O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
“The Bastard,” King John, V.7
One of Shakespeare’s most political plays is also among his least read. Fewer still bother to produce it. At least I’ve never had a chance to see a production of King John, and I am a glutton for such punishment. King John is one of the history plays, named for a medieval English monarch. John was son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who are the stars of that great flick, A Lion in Winter (played by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn). John was one of three sons vying (scheming, really) to be named Henry II’s heir before he dropped dead. Seemingly, the boys all hated each other and their dad, who didn’t trust any of them. One reason the family may have been a little dysfunctional was the King’s decision to imprison his own wife during the kids’ formative years.
But the main character in King John isn’t really John. Instead, “The Bastard” is the fellow at the heart of all the drama, the real hero—to the extent that the world of political intrigue allows for heroes. The Bastard becomes a focal point when King John and his rather controlling French mama figure out that The Bastard is probably the son of the late King Richard I, aka “Richard the Lionhearted” who, for the English crowd, had the kind of gravitas we associate with George Washington and Abe Lincoln. King John and Mama Eleanor decide to bribe The Bastard with knighthood to get him on their team. He later proves very committed to that team, trying his best to negotiate a peace deal between feuding France and England, for instance. But then there are problems with an offended pope, such that John gets excommunicated. Not to mention various assassinations and acts of treason within the English court. So the French find a way to attack anyway. In the end, the French are defeated; however, King John dies shortly thereafter, poisoned by an irate monk.
At play’s close, The Bastard articulates the play’s moral. He suggests that England “never shall,/ Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,” but it does a fine job of shooting itself in the foot. If England’s own would just behave themselves going forward, The Bastard thinks “Nought shall make us rue,/If England to itself do rest but true.”
That idea is pretty hilarious considering Shakespeare (and his audience) already knew what would followed—which was a few more centuries of internal, bloody power struggles. That in-fighting did not cease until the conclusion of the War of the Roses (the domestic power struggle between the two main English factions, the Lancasters and the Yorks). That civil strife was finally brought to a close by a usurping member of the Tudor clan, Henry, the Earl of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandpa. Got all that? And even though Henry VII’s ascension ends the Lancaster v. York feud, the transition from his son’s reign up to and through Elizabeth’s is not exactly a story of domestic tranquility. So, in Elizabeth’s/Shakespeare’s day, one could hardly have heard The Bastard muse about how great it would be if England would just be true to itself without choking back a rueful laugh.
The Bastard’s views about the particularly destructive nature of internecine strife still resonate. He longed “[t]o push destruction and perpetual shame/Out of the weak door of our fainting land” (V.7) just as so many Americans, especially in swing states, must long to get out from under the barrage of negative campaign ads. Worse, our obsession with peculiarly petty divisions and power-grabs seems to guarantee a kind of communal stagnation when there is so much important and interesting work to be done to enable a future we would actually like to live in. Some, of course, find the whole red states v. blue states drama exhilarating. But I bet most see those maps as evidence of hopeless gridlock, proof that we are our own worst enemies screaming at each other from inside competing echo chambers. We then shrug, reach for the remote, and sigh, “Well, at least there’s football.”