Like most of Shakespeare’s history plays, King John presents a struggle for the crown of England. In this play, however, the struggle is located much further back in English history than is usual in Shakespeare’s plays, and, perhaps for this reason, it is waged with a strikingly coldblooded brutality. Most of the contestants for the throne are the descendants of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The couple’s eldest son, King Richard I or Richard Coeur de Lion, has already been killed before the play begins. The Duke of Austria, presented in the play as Richard’s killer, enters wearing as a trophy the lion’s skin taken from his victim. The play explains that Richard Coeur de Lion came by the skin and by his name when he ripped out the heart of a lion sent to attack him.
Richard’s royal kin who compete to occupy the throne he vacated possess none of Coeur de Lion’s legendary heroism; but John, the late Richard’s younger brother, who holds the English crown when the play opens, lacks none of Richard’s savagery. John’s opponent is a boy, Arthur, the son of another of John’s elder brothers now deceased. Arthur’s cause has been taken up by the King of France and by the fierce-looking Austria, but nonetheless the boy falls into King John’s hands among the spoils of victory that King John enjoys when he defeats France and Austria on the battlefield. No sooner has King John captured Arthur than he plots to torture his nephew and thereby put the boy’s life at risk. But Arthur’s capture fails to secure the throne for King John. Instead, it merely provides the opportunity for Louis, the Dauphin of France, to lay claim to King John’s crown—a claim supported by King John’s outraged nobles, whom Louis schemes to reward for their assistance with a savage treachery to match King John’s against Arthur.
While there are no royal heroes in King John, the play finds its hero in the Bastard, Sir Richard Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion, who is identified as the Bastard’s father in the first place by the Bastard’s remarkable physical resemblance to him. By avenging his father through beheading the Duke of Austria in battle, the Bastard adds a chapter to his father’s legendary career. Certainly the Bastard has an appetite for warfare and is impatient with any cessation of hostilities: “Cry havoc, kings!” he exclaims. “Back to the stainèd field, / You equal potents, fiery-kindled spirits. / Then let confusion of one part confirm / The other’s peace. Till then, blows, blood, and death!” His bloodlust aside, the Bastard is given many attractive features—a trenchant irony that he directs against all kinds of pretension, and a strict conscience that threatens to drive him from his allegiance to King John once the Bastard learns of the plot against Arthur.