King John (Vol. 68)
For further information on the critical and stage history of King John, see SC, Volumes 9, 24, 41, and 56.
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
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 in two parts.1 Shakespeare follows the earlier play almost scene by scene in its very skillful conflation of various crises in Holinshed's account of the reign. Except for a few details, one need posit no other direct source for the play. Although recent scholarship has clarified that King John must be considered in relation to more general sources (the sixteenth-century reputation of this troublesome king), a critical comparison of TR and King John has not been fully exploited in resolving what one commentator describes as “the problem of King John,” the widely divergent opinions regarding its unity, structure and, most importantly of late, its reflection of Tudor political and historical...
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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 It is in many ways a strange play, lacking the coherent framework of the Yorkist sequence without possessing the rich human and dramatic substance of the Lancastrian. Among all of its author's works it must be one of the least popular, least known, and least produced. Apologizing in advance for brashness, I might add that the reason for its unenviable status is that it is also one of his least understood. This is not to say that perceptive and worthwhile critical work has not been done on King John. It most certainly has, and such excellent treatments as those of John F. Danby, Sigurd Burckhardt, Adrien Bonjour, John R. Elliott, Jr., William Matchett, and Michael Manheim all afford genuine illumination.3 None of them,...
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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 Covent Garden in 1737. Internal evidence has led the majority of Shakespearean critics to suggest 1594-1596, though a minority view—which holds that The Troublesome Raigne of King John (published in 1591) is dependent on Shakespeare's play—argues for 1590 or earlier.1 The structure of the play, considered in terms of Shakespeare's developing historical perspective, strongly supports a date between Richard II and 1 Henry IV. King John, in fact, occupies a pivotal spot in his handling of material from the English chronicles.2 More precisely, following the composition of Richard II a conscious bifurcation seems to occur in Shakespeare's dramaturgy. In Julius Caesar he continues to...
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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 knowing wink at the audience, but still, with John speaking in a naturally strong public voice that, say, York would admire in a king. But in private John suffers the nagging of his mother. Then he must adjudicate a quarrel between brothers, and while he waxes magisterial, one of those brothers—the Bastard—begins to swell and fill the stage with mocking, charismatic presence. The upshot is that though John acquires a loyal lieutenant to defend his “strong possession” of the crown, he has been upstaged. He exits, but the Bastard remains behind to expand in his new role of resident satirist. John's swift momentum, his bid to impose a shaping power upon the play, has been fatally interrupted.
The effect thereafter is...
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Criticism: Character Studies
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 judgment of history.”1 But of this John we see little in the early pages of the play. Indeed, he seems almost heroic as he leads the hosts of united England against a foreign foe,—the “thunders of his cannon” heard ere the messenger “can report” his coming. “He is not,” says Gervinus, “the image of a brutal tyrant, but only the type of a hard manly nature.” Indeed, we have scarcely a mention of any other vice in John except his passion of inordinate ambition for the crown, and the deeds which grow out of that.
Then, too, “the play turns on what is entirely unhistorical or if not entirely unhistorical, on what went for nothing with John's barons, namely, the defect of his title to the crown and...
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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 possible hero even in the fifth act.1 For convenience I shall first sum up the case against the Bastard by listing Mr. Honigmann's main arguments.
1) To make the Bastard's “subordinate position crystal clear, Shakespeare has him snubbed again and again.”
2) Nowhere in the play does his interference “make history”.
3) John's delegation of authority to him is not a sign of the Bastard's greatness. On the contrary, it was meant to be only a sign of John's dejection that he hands over to a servant, a bastard, and a boon companion.
4) The loss of John's army in the Wash is an act of criminal stupidity accredited to the Bastard by Shakespeare and dealt upon twice...
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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 the world in which she lives, a world that is a “moral swamp and has the ‘smell of sin’” in the words of Herschel Baker (767), is one of the underlying themes of Shakespeare's play, King John. Critics have often applauded the character Faulconbridge, bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, for his clear vision of the corrupt world of King John,2 and this assessment of Faulconbridge's character is certainly apt; he is, however, not the only character with this awareness. The women characters, Eleanor, mother of King John, Constance, widow of John's brother Geoffrey and mother of rival claimant Arthur, and Blanche, John's niece, are also far more insightful of the world in which they live. The women are also...
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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 commemorative volume (Roger Wood and Mary Clarke) record that ‘it only just maintained a 75 per cent attendance record’, and that ‘this was in spite of good reviews and first-rate acting’ (by a cast which included Fay Compton as Constance, Richard Burton as Falconbridge, and Michael Hordern as John). They conclude that this lukewarm reception ‘must be attributed to the play's own comparative unpopularity’. Wood and Clarke consider King John to be ‘purely medieval’, and add that ‘a play of such mixed fabric, where every man is for himself and no common purpose or theme emerges, presents many problems to the producer’.2 In 1988 one might feel less confident in declaring that a drama in which every man is out for...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
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 recently. And most productions and analyses of The Life and Death of King John have tended to emphasize the more dynamic character of the Bastard, the patriotic son of Richard the Lion-Hearted, over John himself, who has all of Macbeth's infirmity of purpose with none of his more Olympian qualities.
The great interest of Robin Phillips's emotionally gripping, if somewhat muddled, production at the Stratford Festival here is that it makes John its unconditional center and, in doing so, presents him as a disturbingly pertinent statesman for our times. Macbeth and Richard III, with their portraits of raveningly ambitious, Machiavellian heads of state, were the perfect choices for politically slanted...
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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 with a contestable claim to the English throne.
But Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare's longtime artistic director, wisely stages King John as a turbulent epic, with filmic freeze-frame battle scenes that recall Braveheart and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. And he locates in the unlikely alliance of the craven ruler—deftly imbued by Philip Goodwin with an aura of fragility—and Philip Faulconbridge, (Edward Gero), the complexly human bastard son of Richard the Lion-Hearted, a story of the highborn brought low and the lowborn exalted.
The story of John that Shakespeare relates has a peculiarly contemporary feel in its dissection of the nature of power and of questions about the very idea...
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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 fundamental changes in his story of the sort that give King Lear its crushing conclusion. If that point seems too obvious to need mentioning, it nonetheless has special significance for King John, as I hope to show. At the same time that they profess to give us true events, however, the very nature of history as these plays understand and dramatize it means that the full “truth” cannot be determined so surely in them as it can be in the purer fictions, where no disputed facts lie behind or around the action, and all that need be known can be told. What, for example, really happened when Mortimer met Glendower on Severn's sedgy bank? The other plays have their mysteries and intangibles (“all the story of the night told...
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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 between France and England. Many of its scenes and lines are devoted to private moments in its characters' lives. The panoply and ceremony that marked the first tetralogy have largely vanished. The crown itself has lost power as a symbol of majesty. The play presents homely kingship, a king who is a flawed and limited man rather than a divinely appointed public force. Only in the play's concluding scenes is lip service given to the “divinity [which] doth hedge a king” that produces so much ambivalence in weak king plays. In act 5 Faulconbridge, the returned nobles, and Prince Henry all attempt to invest England's monarch with his second body, the public image of majesty and power that has been absent from John's version of...
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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 plays, however, King John does not combine its questions about the personal and political within a single character. Instead, Shakespeare divides the inquiry between John, the center of the play's public political struggle, and the Bastard Philip Faulconbridge, on whom Shakespeare concentrates his extended investigation into the nature of personal legitimacy and individual identity. The Bastard's antagonism to patriarchal authority (and its historically rationalized foundation) and his own lack of a historically authorizing legitimate genealogy are both key elements of the investigation that Shakespeare focuses on him.1 Diverging significantly from his primary source, the anonymous The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of...
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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.
Boklund, Gunnar. “The Troublesome Ending of King John.” Studia Neophilologica 40, no. 1 (1968): 175-84.
Maintains that despite Faulconbridge's seeming arguments to the contrary, commodity and self-interest, rather than honor, remain the dominant political principles at the close of Shakespeare's King John.
Colmo, Christopher. “Coming Home: The Political Settlement in Shakespeare's King John.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 91-101. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
Examines the competing elements of commodity and honor in the political conflicts of King...
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