Aside from the very late and uncharacteristic play Henry VIII, King John is the only one of Shakespeare's History Plays that is not part of a Tetraology. Further, its narrative is not linked to the others, which together cover an unbroken 87-year period in English history, but rather deals with a much earlier and more obscure era. Thus King John has been somewhat neglected, being viewed as a minor and transitional work between the two tetralogies. However, its subject matter is basically the same—the disruption of English public life by dynastic disputes—and its moral weight is as great as that of most of the other histories. Moreover, it is especially closely linked to the contemporary concerns of the playwright's own time.
One of the issues that Shakespeare's history plays most persistently raised is the nature of good government. In King John the playwright impresses us with the need for a sound political ethic by presenting a near-catastrophe that stems from ethical weakness. In Richard III a melodramatic villain had generated the problem, and his supernaturally aided defeat at Bosworth field had solved it. In this more intellectual work Shakespeare examines political realities and problems that require compromises, not heaven-sent intervention.
The chief political concern in the frequently disrupted monarchy of medieval and early modern England was that of the legitimacy of the ruler, and this is the play's primary focus. Shakespeare felt no compunctions about taking liberties with historical reality, and King John is one of his least accurate history plays. Besides using such minor anachronisms as John's threat to use cannon in 1.1.26 (gunpowder did not come into use in Europe until the Hundred Years War, about 150 years later), he simply rewrote the main lines of John's reign. Compressing the events of 17 years into a single brief sequence, the playwright juxtaposes conflicts that were in fact widely separated in time. John's defense of his right to rule against the partisans of Arthur occupied the first few years of his reign and was completed by 1203, when Arthur was killed. Arthur's death is the central event of the play, but it simply closed the earliest epoch of John's actual reign. In the play the death stimulates the rebellious barons to oppose John and join the invading French. But historically the barons' revolt occurred 10 years after Arthur's death and had nothing to do with it; murder was, after all, an ordinary political event in medieval times. Further, the French invasion came only after the barons' revolt had been settled by the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215 and then resumed in the following year.
The most important issue of John's reign, at the time and to Shakespeare's contemporaries, was John's dispute with Pope Innocent III. However, the playwright lessened its importance and interwove it with the other two conflicts, Arthur's claim and the barons' revolt. In fact, John's dispute with Innocent III began several years after Arthur's death, and it ended before the barons rebelled. The king surrendered to the pope—permitting Pandulph to recrown him, as in the play—precisely because he was concerned about the barons, and Pandulph was in fact John's ally against them. As depicted by Shakespeare, Pandulph's opposition to John revives Arthur's claims, which had been rejected by the marriage treaty of 2.1; the papal legate then stirs up a French invasion in anticipation of Arthur's death; and he finally proves incapable of ending the war in return for John's surrender to papal authority. All of this is flagrantly unhistorical; as always, Shakespeare was less concerned with history than with dramatic effect, and he made John's usurpation of the crown from Arthur the dominant issue in the play in support of his all-important theme, political legitimacy.
Shakespeare's John, then, is an illegitimate ruler, and illegitimacy is a recurring motif in the play. Most prominently, the Bastard raises the issue of illegitimate birth, in speech and in person; significantly, he proves nobler in his steadfast loyalty than all of the other characters, whose treachery and dishonor exemplify illegitimacy in a broader sense: illegitimate actions in terms of the courtly code that all of the aristocrats profess. The Bastard is seen as England's saving grace: he maintains the English resistance, and English honour, when John has succumbed to his moral crisis. Most important, the Bastard gives expression to the value of legitimate succession when he leads the nobles in patriotic support of Henry III in 5.7. It is clear that positive results have come from loyalty to John—that is, that this usurper has his own legitimacy.
The issue of legitimacy was not only an historical one: Queen Elizabeth faced similar political problems to a lesser degree. She was conceived outside marriage, as was well known, and Rome did not recognize her legitimacy, either in birth or as a ruler. Similarly, Innocent III had declared John an illegitimate King against whom revolt was lawful, as Pandulph affirms in 3.1.100-101 (3.1.174-175). Further, on several occasions conspiracies against Elizabeth's life were discovered, and the Earl of Essex actually attempted rebellion towards the end other reign. Advocates of Mary, Queen of Scots, compared her claim against Elizabeth with Arthur's claim against John; their voices were not silenced until Mary was executed. Tudor monarchs were aware of their own dynastic roots in rebellion (as is enacted in Richard III), and they incorporated a new doctrine in their laws, declaring that the holder of the crown is not only in fact the wielder of power, he or she is also the proper ruler in law, despite the legitimacy of any other claim. This is the implicit principle on which the Bastard bases his loyalty to John. John makes the same claim for himself—'Doth not the crown of England prove the king?' (2.1.273)—and the play reinforces it through remarks such as Eleanor's acknowledgement that 'strong possession much more than . . . right' (1.1.40) must secure his throne, and through the analogy that the Bastard's possession of the Faulconbridge estates is sufficient evidence of right, even in the face of a legal bequest (1.1.126-133). Further, Arthur is presented as not only a tool of France, but—inaccurately—as a mere child, clearly unsuited to be king. John's legitimacy, like Elizabeth's, must be continuously reaffirmed. Parallels between John and Elizabeth abound in the play, and Shakespeare's original audience will have recognized them immediately. Pandulph's excommunication of John (3.1.99) [3.1.173] is plainly a reference to the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570.
His promise, four lines later, of canonization to an assassin of John was an inflammatory glance at fairly current events: in 1589 Henri III of France had been murdered by a monk who contended that the King was soft on Protestantism; the assassin's canonization was publicly sought by Catholic groups in France, to the shock and revulsion of Protestants (and some Catholics) throughout Europe. It was widely believed in England that a similar bounty was offered in the case of Elizabeth, and Pandulph's words must have evoked patriotic horror. The conflict between Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the 16th century inspired Protestants to think ofjohn as a predecessor who attempted to rebel against the power of Rome, and they made much of his notorious—but fictitious—poisoning at the hands of a monk. Shakespeare's Pandulph is a stereotype of the malevolent Catholic of fearful Protestant imaginations; John's insulting address to him (3.1.73-86) [3.1.147-160] is an example of 16th-century rhetoric, reflecting the attitudes of Shakespeare's England, not of John's.
Shakespeare is often regarded as sympathetic to Catholicism, and although King John would seem to douse that speculation thoroughly at first glance, the religious issue is nevertheless far less prominent in the play than it was in the actual historical period or in the playwright's sources. Although strong public interest would certainly have justified a strong presentation of the struggle between Rome and England, Shakespeare refrained. King John is primarily a play about a usurpation that did not in fact occur, rather than about the religious conflict that did. To Shakespeare, the religious question is less important than the issue of political legitimacy.
Readers today are often puzzled to find that King John makes no mention of what today seems the most salient feature of John's reign, the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215. However, in Shakespeare's day, when the aristocracy was definitely subordinate to the crown, John's concessions to his fractious noblemen seemed unimportant. Our own conception of the Magna Charta as the wellspring of democratic freedom from royal control was not formulated until shortly after Shakespeare's death. Opponents of King Charles I, seeking legal precedents to cite in their struggle, discovered that Kingjohn had made concessions, 400 years earlier, that could be said to establish the principle that a ruler was obliged to consult his subjects. This interpretation helped fuel a dispute that led to civil war in 1642. However, the charter signed by John was rather reactionary, restoring to the barons certain feudal rights that the central government was absorbing and would absorb again, especially under the Tudors. The political establishment of Shakespeare's day, intent on preserving its own relatively unrestricted power, certainly had no use for the Magna Charta, and Shakespeare, a supporter of a strong central government, shared this attitude.
King John is sometimes thought of as a failure, with an episodic, undirected plot and confused characterizations, but these seeming defects are actually purposeful techniques. The play's ambiguities and contradictions illustrate the dangers of an unreliable political world, and this is the principal point of the play. The course of the action continually varies, with the vagaries of fortune constantly before us. The characters change their natures repeatedly: John is variously a patriotic hero, resisting France and Rome; a villain, murdering Arthur; a traitor, surrendering his authority to the pope; and a simple failure, collapsing into pathetic uselessness in the face of a crisis. The Bastard first appears as a satirical baiter of aristocratic society, but he becomes the noblest of the Englishmen at the end. Hubert is first a cagey Angevin diplomat caught between big powers, then a sycophantic courtier prepared to murder a child to gain favor with the king, and finally a sorrowing penitent. Our point of view changes repeatedly, our sympathies are continually shifting, and we are drawn into the play as if into an intrigue. Such ambiguity is appropri8ate for a study of political confusion.
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