Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: King John: 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
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    1An experimental play

    King John is a play that constantly surprises--and occasionally frustrates--expectation. It offers the audience scenes of high emotion and of dramatic debate, but it is not easy to categorize the overall effect or appeal. Its isolation in period from the other history plays means that critics look in vain for the prophetic sweep of those plays comfortably located within the larger narratives explored in the two tetralogies. If the play is approached as a tragedy, the protagonist, King John, is likely to disappoint, as he shares the stage with several other significant characters and fades into weakness as the action progresses; in addition, his death is never shown to be clearly or directly the result of his own actions. Nor is the play in any sense a comedy, though the Bastard has his moments of witty commentary. Partly because of this uncertainty of expectation, King John has been characterized as a "transitional" play, fitting neatly between the two tetralogies (Vaughn). The concept of two tetralogies is deeply engrained in critical studies of the histories, despite the remarkable lack of evidence that Shakespeare thought of his historical dramas in this way. As I discuss in my Textual Introduction, the three plays on Henry VI, followed by Richard III, might have some claim to have been conceived as a sequence since they share so many characters, and some structural characteristics, but even the Henry VI plays seem not to have been composed in chronological order, and the title page of the first version of Henry VI, Part Three suggests that it is the second part of a two-part play--a much more common authorial strategy. Similarly, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V work well as a sequence of three, with the first two explicitly linked. Richard II, however, is a clear outlier, with its deeply poetic language, its focus on one central character--despite the structural importance of Bolingbroke--and its carefully focused, single plot. If King John is to be seen as a transition it is at least as likely that it was written between Richard II and Henry IV, Part One. Like Richard II it is composed entirely in verse; like Henry IV, Part One, it features a fictional character as one of the major sources of entertainment and commentary on the historical plot.

    There is nonetheless some insight in the approach that sees King John as a transitional play. The term suggests experiment, as the author moves from one mode of writing to a different one; if at times King John challenges and frustrates our expectations, it is in part because it is experimental. Whatever its exact date of composition, the mid-1590s was a period when Shakespeare seems to have been constantly exploring a remarkable range of genres and sources for the plays he was writing: Love's Labor's Lost (comedy of manners and words with a non-comic ending), Romeo and Juliet (domestic tragedy with a comic structure), Richard II (history, with an elevated, almost epic style), and A Midsummer Night's Dream (multi-layered comedy like nothing before or since). There are, of course, many similarities within this group of plays: all seem at times drunken with language; three are preoccupied with young love, two explore metatheater in plays-within-plays. The scene in King John where the Citizens look on the battles of the antagonists comes close to the same kind of metatheatrical structure. The Bastard wittily points this out:

    By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
    And stand securely on their battlements,
    As in a theater, whence they gape and point
    At your industrious scenes and acts of death.
    (TLN 687-90)

    But the differences between these plays are even more remarkable, whether we look at genre or structure.

    Shakespearean criticism has been profoundly influenced by the choices his fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, made as they organized the bundle of plays they were preparing for publication by genre, choosing comedies, histories, and tragedies. We are now acutely aware that the their three genres were a compromise. The late arrival of Troilus and Cressida, for example, forced the printer to sandwich the play between the histories and tragedies. This is not a bad place for it, we might think, but the inclusion of Cymbeline among the tragedies is a clear sign that the pattern they saw was somewhat blurry. So too is the cross-categorization of Richard II from the quarto's Tragedie of King Richard the Second to a history in the Folio, and Lear from the quarto's True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters to the Folio's tragedy. More recent critical approaches have refined the threefold pattern of the Folio to include convenient categories for at least two of its anomalies, as Troilus and Cressida is slotted into the group of "problem plays" and Cymbeline into the group of late "romances."

    But what all these decisions, from Heminge and Condell onward, tend to do is to smooth over the extraordinary angularity and variety of the work that Shakespeare has left us. Even within traditional genres no two plays look alike: in the tragedies, for example, we move from the tight construction of Macbeth with its central anti-hero to the sprawling dual plot of King Lear (in both versions); and no theory of dual authorship in the surviving version of Macbeth or of extensive revision in King Lear will paper over the differences. If we choose to create a subcategory for Roman tragedies, we are similarly left with the chasm between the restrained language and compact structure of Julius Caesar and the sprawling riches of Antony and Cleopatra, with its episodic structure and dense imagery. There are, of course, overarching changes in Shakespeare's craft between early and late plays, but at the granular level as we look at groups of plays we are left with variety rather than regularity and consistency; with experimentation as much as with anything we might label "genre," or "development."

    5Thus experiment in Shakespeare tends to be the norm rather than the exception. As late as the final group of four romances, Shakespeare seems always to be creating and exploiting new and unexpected dramatic structures; even so consummate a work of art as The Winter's Tale has some instructive similarities with King John: both plays seem rather loose in construction, with unanswered questions about the details of the plot, a shift in mood and mode around the middle of the play, and an unanticipated ending--the revival of the statue of Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and the sudden, hitherto unannounced appearance of the legitimate heir to the throne, Prince Henry, in King John. Other similarly divided, experimental, fascinating, and loosely constructed plays come to mind: Measure for Measure, and the collaborative Pericles, for example. Their recent critical and performance histories suggest that these plays, like King John, are the more interesting for being untidy and unpredictable.

    It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that a play in which Shakespeare so wholeheartedly adopted the framework of the earlier play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (TRKJ), should be categorized as experimental. The closeness to the earlier play in construction (though not at all in language) has tended to embarrass critics concerned to see Shakespeare as always the most original of playwrights. But a comparison between TRKJ and King John that looks beyond plot reveals that Shakespeare's play is exploratory, and engages in a kind of meta-debate with its source. Even in its adaptation of the structure of the earlier play, some of the moments that are sometimes seen as ways in which Shakespeare is less careful than the author of The Troublesome Reign may be re-thought as experiments in the kind of dramatic shorthand that appears in later plays. Shakespeare's characters in his later plays tend to reveal their inner lives through language more than through their response to explicit external motivation; the jealousy of Leontes is a well-explored example where Shakespeare provides none of the careful explanations that appear in his source, Pandosto. In a similar fashion, in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare never makes obvious the reason for Antony's crucial choice to fight Caesar by sea; his source, Plutarch, didactically blames Cleopatra, but Shakespeare's play leaves the audience to connect the dots as Antony simply blusters in justification of the decision (Ant TLN 1892ff).

    A similar shorthand is at work in King John on a number of occasions where The Troublesome Reign is more explicit. In Shakespeare, the warrant for Arthur's death becomes, without explanation, an order for Hubert to put out the child's eyes; in TRKJ the change is made explicit where the warrant is Queen's Men Editionsread out, making it clear that John has mitigated the sentence of death to blinding. There is a similar blurring of motivation in the way the two plays record the death of King John. In TRKJ, it is closely linked to his actions in ordering the plundering of the monasteries, as a monk, supported by his abbot, openly schemes against him in an extended scene; in King John Hubert breaks the news to the Bastard that the king has been poisoned by a monk, but hazards no motivation for it, and the monks never appear on stage. Kenneth Muir (78-85), Ernst Honigmann (lvii ff.), A. R. Braunmuller (4 ff.) and Charles Forker (79 ff. and throughout his commentary) discuss other occasions where TRKJ makes explicit what King John leaves implied, or refers to in passing: most notably the spectacle in the actual appearance of the five moons (TLN 1906; compare TRKJ TLN 1749), John's second coronation (TRKJ TLN 1701), the greater stage presence of the prophet Peter, and the dramatization of the double (for)swearing of the French lords (TRKJ TLN 2474, 2540).

    There is a similar economy of dramatic expression in the way Shakespeare simplified what is at times overdetermined motivation of character in The Troublesome Reign. In TRKJ the Bastard is given multiple reasons for his hatred of Austria--he is responding both to the fact that Austria killed the Bastard's newly acknowledged father, Richard Coeur-de-lion, and to the prompting of Blanche, who is clearly attracted to him:

    Blanch Well may the world speak of his knightly valor,
    That wins this hide to wear a Ladies favor.
    Bastard Ill may I thrive, and nothing brook with me,
    If shortly I present it not to thee.
    (TRKJ TLN 594-7)

    Some trace of this moment may survive in Blanche's comment in King John--

    O, well did he become that lion's robe
    That did disrobe the lion of that robe.
    (TLN 441-2)

    --but Shakespeare's Bastard focuses on a single motivation, that Austria killed his father, ignoring her interruption.

    The Troublesome Reign reign radically compresses history in order to create coherent drama from the scattered and episodic historical events the chronicles record; Shakespeare further condenses the plot, paradoxically making the play more like what we now understand of the contingent nature of the historical record in all its ambiguity. As the comparison between King John and later plays like Antony and Cleopatra or The Winter's Tale makes clear, Shakespeare learned to trust his actors and his audience to fill the spaces between the words, both in plot and character, in the process forging a suggestive and creative ambiguity that has made his plays available for reinterpretation in contexts far removed from his own. If the structure of King John, so closely linked to The Troublesome Reign, nonetheless reveals signs of Shakespeare's experimentation, two features of the play more strikingly illustrate his exploration of dramatic effect: the emphasis on scenes of intense emotion, and on debates that explore issues both on political and personal levels.