's ole heartstrings. It's a pretty amazing process to watch — Arthur definitely inherited Constance's verbal acuity. Hubert is rendered unable to go through with the assassination due to this master guilt session, and he allows Arthur to escape provided he never shows his face in Christendom again.
Meanwhile John is losing a ton of his allies due to Arthur's supposed death, which many of his lords consider to be way over the top. Naturally, John has a change of heart about his strapping young nephew's right to life. Hubert is pleased that he won't get into trouble for allowing Arthur to go free, but the "phew" moment is short-lived. Turns out, Arthur's only way to flee was to jump off the castle walls, and the fall killed him. The lords discover his body next to the ramparts, assume Hubert pushed him off on John's orders, and desert to France. Ooooops. Also, guess what? Elinor and Constance have both died offstage. Is this the darkest timeline or what?
John lives up to his wimpy reputation by blaming his aggressive reversal of fortune entirely on Hubert's ugly face. But he can't point fingers for long, because he drinks poison, loses his mind, and dies. Nobody really misses him, but they make sure to say they do. Despite the bastard's calls for more bloodshed, the English lords and the French royalty decide that this war is stupid and they negotiate a peace. The bastard ends the play with a short speech about how if England always stays true to herself, she will never be conquered. I bet that got the Elizabethan audience at the Globe all worked up. ENGLAND 4EVA!
I can understand why King John is not on the regular rotation of Shakespearean plays. It's kind of a mess. There's no real point to the play except to say that kings get into wars over practically nothing, and then everyone dies.
The underlying, pessimistic theme is that there is only one truth in life: everybody, from kings to popes to peasants, will act in their own self interest. If you want to warp this default setting by developing empathy or fighting for justice, you're only putting yourself at risk. Inevitably, those who value the common good over their own welfare will be trampled by those who took the opposite path. That seems to be the overall upshot, and its depressing bluntness is perhaps another reason the play is relatively unpopular.
Even so, King John expresses that bummer of a punchline with some incredibly powerful poetics. It's still our Shakes, after all. So with that in mind, I leave you with the second part of the bastard's speech, capping off Act II. The first part is about his shock over the naked petulance and self-interest of the royalty. This is the part where he decides, hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this Commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent:
And this same bias, this Commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp'd on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determined aid,
From a resolved and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo'd me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
That's some American-Psycho-level disconnectedness, if you ask me. "Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee"? Bastard Lionheart simply. Is not. There.
Most Awkward Moment: It's excruciating to watch the Bastard nudging Lady Faulconbridge into admitting she let Richard Lionheart "storm her Jerusalem." When she finally confesses that Lionheart did indeed father him, the Bastard is really nice about it. He says, "some sins do bear their privilege on earth and so doth yours." Still, super-awkward conversation about Mommy's wilder days.
Runner-Up for Best Dig: Constance definitely has all the best insults of the show, but Austria holds his own too when he says, of the Bastard, "What cracker is this the same that deafs our ears/ with this abundance of superfluous breath?" I don't know why, but saying that someone's words are an "abundance of superfluous breath" just hits me. I probably would've decapitated Austria if he'd said that about my jibber jabbers too.
My Sick Mind: Austria and France decide to seize Angiers by invading the north and south, and meeting in the middle. The Bastard summarizes this strategy as: "Austria and France shoot in each other's mouth." I could not stop laughing because I am mentally a teenager.