King John and The Troublesome Raigne: Sources, Structure, Sequence
Brian Boyd, University of Auckland
The debate goes on: is Shakespeare's King John a source or a derivative of the anonymous The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591)? In 1989 "the 'orthodox' opinion that The Troublesome Raigne precedes King John" seemed to one critic "now … so strong as to need no further elaboration or support."1 A year later, another made the best case yet for the "unorthodox" position that King John spawned rather than sprang from The Troublesome Raigne.2
Everyone concurs that The Troublesome Raigne is intimately related to and manifestly inferior to King John, but there agreement ends. To some, a writer with the merest fraction of Shakespeare's talent could not have followed King John almost scene for scene and often speech for speech and yet have repeatedly substituted his own awkward limp for the forceful stride Shakespeare's language has throughout this play.3 To others, a writer with so little talent would never have been able to reshape Holinshed and other historical sources so well that Shakespeare could work from it, again, almost scene for scene and often speech for speech.4
Although both conclusions sound plausible, the first can be set aside if, as Suzanne Gary and L. A. Beaurline suggest, the author of The Troublesome Raigne was working from a mere scenario of King John, perhaps in the form of an "author's plot" such as we know were made in the Elizabethan theater.5 If someone with little experience as a dramatist had access to an outline of Shakespeare's scenes but not to the details of his language, he could easily have produced what we find in The Troublesome Raigne.
The second conclusion, however, becomes more and more difficult to dislodge. All participants in the debate agree that "the author who worked first from the chronicles undertook a massive reorganization of historical material" (Smallwood, p. 367). John's reign naturally falls into three periods: 1199-1206, dominated by the disputes with King Philip of France and Prince Arthur over John's claim to the Angevin territories in France; 1207-1213, the confrontation with the Pope; and 1213-1216, the barons' rebellion and the French invasion. One of the two authors makes these three crises coalesce by dint of a daring rearrangement of events. In the long sequence outside Angiers, he even fashions a single stylized day6 from the destruction of Angiers (1206),7 the marriage between Blanche and Louis (1200), the papal excommunication of John (1207-1211), the battle of Mirabeau (1202), the killing of Limoges (1199), the abortive French invasion prompted by the Pope (1213) and the Dauphin's invasion (1216).8 So boldly and brilliantly has history been reshaped that even those who argue for the priority of The Troublesome Raigne sometimes feel that nobody but Shakespeare could have moulded the material so well, that somehow or other he must at least have had a hand in The Troublesome Raigne before rewriting it as King John.9
No one doubts that Shakespeare had the imagination and skill to reconstruct the chronicles, since throughout his career he radically rearranged and recombined sources. So thoroughgoing indeed are his transformations of his material, historical and dramatic, in the rest of the canon that it is difficult to suppose that in this one instance he would have meekly followed a mediocre novice. Shakespeare already had to his credit not only his first comedies and tragedy but four English history plays that had opened up the possibilities of the genre, whereas the author of The Troublesome Raigne appears to have written nothing else.10 As even supporters of The Troublesome Raigne's priority admit, the play shows him to be—apart from the reinvention of John's reign—"an insipid versifier and an uninspired journeyman playwright" (Dover Wilson, p. xxxix), whose "construction is loose" and whose "working-out in detail … is clumsy" (Bullough, 4:9), and who can even be capable of outright "imbecility" (Hamel, p. 43). The one isolated strength The Troublesome Raigne's author has, apparently, is the kind of superb structural imagination that allows him to reshape Holinshed—yet curiously, as we will see, not to structure his own scenes.
It is not enough to point to the mere fact that the chronicles have been so rigorously reworked. We must also ask why. For decades critics have agreed that Arthur provides a focus for King John. 11 ' As some also point out, Arthur's claim to the throne and John's attempt to extinguish it by ordering him killed also underlie the reconstruction of the chronicles in The Troublesome Raigne: "This is the selective principle for the actions of both plays: nearly everything done by John, King Philip, and their entourage seems contingent upon Arthur."12
Regardless of their position on sources, critics have also agreed that The Troublesome Raigne is "a play with a consistently anti-Catholic thrust" (Smallwood, p. 369). This in fact "forms the main theme" (Dover Wilson, p. lviii) of the play, announced in the prefatory "To the Gentlemen Readers"
A warlike Christian and your Contreyman.
For Christs true faith indur'd he many a
And set himself against the Man of Rome"
and insisted upon by an anti-papal outburst on average at least every hundred lines. The play aims to show John as a Christian warrior, a precursor of Henry VIII:14
From out these loynes shall spring a Kingly
Whose armes shall reach unto the gates of
And with his feet treade downe the Strumpets
Now it seems strange in the extreme that a play that aims to exalt John for his defiance of the Pope should take extraordinary pains to refocus Holinshed's materials around the death of Arthur, the one event most widely held against him, since although his subjects resented the possibility that John may have arranged the boy's death, their grumbings in fact had little effect on his reign.
John Bale, in the fiercely anti-papal polemics of his King Johan (written 1538-1560), simply ignores the death of Arthur.15 Of course Bale's play, being more a morality than a history, functions in quite a different way from its later non-allegorical counterpart, but The Troublesome Raigne too could easily have omitted Arthur's death altogether and certainly need not have structured itself around the prince.
In Holinshed, John's role is mitigated by several factors. Once he has captured Arthur, John asks him "to forsake his freendship and aliance with the French king, and to leane and sticke to him being his naturali vncle. But Arthur like one that wanted good corniseli, and abounding too much in his owne wilfull opinion, made a presumptuous answer, not onelie denieing so to doo, but also commanding king John to restore vnto him the realme of England, with all those other lands and possessions which king Richard had in his hand at the houre of his death" (Holinshed, 2:285), a claim he had not made before and according to Holinshed, he had no real grounds for making. It was not on his own initiative but "through persuasion of his councellors" (2.286) that John ordered Arthur to be blinded. And though Arthur disappeared from view, it was not clear whether he jumped to his death, pined away in captivity, or was murdered at John's command, "but verelie king John was had in great suspicion, whether worthilie or not, the lord knoweth" (2:286). Avoiding the option of omitting Arthur's death altogether, The Troublesome Raigne also fails to avail itself of the extenuating circumstances Holinshed provides, and chooses only, like King John, to discredit the suspicions of John's responsibility by showing Arthur jumping to his own death.
Now the mere fact that The Troublesome Raigne is "permeated by a fanatical Protestant spirit" (Elson, p. 185) need not rule out on the part of its author an attempt to present a rounded image of John, as a king heroic but not unflawed. Indeed it would be difficult to exclude every shadow from the portrait of a monarch who earned the disaffection of so many of his subjects and who had to kneel abjectly to the Pope he once proudly spurned.
But where it can, The Troublesome Raigne exonerates John. In handling the submission to the Pope, for instance, the play strives to eliminate blame, in a way quite unlike Bale, Holinshed, or Shakespeare. When John yields his crown up to the Pope's legate, Shakespeare's Bastard roundly chastises him, for the one time in the play:
Shall we, upon the footing of our land,
Send fair-play orders and make compromise,
Insinuation, parley, and base truce
To arms invasive?
The Troublesome Raigne by contrast offers no criticism of John at this point, but presents him as a shrewd politician, resorting in an emergency to an unpalatable but necessary tactic, consciously dissembling, unable to hide his contempt even after he first kneels to Pandulph ("Accurst indeed to kneele to such a drudge," he tells himself, "And get no help with thy submission, / Unsheath thy sword, and sley the misprowd Priest, / That thus triumphs ore thee a mighty King: / No John, submit againe, dissemble yet, / For Priests and Women must be flattered," 2.300-5), deciding on submission at last without realising that it involves handing over the crown, recoiling from that humiliation ("What? shall I give my Crowne with this right hand? / No: with this hand defend thy Crowne and thee," 2.325-26), only to be forced into capitulation when a messenger arrives with news that the French invasion fleet is about to land.
Arthur's death proves more awkward. In general The Troublesome Raigne seems by comparison with King John to downplay John's role in his nephew's death and to lower the price he must pay for his evil intent. Three memorable sequences in Shakespeare, John's reticent order to Hubert to kill Arthur, Constance's laments over the loss of her son, and Pandulph's shrewdly cynical suggestions to Lewis that he exploit popular discontent at Arthur's death, all recur in The Troublesome Raigne but in such drastically curtailed form that as Beaurline comments an audience could easily fail to realise what has happened in the first and last of these key exchanges (Beaurline, p. 203). All three sequences seem an echo of Shakespeare's, without any real understanding of their structural role, and certainly without any notion of the centrality of Arthur.
In Shakespeare it is Arthur's death that, quite unhistorically, leads to the barons' rebellion and the French invasion. In The Troublesome Raigne, too, the play's structure stresses Arthur's death as the cause of John's misfortunes while the language tries, if not to suppress entirely its baleful role, at least to shift the blame elsewhere, especially on to Rome. As in Shakespeare but not in Holinshed, the lords leave John after Hubert's report of Arthur's death, and then, when they see him dead, immediately settle on rebellion against John and collusion with France. But in explaining their decision to serve a foreign invader, they adduce two other reasons—Chester's banishment, never mentioned previously, not explained here, never referred to again, and "Our private wrongs," not elaborated upon—before citing as the third "His Cosens death, that sweet un-guilty childe" (2395-406). But Essex concludes his speech implying that even without these three factors the Pope's denunciation would have sufficed by itself to provoke rebellion:
Only I say, that were there nothing else
To moove us but the Popes most dreadfull
Whereof we are assured if we fayle,
It were inough to instigate us all
With earnestnesse of sprit[e] to seeke a mean
To disposses John of his regiment.
Even in the scene where the genuine news of Arthur's death has just reached John, the Bastard reports that "The Nobles, Commons, Clergie, all Estates, / Incited chiefely by the Cardinali" have united against him (2.186-88). "This is the cursed Priest of Italy" the Bastard sums up, that "Hath heapt these mischiefes on this haplesse Land." Addressing himself, John concurs:
The Pope of Rome, tis he that is the cause,
He curseth thee, he sets thy subjects free
From due obedience to their Soveraigne:
He animates the Nobles in their warres,
He gives away the Crowne to Philips Sonne,
And pardons all that seeke to murther thee:
And thus blind zeale is still predominant.
But if The Troublesome Raigne obscures the lead-up to and the flow-on from Arthur's death, the play briefly places John's role in the death under a harsh spot-light at the point where it becomes the immediate subject. In Shakespeare, Hubert lies to John, aside, that the orders are completed and Arthur is dead; in The Troublesome Raigne, Hubert enters and blithely announces in public: "According to your Highnes strickt commaund / Yong Arthurs eyes are blinded and extinct. / … of the extreame paine,/ Within one hower gave he up the Ghost" (1.1661-65). When his noblemen, appalled, storm away, John in Shakespeare immediately asks himself what he has done, but in The Troublesome Raigne he harshly denounces the departing lords
Proud Rebels as you are to brave me so:
Saucie, unciviil, checkers of my will.
Your tongues give edge unto the fatali knife:
That shall have the passage through your
before he realizes the cost of his command.
And at the end of play, Arthur's death, after having been minimized since this point, becomes the reason John does not succeed in freeing England from the papal yoke:
Since John did yeeld unto the Priest of Rome,
Nor he nor his have prospred on the earth:
Curst are his blessings, and his curse is blisse.
But in the spirit I cry unto my God,
As did the Kingly Prophet David cry,
(Whose hands, as mine, with murder were
I am not he shall buyld the Lord a house,
Or roote these Locusts from the face of earth:
But if my dying heart deceave me not,
From out these loynes shall spring a Kingly
Whose armes shall reach unto the gates of
Arthur's death here offers The Troublesome Raigne a convenient way to explain John's failure to liberate his country permanently from Rome: it allows the play to skirt the resubmission to Rome for which other Protestant writers reproached him, and even as it assigns him blame glorifies him by the comparison to David, who despite his errant personal life stood as the Bible's model of a monarch under God.
The Troublesome Raigne's handling of Arthur's death seems much more an ad hoc use of someone else's prior decision to focus on the prince than an original plan to realign Holinshed around Arthur. The play appears not to realize the centrality of Arthur to its own structure, and often prefers to diminish the importance of his death, but where it is inescapable exploits it for its dramatic value or as a means of admitting to flaws in John that do not challenge his role as Henry Vili's precursor. John is as troubled a king in The Troublesome Raigne as in Bale or Foxe's Actes and Monuments of Martyrs, but even more unequivocally in the heroic vanguard of the Reformation.
Not only is it inexplicable, if The Troublesome Raigne derives directly from Holinshed, that an author so committed to what Virginia Mason Carr calls "the drama of propaganda" should take great pains to reshape the chronicle material around the very event most likely to mar the image of John as proto-Protestant hero, and then try to minimize the damage; but it also makes no sense that he should eschew the anti-papal ammunition Holinshed offers.16 John's resistance to the Pope's choice of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury provoked the confrontation between London and Rome that lasted from 1207 to 1213. Accordingly, in Bale's King Johan, Langton becomes the villain, interchangeable with the chief Vice, Sedition. Although The Troublesome Raigne operates on different principles, it too could have easily furthered its anti-Catholicism by focusing on Langton, not as the equivalent of a moral abstraction, but as a concrete historical figure from the chronicles. In Holinshed, John appeals to English national pride when he writes to Pope Innocent III in 1207 "that he would neuer consent that Stephan which had beene brought vp & alwaies conuersant with his enimies the Frenchmen, should now enioy the rule of the bishoprike and dioces of Canturburie" (2:296). In 1211 the Pope sends Pandulph with Stephen Langton to visit King Philip "and to exhort the French king to make warre vpon [John], as a person for his wickednesse excommunicated" (2:303). Holinshed also stresses the Archbishop's role between 1213 and John's death in "setting on" the "lords and peeres of the realme" (2:313) to press the king for their rights. As Holinshed phrases it on one occasion: "The archbishop coueting to extinguish the sedition (whereof he himselfe had beene no small kindler) which was like to grow, if the Nobilitie were not pacified the sooner, talked with the king …" (2:319).
Stephen Langton in other words could have provided an anti-papist playwright drawing on Holinshed with a way of combining all the elements he needed—all the elements Bale had needed—from John's reign: the feud with the Pope, the hostilities with the French, the rebellion of the nobility. A focus on Langton required no complex realignment of historical sequences, and would have allowed the play to avoid Arthur's death, rather than, as in The Troublesome Raigne, to exaggerate its implications. But The Troublesome Raigne assigns Stephen Langton a mere two lines. Pandulph asks John why does he "disanull the election of Stephen Langton, whom his Holines hath elected Archbishop of Canterburie" (1.972-74), in a speech that exactly corresponds to Shakespeare's Pandulph asking John
Why thou against the church, our holy
So wilfully dost spurn, and force perforce
Keep Stephen Langton, chosen Archbishop
Of Canterbury, from that holy see.
In both The Troublesome Raigne and King John, this is Pandulph's first speech in the play, spoken to John at the marriage of Louis and Blanche, and with Arthur present, although in fact Arthur died in 1203, Stephen Langton was chosen by the Pope in 1207, the papal interdiction pronounced in 1208, and Pandulph sent to John only in 1211. No one extolling The Troublesome Raigne's reconstruction of Holinshed has explained why the play should minimize Langton and maximize Arthur, whose near-death at John's command dominates the next several scenes.
As it does also, of course, in King John. But in King John Arthur serves as a focus throughout. Even at the cost of violating historical fact, Shakespeare expands Arthur's and diminishes John's right to succeed Richard I. He focuses on Arthur's claims and on his fate to call into question John's legitimacy as a monarch, first in a formal, then in a moral sense. As Bonjour points out (p. 259) and many have reiterated, John's ordering Arthur's death is the turning point of the play. When we next see him, after Hubert almost blinds Arthur, John has already begun to lose both his subjects' loyalty and his own sense of purpose.
To increase the pathos of Arthur's plight and the depth of John's guilt, Shakespeare makes the prince younger and more helpless than in Holinshed. For the same reason, he makes Constance a lonely widow, fixated on her child, when in fact by the time of Arthur's death she had remarried not once but twice (cf. Holin-shed 2:278). Why does the author of The Troublesome Raigne make Constance a solitary, unsupported widow, unless he is following Shakespeare, who had a purpose in presenting her thus?
There seems to be no reason why the insistently anti-Catholic author of The Troublesome Raigne should—and every reason why he should not—wrestle arduously with Holinshed so as to reconfigure John's reign around Arthur. Nor is there any indication in any other aspect of the play that he has the literary skill and strength to perform such a complex and subtle task. But where he has neither means nor motive, Shakespeare has both.
Although Shakespeare's restructuring of John's story does not suit the polemical purposes of The Troublesome Raigne, the play's author seems ready to accept as a foundation for his own play this brilliant rationalization and dramatization of Holinshed. After all, he is an inexperienced dramatist and Shakespeare is already established as, if not the inventor, at least the foremost creator of the English chronicle play. Shakespeare's only weakness, the anonymous author seems to have felt, was his failure to stress John's glorious role in defying the power of the Pope. He therefore builds on an outline of Shakespeare's structure, consulting the chronicles to eke out what he cannot understand from the scenario,17 and adds whatever anti-papal flourish he chooses. This alone seems to explain why a virulently anti-Catholic author serves up a version of John's reign that inadvertently organizes itself around Arthur—and that, as Beaurline shows, then fails to realise the implications of that choice. 18
If both plays rearrange history around Arthur, both also add a major character almost entirely without historical basis: the Bastard Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. Again, regardless of their positions on priority, critics accept the Bastard as the "striking novelty" in the plays, the proof of "remarkable inventiveness" on the part of at least one of their authors (Hamel, pp. 42, 43).
Why and how would the author of The Troublesome Raigne have invented a bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion? The Bastard we find in this play is indeed buoyantly anti-Catholic, amused by the nun in the friar's trunk and the friar in the nun's. But it is still John who carries the burden of hostility against the church, John, not the Bastard, who gloats about his abbots, monks and friars: "He rowze the lazie lubbers from their Cells, / And in despight Ile send them to the Pope" (1.1022-23). Perhaps the dramatist does need to provide John with an agent to ransack the monasteries, but why does he need to make such a person a bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion?
One critic who particularly admires the ingenuity of the author of The Troublesome Raigne in creating the Bastard especially eulogizes the Bastard's role in the opening scene of the play, comparing it to "the thematic elaboration, the dramatic expansion, and the energy conventionally provided by the comically reflective underplot of Tudor drama" (Hamel, p. 43). Now these comments are perfectly justified as they apply to the Bastard in Shakespeare's opening scene, but in The Troublesome Raigne, what relevance does the inheritance squabble between the Bastard and his brother have to the anti-Catholic thrust of the play?19
In King John, by contrast, Arthur and his claim to inherit Richard I's lands are central to the play. In The Troublesome Raigne, no credence whatever is given to the French envoy's claim, which seems no more than opportunism on King Philip's part. But in Shakespeare's opening scene Arthur's right appears at least as strong as John's, so that when later in the scene the two Falconbridge boys argue out their respective cases, there is real point to the ironic juxtaposition of high and low. John inadvertently compounds the irony when he insists on the strict law of primogeniture in the Bastard's case—whoever his father is, he is the elder son, born within wedlock, and therefore the rightful heir—for this seems to rule against his own position, since if primogeniture were applied in his case, Arthur as the son of Richard's next eldest brother would inherit all. And that the person in whose favour John rules according to the principle of primogeniture is himself the eldest son of Richard Coeur de Lion deepens the already profound ironies of this first scene.
Although the author of The Troublesome Raigne has been praised for inventing the structural balance between the two inheritance disputes, he in fact badly skews the shape of his scene. The younger brother, Robert, insists that Philip, the elder, must be the son of the former king:
looke but on Philips face,
His features, actions, and his lineaments,
And all this Princely presence shall confesse,
He is no other but King Richards Sonne.
A young man from Northamptonshire might know the dead king's profile from the coin of the realm, but it is never explained how he can be so sure of Richard Coeur de Lion's manner, or why he should suppose that the King and the Queen Mother can find it in the bland conduct of the Bastard in this scene. In Shakespeare, of which this seems a confused echo, it is of course Richard's mother and brother who immediately see the likeness between the features and the obstreperous spirits of Richard Plantagenet and Philip Falcon-bridge.
In Shakespeare, that suffices to clinch the case for Eleanor, who offers her grandson a place in her service. In the anonymous play, John admits to the resemblance, but tries to settle the facts of the case by "a contrivance from folk stories: he devises an ad hoc ceremony requiring the mother and the older brother to swear thrice to Philip's legitimacy" (Hamel, p. 52). This "naïve"20 stratagem would of course settle nothing, he conveniently flips into a trance in which he discovers and simultaneously declares his certainty that he is Richard's son.
After this embarrassing ploy, there is still worse to come as the author of The Troublesome Raigne tries to follow Shakespeare but cannot quite reconstruct the sequence. Shakespeare's opening scene ends with the arrival of the Bastard's mother. Before she comes he has already, regardless of his paternity, renounced his rights to the Falconbridge inheritance. Now he asks his mother who his father was. Since he has already disclaimed his official lineage, she soon divulges the truth.
But in The Troublesome Raigne Lady Falconbridge is present during the Bastard's trance, which plays a decisive role in settling the inheritance dispute precisely because it leaves him and everyone who overhears it certain of the truth of his vision. Yet now, at the end of the scene, he tries to badger his mother into telling him who his father was. As in Shakespeare, she resists at first but then gives in. In Shakespeare, that makes perfect dramatic sense. In The Troublesome Raigne, it becomes nonsense, as the playwright wastes over a hundred lines in making the Bastard plead for an answer he already has and his mother resist telling him what in fact she knows and we know he already knows.
Perhaps this scene is a structural masterstroke by someone responsible for the "remarkable inventiveness" behind the Bastard himself—although for all his supposed resemblance to Richard Coeur de Lion, the Bastard cuts a lifeless figure in this scene.22 Or perhaps the muddled and naive structure of the scene merely reflects a garbled attempt to capture what worked so well in Shakespeare's opening.
If there seems no particular reason for a play with the announced aim of presenting John as a "warlike Christian" to introduce the Bastard at the start, is there some reason to feature him in the play's conclusion? Bullough suggests (4:7) that the Bastard shows "that despite the failure of the erring monarch the spirit of his brother Richard I—that is, the true spirit of England—still survives." Like Hamel's Bastard as "thematic elaboration," this describes what we find in Shakespeare, but not in The Troublesome Raigne. In the anonymous play there is none of the immediate animation that proves the Bastard's likeness to Richard Coeur de Lion. And as many have commented, his role at the end of the play is markedly less prominent than in King John. He is not present in the scene of the discovery of Arthur's body, where in King John his poised but resolute judiciousness and his outrage at the possibility of Arthur's murder establish him as the only morally dependable character in the play. In Shakespeare, a panic-stricken John responds to the Bastard's patriotic fire by assigning him command of the English resistance to invasion: "Have thou the ordering of this present time" (5.1.77). When all the odds are against the King's forces, only the Bastard's efforts prevent a French victory: "That misbegotten devil Falconbridge, / In spite of spite, alone upholds the day" (5.4.1-5). In The Troublesome Raigne, by contrast, the Bastard is never assigned leadership, and as Gary shows is treated by the rebel lords with a deference he has not earned. As if the author cannot decide whether to follow Shakespeare or Holinshed, he at one moment (2:831-38) supposes the Bastard in charge of the troops swept away in the Washes, at another moment (2:965-69) assumes John was leader.23
Although Shakespeare's ending implies that the spirit of England once embodied in Richard Coeur de Lion lives on in the Bastard, the author of The Troublesome Raigne has no such design. For him, what matters is not that the Bastard harks back to Richard, but that John looks forward to Henry VIII. Robert Smallwood argues (pp. 370-71) that "the whole demotion of the importance of the Bastard, the sharp reduction in the number of his lines (set against the overall increase in the length of the play), the failure to reflect the central focus that Shakespeare gives him in Acts 4 and 5, argue strongly against the possibility that The Troublesome Raigne derives from" King John. Surely his evidence leads more naturally to the opposite conclusion. If the Bastard contributes so little to The Troublesome Raigne, why does the author go out of his way to invent this one major ahistorical figure?
Although the Bastard adds nothing to the plot of The Troublesome Raigne, perhaps his personality accounts for his large share in the play? But David Womersley rightly notes that it must strike us as odd when The Troublesome Raigne's Chatillion "describes the Bastard to King Philip as 'A hardy wilde head, tough and venturous'; the play has so far not displayed this aspect of his character."24 By this point in the action, of course, Shakespeare's play had amply justified such a comment, and Chatillion's line in The Troublesome Raigne seems no more than an echo of the theatrical impression the Bastard creates in the first scene of King John. Robert Ornstein observes that in The Troublesome Raigne John is the only character "whose speech is memorable, the only one whose personality is vivid, the only one with some stamp of individuality," whereas in King John the Bastard "absorbs the audience's attention from his first entrance on stage."25 Why then would the author of The Troublesome Raigne depart from history to concoct as the second most prominent role in his play a character with almost no personality or effect on the plot?
If a bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion makes no special sense in The Troublesome Raigne, he makes perfect sense in King John, with its pointed focus on Arthur, another Plantagenet son who at least in the world of this play appears to have a better right than John to Richard Coeur de Lion's throne. The Bastard's is the largest role in King John, and over the last half-century critics have shown various ways of describing his structural role: his fortunes ascending as John's descends, his stature rising as John's falls (Bonjour); the contrast between three different kinds of claim to Richard's throne: possession (John), right (Arthur), character (the Bastard);26 the clearing the stage in the final scenes of everybody but the Bastard who might seem fitted to lead England, until in the last scene the unmentioned Prince Henry emerges and the Bastard shows his true quality by submitting to him rather than seeking power for himself (Calderwood, p. 355; Matchett, pp. xxiv, xxxvi; Smallwood, p. 41).
Hamel comments on the similarity of the Bastard's role to that of the Elizabethan underplot. He is wrong about the Bastard of The Troublesome Raigne, but right about Shakespeare's character. In fact as I show elsewhere Shakespeare again and again creates from nothing or from the barest hint in his sources a character I call the "verso," who, like the underplot, stands in—and is constructed from—a series of pointed contrasts to the characters and situations of the original story.27 In this case Shakespeare first sets John and Arthur, locked into a tense inheritance dispute, against the Bastard's high amusement at his brother's attempt to have him disinherited. Once John has confirmed him in possession of his lands, the Bastard blithely relinquishes them to his brother, in striking contrast to John, who of course after being doubly confirmed in his lands once he has captured Arthur, orders his rival's death. After this key decision, Shakespeare shows John collapsing into powerlessness as the Bastard steadily gains in authority. As everyone else flees John, the Bastard proves resolutely loyal, the only character in the play to remain constant in a world of catastrophic inconstancy.28
Shakespeare's first verso is Aaron, who clearly derives via Barabas from the Vice figure of late Tudor morality plays. The next, the Bastard, with his obstreperous stage presence, his satiric asides to the audience, and apparent self-dedications to villainy like "Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee," owes a lesser but still considerable amount to the Vice, as Julia Van De Water has stressed in lamenting and David Womersley in lauding his characterization.29 In later versos, the individuality of the character—Bottom, Jaques, Malvolio, Caliban—will often be all that remains, but even in some of the most vital of the later versos—Falstaff, Parolles, Autolycus—the Vice ancestry still shows through.
The Bastard, then, who seems not to justify his invention in The Troublesome Raigne if he were original there, not only warrants his place in King John's structure, but seems to be a typical Shakespearean addition to his source material, although just as one would expect he stands at an early stage in the development of this device. Although King John's Bastard is almost entirely fictional, he is nevertheless constructed from hints in the chronicles as well as from the structural needs of the play.30 As Holinshed's account of John's reign relates, Richard I did indeed have a bastard son named Philip, who like the Bastard in Shakespeare's play kills Limoges in revenge for the killing of his father. But he takes up only a sentence in Holinshed and his revenge only four lines in Shakespeare. The ebullient interloper of the play's first scene, who happily prefers being the bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion to being the legitimate son of the unprepossessing and undistinguished Sir Robert Falconbridge, derives from Jean, Count Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans, who when asked by the judges adjudicating his right to inherit the estate of the Lord of Cawny, declared, according to Edward Halle: "I am the sonne of the noble Duke of Orleaunce, more glad to be his Bastarde, with a meane livyng, than the lawfull sonne of that coward cuckolde Cauny, with his foure thousande crounes" (Bullough, 4:55). A third bastard, a vigorous soldier and a loyal supporter of John in his last years, was Faukes de Brent, who features late in Holinshed's account of John's reign, and he in turn seems to have suggested by his name yet another valiant and unruly bastard, who at last supplies the play's character with a surname: "Thomas Neuill, bastard sonne to that valiant capteine the lord Thomas Fauconbridge. … The bastard Fauconbridge … thought himself a man ordeined to glorie" (3:321-22).
The revealing thing about this quartet of bastards is that although two of them, Philip and Faukes de Brent, feature in Holinshed's record of John's reign, the other two, Dunois and Falconbridge, appear in parts of Halle's and Holinshed's accounts of a much later time—two and half centuries later, in fact—that Shakespeare had just used as sources for / Henry VI and 3 Henry VI. The kind of synthetic imagination at work in creating a bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion defiantly proud of his true father (Dunois), ready to avenge his death (Philip), and an aggressive and loyal supporter of John (Faukes de Brent), for all that he had seemed he might prove a dangerously ambitious figure in his own right (Falconbridge), is the kind of imagination that had recently fused the comic tradition of the shrewish wife, Ariosto, and a story derived from the Arabian Nights in The Taming of the Shrew, and Kyd, Ovid, Seneca and Livy in Titus Andronicus.31
To sum up: if The Troublesome Raigne were the source of King John, it would require us to believe in a wholesale and daring reorganization of Holinshed's material by an otherwise unknown writer with otherwise poor literary and structural skills, an anti-Catholic partisan trying to celebrate John as a heroic precursor of Henry VIII but choosing by his restructuring of the chronicle material to maximize the death of Prince Arthur in captivity, the very event that most discredits his purpose, and to minimize the very parts of John's reign that would further his cause. It would also require us to imagine Shakespeare following this unheralded writer with unprecedented timidity.32
If on the other hand King John is the source for The Troublesome Raigne, the powerful reorganization of the material around the death of Arthur becomes perfectly explicable, since it matches Shakespeare's practice elsewhere. He shapes John's reign around the contrast between John's initial power and Arthur's powerlessness, just as he had imposed order on 1 Henry VI by setting Talbot against Joan of Arc, and would design 1 Henry IV around the opposition between Hal and Hotspur at Shrewsbury. The deliberate focus on Arthur also explains the invention of the Bastard in pointed parallel and contrast to Arthur and John, in a process that is a hallmark of Shakespeare's work throughout his career and that depends in this case on a conflation of the very sources Shakespeare is known to have consulted for his recent work.
We do not know what kind of outline of Shakespeare's plot the author of The Troublesome Raigne had in his possession, but that he worked from some such foundation, with the help of the chronicles, to build the anti-Catholic play we know, seems the natural conclusion to draw from comparing King John, The Troublesome Raigne, and the chronicles.
1 Guy Hamel, "King John and The Troublesome Raigne: A Reexamination," in Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ed., King John: New Perspectives (U. of Delaware Press, 1989), 41-61, p. 41.
2 L. A. Beaurline, in his New Cambridge edition (1990), 194-210. Citations from King John are to this edition.
3 See for instance John Dover Wilson, Cambridge edition (1936); Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 4; R. L. Smallwood, New Penguin edition (1974), 365-74; Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), 79-85; A. R. Braunmuller, Oxford edition (1989), 2-19.
4 A. S. Cairncross, The Problem of Hamlet (London: Macmillan, 1936), 137-43; E. A. J. Honigmann, Arden edition (1954), xi-xxxiii; Peter Alexander, Shakespeare (Oxford U. Press, 1964), 167-72; William H. Matchett, Signet edition (1966); Suzanne Tumblin Gary, "The Relationship Between The Troublesome Reign of King John of England and Shakespeare's King John," unpub. doctoral diss., U. of Arizona, 1971; Honigmann, Shakespeare's Impact on His Contemporaries (London: Macmillan, 1982), 56-66, 78-88; Beaurline, op. cit.
5 Gary, 20-28; Beaurline, 206-9. This answers the point made by Alice Walker, in her review of Honigmann's Arden edition (RES n.s. 7 : 421), that "there must be some documentary link between the two plays on the evidence of their stage directions," and elabo-rated by Sidney Thomas, ""Enter a Sheriffe': Shake-speare's King John and The Troublesome Raigne, " SQ 37 (1986): 98-101.
6 Shakespearean double-time is at work here. From 2.1 to 3.3 the action is continuous, but the beginning of 3.4 implies a lapse of a week or so since the end of 3.3, only to suggest later in the scene that it takes place on the same day as the preceding scenes: cf. Pandulph's "What have you lost by losing of this day?" (3.4.116)
7 The razing of Angiers in 1206, and John's remorseful rebuilding of the city from which "he was descended" (Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. [1807 ed., rpt. New York: AMS, 1976], 2:294) seem to provide the reason for basing this sequence at Angiers, though the main battle in 3.2-3 is closer to that of Mirabeau.
8 Honigmann (1954: xxxi) shows that Shakespeare's 4.2 (which The Troublesome Raigne stretches over several consecutive scenes) similarly fuses events from, in this order, 1202, 1216, 1204, 1201, 1213 and 1200.
9 W. J. Courthope, A History of English Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1903), 4:466; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944), 216-17; Hamel, 43.
10 Assuming, since The Troublesome Raigne was published in 1591, that he wrote King John in 1590 or early 1591. Those who think The Troublesome Raigne Shakespeare's source tend to date King John 1595-1596, Honigmann 1982: 53-90 shows that if King John is proved to be prior to The Troublesome Raigne there is nothing to conflict with and much to favor an early (1586?) start to Shakespeare's career. Sidney Thomas, "On the Dating of Shakespeare's Early Plays," SQ 39 (1988): 187-94, takes issue with Honigmann but attacks only the weakest points in his argument. Pace Thomas, an early start makes for a much more even spread of Shakespeare's plays in the first half of his career. Allowing from seven to ten months per play (less for Merry Wives of Windsor) could yield a sequence like this for the first half of Shakespeare's career: 1586, Two Gentlemen of Verona; 1586-87, Taming of the Shrew; 1587-1588, 1 Henry VI; 1588, 2 Henry VI; 1588-1589, 3 Henry VI; 1589, Titus Andronico; 1590, Richard III; 1590-1591, King John; 1591, Comedy of Errors; 1592, Love's Labour's Lost; 1592, Venus and Adonis; 1593, Rape of Lucrece; 1593, Love's Labour's Won(?); 1594, Richard II; 1594-1595, Romeo and Juliet; 1595, Midsummer Night's Dream; 1595-1596, 1 Henry IV; 1596, Merchant of Venice; 1597, 2 Henry IV; 1597, Merry Wives of Windsor; 1598, Much Ado.
11 Since Adrien Bonjour's "The Road to Swinstead Abbey: A Study of the Sense and Structure of King John," ELH 18 (1951): 253-74.
12 Beaurline (1990), 202. Even "selective principle" here understates the case, for events like the ex-communication of John, the rebellion of the barons, and the French invasion at the end of the reign had nothing to do with the death of Arthur at the beginning, and had to be wrenched from context and sequence to forge the links with the prince in the plays. Cf. also John Elson, "Studies in the King John Plays," in James G. McManaway, et al., eds., Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), 183-97. Elson, who considers The Troublesome Raigne the earlier play, thinks the author's "greatest dramatic success, albeit one which does violence to history, is making the death of Arthur motivate the secession of John's barons"; he considers the play "constructed around the plot-unifying element of Arthur's death" (185).
13 Bullough, 4:72. Future citations by part and line number of this edition.
14 The facts of his reign—above all his inability to command the allegiance of his countrymen, and his capitulation to the Pope—make it impossible for him to be seen as anything but flawed, but in admitting his flaws the playwright still manages to exalt him by comparing him to another mighty precursor, "the Kingly Prophet David" (2.1079).
15 Peter Happé, ed., Four Morality Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).
16The Drama of Propaganda: A Study of The Troublesome Raigne of King John (Salzburg: Institut fur Sprache und Literatur, 1974), esp. p. 40.
17 Elson shows conclusively that the author of The Troublesome Raigne has independently consulted Holinshed, Foxe's Actes and Monuments of Martyrs, and Matthew Paris.
18 Beaurline demonstrates (202-3) that in The Troublesome Raigne John's instructions for Arthur's murder, Constance's grief, Pandulph's role in inciting Louis to invade, and the pathos of Arthur's pleading for his life, are all so severely understated that they seem the work of someone who did not quite know why he was including them.
19 Carr, a champion of The Troublesome Raigne, remarks, apropos of King John: "The problem of deciding who shall inherit the Faulconbridge estate is an ingenious sub-plot. … The author of TR does nothing with this." (p. 80)
20 Hamel, p. 52. This description comes from the critic who wants to make the greatest claims for the artistry of the author of The Troublesome Raigne.
21 The playwright forgets to have John put the second and third questions to Lady Falconbridge.
22 Nevertheless, even he has more personality than Robert, on whom the dramatic weight nevertheless falls for 160 lines, although he never appears after this scene. Another masterstroke? "Remarkable inventiveness": Hamel, 43; Frank O'Connor, The Road to Stratford (London: Methuen, 1948), astonishingly calls this scene (as conjecturally re-edited by himself to remove its clumsy repetitions) "one of the greatest things in English dramatic literature" (p. 76).
23 Gary 67-69 and 129-30 points out the inconsistencies in the Bastard's role and the degree to which such prominence as he has at the end of The Troublesome Raigne is unexplained within the play.
24 "The Politics of King John," RES n.s. 40 : 497-515, p. 513.
25A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Harvard U. Press, 1972), 89.
26 John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of "King Lear" (London: Faber, 1949) p. 77; Muriel C. Bradbrook, "Virtue is the True Nobility: A Study of the Structure of All's Well That Ends Well, " RES n.s. 1 (1950), 289-301, p. 293; Matchett, xxiii; Smallwood, 20.
27Shakespeare Shapes Here (forthcoming).
28 "Constancy and Change: The Bastard in King John" (forthcoming).
29 "The Bastard in King John, " SQ 11 (1960): 137-46; Womersley 503 ff.
30 See Dover Wilson, pp. xxxix-xl and Bullough, 4, 7-8. Jaqueline Trace, "Shakespeare's Bastard Faulcon-bridge: An Early Tudor Hero" (Shakespeare Studies 13 : 59-69) has found another bastard Faulcon-bridge, but no proof that Shakespeare knew of him or that his life was close enough to the image of the Bastard to have contributed to the character.
31 This presumes, as recent criticism accepts, that The Taming of A Shrew is (like The Troublesome Raigne) not a Shakespearean source play but a derivative, and that, as scholarly opinion is now beginning to appreciate, the prose History of Titus Andronicus is also a derivative of the ballad derived from Shakespeare's play rather than the source of the other two versions. For the latter, still controversial, position, see Marco Mincoff, "The Source of Titus Andronicus, " N&Q 18 (1971): 131-34; G. K. Hunter, "Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus, " in J. C. Gray, ed., Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard (U. of Toronto Press, 1984), 171-88; MacDonald P. Jackson, "The Year's Contributions to Shakespeare Study: 3. Editions and Textual Studies," Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 248-50 and "Titus Andronicus: Play, Ballad and Prose History," N&Q n.s. 36 (1989): 315-17; Jonathan Bate, ed., Titus Andronicus (London: Routledge, 1995), 83-92; and Brian Boyd, "The Blackamoor Babe: Titus Andronicus, Play, Ballad and History" and "Kind and Unkindness: Aaron in Titus Andronicus" (forthcoming).
32 Cf. Ornstein, 86: "In no other instance does Shakespeare use a source play as he uses The Troublesome Reign… . Only in King John does he accept the authority of another man's plotting; and only in King John does he plod patiently along in the footsteps of his source, scene by scene."
Source: "King John and The Troublesome Raigne: Sources, Structure, Sequence," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 37-56.