Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glovemaker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625). He was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at age fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century after his death, and by the early eighteenth century, his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration his works garnered led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life. But the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
King John, a history play thought to have been written before 1596, presents a different view of English history than did Shakespeare's earliest history plays, which depicted the infighting among the royals during the War of the Roses. While King John focuses on actual historical events, it does not attribute any fundamental meaning or significance to King John's reign. Rather, it treats history as an unpredictable unfolding of events, in which seemingly decisive moments become insignificant episodes in a haphazard universe.
Yet audiences who lived during Shakespeare's time may have found King John, which is set in the thirteenth century, to be a reflection on the contemporary debate about royal legitimacy that surrounded the competing claims to the throne of Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. The parallels between the play and these debates are numerous. John's claim to the throne is based on the will of Richard the Lionhearted, his elder brother and the previous king; Elizabeth's father Henry VIII made Elizabeth his heir by will, despite disputes about the legality of appointing successors. The pope excommunicates both John and Elizabeth from the Catholic Church. For more information about the details of Queen Elizabeth's life, see her SparkNote Biography.
John's rival to the throne, Arthur, was the son of John's elder brother, as Elizabeth's rival Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII's elder sister. Succession usually passed to the offspring of the older child, so both John and Elizabeth's claims to the throne were weak. King Philip of France champions Arthur's case, and Mary's claims were supported by foreign kings as well, including King Philip II of Spain. John orders Arthur's death yet tries to distance himself from it, just as Elizabeth ordered Mary's assassination and distanced herself from the murder. Arthur's death provides an excuse for a French invasion, as Mary's death provoked Philip II to launch the Spanish Armada. As England is saved by a storm that shipwrecks the French reinforcements, so storms saved England from the brunt of the Spanish Armada. To an extent, this list of parallels oversimplifies both theater and history, but it nevertheless evokes the themes Shakespeare emphasized in this play, including the struggle with the pope, threat of invasion, and the problem of illegitimate rule.
Critics believe an earlier anonymous play, The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England (1591), was Shakespeare's primary source for King John. Both relied on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), a narrative of English history on which Shakespeare drew extensively throughout the 1590s for his historical plays. John had been thought of as a proto-Protestant king who stood up to the pope, but Shakespeare toned down accounts of John's temporary resistance to the Roman Catholic Church. John emerges as a supporter of neither the Protestants nor the Catholics; he weakens the Catholic Church by pillaging the finances of the monasteries, but eventually he gives in to Rome.
King John was first published in the First Folio of 1623. That text is thought to go back to a manuscript from 1596 that was subsequently copied by scribes in 1609 and 1623. Scholars date the initial writing of this play to the period after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and believe it was written after the anonymous play on the same topic. Examination of stage directions and other stylistic analysis suggest that the play was written around 1596.
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