When the play opens, John is the King of England. (Winning!) Naturally, he wants it to stay that way. The problem is that he doesn't have a totally legitimate claim to the throne. Oops.
So what happened? To make a long story short, John got his claws on the crown after his older brother King Richard I died, even though the crown should have gone to John's nephew, Arthur, who was next in line for the throne.
Obviously, some folks aren't too happy about that. And by "some folks," we mean King Philip of France and Arthur's mom, Constance, both of whom are prepared to wage war against John. Even though John doesn't really have a legit claim to the throne, he does have a lot of power (translation: an army to back him up, along with the authority that comes with being a king). Exploring John's troublesome reign gives Shakespeare an opportunity to think about one of the most important political issues of his time: the relationship between kingship and power.
Still, even with an army, John manages to screw things up and winds up dead after being poisoned by a suicidal monk (we're not making this up, folks) after he ticks off the Catholic Church—a few hundred years before you tick off the Catholic Church and kind of get away with it.
Much like the historical figure he is based on, King John in Shakespeare's play is one weird, shifty dude. One moment he seems like a solid leader, the next he seems like a total loser who can't even lead his army against a foreign invader. It seems like the main impression the play is trying to create is that John is weak... not to mention super sleazy. This becomes more noticeable as the play goes on, when John practically disappears from the action and gives most of his kingly responsibilities to Philip the Bastard.
Oh, did we mention that, along the way, he orders the death of his young nephew, Arthur, just so he can maintain his political power? What kind of person does that, anyway? (Well, aside from Shakespeare's other famous nephew-killer, King Richard III, that is.) Maybe it's better if we just go ahead call John an "anti-hero."
There's also the fact that John is, well, kind of a mama's boy. Don't get us wrong, we think it's pretty awesome that John's mother (Queen Eleanor) is one of his closest and smartest political advisors. The problem is that John can't seem to function without her and can hardly make a single decision on his own after she's dead. Remember what happens when he finds out that France is invading England? He yells, "Where is my mother's care" ( 4.2.119). Modern Translation: "Moooom! How the heck could you let this happen to me?"
We don't know about you, but that's not exactly what we're looking for in a king.
We've gotta say it: even John's death is totally lame. Think of the deaths of Shakespeare's most famous heroes and heroines (spoiler alert!): Romeo and Juliet commit suicide for love (by poison and dagger, respectively); Hamlet is stabbed with a poison sword during a duel; King Lear wills his own heart to break as he holds the body of his murdered daughter. Then you've got King John: he's poisoned offstage by a monk nobody's ever heard of and who never once appears onstage. Not exactly what you'd call a heroic exit.
Historically, King John is famous for his defiance of the Pope. Long before King Henry VIII came along and officially broke up with the Catholic Church in 1534, King John thumbed his nose at religious authority by taxing the church and rejecting the Pope's choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury (source).
Shakespeare portrays these events in his play (1.1), which has the effect of making King John look like a champion. At the time Shakespeare was writing this play, Protestant England was at war with Catholic Spain, and Queen Elizabeth I had gone toe-to-toe with the Pope on more than one occasion. For Shakespeare's original Protestant audience members, John probably looked like a hero... for about two seconds, anyway.
As we know, Shakespeare also portrays John kneeling down before Pandolf and giving control of England over to the Pope (5.1.1-5). So much for being a tough political leader.
Sure, we know we shouldn't judge the guy based on his weakest moments—but even at the beginning of the play, when he's at his most powerful, John just doesn't cut a very impressive figure. Sure, in the opening scene, John has some blustery words to spew at Châtillon, the French ambassador. If starting bloody wars over territory and kingship rights is your cup of tea, then you can at least give John credit for this.
But the case for John's coolness gets a lot weaker once it becomes clear that even his mother Eleanor thinks he's a usurper (1.1.40-43), meaning that King Philip's legal argument is technically right. Even if John might still have good reason to oppose King Philip about the crown, he definitely comes off as a dunce later in this scene, when he judges in favor of the Bastard, and against Robert Falconbridge, Jr., on the grounds that Philip's legal status as an older son trumps Robert Falconbridge, Sr.'s legal will disowning him.
Has King John forgotten that his whole argument for why he should be king is that Richard the Lionheart's legal will trumps Arthur's status as a descendant of John's older brother? Doesn't he see how inconsistent he is? This guy can't even think properly.
But thinking isn't his only problem. King John also seems to suffer from indecisiveness, which maybe just boils down to a short attention span. How indecisive is this dude? Allow us:
Overall, King John is a pretty sleazy character. We don't know about you, but we at Shmoop finish the play with the definite impression that England is better off without him.