Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

King John: Performance History


1Introduction: early performances

The stage history of King John is unexpectedly rich, despite its relative neglect in the twentieth century. It was popular in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth set the standard for Shakespeare performances that emphasized spectacle and carefully accurate reconstructions of historical detail in costume and stage settings. King John was the first Shakespeare play to be filmed, with a brief clip of about a minute preserving a glimpse of the stage performance by Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899.

2A review of one of the first productions of the current century makes a strong case for the importance of some of Shakespeare's less popular plays when it comes to an understanding of changes in audiences and traditions of staging:

3 Rarely performed plays like King John with their peaks of fashion and troughs of deep neglect, are truer barometers of the time than age-old favourites which never leave the stage. When such plays are revived, it is for a reason. The Victorians loved King John for its passion, especially the part of Constance, whose outraged defence of her son Arthur's claim to the throne thrilled their melodramatic souls. In more recent times, the play has been picked for its politics. In the late 1960s and early 70s, its cynical attitude towards realpolitik and war brought it twice to the English stage. And it is politics which has brought it back now. John blusters to keep his little England from the meddling of France and Rome . . . while doing deals, selling out, changing allegiance, swapping sides and generally doing everything he can to stay in office. (Catherine Bates, Times Literary Supplement 13 April, 2001)

4The reviewer's comment on the opportunity the part of Constance offers an actor is a reminder that King John provides actors with several rewarding roles: in addition to Constance there are the two main male parts, King John and the Bastard, as well several potentially rewarding lesser roles -- King Philip, Pandulph, Hubert, and Lewis. In the discussion that follows, rather than looking at the historical interpretation of the major characters (discussed in the General Introduction [[link to come]], I focus on changes in staging, stagecraft, and the thematic or ideological emphases directors have brought to the play. I discuss the performances of some major actors in the General Introduction [[link to come]] in the section on Shakespeare's characterization; there are also discussions of individual performances in the anthology of early criticism of the play[[link to come]]. My survey of early performances necessarily deals with productions in England, but from the middle of the twentieth century on I include representative North American performances as well.

5Elizabethan stages

Nothing is known of the original production of King John on Shakespeare's stage, other than a general understanding of the advantages and limitations of the early theaters where it may have been performed. There are no clear indications of the company that first performed it, and uncertainty about its date of composition makes it difficult to narrow the range of possibilities. There is some likelihood that the part of Robert Faulconbridge would have been originally played by John Sincklo (also known as Sinckler), an actor known for being particularly thin. The Bastard describes his younger brother in parodic language that suggests Sincklo's build: his legs are "riding-rods" (thin branches or used as whips), and his arms as "eel-skins stuffed" (TLN 148-49). Sincklo performed with various companies from 1590-1604; Strange's, Pembroke's, and the Chamberlain's Men; his name is used as a speech prefix for the Second Player in The Taming of the Shrew (Shr TLN 98), a play that was probably also written in the early to mid 1590s.

6We do know, somewhat unexpectedly, some features of staging that Shakespeare chose not to include; in comparison with The Troublesome Reign of King John (TRKJ), performed by the Queen's Men in the early 1590s, Shakespeare seems deliberately to have avoided the equivalent of modern special effects. TRKJ includes a sequence, quite characteristic of Queen's Men productions, where there is an elaborate stage effect of five moons appearing:

7[King John] Why how now Philip what ecstasy is this?
Why casts thou up thy eyes to heaven so?
There the five moons appear.
Bastard. See, see my lord, strange apparitions.
Glancing mine eye to see the diadem
Placed by the bishops on your Highness' head,
From forth a gloomy cloud, which curtain-like
Displayed itself, I suddenly espied
Five moons reflecting, as you see them now. (TRKJ TLN 1747-55)

8In The Troublesome Reign, Peter of Pomfret, the prophet who is summoned to explain the phenomenon, proceeds to discuss with the accompanying lords the meaning of this apparition at some length. The corresponding moment in King John avoids special effects altogether, substituting an evocative description by Hubert of both the event and the reaction of the people of England to it:

9HUBERT
My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight:
Four fixèd, and the fifth did whirl about
The other four in wondrous motion.

KING JOHN
Five moons?

HUBERT
Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously.
Young Arthur's death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him, they shake their heads
And whisper one another in the ear.
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer's wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
(TLN 1906-17)

10The actor who performs Hubert is given a fine chance to act out the description as he describes cameo moments with a blacksmith listening to the latest gossip from a tailor, standing "with his hammer, thus, / The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool, / With open mouth swallowing a tailor's news" (TLN 1918-20), while the tailor in turn is so thunderstruck by the news of the invasion of the French that he has "falsely thrust" his slippers "upon contrary feet" (TLN 1923).

11In contrast with the special effects used in TRKJ, King John requires very few props. Standard items would be

  • a throne, as John tells his lords, "Here once again we sit, once against crowned" (TLN 1718);
  • a crown, as John yields up "the circle of his glory" to Pandulph (TLN 2168);
  • various papers (a warrant for Arthur's death, a contract between the French and English nobles, and a letter from Cardinal Pandulph);
  • swords and the general paraphernalia of battle, possibly including anachronistic pistols, since cannon are mentioned in the dialogue;
  • Hubert may brandish either pistol or bow when he challenges the Bastard: "Who's there? Speak ho! Speak quickly, or I shoot" (TLN 2551-2);
  • Arthur's scene with Hubert calls for a chair, ropes, brazier, and irons to put out his eyes;
  • at the close of the play, John is brought in onstage in some kind of chair.

But the most striking props would have been those associated with Austria--his lion's skin, and in due course his head: "Alarums, excursions. Enter Bastard with Austria's head" (TLN 1283-4). Sound effects also are standard and minimal: cannon, alarums and excursions, drums and trumpets.

12If Shakespeare avoided elaborate stage effects, he did use one common feature of the early theater, the "upper stage"--an area at the back of the stage where one or more actors could appear above the action (one thinks of Juliet's window, or the walls of Barkloughly castle where Richard II appears just before he is taken prisoner by Bolingbrook). The citizens of Angiers appear above the stage and negotiate with both the French and English forces, watch the ensuing battle, then negotiate again, finally opening their doors to both forces as they are temporarily in accord. Later Prince Arthur leaps from a wall to his death (TLN 2005-06), in a scene that is something of a challenge in a modern production, and which is something of a puzzle for us to understand in its early performances: the usual reconstructions of the upper stage make it a full storey above the playing performance--a rather major leap for a child actor, and one which might in truth end up with broken bones.

13The stage, with its two main doors, would also have provided the opportunity for strikingly antiphonal entries by the opposing armies in the confrontation before Angiers, as the stage direction makes clear: "Enter the two Kings with their powers, at several doors" (TLN 646 ). The end of this scene provides a visual image of the agreement of these opposed forces as they would exit together from the same door (creating something of a traffic jam perhaps); the entry of Constance from the other door, accompanied only by Arthur and Salisbury, would again have provided a visual counterpart to her isolation. A subdued echo of the antiphonal entries of the kings and their armies comes in the penultimate scene of the play when Hubert and the Bastard enter through different doors: "Enter [the] Bastard and Hubert, severally" (TLN 2550); once again they leave together. The Elizabethan stage would have made the later scenes in the play, often criticized as being less coherent than the first half, more fluid than may seem the case on the page.