Skip to main content
King John /

Further Reading: King John

Abbreviations: KJ = King John; TR = The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn, King of England; 1H6 = Henry VI, Part 1; 2H6 = Henry VI, Part 2; 3H6 = Henry VI, Part 3; R3 = Richard III

Barish, Jonas. “King John and Oath Breach.” In Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism: Essays in Honour of Marvin Spevack, edited by Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, pp. 1–18. New York: Olms Weidmann, 1987.

The topic of “oath breach” appears throughout the Shakespeare canon, but Barish contends that it receives “its most sustained and climactic treatment” in KJ. While most cases of breach of faith are plainly marked as reprehensible (e.g., King Philip’s repudiation of his initial oath to Arthur and his later oath to John), the “blinding” episode in which Hubert reneges on his promise to murder Arthur demonstrates that there are occasions when “it is worse to keep an oath than to break it.” Shakespeare’s most complex and ambiguous treatment of the topic appears in the vacillation of the nobles whose vowed loyalties shift from John to Louis and back again to John; no matter how blameworthy their treacherous oath to support the Dauphin, “our antipathy” is mingled with “our sympathy.” What Shakespeare shows in the “welter of swearing and unswearing” is that both the taking and breaking of oaths allow “of many gradations,” and that in this area, as in others, the dramatist “remains a relativist.”

Braunmuller, A. R. “King John and Historiography.” ELH 55 (1988): 309–32.

Using Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s KJ, and the writings of Sir John Hayward, Braunmuller discusses the tensions between drama and historiography to focus a dual argument: (1) that for all their formal differences, whether as chronicle, play, or “new humanist” history, these texts employ similar techniques to create fictitious verbal structures; and (2) that “the truth claims” of these works and the truths they convey are “politically determined.” To illustrate how the fictive KJ “reconceptualizes” the imaginative chronicle material lying behind it, Braunmuller examines Shakespeare’s invention of the Bastard and the treatment of Arthur’s death. He suggests that history writing and dramaturgy at the end of the sixteenth century may have been self-consciously reciprocal activities: “As Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights moved away from dramatizing the chronicles toward the kind of drama [KJ] is trying to be, they were . . . defensively and self-servingly admitting that plausibility” constitutes the chief means of “factifying” or authenticating “(hi)stories.” Plausibility thus emerges as the only pertinent and available test of history writing. It is also, as Braunmuller notes, a dramatic test.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. “King John.” In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 4, pp. 1–151, 1962. Rpt., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Bullough provides a complete text of the two parts of TR (the anonymous 1591 play widely assumed to be Shakespeare’s primary source for KJ), summarizes Bale’s King Johan (an analogue), and reprints excerpts from the following: the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (a definite source), the 1583 edition of Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of Martyrs (a possible source), Hall’s 1548 Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (a probable source), and The English Chronicle of Radulph of Coggeshall (another analogue). Whether critics regard TR as the source for KJ (the majority position) or as the derivative play (the minority view), they generally agree that while the plot is essentially the same in both works, characterization and style are very different: the anonymous text is said to be more polemical than Shakespeare’s, and also more explicit in matters of motivation (e.g., John’s reasons for a second coronation [4.2] and for his later submission to Pandulph [5.1]). Bullough’s scene-by-scene comparison of the two plays reveals divergences that include additions by Shakespeare (e.g., the Bastard’s “foot of honor” [1.1.188–222] and “Commodity” soliloquies [2.1.588–626] and his “I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way” monologue [4.3.148–67], Blanche’s lamentation at 3.1.341–51, the sequence in which John persuades Hubert to kill Arthur [3.3.20–76], and Constance’s “mad” scene [3.4.17–107]); omissions (e.g., the Bastard’s plundering of an abbey where he finds a nun hiding in an abbot’s chest, an impeachment episode involving the nobles at St. Edmundsbury, and the full representation of John’s poisoning by a monk); and variations (e.g., Shakespeare’s foregrounding of interpersonal relationships over political ideology in the “blinding” episode, 4.1). The introductory comments also address the date of KJ, the contradictory medieval and Tudor images of John available to Shakespeare, and the origins of both the Bastard’s character and the name Faulconbridge. Bullough concludes that KJ “helped Shakespeare to free himself from the conception of the History play as tragic or rhetorical drama, and to see the possibility of modulating in the same play from the broadly comic to the epic.”

Burckhardt, Sigurd. “King John: The Ordering of the Present Time.” In Shakespearean Meanings, pp. 116–43. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968. [The essay originally appeared in ELH 33 (1966): 133–53.]

In its questioning of Tudor orthodox ideology, KJ becomes a play about creating order (the modern position) rather than about discovering it (the classical view). Burckhardt contrasts TR’s and KJ’s respective treatments of the “blinding” episode (4.1) and Melun’s reasons for revealing to the nobles Louis’ planned treachery (5.4.41–44) to demonstrate that in KJ personal interaction and relationships are more important for ordering one’s world than is traditional belief in an established hierarchy of fixed correspondences. The structure of KJ exposes the contradiction at the heart of Tudor doctrine: while the Elizabethan world picture and divine right theory demand one voice of authority, “of kings there are more than one.” When royal and papal claims to ultimate authority are rejected, Shakespeare makes clear “that the whole beautiful structure crumbles: the divinity of kings, the duty of obedience, even the sanctity of oaths.” Burckhardt’s thesis—that “when he wrote [KJ], or quite possibly in writing it, Shakespeare was or became a ‘modern’ ”—informs much of the play’s post-1970 scholarship and performance history.

Cousin, Geraldine. Shakespeare in Performance: King John. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

In her introduction Cousin speculates on possible performances of KJ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and offers background information on its popularity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theaters. She also addresses the “whys” of KJ’s infrequent appearance on the modern stage (e.g., lack of focus, thematic incoherence, too much declamation, and an episodic structure) and argues for the inherent stageworthiness and theatrical malleability of this “elusive” play. After looking at the nineteenth-century record (commenting specifically on the work of Kemble/Planché, Macready, Tree, and Mantell), she turns her attention to modern revivals and devotes the remaining chapters to the mid-century productions of George Devine at the Old Vic in 1953 and Douglas Seale at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1957, the radical reworkings by Buzz Goodbody and John Barton in the 1970s for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the “fundamentally conservative” 1984 BBC-TV John directed by David Giles, and Deborah Warner’s “mould-breaking” achievement for the RSC in 1988–89, a production which the author praises for “its relevance to the late twentieth-century world.”

Curren-Aquino, Deborah T., ed. King John: New Perspectives. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1989.

The twelve essays making up the volume span a variety of critical interests and approaches: source study (Guy Hamel’s “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: A Reexamination”), genre (Barbara Traister’s “The King’s One Body: Unceremonial Kingship in King John”), imagery and language (Dorothea Kehler’s “ ‘So Jest with Heaven’: Deity in King John”), theme (Joseph Candido’s “Blots, Stains, and Adulteries: The Impurities in King John”), character (Michael Manheim’s “The Four Voices of the Bastard”), historiography (Marsha Robinson’s “The Historiographic Methodology of King John”), new historicism (Virginia Vaughan’s “King John: A Study in Subversion and Containment”), feminism (Phyllis Rackin’s “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion in King John”), speech act theory (Joseph Porter’s “Fraternal Pragmatics: Speech Acts of John and the Bastard”), performance history (Edward Brubaker’s “Staging King John: A Director’s Observations” and Carol J. Carlisle’s “Constance: A Theatrical Trinity”), and perspectivism and closure (Larry Champion’s “The ‘Un-end’ of King John: Shakespeare’s Demystification of Closure”). Taken collectively, the essays suggest a deepening awareness of Shakespeare’s complex experimentation with the dramatic genre of the history play. The volume includes a select performance history and a select bibliography.

Donawerth, Jane. “King John: Mutable Speech.” In Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language, pp. 165–88. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Where Love’s Labor’s Lost focuses on the graphic aspect of language, KJ emphasizes the oral dimension. The frequent repetition of words such as tongue, mouth, ear, and most notably breath signifies the transient, shifting, and vague qualities of language itself and is appropriate to a mutable world where verbal power is destructive rather than generative: “Language fails to be a social bond because [words come with little consequence], breath passes and vows are equally transitory.” The ideas about language that Shakespeare gives voice to in the play support its larger purpose: that is, the study of “man as a political animal, not in the ideal Renaissance sense of the seeker after glory and knowledge infinite, but in the lesser sense of the vain striver after merely worldly power.” Shakespeare has made the world of KJ credible, but he has not engaged our deep interest in it, partially because of his efforts to “embody in his style the defects in language that the characters perceive in their world.” The concluding speeches suggest that Shakespeare “has written a play that is mainly an elegy for human hope.”

Dusinberre, Juliet. “King John and Embarrassing Women.” Shakespeare Survey 42 (1990): 37–52.

In this feminist study of KJ, Dusinberre draws on the play’s performance history to examine the effect of the women on the men within the dramatic action and on the audience outside. Up until the end of Act 3, the central drive of the play (as shown in Deborah Warner’s 1988 Royal Shakespeare Company production) is provided by its many “odd” female characters, a point not lost on the men who are embarrassed by this female domination and use it as a pretext for retribution against the women. Dusinberre relates her discussion of Eleanor, Lady Faulconbridge, Blanche, and Constance to the convention of having boy actors play the women’s parts (as well as the role of Arthur): “In [KJ] Shakespeare gave the boy actors parts in which they might overact to their heart’s content, stealing the stage from their betters, who are forced to stand around wondering how to quell them.” Once the women leave the stage—once they are no longer there to challenge official discourse—Shakespeare loses interest, and the play “goes to pieces,” never recovering “the energy associated with the new world of the [pre-Act 4] Bastard and the new generation: the boys. Or, in our terms . . . the women.”

Grennan, Eamon. “Shakespeare’s Satirical History: A Reading of King John.” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 21–37.

KJ, “more sui generis than a close relative” of Shakespeare’s other histories, reveals a playwright sweeping away the “functional props” of the historico-dramatic world he had created in his H6 plays and R3, while at the same time renewing his sense of what history means, thereby preparing “for the deeper, more demanding tasks of his second tetralogy.” Grennan uses the siege of Angiers depicted in both TR and KJ (2.1) to argue that the former is an exemplary historia (i.e., a coherent arrangement of historical facts designed to express a particular moral or political theme), while the latter is a critique of the humanist concept of history embodied in both TR and the first tetralogy. With its “faintly comic” isosceles triangle involving the Citizen and the rival kings and the Bastard’s “wild counsel” to sack the city and then fight over its possession (lines 393–412), the Angiers scene compels a recognition of “an equilibrium so fastidious that it makes all objective decision impossible.” The episode thus functions as an emblem of KJ’s emphasis on impasse or stalemate for its own sake rather than as “a stage in a predictable process.” Essential to the play’s status as a satirical history is the ironic transformation of the Bastard from agent of parody to a “puppet of patriotic meanings.” The play’s critical exposure of the nature of historia is best seen in its “most striking linguistic feature[,] . . . the continual trampling of objective meaning in a stampede of paradox and oxymoron.”

Hibbard, G. R. “From Dialectical Rhetoric to Metaphorical Thinking: King John.” In The Making of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Poetry, pp. 133–43. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Hibbard’s interest lies in those moments when characters make new discoveries about either their situations or themselves. At such times verbal expression becomes rich in images and metaphors that “do not merely beget one another . . . but unite to form a coherent whole and make something hitherto but half apprehended . . . clear, concrete, and dynamic.” By way of illustration, Hibbard engages in a detailed analysis of the Bastard’s “I am amazed” monologue (4.3.148–67) in which the character voices his confusion in metaphors that “exploit . . . ambiguities and double meanings.” What Shakespeare evolves through a rapid, associational shifting from image to image is “a way of writing that is also a way of thinking and of comprehending.” While such speeches and the John-Hubert sequence in 3.3 look ahead to the great tragedies, KJ’s dominant mode of declamatory speech, most impressively heard in Constance, looks back to the earlier histories. The play thus suggests “something of a poetic dramatist’s workshop . . . in which [Shakespeare] reassesses old techniques and tries out new ones.”

Hodgdon, Barbara. “Fashioning Obedience: King John’s ‘True Inheritors.’ ” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare’s History, pp. 22–43. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

The first half of Hodgdon’s intertextual study of “closural form” in KJ provides a literary analysis of the play’s “politics of accommodation,” particularly as it dominates the last third of this “chameleonlike” history, which constructs its close through a “semblance of ideological neutrality.” While conventional methods and the use of proverbial tags suggest an orthodox conclusion in the legitimate succession of Prince Henry, the closing scene’s “particular bricolage of rhetorical signs of ending can also be read as a bastard form, a last figure for [KJ’s] initial questions concerning plural claims on royal legitimacy.” The choice of the marginally historic figure of the Bastard to deliver the final speech for the kingdom “discloses the historical limits of subversion at the fictional limits of the play.” Evoking an England identified more with the power of the body politic than with the concept of the King’s two bodies, the Bastard offers “not a mirror for magistrates, but a complex, even refractory, mirror for subjects.” The second half of the chapter discusses how one of Shakespeare’s “bleakest” succession scenes has been realized in performance, with an emphasis on the 1974 Barton and 1988 Warner revivals, both for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Barton created a “black-comedy spectacle,” while Warner configured “a starkly demystified compromise.”

Levine, Nina S. “Refiguring the Nation: Mothers and Sons in King John.” In Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays, pp. 123–45. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

While Shakespeare’s early histories (1, 2, and 3H6, R3, and KJ) rewrite the Tudor chronicle record so as to acknowledge the importance of women in ensuring patrilineal succession, Levine contends that they also “generate a critique of patrilineal inheritance and legitimacy” that speaks to the Elizabethan present in which the plays are “situated.” The chapter on KJ attends to several of the more radical succession tracts circulating in the 1590s to illustrate similarities between the John-Arthur succession debate and the one permeating the waning years of Elizabeth’s reign. In a reading that goes beyond Rackin’s (see below) to suggest a more radical Shakespeare, Levine claims that KJ “contest[s], as well as validate[s]” its own authorizing patriarchal structure by (1) replacing fathers with mothers as the agents who confer power and legitimacy in representations of succession, and (2) decentering the orthodox representation of the monarchy as exclusively figured in the heroic warrior king. Through their subversive questioning of legitimacy and law, the vocal mothers of KJ translate the traditional image of the patriarchal monarch into that of “a dependent son, whose power and authority rest with his mother.” In the closing image of a fragile, weeping Henry III (who recalls the tearful, powerless Arthur) and in the assigning of the final patriotic speech to the Bastard, Shakespeare continues rather than resolves his radical interrogation of patrilineal succession and refigures the image of the nation-state as inclusive and iconoclastic. “Evoking the nation’s desire for a mother even as it voices a nostalgic yearning for a patriotic and patriarchal past, KJ may also register both the anxieties and the possibilities prompted by the unsettled Elizabethan succession.”

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince (1513). Ed. and trans. Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

In this famous political treatise, Machiavelli draws on his experience as a member of the Florentine government in order to present his conception of the kind of strong leader and tactics required to impose political order for the good of the unified Italy he envisions. Because Machiavelli separates politics from ethics and is more concerned with ends than with means, his name has become identified with all that is cynical and even diabolical in state affairs. In Shakespeare’s England, this exaggeratedly negative reputation gave rise to the conventional villain known as the Machiavel. In the scholarship on KJ, critics have observed Machiavellian traits in John, Queen Eleanor, the Bastard, King Philip, Pandulph, Louis, and the nobles. While John has been called an “incompetent” or “would-be” Machiavel, who pales next to the artful Richard III and Bolingbroke, the Bastard is often regarded (like Hal/Henry V) as an example of the “attractive,” “new,” and “legitimized” or “redeemed” Machiavel. As examples of Machiavellian tenets and strategies, critics often single out the Bastard’s line “Smacks it not something of the policy?” (2.1.412) and his “Commodity” soliloquy, John’s indirection with Hubert in 3.3, and the arguments Pandulph uses to manipulate King Philip (3.1) and Louis the Dauphin (3.4).

Rackin, Phyllis. “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion.” In Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, pp. 146–200, esp. pp. 178–91. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. [Includes material from “Anti-Historians: Women’s Roles in Shakespeare’s Histories” (Theatre Journal 37 [1985]: 329–44) and “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion in King John” in Curren-Aquino above.]

Observing that the issue of legitimacy is nowhere more central in Shakespeare’s English histories than in KJ, Rackin examines the paradoxical role of women who ostensibly have no voice within the patriarchal historiography of the Renaissance but who nonetheless manage, by their very presence as “keepers of the unwritten and unknowable truth” of biological legitimacy, to subvert the patriarchal historical record. To illustrate both the “arbitrary and conjectural nature of patriarchal succession” (1.1.119–32) and “the suppressed centrality of women to it,” Rackin discusses the different ways in which Philip Faulconbridge in Holinshed, TR, and KJ learns the identity of his biological father: only in KJ “is he required to receive his paternity at the hands of women,” one who guesses the truth (Queen Eleanor) and one who verifies it (Lady Faulconbridge). In none of Shakespeare’s other history plays do the women enjoy such important and varied roles: Eleanor as the “Machiavellian dowager,” Constance as the relentless and lamenting mother, and Blanche as the traditional female site “for the inscription of a patriarchal historical narrative.” In the morally ambiguous world of KJ where nothing is conclusive, patriarchal authority is constantly subjected to “skeptical feminine interrogation.” The image of dismemberment in Blanche’s lament (3.1.342–45) embodies “the many divisions that characterize this play . . . the most troubling of all Shakespeare’s English histories.”

Shirley, Frances A., ed. King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1988.

The first part of this volume contains twelve selections dealing with the performance history and criticism of KJ spanning the years 1770 to 1974. Those relating to the play’s stage life are Eugene M. Waith’s essay “King John and the Drama of History” and excerpts from Francis Gentleman’s The Dramatic Censor or Critical Companion, Thomas Davies’ Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq., William Hazlitt’s A View of the English Stage, and Arthur Colby Sprague’s Shakespeare’s Histories. The critical studies are taken from William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, E. M. W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays, Caroline F. E. Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Adrien Bonjour’s “The Road to Swinstead Abbey: A Study of the Sense and Structure of King John,” James L. Calderwood’s “Commodity and Honour in King John,” M. M. Reese’s The Cease of Majesty, and Robert L. Smallwood’s introduction to the New Penguin edition of KJ. The Waith, Bonjour, and Calderwood selections are among the most frequently cited and reprinted essays in the scholarship on the play. Waith focuses on KJ’s theatrical success in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the emphasis was on the play’s emotionally charged scenes and passionate characters like Constance; he questions the appropriateness of the twentieth century’s more cerebral approach to the play. Both Bonjour and Calderwood address the issue of dramatic unity: for Bonjour it inheres in “a deliberately contrasted evolution[:] . . . [the] decline of a hero [John]—the rise of a hero [the Bastard]”; for Calderwood, in a testing of commodity (scheming self-interest) and honor (loyalty in general but in its highest form loyalty to the good of England), a theme with implications for the qualities needed in a king.

Vaughan, Virginia. “Between Tetralogies: King John as Transition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 407–20.

KJ replaces the first tetralogy’s sense of history as continuing process with an “intense focus on the political present—the here and now of decision-making.” This focus, along with Shakespeare’s increasing awareness that “political questions are seldom as easy to answer as the traditional hierarchical model suggests,” convinces Vaughan that KJ marks an important transition between the two tetralogies. She observes in the first half of the play the presentational mode characteristic of the first tetralogy (set speeches, emblematic scenes, stylized language, unified perspective, didacticism); in the second half she detects an experimentation with the more sophisticated representational mode associated with the second tetralogy (personalized conflicts, divided loyalties, multiple perspectives, and increasing ambiguity and flux). In contrast to TR, KJ “probes rather than pronounces”; as a result, “politics becomes embedded in personal relationships rather than abstract ideas.” Vaughan attributes what she and others (see Burckhardt above) regard as the play’s unsatisfactory ending to a “rush to closure” in which Shakespeare abruptly returns to presentational tactics in the Bastard’s final patriotic speech: Shakespeare’s withdrawal “from the tensions and reversals which animate the play” leads to a solution “imposed from above, not within,” the solution being the “standard formula of chronicle history.”

Warren, W. L. King John. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

In what is generally considered to be the standard biography of King John, Warren reassesses the king’s reign under the following chapter headings: “The Genesis of a Sinister Reputation,” “Gaining a Kingdom,” “Losing a Duchy,” “King of England,” “King versus Pope,” “King John and the Barons,” “The Road to Runnymede,” and “The Road to Newark.” Warren concludes that “the monster of personal depravity portrayed by [medieval chroniclers] must be dismissed forever. . . . It was uncertainty and not ‘superhuman wickedness’ . . . that darkened the years of John’s reign. . . . One of his greatest enemies was his own impatience. . . . He had the mental abilities of a great king, but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.”

Weimann, Robert. “Mingling Vice and ‘Worthiness’ in King John.” Shakespeare Studies 27 (1999): 109–33.

According to Weimann, the Vice tradition associated with the medieval morality play and Tudor interlude offered Shakespeare a way of negotiating and “digesting” the socially sanctioned gap between the “worthy” matter of history and the “unworthy” theatrical space in which that matter was staged—that is, the distance between the “represented locale in the world-of-the-play and the location of playing-in-the-world of Elizabethan London.” To illustrate his thesis, the author concentrates on the Bastard’s mingling of the Vice’s frivolity and the humanistic hero’s worthiness. As both commentator and participant, presenter and representer of character, the Bastard appropriates the Vice’s performative energy, impudence, and direct rapport with the audience (see, e.g., the “foot of honor” and “Commodity” soliloquies) to emerge as “a vital medium in the conflation of past significance and performed meaning.” In him, the antics of the irreverent Vice “are domesticated in a seminal representation of the unruly self in ‘worshipful society.’ ”