Shakespeare’s King John doesn’t feature Magna Carta – but the play’s drama revolves around justice, legitimacy, arbitration and mediation.
Put down your plastic dragon and your George Cross waistcoat for a moment – I’d like to wish you ‘happy Shakespeare’s birthday’.
If today prompts you to think this would be a cracking year to suggest your amateur dramatics society puts on the Bard’s King John, to mark 800 years since Magna Carta was sealed - but are worried by the lack of suitable ‘Runnymede’ scenery in the cupboard - then don’t be put off. Magna Carta doesn’t actually get a mention in Shakespeare’s John. You pretty much just need the castle stuff left over from last year’s Princess Ida.
But as with Richard II, there is plenty for anyone with an interest in law and justice.
Adjudication, mediation and notions of justice and legitimacy thread this play from the opening scene when John is invited by two brothers to determine if the elder (styled ‘Bastard’ throughout) is legitimate.
With the younger brother Robert an acknowledged legitimate son, doubt over the elder brother’s parentage means he has nothing. At stake is an income of 500 quid a year.
We’re not quite in the world of DNA testing, so the Bastard invites John to ‘compare our faces and be the judge yourself’. When the younger brother reminds John of the services his acknowledged father did John’s brother in battle, the Bastard tartly retorts: ‘Well, sir, by this you cannot get my land: your tale must be how he employ’d my mother.’
Shakespeare’s John, who is facing his own dispute over land rights, is not painted as the vain and whimsical king we are given in Richard II, and the (pre-DNA testing) comparison of faces leads to the surprise outcome that the Bastard’s Plantagenet-like features are recognised.
The Bastard’s father is Richard Lion Heart and he’s given a knighthood on the spot. Younger brother Robert can keep his lands.
The Bastard (we won’t call him his knightly name Richard, to avoid confusion), becomes an interesting character – he favours clear resolutions and is exasperated by the deal-doing and politicking that goes on between rivals.
Kings John and Philip dispute the legitimacy of each other’s land claims (parts of France to over-simplify), they have a shared interest in quelling the rebellious citizens of Angiers.
The kings though are talked out of an assault on the town by its ‘First Citizen’ who finds a way to link them through marriage. The Bastard is astonished at such wheeler-dealing. ‘Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!’ he comments. He’s also prone to using phrases like, ‘according to the fair play of the world’.
The Bastard gets one ‘just’ outcome. Believing ‘Austria’ killed his father, he cuts off Austria’s head – the least mediated of any dispute in the play.
The fudged together marriage deal, which worsened the groom’s claim to England and bolstered John’s incumbency, does not do the job expected, and John suffers for being (wrongly) accused of groom Arthur’s murder.
Along the way John has also been excommunicated with what looks like a lack of due process, and is fatally poisoned by a disgruntled monk (along with that Runnymede scene, peach surfeits don’t feature).
In closing the Bastard reflects that what will undo England is not chiefly foreign conquerors, but the country’s internal bickering: ‘This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, but when it first did help to wound itself.’
Despite the lack of a Magna Carta scene, ideas of ‘justice’ are present throughout King John.
A just determination at the start of the play gives us an interesting and clear-thinking character in the Bastard. And in the absence of such a process for the claim and counterclaim of kings and burghers, the stitched together deals that are based on convenience, connivance and compromise fail to hold – removing from the players even the right to decide matters by straight force.
As with so many of Shakespeare’s history plays, the drama and the tragedies come from situations that cry out for fairness and what we now call the rule of law.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor