Arthur's fatal fall from his prison wall is a crucial moment in Shakespeare's King John. Rejecting other historical accounts of Arthur's death, Shakespeare chose this most theatrically compelling and technically difficult version, aiming to shock the audience without injuring the boy actor. Modern productions of King John may resort to stylized representations of the event, with descents of a mere step standing for the fall, or with actual leaps made safe by unidentified figures who catch the falling boy. Other performances use technology-assisted illusion to create the appearance of a dangerous fall and of Arthur's body onstage, where his dying words are required. But how did Shakespeare stage Arthur's fall? One otherwise gratuitous detail of Arthur's speech-his ship-boy disguise-holds a clue. The conventional image of the ship-boy included an identifying length of rope carried over his shoulder. An Elizabethan Arthur could have used that "prop" to begin his descent from above, reducing the distance of his fall, while still making an audience gasp in surprise when, suddenly losing his grip, he falls. King John's onstage death seems to confirm this hypothesis by deliberately recalling the iconography of Arthur's fall, in the king's metaphorical comparison of his body to a ship's rigging. The connection is reinforced when the same nautical rope metaphor is continued immediately in a speech delivered over John's body, by the boy actor who now plays the dead king's son Prince Henry, but who earlier had fallen to his death as Arthur.
King John,Prince Arthur,Elizabethan staging,Boy actor,Ship boy,Shakespeare,Performance