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King John was not a good man…

August 17, 2015

King John

King John was not a good man,

He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days.

Here is Leonard Rossiter in his last title role – in the 1984 BBC adaptation of King John,  I’ve been thinking a deal about Leonard Rossiter, inevitably, ever since David Nobbs, creator of Reggie Perrin, died about a week ago.  King John was one of the better received of the BBC Shakespeare project that spanned the years 1978-1985 – a project widely criticised for its perceived timidity of interpretation, though in some ways it got better.  Leonard Rossiter died before his own contribution could be broadcast.  Not an easy man to work with by all accounts.   But then, neither was King John.  By all accounts.

At the very least, John “Lackland” Plantagenet inspired four of my favorite lines of verse from A. A. Milne.

Oddly enough, Shakespeare’s King John features prominently in the life and career of Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788).

Thomas Sheridan and David Garrick appeared at this play at a Drury Lane staging in the presence of George III.  Garrick, who had a Shatnerian tendency to line-count when it came to competitive casting, took the role of Falconbridge the Bastard, who has slightly more lines in the play than the title character.  Unfortunately, the king appeared rather more struck by Sheridan’s performance as King John than by Garrick’s as The Bastard – a slight which Garrick (characteristically) never forgave.

Sheridan is meant to have particularly excelled in his delivery of the “Come hither Hubert” speech – one of the best speeches in the play, in which John directly an underling to murder the “rightful” king of England (no such thing as a “rightful” king of anywhere but bear with me) – little boy Arthur in the most circumlocutory fashion possible.  It’s a fun speech, a speech which illustrates the syntactic strains of half-hearted villainy.

I did a lot of acting as a student – and “King John” was the last role I played, as a PhD student having just submitted my thesis and awaiting my viva.  Nothing more fun that “come hither Hubert”, unless it’s the death scene with its croaking desolation and utter sense of failure.


Come hither, Hubert. O my gentle Hubert,
We owe thee much! within this wall of flesh
There is a soul counts thee her creditor
And with advantage means to pay thy love:
And my good friend, thy voluntary oath
Lives in this bosom, dearly cherished.
Give me thy hand. I had a thing to say,
But I will fit it with some better time.
By heaven, Hubert, I am almost ashamed
To say what good respect I have of thee.


I am much bounden to your majesty.


Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet,
But thou shalt have; and creep time ne’er so slow,
Yet it shall come from me to do thee good.
I had a thing to say, but let it go:
The sun is in the heaven, and the proud day,
Attended with the pleasures of the world,
Is all too wanton and too full of gawds
To give me audience: if the midnight bell
Did, with his iron tongue and brazen mouth,
Sound on into the drowsy race of night;
If this same were a churchyard where we stand,
And thou possessed with a thousand wrongs,
Or if that surly spirit, melancholy,
Had baked thy blood and made it heavy-thick,
Which else runs tickling up and down the veins,
Making that idiot, laughter, keep men’s eyes
And strain their cheeks to idle merriment,
A passion hateful to my purposes,
Or if that thou couldst see me without eyes,
Hear me without thine ears, and make reply
Without a tongue, using conceit alone,
Without eyes, ears and harmful sound of words;
Then, in despite of brooded watchful day,
I would into thy bosom pour my thoughts:
But, ah, I will not! yet I love thee well;
And, by my troth, I think thou lovest me well.


So well, that what you bid me undertake,
Though that my death were adjunct to my act,
By heaven, I would do it.


Do not I know thou wouldst?
Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On yon young boy: I’ll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way;
And whereso’er this foot of mine doth tread,
He lies before me: dost thou understand me?
Thou art his keeper.


And I’ll keep him so,
That he shall not offend your majesty.




My lord?


A grave.


He shall not live.


I could be merry now. Hubert, I love thee;
Well, I’ll not say what I intend for thee:
Remember. Madam, fare you well:
I’ll send those powers o’er to your majesty.


My blessing go with thee!


For England, cousin, go:
Hubert shall be your man, attend on you
With all true duty. On toward Calais, ho!

I re-read the play just recently and found it fascinating in its own way.  The later Tudor period attempted to revaluate the hitherto disastrous reign of King John on the basis that anyone who had been excommunicated by the Pope couldn’t have been all bad.  The ferocious protestant polemicist John Bale wrote a political play on precisely this basis which Shakespeare drew upon.  Shakespeare’s play is, needless to say, a bit more complex.  It is, if you like, Shakespeare’s most anti-Catholic play, given that Cardinal Pandulph is a very unappealing schemer, a maker and breaker of nation on behalf of his papal master.

Futhermore, Falconbridge the likeable bastard is very anti-clerical throughout the play.

But Shakespeare’s John didn’t have what it takes to be either a hero or a villain.  Perhaps the least Anglophobic of the three Angevin rulers, John is a loser, someone who can neither retain friends nor scare enemies.  But most striking about the play is the fact that there are no good options to follow in this world.  The most active and engaging character in the play is a bastard and has no legitimacy.  The legitimate heir, the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey, is too good for this world – and in all honesty it’s a bit of a relief all round when he leaves it.

There are French adventurers, Austrian interlopers, Papal plotters and dodgy dukes in this play.   Europe seems to be getting the monarchs it deserves.  Indeed the play reminds me very much of The Devils Crown, a 1970s BBC historical drama starring wonderful people like Brian Cox, Jane Lapotaire and John Duttine.  This drama has never been released on DVD and I haven’t seen it since I was a child.  It was the Angevin I Claudius.  It was depraved.  It hypnotised me and probably did me irreparable and interesting damage after my parents foolishly allowed me to watch it.

Shakespeare’s King John never references Magna Carta.  Not once.


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