(Shakespearean Criticism)

King John

Scholars agree that King John is an experimental text which serves as a transition between the first and the second tetralogies. Recent critics have continued to explore the ways in which the play deviates from both the historical record of the events surrounding the reign of King John and the nature and structure of Shakespeare's other history plays. Both Robert C. Jones (1991) and Robert Weiman (1999) focus on the role of Faulconbridge, the Bastard, a character who Shakespeare created and who has no central role in other historical accounts of the time. Weiman argues that as a character who bridges both the comical and the serious, the Bastard represents a prototype figure, revolutionary to theater at that time. Jones discusses the ways in which Shakespeare created an unprecedented link between Richard I and the Bastard, a connection which highlighted concerns about realism in historical accounts.

The issue of historical representation and the manipulation of historical fact within Shakespeare's King John has been paramount to scholarship about the play for decades. Known to deviate from other accounts of King John written around the same time, namely Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England (anonymous; 1591), the relation between fact and fiction and Shakespeare's motivation in altering the facts continues to intrigue modern scholars. Numerous scholars contend that the differences between other historical accounts of the King's reign and Shakespeare's version reveal the playwright's concerns with contemporary political issues. At the time in which Shakespeare wrote King John, at the end of the sixteenth century, England was embroiled in concern over Queen Elizabeth I's successor. In an effort to consolidate power and protect her own reign, Elizabeth, who was unmarried and childless, refused to name her successor. In addition, she forbade the subject to be raised among government officials, much less in the public arena. Scholars such as Paola Pugliatti (1996), Robert Lane (1995) and A. R. Braunmuller (1998) maintain that King John is a direct commentary on the forbidden subject of the Queen's successor. By disguising the discussion of legitimacy, foreign reign, and succession to the throne in a historical drama about King John, these scholars maintain, Shakespeare was able to avoid censorship while establishing the theater as a venue of public debate, thereby allowing the audience access to an issue which could not be openly discussed. Edward Gieskes (1998) agrees that the play is a commentary on Elizabethan society; however, he maintains that Shakespeare was addressing the changing nature of class and vocation. He states that the character of the Bastard raises concerns about the importance of parentage, class, and high birth in regard to the rising status of personal ability. However, other scholars have taken issue with arguments that King John is a commentary on contemporary events of Shakespeare's era. They argue that the play deviates from fact because Shakespeare was consciously exploring the concept of historiography or ascribing meaning to past events in light of the present. Marsha Robinson (1989) states that there is no merging of past and present in the play. Rather, Shakespeare used parody, satire, and irony to deliberately deviate from the historical record as a means of commenting upon historical representation of the time. She states that Shakespeare created the fictitious character of the Bastard to serve as an honest and unbiased commentator on the past and the present, as well as the lack of unity between the two. In a completely different vein, Eugene M. Waith (1978) explores earlier critical and public opinion of the play in an effort to explain why the play no longer enthralls audiences the way it once did. He argues that too much attention has been given to historiography at the expense of the powerful emotions which are depicted throughout the story.

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “King John and the Drama of History,” in King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays, edited by Frances A. Shirley, Garland Publishing, 1988, pp. 31-50.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Waith examines critical and popular reaction to King Johnthrough the centuries. Waith maintains that the current emphasis on the political and historical themes of the play obscure its power.]

King John is a play which, in our time, there have been few to love and very few to see.1 The notable revival of interest in Shakespeare's history plays has left it, along with Henry VIII, almost untouched on the Shakespearean...

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A. R. Braunmuller (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “King John and Historiography,” in ELH, Vol. 55, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 309-32.

[In the following essay, Braunmuller compares the accounts of Shakespeare's King John, Holinshed's Chronicles, and Sir John Hayward's writings, to discern Shakespeare's perception and treatment of historiography.]

Meercraft: By my ’faith
you are cunning i’ the Chronicle,
Fitzdottrel: No, I confess I ha’t
from the Play-books,
And think they’are more authentic.
Engine: That’s sure, Sir.

—Ben Jonson, The Devil Is an Ass

Thinking about Renaissance English history plays, we typically but wrongly treat the...

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Marsha Robinson (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Historiographic Methodology of King John,” in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, Associated University Presses, 1989, pp. 29-40.

[In the following essay, Robinson considers the ways in which Shakespeare satirizes the moral interpretation of past events.]

One of the distinctive stylistic features of the Shakespearean history play is the artful recreation of history as past, present, and future. Calling attention to the “network of references” to both the past and the future in these plays, Wolfgang Clemen observes that “Shakespeare not only handled episodes from the historical past, but he translated into drama...

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Robert Lane (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Sequence of Posterity’: Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 460-81.

[In the following essay, Lane outlines the ways in which Shakespeare altered the historical account of King John in order to raise questions about Queen Elizabeth's successor.]

Thus you see, this crown is not like to fall to the ground for
want of heads that may claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall
is by many doubted.

Thomas Wilson1

This matter doth rather require the mouth of all
England, then of anie one man.


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Paola Pugliatti (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Scribbled Form of Authority in King John,” in Shakespeare the Historian, Macmillan Press, 1996, pp. 77-101.

[In the following excerpt, Pugliatti reexamines King John in light of Elizabethan politics, arguing that Shakespeare intended it as a commentary on the political crisis in England.]

Lily Campbell opens her discussion of King John by quoting the Bastard's final speech and a parallel passage from Holinshed on the disruptive effects of treason and rebellion. The fragment records an event far removed from the story of John, since it concerns what was argued in 1581 during the trial for treason of Edward Campion:


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Edward Gieskes (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘He Is But a Bastard to the Time’: Status and Service in The Troublesome Raigne of John and Shakespeare's King John,” in ELH, Vol. 65, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 779-98.

[In the following essay, Gieskes compares the portrayal of the Bastard in King John and in The Troublesome Raign of John, King of England,highlighting Shakespeare's views on such social issues as class, rank, and vocation.]


Shakespeare's King John, standing between the two tetralogies, marks a transition in his treatment of political and historical questions. This argument has been advanced by critics like Sigurd...

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Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Renaissance Emblems of Death and Shakespeare's King John,” in English Studies, Vol. 79, No. 5, September, 1998, pp. 425-29.

[In the essay below, MacKenzie examines the imagery of regeneration in King John, arguing that Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of death, rather than life, in the play.]

The fourth print in Hans Holbein's Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti reveals Adam in a postlapsarian world. He tills the soil, assisted and shadowed by a skeletal Dance of Death figure. It is a vision of toil and hardship, and the 1547 verse accompaniment to the Lyons edition emphasises the consequences of Adam's transgression.


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Robert C. Jones (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “King John: ‘Perfect Richard’ versus ‘This Old World,’” in These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 46-68.

[In the following excerpt, Jones considers Faulconbridge as an extension of Richard I, arguing that Shakespeare raises doubts about the validity of a direct link between past and present.]

King John, that “singular” play among Shakespeare's histories of the nineties, is commonly seen to be transitional between the two tetralogies from which its narrative stands chronologically apart. Its departure from the earlier series and anticipation of the second one is usually...

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Brian Boyd (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: Sources, Structure, Sequence,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 37-56.

[In the following essay, Boyd argues that Shakespeare's play King John provided source material for The Troublesome Raigne of King John.]

The debate goes on: is Shakespeare's King John a source or a derivative of the anonymous The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591)? In 1989 “the ‘orthodox’ opinion that The Troublesome Raigne precedes King John” seemed to one critic “now … so strong as to need no further elaboration or support.”1 A year later,...

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Robert Weimann (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mingling Vice and ‘Worthiness’ in King John,” in Shakespeare Studies Annual, Vol. XXVII, 1999, pp. 109-33.

[In the following essay, Weimann characterizes Faulconbridge as a new type of vice character, a type that merged the serious with the jocular.]

With the advent of Marlowe the aims of representation in the Elizabethan theater were sharply redefined. As the prologues to Tamburlaine suggested, the dramatist literally felt authorized to “lead” the theater to a new horizon of legitimation, one against which the hero could more nearly be viewed as a self-contained “picture.” Such a portrait would “unfold” the scene “at...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Beaurline, L. A. An introduction to King John, edited by L. A. Beaurline, pp. 1-57. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Examines the styles of speech used in King John as well as the play's symmetrical structure and political themes.

Braunmuller, A. R. An introduction to The Life and Death of King John, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Discusses King John in light of the political history of England between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

Brownlow, F. W. “The Life and Death of King John.” In Two Shakespearean...

(The entire section is 316 words.)