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King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Context


A Troublesome Reign

King John is unusual among the protagonists of William Shakespeare's English histories. He is neither a hero like Henry V nor a villain like Richard III. He is neither a pious, peace-loving monarch like Henry VI nor a hard-nosed pragmatist like Henry IV. In fact, one of the most persistent criticisms of King John is the blandness of the title character. He seems to alternate between periods of abject victimhood and periods of fitful, ill-advised action. He begins the play, for example, by defying the French king's attempt to encroach on his sovereignty. But then King John defies the pope over a seemingly much smaller matter, causing the outbreak of a needless and costly war. The war puts John on the defensive for a time, but when he emerges to take action once more, the result is even more disastrous. He orders Philip Faulconbridge, known as the Bastard, to squeeze money out of the monasteries, angering and alienating England's churchmen. Then he orders the assassination of his nephew Arthur, causing his noblemen to leave the royal court in outrage. From here John is reduced to a position of anxious passivity, growing sicker and weaker as the war carries on largely without him. He dies not on a battlefield but on a sickbed at the hands of a poisoner.

Shakespeare's negative portrayal of King John is largely supported by history—at least, the version of history told by John's contemporaries and near-contemporaries. The historical King John (1167–1216) was an unpopular monarch. Under his predecessors, Henry II (1133–89) and Richard I (1157–99), England enjoyed control over a vast swath of territory in the western half of present-day France. Much of this so-called Angevin Empire was lost during the wars depicted in King John, which include the Anglo-French War (1213–14) and the First Barons' War (1215–17). John himself had lost and regained parts of northern France multiple times prior to the action of the play. After his reign the strife would continue, forming the subject—or at least a backdrop—for most of Shakespeare's remaining history plays.

Throughout Shakespeare's other dramatizations of medieval history, strong English kingship is identified with the ability to seize and retain territories in France. Those who can do so—most notably Henry V—are heroes; those who let French possessions slip—Henry VI—are objects of pity or derision. None of these monarchs, however, allowed French forces to invade the English mainland. That such an invasion happens on John's watch is a serious mark against him. In allowing England to be overrun by the Dauphin's forces, as happens in Acts 4 and 5, John reveals himself a weak ruler. Shakespeare portrays this weakness as personal rather than as a structural side effect of John's political position.

John was also a reputed tyrant who, according to the chroniclers, tortured and imprisoned his noblemen on the slightest pretext, sometimes starving them to death in dungeons. At his death he was essentially "booed offstage" by the clergymen who chronicled his life. "Foul as it is," wrote 13th-century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, "hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John."

John's attempt to assassinate his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany, was one of the pillars of his bad reputation, both during his life and posthumously. There is no real certainty as to what became of Arthur, but this question did not stop the chroniclers from speculating. Some maintained that John had delegated the deed to a henchman—Peter de Mauley or Hubert de Burgh. Raphael Holinshed, Shakespeare's primary 16th-century source for his English history plays, says only that "writers make sundry reports" concerning John's involvement in Arthur's death. King John was held "in great suspicion," but "whether worthily or not, the Lord knoweth." Shakespeare cobbles together the various accounts of the chroniclers into a portrait of John that makes him an attempted murderer but not a successful one.

John is perhaps best remembered for signing the Magna Carta, the "Great Charter" that imposed legal limits on monarchical powers. He did so in 1215 under pressure from his noblemen, who had grown tired of his abuses and threatened to revolt if he did not comply. Although it is a central part of King John's dubious legacy, the Magna Carta is nowhere mentioned in Shakespeare's play. Nonetheless, John's difficulties in retaining the loyalty of his noblemen are a constant source of drama in King John.

Holinshed's Chronicles and The Troublesome Raigne

The historical backbone of King John comes from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; second edition, 1587). This work presents a panoramic history of England from prehistoric times up through the reign of Henry VIII. Shakespeare was evidently familiar with the posthumous second edition, which he used as a source for at least a dozen plays. Holinshed's account of King John, like many other parts of his chronicle, is a synthesis of the work of earlier medieval chroniclers. When those chroniclers disagree, Holinshed—to his credit—typically reports the disagreement and comments on the trustworthiness of the different sources. Sometimes, as in the matter of Arthur's death, Holinshed is downright skeptical of the chroniclers, whom he sees as having political biases. They may have been closer to the actual events, Holinshed admits, but "the Lord knoweth" which of them are telling the truth. Holinshed's refusal to endorse a single, streamlined narrative works in Shakespeare's favor because it gives him many possible "paths" through the story of King John.

A potentially more direct source for King John lies in the 1591 play The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England. Written and performed in the late 1580s, this play differs from King John in details of plot, characterization, and overall tone. The Bastard, King John's nephew, plays a much fuller role in the action of Troublesome Raigne, where he stars in scenes not included in King John. Arthur, historically a teenager during the time of the play, is more of a spirited youth in Troublesome Raigne, rather than the innocent child he becomes in King John. The play is also remarkable for its strongly anti-Catholic tone. King John is by no means flattering in its depiction of the Church, but Troublesome Raigne makes jokes at the clergy's expense. Scene 6 of Troublesome Raigne, for example, features Franciscan friars and nuns who are comically lustful, repeating a common anti-Catholic stereotype of the era. Then in Scene 12 Cardinal Pandulph makes some chuckling asides to show his smugness and hunger for power. The only clergyman to appear onstage in King John is Pandulph, whose villainous traits are presented more subtly than in Troublesome Raigne.

Some details of King John make more sense if Troublesome Raigne is considered its "prototype." In Troublesome Raigne, for example, Eleanor first attempts to make peace between her son and great-nephew by inviting Arthur to become a member of John's court. This would mean forsaking his own claim to the throne, which he refuses to do, thereby precipitating the war shown in both King John and Troublesome Raigne. Another potentially puzzling development in King John is John's poisoning at the end of the play. Why do the monks hate him so much as to be willing to assassinate him? In King John John sends the Bastard to extort money from the monasteries, but this act in itself provides a somewhat flimsy reason for regicide. In Troublesome Raigne, however, the Bastard gets an entire scene in which he abuses the friars, threatening to execute them if they do not pay for the king's war. Then, in Scene 13, John makes a sarcastic speech about the luxury and plenty enjoyed by the friars, which surpass those of any "king" or "lord." The friars—onstage—plot John's death as retaliation both for the Bastard's extortion and for his abuse of their hospitality. With its combination of evil friars and openly oppressive rulers, Troublesome Raigne sets up John's assassination as a foregone conclusion, rather than the surprise it becomes in King John.

The true author of Troublesome Raigne, however, is unknown, making it impossible to say whether the play was a predecessor to King John, a near-contemporary rival work, or even a "knockoff" version of Shakespeare's history. This is, admittedly, a long shot because Shakespeare would then have to have written King John much earlier than is commonly believed. Troublesome Raigne has sometimes even been attributed to Shakespeare, as his own unpolished draft of the better-known King John.

King John and the Papacy

Several elements of King John stand out as anticlerical, if not altogether anti-Catholic. The promise of peace between England and France is cut short by a scheming cardinal and a domineering pope. Abbeys are painted as "fat" revenue sources and dens of murderous sedition, not beacons of holiness in a fallen world. About halfway through the play, John openly defies the pontiff through his messenger Cardinal Pandulph, who responds by goading France into a war with England. Although King John is not as stridently anti-Catholic as The Troublesome Raigne, it undeniably paints the Church—particularly the papacy—in a bad light.

Where does this anti-Catholic sentiment come from? The answer involves a mixture of 13th-century history and 16th-century popular prejudices. The historical John had what might be called a love-hate relationship with Pope Innocent III, who had him excommunicated in 1209. John's crime, in the pope's eyes, was his interference in the election of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. This much is more or less accurately reported in King John, but the play's rendition of excommunication is somewhat exaggerated. Excommunication, used as a plot device in Act 3, Scene 1 is a formal banning or kicking-out from the Church, intended—at least in principle—to be a temporary punishment. It does not, as Pandulph's actions suggest, involve turning the excommunicated person into an outlaw whose assassination is sanctioned in advance by the pope. John—again as Shakespeare dutifully reports—eventually relented and accepted the pope's authority, handing over his crown in 1213. It was given back to John in a form of kingly "parole," whereby John was required to pay an annual tribute to the pope. Thus, outwardly at least, the historical John eventually recognized the authority of Innocent III. More to the point, he acknowledged the pope as a sovereign, from whom he merely leased or borrowed the right to rule.

Shakespeare, however, was not writing for 13th-century audiences. His original audiences lived during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the pope's influence over England was vastly diminished. In the 1530s King Henry VIII had rejected the authority of the pope and established the Church of England, with himself as its spiritual leader. This Protestant church proceeded to become the state religion, with Catholicism being outlawed under Elizabeth I. By the 1590s as Elizabeth's reign neared its end, Anglicanism (participation in the Church of England) had become a mainstream component of English thought. Catholic clergy were now, as in King John, often portrayed as comical or villainous "others" set apart from the regular run of society. By having King John blatantly reject papal authority, even in principle, Shakespeare rewrites him into a proto-Protestant, three centuries before the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) waged against Catholic practices actually took place. From an Elizabethan standpoint, John's defiance of the pope is, arguably, his most heroic action, in spite of its disastrous consequences.

Production History

The early stage history of King John is shrouded in obscurity. Critic Michael Best, in his introduction to the University of Victoria's Internet Shakespeare edition, observes "there are no clear indications of the company that first performed it," let alone of its premiere date or venue. Only in the 18th century are performances of King John noted, and these are years apart. To judge from the actors and theaters associated with the play, it was by that time a well-respected part of the Shakespearean repertoire. One production took place at Covent Garden (1737) and another (1745) featured English stage legend David Garrick in the title role.

Unlike many Shakespeare plays performed in the 18th century, King John seems generally to have been performed as written, rather than heavily adapted. This changed near the end of the century, when leading British actor-manager John Philip Kemble brought a trimmed-down King John to the stage. The abridgments of this version (premiered 1783) then became commonplace in the play's numerous 19th-century productions. Victorian audiences, as Best notes, were generally fond of the play's moral message, though at least one author of the period—English lawyer Gilbert Abbott à Beckett—saw fit to transform King John into a musical burlesque. The most famous and well-documented Victorian production, however, was that of English producer Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1899), who staged the play as a grand spectacle with ornate costumes and a cast of hundreds.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, King John has fallen into obscurity, becoming one of the most rarely performed of Shakespeare's histories. The classic—and, as of 2018, the only—screen version of the play is that of the BBC Television Shakespeare, which included King John in its 1984 season. Yet the infrequency of modern King John productions belies their stylistic variety: since the 1970s, versions of the play have ranged from stately and conservative to modernized and off-kilter. The BBC production, like most other histories in the series, was very much the former. It featured ornate sets and costuming designed to evoke a "medieval" atmosphere, though not necessarily that of the early 13th century specifically. English theater director Buzz Goodbody (1970), in contrast, produced a "minimalist and hard-hitting" version, which critic Alycia Smith-Howard credits with not "sentimentalizing the king's death."

Most other modern productions have situated themselves somewhere between these two extremes, updating or streamlining the play's medieval setting but not eliminating it entirely. Among modern-dress stagings, director Maria Aberg's Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation (2012) stands out for its reimagining of gender roles: both the Bastard and Pandulph are not simply played by women, but rewritten as female characters. In an interview about her approach to the play, Aberg described this choice as an experiment that "changed the dynamic" of the play. "There is something quite glorious," Aberg opined, "about seeing a woman play [a] heroic warrior"—especially given the absence of such roles elsewhere in Shakespeare.

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