Shakespeare's King John:
Drama Versus History
by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor
Shakespeare Fun Fact
King John earned the nickname "Lackland" because he originally inherited none of his family's estates from his father, Henry II.
Shakespeare wrote The Life and Death of King John relatively early in his career. The essential story reflects common themes of Shakespeare's other history plays, notably a disputed succession to the throne and the looming threats of rebellion and war. As such, King John may be seen as a kind of prelude to the cycle plays of the War of the Roses. King John, however, is set a century before those events, and its action is presented with less pageantry and narrative drive than most of his other histories.
Shakespeare used his customary blend of historical sources and prior dramas as his frame of reference. His portrait of John is drawn from the histories of Holinshed, Halle, and Foxe, but owes equally as much to an anonymously written play titled The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England (printed in 1591). Both works present John as a king with serious flaws; Shakespeare presents a more balanced view of the character in comparison.
This representation of John is intriguing because it does not fall into the trap of presenting John strictly as a Catholic villain or Protestant martyr (due to his conflicts with Rome and Catholic France). Indeed, the timing of the play in the reign of Elizabeth makes for some interesting topical parallels, especially that of an English monarch excommunicated by the Pope and, by decree of the church, no longer recognized as ruler. On the other hand, John is ultimately in antithesis to Elizabeth; whereas Elizabeth stood firm and held her nation together in the face of foreign invasion, John caves in to the pressure by surrendering his crown and becoming the Pope's vassal to protect himself.
But how does Shakespeare's King John rate as historical reenactment? As with most of Shakespeare's works, history provides a backdrop for drama. Even Shakespeare's audience, though, would have viewed this representation as entertainment rather than as a history lesson. Comparing the play to the historical record provides valuable insight into how Shakespeare crafted the story to suit the stage.
Shakespeare begins the story with John on the throne. The French King Philip supports John's nephew, Arthur, the son of John's older brother Geoffrey, as the rightful heir. Shakespeare also introduces Philip Faulconbridge (aka The Bastard), purportedly an illegitimate son of Richard the Lionhearted. John knights and appoints The Bastard as an officer in his army attacking Angiers. The first battle results in a compromise when John cedes some English holdings to France and agrees to marry his niece, Blanch, to the French Dauphin. However, when John is excommunicated in a dispute with the Pope, the war renews.
Arthur is captured when the English take Angiers and later dies trying to escape; the English nobles suspect John of murder and join forces with the French in a rebellion. John reconciles with Rome, and a loyalist army led by The Bastard defeats the rebels. Warned of possible French treachery, the rebel Englishmen return to John. At the end of the play, a disgruntled monk poisons John, and the English and French make peace as John's son, Henry III, is nominated as the next king.
To begin with, Arthur's claim to the throne was not nearly as indisputable as Shakespeare presents it in the play. Norman law actually favored John's claim, Richard I named John as his successor in his last will, and John's coronation was supported by a majority of the English nobility. Arthur is portrayed as much younger in the play than he was in reality (he was at least 16 at the time of his presumed death), and his fate is not actually known—he disappeared in 1203 after being moved to Rouen the year after his capture.
Shakespeare takes dramatic liberties with other characters as well. Leopold, the Archduke of Austria referred to in the play was dead by 1194, five years before John was crowned as king. Also, the duke is a compilation of Leopold and Vidomar, Viscount of Lioges. Constance, Arthur's mother, was remarried and died the year prior to Arthur's capture. And Philip "The Bastard" Faulconbridge is a completely fictional character invented as a moral foil to John.
The primary events have been altered or compressed into a more convenient timeline for the sake of the story. Shakespeare presents the renewed conflict with the French and the dispute with the Pope as following on the heels of Arthur's death. However, the quarrel over the Pope's appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury came more than five years later in 1207. Furthermore, the papal legate, Pandulph, didn't begin plotting with France against John until 1211, nor did the planned invasion commence until 1216 (although that was the year that John died). Shakespeare also condensed the wars between John and Philip to two; there were actually four. Overall, the chronology of the plot is portrayed as being much more contiguous—and the events made more interdependent—than what transpired.
Lastly, although it probably makes for better drama, John was not poisoned by a monk at Swinstead. In fact, he died at Newark Castle of dysentery contracted while on campaign against his rebellious earls.
In the end, Shakespeare draws John as a character his audience would have accepted—a king with recognizably human failings as a ruler. While the story is decidedly less epic than others of its ilk, it does perhaps make for a more realistic representation of the capricious politics of John's reign. Shakespeare certainly used the same dramatic license observable in Hollywood movies to this day. History is used when it serves the story and altered whenever necessary to fit the plot. King John may be less propaganda than Richard III, for instance, but it is nevertheless still fiction based upon history.
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare (Asimov, 1970), Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996)