How did they (kill a boy) in King John

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The young Arthur who leaps to his death from the castle walls.

The text of King John calls for the young Arthur, attempting to escape imprisonment, to jump from the battlements to the stones below ending his short life. In today’s theatre this scene can be almost too real with the lights lowered at the crucial moment so we don’t quite see, but know all too well, that Arthur has fallen. Theatres may even use wires and hoists to allow Arthur to ‘fall’ at what seems a terrifying speed. I have seen this done so realistically as to illicit horrified gasps from the audience many of whom will be expecting that moment anyhow.


But on Shakespeare’s stage how was this done? As we have seen they did have a rope and pulley mechanism which would allow for entrance from above – however this was too ponderous to recreate the speed of a falling boy. Turning out the lights was also impossible for Shakespeare, his plays were performed outdoors or in indoor candle lit spaces. So how could Shakespeare have made this moment even slightly plausible?


In fact Shakespeare probably had the boy actor jump for real! C Walter Hodges author of the excellent book Enter The Whole Army suggests that the castle walls were about 9 feet high and that the young Arthur leapt onto a think pile of rushes, ordinarily strewn on the stage, but piled higher below the castle walls. Two other points might also help explain how this feat was possible without getting through an awful lot of Arthurs!


Firstly there was in fact an athletic group in London at the time – a theatrical entertainment troupe known as ‘John Symonds and Mr Standley’s Boys’ who did tumbling tricks and so on. So it is possible that Arthur was borrowed from this troupe or sent to train with them for the role. The second point of interest is that the script calls for Arthur to change clothes prior to the jump and the narrative explains this change of clothes as the need for the boy to disguise himself. In actual fact these new clothes could have provided a more practical suit to jump in and could even have been somewhat padded. After all Arthur needs to say two more lines of dialogue from the ground before he dies! So as far as we know no boys were actually killed in the making of King John.



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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