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20, Aug 2015
Tom McCamus as King John

King John, the Magna Carta guy, as rendered by Shakespeare

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Shakesepeare: King John, Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, 2014.

HD cinema version at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 2015


Eight hundred years ago, in 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta to make peace with a group of rebellious English barons by promising access to swift justice and protection from illegal imprisonment. The English judge Lord Denning described the Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot. And UNESCO hails it as “the cornerstone of English liberty, law and democracy.”

King John is back in public consciousness because of the Magna Carta anniversary and also because he was an inspiration for Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church that’s dramatized in Wolf Hall on stage and television. Long before Henry VIII, John stood up to a pope.

He was a flawed ruler and the play about him is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, but John deserves attention in this multi-centennial year. To mark the anniversary, several companies have revived Shakespeare’s drama King John.

John seized the throne after his older brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted, was struck by an arrow from a crossbow and died at the age of 42. John was an impulsive and paranoid man who lost territory to the French and imposed huge taxes on barons to pay for his unsuccessful battles. They revolted and captured London whereupon John agreed to the terms of the Magna Carta.

In a Stratford Festival production in Ontario, now in movie theaters in HD, the title character is portrayed with a sense of cranky entitlement by Tom McCamus. We identify not with John, but with the charming character of Philip the Bastard (played by Graham Abbey), the illegitimate son of the dead King Richard, who acts as a bridge between the audience and the events that unfold on stage, occasionally breaking the fourth wall.

As the play opens, King Philip of France leads his forces against John, seeking to put John’s young nephew Arthur on the English throne. Clearly, Shakespeare drew a parallel between those competing claims to the throne and a similar problem in his own time. The legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, you will recall, was challenged by her relative Mary, known as the queen of the Scots. John’s rival to the throne, Arthur, was the son of John’s elder brother, just as Elizabeth’s rival Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister.

The plot is complicated, and Shakespeare never got around to mentioning the Magna Carta—for reasons I’ll address in a moment—yet there are several vivid moments that make the play worth seeing. In one of them, Lady Constance (Seana McKenna) suffers noisily, complaining: “I am sick…a widow, husbandless…my grief’s so great that no supporter but the huge firm earth can hold it up.” Her rant is so over-the-top that the king admonishes her: “You are as fond of grief as of your child.”

The most touching scene involves that child (Noah Jalava) fighting for his life with the distraught courtier Hubert who has been ordered by the king to gouge out the boy’s eyes. Arthur pleads with a quiet grace for mercy, playing on Hubert’s affection for him.

Arthur then dies accidentally as he jumps from a castle wall. John is poisoned by a monk who was angered by the kings opposition to the pope. At John’s death, the English nobles swear allegiance to John’s son Prince Henry. The Bastard then sums up the message of the play. He says this episode teaches that internal bickering could be as perilous to England’s fortunes as foreign invasion. Shakespeare made that point clearly and strongly, which must have pleased his patroness, the queen.

Whatever the virtues of her reign, Queen Elizabeth supervised an abridgment of individual freedoms with the excuse that there was grave danger from spies. (Maybe that’s why Shakespeare omitted mention of the Magna Carta in this play.) It’s notable that the issue of protection from governmental intrusion into citizens’ lives is again a hot topic, eight centuries later.

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