Though today one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays, and generally considered one of his lesser works by those who do know of it, King John was one of his most popular plays in the nineteenth century. It has been staged on Broadway four times — but not once in the last century.
It is one of Shakespeare's two plays to be written entirely in blank verse; the other is Richard II.
This play provides examples of:
- Anachronism Stew: Several instances in the play, notably when King John makes a reference to England's cannons, which were not actually fielded until well over a hundred years after John's death.
- Anti-Hero: John; see the anti-hero trope page for more info.
- Children Are Innocent: Arthur Plantagenet, stated to be about 8 years old. (In reality, he would have been about 16.)
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: After Act 3, Phillip is never seen or referenced again.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Subverted when Arthur convinces Hubert not to go through with torture or execution.
- Decoy Protagonist: The real hero is Richard the Lionheart's bastard Falconbridge.
- Driven to Suicide: Constance is implied to have committed suicide offstage. Whether or not Arthur's death was also deliberate on his part is left ambiguous.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Queen Elinor, until this point an important supporting character, is sent off to take charge of assets in France, and it is mentioned later that she died.
- Eye Scream: The plan to execute Arthur Plantagenet is, for reasons never fully established in the play, paired with a plan to (spoiler-text for the faint-hearted) poke his eyes out with hot irons. Yeah.
- Have a Gay Old Time: A character is called a cracker, centuries before it became a racial epithet. (Though in fact, it's probably the exact same meaning, coming from the common root in Northern England and Scotland and meaning boastful bragging and joshing. It survives in Ireland with the - actually quite recent - Hibernicized spelling "craic", and travelled to America with the "Scots-Irish" settlers.)
- Heroic Bastard: The eponymous Phillip The Bastard, a prime example of this trope.
- Historical Downgrade: William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, renowned in his life and now as possibly the greatest Knight who ever lived, is here a bit character indistinguishable from most of the other nobles in the play. Neither his steadfast loyalty to John or his skill at arms are demonstrated at all in this play, nor is his pivotal role in the events depicted. Of course, at the time Marshal was a rather obscure figure, since the main chronicle detailing his life wasn't widely known until the 19th century.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: John gets a very slight one as he is presented as England's champion against the Catholic church's meddling.
- Kill the Cutie: Arthur's death definitely qualifies.
- Mama Bear: Two, actually: Queen Elinor, mother to King John, and Constance, mother to Arthur Plantagent.
- Not the Fall That Kills You: Subverted, in his somewhat suicidal attempt to escape from the castle, Arthur is killed when he falls from the wall.
- Off with His Head!: Austria is beheaded by The Bastard for his part in killing King Richard I, The Bastard's father.
- The Ophelia: Subverted. Similar to Ophelia (but preceding her, as Hamlet wouldn't be written yet for another year or two), Constance suffers the loss of her family, in this case, her little son, Arthur, and everyone around her says she is mad. But Constance herself sharply rebukes that she is still completely sane, that if she was mad, she wouldn't feel each grief as keenly as she does.
- Popcultural Osmosis: The phrase "gild the lily" — a misquote of a line from this play — is far, far, far more popular than the play itself, which today is one of Shakespeare's most obscure.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Arthur Plantagenet, a young boy of eight in the play; actually 16 during the historical events.
- Twice-Told Tale: The Life and Death of King John tracks very closely to a play that is believed to have been published slightly earlier: The Troublesome Reign of King John. Shakespeare appears to have set out to write a much-improved version of that play, in which he succeeded by making John an anti-hero, removing the comfortable moral framework of the precursor, and removing a romantic subplot.
- Uncanny Family Resemblance: Philip "The Bastard" Faulconbridge is identified as a probable biological heir to King Richard Lionheart, before he even begins to describe how Richard is probably his father.