Comments by Bob Corbett
General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on
As best I can remember, this was the first time I ever read this play, and had no memory it was even a play by Shakespeare. However, after reading a comedy each of the past three months, I decided to read one of the histories and this was the first. The action of the play centers on the reign of King John and the contested crown which he held. The issue is, who is the rightful king, John, who officially holds the crown, or his nephew Arthur. John was the younger brother of King Richard I who died without children. John was the son of Henry and Eleanor and was a Plantagenet.
Arthur of Brittany, John’s nephew, was the son of Geoffrey, older brother of King Richard the first. Arthur and his mother are in France, trying to persuade Louis, King of France, to back the claim that Arthur is the rightful king and that John should be deposed. As the play opens the French, under the Dauphin Louis, are at the wall of the northwestern French town of Angiers, which is sympathetic to John. As the French prepare to storm the town John and his army shows up to challenge the French.
A heated debate takes place between John and his supporters and the supporters of the young Arthur. In a rather hilarious development the two sides finally appeal to the townsmen to hear the case and decide who is the rightful king and whom they should open the gates to. However, the townspeople, in a rather clever dodge, decide they just can’t decide and the two armies will have to decide on their own. Obviously this could work in the interest of the town since the two armies would decimate each other and they might end up safe in the bargain.
Heralds, from off our towers, we must behold
From first to last, the onset and retire
Of both your armies, whose equality
By our best eyes cannot be censured:
Blood hath brought blood, and blows have answe’d blows;
Strength match’d strength, and power confronted power;
Both are alike; and both alike we like.
One must prove greatest: while they weigh so even
We hold our town for neither; yet for both.
So the folks support a radical view of “might makes right.” However, it doesn’t go that way. Rather, in a quite hilarious outcome for me, both sides are indignant that the townspeople won’t chose the “proper” side, and so the two armies decide to put aside this key difference between them and to jointly attack the town, showing them the price they will pay for this affront.
However, the Vatican steps in!!! Crazy stuff. A cardinal happens to be there and threatens King John with excommunication for not allowing a bishop to be seated in England whom the pope wanted. King John fears the excommunication, so he agrees, and with that the cardinal pleads with King Louis of France not to continue this war since King John has repented his ways. Louis agrees.
This was one of the more interesting happenings in the play for me, emphasizing the incredible power of the Vatican even in a post-Henry VIIIth England.
There is seeming peace, but after John and his army returns to England. King Louis decides he has to follow up on Arthur’s right to be the king and that John is, indeed, not the rightful monarch, so France invades England and finds a populace ready to side with France and ready to take their changes with Arthur. In the meantime John takes Arthur prisoner, plans to have his eyes poked out, but the jailor relents. Nonetheless, young Arthur, sure that he will eventually be tortured, jumps to his death, and that death is blamed on John.
The French are moving on John, but once again the cardinal intervenes, believing he is virtually all-powerful, tells King John he will get the French to back off. His arrogance is incredible.
It was my breath that blew this tempest up,
Upon your stubborn ‘usage of the pope:
But since you are a gentle convertite,
My tongue shall hush again this storm of war,
And make fair weather in your blustering land
On this Ascension-day, remember well,
Upon your oath of service to the pope,
Go I to make the French lay down their arms.
Actually King Louis rejects the cardinal’s demand but his own lack of supplies and the death of Arthur put him into a position where he’s no longer willing to carry on the battle and he and his army return to France. This is an interesting story and underlines the difficult battles of legitimacy of the crown, the power of the Vatican in world politics, and the craziness of war. However, as theater and poetry it wasn’t very exciting. I was quite curious about the reputation of the play, and looking into it discovered that the play has seldom been produced in the last couple centuries, but in past times it was popular because all the war scenes and meetings of royalty in their discussions of the diplomacy of succession led to the possibility of many scenes of pomp and circumstance which were more popular in earlier centuries.
It seemed to me that the decision not to stage this particular play is a wise decision. And, in all honesty, it’s not even a great read.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com