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King John: A Survey of Criticism


Though by no means at the center of the canon, King John has nevertheless managed to develop a significant critical history. Readings and interpretations of King John have been widely varied; Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, in the introduction to her 1994 annotated bibliography--which consists of 1568 items--describes the criticism of the play as indicative of "a literary work with multiple personalities" (xviii). In the twenty years since Curren-Aquino compiled her bibliography, the analyses of the play's "personalities" have become even more numerous and varied.

2The first issue, to which almost all critics must necessarily refer, concerns King John and an anonymous play published on 1591, the Troublesome Reign of King John. While the Textual Introduction provides a more thorough analysis of dating of these two plays, here, I will identify some of the key arguments and players concerning the authorship and order of the plays, a critical crux that has followed King John since the eighteenth century. Secondly, I will examine some of the most significant contextual readings of King John; these consider the play against the biographical, political and religious situations at the time of its composition. Finally, I will focus on the critical readings of some of King John's most memorable characters.

3The Troublesome Reign of King John and Shakespeare

The question of authorship

The Troublesome Reign of King John (TRKJ) and Shakespeare's King John share a long and complex history. The Textual Introduction explains the debate concerning the order in which the two texts were written; however, the centuries-long argument began out of confusion over the authorship of TRKJ. In 1611, TRKJ, originally published anonymously in 1591, was reprinted and credited to "W. Sh." In 1622, another reprinting expanded "W. Sh." to "W. Shakespeare." In 1747, Alexander Pope included TRKJ in his list of Shakespeare plays, attributing it jointly to Shakespeare and William Rowley. Most scholars now accept that the "W. Shakespeare" was likely either a mistake or a deliberate attempt to boost sales by capitalizing on Shakespeare's growing reputation. In his introduction to his survey of the critical heritage of King John, Joseph Candido accuses Pope of "creat[ing] the play's most enduring critical red herring by attributing The Troublesome Raigne (with impressionistic conviction but without real evidence) jointly to Shakespeare and William Rowley, thus muddying the waters of scholarly debate . . . for generations to come" (3). Pope did indeed inspire endless rebuttals and counter-arguments, which continued into and throughout the twentieth century. The plots of the two plays are exceptionally close; all critics agree that one play surely borrowed from the other. The fact that Shakespeare seems to have chosen to follow the earlier play so closely has been a continuing embarrassment to critics determined to see Shakespeare as a paragon of originality--a concern which A.R. Braunmuller comments "conceals a germ of Bardolotry" (12).

4Writing shortly after Pope, Johnson rejects the idea that Shakespeare could have authored TRKJ, claiming that it is "so different from" King John and that "no man writes upon the same subject twice, without concurring in many places with himself" (428; see selection 04). However, the debate continued, generally due to early critics' unwillingness to place the charge of "plagiarism" upon Shakespeare's head; in 1878, Frederick Gard Fleay sided with Pope and refused to believe that Shakespeare did not author the plot:

Editors always speak of Shakespeare's having appropriated the plot of the older play as a sort of plagiarism, but they never give any ground for supposing that it is not Shakespeare's own. . . . I shall, until some reason is advanced to the contrary, hold that in his King John the original plot was laid down for the early play by Shakespeare himself. (238; see selection 28)

5Arguing that the supposed authors of TRKJ--Peele, Green and Lodge--collaborated with Shakespeare on 1 Henry VI, Fleay concludes that Shakespeare likely wrote TRKJ as well.

6In the twentieth century, the controversy stimulated alternative explanations and justifications in order to credit Shakespeare with the original plot of King John. In 1929, Peter Alexander was the first to suggest that the order of the texts was reversed, and that Shakespeare's King John in fact came before TRKJ. This argument has been taken up by several major critics including William Matchett, E. A. J. Honigmann, and L. A. Beaurline.

7In 1964, E. M. W. Tillyard proposed yet another alternative. Tillyard claimed that a third play might have existed, also written by Shakespeare:

This play would then be the original both of the Troublesome Reign of King John: the former keeping on the whole the fine construction of the original but garbling the execution and inserting an alien scene; the latter following but impairing the construction and altering the intention and some of the characterisation of its original.

That Shakespeare wrote and revised an early John cannot be proved; but I find the supposition best able to explain the facts. (217; see selection 42)

However, even fifty years after Tillyard, no evidence of this hypothetical source play has ever been uncovered.

8The simplest explanation for the relationship between TRKJ and King John is also the likeliest:

A direct link between the wording of two stage directions in The Troublesome Reign and their analogues in King John is easily explained only on the assumption that the anonymous play came first and that Shakespeare was familiar with it. Shakespeare could have read the relevant stage directions of The Troublesome Reign in the 1591 edition of that play, but it is not clear how the author of The Troublesome Reign could have known of Shakespeare's unpublished stage directions. Stylistic and metrical tests, which date King John to roughly 1596, strongly support this hypothesis. (Cohen 1021; see selection 54)

9While we may never know the exact nature of Shakespeare's relationship to TRKJ, scholars now generally believe that he was not its author and that he wrote King John based on that play. Although we know that very few of Shakespeare's plots were original, the closeness of the connection between King John and the TRKJ has troubled many critics.

10The critical significance of TRKJ

King John is exceptional among Shakespeare plays in that it is the only one of his plays that follows, virtually scene-by-scene, its source play. This allows it to be the subject of a type of criticism that involves close comparison of the two plays; scholars are given a window into the authorial decisions made by Shakespeare as he adapted his source into his own play. Critics have pinpointed the major changes between the two texts and used the revisions made by Shakespeare as evidence for whichever critical point of view they are taking.

11An interesting consequence of the closeness of these two plays is that some critics, such as Hartley Coleridge, writing in 1851, do not even feel the need to read TRKJ in order to use it has a scapegoat for the elements of King John that they find distinctly unappealing and un-Shakespearean. Appalled by impropriety of the confrontation between Constance and Eleanor in 2.1, Coleridge declares that he should be glad to find that this altercation was transferred from "the old 'troublesome reign' [TRKJ] for it is very troublesome to think it Shakespeare" (140; see selection 19 and further discussion of responses to this scene below). For Coleridge, the impropriety of the scene does not match his image of Shakespeare; despite not appearing to have read TRKJ, he is eager and relieved to attribute it to TRKJ's unknown author.

12In 1878--the same year that Frederick Fleay argues, with little evidence and much conviction, that Shakespeare constructed the plot for TRKJ (see above)--Edward Rose holds the two plays up against one another to comment on "how perfectly [Shakespeare] understood his art; and we may learn by his example not only what dramatic material to choose, and how to shape it, but--which is by no means so usual with our poet--what to avoid" (242; see selection 29). Rose is frustrated by the discord in Shakespeare's modified plot and compares it to the plot of TRKJ in order to attempt to understand the reasons or processes that created this perceived dissonance. He is not alone to comment on the perceived plot holes in Shakespeare's King John; many critics have echoed Rose. The General Introduction discusses the way that Shakespeare's process of paring down of the plot reveals signs of his experimentation in King John.

13Critics repeatedly appeal to TRKJ for support in their arguments. Despite its role in a long and complicated controversy regarding the authorship and date of composition of King John, TRKJ is an invaluable source text for critics of all persuasions.

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.

24The Characters

Early criticism on King John tended to focus particularly on character. And indeed, twenty and twenty-first century critics have continued to grapple with the play's large cast of characters, many of whom are given a significant number of speeches. With the Bastard, Hubert, Constance, Arthur, Eleanor, Pandulph, King Philip of France, and King John himself each embodying characters that evade simplistic readings, the amount of attention they have earned perhaps comes as no surprise. Early critics were fascinated by the character of Constance and the Bastard in particular. Charles Gildon, the first critic to seriously examine the play, singled them out: "As for the Characters of this History I think there are none of any Figure but the Bastard and Constance; they indeed engage your Attention when ever they enter" (246; see selection 1).

25As for the play's titular character, early critics in particular did not quite know what to make of him, often vacillating in their descriptions as Francis Gentleman does:

In the point of characters King John is a very disagreeable picture of royalty; ambitious and cruel; not void of spirit in the field, yet irresolute and mean in adversity; covetous, overbearing and impolitic; from what we can observe, totally unprincipled; strongly tainted with the opposite appellations which often meet, fool and knave; during his life we have nothing to admire, at his fall nothing to pity. (167; see selection 5)

26It may be that the difficulty of succinctly summarizing King John or any of the play's characters is what makes them compelling. In the General Introduction, Michael Best argues that King John is an experimental play; its characters, like the play itself, bring their own surprises and frustrations. There is the Bastard who is unlike any other bastard character in the canon; the king who is neither hero nor villain; Eleanor and Constance who steal attention whenever they appear onstage, and yet disappear midway through the play. No character in the play does seems to behave in the way that we expect them to; as a result, critics have widely differing views on King John's characters, particularly King John, the Bastard and Constance.

King John: hero or villain?

27One of the main criticisms against King John is that his role in his own play is unclear. According to Julia C. van de Water, "critics and editors have conceded, almost unanimously, that King John in Shakespeare's play of that name is a failure as either a hero or a villain-hero, since he is in no sense a true protagonist" (137; see selection 39). Many early critics avoid mentioning King John completely, perhaps due to his confused status as a non-protagonist titular character, one who is neither admirable nor detestable. Some early critics find particular moments in the play when the character of King John is particularly appealing. Francis Gentleman was the first to record his admiration of the scene in which John communicates to Hubert his desire that Arthur be killed: "His diffidence, his soothing, his breaks, pauses, and distant hints are most descriptive lines of nature in such a depraved state of agitation" (Gentleman 160; see selection 5); "the short scene . . . is superlatively masterly (Schlegel 55; see selection 10). Yet John's masterful and compelling criminality fades:

The last moments of John--an unjust and feeble prince, whom we can neither respect and admire--are yet so portrayed as to extinguish our displeasure with him, and fill us with serious considerations on the arbitrary deeds and the inevitable fate of mortals. (Schlegel 55; see selection 10)

28John's death evokes neither sadness, nor triumph, only a strange sense of pity. William Oxberry compares John to Richard III and finds that he falls short: "in the scale of depravity, Richard [III] is infinitely above King John, yet the giant iniquities of the former always delight; while the cold, weak, suspicious John lives without our pleasure and dies without our regret" (62; see selection 13).

29While virtually all critics agree that John fails as both a hero and a villain, they have been divided as to whether this means that John is a failure as a character. Adrien Bonjour was the first to suggest that "John's career represents a falling curve" which is contrasted by the rising curve of the Bastard's career:

[In the first half of the play], though a usurper, [John] proved a competent ruler. But then he succumbs to the temptation of a criminal deed to ensure his position. And this marks the beginning of the end. (270; see selection 37)

30The relationship between John's fall and the Bastard's rise is explored fully in the General Introduction. The lack of a hero-figure in John has led many critics to turn to the Bastard in search of one. Some critics find the hero they sought; others discover a character who is so complicated and compelling that he makes up for the insipidness they found in John.

31The Bastard

More than any other character in King John, the Bastard has eluded any definitive interpretation. The readings of his character are nearly as numerous as the critics who attempt to describe him. Trying to construct a comprehensive narrative around these readings would be nearly impossible; however, we can identify some of the dominant ideas that emerge. Johnson describes the Bastard as containing a "mixture of greatness and levity" (428; see selection 4), and perhaps this appraisal of the Bastard as paradoxically both great and light provides a useful starting point to an examination of contradictory critical arguments regarding a complex character.

32The Bastard in King John is unlike any other bastard character in Shakespeare (see the discussion in the General Introduction and the extract from Michael Neill). Perhaps in part for this reason, his function in the play has been subject to extensive debate. Critics have identified him as a clown, a modified vice figure, the hero, the chorus, or the character most strongly associated with the audience. Most critics agree that the Bastard's character and his role develop over the course of the play, a quality which perhaps helps to explain the profusion of descriptors assigned to him. The varied characteristics of the Bastard seem to be one of the few points upon which most critics are unanimous. George Daniel claimed in 1826:

There is no character in the writings of Shakespeare that bears stronger evidence of his peculiar manner than the Bastard Faulconbridge. He is a singular compound of heroism, levity, and--if his accommodating himself to the spirit of the times deserve so harsh a term--servility . . . To reconcile such seeming incongruities, is one of the many triumphs of Shakespeare. He knew that character consists not of one, but of various humours. (71; see selection 14)


While most critics agree with Daniel that the Bastard is an appealing and compelling character, and a triumph of Shakespeare's characterization, not everyone is convinced. Francis Gentleman, who admittedly has little admiration for any of the characters in the play, implies that Shakespeare used the Bastard for little more than cheap laughs: "in several places [the Bastard] descends to keep attention from drowsing, at the expence of all due decorum; and what is very disgraceful to serious composition, causes the weaker part of an audience to laugh at some very weak, punning conceits" (167-68; see selection 5). Although less reproving than Gentleman, many early critics also read the Bastard simply as bringing humor to the play. Boas remarks: "Rhyme is almost entirely confined to the pithy rejoinders and epigrams of the Bastard, in whose person the element of popular humor enters for the first time an entirely Shakespearian historical play" (290; see selection 30).


However, critics gradually began to identify the Bastard as not merely a humorous and irreverent character, but potentially as the most appropriate expression of national identity, and as the protagonist of the play.

35Although this idea truly took hold in the twentieth century, it began to circulate in the preceding century. In 1856, William Watkiss Lloyd claims that the English spirit resides most strongly in the Bastard:

A spirit of independence, of fair play in hard fighting and of directness in negotiation, hatred of cruelty and meanness, and disgust at the pursuit of secular purposes under a religious pretext, especially in a foreign interest--this is the spirit that animates the other English barons, but especially the Bastard, expressed casually and intermittently at first, but when the heart and health of John decline together he rises at once in consistency, dignity and force. (162; see selection 21)

Lloyd also suggests that the Bastard's rise coincides with John's fall, a theory that gained popularity with subsequent critics.

36E. K. Chambers echoes Lloyd's argument that the Bastard becomes a type of national hero:

Shakespeare throws a large share of the burden of his nationalism upon the Bastard. This tall man of his hands, with his blusterous humours and his shrewd mother-wit, is clearly intended to be typical of the stout Anglo-Saxon race. He has the blood of her kings, even though it came to him a little o'er the hatch, and the very spirit of Plantagenet; and in his large composition there are tokens of the greatest of her heroes, Richard Coeur de Lion himself. So he stands for England throughout. (79; see selection 35)

37Critics including H. M. Richmond, William H. Matchett and Herschel Baker have reiterated the argument with even greater fervour, identifying the Bastard as the hero of the play and the sole possessor of "valor, truth, and loyalty" in King John (Baker 807). Although Charles Gildon had determined that the Bastard was a character without any real use, many twentieth-century critics read him as the "symbolic pivot of the play" (Richmond 109). Richmond also claims that the Bastard comes "to reflect the relatively detached consciousness of the audience" (104). Free from hypocrisy, the Bastard, according to Richmond, allows the audience the closest access to "Shakespeare's own perspective, and to a sense of the political values he is concerned to dramatize" (104).

38Vice turned servant

The "hero" reading has been countered in several ways; Julia C. Van de Water claims that a desire to name the Bastard the play's protagonist has led to a distortion our reading of him. She rather views him as a vice figure, at least in the first three acts of the play:

He bubbles over with wit and merriment; he is prone to tease and scoff; he is the medium of the comic aside; and he provides cynical commentary on the action. Yet with it all, he is basically a "good blunt fellow" out to make his fortune. These are the very attributes of the vice as he had developed and mellowed in English comedy. (141; see selection 39)

In the final two acts of the play, Van de Water argues that the Bastard behaves more like a dutiful servant than a noble hero.

39Judith Weil also examines the Bastard as a servant, a role that he deliberately chooses in the first act of the play. Weil notes "Having chosen a vaguer service placing over a legitimate kinship role, the Bastard enjoys the kind of protection which licenses a degree of free speech" (45; see selection 58), pointing out that the Bastard is allowed to goad both the Kings of France and England into attacking one another before Angiers.

40The political Bastard

Picking up on the Bastard's persuasion of the kings before Angiers, many critics have singled the Bastard out from amongst the other characters in King John as being the most adept politician, able to manipulate situations to his advantage. Rather than seeing the Bastard as a hero, M. M. Reese claims that the Bastard is as void of integrity as everyone else in the play:

[The Bastard] cheerfully admits that he is tarred with the same brush as the people he condemns . . . he is a link with the Prince Hal of plays to come. . . . the appearance here of this concept of a political man, suggested only vaguely, if at all, in the earlier histories, means that King John is not a play to be ignored. (280, 285; see selection 40).

41Like Reese, other critics, including Curren-Aquino, have argued that the Bastard anticipates Prince Hal. Others have read him as having some of the qualities of Richard III:

In the Bastard Faulconbridge, then, Shakespeare creates a character whose development weds the "political" insights and energies of Richard III and the lesser machiavels of the Henry IV plays--Suffolk, Winchester, York--to the moral commitment of a Talbot or a Gloucester. (Berry 118; see selection 46)

42Critics often discuss the Bastard in relation to the Machiavel character type, as Berry does here. However, while many critics find the comparison useful, not all believe it is a straightforward connection. Michael Manheim, who argues that the Bastard speaks in multiple voices, claims that the Bastard gradually becomes a type of Machiavel as the play progresses, yet he represents "a new kind on the Elizabethan stage--not the 'stage Machiavel' of yore but something subtler and more complex" (129; see selection 48). According to Manheim, it is the Bastard's "linguistic artifice" that allows him to become a Machiavel and yet maintain his attractiveness (133).

43However, John Roe, in his study of Shakespeare and Machiavelli, does not read the Bastard as a Machiavel at all:

The Bastard does not adopt the Machiavel person of schemer, nor does he indeed cultivate that of potential usurper, though some critics have felt that--but for the obstacle of historical records--the natural trajectory of the play would be for him to emulate Bullingbrook in his relationship with Richard and displace John as king. (105; see selection 57)

Those critics who do not read the Bastard as a Machiavel figure argue that he does not seek power the way that a Machiavel necessarily would.

44The liminal figure

Manheim argues that the Bastard has four distinct voices over the course of the play. Each new stage of the Bastard's "political coming-of-age" represents his "increasing degree of knowledge of the world and of himself that Shakespeare intends this young man to acquire" (126; see selection 48). Deborah T. Curren-Aquino modifies Manheim's argument and combines many elements of previous critics when she considers the Bastard as a liminal figure "who functions in a series of transitional stages on his way from country madcap to spokesman for England, a trajectory that anticipates Prince Hal's in the Henry IV plays" ("King John" 239; see selection 55). By examining the Bastard as a character whose identity changes significantly as the play progresses, Curren-Aquino integrates the many elements of his character that have fascinated critics. She demonstrates that the Bastard's identity is in flux by drawing attention to the multiple names and titles by which he is addressed throughout the play: Philip, Richard, Faulconbridge, and "cousin" by King John himself. Curren-Aquino accepts that the Bastard becomes the mouthpiece and representative of England, as other critics have argued; however, she claims that this brings the play towards a problematic conclusion:

King John . . . does not conclude with a coronation . . . that the Bastard and nobles kneel to Henry points in the direction of incorporation, as does the Bastard's plural inclusive voice. But his elegiac exhortation with its recalcitrantly loaded "if," delivered in the presence of a fragile boy-king surrounded by peripatetic nobles (not an image to instill confidence) and further qualified by the nonhistorical status of the speaker who emerges as the national conscience, maintains the sense of liminality to the very end. (266; see selection 55)

45If the play's most liminal figure becomes England's hero, Curren-Aquino argues that the England of the play also comes to occupy a liminal and transitional space.

46The moral conscience

Camille Slights also tries to bring together the inconsistencies in the Bastard's character, arguing that "his very inconsistencies constitute a continuous consciousness, a self-reflective moral awareness that develops in response to the moral confusions of his world and that adumbrates a significant change in the concept of conscience in early modern England" (218; see selection 59). Slights claims that the Bastard is the only character in the play motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong; although a servant to others, the Bastard "becomes his own moral authority" (230; see selection 59). Slights argues that the moral self presented by the Bastard signifies an exploration of "a strand in the transition from a universal to an individualized conscience" (229; see selection 59). However, Slights reaches a conclusion that is not dissimilar from Charles Gildon's in 1710: the Bastard is "of little Use" (246; see selection 1). Like Gildon, Slights acknowledges that the Bastard's efforts throughout the play are ineffectual. Slights reads this as a suggestion that "a single moral voice may have little effect in a time when Commodity is the world's bias" (230; see selection 59).


Eighteenth century uneasiness concerning Constance

Although Slights concludes that the Bastard is ultimately useless in altering the plot of play, there is perhaps no character more impotent in King John than Arthur's mother, Constance. Gildon admired her character just as much as the Bastard's--these were the only two characters he appreciated in King John-- but he leveled the same charge of uselessness against her: "The Violence, Grief, Rage, and Motherly Love, and Despair of Constance produce not one Incident of some one grave Action of just Extent" (246; see selection 1). Despite being completely powerless in the play, Constance nevertheless evokes some of the most powerful reactions in its spectators. Perhaps it is her very ineffectiveness in gaining control over the fate of her son that makes her display of grief compelling.

48While many eighteenth and nineteenth-century playgoers were overwhelmed by Constance's plight, the critics--particularly in the eighteenth century--tended to be more ambivalent. Although they found her grief over Arthur pathetic and captivating, eighteenth-century critics considered her interactions with her mother-in-law, Eleanor, to be disgraceful behavior for a princess. Indeed, Constance's speech towards Eleanor in 2.1 was considered particularly indecent:

My boy a bastard? By my soul I think
His father was never so true begot.
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.
(TLN 426-28)

49Constance was denounced as a scold even by her admirers such as Gildon:

The Scolding betwixt Elinor and Constance is quite out of Character, and indeed 'tis a difficult Matter to represent a Quarrel betwixt two Women without falling into something indecent for their Degree to speak, as most of what is said in this Scene is. (Gildon 247; see selection 1)

A princess's public shaming of a queen in the presence of several kings was simply too much for most eighteenth-century readers. Juliet Dusinberre has examined these eighteenth-century responses and suggests that Constance's behavior caused "some kind of male directorial embarrassment" resulting in Constance's part being significantly shortened and her scene with Eleanor often cut altogether (40). Most infamously, Alexander Pope expurgated many of Constance's speeches, cutting one quarter of her role (about 70 lines). To put this into perspective, Pope slashed fifteen hundred of Shakespeare's lines in all his plays; ten percent of those come from King John and roughly half of the lines cut from King John belong to Constance (Candido, "Pope's Degradations" 95). The emotional confrontation between Constance and Eleanor is eliminated in Pope's version and the scene before Angiers becomes "a decorous (and exclusively male) episode focusing on war and politics" (96). Although Pope may have been motivated by a dislike for "private, emotional, and essentially 'female' forms of expression" as Candido argues, his censorship of Constance confirms the "embarrassment" with which Dusinberre argues many male critics responded to Constance (Candido 109; Dusinberre 40).

50However, not everyone condemned Constance as an indecent scold; some critics, such as Thomas Davies, defended the princess by slandering the queen. Davies justifies Constance's verbal attack of Eleanor by suggesting that her slur against the dowager queen has historical validity:

To understand the propriety of Lady Constance's speech, which contains so heavy a charge, it is necessary that the reader of this tragedy should be previously acquainted with Queen Eleanor's character. . . .The French historians . . . tells us strange stories of her inordinate and unsatisfied lust. (13; see selection 7)

Determined to rescue the "injured princess and afflicted mother" from the censure of scolding critics (19), Davies instead denounces Eleanor as an unfaithful wife.

51Some critics, including Samuel Johnson, ignored the scene between Eleanor and Constance altogether. Rather, Johnson was especially impressed by Constance's grief in 3.1. Johnson praises the portrayal of grief "congealed by despair" (428), which leads to anger and fearlessness. He argues that this grief is very different from that of Hero's father in Much Ado, which is much more subdued since Leonato's sorrow is "warmed by hope"; Johnson concludes: "such was this writer's knowledge of the passions" (428; see selection 4). In Johnson's rather cursory comments on the play, his admiration for the character of Constance stands out.

52Mrs. Siddons and early 19th century fascination with Constance

The person who had perhaps the greatest influence on critics' reading of Constance was not a critic at all: Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) performed in the role of Constance from 1783 until 1812, and her interpretation of Constance as a distraught and frenzied mother left a lasting impression on anyone who saw her, including the leading critics of the time. The force of her portrayal was such that it removed any potential ambivalence critics felt regarding the character of Constance. Indeed, the pathos of the "doating and bereaved mother" was never forgotten by those that "were born early enough to have seen Mrs. Siddons perform the part of Constance" (Campbell 87; see selection 16). Just as Siddons was defined by her exceptional portrayal of Constance, so too was the character of Constance defined by Siddons's portrayal. Even after Siddons's death, the imprint of her Constance remained in the minds of the critics. Indeed, even critics who had not seen Siddons in the part repeated testimony they had heard concerning her performance. George Fletcher went so far as to critique a performance based solely upon the accounts of it he had heard (119; see selection 18). Siddons's performance thus became a touchstone for nineteenth-century critics. Whether they praised her or found fault in her portrayal, they responded to Siddons almost as another literary critic, arguing for or against her interpretation of the character of Constance.

53Indeed, although not all critics responded directly to Siddons, her appearance on stage signaled (or at least, coincided with) a shift in focus in the critical tradition; early nineteenth-century critics did not discuss the possible impropriety of Constance's speeches; rather, in discussing her character, they exclusively examined the pathos that she brings to the play. Critics generally agreed that Constance's maternal grief represented, "the most interesting passion of the play" (Drake 57; see selection 11). She was simultaneously perceived as a natural depiction of this maternal grief and as a "character conceived with Shakespeare's profoundest art, and finished with his utmost skill" (Daniel 70; see selection 14). Indeed, Thomas Campbell, no doubt again responding, at least in part, to Siddons's performance, went so far as to say that "after Constance leaves the stage, Shakespeare's King John is rather the execution of a criminal than an interesting tragedy" (87; see selection 16). For these critics, likely still under the influence of Sarah Siddons, the heart of Shakespeare's play abided not in its titular character, but in the character who had only thirty-six speeches to her name and who disappears entirely after Act 3.

54The "towering pride" of Constance

A single character, however, cannot bask in the critical spotlight long before she attracts new condemnations and defenses; concurrent with praise for the force of Constance's passion emerged a discussion regarding the level and nature of her ambition. Anna Bromwell Jameson repeatedly characterizes Constance as a character with a "haughty spirit" and a "towering pride," but she disagrees with "those who think that in the mind of Constance, ambition -- that is, the love of dominion for its own sake -- is either a strong motive or a strong feeling" (78; see selection 15). Constance's ambition for her son is contrasted with Eleanor's more undiluted ambition, which dominates her entire character. George Fletcher claimed that this juxtaposition is deliberate, and obvious enough to refute any attempts to denounce Constance as ambitious for ambition's sake:

That mother herself, it is most important to observe and to bear in mind, whatever she was in history, is not represented by the poet as courting power for its own sake. Had he so represented her, it would have defeated one of those fine contrasts of character in which Shakespeare so much delighted -- that between Constance and Elinor, which is perfect in every way. (112-13; see selection 18)

55Despite Fletcher's conviction that Constance is driven wholly by selfless motherly love, John Charles Bucknill claimed that her passion could not be so powerful unless it were powered by ambition as well as love:

This fierce desire of power and place, which is but coldly expressed in the word ambition, is as undeniable in Constance as her mother's love. Had she no child she would be ambitious for herself. Having one, she is more vehemently ambitious for him, and indirectly for herself. The tenderness of love alone would have led her to shun contention and to withdraw her child from danger; as Andromache sought to withhold her husband from the field of honour with unalloyed womanly apprehension. (168-69; see selection 22)

56Thus, Bucknill complicated overly simplistic readings of Constance and implied that not even Constance represents a wholly moral character in what critics often read as a morally bankrupt play. Picking up on Bucknill, Georg Gottfried Gervinus further vilified Constance, claiming that she was driven not simply by maternal love and ambition, but by female vanity. Gervinus went so far as to compare Constance to King John: "she is, like John in his masculine sphere, without those mental and moral resources, which could make her moderate in prosperity or calm in adversity" (192; see selection 23). This reading of Constance as a problematic and potentially immoral character seems to have persisted throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century; Frederick S. Boas described her as "hysterical" and "dangerous" in 1896 (290; see selection 30).

57The "wild" lady

The early twentieth century saw another shift in the criticism surrounding Constance; the emphasis centered on the wildness of Constance's character. Stopford Augustus Brooke described her as an image of "primeval motherhood isolated from everything else in its own passion" (359; see selection 34). Somewhat returning to earlier critical conceptions of Constance, Brooke claimed that "All she says, in her grief, is steeped in the waters of poetry; the penetrating pity of imagination pierces through her words into the secret recesses of sorrow" (359). Similarly, E. K. Chambers professed that Constance represents "an ideal mouthpiece for the flood of splendid emotional declamation" and compares her to Richard the Second (79; see selection 35). Indeed, due to her ability to appeal to an audience's sentimentalism, Constance is, according to Chambers, one of the main reasons King John still had admirers, despite its lack of many other redeeming qualities; Chambers concluded that even Constance was not able to save the play from itself. However, despite Chambers' assertion that Constance represented one of the few strong aspects of the play, his critical successors appear to have lost interest in her.

58The loss and rediscovery of Constance

Throughout most of the mid-twentieth century, critics generally avoided Constance. William H. Matchett, in his 1966 introduction of King John, addresses the neglect of Constance by admitting that it would dismay earlier generations of critics who viewed Constance as the play's most attractive character:

This is a view I cannot share, though she is indeed forceful in her claims for sympathy. I find it noteworthy that many actresses, in creating their conception of her suffering motherhood, found it necessary to omit some of her more violent speeches, especially her screeching exchanges with Elinor. Constance is a suffering mother, there is no doubt, but she is also an ambitious one, a strident domineering tigress. (7; selection 43; see the General Introduction, and selection 50 for a rebuttal of the claim that actresses have downplayed Constance's violent speeches).

Matchett favors the man of action and honor that he finds in the Bastard over Constance's "screeching." Indeed, most mid-century critics simply ignore Constance.

59Towards the latter end of the twentieth century, feminist scholars focusing on the four women in the play drew some of the attention back to Constance. Phyllis Rackin completely reverses Charles Gildon's reading of Constance as a figure without use by claiming that Constance, like the other women in the play, determines the course of the events: "Driven by their own ambitions and by hatred and envy of each other, Elinor and Constance incite the war between England and France" (79; see selection 49. Rackin reads King John as the only one of Shakespeare's English history plays in which women have the space to "speak and act" (79). Indeed, in a play about illegitimacy, "hereditary descent from father to son tacitly accords a central role to women, whose sexual fidelity is felt to be necessary but unreliable" (Cohen, 1018-19; see selection 54). Thus, for many feminist critics, Constance becomes significant not in terms of her character, or as a passionate mother, but primarily as a female figure.

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