Skip to main content
King John /

An Introduction to This Text: King John

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

King John was first printed in the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays now known as the First Folio. The present edition is based directly upon that printing.1 There was an earlier dramatic version of the events in King John. This two-part play, called The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn, King of England, was first published in 1591. While the action of The Troublesome Raigne is, in most respects, the image of the action in Shakespeare’s King John, there is practically no verbal resemblance between the two plays. They also differ in that Shakespeare’s version omits most of the savage satire on Roman Catholicism that is a large part of The Troublesome Raigne. As is always the case with things Shakespearean, there has been controversy over the possibility of reconstructing the chronology and relationship of King John and The Troublesome Raigne. In the opinion of most scholars, the 1591 play served as Shakespeare’s source; other scholars believe that the 1591 play somehow derives from Shakespeare’s text—perhaps, according to a small minority of scholars, through the agency of actors’ memories of Shakespeare’s play. Because there is no way to verify any of this speculation, it cannot be used in the editing of the First Folio text of King John. (For more on King John and The Troublesome Raigne, see our “Further Reading” under the entry “Bullough.”)

Explore The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn, King of England (1591) in the Folger’s Digital Collections.

For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the Folio. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, usually when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more, and ye to you. But it is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

Whenever we change the wording of the First Folio or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the First Folio does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change either the First Folio’s wording or its punctuation so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

We regularize spellings of a number of the proper names, as is the usual practice in editions of the play. For example, the Folio sometimes calls Eleanor by the name “Elinor” but we use the spelling “Eleanor” throughout the text.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance rather than as a series of actual events. Thus stage directions that we as editors add to the play’s text are written, like those printed in the Folio, with reference to the stage. For example, the Folio’s stage directions sometimes specify that armies meeting each other should enter by separate stage doors: “Enter the two Kings with their powers, at seuerall [i.e., separate] doores” (2.1.347 SD). However, when the King of France and his army meet the Duke of Austria with his forces at the beginning of the second act, it is clear that they must enter separately, but the Folio does not specifically indicate such a staging. In this case, to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance, we supplement the Folio’s stage directions: “Enter, before Angiers, at one side, with Forces, Philip King of France, Louis the Dauphin, Constance, Arthur, and Attendants; at the other side, with Forces, Austria, wearing a lion’s skin. Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action, setting the added direction in brackets to signal that it is not found in the Folio. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of a character in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, placed so that they immediately precede the character’s participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the -ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. like editors for the past two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 ’Tis France, for England.
KING JOHN  England, for itself.


However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the First Folio provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.