But Where Was Robin Hood?
Shakespeare’s King John captures the story of a struggle for the English Crown and its land on the Continent. It moves me (for a while) from the comedy and romance plays to Shakespeare’s historical plays in my effort to read all the Bard by his 450th birth anniversary.
While classified as a historical play, it’s not necessarily history. And when it comes to this King John, it is easy to find non-historical stories that paint him in the darkest light: It was against this King John and his evil agents that the not-so-historical hero (and never hysterical) Robyn Hode—loyal to Richard the Lionheart—fought in later versions of the bandit’s history. But definitely historical is the fact that it was the politically weakened historical John who signed the very historic Magna Carta. Shakespeare mentions neither the Magna Carta or Robyn Hode in his story King John .
Words that capture what I got out of the play are destructive power of ambition; lust for power; ambition and selfishness destroy people and their families. We mark this week, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, reminding us that even if King John isn’t an accurate retelling of the king’s life, in it Shakespeare does capture character traits of past Royals and perhaps even of some of us modern commoners—maybe more than we want to believe.
Shakespeare Quotes from the play that appealed to me for various reasons:
Philip Falconbridge: Madam, I’ll follow you unto the death. Elinor: Nay, I would have you go before me thither.
Constance: Stay for an answer to your embassy, lest unadvis’d you stain your swords with blood; My Lord Chatillon may from England bring that right in peace, which here we urge in war; and then we shall repent each drop of blood that hot rash haste so indirectly shed.
Philip Falconbridge: Death…The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs; and now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men, in undetermin’d differences of kings….
1 Citizen: He is the half part of a blessed man, left to be finished by such a she; and she a fair divided excellence, whose fulness of perfection lies in him.
Blanch: The Lady Constance speaks not from her faith, but from her need.
King Philip: Play fast and loose with faith?
Blanch: Which is the side that I must go withal? I am with both: each army hath a hand; and in their rage, I having hold of both, they whirl asunder and dismember me. Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win; Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose; Father, I may not wish the fortune thine; Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive: Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose; assured loss before the match be play’d.
Constance: When I shall meet him in the court of heaven, I shall not know him: therefore never, never must I behold my pretty Arthur more. Cardinal Pandulph: You hold too heinous a respect of grief. Constance: He talks to me that never had a son. King Philip: You are as fond of grief as of your child. Constance: Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, remembers me of all his gracious parts, stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; then have I reason to be fond of grief. Fare you well: had you such a loss as I, I could give better comfort than you do.
Louis: Bitter shame hath spoil’d the sweet world’s taste, that it yields naught but shame and bitterness….
Cardinal Pandulph: When Fortune means to men most good, she looks upon them with a threatening eye. ‘Tis strange to think how much King John hath lost in this which he accounts so clearly won.
Cardinal Pandulph: A sceptre snatch’d with an unruly hand must be as boisterously maintain’d as gain’d….
Louis: Strong reasons make strong actions….
Salisbury: Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp, to guard a title that was rich before, to gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
Pembroke: …Oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by excuse….
Pembroke: …Your fears,—which, as they say, attend the steps of wrong….
King John: There is no sure foundation set on blood; no certain life achiev’d by other’s death.
Pembroke: …Impatience hath his privilege. Philip Falconbridge: ‘Tis true,—to hurt his master, no man else.
Philip Falconbridge: But wherefore do you droop? Why look you sad? Be great in act, as you have been in thought; let not the world see fear and sad distrust govern the motion of a kingly eye: be stirring as the time; be fire with fire; threaten the threatener, and outface the brow of bragging horror; so shall inferior eyes, that borrow their behaviours from the great, grow great by your example, and put on the dauntless spirit of resolution. Away, and glister like the god of war when he intendeth to become the field: Show boldness and aspiring confidence. What, shall they seek the lion in his den, and fright him there? And make him tremble there? O, let it not be said!—Forage, and run to meet displeasure further from the doors, and grapple with him ere he come so nigh.
Next Up in my Shakespeare reading (if you’re reading along): The Life and Death of King Richard II