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The Life and Death of King John, a history play by William Shakespeare, dramatises the reign of King John of England (ruled 1199–1216), son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Henry III of England. It is believed to have been written in the mid-1590s but was not published until 1611.


Shakespeare's play has a close relationship to an earlier history play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (ca. 1589). The consensus among modern scholars is that the earlier play provided a source and model for Shakespeare. There is, however, a strong line of oppositional criticism that argues for the priority of Shakespeare's play, beginning with Peter Alexander and continuing with the work of E. A. J. Honigmann. Some critics believe that Shakespeare revised the early version of the play in the mid-1590s. It is possible that The Troublesome Reign is his play or that it is a "bad quarto" or memorial reconstruction put together by one or more actors in an earlier stage production.

Other probable sources of note include Holinshed's Chronicle, John Foxe's Acts and Monuments and Matthew Paris's Historia Maior.

Date and text

The play was in existence by 1598, as it is mentioned by Francis Meres in his list of Shakespearean plays published in that year, Palladis Tamia; no early performances, however, are recorded. The earliest known performance took place in 1737, when John Rich staged a production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lanemarker. In 1745, the year of the Jacobite rebellion, competing productions were staged by Colley Cibber at Covent Gardenmarker and David Garrick at Drury Lane. Charles Kemble's 1823 production made a serious effort at historical accuracy. Since that time, King John has been one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays. It was first published in the First Folio in 1623. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, editors of the Oxford edition of The Complete Works, date the play to 1595 or 1596.

Performance history

Numerous 17th century references to King John testify to the play's popularity, but the first recorded performance did not take place until 1737. David Garrick staged the first successful revival in 1745. Charles Kemble staged a production in 1823, notable for inaugurating the 19th century tradition of striving for historical accuracy in Shakespearean production. Other successful productions of the play were staged by William Charles Macready (1842) and Charles Kean (1846). Twentieth century revivals include Robert B. Mantell's 1915 production (the last production to be staged on Broadwaymarker) and Peter Brook's 1945 staging, featuring Paul Scofield as the Bastard.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree made a silent movie version in 1899 (a short film consisting of the King's death throes in Act V, Scene vii), which is the earliest surviving film adaptation of a Shakespearean play. King John has been made for television twice: in 1951 with Donald Wolfit and in 1984 with Leonard Rossiter.



King John is visited by an emissary from France, demanding that he hand his throne over to his nephew Arthur, whom the French King Philip believes is the rightful heir to the throne. If John refuses to abdicate, war is threatened.

John oversees a land dispute between Robert Faulconbridge and his older brother Philip (known as 'the Bastard'), during which it becomes apparent that Philip is the illegitimate son of King Richard I. Queen Elinor, mother to both Richard and John, recognises the family resemblance and suggests that he renounce his claim to the Faulconbridge land in exchange for a knighthood. John knights the Bastard under the name Richard.

In France, King Philip and his forces besiege the English-ruled town of Angers, threatening attack unless its citizens support Arthur. Philip is in turn supported by Austria, who is believed to have killed King Richard. The English contingent arrives, and Elinor and Arthur's mother Constance trade insults. Kings Philip and John stake their claims in front of Angers' citizens, but to no avail - their representative says that they will support the rightful king, without committing themselves as to who that might be.

The Bastard proposes that both England and France unite to quell the rebellious citizens of Angers, at which point they propose an alternative: Philip's son, Louis the Dauphin, should marry John's niece Blanche, a scheme that gives John a stronger claim to the throne, while Louis gains territory for France. Though a furious Constance accuses Philip of abandoning Arthur in favour of this new scheme, Louis and Blanche are married.

Cardinal Pandulph arrives from Rome bearing a formal accusation that John has disobeyed the pope and appointed an archbishop contrary to his desires. John refuses to recant, whereupon he is excommunicated. Pandulph pledges his support for Louis, though Philip is hesitant, as he has just established family ties with John. Pandulph brings him round by pointing out that his links to the church are older and firmer.

War breaks out, Austria is beheaded by the Bastard (in revenge for his father's death), and both Angers and Arthur are captured by the English. Elinor is left in charge of English possessions in France, while the Bastard is sent to collect funds from English monasteries. John orders Hubert de Burgh to kill Arthur. Pandulph points out to Louis that he now has as strong a claim to the English throne as Arthur (and indeed John), and Louis agrees to invade England.

Hubert finds himself unable to kill Arthur. John's nobles urge Arthur's release. John agrees, but is wrong-footed by Hubert's announcement that Arthur is dead. The nobles believe he was murdered, and defect to Louis' side. The Bastard reports that the monasteries are unhappy about John's attempt to seize their gold. Hubert has a furious argument with John, during which he reveals that Arthur is still alive. John, delighted, sends him to report the news to the nobles.

Arthur is killed after falling from a castle wall. The nobles believe he was murdered by John, and refuse to believe Hubert's entreaties. John attempts to make a deal with Pandulph, swearing allegiance to the Pope in exchange for Pandulph negotiating with the French on his behalf. John orders the Bastard, one of his few remaining loyal subjects, to lead the English army against France.

While John's former noblemen swear allegiance to Louis, Pandulph explains John's scheme, but Louis refuses to be taken in by it. The Bastard arrives with the English army and threatens Louis, but to no avail. War breaks out with substantial losses on each side, including Louis' reinforcements, who are drowned during the sea crossing. Many English nobles return to John's side after a dying French nobleman, Melun, warns them that Louis plans to kill them after his victory.

John is poisoned by a disgruntled monk. His nobles gather around him as he dies. The Bastard plans the final assault on Louis' forces, until he is told that Pandulph has arrived with a peace treaty. The English nobles swear allegiance to John's son Prince Henry, and the Bastard reflects that this episode has taught that internal bickering could be as perilous to England's fortunes as foreign invasion.


In the Victorian era, King John was one of Shakespeare's most frequently staged plays, in part because its spectacle and pageantry were congenial to Victorian audiences. King John, however, has decreased in popularity: it is now one of Shakespeare's least-known plays and stagings of it are very rare.

See also


  • Wells, Stanley, and Gary Taylor, eds. 1988. The Complete Works. By William Shakespeare. Compact ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198711905.


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