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Theatre / King John

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
A play by William Shakespeare, thought to have been created somewhere between 1596 and 1598. It follows the life of King John of England, in his war against his rival, Phillip II of France, to his eventual death at the hands of a treacherous monk.

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. A brief silent extract of John's death-scene, played by Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899, is often cited as the first Shakespeare play ever filmed.

It is one of Shakespeare's four plays to be written entirely in verse, all of which are of the "History" genre; the others are Richard II, Henry VI Part 1, and Henry VI Part 3.

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: King John himself. Contending with finicky noblemen at home, enterprising relatives with ambitions of coronation and control, foreign armies, and a heavily influential Vatican, John is completely overwhelmed. In spite of arguably having the military advantage over his foes, the events around him cause him to behave with irrational brashness: he orders the execution of his nephew in vague language, later rescinding the order once he realizes that popular support for such an action is nil; takes his army to continental Europe to battle France and Austria for control of a small départment (which he later offers just to give away), leaving England vulnerable to attack from a swift Franco invasion at the behest of the Pope; and he royally pisses off the church in an attempt to levy unfair taxes on the church, on account of which a priest poisons him.
  • 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.
  • Composite Character: Richard the Lionheart's old enemy Leopold of Austria (who in real life captured and imprisoned him) is conflated by Shakespeare with the Viscount of Limoges (outside one of whose castles Richard was actually killed), despite that fact that Limoges in France is nearly a thousand miles away from the real Leopold's court in Vienna.
  • Corrupt Church: Pandolph, the Pope's legate, is a slimy politician who attempts unscrupulously to manipulate the monarchs to the advantage of Rome.
  • 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 is a child so adorable that Hubert can't bring himself to hurt him. Nevertheless, Artie doesn't make it to the end of the play alive, dying under ambiguous circumstances.
  • Mama Bear: Two, actually: Queen Elinor, mother to King John, and Constance, mother to Arthur Plantagenet.
  • 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 linenote  from this play — is far, far, far more popular than the play itself, which today is one of Shakespeare's most obscure.
  • Royal Bastard: Philip "The Bastard" Faulconbridge, who is an interesting combination of Heroic Bastard and Bastard Bastard, providing much of the comic relief of the play and being focused on gaining wealth and power through his sword in John's service. Philip is introduced petitioning King John to inherit his late father's estate, citing the fact that he is the older of two brothers, even though his brother (and Philip himself) know that he was born under circumstances that mean he could not possibly be legitimate. John and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, immediately realize how much Philip looks like the late Richard the Lion Heart, and figure out that Philip is Richard's bastard.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Arthur Plantagenet is a young, sweet innocent boy of eight in the play (but actually 16 during the historical events) and dies before it's over. He's possibly the only named character in the entire play not to have any mean intentions towards any other people.
  • 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.