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King John

A scene from King John

Introduction to the play

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.

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of King John

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

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

King John in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to King John. Find more in our digital image collection

R.B. Mantell as King John
Ink drawing of a scene from King John. By Thomas Nast.
Miss Elsie Leslie as Prince Arthur. By Bernard Partridge.
From Heroines of Shakespeare. By John W. Wright.

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

King John

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s King John
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

Related blog posts and podcasts

Teaching King John

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.