also known as The Life and Death of King John
, is one of William Shakespeare’s historical plays. Written in the late sixteenth century and first published in 1623 in theFirst Folio
, the play centers around a fictional account of King John of England’s reign between 1199 and 1216. King John
isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays and it doesn’t feature regularly onstage. Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the best writers and dramatists in the English language, and he’s credited with creating and developing a host of theatrical genres. His plays are still widely performed today.
When the play opens, the audience is immediately dropped into the action. King John receives the French ambassador, Chatillon, in his court in England. His mother, Queen Elinor, is also there. Queen Elinor chastises Chatillon for calling her son a “borrowed majesty,” but King John silences her. He demands to know what news there is from France and why the ambassador chooses to insult him.
Chatillon explains that King Philip of France expects King John to abdicate his throne. King John says that’s preposterous and that he’ll do no such thing. The ambassador tells him that King Philip supports the claim of Arthur Plantagenet. Arthur is the son of King John’s elder brother, and many people believe he’s the rightful king.
King John dismisses these claims and asks Chatillon what to expect from France if he refuses to abdicate. Chatillon tells him that France will invade England. The English king tells him to expect war, then, because he isn’t abdicating. The French ambassador is promptly sent away. Queen Elinor frets over what this all means for England. She blames her son for his foolhardiness.
Meanwhile, King John gives his subjects an audience. He discovers that King Richard I had an illegitimate son called Philip. He knights Philip under the name Richard and welcomes him as part of the family. Philip is ecstatic and can’t believe his luck—he’s now part of the royal court. He dismisses any claims he might have on other lands and vows to make a good impression as the son of King Richard I. Act I ends.
In Act II, the stage changes to France. The act opens in Angiers, which is an English-controlled city. The French and the Austrians are putting pressure on the people to support Arthur’s claim to the English throne. Angiers does not want to accept Arthur because they don’t want to go against their king. King Philip, however, promises war if they don’t comply.
War arrives on French shores before King Philip can even declare it. King John appears and offers the French king a deal: accept his rule in exchange for peace or deny his rule and be annihilated. King Philip implores the English king to see sense and accept that Arthur is the rightful possessor of England. Discussions quickly reach a stalemate.
It’s Arthur who soon speaks up. He’s depressed and angry that countries are fighting over whether he should be king. King John invites Arthur to join the English court, but King Philip mocks this suggestion and the feuding spirals out of control again. Both kings decide the only way forward is to have the people of Angiers decide who should be ruler of England.
At the gates of Angiers, an English subject comes to speak to the monarchs. He explains that he and his fellow Englishmen are nothing but loyal subjects and that it’s not their right to choose the leader. No one can access Angiers until the monarchs decide among themselves who the right king is. Everything’s at a stalemate yet again.
Fearing for their own safety, the people of Angiers suggest that King John’s niece, Lady Blanch, marry Louis, the Dauphin of France and King Philip’s son. This is agreeable to everyone, although it gives King John a stronger claim to the throne. Arthur and his allies are incensed and can’t believe they’ve been tossed aside so easily. King Philip implies that they’re worrying over nothing.
Meanwhile, another complication arises. Cardinal Pandolf arrives from Rome to excommunicate King John for his sins against the Catholic Church. He improperly appointed an archbishop without consent. King John dismisses this incident, but it makes King Philip reconsider the marriage. As a result, war breaks out.
King John demands that the people of Angiers behead Arthur so he’s no longer a threat. He gives Hubert, a subject and spokesperson, the task. Hubert, however, can’t kill the young man, and Arthur later declares war on England. The Dauphin will assist him, but only because he now has eyes on the English throne himself.
A rumor spreads that Arthur is dead, and the rebels against King John follow Louis. However, it’s soon discovered that Arthur is alive and the king demands that his nephew is brought to him. Meanwhile, Arthur finally does die because he jumps from a high wall to escape capture.
Everyone thinks that King John killed Arthur, and many nobles defect to Louis’s side. A monk poisons King John and he dies shortly after. The nobles who defected to Louis now follow Philip the Bastard, King Richard I’s illegitimate son, on his march against Louis’s assault on England. Queen Elinor dies.
To resolve matters, the papacy proposes a peace treaty. Everyone—some more reluctantly than others—accept King John’s son, Henry, as the new English king, at least for now. Philip, so new to warfare, wonders if it’s worth being part of the royal family after all.