THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KING JOHN
Richard the Lionheart (Coeur de Lion) has died and Prince John, his youngest brother, is now king of England. Chatillon, the ambassador of King Philip II of France, arrives at the English court and demands that John, the ‘Usurper’, abdicate in favour of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey of Brittany, John’s elder brother. The king of England declines and sends him back to France with a declaration of war. He then turns his attention to the curious quarrel between the Faulconbridge brothers. Eleanor of Aquitaine, John’s mother, recognises in Philip Faulconbridge the features and bearing of her son, Richard the Lionheart, while John likes his plucky spirit and welcomes him into the family as his older brother’s bastard. He is knighted as Richard Plantagenet.
The French and English forces meet at the gates of Angers, siege of the Plantagenet “empire”, in the West of France. Fighting for the rights of Arthur are Philip II of France, his son Louis, and Limoges, the Duke of Austria, the infamous assassin of Richard the Lionheart. The citizens of Angers pressed to choose between John and Arthur, insist that it is not a matter for them to decide: both armies should decide between themselves. The armies take up their positions on the battlefield and fight for Angers. The citizens of Angers remain neutral until The Bastard, Richard Plantagenet, has one of his “moments” and suggests that the English and the French should join forces and destroy Angers together. Faced with this argument, the citizens come to their senses and suggest a matrimonial alliance between Louis the dauphin of France and Princess Blanche of Spain, niece of King John. The marriage is hurried along before anyone can change their mind. Meanwhile, John is excommunicated by the pope’s envoy, Pandulph, for not enthroning the Archbishop of Canterbury nominated by Rome. Peace is short-lived and secured at the expense of Arthur and Constance, the widow who depends on the power of France to assert her son’s rights. But now, France´s new ally, King John , being excommunicated, has become a liability for France. The newly-weds find themselves at odds and the pope’s envoy incites the French to launch a holy war against the excommunicated King John. John returns home, Arthur is brought to England and John darkly hints to Hubert that the boy be executed. Arthur is terrorised by Hubert in scenes of such savagery that they would seem gratuitous were it not for their immense symbolic power, which reveals the full range of the unhinged imaginativeness of petty people with petty powers. Traumatised, the angelic Arthur ends up getting himself killed trying to escape. Before any self-interest or convenience, Arthur is a child, love is his kingdom and his destiny is to be sacrificed. The English barons, appalled by such barbaric behaviour and suspecting King John of the foul deed, switch sides and join the French. John, abandoned by his vassals, ends up accepting that the papacy should mediate peace with the French, who seem to be winning the war. By the time it becomes known that French reinforcements have been shipwrecked, King John has already fled the battlefield and is lost and sick, poisoned by a monk in one of the abbeys he had ordered the Bastard to sack. What goes around comes around. Then, out of nowhere, and very conveniently, there appears a Prince Henry, John’s son, who inherits a nice, clean kingdom free of conflict. It is up to the Bastard to save the day and say a bit of patriotic verse about England’s independence, which, in the light of everything we’ve witnessed here this evening, seems more like an intermission, a coffee break, before the bloody following scenes.
THE REIGN OF COMMODITY
For opportunists, opportunity is sweet poison. Bestowing the unexpected, it seems like some divine grace, like the choice of fate. A sea of possibility that had not existed before opens up. But as it emerges, a doubt begins to stir: Do I have the right? Do I deserve it? Am I capable? They say luck favours the bold. But, existing for no reason, it is a power that debilitates the weak. Some people just don’t have what it takes to be Chosen by Fortune. Fortune gives and Fortune taketh away. She’s a forceful and fickle mother, who can desert you at any moment and take away your privileges. Fortune helps those who help themselves. John, the youngest child of a formidable couple, Eleonor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, the last and favourite in a clutch of princes and princesses, will have to argue, negotiate, seek allies, betray and betray again. This is how the drama begins: the ambassador of the French king enters and demands that John Lackland, the usurper, abdicates. The rightful heir to the throne is Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s elder brother, Geoffrey. John reacts with his usual bravado: he accepts the challenge and threatens to reach Calais with an army before even the envoy himself! Eleanor weighs up the matter and says “I trust your strong possession of the throne much more than your right.” With this ruthlessness, she shows what underpins the legitimacy of all powers. As in Shakespeare’s other historical plays based on chronicle, “fair sequence and succession” is a theme that runs through The Life and Death of King John.
What makes this play unique among Shakespeare’s works is that it lacks any grandeur, but invokes instead that foul-smelling atmosphere which lies behind the façade of History. There are no heroes, no great speeches about life (“life is as tedious as a twice-told tale”, is the Dauphin´s Hamletian attempt at princely darkness and rings as something that we have heard before). No character is of any worth, or strong or wholesome. Everything is ruled by petty self-interest. It is a comic theme that demeans all who touch it. It is a time of negotiators, swindlers, charlatans and politicians. The Life and Death of King John, Shakespeare’s great and unloved history play, does not separate the king’s life from his death: it teems with opportunists, enforced alliances, betrayals, sinister papal nuncios, turncoats and a wide range of villains and unstable situations. It’s like a fast-forward of a reign where every betrayal, every infamy, every outrage is cancelled out by the following outrage. Where there is no decency, everyone quarrels and nobody is in the right. And in time, alliances, misalliances, the making and unmaking of friendships, the said and the unsaid, oaths and perjuries are disclosed in their true nature. It is that dreary sameness of self-interest, of convenience and obligingness, of taking advantage; the despicable mechanics of shabby politics. The humour in this play lies in stage exits of someone bombastically swearing allegiance to one party only to make an entrance on the other side with protests of tender affection for the opposite party. Nobody takes offence; it’s a game and this is how you play it. Where rights are not respected, nor a single consensual power rules, one has to follow the survivor’s unreliable alphabet. Life is viewed as a difficult ascent based on the principle of suppleness of torso and knife-in-the-back stabbing arts. Agility improves as one zigzags in a futile endeavour to dodge the knife in another’s hand. So much escaping causes weakness. It leads to psychosomatic disorders (and genuine poisonings). Who will come to the aid of poor John, who has been a friend to these and to others, who has made threats, betrayed, conspired, destroyed, abducted, tortured, killed, all the while remaining blameless, having no sense of responsibility, no moral conscience, coherence, moral obligation – having no backbone? He survives because the best way to escape a knife is not to have a back to be stabbed in, as John’s factotum, Hubert, discovers when he finds he has been badly paid for his services. Opportunists never act; they react. They are gamblers without the grandeur of addiction, but who take advantage of the hand they are dealt. They can do the short-term, but not the long haul. They don’t fight losing battles and lack a rigorous set of principles. In this, they empathise with the spirit of the era. The Ancient Greeks used two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. The latter was for the right moment; the moment when one can sense an opportune meeting of circumstances. Opportunists live off circumstances and not in History: they are the ones who are at the right place at the right time. Not everyone has the ability. Unfortunately, the right moment for some is the bitter moment for others. And it is an eminently volatile concept! Hence this coming and going, this game of musical chairs that produces such excellent entertainment for spectators and is the dramaturgical matter of this work. In this play, the opportunist’s apprentice is Philip Faulconbridge, aka Richard Plantagenet, aka the Bastard. The change of names is essential and reflects his ascent: he knows how to “transform himself”, as we would nowadays describe personal image management. He first arrives at court in dispute with his brother, who accuses him of being a bastard, but he ends up with a far better family. The king calls him “cousin”, a family member and names him Richard, like his father, the Lionheart. The Bastard, when on his own, composes a dithyramb to the self-interest that governs the world and swears that he will, at least, learn not to be tricked. He has his foot on the first rung of the ladder that will take him to the top: he has seized the opportunity, it is now just a question of positioning himself; he alone will manage his “path”. The whole debate within the play is about the legitimacy of power that is bestowed through less than proper means: a younger son who rises in a vacuum of power and undeserved privilege, a bastard who ascends in the court as one eagerly converted to “family values”. The matrix of the play is the ladder, the ladder for climbing up and down. In the process of legitimisation, the man at the top, John, can only climb down. His descent is a fall in which he hits his back on every lower step, weakening at each new challenge, incapable of ensuring his legitimacy, desiring the perks of power without having to pay the price for them or suffer the consequences. In John we see a man undermined by power. Unlike Macbeth with his hallucinations, he does not suffer the grandeur of The Solitude of the Darkness. He is never, as Macbeth fervently is, afraid of Himself. For John, fear means being shrilly and neurotic. Misfortune does not make him a bigger man. He has possessions, he has a mother, but isn’t it the protective mother who most distrusts the true worth of her child? Because of the position he occupies, John goes on losing vital energy, languishing, especially after the blow dealt to him by the death of young Arthur, who kills himself so as not to be killed. For John, the blessings of Fortune become the blows of Fate. The man who rises in this play, as is only right and proper given his commitment, his stubborn hatred, constancy and hard work, is Richard Plantagenet, who, by the end of it, seems almost a hero! As the play unfolds, the man who started out as the eulogist of Commodity ends up by turning himself into at least a parody of a nobleman. While John proves incompetent, Richard shows that he is more than merely competent, going beyond the call of duty and embracing every opportunity to demonstrate his heroism without once losing the rough demeanour of a Bastard – in what seems a great deal more like a caricature of the Lionheart than the strong father´s own wholesome appearance. With a mother known as an adulteress and an “unreal” father, it is the latter phantasmagorical figure that he identifies with. As a hero, he does not start off in the best of manners, but by the end, among the dead and wounded, he is the most consistent, a nouveau-noble, a nouveau-rich, a nobleman of a new order. Without the obligations of legitimacy, but by means of a chosen commitment, the neophyte places his seal on a dynasty he himself has created.
The wrath of the mothers is unparalleled in any of Shakespeare’s other plays: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Constance of Brittany and Lady Faulconbridge herself who, when she arrives on horseback, makes her son Philip, alias Richard, exclaim: “O me! it is my mother.” And she gives him a piece of her mind before being forced to confess her adultery. These queens have grown sharp amid lives of conflict and tribulation. They are redoubtable women around whom kings sometimes circle on tiptoe and whisper with great care, so as not to arouse their rage and retaliation. “Oh, my God! Constance will be furious!” and “Oh, dear, this is going to be pretty! Here she comes all dishevelled!”. Everything (possible…) is done to avoid enduring their drama and emotional blackmail. They are in charge, they run the show. They set their sons quarrelling, they want to make them men able to rise to the occasion, they want to save them. They rage, scrap, fight like cats with one another and bawl out the supreme suspicion: that the son that the other woman wants to advance or save is illegitimate, a bastard and his mother an adulteress. The mystery of lineage runs through the entire play, legitimacy is what matters, the genetic, the bloodline, a nightmare for husbands and a source of prestige for wives who are unfaithful to them.
The Life and Death of King John is about the process whereby John Lackland, who reigned between 1199 and 1216, succeeded to the throne and how his right to it was challenged by Philip II of France. The play is very loosely based on historical facts and intriguingly fails to refer to the most important events of John Lackland’s reign, particularly his many clashes with his father and brothers, especially Richard I, his repeated acts of disloyalty, the alliances he pursued by obscure or openly repugnant means, and the events that end in his having to sign the Magna Carta. It is true that delicacy of feeling did not abound in the Plantagenet family, but John Lackland is the king that first springs to mind when one thinks about abuse of power. He was an unpopular, disagreeable king in life and art, and yet, in this play, he is no worse than a character in some operetta.
Printed in the first Folio in 1623, The Life and Death of King John was already in circulation by 1598 and is believed to date from the early 1590s. It sparked some interest at first, but was then forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1730 and performed throughout the nineteenth century. It was forgotten again in the twentieth century and became known for its “Shakespearean obscurity: unread, unperformed and unloved’ (Lander & Tobin, 2018). That is, until 1970 when it was performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in a collage version, a burlesque satire with Patrick Stewart as King John. At the time of its writing, it was considered anti-Papist defamation ( obviously omitting King John’s final swearing of fidelity to the Pope) and seen to rehabilitate John Lackland as a kind of Henry VIII avant la lettre. It was also viewed as a portrayal of a weak king, defeated by adverse conditions, or else as a eulogy for a strong king at war with Catholic barons, a hymn to religious liberty. It was called “Shakespeare’s most political play”, a patriotic text lauding British independence and isolationism; but it can also be understood as a burlesque comedy about the legitimacy of power, behind-the-scenes politics and the anarchy brought about by self-interest.
As far as is known, this is the first time this play will be performed in Portugal. There have been several Brazilian translations, while in Portugal there is an earlier translation by Henrique Braga, published by Lello & Irmão, and a recent one by Nuno Pinto Ribero, published by Relógio d’Agua in 2019. My version is written to be performed on stage and was originally translated in blank verse from the Arden (Lander & Tobin, 2018) edition.