King John: Some Bastards Too

  • Ralph Berry


The problems of King John invite a direct confrontation: what is the play about? For Tillyard, it is about ‘the theory of loyalty and when it is lawful to rebel against the reigning king.’1 Irving Ribner, in the same vein, recognises the ‘political didacticism’ of King John: Faulconbridge’s decision is ‘The orthodox doctrine Shakespeare wishes to present most dramatically: Faulconbridge will serve the de facto king, unlawful and sinful though he be, for rebellion, the worst of evils, could only further anger God, whereas lawful submission might cause God to effect a reformation in the king.’2 Sigurd Burckhardt sees a totally different play: ‘What King John presents us with is a world in which authority is totally untrustworthy.’3 These commentators identify the same area of subject-matter (authority and rebellion) but adopt differing perspectives on the issues. While inclining to Burckhardt’s view of King John, I do not regard any of these formulations as wholly satisfactory. The play cannot be crudely didactic, because John’s treatment of Arthur is fully exposed as a human and political crime; there are limits to the obedience a King can exact of a subject, and the play explores them. But however ‘untrustworthy’ authority may be, it exists, and the subject has few options to exercise.


Direct Confrontation Political Crime Satisfying Resolution Strong Possession Extreme Claim 
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King John: Some Bastards Too

  1. 1.
    E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s History Plays (New York, 1962 ) p. 21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London, 1965) pp. 124–5.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968) p. 138.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    John F. Danby identifies the ‘new thought’ in King John ‘that the unity and integrity of England is the overriding moral claim.’ Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature (London, 1948) p. 79.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    E. A. J. Honigmann (ed.), King John New Arden edition (London, 1959) p. lx.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ralph Berry 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ralph Berry
    • 1
  1. 1.York UniversityCanada

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