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
These are the deeply problematic words of the deeply problematic Richard the Bastard, that end King John, Shakespeare’s dark nightmare.
The latest revival (and revivals are rare as hen’s teeth) is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and is Trevor Nunn’s first direction of the play.
I went to see it with my son and his partner last night and sat on a cushion in front of the stage.
I urge you to do the same and use the experience to work out just where you sit on Brexit.
History – without the dressing up
Most people associated King John with the Magna Carta but Shakespeare isn’t interested in paper settlements. His play focusses on the impact of Realpolitik on the lives of women and most particularly children. His son Hamnet died while he wrote the play and the 11 year old Arthur is the emotional focus of the play.
There are no simple solutions in this world of inconstancy. The business of governing England is scarcely explored , the court of King John engages with sparring with France, Austria and most especially the Pope and his emissaries.
King John has neither courage nor convictions, he simply stumbles from one posturing speech to another till in the end he is brought low by illnesses that strip him of his kingly and finally his human dignity.
We are left to consider the words of Richard’s Bastard son, who dominates the action by dint of his size and the fluency with which he articulates his cynicism.
We learn nothing here about good Government , but we learn plenty about the impact of bad Government and the scope it gives to make heroes of villains.
800 years on – and we’re no further down the road!
Like other “problem plays” most especially Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus, King John explores the darker sides of power without us really engaging in the history of the play at all. Trevor Nunn writes in the program notes that King John is the least historical of the history plays.
Go to the play to find out what our worst European nightmare could look like.
I have found no better touchstone for my feelings towards Europe.