May 16 2010

thoughts on Shakespeare’s King John

(After seeing the BBC production on DVD)

Oddly enough, King John is nearly the least interesting character in it. He doesn’t really come into his own until Acts IV and V, when things are going seriously downhill for him. But I suppose that’s par for the course in Shakespeare. It is our disintegrations that most interest the Bard.

IShakespeare's King John performed at Drury Lane Theatren the BBC production, the show was stolen by Mary Morris (Queen Elinor), Claire Bloom (Constance) and the guy who plays Philip Faulconbridge, also known as Richard, “the Bastard.”  In fact, in terms of roles he’s the most interesting guy in the play. He’s kind of a running jester/cynic/commentator on what’s going on, although his cynicism gradually gives way to actual sense of purpose. He’s the only person in the whole play who develops as a character.

Mary Morris did a great job as Elinor, coming across as self-possessed and ambitious, and a bit scary–not above using seduction if the occasion calls for it. (Some really strange scenes there between her and the Bastard, who becomes, in effect, her knight). Shakespeare has a knack for writing impressive older women.

So the play was fascinating and frustrating by turns. The best parts and best lines went to characters who just vanish between one Act and the next. Through all of Act III Elinor and Constance rail at each other (and its a thing of beauty), then suddenly, they’re gone. Died, off stage, erased from the story. And suddenly too, the Dauphin–when introduced one might think a wet blanket had more personality than he–suddenly he’s front and center, leading invasions into England, sneering at all and sundry.

I know alot of my complaints are based on a modern sense of narrative and character development, but really, the whole story is so fractured, it’s hard to think about it in its entirety. I keep focusing on small scenes and actions instead. Lovely little bits like Hubert’s description of the civil unrest–of a tailor, in such haste to tell the news to his friend the smith that he put his shoes on the wrong feet before he ran out into the street:

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and rank’d in Kent

I love stuff like that in Shakespeare. It makes you realize that he must have absorbed life like a sponge. Nothing seems too small to be unworthy of notice or comment.

King John, then, is a drama where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. In this play, the men are mostly foolish, the women mostly wise, and the children all are sacrifices.