Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I just read King John, now I want to go see Robin Hood

Did you see Robin Hood?

            I didn’t. I heard it was boring. But I’m thinking about going to see it because it takes place at around the same period in history as Shakespeare’s King John.

            Shakespeare’s King John is the self same evil Prince John of Robin Hood lore, younger brother of Richard the Lionheart. You remember him, he was played by a skinny lion in the Disney cartoon, by Claude Rains in the Errol Flynn version, and of course by Richard Lewis in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

            In some of these versions of the classic tale, Robin Hood is depicted as a commoner who stands up for his fellow commoners. Sometimes he is depicted as a nobleman, Robin of Loxley. Sometimes he is even depicted as an American who built a baseball field and made friends with the Sioux before growing gills.

            I just checked the world’s most reliable source of information (Wikipedia) and learned that in the new Russell Crowe movie he is a commoner who assumes the identity of a nobleman. This tricky elevation to nobility twist resonates with the Shakespearean character of Philip the Bastard of Falconbridge, who becomes Sir Richard Plantagenet when King John recognizes him for who he really is... the bastard son of Richard the Lionheart.

            King John begins with some difficulties at court. It’s the early 13th century AD and France and England are at it again. You see, John became King after his brother –Richard the Lionheart – died, but he wasn’t technically next in the line of succession. The next was their middle brother Geoffrey (who was never king, because he died in the middle of Richard’s reign). However, Geoffrey had a son named Arthur. And France believes that Arthur should be King, and they’re ready to go to war over it, because the French are never happy unless they’re getting their asses kicked in something (this is called Ennui). 

            King John sends a messenger to France to tell them that he’s not going to be pushed around (“Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France” 1:1). And Eleanor, his mother, gives him some advice:


This might have been prevented and made whole

With very easy arguments of love,

Which now the manage of two kingdoms must

With fearful bloody issue arbitrate. (1:1)


            A few seconds later the play gets really interesting when two brothers show up. One says that the other is a bastard and has no claim to their father’s lands. King John and his mother take one look at the bastard and observe:


Mine eye hath well examined his parts,

And finds them perfect Richard. (1:1)


            And sure enough, Philip the Bastard is the bastard son of King Richard the Lionheart. Taking his mother’s advice in favor of arguments of love, the King is quick to knight him and take him into close counsel. After all, his brother was a stalwart hero of England, and his offspring will hopefully demonstrate the qualities that England sorely wants in a time of national crisis.

            Although the Bastard is knighted Sir Richard Plantagenet, it’s interesting that his name never changes in the script. In most of the histories the characters’ names change when their titles change. Richard III begins his play as the Duke of Gloucester, and the dialogue is labeled as Gloucester until he finally becomes king and the script changes to K. Richard. But the Bastard remains dutifully: Bastard.

            He goes on to inspire the people of England, to lead them in battle and to quip in colloquial asides to the audience. He is utterly likable and heroic, and he never complicates the issue of succession despite his tenuous claim to the crown as the son of the great King Richard. He is humble enough to revel in the position of honor that was unexpectedly bestowed upon him by his uncle, King John, to whom he shows unwavering loyalty. The Bastard even given provides the rousing, nationalistic speech at the very end of the play:


This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,

But when it first did help to wound itself.

Now these her princes are come home again,

Come the three corners of the world in arms,

And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,

If England to itself do rest but true. (5:7)


King John dies, having been poisoned by a monk, and his son, Henry III takes over as King. This speech brings closure to the play, because it assures us that the Bastard is interested only in the preservation of England and not in generating civil strife by using his hard-won soldier’s popularity as fuel for a campaign for the crown.

            What seems odd to me is that this Shakespearean creation of the Bastard son of Richard the Lionheart never stood as a model for Robin Hood in any of the different versions of Robin Hood I’ve seen.

Robin Hood was a folk hero from long before Shakespeare’s time and the bard must have been familiar with him and the way in which Bad King John was always cast as the villain in these tales.

            I wonder if there is a reason Shakespeare would tiptoe up to a folkloric hero like this and not introduce him in this story? Given his harshly biased portrayal of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part 1, one might suspect that there was a great disdain of characters who were rebellious against British Monarchy. We know Elizabeth attended many of Shakespeare’s plays, if not all of them, and it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think that he was compelled to promote the greatness of the monarchy and to minimize romantic notions of rebellion.

Of course there is also the theory that Elizabeth herself is one of the actual writer’s of Shakespeare’s plays, but I haven’t done sufficient research into the authorship debate to scoff at this theory publicly.

            Robin Hood isn’t the only interesting omission in King John. John is perhaps most famous historically for being pressured into recognizing the Magna Carta, which limited Royal power by stating that even a king was bound by law. This monumental event should have taken place somewhere in the middle of Act 5. Was Shakespeare intentionally avoiding bringing attention to this important accomplishment?

The evolution of constitutional law and the redistribution of wealth are modern ideas that we might like to ascribe to Shakespeare, who is often credited with unparalleled wisdom and wit. But the fact of the matter is that he was a popular playwright and poet in a certain era. If he were around today he might be writing sex comedies for Jonah Hill. They’d probably be really good sex comedies, but I doubt they would mention the Magna Carta either, which was old news even back in the 1590s.

In any case, now I feel like going to see Robin Hood, but I’ve waited this long… Maybe I’ll just get Prince of Thieves from Netflix. It’ll be nice to see an American kicking some English ass instead of drawing even on the luckiest goal in history.

          I guess we'll take whatever we can get.

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