Dramatising King John: Shakespeare and Peele


Though not published until the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare’s King John is usually dated to around 1596. It was written after the first tetralogy and the first play of the second tetralogy, Richard II, but probably before the ‘Henriad’ (the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V). In addition to the chronicle sources Shakespeare often consulted for a number of his plays (and history plays in particular) – such as Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (or simply Hall’s Chronicle, 1548 and 1550) and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577 and 1587) – Shakespeare used an earlier dramatisation of John’s reign as a source for his own play. The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England was published in two parts in 1591, and was probably written in around 1589-90. The play is now usually attributed to George Peele, thanks largely to work by Brian Vickers that built on a hundred years of critical debate about the play’s authorship to identify stylistic features and thematic interests frequently seen in Peele’s other works. Peele was an Elizabethan dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote plays such as The Battle of Alcazar and Edward I. He is also often accepted as Shakespeare’s collaborator on Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare and Peele, then, shared dramatic interests and probably even worked together. The two John plays demonstrate that the two dramatists were certainly aware of one another.

Peele’s Troublesome Reign is perhaps the earliest secular English history play, building on earlier Tudor precedents such as Bale’s Kynge Johan (c. 1538) and Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc (c. 1561). Peele’s characters are not allegorical but are real, identifiable political figures from English history. Troublesome Reign emerged at the very beginning of a decade in which the history play developed as a recognisable and popular dramatic genre. Although it rarely receives critical attention in its own right, Troublesome Reign also established a number of the conventions we see in many history plays that were written and performed in the 1590s: battles for the English throne; domestic and international conflict; questions of legitimacy, inheritance, and succession; an emphasis on the presence, action, and voices of female characters as potential wives, mothers, and political supporters; and interrogation of authority and historical accuracy.

Shakespeare’s King John also utilises a number of these conventions, but is often criticised for:

A lack of unity and telic design, episodic and faulty plot structure, absence of both a clearly defined protagonist and a governing central theme, inconsistency of style, rejection of “cosmic lore”, flat characterization and “ethical muddles,” and egregious failure to allude to the Magna Charta. [1]

These perceived weaknesses of King John are often ‘blamed’ in Troublesome Reign, itself frequently ‘[v]iewed simply as the crude prelude to Shakespeare’s greater play or even as its inferior derivative’:[2] if Shakespeare’s dramatisation of John’s reign is weak, then it must be because his source is substandard. However, this sort of approach to reading the two plays is reductionist and overlooks a lot of the experimental and interrogative challenges (some of which are mentioned above) posed by both plays and their shared content.

Peele’s play implicitly places a value judgement on John’s reign as it characterises it as ‘troublesome’. It implies something worrying, dangerous, troubling about John’s reign, and seems to participate in the subsequent historical and critical representations and discussions of ‘Bad King John’. Peele actually presents John as self-assured, decisive, and patriotic for much of the play. Perhaps we are being invited to think of the reign as troubling, the historical challenges faced by the troubled king as troublesome.

Shakespeare’s full title does not judge or comment on the quality of John’s reign. The Life and Death of King John instead suggests a more straightforward history play, a linear dramatisation of this king’s reign. As previously suggested, the play does not fulfil its suggestion: it (seemingly-arbitrarily) offers only select details from John’s reign, denying a sense of cohesion in the play (perhaps, itself, a comment on this reign). Walter Cohen characterises King John as a play that is shaped by its ‘skeptical view of traditional authority – ecclesiastical and secular alike’ and its ‘relative inattention to John himself’.[3] Cohen argues that there is thus a ‘vacuum’ in the play that is ‘filled by women and a bastard, personages generally peripheral to dynastic history.’[4] In the play’s second Act, King Philip of France interrupts Queen Eleanor and Constance’s argument, and Austria’s parallel argument with Philip the Bastard and Blanche. He says ‘women and fools, break off your conference’ (2.1.150), effectively drawing attention to the fact that these ‘women and fools’ are seizing rhetorical space and making their voices heard because they do have important things to say.

In the two opening scenes of these plays that we are looking at in this month’s reading group, we see John faced with one of the main ‘troubles’ of his reign. As Holinshed writes, the death of John’s elder brother King Richard I caused political schisms in his French territories, with some places

indeuouring to preferre king Iohn, other labouring rather to be vnder the gouernance of Arthur duke of Britaine, conside|ring that he séemed by most right to be their chéefe lord, forsomuch as he was sonne to Geffrey elder brother to Iohn. And thus began the broile in those quarters, whereof in processe of time insued great inconuenience, and finallie the death of the said Ar|thur, as shall be shewed hereafter.[5]

Both King John and Troublesome Reign show the French ambassador come to England to lay down Arthur’s claim for the English crown. Arthur’s claim depends on the custom of primogeniture, where the eldest sons inherit: as the heir to John’s elder brother, Arthur should come before John in the line of succession. Primogeniture carried authority in the later Middle Ages and also during the late Elizabethan era when these plays were first written and performed, but in their 1199 setting this ‘precedence in blood was not yet clearly established’.[6] Arthur’s claim to the English throne is juxtaposed with the Falconbridge dispute, where a bastard son of Richard I ultimately forfeits his claim to the Falconbridge inheritance in exchange for a knighthood and to be acknowledged as a ‘Plantagenet’. In the first scene of both plays, these two claims are paralleled in order to foreground the plays’ concerns with questions of legality, legitimacy, and lineage.

Topics for discussion:

• How are these two scenes similar and different? Does it matter?
• What sorts of expectations are being set up in the opening scenes of both plays?
• Are there any hints about how and why John’s reign is being characterised as ‘troublesome’ in the opening scene of Troublesome Reign? What about in King John?
• Related to the above: what sort of king is John being presented as?
• What is the role of women, bastards, and ‘fools’ here? How do they feature in the discussions of legitimacy and lineage?
• What is Queen Eleanor’s role? Does it change between the two texts? How?
• How is authority being treated/represented?
• How is family being treated/represented?
• Do you think that the multiplicity of voices serves to complicate the plot? Complicate history?
• How do these scenes correspond with any previous knowledge we have of King John? Of history plays?

[1] Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ‘Introduction: King John Resurgent’, in King John: New Perspectives, ed. by Curren-Aquino (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 11-26 (p. 11). In this introduction, Curren-Aquino details some of the criticisms levelled at King John as a dramatic work, from its lack of ‘governing central theme’ to its ‘inconsistency of style’.

[2] Charles R. Forker, ‘Introduction’, in The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, ed. by Charles R. Forker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 1-104 (p. 55).

[3] Walter Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1045-1052 (p. 1047).

[4] Cohen, ‘Introduction to King John’, p. 1047.

[5] Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587, Volume 6, p. 157)

[6] W. L. Warren, King John (Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press, 1978), p. 48.

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