Monday, May 11, 2009

King John - Its Place in the Flow of Time

Ernst writes:

Brethren and sistern,

This is a cheat, but I think it is important that we realize when King John was probably written, and that is sometime between Richard III and Richard II―i.e. around 1594 or so. Knowing that, one can consider Shakespeare's themes and characterization in relation to the appropriate plays. It also seems to be a play that may have been started quite early in Shakespeare's writing career and fiddled with over a period of several years―all of which makes its dating increasingly difficult, although I think, by and large, that around 1594 will work well.

The arguments for seeing the play in these terms I take from Hershel Baker's introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare. I append the excerpt below.


(Herschel Baker, from The Riverside Shakespeare)

"The date of King John, a play noted by Francis Meres in 1598 and, so far as we know, first printed in the Folio of 1623, is difficult to fix. Although 1594-95 would seem to be the safest guess, external evidence is altogether lacking and internal evidence is, as usual, oblique and inconclusive."'Basilisco-like" (I.i.244) no doubt derives from the name of a character in Soliman and Perseda, a play written between 1589 and 1592 and perhaps subsequently revived. The action of King John, about an English monarch who is plagued by a rival with a better claim, by the enmity of Rome, and by a strong invading power, suggests the tangled relationships between Elizabeth, her cousin Mary Stuart, and the King of Spain; but to construe the play as an allegory of the Armada years is to press the case too hard, Moreover, attempts to fix a (date from alleged topical allusions to the defeat of the Armada (1588) in the loss of the French fleet, to Henry IV's apostasy (1593) in the vacillation of King Philip and the Dauphin Lewis, and to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet (1596) in Constance's laments for Arthur do not impart conviction.

"The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England
—an anonymous play published in two parts in 1591, ascribed to "W. Sh." on the title-page of the second quarto in 1611, to "W. Shakespeare" in the third quarto in 1622, and subsequently to almost everyone who was writing for the stage in the early 1590's—poses special problems about the source and date of Shakespeare's play and has therefore prompted much conjecture. That The Troublesome Reign and King John are somehow intimately related is not open to dispute; indeed, the close parallelism of their plots, which, although Shakespeare's play is some three hundred lines shorter than its companion piece, exhibit virtually the same episodes in the same order, makes it clear that one play is based upon the other, unless a common source, now lost, is postulated. This kinship is confirmed by smaller details as well, as when both confusingly identify Viscount of Limoges, with Leopold, Archduke of Austria (II.i.5), or deprive Constance of her third husband in order to present her as a strident widow (II.i.32) or show scores of verbal similarities, though only two that extend to as much as a whole line of verse (II.i.528, V.iv.42). The Troublesome Reign has long been held a source—in Dover Wilson's opinion, indeed, the only source—of King John; but Peter Alexander and E. A. J. Honigmann have separately advanced the theory that King John was written first (about 1590-91) and that The Troublesome Reign should be regarded as a reported text, or "bad" quarto, of Shakespeare's play. However, the data cited to support this view are at best tangential, and in the absence of more compelling evidence most scholars still prefer to think that Shakespeare wrote King John, as E. K. Chambers said, with a copy of The Troublesome Reign at hand.

"It is most unlikely that Shakespeare knew of John Bale's King John, a virulently anti-Catholic play of the 1530's, but he certainly used Holinshed's Chronicles and probably Fox's Acts and Monuments [a series of tales about Protestant “martyrs” at the hands of Catholics such as Queen Mary] for details not included in The Troublesome Reign, and he may also have looked at Matthew Paris' Chronica Majora. Mr. Honigmann thinks that he got the date of Queen Elinor's death (IV.11.1.20)—which was apparently unavailable in any printed source—from the Latin manuscript Wakesfield Chronicle and that for the great scene (IV.i) between Hubert and Arthur he followed the Latin chronicle of Ralph Coggeshall.

"Stylistically, King John is marked by tumid rhetoric. It is filled with violent action, but the action often serves as the occasion for debate or disputation, and consequently the play is very verbal. For example, in a wryly comic scene almost at the beginning Faulkenbridge and his puny brother contest their patrimony; and the second act presents a sequence of debates—or at any rate of declamations—with John opposed to Philip, Elinore to Constance, the French and English heralds before the city of Angiers, Faulkenbridge and Hubert, each advancing his proposal. Elsewhere the action hovers on such forensic exhibitions as Pandulph’s equivocating defense of oath-breaking (III.i.253-97), Arthur’s moving plea to Hubert for his life (IV.i.253 ff.), and the Dauphin’s explanation of his plan to conquer England (V.ii.78-108). Most conspicuous of all are Constance’s lamentations, in Acts II and III, for the injuries to her son. “I deny counsel all redress,” she says when he is captured,

But that which ends all counsel, true redress:
Death, death. O amiable lovely death!
Thou odiferous stench! Sound rottenness! . . .

"Philip’s comment on the appalling woman’s rhetoric (which has endeared the role to many actresses) is one that every reader will endorse: “You are as fond of grief as of your child.” On the other hand, scenes such as John’s exchange with Hubert (III.iii.64-66) about getting rid of Arthur are so tight and so alive with drama that they mark a new advance in Shakespeare’s style:

K. John: Thou are his keeper.
Hubert: And I’ll keep him so,
That he shall not offend your majesty.
K. John: Death.
Hubert: My lord?
K. John: A grave.
Hubert: He shall not live.
K. John: Enough.

"A puzzling and uneven play, King John is a daring exploration into the murky details of Realpolitik. In Shakespeare’s earlier history plays—the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, politics is treated as a branch of morals. The course of events, apparently so jagged and complex, is shown to have a pattern and a direction that reveal a moral purpose coextensive with the will of God. Even if evil seems to triumph over good, as when the tyrant Richard wades through blood to reach the throne, we know that God directs events—the convulsions of dynastic struggle no less than the fall of a sparrow—and that His intentions are benign. This doctrine of providential history, which St. Augustine devised and which most Tudor chroniclers thriftily converted into a tool of party politics, begins to yield to something darker and more subtle in King John. Shakespeare is still concerned with politics, of course, but in tracing the link between politics and morals he is less cocksure and doctrinaire. Slogans no longer serve his purpose, nor do inert, reassuring commonplaces of Hall and Holinshed supply the need for explanation. Instead, the ambiguities of character assert themselves, and history is presented not as a paradigm of moral purpose but as a tangled skein of good and evil, where mixed motives are revealed in indecisive actions, and where even a good man fears to lose his way.

"This being a history play, the dynastic situation itself (which Shakespeare, as usual,distorts for his own purpose) exemplifies equivocation. In John, Arthur, and Faulconbridge we are presented, as it were, with three aspects of kingship: a sovereign whose very title is suspect, his youthful rival whose better claim is made the pawn of scheming politicians, and a bastard son of royalty who, finding his identity, is compelled to exercise the awful functions wherein the other two have failed. In other words, the bad, weak man in possession of the throne flouts the helpless rightful heir, brings his kingdom to distraction, and dies as the very "module of confounded royalty" while the Bastard rises to assume the kingly burden that the King himself could not sustain. By juxtaposing these contrapuntal ambiguities Shakespeare does great violence to the notion that might and right are always intertwined, but he makes us look anew at what Edmund Burke called the solemn plausibilities whereby we order our existence."

Excerpt copyright 1974, Houghton Mifflin Company.

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