Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Sarah Milligan
Editor: Michael Best
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King John: A Survey of Criticism

14Contextual Readings of King John

Biographical Readings

Beginning in 1790 with Edmund Malone--whom Candido identifies as the most important eighteenth-century scholar to "solidify and define the critical tradition of King John" (8)--there was a brief period in which critics determined the date of King John by searching for clues in Shakespeare's own life. Malone concludes that the grief of Constance is best explained by Shakespeare's own grief following the death of his son in 1596:

It is observable that our author's son, Hamnet, died in August, 1596. That a man of such sensibility, and of so amiable a disposition, should have lost his only son, who had attained the age of twelve years, without being greatly affected by it, will not be easily credited. The pathetic lamentations which he has written for Lady Constance on the death of Arthur, may perhaps add some probability to the supposition that this tragedy was written at or soon after that period. (32; see selection 08)

15Responding specifically to Malone, many critics dismissed this reading of Constance and Shakespeare. In 1799, George Chalmers wrote:

Mr. Malone says, that Shakespeare having lost his only son, in 1596, was brought, by this misfortune, into a proper temper, for writing the pathetic lamentations of Constance, on her Arthur's death. But, at what time of his life, was Shakespeare unfit for drawing similar scenes of deeper distress? (52; see selection 9)

While Malone's claim had more detractors than it did supporters, it was nevertheless important enough that E. K. Chambers addresses the issue in 1925:

The sentimentalism of commentators is apt to find in the play a reflection of the natural sorrow of the poet at the death of his own son Hamnet. But the sentimentalist is a dangerous leader in the slippery ways of literary biography. King John may well have been already written when Hamnet died in August 1596. Moreover, the psychological theory implied is a fantastic one. The grief of Constance rings true enough; but, after all, her hint of woe is common, and it must certainly not be assumed that a dramatist can only convince by reproducing just those emotions which he has seen at play in his own household. It is safest to regard the tragic figure of the weeping mother as based rather upon broad human sympathies than upon personal experience. (79; see selection 35)

16The biographically-based reading of the text continues to surface. In an introduction for audience members attending a fine production of Bard on the Beach in 2012, the artistic director referred to Hamnet's death as he read a passage highlighting Constance's grief as an example of the power of language in the play.

17Historical readings

Historical readings of King John have a much more firmly established tradition than biographical readings. Critics have long been aware of the similarities between King John and the historical moment in which it was written. In his rebuttal of Malone, Chalmers draws attention to the likenesses between the plot of the play and the reality of Shakespeare's time. In 1899, Henry Sebastian Bowden likewise underlines the parallels:

In [Shakespeare's] hands the play becomes a moral and political essay on the events and questions of his time. The slaying of Arthur is closely parallel to that of Mary, Queen of Scots; John, like Elizabeth, first suggests, then commands the deed, afterwards feigns horror at its accomplishment and repudiates the perpetrators. John disowned Hubert, as Elizabeth did Davison, though in both cases the order for the murder was given under the royal hand and seal . . . Again, Philip's disinclination after the loss of Angiers, to prosecute the war till the prospect of Arthur's death opens his son's claim to the English crown, resembles the delay of Philip II of Spain to make any serious attack on England till Mary Stuart's death made the Infanta or Duke of Parma possible claimants for the English throne. Lewis' intended slaughter of his allies, the English rebel nobles, finds a parallel in the reported intention of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Commander of the Armada, who declared that, once landed in England, all Catholics and heretics should be one to him, his sword would not discern them! so that he might make way for his master. (305; see selection 32)

18Other critics have reiterated Bowden's claim, also drawing attention to the 1570 papal bull that excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and pardoned anyone who resisted her, just as Pandulph excommunicates John and encourages his opponents to attack him (McEachern xxxvi; see selection 56). Walter Cohen provides a thorough comparison between the play and the historical circumstances of Elizabeth's reign in his introduction to King John in the Norton Shakespeare Anthology. Cohen focuses particularly on how the illegitimacy of John as King of England--which Shakespeare make unambiguous--resonated particularly with an England that was ruled by a queen who was herself the subject of much debate regarding her legitimacy. Cohen concludes his summaries of the play and history by admitting that drawing these parallels necessarily leads to oversimplification; however:

They suggest explosive issues Shakespeare dramatized--the struggle with the papacy, the threat of invasion, and especially the problem of legitimate rule. To be sure, there were risks in questioning Elizabeth's royal legitimacy or accusing her of murdering the rightful queen. But King John raises these matters not to resolve them but to meditate on their complexity. (1017; see selection 54 for Cohen's discussion on bastards and illegitimacy in the play)

19Although the most removed and remote of Shakespeare's English history plays from his own time, King John demonstrates Shakespeare's multifaceted engagement with the political events of his century.

Religious readings

20Following from a reading of King John as a play more about the sixteenth-century than the twelfth and thirteenth, critics have also considered the religious implications of the play. One of the most major distinctions between King John and its source-text, TRKJ, is that Shakespeare significantly toned down the anti-Catholic sentiment of the older play. While most critics agree that the hero of TRKJ is clearly John himself, "the Protestant hero fighting the might of Rome," the John that Shakespeare depicts is "a fallible, uncertain, imperfect monarch, successful at first, and with his moment of glory in the full Protestant tradition as he confronts Pandulph in Act III, but increasingly subject to the corrupting power of political need" (Smallwood 12; see selection 45). Shakespeare, then, portrays a complex and morally ambiguous John, whose stand against Rome becomes equally complex and ambiguous. This ambiguity has allowed for critics to argue for both Catholic and Protestant readings of the play.

21Colley Cibber, in his much-criticized eighteenth-century adaptation of King John--Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John--finds the anti-Catholic sentiment lacking in the original and therefore tries to infuse the play with a stronger Protestant message:

In all the historical Plays of Shakespear there is scarce any Fact, that might better have employed his Genius, than the flaming Contest between his insolent Holiness and King John. This is so remarkable a Passage in our Histories, that it seems surprising our Shakespear should have taken no more Fire at it. . . . How then shall we account for his being so cold upon so much higher Provocation? Shall we suppose, that in those Days, almost in the Infancy of the Reformation, when Shakespear wrote, when the Influence of the Papal Power had a stronger Party left, than we have reason to believe is now subsisting among us; that is, I say, might make him cautious of offending? Or shall we go so far for an Excuse, as to conclude that Shakespear was himself a Catholic? (n. p.; see selection 3)

Although Cibber concludes that no Catholic could have written John's attack against the purchase of pardons (TLN 1089-1098), his comment inspired other critics likewise to consider the potential implications of the toned-down Protestantism of the play.

22Bowden, a Roman Catholic critic writing in 1899, views the ambiguity of John's character to be far more significant than the words he says against Rome:

[King John's] bold defiance [against Pandulph] proves mere bombast; he ends by eating his words. He humbles himself to the dust before the Legate, and as a penitent who receives the crown again at his hands, and his kingdom in fief from the Pope. John's anti-Catholic speeches, then, no more prove Shakespeare a Protestant than the fool's saying in his heart "There is no God," makes David a sceptic [Psalms 14:1]. (302; see selection 32)

Bowden focuses particularly on Shakespeare's adaptation of his source text, already zealous in its Protestantism. Bowden argues that Shakespeare's decision to exclude many of the anti-Catholic sentiments expressed in TRKJ hints that he was, at the very least, sympathetic towards Catholics. Bowden suggests that Pandulph, who denounces John as a tyrant and usurper, might in fact be Shakespeare's mouthpiece and that Shakespeare might be addressing Elizabeth, herself denounced by sixteenth-century Catholics as a tyrant and a usurper. Rather than reading Pandulph as a slave to commodity, as most critics have, Bowden argues that Pandulph, along with the Bastard, plays a key role in the play's resolution: "England is reconciled to the Church, France and England are friends again, the rebel nobles are pardoned, the rightful heir ascends the English throne" (306).

23The critical judgment of Pandulph as a type of Machiavel generally has much more support than Bowden's reading. John Roe quotes Pandulph's opening speech to Philip (TLN 1184-85) and claims: "One cannot get closer to what Il Principe urges than this: morality is to be suspended until the desired aim is achieved" (107; see selection 57). Arguments for Catholic sympathies in King John have been in the minority, with most critics generally accepting it as a Protestant play, but far more nuanced and complex than the anti-Catholic TRKJ. As Cohen suggests, Shakespeare's play resists any sort of decisiveness regarding the issues it contemplates; rather King John considers the many ambiguities in these issues.