King John (Vol. 56)
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
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 bookshelf and rarely performed. A review in the London Times (11 March 1958) of a Marlowe Society production began: “There are plenty of good reasons why King John should be hazier in memory than almost any other of Shakespeare's histories.”
One reason may be that the approach via Elizabethan historiography, largely responsible for this recent wave of interest in the histories, yields considerably lower dividends for King John than for the two tetralogies. E. M. W. Tillyard, for whom the play was “a wonderful affair, full of promise” but “uncertain of itself,” emphasized the theme of rebellion and the theme of the true king.2 Lily Bess Campbell saw King John, like the...
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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 chronicles as sources of a different color. Making Comedy of Errors from Menaechmi, or Measure for Measure from Promos and Cassandra, or a history play from Hall and Holinshed, Foxe and Stowe, are similar creative acts because Hall, Holinshed, Foxe, Stowe, Whetstone, Plautus, and their reified texts are, as sources, similar. Like the Elizabethans, we have trouble understanding that while we may be products of history, our histories are also products of history: the way we are determines our view of the way we or they were.
A scholar of Shakespeare's sources makes an illuminating distinction: 1 Henry VI is “not so much a Chronicle play as a fantasia on historical...
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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 elements inherent in history itself. For history demonstrates how the past grows into the present and leads on to the future.”1 In the history plays these retrospective and prospective passages not only reflect Shakespeare's consciousness of the historical process but serve as a commentary on the historiographic process. While recall imitates the way by which historical events are retrospectively reframed and emplotted by the historian (whose rhetorical and generic fashioning of the past informs it with meaning),2 prognostication often dramatizes the self-conscious shaping of historiographic meaning by the makers of history.
For many readers King John proves disappointing precisely because...
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Criticism: Culture And Politics
SOURCE: “‘The Sequence of Posterity’: Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 460-81.
[In the following essay, Lane outlines the ways in which Shakespeare altered the historical account of King John in order to raise questions about Queen Elizabeth's successor.]
Thus you see, this crown is not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that may claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall is by many doubted.
This matter doth rather require the mouth of all England, then of anie one man.
When Parliament convened in February, 1593, the queen was 59 years old, her age intensifying public concern over that “uncertain certainty,”3 the as-yet unsettled succession on her death. This apprehension had persisted since early in her reign, the succession issue having been the focus of domestic politics as early as the 1560s, especially after Elizabeth's serious illnesses in 1562 and 1564.4 Despite, or rather because of, the decisive importance of this question, it remained largely invisible on the landscape of public discourse. Elizabeth's government was determined to see that this preoccupation had no outlet. Public discussion of the succession was forbidden,...
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SOURCE: “The Scribbled Form of Authority in King John,” in Shakespeare the Historian, Macmillan Press, 1996, pp. 77-101.
[In the following excerpt, Pugliatti reexamines King John in light of Elizabethan politics, arguing that Shakespeare intended it as a commentary on the political crisis in England.]
Lily Campbell opens her discussion of King John by quoting the Bastard's final speech and a parallel passage from Holinshed on the disruptive effects of treason and rebellion. The fragment records an event far removed from the story of John, since it concerns what was argued in 1581 during the trial for treason of Edward Campion:
This little Lland, God having so bountifullie bestowed his blessings upon it, that except it proove false within it selfe, no treason whatsoever can prevaile against it. … Secret rebellion must be stirred here at home among our selves, the harts of the people must be obdurated against God and their prince; so that when a foren power shall on a sudden invade this realme, the subiects thus seduced must ioine with these in armes, and so shall the pope atteine the sum of his wish.1
The Bastard's words, in the closing lines of King John, are:
This England never did, nor never shall, Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, But...
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SOURCE: “‘He Is But a Bastard to the Time’: Status and Service in The Troublesome Raigne of John and Shakespeare's King John,” in ELH, Vol. 65, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 779-98.
[In the following essay, Gieskes compares the portrayal of the Bastard in King John and in The Troublesome Raign of John, King of England,highlighting Shakespeare's views on such social issues as class, rank, and vocation.]
Shakespeare's King John, standing between the two tetralogies, marks a transition in his treatment of political and historical questions. This argument has been advanced by critics like Sigurd Burckhardt, Virginia Vaughan, Michael Manheim, and Marsha Robinson (among many others).1 Vaughan, for example, writes that the play “demonstrates Shakespeare's experimentation with more sophisticated dramaturgical techniques to convey political complexities, techniques he perfected in the Henriad.”2 Most of the criticism focuses on Shakespeare's changing treatment of political questions to the exclusion of social considerations; but if King John marks a transition in Shakespeare's treatment of politics and history, it also marks a change in his depiction of the social issues attendant on that history and politics.3 This essay will focus on the Bastard, arguably the central player in...
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SOURCE: “Renaissance Emblems of Death and Shakespeare's King John,” in English Studies, Vol. 79, No. 5, September, 1998, pp. 425-29.
[In the essay below, MacKenzie examines the imagery of regeneration in King John, arguing that Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of death, rather than life, in the play.]
The fourth print in Hans Holbein's Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti reveals Adam in a postlapsarian world. He tills the soil, assisted and shadowed by a skeletal Dance of Death figure. It is a vision of toil and hardship, and the 1547 verse accompaniment to the Lyons edition emphasises the consequences of Adam's transgression.
En grand labeur, & sueur de son corps Le pere Adam a sa uie gaignee, Heue tandis en doloreux effortz Subiecte a l’Homme enfante sa lignee.(1)
The reference is to Genesis 3:17-19. In eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam has incurred the doom of mortality. No longer undying and happy in the Garden of Eden, he must labour and perish in the barren landscape of the fallen world. The shadowing Death figure reminds him, and all those who glance at this symbol of his mortal misfortune, that the punishment of transgression was death.
This seems a distressing image at first. But the mood of the print is not pessimistic. Sitting in the background, almost unnoticed, a smiling Eve nurses their first...
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Criticism: Transitional Aspects Of King John
SOURCE: “King John: ‘Perfect Richard’ versus ‘This Old World,’” in These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 46-68.
[In the following excerpt, Jones considers Faulconbridge as an extension of Richard I, arguing that Shakespeare raises doubts about the validity of a direct link between past and present.]
King John, that “singular” play among Shakespeare's histories of the nineties, is commonly seen to be transitional between the two tetralogies from which its narrative stands chronologically apart. Its departure from the earlier series and anticipation of the second one is usually perceived in the tough-minded realism of its dramatized political dilemmas.1 And in no respect can both its transitional and its singular status be seen more distinctly than in the way that realism is enforced through this play's recollection and renewal of the “valiant dead.” According to William Matchett, “the memory of Coeur-de-lion haunts this play as the mythically heightened image of a good and heroic king.”2 So, it might be said, did the memory of Henry V haunt 1 Henry VI (“Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate” [I, i, 52]), and so will memories of his father and grandfather haunt Richard II's play (if not his own consciousness). But the distinctive nature of the remembered hero's presence in...
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SOURCE: “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: Sources, Structure, Sequence,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 37-56.
[In the following essay, Boyd argues that Shakespeare's play King John provided source material for The Troublesome Raigne of King John.]
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...
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SOURCE: “Mingling Vice and ‘Worthiness’ in King John,” in Shakespeare Studies Annual, Vol. XXVII, 1999, pp. 109-33.
[In the following essay, Weimann characterizes Faulconbridge as a new type of vice character, a type that merged the serious with the jocular.]
With the advent of Marlowe the aims of representation in the Elizabethan theater were sharply redefined. As the prologues to Tamburlaine suggested, the dramatist literally felt authorized to “lead” the theater to a new horizon of legitimation, one against which the hero could more nearly be viewed as a self-contained “picture.” Such a portrait would “unfold” the scene “at large”; the character “himself in presence” would dominate the performance. This at least is how the Prologue to The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great proceeded to elucidate the uses of “this tragic glass” in the earlier Prologue:
But what became of fair Zenocrate, And with how many cities' sacrifice He [Tamburlaine] celebrated her sad funeral, Himself in presence shall unfold at large.(1)
As promised on the title page, the heroic character's “presence” continued to be felt in “his impassionate fury.” As Richard Jones, the printer, assumed in his Preface to the Octavo and Quarto editions of 1590, these fruits of a literary imagination would have appealed “To the Gentlemen Readers and...
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Beaurline, L. A. An introduction to King John, edited by L. A. Beaurline, pp. 1-57. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Examines the styles of speech used in King John as well as the play's symmetrical structure and political themes.
Braunmuller, A. R. An introduction to The Life and Death of King John, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Discusses King John in light of the political history of England between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.
Brownlow, F. W. “The Life and Death of King John.” In Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, pp. 78-94. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.
Explores Shakespeare's portrayal of King John.
Champion, Larry S. “The ‘Un-end’ of King John: Shakespeare's Demystification of Closure.” In King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, pp. 173-85. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1989.
Discusses the unusual ending of King John, and Shakespeare's call for a new historiography.
Dusinberre, Juliet. “King John and Embarrassing Women.” Shakespeare Survey Annual 42 (1989): 37-52.
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