Categorized among Shakespeare's early historical dramas, King John (c. 1596) occupies a unique position between his first and second tetralogies. Unlike Shakespeare's other chronicle history plays, King John is generally thought to eschew a providential vision of English history, instead depicting a chaotic universe and an unpredictable sequence of events largely devoid of any teleological meaning. The play details the declining reign of the titular English king, a thirteenth-century monarch mired in a war with France and plagued with questions over the legitimacy of his rule. Critics have traditionally assumed that Shakespeare used the anonymously published The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England (1591) as a source for his play. Some recent commentators disagree with this assumption, however, and argue instead that The Troublesome Reign was derived from Shakespeare's King John. Scholars note that Shakespeare deliberately distorted historical fact in King John in order to focus on the play's principal theme: political legitimacy. This subject was of particular interest to Elizabethans because Queen Elizabeth's legitimacy was frequently questioned. In addition to the play's political content, critics are interested in Shakespeare's characterization of King John and his illegitimate nephew, the Bastard. Other ongoing issues of significance with regard to King John include the drama's sources, structure, and validity as a subject of contemporary theatrical performance.
Modern scholarship of King John has devoted considerable attention to the relationship between Shakespeare's drama and its probable source, The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England. Nicole Rowan (see Further Reading) compares King John with The Troublesome Reign of John in order to highlight John's motivation in both works. Rowan notes that despite his overall elevation of the poetic and dramatic quality of his source, Shakespeare's King John lacks the psychological motivation of the original. Guy Hamel (1989) follows a similar approach, again through comparison with The Troublesome Reign of John. According to Hamel, Shakespeare altered his source material in a number of significant ways, particularly his expanded characterization of the Bastard and his improvement upon the play's poetic quality. A more traditional, early twentieth-century discussion of character in King John is reflected in the critical writings of Stopford A. Brooke (see Further Reading). Brooke maintains that Shakespeare's John is one of the most historically accurate portrayals in the drama, an estimation that has since been largely discredited by subsequent scholarship. Characterizing John as an insensible villain, Brooke views the Bastard as King John's moral center and tacit hero and designates John's wife Constance as the source of the play's emotional depth. Charles Stubblefield (1973) presents contrasting appraisals of John and the Bastard based on their differing perceptions of the chaotic, deceitful, and insecure political world of Shakespeare's King John. Stubblefield views John as a bargainer and betrayer whose political treachery in ordering the death of his rivals is repaid in kind. In contrast, Stubblefield commends the Bastard for having accurately apprehended the unstable world around him and for penetrating the cynicism of his king. Turning to a minor but pivotal figure in King John, Sidney C. Burgoyne (1977) evaluates the guileful papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, characterizing him as the drama's principal “mischief-maker,” a sinister schemer whose actions contribute to the oppressive atmosphere of political chaos that pervades the play.
During the course of its stage history, King John has seen periods of relative popularity succeeded by long stretches of neglect. Geraldine Cousin (1994) offers a summary of King John's theatrical history, from its period of topical relevance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a phase of heavy-handed stage adaptation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cousin concludes with a look at the dramatic performance of King John in the twentieth century, a low point in its popularity according to the critic. The period shortly after Cousin wrote her survey, however, witnessed a resurgence of interest in King John as a stage piece. Two productions in particular, director Karin Coonrod's 2000 staging of the drama with the Theatre for a New Audience and Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company production of 2001, reaffirmed the dramatic potential of this frequently overlooked work. Reviewer Ben Brantley (2000) offers a generally positive assessment of Coonrod's “tough-minded and darkly funny” version. Brantley finds Coonrod's stylized and political interpretation of King John well-realized, though somewhat lacking in “intricate characterization.” Dan Isaac (2000) admires Coonrod's “vibrantly alive” production and notes its emphasis on the play's concerns with legitimacy and cynical politics. Reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company staging, Alastair Macaulay (2001) commends the strong performances of the cast as well as Doran's fine stewardship of the drama, but suggests that even these could not surmount the plot and pacing weaknesses inherent in Shakespeare's play. Offering a similar assessment, Ian Shuttleworth (2001) contends that “Doran's production as a whole works excellently on its own terms, but the niggling doubt remains that there are aspects of the play which are not, and perhaps never can be, all fully brought out in performance.” Reviewing the same production, Susannah Clapp (2001) praises Doran's “shrewd and playful and pertinent” staging. Clapp singles out several excellent performances, particularly Guy Henry in the demanding title role.
Scholars of King John have generally concentrated on the play's central issue: political legitimacy. John Sibly (1966) examines the play's themes of usurpation, rebellion, and social turmoil. Sibly stresses that these themes, as well as John's questionable legitimacy, would have strongly resonated with Elizabethan audiences. The critic also identifies a profoundly anti-Catholic and anti-papal element in the drama. Gunnar Boklund (1968) observes the elusiveness of a “happy ending” in King John. Boklund notes that the play's ambiguous conclusion dramatizes the uneasy compromise between Christian moral principle and corrupted political self-interest (termed “commodity” in the drama) and ultimately fails to resolve the thematic tensions between these two opposing ideologies. In his 1970 essay, Philip D. Ortego aligns King John with the Tudor myth that features so prominently in Shakespeare's chronicle history sequences. Like the first and second tetralogies, Ortego claims, King John invokes the Tudor doctrine of providential, divine-right monarchy as a tool of political legitimacy and social unity. Douglas C. Wixson (1981) describes King John as an “open” form of Elizabethan political propaganda that makes an appeal for political unity. Wixson notes that the work represents a balance between artistic and political concerns, which contributes to the expansiveness of its message. Lastly, Kenneth Tucker (2003) underscores the chaotic worldview rendered in King John, emphasizing elements of confusion, perplexity, and Machiavellian political deceit that inform the drama.