Study Guide

King John

by William Shakespeare

King John Essay - King John (Vol. 56)

King John (Vol. 56)

Introduction

King John

For further information on the critical and stage history of King John, see SC, Volumes 9, 24, and 41.

Scholars agree that King John is an experimental text which serves as a transition between the first and the second tetralogies. Recent critics have continued to explore the ways in which the play deviates from both the historical record of the events surrounding the reign of King John and the nature and structure of Shakespeare's other history plays. Both Robert C. Jones (1991) and Robert Weiman (1999) focus on the role of Faulconbridge, the Bastard, a character who Shakespeare created and who has no central role in other historical accounts of the time. Weiman argues that as a character who bridges both the comical and the serious, the Bastard represents a prototype figure, revolutionary to theater at that time. Jones discusses the ways in which Shakespeare created an unprecedented link between Richard I and the Bastard, a connection which highlighted concerns about realism in historical accounts.

The issue of historical representation and the manipulation of historical fact within Shakespeare's King John has been paramount to scholarship about the play for decades. Known to deviate from other accounts of King John written around the same time, namely Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England (anonymous; 1591), the relation between fact and fiction and Shakespeare's motivation in altering the facts continues to intrigue modern scholars. Numerous scholars contend that the differences between other historical accounts of the King's reign and Shakespeare's version reveal the playwright's concerns with contemporary political issues. At the time in which Shakespeare wrote King John, at the end of the sixteenth century, England was embroiled in concern over Queen Elizabeth I's successor. In an effort to consolidate power and protect her own reign, Elizabeth, who was unmarried and childless, refused to name her successor. In addition, she forbade the subject to be raised among government officials, much less in the public arena. Scholars such as Paola Pugliatti (1996), Robert Lane (1995) and A. R. Braunmuller (1998) maintain that King John is a direct commentary on the forbidden subject of the Queen's successor. By disguising the discussion of legitimacy, foreign reign, and succession to the throne in a historical drama about King John, these scholars maintain, Shakespeare was able to avoid censorship while establishing the theater as a venue of public debate, thereby allowing the audience access to an issue which could not be openly discussed. Edward Gieskes (1998) agrees that the play is a commentary on Elizabethan society; however, he maintains that Shakespeare was addressing the changing nature of class and vocation. He states that the character of the Bastard raises concerns about the importance of parentage, class, and high birth in regard to the rising status of personal ability. However, other scholars have taken issue with arguments that King John is a commentary on contemporary events of Shakespeare's era. They argue that the play deviates from fact because Shakespeare was consciously exploring the concept of historiography or ascribing meaning to past events in light of the present. Marsha Robinson (1989) states that there is no merging of past and present in the play. Rather, Shakespeare used parody, satire, and irony to deliberately deviate from the historical record as a means of commenting upon historical representation of the time. She states that Shakespeare created the fictitious character of the Bastard to serve as an honest and unbiased commentator on the past and the present, as well as the lack of unity between the two. In a completely different vein, Eugene M. Waith (1978) explores earlier critical and public opinion of the play in an effort to explain why the play no longer enthralls audiences the way it once did. He argues that too much attention has been given to historiography at the expense of the powerful emotions which are depicted throughout the story.

Criticism: Historical Representation

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “King John and the Drama of History,” in King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays, edited by Frances A. Shirley, Garland Publishing, 1988, pp. 31-50.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Waith examines critical and popular reaction to King Johnthrough the centuries. Waith maintains that the current emphasis on the political and historical themes of the play obscure its power.]

King John is a play which, in our time, there have been few to love and very few to see.1 The notable revival of interest in Shakespeare's history plays has left it, along with Henry VIII, almost untouched on the Shakespearean...

(The entire section is 8330 words.)

A. R. Braunmuller (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “King John and Historiography,” in ELH, Vol. 55, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 309-32.

[In the following essay, Braunmuller compares the accounts of Shakespeare's King John, Holinshed's Chronicles, and Sir John Hayward's writings, to discern Shakespeare's perception and treatment of historiography.]

Meercraft: By my ’faith
you are cunning i’ the Chronicle,
Sir.
Fitzdottrel: No, I confess I ha’t
from the Play-books,
And think they’are more authentic.
Engine: That’s sure, Sir.

—Ben Jonson, The Devil Is an Ass

Thinking about Renaissance English history plays, we typically but wrongly treat the...

(The entire section is 9565 words.)

Marsha Robinson (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Historiographic Methodology of King John,” in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 29-40.

[In the following essay, Robinson considers the ways in which Shakespeare satirizes the moral interpretation of past events.]

One of the distinctive stylistic features of the Shakespearean history play is the artful recreation of history as past, present, and future. Calling attention to the “network of references” to both the past and the future in these plays, Wolfgang Clemen observes that “Shakespeare not only handled episodes from the historical past, but he translated into drama...

(The entire section is 5830 words.)