'Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty
Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest'
Act 4, Sc. 3
John succeeds to the throne after the death of his brother Richard the Lionheart, and is at once threatened by rival claimants, including Richard’s bastard son Philip and his nephew Prince Arthur. John kidnaps Arthur and orders his murder; although the boy is released, he dies shortly afterwards in murky circumstances. It is a bleak and ruthless play: a series of wars in which nobles defect from one side to another seem to achieve little. From the Pope to supposedly honourable kings, every character is revealed as having an eye only to his own interests. Patriotism, religion, family loyalty – all are exposed as mere covers for the endless alliances and betrayals of politics and power-brokering.
King John was probably written in 1596, just after the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet. The speech in which Arthur’s mother, Constance, mourns her son is one of the most moving in all Shakespeare’s work, and has often been highlighted by critics as a possible reﬂection of Shakespeare’s own bereavement:
'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?'
Act 3, Sc. 4
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