The Sequence of Posterity: Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"The Sequence of Posterity": Shakespeare's King John and the Succession Controversy

Robert Lane, North Carolina State University

Thus you see, this crown is not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that may claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall is by many doubted.

Thomas Wilson1

This matter doth rather require the mouth of all England, then of anie one man.

Peter Wentworth2

When Parliament convened in February, 1593, the queen was 59 years old, her age intensifying public concern over that "uncertain certainty,"3 the as-yet unsettled succession on her death. This apprehension had persisted since early in her reign, the succession issue having been the focus of domestic politics as early as the 1560s, especially after Elizabeth's serious illnesses in 1562 and 1564.4 Despite, or rather because of, the decisive importance of this question, it remained largely invisible on the landscape of public discourse. Elizabeth's government was determined to see that this preoccupation had no outlet. Public discussion of the succession was forbidden, declared treasonous by parliamentary statute.5 Authors of pamphlets on the subject on 1564 and 1568 were imprisoned, even though in the latter instance the author advocated what was the government's own position.6 Despite Parliament's active participation in the question of succession during her father's reign,7 Elizabeth consistently refused its counsel, "reserv[ing]" this prerogative, according to the French Ambassador, "for herself."8 Elizabeth was adamant in refusing to name her successor, fearful that a rising sun would eclipse her, relegating her to lame-duck status.9 The result was a population largely cowed into silence on this "notoriously taboo" question,10 for, as Edmund Plowden declared in 1566,

in dealing in tytles of kyngdomes there is mutche danger … and in these cases I thinke the surest waie is to be sylent, for in silence there is saufftie but in speache there is perill, and in wryting more.11

Despite the danger, however, there continued to be notable protesters against the government's position, whose treatment at the hands of the Crown punctuated its policy of enforced muteness. Most prominent among these was Peter Wentworth, who was imprisoned from 1593 until his death in 1597 for discussing the succession with a few of his parliamentary collegues.12 Wentworth had also been incarcerated in 1591 for his efforts to have the queen resolve this issue.13 At that time the Lord Chancellor upbraided him before the Privy Council for prompting discussion of the succession in "cobblers' and taylors' shops."14 The aim of the Crown's policy was wholly to remove the question of royal lineage from discussion by subjects, since the discussion itself implied their capacity to render judgment on the legitimacy of monarchs, a dangerous contradiction of the Crown's self-representation as immune from all judgment except God's.15

With Wentworth's example in front of it the 1593 Parliament refused to deal with the succession.16 Its failure prompted the publication of the most famous of the 1590s succession tracts, the Jesuit priest Robert Parsons'Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland (1594).17 Parsons' exhaustive work—together with responses to it by Henry Constable and John Hayward, Wentworth's two pamphlets on the subject, and Thomas Wilson's summary of the claims of the various contestants—define the issues surrounding the determination of Elizabeth's successor as they took shape after 1590.18 Defying censorship in an effort to "influence a politically conscious reading public,"19 they indicate the intense national interest in the question.

It has been recognized that Elizabethan drama addressed that interest, providing a forum for examination of the issue in a manner sufficiently oblique to avoid government retaliation. Marie Axton, for example, referred to Elizabethan drama as "the medium for speculation and protest, as testing ground for political ideas and situations."20 What has not been acknowledged, however, is how thoroughly, almost systematically, Shakespeare inKing John engages the specific issues entailed in the succession crisis of the 1590s, the issues the pamphleteers devoted so much attention to because their resolution would determine the next monarch of England. Indeed, it is more than plausible that Shakespeare chose King John's reign because its legitimacy—the fundamental focus of the play—turned on strikingly similar issues. The elements of Shakespeare's play are shaped to emphasize that similarity, underscoring three questions:

  1. the effect of a monarch's will in naming the successor;
  2. the propriety of a foreigner acceding to the throne; and
  3. the process by which a successor would be chosen, in particular the role of the people in that determination.

A play about King John would have been self-evidently topical, since his reign figured as a precedent (positive or negative) in the succession debate as to the first two of these issues.21 Shakespeare's fashioning of the historical material intensifies its pertinence not only by highlighting the third, but by the way that he shapes and combines various elements in the play's own succession controversy. While the official representation of John emphasized the religious dimension, portraying him as wholly justified in resisting the illegitimate incursion of papal Rome,22 Shakespeare significantly toned down the religious conflict in order to highlight those matters that pertained more directly to the succession.23 Further, by farming the issues in a way that pits important principles and values against one another, rather than as all neatly aligned behind a single figure, Shakespeare's drama creates in his audience what Phyllis Rackin calls "divided allegiances."24 This effect forces the audience to consider the relative weight to be given each of these principles in determining a prince.

When Philip the Bastard rails against the "scroyles [scoundrels] of Angiers" who

[S]tand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence thay gape and point
At [the kings'] industrious scenes and acts of

he means to derogate the citizens' role as frivolous and impudent. But the simile ("As in a theatre") points up the relative security of the playhouse audience to take up contested political questions, albeit in veiled form, a security that encouraged the theater's role in critically examining those questions. The audience for the play is aligned with the citizens in it as judges of the respective claims of the competitors to the throne.25 By his presentation Shakespeare provokes precisely what the Crown's policy precluded—the exercise of critical judgment on the part of his audience—casting them as participants in the process of determining the successor. In so doing he constitutes the theater as a deliberative forum where that judgment can be stimulated and nurtured.

"By Will Bequeath'D": The Monarch's Power To Fix The Succession By Will

(Shakespearean Criticism)


In Elizabethan England continuity with the past was a potent source of legitimacy (hence the use of charges of "novelty" and "innovation" to discredit religious and political claims or activities). But in the 1590s discontinuity was unavoidable: the English people were facing, in Elizabeth's impending death without an heir, a radical disjunction in their history. The arguments over the succession were a contest, not just between candidates, but over which of the competing historical narratives could best restore that breach and re-align the monarchy, and the nation, with its antecedents.26 The historical project of bringing past and present into a coherent relationship, one productive of a sense of collective identity, was at the heart of the contest over legitimacy.

Shakespeare's play offers several links to the reign of the deceased Richard I. Most important as far as John's title is concerned is the conflict pitting testamentary disposition of the Crown—a narrative that binds past and present through the exercise of the deceased monarch's will (in both senses)—against the operation of the laws of primogeniture—a narrative forging that link through the legal plotting of lineage. Though John's claim to the throne resides largely in his "possession." of it (1.1.38), we learn later that he was named as heir in Richard I's will, which Elinor claims "bars the title" (2.1.192) of John's nephew Arthur—the better claim under the rules of primogeniture in effect in both John's and Elizabeth's reigns.27 The validity of what was historically a death-bed instrument is put in question by Elinor herself, with her acknowledgment of doubt about John's title (1.1.40), and by the denunciation of Arthur's mother Constance:

A will! a wicked will,
A woman's will, a cank'red grandam's will!

A will like Richard I's purporting to fix succession to the Crown was central to the 1590s debate. Henry VIII by his will (also a death-bed instrument) had contravened primogeniture by designating the heirs of hisyounger sister Mary Tudor (the Suffolk line), rather than those of hisolder sister Margaret Tudor (the Stuart line) as the royal bloodline in the event Elizabeth died childless. If the will was valid, then the sons of Lady Catherine Grey would be next in line, instead of James VI of Scotland.28 The will was challenged on technical grounds as well as for Henry's mental incapacity and was "for a time mislaid,"29 but supporting its validity was the parliamentary...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

"Stranger Blood": The Capacity Of A Foreigner To Inherit Land Or Crown

(Shakespearean Criticism)


By juxtaposing John's dubious title with the Faulconbridge controversy Shakespeare's play poses the question of how inheritance and succession are related. Implicit in the disposition of the throne by will is the analogy between the demise of the crown and the devolution of property. But is the analogy a sound one? To what extent do the legal principles governing the inheritance property apply to the succession?38 Because English law precluded foreigners iting land,39 this question bore significantly on a central issue in the succession debate: whether a foreigner could accede to the English throne. John's...

(The entire section is 1269 words.)

"Speak, Citizens, For England": The Process Of Determining The Successor

(Shakespearean Criticism)


At the very outset of Shakespeare's play, war is introduced as the readiest means for resolving succession disputes. When John asks the French Ambassador "what follows" if he rejects Arthur's claim to the throne, Chatillion declares, "The proud control of fierce and bloody war, / To enforce these rights so forcibly witheld" (1.1.17-18). Virtually all the pamphleteers invoked the spectre of war in urging alternatives for determining Elizabeth's successor.56 Wentworth warned the queen that "[t]o leave [that designation] quyte without establishment, to whomever can catch it" would lead to civil war, "so that...

(The entire section is 5757 words.)