Ferretbrain Presents: The Complete Works of Shakespeare Episode 7 - King John

by Wardog

We present the story of the phoney king of England.
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In this week's episode, we watch a play about a king most famous for being a cartoon lion played by an actor most famous for playing a grumpy boarding house manager.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 03:27 on 2012-10-15
Thoughts:

Innocent III was before the Borgias, I thought, though he is the one who declared a Crusade against the south of France. (This was the "kill them all, God will know his own" Crusade.)

The "pick a fucking King to support, Anjou" bit in this production is hilariously reminiscent of the "I taunt you a second time" bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, right down to the camera angles being the same.
Daniel F at 03:49 on 2012-10-16
On a far more petty note, am I the only one whose uninformed picture of King John is not 'Robin Hood king', but is 'Magna Carta king'?

Which admittedly Shakespeare paid no attention to either, so there you go. History is constructed and artificial and all that. Who'd have thought?
Cammalot at 05:52 on 2012-10-16
It's weird. When I first learned about Robin Hood, kings didn't enter into it, although the king's deer did. When I first learned about King John, it was all about him being the pretty & spoiled little brother of the Lionheart, who wasn't strong enough after Richard died to keep the nobles from making him sign the Magna Carta (so wasn't it ultimately good that he was spoiled, see how these things work out? *insert religious fate-type overtones*). I was a child -- it wasn't until I was a teen that I encountered a story that put Robin Hood, the sheriff, etc. and Richard/John in the same setting. (That *might* have been "Robin of Sherwood," actually.) Basically it wasn't part of any curriculum so I got bits and pieces here and there depending on the novelist/storyteller/etc. And didn't see the Disney video till I was an adult!
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 19:13 on 2012-10-16
It comes up in trivia games every once in awhile that this is one of two Shakespeare plays with "King" and no number in the title. So for a long time that was as much as I knew about it. (I never had much of a Robin Hood phase. An obsessive King Arthur/Camelot one, but not so much with Robin Hood.)

I never remember much about this one, except the women being pretty awesome until they all die, and the weirdness about them suddenly teaming up to take out the town.

But I was thinking of you guys the other day when I saw a play here in Chicago, "Equivocation," in which Shakespeare is commissioned to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, and ends up writing MacBeth instead. Weird, in part because Robert Cecil probably came off as the coolest character in a lot of ways. (Oh, and then there was a whole bit I think suggesting that the reason the romances are so weird is that a) Shakespeare was so grossed out by politics and b) he was working out unresolved issues with Judith. Also, there was a really dumb and borderling offensive director's note about Julian Assange, because there's this whole "telling the truth in difficult times" theme which is laid on pretty thick by the end.) But I think inadvertantly it kind of hit on the weird tension between Shakespeare the entity and him being also kind of a work-a-day guy.
Jamie Johnston at 00:17 on 2012-10-21
I suspect What Everyone Knows About King John has also been reinforced by Ivanhoe, which seems (and I say this on the basis of never having read the book but having seen a TV version many years ago) to exactly reproduce the Robin Hood caricature of John. (My main memory of the TV series, actually, is a great scene where John and Richard are arguing on a beach and Siân Phillips AKA Eleanor of Aquitaine AKA their mum rides up on a big horse and scolds them awesomely.)

Anyway, yes, the play may have been unsatisfactory but your plot summary was hilarious. You'll be pleased to learn that I didn't randomly see a production of this many years ago and therefore I have nothing more to say about it.
Arthur B at 01:58 on 2012-10-21
(My main memory of the TV series, actually, is a great scene where John and Richard are arguing on a beach and Siân Phillips AKA Eleanor of Aquitaine AKA their mum rides up on a big horse and scolds them awesomely.)

There was me, that is Arthur, and my three droogs, that is Dan, Kyra, and Shim, and we sat in Dan and Kyra's flat trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with today and ended up watching the Disney Robin Hood, and we realised that Prince John's pining for his mother in that makes much more sense when you know she was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her CV makes her sound like a ludicrously successful Crusader Kings character.

(Is this the scene you were thinking of?)
http://cheriola.livejournal.com/ at 09:08 on 2012-10-21
My most recent mental association for the characters in this play was the 2003 version of "The Lion in Winter", set during the time when Eleanor was imprisoned by her husband for inciting her older sons to rebellion against him, and the subject of the movie/play was an incredibly dysfunctional family christmas. It also included a woman who was simultaneously the King's mistress, the Queen's semi-adopted daughter, and I think Richard's nominal fiancé. Richard was gay and pining over his ex-boyfriend Philip, the young king of France (and the son of Eleanor's ex-husband), who was also coming for a visit for some reason. (I know this subtext, at least the relationship with Philip, isn't historical, but it added a certain level of hilarity to John and Philip's interaction in Shakespeare's play. It also made me look up Richard's bastard son on Wikipedia, though apparently he really did exist. Apparently Richard was bi and just didn't get on too well with the woman he married in the end (he refused to marry his semi-adopted sister / almost step-mom, after all).)

In "The Lion in Winter" Prince John was depicted as this spoiled and sulky brat, cowardly, weak and easily manipulated by Geoffrey, but still Daddy's favorite for some reason. Which made his close relationship with his mother in Shakespeare somewhat odd. I mean, she was imprisoned for most of his youth and seemed to have little love for any of her sons and to hate everything her husband loved just out of spite. (Not that I fault her for it, Henry II was a douche.) But I suppose she would like an easily manipulated king on the throne, so that she can rule from the behind it. Perhaps that's why everything falls apart in the second half of the play? King John can't really do anything right without his mother there to guide him?
Was this still written during Elizabeth's reign? Wouldn't surprise me if there was supposed to be some message of "men aren't necessarily better rulers than women; in fact, kings can be so weak that everyone would be better of with a queen instead".

By the way, I think the cheap sets were an intentional style choice. I mean, in the scenes in France, they even painted golden fleur-de-lys on the SKY.
Wardog at 13:19 on 2012-10-21
Which admittedly Shakespeare paid no attention to either, so there you go. History is constructed and artificial and all that. Who'd have thought?

I'm afraid, for me, Robin Hood is way ahead of Magna Carter on the Important Historical Happenings front :P But it's genuinely weird that there's a play about King John that has NEITHER Robin Hood nor Magna Carter. It's like Shakespeare's Henry VIII having no mention of the Reformation.

I was a child -- it wasn't until I was a teen that I encountered a story that put Robin Hood, the sheriff, etc. and Richard/John in the same setting

I think Robin Hood is slightly more prominent in England due to being one of our few folk heroes. Basically the only things I know about myths, legends and folktales are derived solely from Roger Lancelyn Green :)

I never remember much about this one, except the women being pretty awesome until they all die

This is so true. Also they're the only standout performances in this particularly dull production.

But I think inadvertently it kind of hit on the weird tension between Shakespeare the entity and him being also kind of a work-a-day guy

I generally find texts about Shakespeare to be incredibly faily - because they either go down the Immortal Genius root which is actually fairly uninterested or they end up banging some really peculiar agenda about Who He Really Was And What It Means TM. Personally I favour the Shakespeare was Ron from the future theory.

I suspect What Everyone Knows About King John has also been reinforced by Ivanhoe, which seems (and I say this on the basis of never having read the book but having seen a TV version many years ago) to exactly reproduce the Robin Hood caricature of John

Oooh I vaguely remember that BBC production... thought all I remember about it was fancying Rebecca.

You'll be pleased to learn that I didn't randomly see a production of this many years ago and therefore I have nothing more to say about it.

I'm disappointed. Your past self must try harder.

My most recent mental association for the characters in this play was the 2003 version of "The Lion in Winter",

Okay, I've seen the 1960s version with Peter o'Toole and I do not remember any bisexuality hijinks but I saw it when I was quite young and I may just not have noticed (I mean I saw Lawrence of Arabia and failed to notice either the gay, the masochism or the rape - I was dense teenager in many respects).

By the way, I think the cheap sets were an intentional style choice. I mean, in the scenes in France, they even painted golden fleur-de-lys on the SKY.

Yeah, I got it was deliberate but intentional stupid is still stupid ;)
Arthur B at 15:01 on 2012-10-21
In "The Lion in Winter" Prince John was depicted as this spoiled and sulky brat, cowardly, weak and easily manipulated by Geoffrey, but still Daddy's favorite for some reason.

This might be down to John picking Team Dad instead of Eleanor and Sons during the rebellion...
http://cheriola.livejournal.com/ at 15:52 on 2012-10-21
This might be down to John picking Team Dad instead of Eleanor and Sons during the rebellion...


Yeah, I know, but John was like 7 at the time, so it's not like he had much actual choice in the matter. I think it was more that all other sons had rebelled, so old Henry focused all his love on the youngest kid.

IIRC, "The Lion in Winter" still has teenage John try to hasten his father to his grave (under Geoffrey's manipulation), the ungrateful git. Though to be fair, so does practically everybody else. Eleanor was conspiring with Richard against Henry, I think, and it was implied that he was her favourite son.

Didn't John also try to prevent Eleanor from getting ransom money to the Austrian/Hungarian (?) king that had Richard captured during the Crusade? Or was that just part of the Robin Hood myth?

As far as I understood, the guy with the funny hat and the lion pelt in the Shakespeare play was supposed to be that king? (His costume looked kind of Ghengis Khan inspired? Did the huns own Austria/Hungary at the time?) And he actually actively killed Richard in single combat or something? I found it so weird that Geoffrey's widow and son where all "we love you" to that guy. And the Bastard, who never even met his real Dad was all "now I've taken the revenge that belongs to me" when he cut off his head and stole his lion pelt...
Arthur B at 17:32 on 2012-10-21
Yeah, I know, but John was like 7 at the time, so it's not like he had much actual choice in the matter. I think it was more that all other sons had rebelled, so old Henry focused all his love on the youngest kid.

Well apparently the rebellion happened because Henry II decided that 7 was a fine age for young John to take charge of a bunch of land and some castles so there was apparently a little favouritism coming John's way at the time.

Didn't John also try to prevent Eleanor from getting ransom money to the Austrian/Hungarian (?) king that had Richard captured during the Crusade? Or was that just part of the Robin Hood myth?

As far as I understood, the guy with the funny hat and the lion pelt in the Shakespeare play was supposed to be that king? (His costume looked kind of Ghengis Khan inspired? Did the huns own Austria/Hungary at the time?)

Uh... well, the huns did their thing 800-900 years before the events of the play, the Mongol invasions wouldn't reach Europe for a few more decades, and the monarchic union between Austria and Hungary didn't happen until the 19th Century, so the guy you're referring to I think is the representative of one of multiple flavours of Roman Empire available at the time.

European history: making everything too complicated since Herodotus.
Ibmiller at 20:37 on 2012-10-24
But the real question is: is King John better than that idiot in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood"? :)
Wardog at 14:24 on 2012-10-25
Well apparently the rebellion happened because Henry II decided that 7 was a fine age for young John to take charge of a bunch of land and some castles so there was apparently a little favouritism coming John's way at the time.


SUCH a Crusader Kings game. I bet Henry was kicking himself for having accidentally awarded half his titles to his 7 year old younger son.

I found it so weird that Geoffrey's widow and son where all "we love you" to that guy. And the Bastard, who never even met his real Dad was all "now I've taken the revenge that belongs to me" when he cut off his head and stole his lion pelt...

Yes, it was totally typical of general incoherence of this play...
Tamara at 00:10 on 2012-11-28
Magna Carta! I'm not English and my sense of English history is driven entirely by a mix of Saturday morning cartoons and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Connie Willis, but I was listening to this while walking along and had to stop in the middle of the street and jump up and down and go "Magna Carta! King John was the Magna Carta!" for a while, and then I convinced myself that I must be wrong and it was some other guy. Couldn't stop thinking about it for hours, until I managed to get to the internet. It's like having a song stuck in your head.
Wardog at 09:39 on 2012-11-28
My English history is entirely cartoon based :P

But, yeah, he was totally Magna Carta dude - except this was curiously irrelevant to Shakespeare :)
Ibmiller at 16:11 on 2012-11-29
Well, also not English, but my understanding of the Magna Carta is that its importance has grown and been kind of projected backwards onto the actual event. So maybe it wasn't seen as important back then, and only now, with our obsession with documents limiting the powers of kings and such, it's a Big Deal?
Arthur B at 16:43 on 2012-11-29
^ Pretty much. Legally speaking it was a settlement between John and his barons and meant really very little for anyone who wasn't a King or baron. Then Charles I happened, which prompted people to look for arguments for the King being subject to the law rather than answering to God alone, and then James II happened and there was a heap of constitutional shenanigans when William of Orange essentially got offered the job in return for letting Parliament decide the rules on how the job works. "King" basically became a job you did on the sufferance of Parliament and there was a lot of scrambling to avoid creating the impression Parliament were making this whole "constitutional legitimacy" stuff up as they went along, hence the idea of Magna Carta and "ancient freedoms" which probably didn't exist for 99.99% of the population.
Daniel F at 09:29 on 2013-04-28
Necroing this because I was reading Nicholas Vincent's book on medieval England and there was a little discussion of political mutilation. Specifically, it tells me that - in a technique imported from the Byzantines - blinding and castration was a traditional means of rendering an heir unfit for royal power without killing him. Alfred the Aetheling would be an example of this punishment in action.

Far be it from me to stand up for Shakespeare as a historian, but it would explain why Hubert downgrades from murder to mutilation. Being blind would make Arthur ineligible for the succession, which was the whole point of the murder. I can only assume that the point of blinding him, from Hubert's perspective, is to cheat around John's order a little. Hubert doesn't want to kill Arthur but he has to satisfy John's desire to disqualify Arthur as a possible successor: therefore, putting out a small boy's eyes with a red hot poker it is!
Jamie Johnston at 23:25 on 2015-04-06
SUCH a Crusader Kings game. I bet Henry was kicking himself for having accidentally awarded half his titles to his 7 year old younger son.

I was actually reading the Wikipedia article on John (the guy, not the play) last week and it is absurd how much it reads like a game of CK2.
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