We're just going to come right out and say it: King John is one of those Shakespearean history plays that NOBODY seems to have heard of.
Okay, we're exaggerating a bit.
But it is one of those plays that teachers rarely assign to their students, and truth be told, it doesn't get much love from literary critics, either. On top of that, even though it was the very first Shakespeare play to be adapted to film, it hasn't exactly been made into a Hollywood blockbuster.
King John features a shady medieval English monarch—that would be King John—who makes a ton of enemies who want to bump him off the throne and replace him with a little kid. John's response? He fights to maintain control of the crown by (1) going to war with Catholic France, (2) flipping the bird to the Pope, and (3) trying to snuff out his little nephew, Arthur, who has a pretty strong legal claim to the throne.
Shakespeare wrote King John around 1594-1596, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and was fighting to maintain control of the crown by (1) warring with Catholic Spain, (2) flipping the bird to the Pope, and (3) signing the death warrant of her cousin, Mary, who had her eye on the English throne.
Gee. What a coincidence.
Actually, you could say that King John is less about the historical period when its story takes place (around 1199-1216) than it is about the historical period when Shakespeare wrote it: 16th-century England. For Shakespeare, writing about his country's history was one of the best ways to get people thinking about the current political climate in England. (We talk about this more in "Themes: Memory and the Past.")
In 1588, just a few years before King John was first performed, England narrowly avoided a serious beat-down at the hands of the Spanish Armada, thanks to a combination of good sailing skills and bad weather (a storm destroyed the Spanish fleet). Spain's beef with England was partly about English privateers (licensed pirates) who kept robbing Spanish ships for their gold; but it was also about religion: Catholic Spain versus Protestant England. Plus, the fact that Elizabeth had ordered the execution of her Catholic sister, Mary, Queen of Scots, back in 1587 didn't help matters.
Even though King John fought a war against France, not Spain, he did have a conflict with the Pope, which made him a hero to Protestants of Shakespeare's day. On a darker note, he also ordered the execution of one of his relatives (his nephew, Arthur) for political reasons similar to those of Queen Elizabeth. These similarities make King John a mirror of life in Elizabethan England. They also reflect the uneasy atmosphere at a time when it wasn't clear who would come out on top in the war between England and Spain.
So, you might be thinking, "Gee, why haven't I heard of this King John guy before?" Well, you probably have—just not Shakespeare's version of him. John is the same dude you learned about during your childhood: in those old Robin Hood stories, he's the evil "Prince John" who's always running around trying to bump his big brother King Richard I off the throne. (Obviously, Robin Hood is about an earlier part of John's career.)
Or maybe you've met the historical King John in history class. Remember him? He's the chump whose noblemen rose up against him and made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215. You know, that crazy important document that limited the power of kings and laid the foundation for English Common Law, which was pretty much the basis for the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Yeah, cool for us, though it kind of sucks to be him.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? There's just one problem. In this play, we don't hear one peep about Robin Hood or the Magna Carta from beginning to end. And that, Shmoopsters, is why so many people have a beef with this play. Even the hilarious crew of the Reduced Shakespeare Company has something snarky to say about it. Check out their Tweet summary of King John: "When writing a play about somebody, don't leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did."
That said, we still think this play is one of English literature's best-kept secrets. Keep reading and we'll tell you why...
Why Should I Care?
Yup, there's no getting around it: King John isn't the best-known of Shakespeare's plays. Readers over the years seem to have skipped ahead to the better-known history plays, like Richard III, or Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, or Henry V. While all of those plays appear frequently on stage and have been turned into popular movies (if you count Orson Welles's Chimes At Midnight as a version of the Henry IV plays, anyway), it doesn't look like a film version of King John will be coming to a multiplex near you anytime soon.
In a way, though, we think this is all for the best. That's because, in Shmoop's opinion, King John is actually pretty cool—and the fact that it's a little-known secret in the Shakespeare collection makes it that much cooler.
Just think of it as that hole-in-the-wall restaurant you've just discovered and want to enjoy for yourself before it becomes way too popular and crowded. Among the delicious dishes on the menu are:
- the character of Philip the Bastard, a cynical social climber and brave soldier, who is sort of a non-evil prototype for Edmund in King Lear;
- the character of Constance, a complex female character who comes to a tragic end;
- the intense psychological drama of the castle scene between Arthur and Hubert (blinding with hot pokers is on the table, folks; blinding with hot pokers);
- some of the craziest political scheming and double-crosses this side of HBO's The Wire.
So what are you waiting for? Dig in. You want fries with that?