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King John

The events in King John take place in the 13th century, well before Shakespeare’s other English history plays. After the death of John's brother, Richard I, John rules England.

John's young nephew, Arthur, has a claim to the throne and is supported by the French. At first, a proposed marriage between the French crown prince and John's niece, Blanche, calms Anglo-French tensions. Then the pope, in a dispute over recognizing an archbishop, excommunicates John and backs Arthur's claim.

After war erupts, John captures Arthur and orders his death. Arthur’s guardian, Hubert, prepares to burn out Arthur's eyes, but then spares him. Arthur dies leaping from the prison wall. Arthur's mother Constance grieves inconsolably.

Meanwhile, French forces reach England. John submits to the pope to gain his aid. Rebellious English nobles join the French, but return to John when they learn the French prince plans to kill them. English forces under the bastard son of Richard I expel the French, but a monk poisons King John, whose son becomes Henry III. 

Early printed texts

King John was printed for the first time in the 1623 First Folio and that text serves as the source for all modern editions of the play, including the Folger edition.

The copy of the Second Folio (1632) digitized here was once owned by a Jesuit College in Spain and a censor blotted out some lines in the beginning of the third act.

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opening of King John in the First Folio
Item Title: 
Works. 1623] Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1623

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beginning of King John in the Second Folio
Item Title: 
Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22274 Fo.2 no.07
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1632

Picturing King John

As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to King John is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.

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R.B. Mantell as King John (19th or early 20th century)

Robert Mantell as King John (19th or early 20th century)

Item Title: 
R.B. Mantell as King John [in Shakespeare's play of that name] [graphic] / Matzene.
Item Call Number: 
ART File M292.8 no.21 PHOTO (size M)
Item Creator: 
Matzene Studio, photographer.
Item Date: 
Chicago [Ill. : s.n., 19th or early 20th cent.]

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Thomas Nast drawing of King John (19th century)
Thomas Nast drawing of King John (19th century)
Item Title: 
King John [graphic] / [Thomas Nast].
Item Call Number: 
ART Box N269 no.10 (size S)
Item Creator: 
Nast, Thomas, 1840-1902, artist.
Item Date: 
[18--?]

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Elsie Leslie as Prince Arthur (19th century)
Elsie Leslie as Prince Arthur (19th century)
Item Title: 
King John, Miss Elsie Leslie as Prince Arthur [graphic] / [Bernard Partridge].
Item Call Number: 
ART Box P275 no.5 (size S)
Item Creator: 
Partridge, Bernard, b. 1861, artist.
Item Date: 
[19--?]

More images of King John can be found in our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)