Scholars agree that Shakespeare's historical drama King John (c. 1596) occupies a unique position between his first and second tetralogies. The play is generally viewed as a transitional work that deviates from the providential plan of his other chronicle history plays. Set in the thirteenth century, King John 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). King John is one of Shakespeare's least accurate history plays. Some scholars have noted that Shakespeare deliberately distorted the historical facts in order to focus on the play's main theme: political legitimacy. This theme was particularly important to Elizabethans since Queen Elizabeth's legitimacy was frequently questioned. In addition to the play's political issues, critics are interested in the characterization of King John, as well as the play's language and imagery. In modern productions, the complexities and ambiguities of the historical perspective, language, political conflict, and characters create unique challenges for directors.
Critical discussion of character in King John has generally focused on the play's titular character. John R. Elliot (1965) argues that Shakespeare's King John reveals the playwright's understanding of the Elizabethans' ambiguous and complex interpretations of King John. Elliot shows that while the play's original audiences most likely would have sympathized with John as a nationalist and as a Protestant martyr, Shakespeare's John is also depicted as a usurper and potential murderer. Christopher Colmo (1996), like Elliot, discusses King John's role as a usurper. Colmo reviews the political issues of King John, and within this context discusses the problems related to the inheritance of rule in general and King John's role as a usurper and his treatment of Arthur in particular. Also investigating Shakespeare's portrayal of the legitimacy of John's claim to the crown, Mark A. Heberle (1994) illustrates that Shakespeare significantly modified his sources in order to highlight the conflict between John and the child Arthur. Heberle views the play's treatment of Arthur, and later Henry, as revealing Shakespeare's belief that nurturing and protecting children is crucial to the maintenance of political order.
Although popular in Shakespeare's own day and in the nineteenth century, King John was seldom performed in the twentieth century. Recent productions of the play include Karin Coonrod's 2000 Theatre for a New Audience production, which received mixed reviews. Charles Isherwood (2000) observes that although the production was directed by Coonrod with remarkable clarity, it suffered from a lack of conceptual inspiration. Coonrod is faulted by Isherwood, and by reviewer Michael Feingold (see Further Reading) as well, for restricting the ability of her actors to create deep and vivid characterizations. Feingold also notes that the production suffered from Coonrod's attempt to remove the grandeur of the play in an effort to make it more accessible to modern audiences. John Simon (2000) finds that Coonrod's production failed to uncover the play's subtleties, was hampered by an unaccomplished cast, and did not adequately portray the play's sense of pageantry. Gregory Doran's 2001 production of King John for the Royal Shakespeare Company received favorable reviews from Kenneth Tucker (2001) and Catherine Bates (2001). Tucker notes Doran's emphasis on the plight of the innocent and finds that the production as a whole was appropriately dark in tone. Bates praises the production for Doran's ability to evoke from his actors a remarkable depth of characterization.
Virginia Mason Vaughan (1984) maintains that King John operates as a bridge between the two historical tetralogies, contending that the play “demonstrates Shakespeare's experimentation with more sophisticated dramaturgical techniques to convey political complexities, techniques he perfected in the Henriad.” Vaughan calls the play a “considerable achievement” that should not be disregarded by critics. E. Pearlman (1992), on the other hand, ranks King John among the least accomplished of Shakespeare's plays and the weakest of Shakespeare's histories. Pearlman cites its awkward plot, underdeveloped characters, and often uninspired language as major flaws. Taking a different approach to the play's language, Maurice Hunt (2000) studies the use of antimetabolic trope in King John. Hunt shows how Shakespeare used this type of figurative verse (words repeated in successive patterns, in reverse) to create ambiguity by obscuring what is presented as truth and emphasizing the play's theme of indeterminancy. Also exploring the play's ambiguous nature, James E. May (1983) posits that the image patterns used in the play evoke disorderly motion, expressing uncertainties in the play's characterizations and conflicts.