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King John’s historical reputation is
that of a villain because of stories like Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.
There’s no clear hero in the play. There’s no one to root for. John is the protagonist, but unlike Richard III, Henry V, and Hamlet, he has no soliloquy in which to reveal his inmost thoughts. No way to communicate directly with the audience. So, who do you root for?
While charismatic performers of the 18th and 19th Century kept King John in the repertoire, it became a less produced play after World War I. The harshness of modern warfare turned the audience off to the plays that the Romantics adored. Shakespeare notoriously crams 17 years of King John’s reign into one play’s plot. Alexander Pope famously degraded and banished large passages of the play to the margins of his 1725 Shakespeare edition deeming King John not worthy of genius.
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King John: The PHONY King of England
While there is much truth to Disney’s portrayal, it is by no means complete. The historical John was far more than a moustache-twirling miscreant, and Shakespeare’s King John presents a much more human (if not strictly accurate) vision of that monarch than we usually see. Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of the man behind the reputation. Few historians would call John a good (let alone great) King, and not without reason. He does, of course, suffer from comparison with his father, Henry II, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his brother Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Even in Shakespeare’s play these comparisons are unavoidable; though father and older brother are dead, Richard’s war-like spirit lives on in the form of his illegitimate son Philip. But John is not unpopular simply because he lived in the shadow of his brilliant family—he also earned his reputation for ineffectual leadership by losing most of France during his reign. In addition, John preferred peace (even if accompanied by costly compromises and concessions) to enforcing his will through war.
Shakespeare’s King John also favors peace, but Shakespeare is far less harsh in his judgment than John’s contemporaries were. After the play’s first battle, John is quick to accept Hubert’s proposed truce (which not only prevents further English casualties but also leaves Arthur without powerful friends). Similarly, in the fifth act, John caves in to the demands of the Pope in an attempt to keep his crown and prevent another war. But John’s greatest claim to infamy is as the (attempted) usurper of his brother’s throne. He was a natural schemer, and, among other things, he conspired to prolong King Richard’s imprisonment by Leopold, archduke of Austria, and prepared himself to seize the throne should Richard die.