King JohnLike King Henry VIII, King John is an outlier among the history plays, which is to say, it is not part of the two so-called tetralogies or tetrads (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts i and ii, and Henry V forming the first, and Henry VI, Parts i, ii, and iii, and Richard III forming the second). Unlike all the rest, including Henry VIII, it has very little bearing on the legitimization of contemporary political power. At the same time, the aspirations of various characters (John, Arthur, and the Faulconbridge brothers) are not unlike those of Elizabeth, in whose reign this play was almost certainly produced. The point of intersection is merely a different one.
The play also deserves to be considered on its own terms, of course. It has a number of curious deviations from the norm. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, illegitimate sons, of whatever source, tend to be bad guys (consider King Lear). Philip is not really the bad guy, though his approach to everything is cynical and calculated. Many of Shakespeare’s plays have an outsider, at one level or another (e.g., Jaques in As You Like It or Malvolio in Twelfth Night). Seldom, however, is the character at the same time the central figure of the play. Here he certainly is: the Bastard (as he is normally called) is far more in view than the titular King John.
This play is roughly contemporary with Titus Andronicus. It shares with that play an interesting preoccupation with the grotesque, especially mutilation — compare the treatment of Titus’s daughter and the boy Arthur. The wry and sardonic commentary offered by the Bastard throughout the play recalls that of a number of other characters in other plays — certainly Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, but also many of the clowns, and Hamlet’s own reflections in Hamlet. What that does for the overall diction of the play is a fascinating thing on its own.
There are very few productions of this play done in the world at large, and even fewer done for film. It’s worth watching, in whatever format you can get hold of.