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  • Title: King John: A Survey of Criticism
  • Authors: Michael Best, Sarah Milligan
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-410-3

    Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Authors: Michael Best, Sarah Milligan
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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.