“King John” is a curious play. The histories are generally less popular and renowned than the tragedies and comedies, the histories not in either Henriad cycle even moreso, so “King John” is comparatively rarely staged or discussed.
The most strange thing about it to a modern audience perhaps is that any identifiable or famous part of King John the First’s life, either historical (the Magna Carta) or mythic (Robin Hood), lies completely unaddressed in the play. Instead, the play explores tensions and warfare between England and France, and delves into some character study on both King John himself, and some other characters, including Hubert, Arthur, and the very compelling Phillip “the Bastard”. The closest connection to any of the memorable stories around King John is just the vague idea of powerful lords beneath him resenting him and considering turning cloak. Hardly a big hook.
There’s not much of a drive or flow through the play. Some of the characters are compelling, and a few scenes are very engaging (highlights include any scene heavily involving Phillip the Bastard, and the extended confrontation and discussion between Hubert and Arthur), but it doesn’t feel overall cohesive or singularly focused. There are some interesting musings, powerful statements (”Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose” a meaningful statement on how warfare affects most), and even some lines that feel like proto-versions of later iconic lines from future Shakespeare plays, but the play never coalesces into something truly powerful in its own regard.
As for those lines that feel like earlier versions of later lines, I felt Phillip the Bastard’s “Why then defy each other and pell-mell / Make work upon ourselves, for heaven or hell” matches Richard III saying “March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell”, and Lewis saying “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man” reminded me of Macbeth’s iconic “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” speech.
While there are a few very strong elements here, they don’t come together to make a very strong play. I give it three vials of poison, and a puppy-dog.