Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
England, a poor widow, persecuted by agents of the Church of Rome. She is sorely distressed at her own hardships and those of her king, which end with his defeat and ultimate death by poisoning. She is saved from her wretchedness when Verity brings in Imperial Majesty to overthrow her enemies.
King Johan, the champion of the oppressed widow and enemy of the Church of Rome. He lays aside his anger at the corrupt clergy and domination from overseas in compassion for his people. To spare them the horrors of war, he surrenders his crown to Usurped Power (Pope Innocent III) and receives it from him as a vassal of the Church. Too trusting, he shares a poisoned cup with Dissimulation and dies, lamenting the fate of his poor people.
Nobility, the king’s shaky supporter. Fearful of the power of Rome, he deserts his rightful ruler. After Johan’s death, Nobility is brought back into the fold by Verity.
Clergy, the king’s corrupt, unwilling follower. He swears loyalty with reluctance and breaks his oath with joy. He also reforms and serves Imperial Majesty.
Civil Order, another unreliable follower. He too deserts the king in the crisis. He returns when Imperial Majesty becomes ruler.
Commonalty, the poor, blind, and ignorant child of the Widow England. His goods taken by the Church, and deprived of the Holy Scripture by the clergy, he too is found wanting and abandons his ruler.
Sedition (Stephen Langton), a corrupt and wittily foulmouthed agent of the Church of Rome. Sometimes appearing as the vice Sedition itself, he also assumes the person of Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury. He is an active villain throughout the play and is finally hanged by command of Imperial Majesty.
Dissimulation (Simon of Swinsett), another agent of the Church, also part vice and part man. Willing to accept martyrdom to remove an enemy of the Church and expecting canonization for committing murder, he shares a cup of poison with King Johan, joining his victim in death.
Private Wealth (Cardinal Pandulphus), a strong supporter of Usurped Power and a harsh oppressor of England and tormentor of King Johan.
Usurped Power (Pope Innocent III), the most powerful of Johan’s enemies.
Treason, a criminal protected by benefit of clergy.
Verity, a supporter and restorer of historical truth. He rebukes the defecters and gives England a savior, Imperial Majesty.
Imperial Majesty (perhaps Henry VIII), the destroyer of the usurping powers in England. He hangs Sedition and redeems the country.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249
Adams, Barry B., ed. Introduction to King Johan, by John Bale. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1969. Comments on the manuscripts and early editions of the play; reviews sources Bale used in composing his drama; discusses the theatrics and versification, and the play’s relationship to sixteenth century drama.
Blatt, Thora B. The Plays of John Bale: A Study of Ideas, Technique, and Style. Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gad, 1968. Provides information on extant manuscript sources; comments on structure and style; reviews history of productions. Attributes the play’s popularity to the fact that it was the first English drama to “introduce characters from national history on the stage.”
Happé, Peter, ed. The Complete Plays of John Bale. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 1985. Introduction provides useful information about Bale’s career, gives details of production and printing, and analyzes sources and analogues. Comments on the language and versification and gives background about the religious controversy that inspired this drama.
Pafford, J. H. P., ed. Introduction to King Johan, by John Bale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1931. Modern edition of the play; includes an introduction providing extensive details about the manuscript, sources, text, and language. Most useful for specialists, but informative for general readers.
Walker, Greg. Plays of Persuasion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A lengthy chapter on King Johan discusses the history of performances during the Renaissance, the political dimensions of the drama, and Bale’s use of polemical language. Examines the play as a tool for influencing Henry VIII.
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