OK, we had Henry the Sixth, Parts One, Two and Three, and Richard the Third. Later this year, there will be Richard the Second, the two parts of Henry the Fourth, and Henry the Fifth. Each of those tetralogies is a sequence in itself, and the two of them (the eight plays) make up a sequence as well. And I get those.
But why King John?
At the beginning of the month, I noted that when you hear that name there are two things that will most likely pop into your head:
The Magna Carta (which was signed by him)
King Richard (the Lion-Hearted) going off on the Crusades, only to be captured and ransomed, a time during which, at least in the pre-Ridley Scott versions, Robin Hood rises to battle the dastardly plots of PRINCE John?
But nether one is in our play.
So why King John, and why NOT the Magna Carta?
Well, the Magna Carta wouldn’t have been significant at all for Shakespeare’s audience. We only know it, and study it, because it ties into our American history as an inspiration for our Constitution (and the groundlings wouldn’t know about that as it was nearly two hundred years in the future for them).
And this play isn’t called Much Ado About Robin and his Hoods.
though that very well may have been MUCH more enjoyable… seriously.
No, if it’s history, and it’s Shakespeare, then the subject matter is going to come around (AGAIN) to his usual bugaboo: royal lineage and succession of power.
Remember, good ol’ Willie boy was writing these histories during the reign of Elizabeth, and she wasn’t married and she wasn’t squirting out heirs. Needless to say, there was no little consternation and worry over what would happen when Elizabeth finally kicked off.
just to let you know, if you didn’t already: Richard the Second ends with the usurpation of his crown, a crown that had no direct male child heir… and the next seven plays in the chronological series are all about the War of the Roses, and how that lack of a direct heir took England into a horrible bloodletting civil war… until Henry VII killed tricky Dick III at Bosworth field, and set in like the Tudor line… of which Elizabeth was the terminal stop
So now we know WHY King John… but is this play really about John?
I don’t think so, or if it is, it’s only to shine a light on what happens when someone who is not born to be king (and I mean that metaphorically, not lineally) becomes king. In a wonderful piece of irony, the man most suited to be king can’t be… because he is what his name proclaims: