Based on the earlier anonymous play The Troublesome Raigne of King John published in 1591 and secondarily, on the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John (King John) is not an objective historical statement but a poetic comment on the monarchy and the moral issues it confronts. Both plays are derived form a 1538 drama by John Bale titled King Johan, one of the earliest English plays. Chronologically the first in the sequence of history plays, King John was listed by Francis Meres among Shakespeare's works in 1598 but did not appear in print until the First Folio in 1623. Though Troublesome Reign and King John are similar, one is hard pressed to find any traditional scholars willing to acknowledge that the latter King John was Shakespeare's reworking of an earlier play that he authored.
King John ruled from 1199 to his death in 1216 and is mainly remembered for having sealed the Magna Carta limiting royal powers, though that is not mentioned in the play. The work deals with the reign of King John who ascended the throne after the death of his brother Richard I known as Richard, the Lion-Hearted at a time when England had to deal with both internal disputes and French invasions sanctioned by the pope. When King John is visited by an emissary from France, demanding that he hand his throne over to his nephew Arthur whom the French King Philip believes is the rightful heir, war is threatened and is bargained over for the remainder of the play.
As depicted in the BBC-Time-Life version from 1984, King John, as portrayed by Leonard Rossiter, is weak, conniving, and thoroughly disreputable while the two strongest characters are women, Eleanor of Aquitane (Mary Morris) and Constance (Claire Bloom). A rallying point for the English cause, however, is the invented character of Philip (Richard) Faulconbridge (George Costigan), the illegitimate son of Richard I whose identity as the "bastard" is trumpeted throughout the play. His soliloquy at the end of Act II beginning "Mad world, mad kings, mad composition" is the best known speech in the play and Costigan's performance is full of energy and aliveness.
Also notable is a speech by Faulconbridge after John and the French conclude a less than noble treaty to the effect that commodity is the bias of the world. At the end, Faulconbridge becomes the true hero, the royal bastard who saves the day. King John underscores Shakespeare's preoccupation with issues of legitimacy, bastardy, and succession and one wonders what the source of the author's anxiety and hopes in this area may have been. The play argues that bastardy is a virtuous condition, and should be no barrier to the crown. He (the bastard) is a loyal subject, not a usurper and the suggestion is clear that Queen Elizabeth's successor should be named and should be a natural heir, an occurrence thwarted by the power ambitions of Robert Cecil.
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