Monday, 15 August 2011

And now for something Completely different, Shakespeare (King John)

As a break from TMA's and maths I have decided to try and watch all the Shakespeare plays over the next year. An exercise I first did about 5 years ago when I invested in the superlative BBC TV series, first broadcast in the 1980's which covered all the then known Shakespeare plays  and which got me hooked when they were first broadcast. At the risk of sounding like Polonius from Hamlet I have grouped the plays as follows and this will be the order in which I watch them

History Part 1            (Comical Historical As Polonius would say)
King John
Richard II
Henry IV Part I
Henry IV Part II
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry V

Early Comedies                        (Just Comical)
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Taming of the Shrew
The Comedy of Errors
Loves Labours Lost
A Midsummer Nights Dream

Early Tragedies (What Polonious would call Tragical Comical)
Titus Androndicus
Romeo and Juliet
Merchant of Venice (I refuse to class this as a comedy as was originally done)
Timon of Athens

History Part II                (Whilst this is the Chronological Order it should be noted that Shakespeare wrote  these before Richard II - Henry V )
Henry VI part 1
Henry VI part II
Henry VI part III
Richard III
Henry VIII.

Later Comedies                   
Much Ado about Nothing
As You like it
Twelfth Night

The 'Problem Plays' (Comical Problematical as Polonius might have said)
Troilus and Cressida
Measure for Measure
All's Well that Ends Well

The Roman Tragedies (Classical Historical as Polonius might have said)
Julius Caesar
Anthony and Cleopatra

The Major Tragedies (The Big 4)
King Lear

The Pastoral (Autumnal) Plays
Pericles Prince of Tyre
A Winters Tale
The Tempest.

Since the series was produced, Two Noble Kinsman, has now been attributed to Shakespeare.
Anyway last night I watched King John with Leonard Rossiter (Best known for his comedy series The rise and fall of Reggie Perrin) in the title role Despite this background there is no hint of comedy in this role at all. An unusual and not particularly well known play wirtten in about 1595.

It opens with King John being told that his claim to the throne is under threat from France (where else). He is asked to intervene in a dispute between two brothers the younger of which claims the inheritance as the elder is illegitmate. It turns out that the Elders father was no less than Richard the Lionheart, he (Faulconbridge) is persuaded to give up his claim and Join with John in the wars against France. Faulconbridge then becomes a 'chorus' commenting on the action to the audience as the play develops.

The second Act begins outside the walls of Angiers with John facing the King of France (Philip). Philip has been persuaded to take up the cause of Constance who's son Arthur (A young boy) has a claim to the English Crown as he is the son of John's other elder brother. The leader of Angiers says he will  swear allegience to whoever wins the battle. After two inconclusive battles John and Philp are persuaded by Faulconbridge to turn their arms against Angiers and then resume their fight. After some deft thinking the leader of Angiers persuades Philip and John to let John's niece Blanche and Philip's son the Dauphin marry thus sealing a lasting peace between France and England (and thus dissolving Arthurs claim to the throne). Blanche and the Dauphin are married and all seems well until a Papal legate enters the scene. The Pope is annoyed that King John has not appointed the Popes chosen bishop as Archbishop of Canterbury. John's reply to the Pope is quite amazing and worth quoting

                            " Thou canst not Cardinal, devise a name
                               So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous
                               To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.
                               Tell him this tale, and from the mouth of England
                               Add this more: that no Italian priest
                               Shall tithe or toll in our dominions
                               So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart
                               To him and his usurped authority "

(It's a shame that David Cameron didn't cite that during the recent Pope's visit I digress)
Anyway to cut a long story short John is excommunicated, England and France resume their war with England winning. John takes away Arthur as a prisoner and persuades one of his lords, Hubert, to make sure he dies Act III ends with the Cardinal persuading the Dauphin that the way lies open for him to take the throne of England.

Act IV begins with Arthur in Prison and Hubert threatening to put out his eyes and murder him. However he relents and heads back to John to try and persuade him that Arthur is indeed dead. The lords revolt especially when the rumour abounds that Arthur has indeed been murdered. John in order to save his skij upbraids Hubert as he believes wrongly that he has murdered eventually Hubert tells John the truth that he has put the boy in hiding. John then persuades the Lords to see for themselves, but alas in the intervening period Arthur has tried to escape and killed himself by jumping from the Tower. The Lords think he has been murdered War ensues and the Dauphin lands on the shore of England. In the meantime John asks the Cardinal for forgiveness and John's excommunication is revoked.  The Cardinal withdraws his support from the Dauphin who has lost all his supplies. He begins to withdraw, but news arrives that John has been poisoned by a monk and the play ends with Johns death.

An interesting play, the context is obviously the continued threat of invasion from Spain, hence the Anti Catholic sentiment. There has been a recent attempt by some scholars to make out that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic I find this hard to believe especially given the Anti-Catholic sentiment in this play
Unlike other of Shakespeares histories (Richard II - Henry V) there is no comic relief and it is highly unlikely that the play is an accurate representation of history. Indeed it is surprising that no mention is made of the Magna Carta or Robin Hood.

Still as one rarely performed it is interesting to see it now and again. I remembered hardly any of this play since I last saw it so obviously not a show stopper. For those 'completists' like myself it is worth seeing but not the best introduction to Shakespeare and probably best got out the way quickly. Richard II next which should be much better I'll keep you informed.

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