Like most of Shakespeare’s history plays, King John presents a struggle for the English crown. The struggle this time, however, is strikingly cold-blooded and brutal.
John, the younger brother of the late Richard I, is the king, and a savage one. His opponent is a boy, his nephew Arthur, supported by the King of France and the Duke of Austria. After Arthur falls into John’s hands, John plots to torture him. Arthur’s capture gives Louis, the Dauphin of France, the opportunity to lay claim to John’s crown. John’s nobles support Louis, but he schemes to betray them.
The play finds its hero in another figure: the Bastard, Sir Richard Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Richard I. Although he has an appetite for war, he also has a strong conscience and speaks with trenchant irony.