“His own character being light, profligate, and perfidious, John easily attached to his person and faction not only all who had reason to dread the resentment of Richard for criminal proceedings during his absence, but also the numerous class of ‘lawless irresolutes’ whom the crusades had turned back on their country . . . and who placed their hopes of harvest in civil commotion” (Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe [Norwalk, Connecticut: Easton Press, 1977] 61). This is the villainous John so familiar to modern audiences, the foppish, greedy schemer who worms his way into the Robin Hood legends, the would-be usurper of Richard’s throne. However, while there is much truth to this portrayal, it is by no means complete. The historical John was far more than a moustache-twirling miscreant, and Shakespeare’s King John presents a much more human (if not strictly accurate) vision of that monarch than we usually see. Neither shirking from revealing John’s weaknesses nor attempting to transform him into a hero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of the man behind the reputation.
Few historians would call John a good (let alone great) king, and not without reason. He does, of course, suffer from comparison with his father, Henry II, his mother, Elinor of Aquitaine, and his brother Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Even in Shakespeare’s play these comparisons are unavoidable; though father and older brother are dead, Richard’s war-like spirit lives on in the form of his illegitimate son Philip, and Elinor seems ever behind or beside John, guiding and supporting her only remaining son.
But John is not unpopular simply because he lived in the shadow of his brilliant family—he also earned his reputation for ineffectual leadership by losing not only most of France during his reign, but also many of his own powers as king when he was forced to sign the Magna Carta. In addition, John, never a great soldier, preferred peace (even if accompanied by costly compromises and concessions) to enforcing his will through war (W.L. Warren, King John 1167-1216 [New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978], 56).
Shakespeare’s King John also favors peace, but Shakespeare is far less harsh in his judgment than John’s contemporaries were. After the play’s first battle, John is quick to accept Hubert’s proposed truce (which not only prevents further English casualties but also leaves Arthur without powerful friends), and John even throws in a large portion of his own holdings as an added enticement for the French king. Similarly, in the fifth act, John caves in to the demands of the pope in an attempt to keep his crown and prevent another war.
But John’s greatest claim to infamy is as the (attempted) usurper of his brother’s throne. He was a natural schemer, and, among other things, he conspired to prolong King Richard’s imprisonment by Leopold, archduke of Austria, and prepared himself to seize the throne should Richard die.
Nevertheless, John is not the usurper Shakespeare has put on stage. John’s claim to the throne was quite legitimate: “In the twelfth century, procedures in this matter [of royal succession] were almost entirely ad hoc. . . . The real or supposed wishes of the dying king, the preferences of the leading magnates, the strength and celerity of the various heirs, and sheer luck were all potentially powerful elements in the highly fluid situation created by the demise of the crown” (Saccio 190). Richard did, in fact, name John as his successor, and, after Richard’s death, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, and Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, (among others) supported John’s claim (Warren 49-50).
But Shakespeare quite deliberately presents John as a usurper. Even Elinor acknowledges (however privately) that John is not the rightful king (1.1.40; all references to line numbers are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, Inc., 1972]); and when Elinor maintains that Richard’s will named John as heir, Constance’s accusation—that the will was fabricated by Elinor—goes unrefuted.
Shakespeare emphasizes John’s capacity for cruelty as well, notably in the treatment of Arthur, which has caused many people to place John in the same category as that other murderer of nephews, Richard III. It was quite common for kings to dispose of persons who were dangerously close to the throne, so the order for Arthur’s execution does not make John a monster; the method for that execution in the play, however, is particularly vile. There were, in fact, rumors after Arthur’s disappearance (and presumed death) that, rather than murder Arthur outright, “John was advised to have Arthur blinded and castrated, so as to eliminate him as a rival” (Warren 81).
One might imagine that, with all these bad qualities, Shakespeare’s King John would provoke disgust rather than sympathy, but Shakespeare makes him appealingly human.
Shakespeare clearly sees John as the least harmful of the claimants to the throne, which include Arthur and Lewis the Dauphin (through Blanche). In the play, Arthur is a mere boy who is easily swayed by Philip of France and by his mother, “a stranger who had never crossed the Channel” (Saccio 191). The other aspirant to John’s throne, Lewis the Dauphin, is just as inconstant as his father, King Philip, who is the most capricious person in the play. Lewis hovers vulture-like over John’s restless kingdom, ready to seize it for himself, placing English soil in unfriendly, foreign hands.
Shakespeare also includes details sure to win sympathy for John from an Elizabethan audience. John’s condemnation of the clergy (inclusive of the pope) for selling pardons (3.1.88-97) and his refusal to allow the pope to “tithe or toll” John’s kingdom (3.1.80) are sentiments that would have been applauded by Elizabeth’s Protestant subjects. Furthermore, Pandulph’s excommunication of John and the call for John’s death would most certainly have struck a chord in Shakespeare’s audience, since Elizabeth was herself excommunicated in 1570, and her subjects were encouraged to assassinate her.
John seems even more appealing in the light of his enemies, who (with the exception of Arthur) are remarkably unpleasant people. Constance is a ranting shrew; King Philip and the Dauphin are dishonorable louts who break their word at the slightest provocation; Limoges of Austria is a sheep in borrowed lion’s skin; and Pandulph “displays” not only “a quantity of chicanery, chop-logic, and underhanded scheming” (Saccio 204), but also a singular disregard for the lives lost in the war he stirred up.
John’s friends, on the other hand, make him more likeable; even those supporters who abandon John do so only after the supposed murder of Arthur. But John’s most loyal follower, his illegitimate nephew Philip, is the most admirable person in the play and the only character who is noble and loyal and honorable by his very nature. A representative not only of the audience but of the English spirit, the Bastard expresses disdain for France’s show of disloyalty and self-interest, goads the annoying Austria and later avenges King Richard’s death, and defends England from within and without. And while King John is often eclipsed by his heroic, madcap nephew, John’s nobler motives are also illuminated by Philip’s presence.