King John (Vol. 41)
For further information on the critical and stage history of King John, see SC, Volumes 9 and 24.
While there is little doubt that Shakespeare wrote King John, there has been much discussion concerning his inspiration for this history play. Scholars have debated over the sources available to Shakespeare at the time he composed the play and how far he departed from those sources with regard to his play's structure and characterization. Further, modern critics have speculated on the extent to which Elizabethan politics and current events might have influenced the playwright's treatment of such issues as succession, legitimacy, and loyalty to the crown.
The two sources most frequently cited for King John are the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and an anonymous play entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which is believed to have been published in the early 1590s. Geoffrey Bullough (1962) notes that prior to the twentieth century, some critics asserted that The Troublesome Reign was in fact authored by Shakespeare himself. Today, most scholars reject this theory and many share Bullough's view that Shakespeare relied upon the plot of The Troublesome Reign simply as source material—significantly rewriting the anonymous play by changing the emphasis and style to create his own King John. An alternative outlook is presented by Brian Boyd (1995). He argues that the inferior Troublesome Reign could not have inspired Shakespeare's King John but instead was written afterward and that its anonymous author used Shakespeare's play as a framework for his anti-Catholic sentiments.
Questions regarding the background material for King John have led scholars to examine the ways in which these sources have been modified. Accordingly, much attention has been devoted to Shakespeare's invention of Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard. Alexander Leggati (1977) suggests that in his role as a dominant character, the Bastard reflects the play's changing perspectives from satire to patriotism, and from there to the practical requirements of politics.
The significance of the Bastard and of the play's volatile and dangerous world is the subject as well of James L. Calderwood's analysis (1960) of commodity or self-interest and honor, in which he points out that these two antagonistic but surprisingly similar themes give King John "a unity of structure generally denied it." Adrien Bonjour (1951) also finds structural unity through the character of the Bastard—in this case, through Faulconbridge's "closely connected" but "complementary" association with King John.
That most of the play's characters are governed by realpolitik rather than by idealism is emphasized by Virginia M. Vaughan (1989) and L. A. Beaurline (1990). Beaurline remarks on the brutal attitude of King John and on the opportunism of Pandulph concerning the fate of the child Arthur. Vaughan sees such attitudes as the play's acknowledgment of the changing times, or the "shift from a medieval ideal of communal responsibility to modern individualism. . . ."
Finally, several critics note the subversive elements in King John. Phyllis Rackin (1990), for instance, concedes that the roles of the female characters are brief, yet points out that while Constance and Elinor are onstage "they set the subversive keynote for the [male] characters" by continually threatening to disrupt their ambitions. Turning to Renaissance society, William H. Matchett (1962) observes that the play focuses in part on the right of succession, an issue that was a particularly sensitive one to the unmarried and childless Elizabeth I. Summing up, John R. Elliot (1965) asserts that "in King John, at least, Shakespeare chose deliberately to dramatize the most controversial material to be found in his sources."
Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Dramatic Perspective in King John," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Leggatt analyzes the shifting viewpoints of the characters in King John and how they affect our ultimate understanding of the play—focusing primarily on the Bastard's shift from satirist to patriot.]
One of Shakespeare's favourite devices is the use of a commentator to provide a special perspective on the main action. When Falstaff discourses on honour, or Thersites on "wars and lechery," or when Enobarbus advises the Triumvirate "if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again"—we are aware of a special angle of vision, different from that of the main participants. Generally, the commentator is detached and refreshingly blunt. He dissects the passions and pretensions of the main figures from a commonsense point of view. Without being necessarily the author's spokesman, he represents one important way of viewing the action, and thus contributes to the interplay of perspectives that constitutes a vital part of the drama. In the midst of passion, violence, and high rhetoric he will, from time to time, cool the temperature and provide us with a necessary detachment.
In King John, this function...
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Virginia M. Vaughan (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "King John: A Study in Subversion and Containment," in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1989, pp. 62-75.
[In the following essay, originally a paper presented at a conference sponsored by the Shakespeare Association of America in 1986, Vaughan asserts that in King John, Shakespeare intentionally reflects the conflicts and contradictions between the old feudal sense of community and the emerging Renaissance belief in individuality and realpolitik.]
Alone among Shakespeare's English histories, King John portrays the early Plantagenet rule when England was feudal, its governors and culture Anglo-Norman rather than distinctively English. If, as Graham Holderness has recently argued, the Henriad depicts Shakespeare's sophisticated understanding of the fourteenth/fifteenth-century decline of feudal society,1 surely King John is even more remarkable, for it reveals the dramatist's awareness of conflict between collective identities and the individual, between centralized royal authority and independent nobles, and between Church and State—conflicts that were inherent in the feudal system from its inception. Like Shakespeare's other history plays, King John depicts what Alessandro Serpieri describes as "the great structural and...
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Geoffrey Bullogh (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: Introduction to King John, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. IV, edited by Geoffrey Bullough, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 1-24.
[In the following excerpt, Bullough argues that The Troublesome Reign was Shakespeare's source for King John and presents a comparison of the two plays so that readers can decide for themselves.]
. . . The year 1591 saw the publication of an anonymous play, The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, which was printed in two parts,1 quite unnecessarily, for it was obviously written as one piece. The two parts were printed together in 1611 by Valentine Simmes for John Helme, as 'Written by W.Sh.'. A third edition in 1622, printed by Aug. Mathewes for Thomas Dewe, asserted that the play was 'Written by W. Shakespeare'. It has often been suggested since that the play was Shakespeare's in whole or in part. Pope attributed it to Rowley and Shakespeare; Fleay thought that Marlowe had made the plot and Greene, Peele and Lodge wrote the scenes. On the other hand Malone ascribed it to Marlowe alone, and Dugdale Sykes has argued more cogently that it may have been by Peele.2 Most critics have regarded it as Shakespeare's source-play, and Boswell Stone declared that he relied entirely on The Raigne 'without making any independent use...
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Adrien Bonjour (essay date 1951)
SOURCE: "The Road to Swinstead Abbey: A Study of the Sense and Structure of King John" in ELH, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1951, pp. 253-74.
[In the following essay, Bonjour takes issue with the traditional viewpoint that King John lacks unity, and argues instead that the structure of the play is given symmetry by the presence of two main characters, John and the Bastard.]
In view of the revival of interest in Shakespeare's Histories evinced by the recent publication of three important books of respectable scope entirely devoted to the historical plays, it may not be unseasonable to reexamine the whole question of unity in King John—even at the risk of crossing swords with great modern Shakespearean scholars.
Though opinions widely differed as to determining who was the hero, or whether there was one, the traditional verdict on the structure of the play has long been undisputed. Thus, to give a typical instance, the English Arden editor's assertion that the "want of a commanding central figure gives a certain regrettable looseness of structure to the play"1 is echoed in America by Professor Neilson, who likewise thinks that "the play was left without a leading motive or a truly central character."2 Such critics as did not lavish the winter of their discontent on the structure of this...
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Alexander, Peter. "The Histories." In Shakespeare, pp. 163-203. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Discusses possible source material for Shakespeare's King John, asserting that it is unlikely the anonymous play The Troublesome Reign of King John is one of those sources.
Berry, Edward I. "The Later Histories: From History to Character." In Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories, pp. 104-25. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.
Describes King John as Shakespeare's "first politicial play," and argues that it is built thematically around the "contrasted evolution" of the two major characters, the Bastard and King John.
Berry, Ralph. "King John: Some Bastards Too." In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 26-36. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.
Focuses on the organization of King John in order to examine such themes as right versus authority, legitimacy versus illegitimacy, and individual rule versus "collective Government."
Boklund, Gunnar. "The Troublesome Ending of King John." Studia Neophilologica XL, No. 1 (1968): 175-84.
Contends that the ending of King John emphasizes that "commodity" rather than honor continues to rule the world as envisioned by the play.
Braunmuller, A. R....
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