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.
SOURCE: Hamel, Guy. “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: A Reexamination.” In King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, pp. 41-61. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1989.
[In the following essay, Hamel approaches King John as an adaptation of the anonymous 1591 drama The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, noting that 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.]
The comparison of Shakespeare's King John to the anonymous The Troublesome Raigne of...
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SOURCE: Beaurline, L. A., ed. Introduction to The New Cambridge Shakespeare: King John, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Beaurline traces parallels between the structural design and characterizations of King John.]
Like Shakespeare's other histories and tragedies, [King John] falls into two unequal parts, roughly equivalent to Acts 1-3 and 4-5.1 The first part concerns two challenges to John's authority, one of which he finesses, the other he overcomes: the second part concerns the French invasion, which the kingdom survives but John does not. Part I is dominated by three massive...
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SOURCE: Cousin, Geraldine. Introduction to Shakespeare in Performance: King John, pp. 1-27. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Cousin surveys the performance and critical history of King John, listing significant adaptations of the drama and summarizing major movements in its reception and interpretation.]
KING JOHN IN THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES
The few incontestable facts concerning the early history of King John are soon told: in 1598 it was listed among Shakespeare's ‘tragedies’ in Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia; it was initially published in the First Folio...
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SOURCE: Stubblefield, Charles. “Some Thoughts about King John.” CEA Critic 35, no. 3 (March 1973): 25-8.
[In the following essay, Stubblefield 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.]
No two commentators read Shakespeare's King John alike, and in some instances there are directly opposed views as to what the meaning of the play is. What characterizes a large portion of the criticism that one reads on King John is its tendency to consider only one element of the play, such as characterization or imagery. Such...
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SOURCE: Burgoyne, Sidney C. “Cardinal Pandulph and the ‘Curse of Rome.’” College Literature 4, no. 3 (fall 1977): 232-40.
[In the following essay, Burgoyne stresses Cardinal Pandulph's role as villain and “chief mischief-maker” in King John.]
Although holding a minority opinion, a surprising number of writers1 have viewed Cardinal Pandulph, the papal legate, in a kindly light, and some have maintained that in comparison with the source-play2 Shakespeare's King John shows a complete absence of anti-Catholic elements.3 A recent scholar offers a far more perceptive view of the Cardinal but then seems to miss his...
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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. Review of King John. New York Times (31 January 2000): E1.
[In the following review, Brantley finds director Karin Coonrod's stylized and political interpretation of King John with the Theater for a New Audience well-realized, though somewhat lacking in “intricate characterization.”]
The man in the front row, the one with the heavy black eyeliner, can't believe what he's seeing. Actually, he's a character in Karin Coonrod's lively new production of Shakespeare's King John, but he has decided to join the audience to get a clearer perspective on what's going on between the play's title monarch and the King of France It is,...
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SOURCE: Isaac, Dan. Review of King John. Back Stage 41, no. 6 (11 February 2000): 56.
[In the following review, Isaac admires Karin Coonrod's “vibrantly alive” 2000 Theatre for a New Audience production of King John, noting its emphasis on the play's concerns with legitimacy and cynical politics.]
Shakespeare's King John, generally thought to be a weak play about a weak embattled king, comes vibrantly alive in an imaginative production directed by Karin Coonrod and presented by Theatre for a New Audience.
The question of who has the right to inherit is introduced in the opening scene, when a French ambassador threatens war if...
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SOURCE: Shuttleworth, Ian. Review of King John. Financial Times (30 March 2001): 18.
[In the following review, Shuttleworth suggests that Gregory Doran's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of King John resolved some, but not all, of the play's problems of characterization and structural unity.]
While Northern Broadsides beat the Royal Shakespeare Company to the punch by a couple of weeks with the first big production of King John in a decade or more, Gregory Doran's production in the Swan at Stratford is the more watchable; moreover, the problems with the play are not fictitious, and Doran goes some—though not the whole—way towards...
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SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. Review of King John. Observer (1 April 2001): 13.
[In the following excerpted review, Clapp singles out several excellent performances in director Gregory Doran's “shrewd and playful” 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of King John.]
Suddenly King John, one of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, is all the rage. Last month, Northern Broadsides belted it out in Halifax. Now it's at the Swan. And in Gregory Doran's marvellous new production, it comes up shrewd and playful and pertinent. Shot through with humour and despair, this study of political shenanigans presents diplomacy (alias spin) as a series of...
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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. Review of King John. Financial Times (20 December 2001): 22.
[In the following review of Gregory Doran's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of King John, Macaulay 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.]
No Shakespeare play comes round less often than King John. And yet there's never any doubt that all of it—unlike Pericles or Henry VIII, for example—is Shakespeare's work. In every scene, the cut-and-thrust of dialogue, the wonderful...
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SOURCE: Barrow, Craig. Review of King John. Upstart Crow 22 (2002): 96-9.
[In the following review of Howard Jensen's production of King John at the 2001 Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Barrow praises the set design, costuming, and excellent individual performances, as well as its concentration on the tragic potential of John.]
On entering the Octagon to see King John, one is confronted by a series of arches forming a rampart set at an acute angle to the stage; each arch seems slightly larger than the next. One wishes imaginatively to make these arches harmonically the same size, but one is frustrated by the creation of this visible symbol of the...
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SOURCE: Sibly, John. “The Anomalous Case of King John.” ELH 33, no. 4 (December 1966): 415-21.
[In the following essay, Sibly describes King John as a strongly anti-papal drama depicting themes of usurpation and political legitimacy that were especially relevant in the Elizabethan era.]
Most writers on the subject of King John have been puzzled by the emphasis Shakespeare lays on the fact that the eponymous monarch was an usurper. In what must for many years remain the standard study of the History plays, for instance, Mr. Reese1 speaks of ‘Shakespeare's curious insistence that John was a usurper. …’ E. A. J. Honigmann in his...
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SOURCE: Boklund, Gunnar. “The Troublesome Ending of King John.” Studia Neophilologica 40, no. 1 (1968): 175-84.
[In the following essay, Boklund observes the elusiveness of a “happy ending” in King John and notes that the play's ambiguous conclusion dramatizes the uneasy compromise between Christian moral principle and corrupted political self-interest.]
To judge from the critical attention that has been devoted to King John since the publication of Tillyard's and Lily B. Campbell's books on Shakespeare's history plays, it is now taken much more seriously than previously, although nothing like critical unanimity about it has so far been...
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SOURCE: Ortego, Philip D. “Shakespeare and the Doctrine of Monarchy in King John.” CLA Journal 13, no. 4 (June 1970): 392-401.
[In the following essay, Ortego argues that King John, like Shakespeare's other history plays, invokes the Tudor doctrine of providential, divine-right monarchy as a tool of political legitimacy and social unity.]
In the very first play of the Histories, King John, Shakespeare omits the most significantly important event of the time, videlicet, the baronial charter of concessions called the Magna Carta. In the Birth of Britain Winston Churchill describes this singular event as follows:
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SOURCE: Wixson, Douglas C. “‘Calm Words Folded Up in Smoke’: Propaganda and Spectator Response in Shakespeare's King John.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 111-27.
[In the following essay, Wixson describes King John as an “open” form of Elizabethan political propaganda that makes an appeal for political unity.]
The low view of political life, Faulconbridge's determination to run with the times, conflicts in which both sides lose, divided loyalties, endless “jawboning”—these are elements of Shakespeare's King John that ought to make it material for a successful modern production. Yet this play continues to languish, awaiting some...
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SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. “‘Cry, havoc!’ King John and the Darkling Plain.” In Shakespeare and Jungian Typology: A Reading of the Plays, pp. 15-32. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003.
[In the following essay, Tucker considers themes associated with the chaotic, unpredictable, and Machiavellian political world of King John.]
Among Shakespeare's history plays King John has seldom received accolades. Early in the twentieth century, E. K Chambers, in his Shakespeare: A Survey, dubbed it an “incoherent patchwork” (102). E. M. W. Tillyard in his classic, if controversial, Shakespeare's History Plays, though finding the drama...
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Berman, Ronald. “Anarchy and Order in Richard III and King John.” Shakespeare Survey 20 (1967): 51-60.
Contends that King John and Richard III differ significantly from Shakespeare's other historical dramas in their depiction of a conflict between anarchic individualism and idealized social order, as respectively personified in the figures of the Bastard and Richard III.
Berryman, John. “1590: King John.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 296-307. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Characterizes Shakespeare's early dramatic style as...
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