King John (Vol. 68)


King John

Scholars believe that Shakespeare's historical drama King John occupies a unique position between his first and second tetralogies, and is generally viewed as a transitional work that deviates from the providential plan of his other chronicle histories. Set in the thirteenth century, the play details the declining reign of the titular English king, a monarch mired in a war with France and plagued with questions over the legitimacy of his rule. The events of the plot are said to follow the anonymously written Troublesome Reign of John, King of England (1591), a view that J. L. Simmons (1969) accepts, though he notes that Shakespeare's drama corrects the moral confusion of its predecessor. Among other modern commentators who have struggled with a variety of issues raised by the play, ranging from structural to stylistic, Arden editor E. A. J. Honigmann (see Further Reading) finds that although unsatisfactory as the hero of the drama, King John is nevertheless structurally central to the play. Eamon Grennan (1978) surveys the experimental historiographic method of King John, noting Shakespeare's free manipulation of his historical models. Larry S. Champion (1979) comments on the structural pattern of ambiguity in the drama, while John W. Blanpied (1983) emphasizes the work's unique qualities, as well as its frustrating, dramatic incompleteness.

Critical discussion of character in King John has touched upon a number of the fundamental issues in the play. Representing the late nineteenth-century estimation of the drama's title character, Ella Adams Moore's 1896 study of King John offers continuing critical viability. According to Moore, Shakespeare departed significantly from history in his portrayal of John by transforming this foul and cruel figure into a tragic character worthy of audience sympathy. While later commentators have taken issue with such estimations of John, many have instead focused their attention on Lord Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard, as the play's protagonist. Adrien Bonjour had previously posited the thesis that the drama represents two intersecting lines of character development, the decline of John and the rise of the Bastard. In his 1964 follow-up essay, Bonjour supports this view by offering further arguments as to the Bastard's central structural role within the framework of the drama. In more recent years, a number of commentators have taken a closer look at the frequently neglected female characters in King John. Carole Levin (1987) examines such figures as Constance, Eleanor, and Blanche in the context of the play's depiction of power issues, finding that these women represent honest and insightful alternatives to the corrupted and male-coded political action in the drama. Juliet Dusinberre (1990) also concentrates on the role of women as foils to the central discourse of King John, illuminating their subversive nature as they puncture the political rhetoric and duplicity of their male counterparts, qualities that Dusinberre finds particularly effective in stage performance.

Although seldom performed in the twentieth century, King John has been produced with increasing frequency in the 1990s and beyond. Reviewing Robin Phillips's 1993 production of King John at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ben Brantley comments on the elevation of the weak-willed John to centrality in the play, despite his possible dramatic inferiority to the more dynamic figure of the Bastard. Brantley admires the psychological nuances of character in the performance, but finds the potentially evocative World War I setting unnecessarily perplexing. Turning to Michael Kahn's 1999 staging of King John at the Shakespeare Theater, Peter Marks emphasizes the contemporary relevancy of the play's political conflicts, power struggles, and questions of legitimate authority. John Simon (see Further Reading), in evaluating director Karin Coonrod's 2000 production of the drama at the New York Theatre for a New Audience, finds the requirements for a successful staging of this complex, somewhat incohesive play almost completely lacking in this performance.

Thematic study of King John has largely developed from an enduring interest in the play's principal characters, John and the Bastard. Barbara H. Traister (1989) investigates the concept of ceremony in King John, and evaluates the portrayal of John as a king without recourse to ceremony or access to the power of “majesty.” Robert C. Jones (1985) concentrates on the thematic significance of truth and legitimacy in the play, particularly as these concepts are represented in the figure of Lord Faulconbridge, the Bastard. Jones places the Bastard at the thematic heart of King John, considering him as a heroic figure who asserts the magnificence of England and English history amid the cynicism and corruption of state affairs. James P. Saeger (2001) continues in a complementary vein, viewing the Bastard as an embodiment of the play's combined concern with personal identity and historical legitimacy.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

J. L. Simmons (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Simmons, J. L. “Shakespeare's King John and Its Source: Coherence, Pattern, and Vision.” Tulane Studies in English 17 (1969): 53-72.

[In the following essay, Simmons compares King John with its source play The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, noting that Shakespeare's drama corrects the moral confusion of its predecessor while confirming its theme of “the evils of usurpation and rebellion.”]

The source of King John, despite the recent attempt by E. A. J. Honigmann to reverse the priority, is generally agreed to be the anonymous Troublesome Raigne of King John [hereafter cited as TR] published in 1591...

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Eamon Grennan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Grennan, Eamon. “Shakespeare's Satirical History: A Reading of King John.Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 21-37.

[In the following essay, Grennan contends that Shakespeare's idiosyncratic King John reflects a pivotal change in the historiographic method of the dramatist's earlier chronicle history plays and his source material.]

Among Shakespeare's Histories, King John is the odd man out.1 Common scholarly practice places it between the first and second tetralogies, after Richard III, that is, and before Richard II, but it seems more sui generis than a close relative of either of these groups.2...

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Larry S. Champion (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “‘Confound Their Skill in Covetousness’: The Ambivalent Perspective of Shakespeare's King John.Tennessee Studies in Literature 24 (1979): 36-55.

[In the following essay, Champion examines the characterization, dramatic technique, and thematic structure of King John, maintaining that Shakespeare's use of shifting angles of vision in the work creates a successful and complex pattern of ambiguity.]

Dating King John from external evidence is simply impossible. We know only that the play, first published in F1 1623, is noted as Shakespeare's by Francis Meres in 1598; the first recorded performance is at...

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John W. Blanpied (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Blanpied, John W. “Stalking ‘Strong Possession’ in King John.” In Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories, pp. 98-119. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Blanpied regards King John as a transitional play that adheres to the events of its source while simultaneously parodying the work, and as one in which Shakespeare does not invoke the providential theme of English history, thereby leaving a sense of incompleteness in the drama.]

King John is the “morning-after” play1—cautious, suspicious, coldly analytical. It opens vigorously enough—nothing like Richard's boldly...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Ella Adams Moore (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: Moore, Ella Adams. “Moral Proportion and Fatalism in Shakespeare: King John, and Conclusion.” Poet Lore 8 (1896): 139-45.

[In the following essay, Moore emphasizes the tragic quality of Shakespeare's King John as a victim of his own ungovernable passions.]

Shakespeare has, in this drama, departed from history in many particulars. This is shown in the character of King John himself. In history, John's career throughout is marked by wanton cruelty, utter shamelessness of life, treachery, and tyranny. “‘Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.’ The terrible verdict of his contemporaries has passed into the sober...

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Adrien Bonjour (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Bonjour, Adrien. “Bastinado for the Bastard?” English Studies 45 (1964): 169-76.

[In the following essay, Bonjour defends his thesis that Lord Faulconbridge, the Bastard, should be viewed as the dramatic hero of King John.]

This is not the place to re-open the much debated question of the hero in King John, nor even to take up the cudgels in favour of my interpretation of the Bastard's rôle in the vast perspective of the play. I merely propose to examine some of the reasons which led Mr. Honigmann to reduce the Bastard's part to that of a mere commentator standing “outside the inner framework” of the tragedy, and hence to reject him as a...

(The entire section is 4288 words.)

Carole Levin (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Levin, Carole. “‘I Trust I May Not Trust Thee’: Women's Visions of the World in Shakespeare's King John.” In Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Carole Levin and Jeanie Watson, pp. 219-34. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Levin observes the strength, honesty, and insight of the female characters in the otherwise corrupted world of King John.]

“I trust I may not trust thee,” Constance says to the messenger who informs her of the truce between Philip of France and John of England that ignores her son Arthur's claim.1 Constance's awareness that she cannot trust...

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Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Dusinberre, Juliet. “King John and Embarrassing Women.” Shakespeare Survey 42 (1990): 37-52.

[In the following essay, Dusinberre focuses on the subversive and dramatically energizing qualities of the feminine roles in King John.]

Compared with almost any other play of Shakespeare's, King John has had a poor press both in quantity of what is written about it and also in the faint praise accorded to it. This lack of interest has been reflected in its stage history. Arthur Colby Sprague wrote in 1945 that the play is ‘now almost unknown as an acting play’.1 When it was put on in the Old Vic season of 1953-4 the editors of a...

(The entire section is 10041 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Ben Brantley (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. Review of King John. The New York Times CXLII, no. 49,449 (9 September 1993): C16.

[In the following review of Robin Phillips's 1993 production of King John at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Brantley notes the director's focus on John as the central element of the play and praises the performance's psychological insights, but finds its World War I setting unnecessarily confusing.]

Of all of Shakespeare's titular monarchs, poor, weak-willed King John has always been the ungainly step-child. The play that bears his name, a bafflingly amphibious blend of history and tragedy, was seldom performed in this century until relatively...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Peter Marks (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Marks, Peter. Review of King John. The New York Times CXLVIII, no. 51,424 (5 February 1999): E8.

[In the following review of Michael Kahn's 1999 production of King John at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., Marks praises the contemporary relevancy of the play's political conflicts, power struggles, and questions of legitimate authority, while acknowledging a flatness in many of the individual performances.]

The work, [King John], though popular in Shakespeare's time, is widely regarded today as a minor history play. The King is a weak, vacillating monarch, tied to the apron strings of his fearsome mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Robert C. Jones (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Jones, Robert C. “Truth in King John.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 25, no. 2 (spring 1985): 397-417.

[In the following essay, Jones concentrates on the thematic significance of truth and legitimacy in King John, particularly as these concepts are represented in the figure of Lord Faulconbridge, the Bastard.]

Truth is a special concern of Shakespeare's histories in more than one regard. On the one hand, these plays present “true” stories in a way that the comedies, romances, and most of the tragedies do not. Shakespeare shapes his historical events and characters for dramatic purposes, of course, but he does not make...

(The entire section is 7893 words.)

Barbara H. Traister (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Traister, Barbara H. “The King's One Body: Unceremonial Kingship in King John.” In King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, pp. 91-8. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Traister investigates the concept of ceremony in King John, and evaluates the portrayal of John as a king without recourse to ceremony or access to the power of “majesty.”]

Compared to Shakespeare's history plays that precede it, King John is a play of reductions. Its cast of named characters is considerably smaller than those of the earlier plays. It has no fully staged battle scenes, despite the ongoing war...

(The entire section is 3398 words.)

James P. Saeger (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Saeger, James P. “Illegitimate Subjects: Performing Bastardy in King John.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100, no. 1 (January 2001): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Saeger discusses the Bastard's illustration of the developing relationship between identity and political legitimacy in King John, arguing that in the course of the drama Faulconbridge endeavors to assert an authentic nature for himself and for England.]

Like the English history plays he wrote before and after it, Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John dramatizes a relationship between personal identity and political legitimacy. Unlike his other history...

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Further Reading


Berman, Ronald. “Anarchy and Order in Richard III and King John.Shakespeare Survey 20 (1967): 51-9.

Argues that both King John and Richard III confront the “anarchic nature of the individual” but end by reasserting the ideals of rationalism and materialism.

Berry, Ralph. “King John: Some Bastards Too.” In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 26-36. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Interprets King John as a play about right and authority informed by the controlling metaphors of bastardy and legitimacy.


(The entire section is 868 words.)