King John (Pelican) - Stephen Orgel, A.R. Braunmuller, William Shakespeare The Life and Death of King John is a very good play. It's similar to my recently reviewed Richard II in that there are no outright heroes or villains; it is instead a play about fallible men attempting to control events that are beyond their capacity.

The central character is King John. Not unintelligent but not a good king. He's unable to command the respect of his nobles, and even his villainies are small-minded and weak. Compare his treatment of Arthur with Richard III's treatment of his nephews. Both kings order their deaths, yet John rues his order when his barons protest and recants. And then the coward blames his henchman Hubert for the "misunderstanding." (It's pointless in the end as Arthur throws himself from the battlements of the castle where he's incarcerated.)

The most interesting part is that of Richard Plantagenet, the bastard son of Richard I (a wholly fictitious character). He's brave, resourceful, intelligent, pragmatic and an English patriot. Clearly the only thing keeping him from the throne is the fact that he was born on the wrong side of the sheets. What prevents him from being a shining hero like Henry V is his pragmatism. While his bravery and wisdom are unquestioned, he has a hard-headed streak of cynicism that makes it difficult to believe he has the introspection to make the soul-searching soliloquy about the burdens of kingship that Henry does in Henry V Act IV, scene ii. Despite that, Richard does get the final word in a patriotic speech the equal of Gaunt's in Richard II and Henry's St. Crispin's Day lines:

O, let us pay the time but needful woe, /
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs. /
This England never did, nor never shall, /
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, /
But when it first did help to wound itself. /
Now these her princes are come home again, /
Come the three corners of the world in arms, /
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, /
If England to itself do rest but true.

The real villain of the play is the papal legate, Cardinal Pandulf, whose first appearance in Act III shatters the fragile, new-minted peace between France and England. Later he encourages the dauphin Louis to pursue his claim to the English throne (through his marriage to Blanche of Castile) when Arthur is captured, only to abandon him when the Pope gets what he wants - John's submission to papal suzerainty.

An undeservedly neglected play, I would recommend King John strongly.