I didn’t remember Shakespeare’s King John being so good. I didn’t even remember that the Magna Carta doesn’t show up in the play. But the Bard didn’t need the scene at Runnymede. He shows plenty of other bad choices and character flaws that bring about John’s downfall: calculated power-grubbing, willingness to murder children, impiety, and more.
The play is filled with dilemmas. It opens with John having to decide an inheritance case involving an elder son who may be the product of adultery and a younger son who clearly resembles his father. An issue involving a somewhat larger inheritance, the primary conflict of the plot comes up in Act II, when we find that young Arthur, son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, is still alive. Is Arthur the heir to England? John comes up with a clever solution to the first problem, one that both serves justice and satisfies each of the brothers. But when it comes to the throne, he tosses justice and peace aside, and simply declares himself rightful king.
Most of the dilemmas involve oaths, and many a character struggles, in the words of the play’s Salisbury, “Between his purpose and his conscience, Like heralds ‘twixt two dreadful battles set.” For instance, Philip, the King of France, arranges a marriage of the Dauphin with one of John’s relatives in order to secure peace. But when a legate of the Pope arrives and excommunicates England, Philip must choose between oaths (to John and to the Pope). Again, King John tells Hubert to burn out the eyes of young Arthur and then kill him, so naturally Hubert must decide in a frightening and moving scene between obeying John and preserving the life of an innocent boy (and possibly rightful King of England). In fact, it seems everyone struggles but John, who only seeks his own comfort.
I can’t help wondering if Queen Elizabeth fought any pangs of conscience when she saw the play. Like John, Elizabeth had a rival claimant to the throne: Mary, Queen of Scots. And like John (at least the John in the play), Elizabeth ordered the execution of her rival. As a final parallel, Elizabeth was declared excommunicate from the Catholic Church, as was John. Which monarch served as mirror for the other? Did audiences of Shakespeare’s time see John’s stance against Rome as a foreshadowing of Elizabeth’s (and her father’s) patriotic claim of independence? Or did seeing John’s rascally nature give them second thoughts about Elizabeth’s piety? The situation probably caused some audience members to struggle with their own dilemmas a bit. And of course, many others probably just enjoyed the edgy audacity of Shakespeare’s drama.