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.
SOURCE: Vaughan, Virginia Mason. “Between Tetralogies: King John as Transition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 4 (winter 1984): 402-20.
[In the following essay, Vaughan 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.”]
Modern scholars, not surprisingly, are fascinated by Shakespeare's second tetralogy.1 Separately the plays offer wide variety—from Richard II's formal deposition, to Falstaff's witty...
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SOURCE: Pearlman, E. “King John.” In William Shakespeare: The History Plays, pp. 65-72. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following essay, Pearlman investigates the weaknesses of King John, focusing on the play's plot, characters, and language.]
King John is certainly the weakest of Shakespeare's history plays, and it may be the least accomplished of all his works. The complaints about it are grievous: the plot is clumsy, the characters both undeveloped and inconsistent, and the language only intermittently interesting. The play does not seem to have engaged Shakespeare's deepest imagination.
The opening scene is by...
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SOURCE: Elliot, John R. “Shakespeare and the Double Image of King John.” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 64-84.
[In the following essay, Elliot 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.]
The study of the sources of literary works is usually, and with good reason, confined to books which the author in question can be...
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SOURCE: Heberle, Mark A. “‘Innocent Prate’: King John and Shakespeare's Children.” In Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, edited by Elizabeth Goodenough, Mark A. Heberle, and Naomi Sokoloff, pp. 28-43. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Heberle 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.]
The moral climax of Shakespeare's King...
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SOURCE: Colmo, Christopher. “Coming Home: The Political Settlement in Shakespeare's King John.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 91-101. Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.
[In the following essay, Colmo reviews the political issues of King John, and within this context discusses the problems related to the inheritance of rule in general, King John's role as a usurper and his treatment of Arthur in particular.]
King John portrays the nearly successful invasion of England by the French. This success is made possible in part by the...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Review of King John.” Variety 377, no. 12 (7 February 2000): 64.
[In the following review, Isherwood praises Karin Coonrod's Theatre for a New Audience production of King John for its clarity of direction, but notes that the production lacked conceptual inspiration.]
King John is one of Shakespeare's least admired history plays, and as you watch its meandering, unfocused plot unfold in fits and starts, it's pretty easy to see why. It's also, naturally enough, rarely staged, so Shakespeare completists may want to check out the Theater for a New Audience production Off Broadway, directed with admirable clarity if no...
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SOURCE: Simon, John. “P-Shaw.” New York 33, no. 7 (21 February 2000): 101-02.
[In the following excerpted review of Karin Coonrod's Theatre for a New Audience production of King John, Simon faults the production on several levels. Simon argues that the acting was weak, the production was not opulent enough to adequately treat the play's pageantry, and the director failed to capture the play's complexity and subtlety.]
A lesser play of Shakespeare's, King John requires three things to work: a director alert to subtleties and complexities that need stressing or clarifying; an accomplished cast of (preferably English) actors who can handle convolution...
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SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. “Summer Shakespeare in Britain.” Shakespeare Newsletter 51, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 2001): 37-8.
[In the following excerpted review, Tucker assesses Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of King John, praising Doran's emphasis on the plight of the innocent and finding that the production as a whole was appropriately dark in tone.]
Although often produced during the nineteenth century, King John was unjustly neglected in the twentieth. Certainly not among Shakespeare's best plays, King John forces its audience, nevertheless, to look at unpleasant truths about the political world that many persons would...
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SOURCE: Bates, Catherine. “Commodity's Slaves.” Times Literary Supplement no. 5115 (13 April 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Bates examines two productions of King John: Northern Broadsides' production co-directed by Conrad Nelson and Barrie Rutter, and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production directed by Gregory Doran. Bates finds that the Northern Broadsides' production forcefully refuted any pretensions of nationalism and reflected Shakespeare's refusal to choose sides in the play's conflicts. Bates praises the RSC production for Doran's ability to evoke from his actors a remarkable depth of characterization.]
Rarely performed plays like...
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SOURCE: May, James E. “Imagery of Disorderly Motion in King John: A Thematic Gloss.” Essays in Literature 10, no. 1 (spring 1983): 17-28.
[In the following essay, May posits that the image patterns used in King John evoke disorderly motion, expressing uncertainties in the play's characterizations and conflicts.]
The political problems of Shakespeare's King John E. M. W. Tillyard has detailed as, “in the ascending order of importance, the succession, the ethics of rebellion, and the kingly character.”1 M. M. Reese's definition of Shakespeare's concerns largely concurs: “John's flawed title, followed by his palpable wickedness,...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Antimetabolic King John.” Style 34, no. 3 (fall 2000): 380-401.
[In the following essay, Hunt analyzes Shakespeare's use of antimetabolic tropes in King John, contending that this type of language obscures what is presented as truth and emphasizes the play's theme of indeterminancy.]
Lawrence Danson, among others, has demonstrated that certain rhetorical tropes as Elizabethans understood them characterize and order some Shakespeare plays. The action of Coriolanus, for example, amounts to a kinetic combination of two tropes—metonymy and synecdoche (142-62). To these tropes might be added hyperbole in Cymbeline,...
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Barish, Jonas. “King John and Oath Breach.” In Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism. Essays in Honour of Marvin Spevack, edited by Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, pp. 1-18. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 1987.
Explores Shakespeare's preoccupation with the theme of the pledging and breaking of oaths in King John.
Burgoyne, Sidney C. “Cardinal Pandulph and the ‘Curse of Rome.’” College Literature 4, no. 3 (fall 1977): 232-40.
Maintains that Pandulph, the papal legate, is a highly influential character in the play and serves as a primary source of the corruption from which...
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