For the leading British English writer, many of William Shakespeare’s plays are set outside the British Isles. His most British works are his histories, including King John, although in more recent years these have been among his less popular. He’s thought to have written this play in about 1596, and much of it is based on a play published anonymously five years earlier.
It was widely enjoyed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but has since been in decline. As result, it was mainly painted in the late eighteenth century for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and its competitors.
In reality, King John (1166-1216) reigned between 1199-1216. He’s best remembered for sealing the Magna Carta in 1215, so starting the development of the English constitution, although that isn’t featured in the plot. That’s one of the few events in early English history remembered by many English, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s now thought that John died of dysentery contracted when he was campaigning in Norfolk.
Through his ambassador Châtillon, the French King Philip declares war on King John, in support of Arthur’s claim to the English throne. Although John’s mother admits in private that Arthur, as the son of John’s late older brother, has a stronger claim, the King resolves to defend his title by fighting in France.
Thomas Nast’s sketch probably shows this early scene in John’s court, and appears to have been destined for an illustrated edition.
John is then called to decide a dispute between two brothers over their claim to their father’s land. Philip the Bastard is the illegitimate son of the late King Richard ‘Lionheart’, and as the older of the two has the right in law. John’s mother gives Philip the choice between pressing his claim, and renouncing it so he can be acknowledged as Richard’s son. He chooses the latter, and John knights him as Sir Richard Plantagenet.
King Philip is besieging Angers, where he welcomes the Duke of Austria, who wears a lion skin to celebrate his killing of Richard Lionheart.
William Hamilton’s painting of Prince Arthur Giving Welcome to the Archduke of Austria, etc. was turned into this print of 1791. Arthur is shown as a young boy, and Austria as a dashing knight with a lionskin over his armour. King Philip is at the left, with the Dauphin and Arthur’s mother behind and between him and Arthur.
English forces arrive, and King John with Philip the Bastard and their army taunt the French. The citizens of Angers then face the choice between the two armies; they agree that they’ll allow entry into their city by the army that wins in battle. When both sides claim victory, the citizens are no better off. Philip the Bastard suggests the two armies should raze the city to the ground first, but it’s then proposed that peace is made by marriage of the French Dauphin to King John’s niece, Lady Blanche. This compromise is agreed, and Arthur is made Duke of Brittaine, Earl of Richmond and lord of Angers.
Following the wedding, Arthur’s mother curses them for their compromise and failure to pursue her son’s claim.
Henry Fuseli’s King John, Act III, scene 1 from 1783 shows the young Arthur with his mother distraught at the compromise for peace, which dropped his claim to the throne.
A papal legate is sent to King John to insist the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury is accepted. When the King refuses, the legate excommunicates him and tells the King of France to declare war against John, which Philip does. In the ensuing fighting Philip the Bastard kills the Duke of Austria, and Arthur is captured by King John, who instructs Hubert to kill him.
King Philip, the papal legate and the Dauphin see the distress of Arthur’s mother. It’s clear that King John will have Arthur killed, and the legate tells the Dauphin to lay claim to the English throne on the strength of his recent marriage.
Hubert’s instructions are that he is to blind the young Arthur with hot irons, but he can’t bring himself to follow them, so decides to shelter the boy and pretend that he has been killed.
James Northcote’s undated painting of Hubert and Arthur was painted for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Hubert is standing, clutching his head as he wrestles with the terrible act he has been told to carry out. At his feet is the young Arthur, while a couple of men are already brandishing a hot iron.
King John has a second coronation, which his nobles say make his claim to the throne appear weaker. They then accuse the King of having Arthur murdered, after Hubert reports that he has completed his mission. The nobles promise vengeance and leave. The King is then told that the Dauphin and his army have landed, but his own mother and Arthur’s are both dead. Rumours of the King’s downfall spread, and a prophet tells the King that he will give up his crown before the next Ascension Day (39 days after Easter Sunday).
Edward Penny’s original painting “I saw a smith stand with his hammer thus…” was turned into this print in 1771. It refers to a relatively obscure section of Hubert’s speech to the King telling him of the arrival of French forces.
Hubert finally admits that Arthur is still alive, which the King instructs him to tell the nobles immediately.
The disguised Arthur jumps from the castle walls and dies. The nobles find his body as Philip the Bastard is trying to persuade them to return to the King, and Hubert arrives to inform them that Arthur is really still alive. The vengeance of the nobles remains undeterred as a result.
King John makes peace with the Pope, and on Ascension Day he symbolically surrenders his crown to the papal legate, who returns it to him. The King recognises the prophecy has been fulfilled, before learning that the nobles have allied themselves with the Dauphin, who has now entered London with his army.
When he hears of the King’s reconciliation with the church, the Dauphin still refuses to make peace, and he and the English nobles prepare for battle. As he grows ill with a fever, King John hears that French reinforcements have been lost at sea, and he retreats to a monastery. When the English nobles allied with the Dauphin learn of the latter’s intention to have them all killed, they defect with their forces to rejoin John.
Half of Philip the Bastard’s army has been drowned in the Wash (treacherous wetlands in East Anglia). Hubert tells Philip that the King has been poisoned by a monk.
King John is delirious, so his son Prince Henry has him brought outdoors for fresh air. As Philip the Bastard reports the approach of the Dauphin, the King dies. Peace is agreed, and the nobles kneel before the new King Henry III, who will follow his father’s wishes and have him buried at Worcester. Philip the Bastard says that England can only be conquered as a result of internal treachery, and will remain invulnerable if it keeps faith with itself.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.