The Limits of Modernity in Shakespeare's King John

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Last Updated on July 2, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9315

Steve Longstaffe, S. Martin's College Lancaster

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Deborah Curren-Aquino, summing up fifty years of critical engagement with Shakespeare's King John, identifies a radical break with earlier views of the play in "the tendency in post 1940 scholarship to describe John as ambivalent, ambiguous, suspicious, sceptical, questioning and ideologically subversive".1 The form and tone of John, in other words, are recognisably modern. Few critics have gone as far as Sigurd Burckhardt, who in the 1960s asserted that the play documented Shakespeare's own modernity, defined as the recognition that order, or "justice and truth at the heart of things", was of human, rather than divine, origin.2 Burckhardt's position, though not his confidence that he could show that "when he wrote King John, or quite possibly in writing it, Shakespeare became a 'modern'", is echoed in Virginia Vaughan's claim of 1989 that the play "like Shakespeare's other history plays" depicts a crucial point in the inauguration of "the relativism of the modern age".3 But for the most part, writers on John have avoided such grand narratives of epistemological shifts, and found the play's modernity to be historically produced in a much more local way: as part of a Shakespearian negotiation with chronicle, source play, or the history play genre. What John is sceptical about, in other words, is other historical accounts of John's reign, especially regarding their relationship to what might still be termed Tudor ideology. For many critics, Shakespeare's John is in antagonistic relation to such "sources" as the anonymous Queen's Men's play The Troublesome Reign of King John and the 1587 Holinshed, interrogating the writing of history of which these two texts, and the history play as a genre, were part.

Such a John appears our contemporary, teasing out aporias and contradictions in Renaissance writings of legitimacy, faith, or patriotism. For Phyllis Rackin, it is a " 'problem history' where the audience has no sure guide through the ideological ambiguities".4 Larry Champion identifies it as "an open-ended chronicle play with historical process transformed into human process, stripped bare of Tudor providentialism and reduced to an individual self-interest that only in its best moments might be communally enlightened".5 Guy Hamel argues that Shakespeare's "assault on formulas [ . . . ] reveals itself in almost every departure from The Troublesome Reign".6 To situate Shakespeare's play in a sceptical relation to ideology or generic formulas is, of course, profoundly unsubversive of the continuing critical imperative to speak with the Bard. The modern Shakespeare, as Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out, must subvert only that which is no longer subversive. The John worthy of modern critics' engagement is produced by a common critical strategy, which is most clearly visible in the conclusion of one of the play's editors that "it would be a crippling limitation of the power of King John to tie it too closely to the situation of the 1590s".7 It is in its implication in the religious politics of the period of the Spanish war that John is most clearly un-modern; it is part of the wartime anti-Catholic polemic, something which has been played down in order to produce a modernity which legitimates a continual critical return to the play, and to a lesser extent, to Shakespeare.

It is not surprising that there has been relatively little interest in John's brand of Protestant nationalism of late, for, as David Aers has pointed out, many influential contemporary critics of early modern writing "display a marked lack of interest in Christian traditions, Christian practices and Christian institutions".8 Mid-century critics, following E. M. W. Tillyard's characterisation of the play as "but Mildly Protestant in tone", stressed the "moderation" of...

(The entire section contains 9315 words.)

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