King John became King of England in 1199 at age 33 after the death of his elder brother, Richard I, sometimes knows as Richard the Lionheart. John was infamous for having lost the Northern French territories in battle and spending unfeasible amounts of money and resources seeking to reclaim them. After taxing and alienating the nobles of England, the barons colluded against John and forced him to seal a charter that would limit the King’s power to impose laws and taxes throughout England. Although an early failure to adhere to the rules of the Magna Carta led to a civil war, it was renewed under subsequent monarchs and still is considered to be the starting point of the guarantee of civil liberties in the modern world.
Shakespeare’s King John was written in 1596, and is the earliest period covered in the history plays, despite not being the first history play that he wrote. During the course of the play, King John gains an ally in the form of Richard I’s illegitimate son, the Bastard Falconbridge, who leads the English troupes in the battles against France. John fails to broker an agreement with the King of France and is excommunicated by Cardinal Pandulph after insulting the Pope. This leads to a war with France and the kidnapping of Prince Arthur – the legitimate heir to the throne. Arthur is killed in a failed escape attempt, leading the English barons to feel distrust and anger towards King John. After offering their allegiance to Louis the Dauphin, the barons engage in a civil war with John’s army. When the barons are defeated, they defect back to John who, in the meantime, has been poisoned by a rebellious monk. John dies of this poisoning and bequeaths his kingdom to his only son, Prince Henry.
On display is a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England from which Shakespeare took much of the plot for his dramatic re-telling of King John’s history. To find out how Shakespeare deviates from Holinshed, follow this link: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/shakespeares-sources-king-john
Although King John is not frequently staged, it was a relatively well-known play throughout the 19th century. To find out more about the Victorians and King John, read this blog: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/king-john-a-play-for-all-time. You can see an image of the actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree playing King John in a lavish production from 1899. This was also the very first performance of Shakespeare to be filmed. The silent, black-and-white footage of King John dying of poisoning can be seen here:
Tree’s production also doubled as a celebration of the Magna Carta. During the action, Tree inserted a tableau that depicted John handing over the document to the barons. King John actually sealed rather than signed the Magna Carta, and you can discover more about seals by clicking here.