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Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: King John: Textual Introduction
  • Author: Michael Best
  • 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.
    Author: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Textual Introduction

    1The modern-spelling text

    This edition follows the general Guidelines for the Internet Shakespeare Editions, which are based on those prepared for the Revels Plays by David Bevington, and on Wells, Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader. The general intention is to make the text accessible for a modern reader, while remaining as close as reasonable to the original Folio. I follow modern conventions of spelling and punctuation, and have added some stage directions in order to make the implied action of the speeches clearer; where an action is likely, but not absolutely required, it is recorded in a lighter typeface than normal text.

    The modernizing of punctuation often requires that the editor become, in effect, an interpreter of the play, much as an actor or director makes choices about the multiplicity of possibilities a passage presents in expression. One notable example is in the passages Constance speaks, especially in those scenes where other characters on stage -- and many critics -- regard her speeches as outbursts of madness: the cardinal Pandulph specifically comments, "Lady, you utter madness and not sorrow" (TLN 1427). Editors have sprinkled Constance's speeches with exclamation marks as a way of signalling what they see as hyperbole, or extreme emotion. But exclamation marks are rare in the First Folio -- there are only two in King John, at TLN 728 and 1713 -- so editors have collectively tended to construct Constance's character through punctuating her speeches with added emphasis. This text is more cautious, leaving it to the reader or the actor to decide what is a statement, what an exclamation.

    The original publication of King John

    King John was first published in the First Folio in 1623. In general, it is a clean text, with relatively few textual problems. Its textual history is complicated, however, by the existence of the similarly named Troublesome Reign of King John (TRKJ), first published in 1591 as performed by the Queen's Men. Neither King John nor TRKJ was entered in the Stationers' Register. Quartos of TRKJ appeared in 1611 and 1622; the title page for the edition of 1611 attributed the play to "W.S.," that of 1622 to "William Shakespeare." E.K. Chambers, and others since, have remarked on the parallel with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and the anonymous Taming of a Shrew (first published in 1594); both are similarly named plays, both share much of their plot with Shakespeare's plays, and both are omitted from the list of Folio-only plays entered in the Stationers' Register on 8 November 1623. While the two cases share a number of features, Braunmuller lists several ways that the two are different (20). In addition to the points he makes, it is worth noting that the author of A Shrew lifts whole speeches from Marlowe, putting them in very different contexts in his play; while it may be true that the author of TRKJ is something of a magpie, picking up the orts and scraps of other writers, he does not import long chunks.

    The manuscript, the scribes, and the compositors

    The manuscript for King John, from which the compositors were working, appears to be unusual in that there is evidence from variant spellings that it was transcribed by two scribes, conventionally designated X and Y (Taylor "'Swounds" 59, "Appendix II" 250-53, Jowett 317, Braunmuller 20-25). In general, there are few signs that it was directly connected to the theater, and there are a number of features that suggest close connection to Shakespeare's own papers, foul or fair.

    5Scribe X seems to have been responsible for the first two thirds of the play, from roughly TLN 1-1893, scribe Y responsible for TLN 1941 to the end of the play (the intervening lines being a no-scribe's-land where there are insufficient clues to assign to one or the other). Because some of the spellings favored by X accord with spellings that may be Shakespeare's preferences, Taylor ("Appendix II" 253) argues that X was either Shakespeare, or a scribe who followed the original Shakespearean manuscript more closely than scribe Y. If X was indeed Shakespeare, we must assume that his transcript was partially modified in order to introduce the occasional expurgations, and the confusing act/scene breaks in the first section of the play (see below). In general, I accept Taylor's conclusion, that at least part of the play was printed from a late transcription; if the first section of the play was set from a Shakespearean manuscript of some kind, it must have been partially modified by another hand.

    The text and the theater

    Non-theatrical features of the text

    While editors in recent years have become more cautious about assigning specific characteristics to the different kinds of manuscripts used by compositors in setting up a text, it is reasonable to assume that some features of a text are more likely to be the result of an author's point of view rather than theater practice. King John includes a number of stage directions that refer rather vaguely to generic characters, especially in groups; such indications will be sufficient for an author, but will be less helpful in the theater. The number of these directions is quite significant:

    Enter a Citizen vpon the walles. (TLN 505)Enter K. of England, Bastard, Queene, Blanch, Pembroke, and others. (TLN 379)Enter the two Kings with their powers, at seuerall doores. (TLN 646)Enter France, Dolphin, Pandulpho, Attendants. (TLN 1382)Enter King Iohn and Pandolph, attendants. (TLN 2166)Enter (in Armes) Dolphin, Salisbury, Meloone, Pem-/broke, Bigot, Souldiers. (TLN 2250)Enter Hubert and Executioners. (TLN 1570)Enter Dolphin, and his Traine. (TLN 2524)Enter Iohn, Pembroke, Salisbury, and other Lordes. (TLN 1717)

    This last stage direction with its cheerfully vague "other Lordes" highlights one oddity of the text. Two lords, Salisbury and Pembroke, are consistently on stage and make substantial contributions to a number of scenes in the latter part of the play; the other named lords, Essex and Bigot, appear more sporadically and speak less. Essex appears only in the first scene of the play and has only one speech; Bigot is present but silent in 5.2, 5.4, and 5.7. Braunmuller makes the sensible suggestion that "the English Lords are theatrically important as a group (of three probably) rather than as individuals modeled on historical personages" (23).

    Speech prefixes for three significant characters in the play vary between generic and specific names. Lewis, the Dauphin, appears as Dol., Dolph., Lew., and Lewis.; King Philip is Fra., Fran., France., Phil., Philip.; Eleanor is more varied: Ele., Elea., Eleanor., Eli., Old Qu., Qu., Qu. Mo., Que., Queen. While this variety is unlikely to cause problems in the theater, it does suggest more the processes of composition than of theatrical practice. Randal McLeod (Random Cloud) uses the further example of variation in speech prefixes and characters' names, focusing on changes and inconsistencies in the names given Philip/Sir Richard Faulconbridge/Bastard, in a characteristically entertaining discussion of the dangers inherent in taking evidence of changing speech prefixes as definitive indication of the manuscript behind the print version. On his initial entry (TLN 58ff) the Bastard's first seven speeches designate him as "Philip" or "Phil"; as soon as Queen Eleanor gives him the option of being recognized as the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, his speech prefixes become "Bast" (TLN 146) and remain so for the rest of the play. His name (as distinct from his speech prefix) also changes when he is knighted, much to his amusement, from Philip to Richard:

    10Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.
    "Good den, Sir Richard," "God-a-mercy fellow."
    An if his name be George, I'll call him Peter;
    For new-made honor doth forget men's names:
    'Tis too respective, and too sociable
    For your conversion. (TLN 194-99)

    It may be that Shakespeare changed the name to avoid confusion with the other Philip in the play, Philip, King of France--both names are Philip in TRKJ. There is, however, a later moment in the play when the Bastard is once again called Philip rather than Richard:

    [Bast.] Austrias head lye there,
    Enter Iohn, Arthur, Hubert
    While Philip breathes.
    Iohn. Hubert, keepe this boy: Philip make vp,
    My Mother is assayled in our Tent,
    And tane I feare. (TLN 1287-92)

    The first "Philip" could perhaps refer to King Philip, rather to the Bastard speaking of himself in the third person and forgetting his name-change, but the second use of the name is clearly an error. Possibly Shakespeare, meaning the first mention of Philip for the French King, used the name again while it was fresh in his mind. This edition keeps both uses of the name, noting the confusion in the commentary.

    Finally, as well as this consistent generalization of minor characters, the text misses out a number of sound cues, something that would be problematic in a manuscript used in the theater (see Braunmuller, Appendix C).

    Possible theatrical features of the text

    1. Censorship

    15There are clear signs that the text was modified in accordance with the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players of 1606, which forbade the use of god's name on stage. The clearest examples in the play concern the probable substitution of "heaven" for "God": in TLN 1082-3, for example, "heaven" is followed by the pronoun "him," indicating an obvious change:

    But as we, vnder heauen, are supreame head,
    So vnder him that great supremacy . . .

    Similarly, the Bastard refers to "he" after using the word "heauen":

    Bast. The Dolphin is preparing hither-ward,
    Where heauen he knowes how we shall answer him. (TLN 2669-70)

    The existence of censored lines could suggest that the manuscript may have been at least in part prepared for performance, since the Act applied only to stage plays, not printed works. For this reason, Taylor argues ("'Swounds" 60) that censorship is an indication that a manuscript has been prepared for the theater. If the manuscript is indeed a late transcription, however, his further conclusion concerning theatrical influence on the scribes is less convincing; any scribe working after the law requiring expurgation of earlier plays and after the fashion of act breaks had taken hold might be accustomed to making changes accordingly, whether the transcription was for the printer or the theater.

    This edition is conservative in emending by replacing "heaven" with "god," since in most cases the substitution (if it was a substitution) makes complete sense, and can leave the lines' scansion untroubled if "heaven" is pronounced as a single syllable. The following is a list of occurrences of "heaven" that may be examples of expurgation, but which this edition has left unchanged:

    [Eleanor] So much my conscience whispers in your eare,
    Which none but heauen, and you, and I, shall heare. (TLN 48-49)20[Bastard] But for the certaine knowledge of that truth,
    I put you o're to heauen, and to my mother; (TLN 69-70)[Constance] Arme, arme, you heauens, against these periur'd Kings,
    A widdow cries, be husband to me (heauens) (TLN 1032-33)[King Philip] No longer then we well could wash our hands,
    To clap this royall bargaine vp of peace,
    Heauen knowes they were besmear'd and ouer-staind
    With slaughters pencill; (TLN 1165-68)[Constance] I doe pray to thee, thou vertuous Daulphin,
    Alter not the doome fore-thought by heauen. (TLN 1244-45)[Arthur] Is it my fault, that I was Geffreyes sonne?
    No in deede is't not: and I would to heauen
    I were your sonne, so you would loue me, Hubert: (TLN 1595-97)25 Art. O heauen: that there were but a moth in yours,
    A graine, a dust, a gnat, a wandering haire,
    Any annoyance in that precious sense: (TLN 1670-72) Art. O heauen! I thanke you Hubert. (TLN 1713) Bast. With-hold thine indignation, mighty heauen,
    And tempt vs not to beare aboue our power. (TLN 2595-96)

    In two instances, as indicated above, this edition restores "god" because "heauen" is followed by the singular pronoun "him" or "he":

    [King John] But as we, vnder heauen, are supreame head,
    So vnder him that great supremacy
    Where we doe reigne, we will alone vphold
    Without th'assistance of a mortall hand: (TLN 1082-85)]Bast. The Dolphin is preparing hither-ward,
    Where heauen he knowes how we shall answer him. (TLN 2669-70)]

    One way of deciding whether a change has been introduced purely because of expurgation is to look at other works, before and after 1606, to see if the phrase was in general use in its own right. The Literature Online (LION) database provides a powerful tool in this kind of search; I have restored "god" in two further instances where the LION database records the phrase only in drama published after 1606; the same phrase with "god" occurs with far greater frequency:

    [Constance] I am not mad, I would to heauen I were,
    For then 'tis like I should forget my selfe: (TLN 1432-43)

    ("I would to heauen": 5 hits, all in drama after 1606. "I would to god": 17 hits in poetry, 23 in drama.)

    [Arthur] For heauen sake Hubert let me not be bound: (TLN 1654)

    ("For heauen sake": 4 hits, all in drama after 1606. "For gods sake":25 in poetry, 104 in drama.)

    30Finally, in this instance the connection between the Legate of the Pope and god are so close that the original wording seems significantly more likely to have referred directly to god.

    [Lewis] Looke where the holy Legate comes apace,
    To giue vs warrant from the hand of heauen, (TLN 2317-18)

    2. Act/scene breaks

    Another possible indication that the underlying manuscript for King John was intended for the theater is the fact that the play is divided into act and scene breaks in a fashion that suggests that these were in the manuscript rather than added in the printing house. Later theater practice in the indoor theaters introduced breaks between acts. There is also evidence, however, that many of the act and scene breaks in the Folio were added to non-theatrical texts; Lucas Erne has revived an interest in the importance of the Folio texts as aimed at a literate, reading public. The fact that even those plays in the Folio which have no act and scene divisions uniformly begin with the formula "Actus Primus Scaena Prima" suggests that the appearance of act and scene breaks may have intended to suggest a more readerly text. King John, however, fits awkwardly into the argument that the manuscript was prepared for the theater since some of the act and scene breaks indicated in the Folio are puzzling. No editor has yet come up with a wholly plausible explanation for the confusion, even after meticulous examination of the interactions between the two scribes and the two compositors who set the manuscript.

    The second act as originally marked is very short (77 lines), and is clearly an error. The first act is correspondingly very long (919 lines); the usual response of editors has been to interpret the "Scaena Secunda" at TLN 291 as an error for an act division, with the third act beginning where it is marked, and the direction "Actus Secundus" at TLN 920 an error for the second scene of Act 2. These errors most likely stem, at least in part, from the manuscript, since the two headings were set by different compositors, "one working forwards through the text, the other backwards" (Jowett, 318). In each case a numeral "2" or "ii" would have been used (act two / scene two), so some mix-up is understandable; the problem seems not to have been obvious enough that it was noticed while the play was being set, or in proof. Some editors have chosen to change the Folio's choice for the beginning of Act 3, since Constance is apparently left determinedly sitting on the stage ("Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it") but is given an entrance along with the kings and their attendants at the beginning of the next scene ("Enter King Iohn, France, Dolphin, Blanch, Elianor, Philip, Austria, Constance"). In a play with continuous action, as was the norm at the time the play was written, Constance's continued presence on stage would have presented no problem; perhaps the retroactively imposed act break inspired the anomalous entrance. That actors might remain on stage during an act break is clearly signaled by the stage direction at the end of Act 3 in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "They [the four lovers] sleepe all the Act" (MND TLN 1507).

    There have been many restructurings of the play to make the breaks more rational; I follow the simplest path by keeping the Folio marking for the beginning of Act 3, and making "Scaena Secunda" Act 2. All other scene breaks in the Folio are reasonably straightforward and are followed by most editions.

    Speech prefixes

    Scribe X (possibly following Shakespeare) seems to have had some uncertainty about the assignment of a number of speeches.


    As the opposing armies of Philip of France and John of England face off before Angiers, Philip orders a trumpet to summon the citizens. The stage direction reads "Enter a Citizen vpon the walles" (TLN 505) and the speaker, "Cit." then responds with four speeches (TLN 506, 573, 576, 588) leading up to the first battle between France and England. After the Heralds of both countries have boasted about their success, the next speech, still spoken apparently from the walls, is given to Hubert:

    Hubert. Heralds, from off our towres we might behold
    From first to last, the on-set and retyre
    Of both yonr [sic] Armies (TLN 636-8)

    As indicated in this quotation, Hubert's name is given in full (an unusual occurrence), and it is crammed into a tight line with no space after the speech prefix. Thereafter in this scene Hub. speaks a further four times (TLN 677, 731, 738, 796). At no time is the speaker mentioned by name, so he will remain anonymous to the audience, identified only as a citizen speaking from the wall on behalf of the citizens of Angiers. Some five hundred lines later a character named Hubert enters, and is immediately addressed by name; he then plays a major part as King John's confidant and the reluctant executioner of Arthur.

    There is no clear explanation for the change from Citizen to Hubert. The fullest discussion of the crux is Braunmuller's article, "Who is Hubert? Speech-headings in King John, Act II," where he argues that

    • there were probably several citizens on the wall, not just the Citizen,
    • one of these might have been Hubert,
    • who then becomes the spokesperson for the citizens after the battle.

    Accordingly, in his edition, Braunmuller creates the ingenious stage direction, "Enter Citizen[s]of Anger,[including Hubert,]upon the walls" (TLN 505). Later he retains the speech prefix "Hubert" for the speeches after the battle. Thus he is able to keep the readings of the Folio, with both a Citizen and (to the audience) an equally anonymous Hubert. Editors who choose to convert the Citizen to Hubert in his first four speeches (Honigmann, Smallwood, Matchett) argue that Hubert as a character is something of a manipulator, one who acts as the occasion demands. This kind of argument tends to be circular, and depends more on the critic's ingenuity, or the actor's skill, than on any solid textual evidence.

    40Despite a considerable amount of speculation, there is no clear explanation for the oddity of Hubert's sudden appearance on the walls of Angiers. The only plausible suggestion is that someone wrote in the margin a direction that the Citizen's speeches be given to Hubert at the point where his name appears in full, perhaps because a single actor was doubling both parts. Beaurline (189-92) makes the strongest case for this explanation. We do know that compositor B began setting the play at the point where "Hubert" speaks from the walls; the speeches of the Citizen were set later. But although it would be a simple matter for an actor to double the Citizen and Hubert, the substitution for one character's name for another (rather than an actor's name) is rare. Beaurline cites Philostrate/Egeus in the Folio text of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter/Balthazar in Romeo and Juliet, and Volemar as an attendant to Fortinbras in Hamlet. Whatever the answer to this puzzle, I have chosen to follow editors who have kept the speech prefix Citizen throughout, because the actor, whoever it is, remains anonymous to the audience.


    There is some confusion about names in act 2, scene 1. Two speeches probably mis-assign speeches intended for the French King, and the opening stage direction treats "Lewis" and "Daulphin" as separate characters. Some confusion may have been the result of the rather awkward doubling of the name Philip for both the French King and the Bastard (I have already discussed the moment at TLN 1290 where King John forgets that he has changed the Bastard's name from Philip to Sir Richard).

    1. Act 2, scene 1, TLN 294: Does Lewis or Philip speak first?

      Enter before Angiers, Philip King of France, Lewis, Daul-
      phin, Austria, Constance, Arthur.
      Lewis. Before Angiers well met braue Austria, (TLN 292-4)

      The assignment of this speech to Lewis rather than King Philip is an odd one. Editors from Theobald on have emended to King Philip at this point. Braunmuller sums up the argument: the Folio normally lists the first speaker in the opening stage direction; protocol would require the King rather than his son provide the initial welcome; the speaker uses the royal plural later in the speech ("our," TLN 300). In addition, Shakespeare seems early in the play to confuse Philip and Lewis (see the next example).

    2. Act 2, scene 1, TLN 449-50:

      Aust. What cracker is this same that deafes our eares
      With this abundance of superfluous breath?
      King Lewis, determine what we shall doe strait.
      Lew. Women & fooles, breake off your conference.
      King Iohn, this is the very summe of all: (TLN 447-51)

      There is clearly an error here, since Lewis is not the king. Braunmuller (Appendix A) points out that compositor C started setting the play at this point, and would not necessarily yet have been familiar with the characters referred to by the manuscript's speech prefixes. Compositor C may have interpreted the prefix "King" (or some shortened variant, as appears frequently in this section) as "Lewis." The only oddity here is that the two kings are on stage at this point, so that a single prefix "King" for King Philip must have been a slip on the part of the scribe.

    3. Act 2, scene 1, TLN 682:

      Fra. A greater powre then We denies all this,
      And till it be vndoubted, we do locke
      Our former scruple in our strong barr'd gates: (TLN 682-4)

      The content makes it clear that this speech is intended for the Citizen, called Hubert consistently at this point. The most likely explanation of this error is that the compositor misread the original "H" as "ff" (the capital "F" in secretary hand).

    Hubert/the Bastard, or who says what in the dark?

    A number of editors have found the Folio speech assignments in 5.6 in error. The original reads thus:

    Enter Bastard and Hubert, seuerally.
    Hub. Whose there? Speake hoa, speake quickely, or
    I shoote.
    Bast. A Friend. What art thou?
    Hub. Of the part of England.
    Bast. Whether doest thou go?
    Hub. What's that to thee?
    Why may not I demand of thine affaires,
    As well as thou of mine?
    Bast. Hubert, I thinke.
    Hub. Thou hast a perfect thought: (TLN 2550-60)

    Editors have remarked on the fact that the Bastard is first mentioned in the stage direction, but does not speak first, and have noted that the questions are unequally divided between the two characters. Various alternatives have been suggested, adducing arguments from rank and character (see table). I see no compelling reason to change the Folio lineation and assignment of speeches, though all of the listed alternatives make sense.

    Folio Vaughn Dyce DoverWilson
    Who's there? Speak ho, speak quickly, or I shoot. Hubert Hubert Hubert Bastard
    A friend Bastard Bastard Bastard Hubert
    What art thou? Bastard Bastard Bastard Hubert
    Of the part of England. Hubert Hubert Hubert Bastard
    Whither dost thou go? Bastard Hubert Bastard Hubert
    What's that to thee? Hubert Bastard
    (repeated by Hubert)
    Hubert Bastard
    Why man not I demand of this affairs / As well as thou of mine? Hubert Hubert Bastard Hubert
    Hubert, I think. Bastard Bastard Bastard Bastard
    Thou hast a perfect thought. Hubert Hubert Hubert Hubert
    Followed by: Followed by:
    Matchett Werstine
    Oxford/Jowett Beaurline
    Rasmussen Braunmuller
    This edition

    Dating and sources: competing narratives

    External evidence for dating King John

    King John was not entered at any time in the Stationers' Register. The only unambiguous contemporary references to it is by the invaluable Francis Meres, who mentions King John in his list of Shakespeare's tragedies in Palladis Tamia (1598). No other contemporary record of publication or performance has been discovered.

    Internal evidence

    45Recent work on the chronology of the plays has maintained and strengthened the traditional dating of King John in the mid 1590s; three recent studies confirm the position of King John as one of a group of plays that includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II, and Love's Labour's Lost (Wells and Taylor 89-109, 119, Vickers 104-11, Jackson passim). These scholars apply multiple criteria in developing their chronologies, including a range of sophisticated computer-generated stylistic tests. Tests of this kind are, of course, approximate, and vary in their results; they tend to work best when applied to works by a single author, making the assumption that the author worked on one work at a time. In the period generally, however, the norm was for collaboration rather than single authorship, and we have no clear assurance that Shakespeare or anyone else worked on one play at a time. No wonder, then, that the most useful and reliable information to be gained from this kind of internal evidence is the way it can relate groups of plays together, providing a more "fuzzy" chronology than critics, fascinated by the concept of an author's consistently developing art, might like. Since Shakespeare's art demonstrably did change and develop, the broad outlines of the chronology remain secure.

    Statistical approaches of this kind favor a position for King John between Richard II and 1 Henry IV, despite the attractiveness of seeing the play as a "transition" between the modern artifacts of the two tetralogies. Since the general acceptance of the concept that Shakespeare created two epic historical tetralogies, critical discussion of the histories has been dominated by this paradigm. Not surprisingly, the two histories that fall outside the chosen eight have fallen on relatively hard times in terms of critical focus and performance--King John and Henry VIII. It is certainly reasonable to think of the three plays of Henry VI together (though we may decide that they were not wholly written in a linear fashion), and it is equally reasonable on the basis of both external evidence and stylistic grounds to assume that Richard III followed soon after. It is no less true that the two parts of Henry IV and the following Henry V are closely interlinked by style and share many characters. Richard II, however, can perhaps be seen to be almost as much an anomaly as King John. Both Richard II and King John focus on a single plot line rather than multiple threads, and, perhaps because of their single plots, both are written throughout in verse; in addition both feature a chiastic, or "hour-glass," structure where one figure fades as another grows in stature. Richard II was certainly written at a time when Shakespeare was experimenting widely with form and with heightened language; like Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost, and A Midsummer Night's Dream it delights in moments of high lyricism. King John is no less experimental, but its exploration is of intensely political interaction, a language suitable for political obfuscation, and the attendant ironies of a plot that is finally driven by non-human agency (see the Critical Introduction).

    Since internal evidence points so strongly to a date in the mid-1590s, it comes as something of a surprise that there has been a debate, at times intense, over the date of King John, with some scholars arguing forcibly for a much earlier date than that suggested above.

    The debate

    The debate centers on the relationship between The Troublesome Reign of King John (TRKJ) and Shakespeare's King John. Did Shakespeare use TRKJ as his main source for his King John, or did someone else use his King John as the main source for TRKJ? TRKJ was published in 1591, whereas King John did not appear until the First Folio of 1623. Early editors and critics reached the obvious conclusion that Shakespeare had used TRKJ as his principal source in writing King John; the first critic to challenge this chronology was Peter Alexander, who commented in 1929 (Shakespeare's 'Henry VI' and 'Richard III') that

    it is difficult to understand how this work, so well digested in the scenes as to permit Shakespeare to follow it nearly scene by scene, should yet show so little corresponding modesty or cunning in its writing as to appear like a tissue of borrowed and only half-assimilated phrases from Henry VI, Richard III, as well as King John itself. (85)

    50This belief--that a writer whose language is as banal as that of TRKJ could not at the same time create an effective plot--has been the mantra that those who would place King John as the earlier play return to again and again. One of the most recent defenders of King John as the prior play, Brian Boyd, writes:

    So boldly and brilliantly has history been reshaped that even those who argue for the priority of The Troublesome Raigne sometimes feel that nobody but Shakespeare could have moulded the material so well, that somehow or other he must at least have had a hand in The Troublesome Raigne before rewriting it as King John.

    The editor of King John for the Signet Shakespeare, William Matchett, makes similar claims, emphasizing what he sees as weaknesses in TRKJ caused by its author's inept imitation of Shakespeare: "What is taken as 'better plotting' in TRKJ can be consistently explained as an expansion and cheapening of Shakespeare's implications" (136). Like many advocates of King John as the prior play, Matchett prefers not to accept the proposition that the reverse process, in which Shakespeare improved upon the dramatic effectiveness of his original, is more likely than a hack writer muddling something already demonstrably superior. On the other hand, Matchett finds the plot superior in TRKJ in the scene where Arthur is to be blinded; here he makes the opposite argument, that Shakespeare would not have made something more muddled that was clearer in his original. Matchett focuses on the apparent confusion in King John between the order King John gives to kill Arthur, and Hubert's intention of blinding him; he comments, "we have the curious Shakespeare of certain textual scholars, the man who grew toward mastery of his craft through carelessness in handling a perfectly clear source. That Shakespeare was sometimes careless--that he was careless here--there is no doubt; but his carelessness is of a differing kind if he is not following a source which has already solved the problem he then creates" (140). I have no wish to try to have it both ways like those I am citing, but I cannot resist pointing out that Shakespeare frequently used a kind of shorthand in his plotting as compared to his sources, making unclear what was perfectly clear; I think of the several places in Antony and Cleopatra where Plutarch is far more precise than Shakespeare in providing information and motivation for the protagonists. Perhaps because it is his intention to complicate the moral simplicity of Plutarch, Shakespeare never makes clear the reason for the final disaster where Antony believes himself betrayed. Plutarch explains it in detail.

    The most recent editor of the play, L.A. Beaurline, restates the basic argument several times, that the author of TRKJ could not possibly have created a plot so well-constructed:

    . . . the author of TRKJ seems insensitive to the very principles on which his play is constructed. A greater dramatic artist conceived the design by which the scattered historical events were synthesized from the Chronicles. (197)55. . . the ironies and the dilemmas that are built into the scenes of the two plays are too sophisticated to have been invented by the author of the dialogue and the monastic episodes in TRKJ. (198)

    A related argument is derived from the unquestioned fact that if TRKJ is the prior play Shakespeare used his source more closely than was his usual habit. Even critics who do assume that TRKJ is Shakespeare's source sometimes feel a need to justify the way Shakespeare made use of it, following it more closely than he does with other source texts: "King John's plot may be from The Troublesome Raigne, but Shakespeare condensed his material to emphasize repeated reversals of expectations" (Vaughn, 415). Stimulated perhaps by the rather poor press King John received from critics in the early part of the twentieth century, the chief proponent of King John as the prior play, E.A.J Honigmann, begins his critical introduction to the play by remarking: "To praise the contrivance of a play which deviates very little from its 'source-play' would be dangerous. The critics, consequently, have been content to admire the few virtues in John not plundered directly from the T.R." (lix).

    The argument

    The basic argument is this: TRKJ has generally weak dialogue and language, and such a writer could not have produced a plot as well-constructed as that shared by both TRKJ and King John. But is it demonstrably true that no playwright could have produced a well-constructed plot other than Shakespeare? Beaurline certainly thinks so:

    . . . no other playwright of the time--not Marlowe, Peele, Greene, Kyd, or Lyly--has the combinative and structural powers of the early Shakespeare; yet the preternaturally gifted author of Troublesome Reign has supposedly done his basic work for him. (197)

    The suggestion that only Shakespeare was "preternaturally gifted" in plotting is surely a major overstatement. Shakespeare certainly tended to combine more than one version of a plot, and often to interweave additional materials, but all the evidence suggests that plot was the least of his concerns; much critical energy has been expended puzzling over loose ends in many of his plots. Beaurline might have heeded A.R. Braunmuller's perceptive suggestion that the claim for the precedence of King John over TRKJ

    60conceals a germ of Bardolotry: Shakespeare was a master of both plotting and dramatic language; he did not need and would not use, even as a guide, another writer's arrangement of an action; any author who seems his peer or superior must some way owe that quality to Shakespeare. (12)

    Braunmuller goes on to anticipate and counter Beaurline's dismissive comment on Shakespeare's contemporaries by suggesting that "there were several playwrights in the late 1580s and 1590s that could work up a plot from Holinshed and the other chroniclers with at least as much skill as Shakespeare shows in the first tetralogy" (12), adducing both Peele and Marlowe as examples. Recent scholarship from critics less Shakespeare-centered has provided a further corrective to the untested assumption that only Shakespeare could have compiled the plot for TRKJ. Most recently, Brian Vickers has argued on stylistic grounds that the play was actually written by George Peele; drawing evidence from internal use of language: vocabulary, parallel passages, a tendency to "self-repetition," the use of the vocative, self-address in the third person, alliteration, and the use of mixed Latin and English phrases. Of course, those who see King John as the prior play can argue that Peele was the author who rewrote Shakespeare's play. Charles Forker's edition of The Troublesome Reign for the Revels series confidently assigns the play to Peele; his Introduction fully sums up the arguments in favour of Peele's authorship.

    Both Vickers and Forker build on the admirable work done by Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean on the dramaturgy of the plays written for the Queen's Men in The Queen's Men and their Plays (1998). In their analysis of the nine plays known to have been performed by the Queen's Men, McMillin and MacLean establish that there was a kind of "house style" for the plays, both in plot and language. Queen's Men plays adopted the theatrical literalism of morality plays and interludes, and developed a "medley" style in language, switching from prose to fourteeners to rhymed verse to blank verse as the tone of the moment required. TRKJ fits comfortably into this pattern, and shares many qualities both in plotting and language with the other plays in the group. Since one of the plays (Old Wives Tale) was known to be written by Peele, the claim by Vickers and Forker that he alone is responsible for TRKJ is certainly possible, even likely, though McMillin and MacLean make a strong case for more collaborative composition as the norm for the plays written for the Queen's Men. For our purposes, the vital point is that TRKJ is in no way exceptional in its plot, and not even especially inept in its language. Peele and his peers were typically limited in their style but ingenious in their plotting--precisely what we find in TRKJ.

    Once it is clear that TRKJ is in no way especially remarkable as a play of its period, the basic reason for arguing for the priority of King John effectively disappears. We may be pardoned if we feel some relief that this should be so, since the argument putting King John first requires its proponents to substantially rewrite the generally accepted chronology of the early plays, pushing the early histories back several years, and requiring that even Romeo and Juliet be written as early as 1592. It is true certainly that the chronology of the early plays is based on more conjecture than we might like, but the ingenuity required to justify early dates for so many plays is considerable.

    The usefulness of the approach by McMillin and MacLean is that they view TRKJ horizontally, as one of a coherent group of plays written for a specific company with specific actors. They explore the network of interconnected influences; the Queen's Men were struggling to maintain their audience as new fashions, inspired especially by Marlowe, were taking over the stage. Critics who have attempted to place King John before TRKJ have argued vertically, looking at two specific plays in a disputed chronology, but failing to see the network as a whole. There has been a great deal of influence-hunting as part of the attempt to prove that one or other play came first, but many influences (often called "sources") are readily capable of being interpreted in opposite ways. Editors and textual critics have accordingly developed a series of narratives to explain their preferred train of influence.

    The "bad quarto" or "memorial reconstruction" narrative

    65The most dogged champion of King John as the prior play has been the editor of the Arden 2 King John (1954), E.A.J. Honigmann. In his discussion of the text of King John, he argued that TRKJ has many characteristics of a "bad quarto," "reported text," or "derivative" play (lvi, 174); it is, he says, a "hotch-potch of a numerous collection of old plays" (lv); according to this narrative, the anonymous author of TRKJ used King John simply for its plot, possibly as a memorial construction after hearing it in the playhouse (lvi), remembering the scenes, then adding his own vacuous language and some additional comic, anti-Catholic scenes. Honigmann finds many other possible sources for King John, though these can of course be seen as working in either direction. To bolster his case further, he sees a number of topical references, none of which stand up to close inspection, largely because, as Braunmuller points out, in terms of potential topical allusions, the entire Elizabethan period is an "embarrassment of riches" (3). Alice Walker, in her review of Honigmann's edition, pointed out that several stage directions in the two plays are so similar that is is difficult to imagine them being created without one being the model for the other; she describes these as "documentary evidence" for the priority of TRKJ. Her initial example is the very first entrance in each play:

    Enter K. Iohn, Queene Elinor his mother, William Marshal Earle of Pembrooke, the Earles of Essex, and of Salisbury. (TRKJ, TLN 1-2) Enter King Iohn, Queene Eleanor, Pembroke, Essex, and Salisbury, with the Chattylion of France. (King John, TLN 2-3)

    This stage direction is especially interesting, since Essex appears only in this one scene of King John and is never mentioned by name in the play; for this reason, Walker points out, the theory of some kind of memorial construction is difficult to justify.

    A counter-narrative

    The next editor of King John, R.L. Smallwood, dismissed the narrative of memorial construction leading to a bad quarto:

    70We might, however, still imagine a man writing the play after seeing King John if we supposed him to be a vigorous Protestant burning to explore issues that he felt Shakespeare had inexcusably left out of his play, going back over the chronicles to do so and picking up a good deal of extra, irrelevant information in the process and including it in his play as a sign of independent research, and then, having deliberately cleared his mind of all memories of Shakespeare's language except for a few details of history which, though mainly available in the chronicles, he had most precisely learned by heart from Shakespeare, writing a play that eschewed all of the theatrical high-points that King John had achieved, and substituting a longer exploration of historical and religious material. (371)

    As Smallwood comments, "[s]uch a man is indeed difficult to imagine."

    A decade later the issue became the subject of a debate in the pages of Shakespeare Quarterly. In 1986, Sidney Thomas pointed out that another stage direction in King John seems to show that Shakespeare was working from a copy of TRKJ as he radically rewrote the play. The curious direction is Enter a Sheriffe(TLN 50); no Sheriff speaks and no Sheriff is given an exit. Thomas points to the equivalent scene in TRKJ, where a Sheriff enters and duly passes on information to the assembly concerning the background of the quarrel between Robert and Philip Faulconbridge. The following year SQ published what they called an "Exchange," providing a forum for varying narratives. Honigmann returned to the fray, insisting again that his narrative could withstand the forces of skepticism, and reiterating his belief that "those who prepared the copy for Shakespeare's Folio sometimes printed from, or consulted, quarto texts. Even 'bad' quartos were used" (Honigmann, 1982 62). Thus, he proposed, those who prepared the Folio King John consulted TRKJ to assist with stage directions when they were "illegible, or simply missing" (Honigmann, 1987 124). He made an interesting comparison with the relationship between TRKJ and the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew, going so far as to suggest that "the authors of AS and TRKJ, perhaps one and the same man, could have had access to unpublished texts of TS and KJ [King John]" (125). In the same exchange, Thomas is moved to something close to strong language:

    The relationship between The Taming of a Shrew (AS) and The Taming of the Shrew (TS) that Honigmann instances to buttress his argument is not only problematic but irrelevant to the question of the relationship between TRKJ and KJ, despite Honigmann's amazing and completely unsubstantiated suggestion that the same author may have written both AS and TRKJ. (Thomas, 1987 130)

    An alternative narrative

    In the same exchange, Paul Werstine weighed in with an alternative narrative to explain the puzzling Sheriff. Using the manuscript of Edmund Ironside as an example, Werstine suggested that the Sheriff's ghost may have been created by an annotator preparing the manuscript for use in the theater: "a dramatist lists a character's name in a stage direction and then provides the character with a speech in the scene that follows. The hand that annotates this manuscript for the theatre denies the character his speech but fails to eliminate his name from the entrance direction and thereby makes the character a ghost" (128-9). Possible though this narrative may be, research published by Gary Taylor since Werstine was writing suggests that the manuscript the compositors were working on was not closely connected with the theater.

    The demise of the "bad quarto" narrative

    75In the same eventful year, 1987, A.R. Braunmuller's insightful and scholarly Oxford edition appeared, as did the companion volume to the Oxford Works, William Shakespeare, a Textual Companion. Both made important contributions to study of King John. Braunmuller politely demolished the many arguments proposed by Honigmann and Matchett, and introduced into the discussion the discovery by Gary Taylor and John Jowett that the Folio copy of King John was the result of a transcription by two scribes (Textual Companion 317).

    It is no surprise then that Beaurline's attempt to resuscitate the precedence of King John requires that he shift his argument from the discredited theory of a bad quarto to the proposition that the author of TRKJ had access to an "author's plot" (207) of some kind, conveniently providing some stage directions he could imitate without all the baggage of Shakespeare's language. That there is no evidence of any kind for such author's plots as part of the process of the transmission of Shakespeare's texts is not mentioned. The appearance the following year of Laurie Maguire's Shakespearean Suspect Texts made even more convincing the earlier arguments that TRKJ is in no way likely to be a memorial construction (314-15). One cannot help but feel that those arguing for the priority of King John were increasingly forced to grasp at straws as their narratives became less and less likely to convince. No wonder then that Honigmann's last gasp reverted to vaguer and more general arguments than textual to press his still insistent claim that King John was written first.

    Never say die: now the author of TRKJ acted in King John

    Honigmann's final salvo in the debate appeared in 2000. This time he found evidence for the priority of King John by locating a series of Shakespearean "self-repetitions" in TRKJ and King John, arguing that the author of TRKJ must have used a Shakespearean original. I have neither the space nor (I will admit) the patience to work through his examples to show how commonplace they are, and how they are clearly derived initially from TRKJ in order to show its supposed dependence; it is precisely the kind of horizontal study exemplified by McMillan and MacLean that shows the hollowness of this kind of argument. Honigmann returns to his main theme, that the author of TRKJ could not possibly have created the plot in its complexity. But even here he wants to have it both ways: the plot is good, but it is also inept:

    . . . a beautifully plotted play in its analysis of complex political manoeuvres and its dramatic control, at times appears to confuse or forget its own logic. . . . [the author of TRKJ] wrote a play that resembles Shakespeare's in its plotting yet goes off the rails whenever it differs from Shakespeare in its plotting. (178)

    Finally, in order once again to provide an acceptable narrative that will explain the mechanism for the author's borrowing of the plot from King John, Honigmann proposes that the author "had acted in King John--and, it would follow, in other plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Peele and Kyd" (180). There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to support this claim.

    Applying Occam: returning to the original narrative

    80The original argument postulated on purely esthetic grounds by Peter Alexander has led to seventy years of intensive scholarship, spearheaded by his pupil, Ernst Honigmann. Despite the scholarly good sense of Braunmuller, the debate has continued until very recently, with no "smoking gun" discovered by those who wish to challenge the generally accepted date. The continuing confirmation of a later date for the composition of King John through newer techniques for evaluating internal and stylistic development, the difficulty of the "knock-on" effect requiring that many other plays be re-dated to earlier years, and the clear inaccuracy of the claim that an author of the talent of the writer of TRKJ could not have compiled its plot--all lead to the simple solution that Shakespeare used TRKJ as his source, relying on it more closely than was his habit at other times. The horizontal approach of McMillin and MacLean, particularly in the analysis of the rivalry between the Queen's Men and the increasing popularity of Marlowe's plays, provides the clearest sense yet of the place of TRKJ in the period as a whole. Their further speculation, that the apprentice Shakespeare may actually have contributed in a minor way to TRKJ, elegantly explains the intersecting questions of attribution on the title pages TRKJ Q2 and Q3, the lack of entry in the Stationers' Register for King John when the Folio was being planned, and Shakespeare's unquestionably atypically detailed use of TRKJ as his main source. There is no way to establish the truth or falseness of this immensely attractive narrative, but it does provide a synthesis of the available evidence.


    The challenge to the Queen's Men provided by the popularity of Marlowe (and Kyd) is a reminder that at least some in their audience changed in their tastes in a way that must have influenced authors writing for all companies. We may be reminded of the tetchy comments of Ben Jonson on members of his audience who "will swear, Jeronimo or Andronicus, are the best plays yet"; but his censure of those whose judgment has been "constant , and hath stood still these five and twenty or thirty years" (Bartholomew Fair, Induction) is at the same time praise of those who have indeed changed. It is reasonable to assume that that authors were interested in reaching the most responsive and critically aware members of their audience. Shakespeare's own plays-within-plays illustrate the development in the audience from naivety to sophistication as they move from requiring an argument or dumb show to explain the action ahead of time--and requiring the player, when he came in, ever to begin with telling where he was, or else the tale would not be conceived--to the kind of opening scene in King John, where the exposition emerges seamlessly from action and dialogue. This audience clearly filled in gaps in Shakespeare's dramatic shorthand without straining after detail. A more extended vertical analysis of the audiences of the period along these lines may also provide further information in the dating of plays.

    The debate sustained by Honigmann and others has not shaken the essential validity of the network of evidence both external and internal that establishes the sequence of Shakespeare's plays, or of groups of his plays, putting the composition of King John securely in the mid 1590s, well after the publication of TRKJ. A less bard-centered approach both to Shakespeare's own plays and those of his lesser contemporaries would encourage textual scholars to spend less of their considerable energies and intellects seeking to prove that Shakespeare wrote all that was worthwhile, when others manifestly had good, if minor, talents. There are more important things to explore in King John than the quality of its plot.

    Footnote: a question of authorship

    In his article, "King John Divided" (Literary and Linguistic Computing 19.2 [2004]: 181-95), Thomas Merriam argues that King John was written by two authors, one of whom displayed use of "stylistic markers" typical of Shakespeare, while the other's passages are clearly different. Merriam uses a number of statistical tests, employing "function words" (common words like"and," "I," "is," and so on) and other ways used to differentiate Shakespeare's usage from other writers. He refers to work by Gary Taylor in the Textual Companion to the Oxford Works (1986), and Elliott and Valenza (1996, 1988-89, 2001).

    The core of Merriam's conclusions is summed up in a table that lists passages by Shakespeare and "Non-Shakespeare" (184). An unexpected feature of this table is that it omits almost a third of the play: according to Merriam, 751 lines are by Shakespeare (28%), and 1156 lines by "non-Shakespeare" (42%). This leaves a total of 820 lines (30%) in a logical paradox, neither by Shakespeare nor not by Shakespeare. The table reads thus in simplified form--Merriam adds columns to provide act and scene lines from the Oxford and Arden editions, and lists potential sources for the passages; I have added a list of the passages his table omits, plus columns that add up the various totals and percentages.

    TLNs start TLN finish # of lines Authorship Total lines Percent
    146 290 145 Shakespeare
    407 503 97 Shakespeare
    1569 1850 282 Shakespeare
    1995 2164 170 Shakespeare
    2192 2248 57 Shakespeare 751 27.54%
    1 145 145 Non-Shakespeare
    291 406 116 Non-Shakespeare
    506 737 232 Non-Shakespeare
    997 1193 197 Non-Shakespeare
    1851 1994 144 Non-Shakespeare
    2249 2570 322 Non-Shakespeare 1156 42.39%
    738 996 259 Nobody
    1194 1568 375 Nobody
    2165 2191 27 Nobody
    2571 2729 159 Nobody 820 30.07%
    2727 100%

    85 Statistical tests of the kind Merriam is employing must rely on sufficiently large chunks of data if they are to be meaningful. The table indicates that two of the passages attributed to Shakespeare are less than 100 lines in length (one, attributed to the paradoxical "Nobody" is only 27 lines long). The number of words in these passages is well under a thousand; Hugh Craig has established a block of 2,000 words as a statistically minimal sample of text for analysis of common words (Ellegård argues for a safer 4,000; qtd Craig and Kinney 27). Merriam's selection of smaller chunks, together with the omission of almost a third of the text, suggests that his statistics are vulnerable to precisely the kinds of normal variation that makes the samples invalid in statistical tests. Craig has run his own battery of tests on the two samples of "Shakespeare" and "Non-Shakespeare" from King John (but not on the missing "Nobody" samples, since they were not provided). His conclusion was that his tests do not give "any decided direction on the problem. They did not confirm the hypothesis, but they do not disconfirm it either" (private response to Merriam, 2009).

    In a more recent piece, "Feminine Endings in King John" (2009), Merriam returns to the fray with evidence from the frequency of feminine endings in the two strands of the play he has identified as "Shakespeare" and "not Shakespeare." In this piece the whole of the play is included, with a new table. Once again the play is divided into sections, some of which are clearly too short to be amenable to reliable statistical analysis:

    section authorship TLN start TLN end # of lines feminine endings percent
    [1] Not Shakespeare 1 56 48.5 2 4.12
    2 Shakespeare 57 290 227.5 32 14.07
    [3] Not Shakespeare 294 406 106 3 2.83
    4 Shakespeare 408 503 91 5 5.49
    [5] Not Shakespeare 506 737 222 9 4.05
    6 Shakespeare 738 770 32.5 2 6.15
    [7] Not Shakespeare 771 819 48.5 1 2.06
    8 Shakespeare 821 881 57 4 7.02
    [9] Not Shakespeare 882 919 38 1 2.63
    10 Shakespeare 922 996 74 2 2.7
    [11] Not Shakespeare 1000 1281 273 6 2.2
    [11a] Not Shakespeare 1061 1106 44.5 2 4.49
    12 Shakespeare 1285 1525 223 15 6.73
    [13] Not Shakespeare 1526 1568 43 2 4.65
    14 Shakespeare 1571 1715 133 15 11.28
    [15] Not Shakespeare 1718 1783 66 7 10.61
    16 Shakespeare 1785 1904 114.5 6 5.24
    [17] Not Shakespeare 1906 1994 88 7 7.95
    18 Shakespeare 1997 2143 138.5 2 1.44
    [19] Not Shakespeare 2144 2164 20.5 0 0
    20 Shakespeare 2167 2196 29 2 6.9
    [21] Not Shakespeare 2198 2233 35.5 0 0
    [22] Not Shakespeare 2234 2436 194.5 5 2.57
    23 Shakespeare 2440 2457 17 1 5.88
    [24] Not Shakespeare 2460 2633 154 2 1.3
    25 Shakespeare 2635 2674 37 3 8.11
    [26] Not Shakespeare 2675 2729 54 1 1.85

    The statistical impossibility of providing reliable percentages where there are -- to state the most obvious example -- three instances of a single feminine ending (one in a passage of only 17 lines), is clear.

    Merriam's contention that many plays in the period were collaborative is unquestionably accurate--the earlier plays on Henry VI almost certainly involve some degree of collaborative authorship. However, his division of King John into multiple, relatively short components, attributing these in part to two different hands, does not provide clear evidence of multiple authorship.

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