Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*England. The play’s English settings include King John’s castle, a battlefield, and an orchard near Swinstead Abbey. All these places are merely backdrops for the debates, declamations, disputes, and lamentations of the characters. The main focus is on the opposition between John and the Bastard, and it is this conflict rather than any setting or place which is crucial to the play’s shape. In fact, the play’s momentum would be retarded by more than passing reference to particular settings. It is character or episode rather than setting which makes a dramatic impression here, for this play is most vivid in such scenes as the King’s bellowing at the French ambassador as Elinor, his mother, is amused; the Bastard’s speech on Commodity; the blinding of young Arthur by Hubert; and John’s death by poisoning.
*France. The play’s French settings—which include the king’s pavilion, the Dauphin’s camp at St. Edmundsbury, and the French camp—are significant only to mark the politics of international diplomacy. Once again, the play reveals that detailed settings would merely impede the momentum, for the political arguments occur at high speed. Some productions dispense almost totally with scenic elements, showing clearly that the only value of place in this play is that which comes from the fact that it is English history turned into a work for the stage.
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Many elements of the struggle for political power in thirteenth-century England are universal. They can be found in the history of every country in the world. Shifting alliances within factions and political backstabbing—as when Philip and Lewis desert Arthur's cause in exchange for Blanch's dowry, or when the English nobles desert John and then rush back to him upon learning that Lewis means to kill them—are not uncommon in many nations, even today. The cynicism about national leaders expressed by the Bastard in his second major soliloquy (II.i.561-98) resembles the alienation from politics felt by many people in modern times. And when the Bastard describes the weakened John as a bold leader, a "gallant monarch," and a fierce warrior (V.ii.127-58 and 173-78), his words recall those of a political image maker, trying to present a candidate in the most favorable light.
On the international level, the historical enmity between England and France depicted in King John has many counterparts in contemporary times: in Central Europe, the Mideast, and Southeast Asia, for example. To outside observers, some nations' justifications for declaring war are no more valid than, for instance, the reasons that Pandulph gives to induce Lewis to invade England. And regardless of changes in battlefield technology—from arrows to anti-ballistic missiles, from horses to tanks—the victims of war have always included foot soldiers, widows, and orphans. This is...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beaurline, L. A. Introduction to King John, by William Shakespeare, 1-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Beaurline provides extensive discussions of several aspects of the play—including style, themes, and characterization—and a detailed history of stage productions. In his analysis of the game of power politics in King John, Beaurline demonstrates numerous similarities and contrasts between characters.
Braunmiller, A. R. Introduction to The Life and Death of King John, by William Shakespeare, 1-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Braunmiller discusses the likely date and probable sources of the play and describes its theatrical reputation and stage history. Additionally, he offers extended remarks on the language of King John and on several central thematic issues: the political power struggle, relations between older and younger generations, and legitimate versus unlawful inheritance.
Burgoyne, Sidney C. "Cardinal Pandulph and the 'Curse of Rome.'" College Literature IV, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 232-40. Burgoyne traces the cardinal's impact on the play's dramatic action, concluding that Pandulph's principal function is to authorize rebellion and create political chaos.
Calderwood, James L. "Commodity and Honour in King John." University of Toronto Quarterly XXIX, no. 3 (April 1960): 341-56. Calderwood deals with the conflict between honor and personal gain in King...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Barroll, J. Leeds, ed. Shakespeare Studies. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati, 1965. The first in a series of anthologies of Shakespearean criticism. “Shakespeare and the Double Image in King John,” by John R. Elliot, is principally concerned with the historical and literary sources of the play.
Honigmann, E. A. J., ed. The Arden Shakespeare: King John. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. In addition to the text of the play itself, this volume contains more than seventy pages of introductory material. The sources, the production history, and the text itself are considered. There are also appendices dealing with the sources and problems with the text.
Lloyd Evans, Gareth. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. A comprehensive discussion of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. While the major emphasis is on critical reviews of the plays, there are also discussions of sources as well as material on the circumstances which surrounded the writing of the plays.
Pierce, Robert B. Shakespeare’s History Plays: The Family and the State. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. A general discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays. King John is considered as a transitional play between the...
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