I am trying to test my memory on this absurdly complicated story.
In the beginning King John was the de facto king of England. His brother, Richard the Lionheart, named him heir to the throne, despite a stronger claim by their nephew Arthur, as Arthur's father (dead) had been older than John. Still an innocent child, Arthur was not particularly keen on overthrowing his uncle, but his keen mother, Constance, took him and the claim to the King of France, Philip. France confronted England in Arthur's name. One does not need France's true intention spelled out, however, considering the ongoing land disputes between the neighboring countries (England held Brittany and other territories on the Continent).
And so they attempted to resolve the dispute the old fashioned way: through war. The conflict was stuck in a stalemate. What to do? John and Philip reached a truce, in which John married his niece Blanche to the Dauphin Louis and England gave up some of the land to France as her dowry. Methinks England probably lost in reality. The war ended and Arthur's suit was put aside. Constance, of course, was not happy about the arrangement, but John and his army had captured Arthur in a battle. Now England seemed to hold all the cards ... Or do they?
Peace with France might not be the best policy, but the king had little choice at the moment, because he was being attacked on another side by the Pope, who was unhappy about his domestic policy to levy taxes on the churches. England's conflict with Rome also put France in an awkward position. If you don't denounce England, the angry Roman envoy Pandolf threatened Philip, you would be excommunicated along with John. Ah the problem of The Three Kingdoms. The fragile alliance between England and France hung in a balance. Pandolf convinced the Dauphin to invade England, because now Louis also had a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Blanche. Oh isn't that clever of the little cardinal?
Meanwhile in England, John did not want to sit and wait for the French invasion in the name of rescuing Arthur, the rightful king. So he ordered the boy executed by Hubert, everyone's favorite killer. Only this killer had a heart of gold (unlike the killers in Richard III but not unlike Sandor Clegane) and was moved by the child's innocence. So he quietly hid Arthur somewhere in the Tower, while telling the king he'd done the deed. But the king changed his mind two minutes later! When his already-disgruntled lords were appalled and outraged that he had murdered a child! John wished he would kick the stupid lords' asses, no doubt, but right now he needed their help to fight off the French. Oh how he regretted having given the order.
Man, it sucks to be a lowly henchman. One moment your boss wants the kid dead, the next he is blaming you for being a psychopathic killer. What a bhenchod (oops, wrong language). Anyway, so Hubert told John the truth and they all hugged each other and thought, The kid's still alive! We're all saved from a rebellion and bad names for a thousand years! Unbeknownst to them, Arthur sneaked out of the Tower and jumped the wall and broke his own neck, lying dead in front of the fuming lords. Awkward. If they had been wavering a bit about betraying England, now they had to be pushed to the Dauphin's side by the bloody corpse.
And so there John sat in his tent on the battlefield and couldn't believe how things had fallen apart. An hour ago he had married Blanche to Louis, got France off his back, and Arthur had lost. Everything had been so peachy. Suddenly he became a child-murderer, even though he rescinded the order, was excommunicated by Vatican, and was about to lose his country to France! Maderchod (sorry, wrong language again). In a desperate last-ditch effort, he treated with Pandolf and gave the Vatican whatever they wanted.
Mission happily accomplished, Pandolf went to Louis and said, OK, we can go home now, I got what I wanted. Louis laughed, What about what I want? Do you think you can let the wolf out of the cage and then drag him back before he's fed? The wolf will not let go of the big fat piece of steak between his teeth. He told Pandolf to get lost and pressed his army on, along with Salisbury and the other well-meaning English traitors. Finally, somehow, the English lords came to their senses and decided to switch sides from the French Dauphin. Louis had to abandon his dream and go home. All seemed to be finally looking up for John. Then King John got himself poisoned by a monk, I guess because of his earlier excommunication. So he died and his son Henry was crowned. The end.
How did he cram all this into just one play?! It gave me so many whiplashes I thought my head was going to fall off.
Oh, and in the middle of it all, there was this fabulous character who is a bastard and has all the best one-liners.
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