Introduction: King John
The Life and Death of King John is cited by Francis Meres in 1598 as one of the plays demonstrating Shakespeare’s talent and status as the English Ovid. It was popular throughout Victorian times but has been one of the least-performed plays in more recent years. It is, however, one of the most thrilling history plays, containing many of Shakespeare’s favourite themes, such as the juxtaposition of tragedy with comedy, and with legitimacy.
“The Bastard”, one of Shakespeare’s most colourful characters, is the illegitimate son of the dead Richard III. The play in fact revolves around the disputed succession of King John to the English throne after Richard’s death; he is opposed by the vigorous Constance, an early manifestation of the Shakespearean strong older woman, whose son has an equally valid claim to the throne.
Despite King John‘s relative obscurity, Constance’s poetic speech on grief – beginning “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” – is one of Shakespeare’s most famous; it may reflect Shakespeare’s feelings about the death of his only son, Hamnet, who died about the time the play was written. King John, like many of the history plays, often fails to get the recognition it deserves; it is both exciting and lyrical, and makes a rewarding read.
Contributed by Colette Sensier