(Shakespearean Criticism)

King John

While there is little doubt that Shakespeare wrote King John, there has been much discussion concerning his inspiration for this history play. Scholars have debated over the sources available to Shakespeare at the time he composed the play and how far he departed from those sources with regard to his play's structure and characterization. Further, modern critics have speculated on the extent to which Elizabethan politics and current events might have influenced the playwright's treatment of such issues as succession, legitimacy, and loyalty to the crown.

The two sources most frequently cited for King John are the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and an anonymous play entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which is believed to have been published in the early 1590s. Geoffrey Bullough (1962) notes that prior to the twentieth century, some critics asserted that The Troublesome Reign was in fact authored by Shakespeare himself. Today, most scholars reject this theory and many share Bullough's view that Shakespeare relied upon the plot of The Troublesome Reign simply as source material—significantly rewriting the anonymous play by changing the emphasis and style to create his own King John. An alternative outlook is presented by Brian Boyd (1995). He argues that the inferior Troublesome Reign could not have inspired Shakespeare's King John but instead was written afterward and that its anonymous author used Shakespeare's play as a framework for his anti-Catholic sentiments.

Questions regarding the background material for King John have led scholars to examine the ways in which these sources have been modified. Accordingly, much attention has been devoted to Shakespeare's invention of Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard. Alexander Leggati (1977) suggests that in his role as a dominant character, the Bastard reflects the play's changing perspectives from satire to patriotism, and from there to the practical requirements of politics.

The significance of the Bastard and of the play's volatile and dangerous world is the subject as well of James L. Calderwood's analysis (1960) of commodity or self-interest and honor, in which he points out that these two antagonistic but surprisingly similar themes give King John "a unity of structure generally denied it." Adrien Bonjour (1951) also finds structural unity through the character of the Bastard—in this case, through Faulconbridge's "closely connected" but "complementary" association with King John.

That most of the play's characters are governed by realpolitik rather than by idealism is emphasized by Virginia M. Vaughan (1989) and L. A. Beaurline (1990). Beaurline remarks on the brutal attitude of King John and on the opportunism of Pandulph concerning the fate of the child Arthur. Vaughan sees such attitudes as the play's acknowledgment of the changing times, or the "shift from a medieval ideal of communal responsibility to modern individualism. . . ."

Finally, several critics note the subversive elements in King John. Phyllis Rackin (1990), for instance, concedes that the roles of the female characters are brief, yet points out that while Constance and Elinor are onstage "they set the subversive keynote for the [male] characters" by continually threatening to disrupt their ambitions. Turning to Renaissance society, William H. Matchett (1962) observes that the play focuses in part on the right of succession, an issue that was a particularly sensitive one to the unmarried and childless Elizabeth I. Summing up, John R. Elliot (1965) asserts that "in King John, at least, Shakespeare chose deliberately to dramatize the most controversial material to be found in his sources."


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Dramatic Perspective in King John," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Leggatt analyzes the shifting viewpoints of the characters in King John and how they affect our ultimate understanding of the playfocusing primarily on the Bastard's shift from satirist to patriot.]

One of Shakespeare's favourite devices is the use of a commentator to provide a special perspective on the main action. When Falstaff discourses on honour, or Thersites on "wars and lechery," or when Enobarbus advises the Triumvirate "if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again"—we are aware of a special angle of vision, different from that of the main participants. Generally, the commentator is detached and refreshingly blunt. He dissects the passions and pretensions of the main figures from a commonsense point of view. Without being necessarily the author's spokesman, he represents one important way of viewing the action, and thus contributes to the interplay of perspectives that constitutes a vital part of the drama. In the midst of passion, violence, and high rhetoric he will, from time to time, cool the temperature and provide us with a necessary detachment.

In King John, this function seems, at first glance, to have been allotted to the Bastard. Yet the nature of his character—and therefore the significance of his commentary—have been subject to dispute. His function, according to one view, is "to embody England, to incorporate the English soul."1 This suggests highastounding terms; yet he is also a parodist and a deflater of rhetoric who "pounces on kings, lords and citizens alike when they become grandiloquent or fulsome."2 In the final scenes, he "becomes increasingly repetitive, almost nagging. His invention runs dry," because, "like all cynics and parodists, he feeds parasitically upon the very thing he mocks; and when he has done his (very minor) part in killing it, he is at a loss for sustenance."3 In the same scenes, he becomes the logical successor to the throne;4 his star rises as King John's falls;5 he is "England's saviour."6 He is also, in the end, an incompetent bully who "fails in the higher spheres."7 In the face of such confusion, it is not surprising to find one critic who simply denies that the Bastard is a coherent character at all: "in the first three acts he is little more than a thinly disguised vice, and in the last two the embodiment of active and outraged nationalism: the English patriot. . . . Obviously, we have two distinct characters under the name of the Bastard."8

Whatever the disputes over other commentator-figures, it is hard to think of a disagreement as sharp as this. The Bastard is clearly an important figure, and the play's stage-history testifies to his theatrical effectiveness.9 But what, exactly, is his function? Is he grandiloquent or deflationary, heroic or shabby—or some combination of all these qualities? We will not, I think, make much sense of him if we isolate him and subject him to an old-fashioned "character sketch." He is very much a creature of the play in which he appears—a play that often seems jagged and disjointed, like the role he plays in it; and a study of this role requires a more general study of dramatic perspective throughout the play. I would like to argue that the angle of vision from which we see the action undergoes a radical change in the course of the play, and that this change can be traced partly through the role of the Bastard, and partly through basic variations in dramatic technique. Moreover, as the angle of vision alters, so does our attitude to politics and the men who engage in politics.

In Act I, the political action is simplified, stylized, and highly compressed. John and Chatillon engage in the conventional rhetoric of demand and defiance, the problem of the English succession is set forth, two kingdoms explode into war, and it is all over in little more than forty lines. Furthermore, some at least of the rhetoric is suspect. The passage closes with a wry exchange between John and Elinor, that deflates the dignity of the whole:

K. JOHN. Our strong possession and our right for us!
ELI. Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me;
So much my conscience whispers in your ear,
Which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.


Behind the grand public utterance, there is private cynicism; we are alerted to the fact that the rhetoric of kings cannot always be taken at face value.

After this brusque consideration of the succession of England, the play settles down to consider the succession of a few acres of English land, the estate of the late Sir Robert Faulconbridge. This affair takes up the rest of the act, and its dramatic treatment, relaxed and expansive, is radically different from what has gone before. The bones of the dispute are fleshed out with incidental details—some comic, like the Bastard's description of his brother's appearance—some inconsequential, like the brief dialogue between the Bastard and his mother's servant James Gurney:

LADY F . . . . Why scorn'st thou at Sir Robert?
He is Sir Robert's son, and so art thou.
BAST. James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave a while?
GUR. Good leave, good Philip.
BAST. Philip—Sparrow! James,
There's toys abroad—anon I'll tell thee more.


In a few lines, we have a picture of a privileged family retainer, accustomed to first-name terms, treated to jokes, trusted with family affairs, but knowing when to make himself scarce. Unlike so many stage domestics, he has a name of his own. In the Bastard's meditation on his new-found honour there is a similar vein of humorous, concrete social observation:

'Good den, Sir Richard!' 'God-a-mercy, fellow!'
And if his name be George, I'll call him Peter;
For new-made honour doth forget men's names.


The cumulative effect of Act I is that the private affairs of the King's subjects are more alive dramatically than the affairs of the King himself. The political action, so swiftly disposed of, seems remote and unreal. Moreover, the Bastard has established himself as a character who sees clearly and speaks frankly:

K. JOHN. A good blunt fellow. Why, being younger born,
Doth he lay claim to thine inheritance?
BAST. I know not why, except to get the land.


It is significant that Elinor—who has shown the same frankness on the larger political issue—should be the one who first calls attention to the Bastard's resemblance to Coeur-de-lion (I.i.85-88), and invites him to forsake his land and follow her (I.i. 134-37, 148-50). His first allegiance is not to John (who seems to take his own rhetoric seriously) but to the King's more clearsighted mother, who catches the Bastard out in a rhetorical flourish, and then shares the joke with him:

BAST. Madam, I'll follow you unto the death.
ELI. Nay, I would have you go before me thither.
BAST. Our country manners give our betters way.


We are prepared to see the Bastard as a deflater of rhetoric and an exploder of pretensions—including, on occasion, his own.

To some extent this expectation is borne out in the play's next movement, the long, elaborate scene before Angiers. The Bastard seems to have taken over Elinor's function in the first political scene. His dramatic prominence is out of all proportion to his role in the action, or even his share of the dialogue. This is partly because the scene on which he comments has been so flattened and stylized by the playwright that the Bastard seems the only rounded, concrete, fully human figure on the stage.11 The feeling of remoteness that clung to the political section of Act I persists, despite the more lengthy and detailed dramatization of politics. The rhetoric, once again, is suspect:

K. JOHN. Peace be to France, if France in peace permit
Our just and lineal entrance to our own!
K. PHI. Peace be to England, if that war return
From France to England, there to live in peace!

(II.i.84-85, 89-90)

By the time the two kings have finished with it, the word "peace" has lost its significance, and become an empty flourish. The symmetry of such exchanges becomes mechanical, predictable, even comic. This is particularly true of the sequence in which the two Heralds report to the Citizen of Angiers, each claiming that his own side has slaughtered great numbers of the enemy, while remaining itself unscathed. The exaggeration of the reports, their exact parallelism, and the Citizen's bland refusal to be impressed by either, create an ironic detachment in the audience. The irony deepens when the rival armies, exasperated by the Citizen's smug neutrality, determine to destroy the town and then decide who owns it—and the Citizen, suddenly discovering that peace is possible after all, produces his plan for wedding Blanch to Lewis.

The whole affair seems a charade, difficult to take seriously. The swift, compressed presentation contributes to this effect: it all happens a little too quickly, and a little too smoothly. The compression affects the language, with a resultant irony, as when John asks,

France, shall we knit our pow'rs
And lay this Angiers even with the ground;
Then after fight who shall be king of it?


—or when the language of love is applied to what is obviously a match of political expediency:

LEW. Nay, ask me if I can refrain from love;
For I do love her most unfeignedly.
K. JOHN. Then do I give Volquessen, Touraine, Maine,
Poictiers, and Anjou, these five provinces,
With her to thee; and this addition more,
Full thirty thousand marks of English coin.


In both cases, the compression of the writing brings together ideas that a more tactful utterance would have kept apart, and helps us to see the irony of the situation—an irony of which the characters themselves do not seem fully aware.

As the irony of the scene accumulates, we come to see its principal characters, not as they see themselves—mighty men with righteous causes and irresistible power—but as Lear's "packs and sects of great ones / That ebb and flow by th'moon." They are small figures, seen from a great distance, and their self-importance seems increasingly empty. Besides the implicit irony, voices are heard from the stage that deflate the pretensions of the "great men" more directly. While Lewis and the Citizen discuss the match with Blanch in a mannered, hyperbolic style (II.i.426-45, 496-503), her own response is quiet and sensible, an implicit rebuke to the extravagant language of the men:

Further I will not flatter you, my lord,
That all I see in you is worthy love,
Than this: that nothing do I see in you—
Though churlish thoughts themselves should be your judge—
That I can find should merit any hate.


And in the midst of the elaborate dispute over Arthur's right, Arthur himself declares, "I am not worth this coil that's made for me" (II.i.165).

But the remarks of Blanch and Arthur are brief, passing touches; neither character is fully developed as a commentator. The most persistent commentary on the pretensions of the great comes from the Bastard, who often seems to share the audience's view of the scene as an empty charade, and who therefore stands apart from it, on a different plane of reality, aware of the absurdity of the action as most of the main characters are not. This awareness comes principally through his attacks on the language of the others. He parodies the symmetrical defiance of the kings:

K. JOHN. Doth not the crown of England prove the King?
And if not that, I bring you witnesses:
Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England's breed—
BAST. Bastards and else.
K. JOHN. To verify our title with their lives.
K. PHI. As many and as well-born bloods as those—
BAST. Some bastards too.
K. PHI. Stand in his face to contradict his claim.


He recoils in mock-astonishment from the bombast of the Citizen:

Here's a stay
That shakes the rotten carcass of old Death
Out of his rags! Here's a large mouth, indeed,
That spits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas;
Talks as familiarly of roaring lions
As maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs!


With the Dauphin's love-rhetoric, he is merciless (II.i.501-9). And he sums up the whole scene as the audience itself will be tempted to do: "Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!" (II.i.561).

But while he is detached from the political action of the scene, and from the rhetoric that action involves, his detachment is not absolute. And this means that, while he often expresses the audience's view, he does not do so as consistently as we might at first expect. There are some developments in the Angiers scene into which the Bastard throws himself with enthusiasm. When the two kings decide to fight it out, we hear the following:

Ha, majesty! how high thy glory tow'rs
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermin'd differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace. Till then, blows, blood, and death!


This is not the "large mouth" of the Citizen of Angiers, that "Talks as familiarly of roaring lions / As maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs." This is the Bastard himself. And the bombast of this speech is more extravagant than that of the Citizen's speech the Bastard later mocks. When his blood is up, he can be as noisy as any of them. This is not as inconsistent with his more ironic comments as it may look; it merely suggests that his irony is not universal, but applied to particular cases. Through the entire play, the Bastard sticks to one idea—that the best way to settle a dispute is to fight it out. Besides the debate between Commodity and Honour that James L. Calderwood has traced in the play12 there is another debate, conducted if anything more overtly, between policy and force—and the Bastard is always on the side of force.

He has come to France to fight, not to bargain. The citizens of Angiers annoy him because they stand aloof from the battle:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.


He himself shows a similar aloofness when he contemplates the political settlement; but such aloofness annoys him when applied to the fighting, for the fighting matters to him. And this leads to his bloodthirsty and inherently absurd proposal that the kings should reduce the town to rubble and then fight over it. His sardonic remarks about the Citizen's peacemaking speech and the lightning courtship of Blanch and Lewis depend on more than just a satirist's detachment: the match has cheated him of a fight. We can see the same values at work when he rails at Commodity for drawing France "From a resolv'd and honourable war, / To a most base and vile-concluded peace" (II.i.585-86). The Bastard has, in short, his own stake in the. action, and when he performs as a detached observer this is not a permanent role but an occasional function.

Shakespeare has prepared us for this in the Bastard's first scene, by showing his readiness to become involved with the very world he satirizes. Having mocked the affectation of "worshipful society," he announces that he will learn it himself, "For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising" (I.i.216). And his famous attack on "Commodity" concludes with a wry admission that he is crying sour grapes: "But why rail I on this commodity? / But for because he hath not woo'd me yet" (II.i.587-88). By giving the Bastard this ambiguous role, Shakespeare has disturbed the simplicity of our responses to the play. We react with delight and approval to his witty attacks on the folly of the world he moves in. But when there is fighting to be done, or plunder to be had, the Bastard's detachment breaks down, and he joins in the world he had scorned. At such moments, the audience is bound to feel that it has lost its guide, and it may even feel its own detachment threatened. This feeling grows progressively stronger in the last three acts of the play.

The danger of the dramatic method employed in the Angiers scene is that, seeing the political action with such Olympian detachment, the audience will become too complacent. While other playwrights may delight in making us feel superior to their characters, this is not Shakespeare's way. Our awareness of the ambiguity of the Bastard's position prepares us to have our own detachment broken down. Watching the Angiers scene is like watching an anthill: there are so many figures that no individual (always excepting the Bastard) seems to matter very much. In this respect, III.i marks a transition to a new dramatic method.13 The kind of action shown is not much different: there is still the stylized compression of events—notably the brisk entrance of Pandulph, who appears with no more preparation than "Here comes the holy legate of the Pope" (III.i.135) and immediately begins to play havoc with the settlement reached in the previous act. There is still the neat symmetry—in the stage-picture, when Blanch and Constance both kneel to the Dauphin, for contrary purposes (III.i.306-12); and in the language, when France yields to the Cardinal:

CONST. O fair return of banish'd majesty!
ELI. O foul revolt of French inconstancy!


But while the general effect of swift action, treated with a certain implicit irony, is similar to that of Act II, this time there is no one commentator as prominent as the Bastard, who can act as a focus for our amusement. The Bastard's interventions are drastically reduced, confined for the most part to the calf s-skin joke.14 Instead, several characters are allowed, in turn, dramatic prominence of a sort that previously only the Bastard enjoyed. His "Commodity" speech is followed by Constance's long, grief-stricken tirade (III.i.1-74), which offers another attack on the Blanch-Lewis match, but this time from a different point of view—emotional rather than satiric. She too sees France as in the grip of a force greater than his own will—not Commodity, but Fortune, who is wantoning with King John and making France her bawd (III.i.54-61). At the end of III.i, with the league broken, Blanch is allowed to contemplate the ruin of her day-old marriage and the painful dilemma in which she finds herself:

Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both: each army hath a hand;
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.


The scene is thus framed by the private suffering of two betrayed women. Neither is allowed much subtlety of feeling, or an eloquence that is more than mechanical: the important point is that we are made to see a greater variety of perspectives on the main action, and in the process we are made more aware of individual feelings. In the main body of the scene, Pandulph in particular is allowed to take over the stage and impose his arguments in more elaborate detail than any character in the Angiers scene. And the writing in general is slower and more discursive; the stylization is beginning to disappear.

After this the play is broken down into a series of shorter scenes, with fewer characters. There is never again anything quite like the two big ensemble scenes before Angiers.15 The kind of event that takes place is much as before: we are still watching the ebb and flow of political fortunes as alliances form and break. And there is still a good deal of windy rhetoric. But we see the action from a new perspective: instead of great massed public movements, we are more aware of private intrigue, and private feeling. Many scenes involve only two speakers. The change is marked decisively by the interview between John and Hubert in III.iii. Previously, all we have seen of John is public posturing. Now we see him off guard, and he acquires a new individuality—albeit an ugly one. In place of the simple, ringing declarations of earlier scenes, there is an oblique, insinuating manner, and a cloying intimacy:

Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On you young boy. I'll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way;
And wheresoe'er this foot of mine doth tread,
He lies before me. Dost thou understand me?
Thou art his keeper.
HUB. And I'll keep him so
That he shall not offend your Majesty.
K. JOHN. Death.
HUB. My lord?
K. JOHN. A grave.
HUB. He shall not live.
K. JOHN. Enough!
I could be merry now. Hubert, I love thee.
Well, I'll not say what I intend for thee.


Even the famous one-word command is more a sideways admission of what John wants than a clear order. And this evasiveness, as John tries to justify one dubious decision after another, becomes the keynote of his utterances from now on. It is not so much that his character changes in the second half of the play; rather his character is revealed by circumstance as we see him for the first time in private.

In the following scene (III. iv), the French party, like the English party in the previous scene, has the stage to itself. Constance is still indulging in long tirades, but now the subject is less political, more personal—the loss, not of Arthur's rights, but of Arthur. And this is followed by another two-character scene of temptation, an ironic parallel to the exchange between John and Hubert, as Pandulph urges Lewis to exploit the political error of Arthur's murder. Though the revelation of character is less startling, Pandulph, like John, is speaking more privately than before, and instead of public appeals to lofty values we hear the dry voice of the seasoned political intriguer: "How green you are and fresh in this old world!" (III.iv.145). Most important, however, is the scene between Hubert and Arthur. For all its artifice and sentimentality, this marks a significant extension of the play's range: we are more aware than ever of private feelings at the heart of a political situation. Arthur's physical fear and his sense of injured friendship count for more than his loss of the English crown. In Hubert's yielding we see the first unselfish action of the play: "Much danger do I undergo for thee" (IV.i.134). Against the Bastard's enthusiasm for raiding the monasteries, expressed a few scenes earlier—"Bell, book, and candle, shall not drive me back, / When gold and silver becks me to come on" (III.iii.12-13)—we hear Hubert's "I will not touch thine eye / For all the treasure that thine uncle owes" (IV.i.122-23).

In the earlier ensemble scenes, seeing the characters all together, acting in a mass, we could stand back and generalize about them. Action and consequence followed each other swiftly, and we could see the pattern forming in detail. Now it is harder to generalize. The characters move one step at a time; results are long in coming, and largely incalculable. John's plan to murder Arthur may be necessary to his self-interest, or disastrous, and like John we have to wait to find out. The same applies to Lewis's decision to invade England. Hubert's act of compassion, and the resulting confusion over whether Arthur is dead or not, make the future even more unpredictable. The change to shorter, more intimate scenes in which only one move is made means an important change in dramatic perspective. The play is still a demonstration of the workings of politics, with kings and barons running through a maze like laboratory mice; the difference is that we now see the maze, not from the viewpoint of the scientific observer, but from the viewpoint of the mice.

In this new situation, the Bastard's own involvement deepens and he loses the last vestiges of his ability to stand back and joke about the world. He is now the King's man, with all that that involves. The manner in which he sticks to John, despite his horror at Arthur's death, has been seen as a serious, even heroic decision taken in the national interest.16 This would be more convincing if a clear moment of decision were ever shown; but it is not. The Bastard appears to drift into his allegiance, drawn first by his enthusiasm for fighting, and then by his sardonic delight in the idea of looting monasteries (III.iii.12-13). He is still happiest when allowed to settle matters with the sword. He denounces John's submission to Pandulph (V.i.65-69), and when Lewis rejects Pandulph's peace-making, the Bastard is delighted: "By all the blood that ever fury breath'd, / The youth says well" (V. ii. 127-28). He may indeed be interested in saving England, but only on his own terms, by battle.

But his service to John involves him in the ambiguities of John's position—the effective king of England, repelling a foreign invasion, is also a usurper and a childmurderer. Faced with the problem of winning back the rebel barons, the Bastard finds himself recommending the sort of expedient patching-up he scorns elsewhere: "Whate'er you think, good words, I think, were best" (IV.iii.28). Defying the French, he has to lie outright, creating an image of John as a heroic fighter—John as the Bastard wishes he were, instead of the weak compromiser we have seen in reality (V.ii.118-80). In his first soliloquy, he denied that he would "practise to deceive" (I.i.214). But now we find him covering his own doubts with dissimulation, and urging the barons to do the same.

His old comic poise is gone. Instead of the cool analysis of the way of the world we heard in the "Commodity" speech, he admits, "I am amaz'd, methinks, and lose my way / Among the thorns and dangers of this world" (IV.iii.140-41). In one case, at least, he becomes the butt of the kind of deflating comment he himself had previously made. After his long, flamboyant defiance of Lewis, the Dauphin remarks dryly: "There end thy brave, and turn thy face in peace; / We grant thou canst outscold us" (V.ii.159-60). The Bastard himself makes fewer jokes, and his manner becomes increasingly sombre as he contemplates the critical state of England. In the end, an idea he had joked about with Elinor—his willingness to follow her to death—becomes serious with the death of John:

Art thou gone so? I do but stay behind
To do the office for thee of revenge,
And then my soul shall wait on thee to heaven,
As it on earth hath been thy servant still.


The loss of his old comic detachment is nowhere more evident. Certainly this is a far cry from "Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!" He is now the loyal follower of one of the kings he had scorned, loyal at some cost to his self-respect, loyal even to the point of death. He is never articulate about the reasons for this loyalty; he seems rather to have been overtaken by events and to have lost his independence without seeing it go. We may infer a selfless patriotism as his motive; we may even infer family loyalty (we notice how often John addresses him as "cousin" in the last half of the play). But the only self-analysis of which the Bastard seems capable is "I am amaz'd, methinks, and lose my way." What does seem clear is that his earlier dramatic role as the detached observer of a mad world, always precarious, has now become impossible: the nature of the play has changed, and will no longer accommodate a single character with a broad view of the whole action. The Bastard has now joined the other characters, struggling within the action as best he may, and no more capable than the others of making sense of it.17

In the closing scenes there is a deepening confusion, as all the major characters appear to lose control over events. John is forced into a submission that makes his early anti-papal rhetoric seem hollow indeed; and he gains nothing for it. Even Pandulph has lost his touch. He is as blandly confident as ever:

It was my breath that blew this tempest up,
Upon your stubborn usage of the Pope;
But since you are a gentle convertite,
My tongue shall hush again this storm of war
And make fair weather in your blust'ring land.


Swift changes like this were indeed possible at Angiers. But events are no longer so easy to control. Lewis is prepared to invoke heaven when it suits him:

And even there, methinks, an angel spake:
Look where the holy legate comes apace,
To give us warrant from the hand of heaven
And on our actions set the seal of right
With holy breath.


But when he learns that Pandulph is now a messenger of peace, he turns from heaven to practical realities:

Am I Rome's slave? What penny hath Rome borne,
What men provided, what munition sent,
To underprop this action?


The ironic turnabout may recall the scene at Angiers, but here the presentation is different. There the irony sprang from the accumulating neatness of the dramatic pattern; here it is focused more on individual characters—the failure of Pandulph to live up to his image of himself, and the ease with which Lewis's piety evaporates when it no longer serves him.

Pandulph's failure may be attributed to his underrating Lewis's devotion to self-interest. But increasingly in the final scenes characters lose control of events not because other characters are more decisive, but because of...

(The entire section is 13178 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Virginia M. Vaughan (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "King John: A Study in Subversion and Containment," in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1989, pp. 62-75.

[In the following essay, originally a paper presented at a conference sponsored by the Shakespeare Association of America in 1986, Vaughan asserts that in King John, Shakespeare intentionally reflects the conflicts and contradictions between the old feudal sense of community and the emerging Renaissance belief in individuality and realpolitik.]

Alone among Shakespeare's English histories, King John portrays...

(The entire section is 11483 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Geoffrey Bullogh (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Introduction to King John, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. IV, edited by Geoffrey Bullough, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 1-24.

[In the following excerpt, Bullough argues that The Troublesome Reign was Shakespeare's source for King John and presents a comparison of the two plays so that readers can decide for themselves.]

. . . The year 1591 saw the publication of an anonymous play, The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, which was printed in two parts,1 quite unnecessarily, for it was obviously written as one piece. The two...

(The entire section is 21981 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Adrien Bonjour (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "The Road to Swinstead Abbey: A Study of the Sense and Structure of King John" in ELH, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1951, pp. 253-74.

[In the following essay, Bonjour takes issue with the traditional viewpoint that King John lacks unity, and argues instead that the structure of the play is given symmetry by the presence of two main characters, John and the Bastard.]

In view of the revival of interest in Shakespeare's Histories evinced by the recent publication of three important books of respectable scope entirely devoted to the historical plays, it may not be unseasonable to reexamine the...

(The entire section is 23976 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Alexander, Peter. "The Histories." In Shakespeare, pp. 163-203. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Discusses possible source material for Shakespeare's King John, asserting that it is unlikely the anonymous play The Troublesome Reign of King John is one of those sources.

Berry, Edward I. "The Later Histories: From History to Character." In Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories, pp. 104-25. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

Describes King John as Shakespeare's "first politicial play," and argues that it is built thematically around the "contrasted evolution" of the two major characters, the Bastard...

(The entire section is 843 words.)