Unlike many of Shakespeare’s history plays, King John is more history than historical-tragedy. Even King John’s end–one of few major events that could be interpreted as tragedic that also happens on stage–occurs without the drama I’d expect from Shakespeare, the effect mitigated further by the too-coincidental appearance of his son Prince Henry.
But Prince Henry’s sudden appearance is in keeping with what I take to be the most important intent of the play: to consider the question of legitimacy and hereditary rule. King John is a historical play, not a historical document, so it stands to reason that Shakespeare would manipulate time, characters, and events to suit his dramatic purpose. The broad outlines of most events in the play are based on real events… but Shakespeare invents a character whole cloth who plays a central role in everything that happens: The Bastard.
What’s curious is that, as a character, The Bastard significantly complicates the questions about legitimacy that Shakespeare was posing in a play written during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, whose own legitimacy was questionable. On the one hand, King John claims a right to the throne based on his father’s will, which bypassed Arthur. On the other, he rules that a will can’t take precedent over the law, which give The Bastard an inheritance instead of his older brother. It seems important that the completely fictional insertion of The Bastard into the play. Is it a kind of veiled commentary? Might it reflect the questions of Shakespeare’s own legitimacy?
While the rule of law w/r/t illegitimacy might be ambiguous, the actions of the play comment rather clearly in support of the idea that legitimacy (and the legal rights) are–and should be–trumped by the ability, and suitability, of the person. The illegitimate King John is a strong, effective King. Arthur, who has a strong legal claim to the throne, comes across mostly as a child who acts on the orders of his mother, a kind of beautiful, idealistic innocent. King John is tarnished by his sideways order to kill Arthur, but I don’t think there is any question that his ruthless pragmatism makes him more fit to be a king. And The Bastard, whose very name throughout the play announces his illegitimacy and who, early on, performs a role that is as abstract and functional as his name, becomes one of King John’s fiercest and most loyal men and is given–along with Pandulph, the Pope’s emissary–some of the best words in a play that is notably short of quotable moments.