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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

    The Characters

    Early criticism on King Johntended 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)

    It 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?

    One 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)

    John'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).

    While 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.

    The 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.

    The 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.

    E. 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)

    Critics 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).

    Vice 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.

    Judith 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).

    Like 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)

    Critics 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).

    However, 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.

    The 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.

    The 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.

    While 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)

    Constance 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.

    Some 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.

    Mrs. 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.

    Indeed, 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.

    The "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)

    Thus, 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).

    The "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.

    The 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.

    Towards 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.