My Goodreads friend Mr. Kerwin believes King John is probably Shakespeare's worst play. I suppose it could be, notwithstanding that I've read only bet...moreMy Goodreads friend Mr. Kerwin believes King John is probably Shakespeare's worst play. I suppose it could be, notwithstanding that I've read only between a third and half of Shakespeare's plays; but King John is by no means worthless.Especially if, like me, one reads it only for content and notices the play's artistic features only incidentally.
There is actually one very valuable thing the reader should definitely gain from reading it: an understanding of Shakespeare's political philosophy. Probably a plethora of nonfiction books have been written on that subject, but if simply curious about Shakespeare's political philosophy (and not writing a college paper on it as I once did), the reader can skip the nonfiction and simply read King John for a demonstration in less than a hundred pages of what Shakespeare believed.
Shakespeare's political philosophy, as shown in this play, comes down to two points. One is that Shakespeare is a nationalist and patriot. He has no sympathy at all for the simultaneous attempts by France and by the Roman Catholic Church to degrade the sovereignty and independence of an English King. France's desire to increase its influence over England by helping John's rival claimant to the throne is obvious enough if the reader is familiar with the long political conflict between France and England that Shakespeare dramatized episodes of. But this is the first Shakespearean play I've read that demonstrates Shakespeare's absolutely negative attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church. Being a purely political drama, it considers the Church exclusively as a political entity, and is entirely hostile to its interference in the political affairs of nations. England and France conflict over Arthur's claim to the throne of England and John's claim to parts of France, but both King John and King Philip of France wish to avoid actually going to war, and after one inconclusive battle, strike a deal for the French dauphin to marry John's niece in order to bond both countries through a royal line. The two marry, but the deal is immediately interrupted by the arrival of Pandulph, a callous and officious bishop acting as the Pope's emissary. The Church is angry at John's assertion of independence and his lack of respect for the Church's temporal authority; I confess that I forget what specific things John is supposed to have done that upset the Church, but Shakespeare barely mentions it--which further indicates he didn't really care about the Church's stature and primacy, and that he considered his monarch alone the ultimate authority.) Pandulph brushes aside all explanations of England and France's political conflict and commands John to make restitution for whatever he did that offended the church. John refuses, asserting his own authority. Pandulph immediately excommunicates him; much worse, he brazenly commands King Philip (a Catholic in good standing) to act as the Church's military proxy and punish John by immediately waging war on him. Philip cravenly obeys, and the aborted war starts again.
The other point concerns how kings should rule, and on this Shakespeare is a cold, hard realist. He accepts the rule of monarchs but demands that they be strong, decisive and, if necessary, ruthless; a weak leader is unacceptable. This philosophy leads him to expose John's weaknesses as nearly destroying England. John is a usurper, but with the legitimate heir to the throne (a)being a boy, (b)living in France, (c)having no interest of his own in ruling England and being pushed to seize the throne by his mother and his ally King Philip of France, Shakespeare clearly accepts the reality that John is king of England. At no time does Shakespeare, through any of his characters who aren't in Arthur's camp, actually protest the fact that John usurped the throne. Unfortunately, John is stubborn, unintelligent and not particularly prudent, and this leads to some episodes of foolish decisions, slavishly traditional thinking, and blaming others for his bad decisions. The biggest issue is Arthur, the boy who theoretically should have become king of England but was usurped by John. In the war provoked by Pandulph, England gains the upper hand and captures Arthur. Rather than simply imprisoning him, John orders his loyal servant Hubert to kill Arthur in prison. Hubert tries to do so, but pangs of conscience lead him to quietly spare Arthur's life without telling John. Sometime not long afterward, Arthur apparently escapes prison, but dies jumping off a wall. When John finds out, he immediately blames Hubert for not refusing to obey his orders. Then the English lords (who support John probably because they accept the political reality, as does Shakespeare himself) find out; they immediately assume John did have Arthur killed, repudiate John in revulsion, and ally with France as its army enters England and begins capturing towns. Desperate, John explicitly subordinates himself to the Church as previously demanded, and successfully begs Pandulph to call off the French army. There seems to have been no choice, but John got himself into the situation partly by antagonizing the Church and giving the English lords fodder to believe he had murdered the legitimate king of England. (Note that these events are not particularly accurate historically.)
This is nevertheless probably the weakest Shakespearean play I've read, and the best indicator is not the plot or characterizations but the language: it is by far the easiest play to read and comprehend. The verse is extremely bland by Shakespeare's standards, hardly deserving to be called verse. It's the opposite of Love's Labour's Lost, a comedy whose jokes play with the [Elizabethan] English language so extensively as to be often incomprehensible without great concentration and a full understanding of Elizabethan.(less)
I read only about the first fifty pages of this book, then only flipping through it to confirm what I'd already found out. If you happen to have seen...moreI read only about the first fifty pages of this book, then only flipping through it to confirm what I'd already found out. If you happen to have seen Jonathan Cahn's video "The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment," there is no reason to also read this book, because the conclusions are exactly the same; essentially, this book is the original form of the slightly later video. Besides, the writing is horrible: I can ignore the blandness, but I often can't tell from the dialogue which character is speaking. It happens often enough that I wonder whether the author did it on purpose as some sort of rhetorical technique.
You will probably see this book called a Christian novel; it's actually not. It's more accurately a Jewish or Judeo-Christian novel, as it calls on the American people to repent but, as far as I saw (remember, I read only the first fifty pages and scanned the rest), it makes no reference to Christ. ("The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment" is the same.) Jonathan Cahn never said he's Christian, as far as I know; he's a Messianic Jewish rabbi who may or may not believe Jesus is the Lord--he doesn't say.(less)