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    Not Peer Reviewed

    King John: 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.

    2 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.

    3The 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.

    4The 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.