While in Stratford over break, we had the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of King John. KJ is not that well-known a play, of course, and I can imagine that there are many reasons why. Where it shines, it burns. When it doesn’t shine, it’s dense and forgettable. The RSC made good work of the play, though, particularly the first half. They took two creative turns. First, they cast King John as a woman (played admirably by Rosie Sheehy). Second, they placed the play in what felt like a 1960s-era spy genre (think the British Avengers series). That turn was most effective in the first half of the play, where there were a number of creative flourishes (dance numbers, boxing scenes) that served as spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine. By the beginning of the second half, that creative flourish was gone (and the overall play the lesser for it).
My favorite scene involving the play’s main character happens near the end of the first half, when John is contemplating how to solidify his reign amidst the claims of others for sovereignty. He must find some way to dispatch with Arthur, his young rival. He tasks Hubert (described in the list of roles as the “imperfectly obedient intimate of King John”) with the job in this scene:
Come hither, Hubert. O my gentle Hubert,
We owe thee much! within this wall of flesh
There is a soul counts thee her creditor
And with advantage means to pay thy love:
And my good friend, thy voluntary oath
Lives in this bosom, dearly cherished.
Give me thy hand. I had a thing to say,
But I will fit it with some better time.
By heaven, Hubert, I am almost ashamed
To say what good respect I have of thee.
Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet,
But thou shalt have; and creep time ne’er so slow,
Yet it shall come from me to do thee good.
I had a thing to say, but let it go:
The sun is in the heaven, and the proud day,
Attended with the pleasures of the world,
Is all too wanton and too full of gawds
To give me audience: if the midnight bell
Did, with his iron tongue and brazen mouth,
Sound on into the drowsy race of night;
If this same were a churchyard where we stand,
And thou possessed with a thousand wrongs,
Or if that surly spirit, melancholy,
Had baked thy blood and made it heavy-thick,
Which else runs tickling up and down the veins,
Making that idiot, laughter, keep men’s eyes
And strain their cheeks to idle merriment,
A passion hateful to my purposes,
Or if that thou couldst see me without eyes,
Hear me without thine ears, and make reply
Without a tongue, using conceit alone,
Without eyes, ears and harmful sound of words;
Then, in despite of brooded watchful day,
I would into thy bosom pour my thoughts:
But, ah, I will not! yet I love thee well;
And, by my troth, I think thou lovest me well.
So well, that what you bid me undertake,
Though that my death were adjunct to my act,
By heaven, I would do it.
Do not I know thou wouldst?
Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On yon young boy: I’ll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way;
And whereso’er this foot of mine doth tread,
He lies before me: dost thou understand me?
Thou art his keeper.
And I’ll keep him so,
That he shall not offend your majesty.
The Arden edition renders those last four lines as one, which is exactly as it was played. The Arden edition also makes Hubert;s penultimate line a statement instead of a question, which is interesting.
It’s really a sad and sobering moment that is followed up on as soon as the curtains rise on the play’s second half. Since it’s a tragedy, it doesn’t go all that well for anyone.
(image from expressandstar.com; text from http://shakespeare.mit.edu)