Anna insists that I’ve read other plays by Shakespeare. That we read Macbeth or maybe Romeo & Juliet in high school. And maybe so. I don’t remember. I remember scenes from those plays, but that might also be the consequence of a general cultural familiarity with a few of Shakespeare’s better-known works.
Assuming Anna is correct, “The Life & Death of King John” is not my first Shakespeare. Anna’s usually correct.
But I suppose I can still claim its the first work by Shakespeare that I’ve read of my own volition rather than for a grade. That counts for something, surely.
As with Don Quixote, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought: “Well, I will probably be looking up a lot of words. I’ll probably get pretty bored. I’ll probably be totally confused as to who is who and what is happening.”
And, with the exception of some boredom, I was wrong. For the most part, the language was clear, the action was easy enough to follow (though see my second thought below), and I found myself surprised at what a quick read it actually was.
The rough plot is: King John is trying to maintain his throne against the claims of his nephew. The nephew has the support of France, and temporarily of the Vatican. John, through combat, diplomacy, and murder, succeeds in defending his throne. Then he dies.
A few thoughts:
I read it on my Kindle, which worked fine. I have no point of comparison, but I am happy with the edition I purchased. Most of the footnotes were unnecessary, but when they were needed, they were very helpful.
I found that it was much easier to understand the plot and dialogue after I did two things: (1) I read Wikipedia’s synopsis of the play, and (2) I read a bit about the historic King John. These two things made it possible for me to put the words and action in context, so that I was able to enjoy the story rather than spend half of my time trying to figure out who was who and what was happening.
On that note, several friends recommended watching the play before reading it. Good luck. Very few playhouses perform King John these days, and there has been only one (silent) film production and two television adaptations—the last being in 1984 and unavailable online. You can, if you are interested, watch the Wichita Shakespeare Company perform the play in a park on YouTube.
And finally, I was surprised at how easy it was to read. Seriously. If you’re considering reading a play by Shakespeare so that you can say, “Yeah, I’ve read some Shakespeare. No big deal,” at your next party, then read “The Life and Death of King John”. There are some dry passages and some monologues that will make you wonder if you should be washing the dishes or engaged in some other productive task, but for the most part it’s an easy, quick read.
A few quotes:
BASTARD: For he is but a bastard to the time
That doth not smack of observation.
BASTARD: Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich:
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
CONSTANCE: War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war
CONSTANCE: When law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong
LEWIS: Strong reasons make strange actions
KING JOHN: Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him: I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him.
HUBERT: No had, my lord! Why, did you not provoke me?
KING JOHN: It is the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humours for a warrant
KING JOHN: How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done!
Well, that’s the second book from my 2016 list. I think if you have the time, you should give “The Life and Death of King John” a go.