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.