This bleak play shows a series of wars in which nobles defect from one side to another as they vie for power.
John succeeds to the throne after the death of his brother Richard the Lionheart, and is at once threatened by rival claimants, including Richard’s bastard son Philip and his nephew Prince Arthur. John kidnaps Arthur and orders his murder; although the boy is released, he dies shortly afterwards in murky circumstances. It is a bleak and ruthless play: a series of wars in which nobles defect from one side to another seem to achieve little. From the Pope to supposedly honourable kings, every character is revealed as having an eye only on his own interests. Patriotism, religion, family loyalty – all are exposed as mere covers for the endless alliances and betrayals of politics and power-brokering.
King John was probably written in 1596, just after the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet. The speech in which Arthur’s mother, Constance, mourns her son is one of the most moving in all Shakespeare’s work, and has often been highlighted by critics as a possible reﬂection of Shakespeare’s own bereavement:
Published by Oxford University Press and bound in hardback buckram by The Folio Society, The Oxford Shakespeare series offers authoritative editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The early printings have been scrupulously re-examined and interpreted by eminent scholars, who also provide introductory essays covering all relevant background information, together with an appraisal of critical views and of the plays in performance. The exhaustive commentaries pay particular attention to language and staging. Reprints of sources, music for songs, genealogical tables and maps are included where necessary; many of the volumes are illustrated, and all contain an index.
Each book has an individual editor, with the whole series overseen by Stanley Wells.
A. R. Braunmuller teaches English and Comparative Literature at UCLA; he has published widely on Renaissance and modern drama.
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