|Grief fills the room up of my absent child|
Act 3, scene 4, line 95
To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily
Act 4, scene 2, line 11
Like most of Shakespeare’s history plays, King John presents a struggle for the English crown. The struggle this time, however, is strikingly cold-blooded and brutal.
John, the younger brother of the late Richard I, is the king, and a savage one. His opponent is a boy, his nephew Arthur, supported by the King of France and the Duke of Austria. After Arthur falls into John’s hands, John plots to torture him. Arthur’s capture gives Louis, the Dauphin of France, the opportunity to lay claim to John’s crown. John's nobles support Louis, but he schemes to betray them.
The play finds its hero in another figure: the Bastard, Sir Richard Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Richard I. Although he has an appetite for war, he also has a strong conscience and speaks with trenchant irony.
Research suggests that Shakespeare wrote King John in 1594–96. It was published in the 1623 First Folio. Sources include Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. A contemporary play, The Troublesome Reign of John King of England, may be a source, too.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2000 Folger Shakespeare Library
Geraldine Cousin. King John. Shakespeare in Performance series. New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ed. King John: New Perspectives. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Carole Levin. Propaganda in the English Reformation: Heroic and Villainous Images of King John. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1988.
Nina S. Levine. Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
Morriss Henry Partee. Childhood in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
Popular Shakespeare Plays in the American Past
Heather Nathans on King John in 1790s Boston
Surprise in King John, 1813 Style
Inside the Collection
Folios from the Collection: King John
Lesson Plan: Famous Death Lines