King John in Print and Performance

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By Andrew Brown, Yale University.

Blog Post 1: King John in Print and Performance


Andrew Brown is a Ph.D. student at Yale and was one of the recipients of a Sir Stanley Wells Shakespeare Studentship, via the American Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The award meant he could work in the archives and libraries in Stratford-upon-Avon for just under four weeks.


As one of this year’s recipients of the Sir Stanley Wells Shakespeare Studentship at the Shakespeare Centre, I have been exploring the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in support of my ongoing research for a PhD thesis chapter on the political aspects of William Shakespeare’s King John.

This play does not appear in print before its inclusion in the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623 (where it begins the category of “Histories”), but it went on to have a robust afterlife both in print and on the stage, particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shortly after its first documented performance at Drury Lane in 1737, Colley Cibber adapted the play as Papal Tyranny in 1745, which took the occasion of the recent Jacobite Rebellion as an opportunity to draw out the more explicitly nationalist dimensions of the figure of John as a righteous English king rebelling against encroaching international enemies.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, by contrast, productions of the play tended to strive for a more historically accurate representation of John’s medieval world. A collection of 44 playbills from the Trust’s archive, dating from 1795 to 1859, illuminate this broader shift in interpretations of the play. Over the course of Philip Kemble and William Charles Macready’s long runs in the starring role of King John, the play was increasingly paired with other texts on epic or historical subjects, including John Dryden’s King Arthur; or, the British Worthy and a pantomime titled Alexander the Great; or, the Conquest of Persia (accompanied by a note that “the Scenes, Machinery, Dresses, and Decorations are entirely new”). Moreover, the extant playbills for King John contain named cast lists even for what modern readers might consider minor characters, such as the “citizens of Angiers,” suggesting a growing focus on staging large groups in an attempt to portray these historical scenes in an ostensibly authentic manner.

In addition to these later adaptations of Shakespeare’s own text, the seventeenth century witnessed a number of other engagements with King John and the legends surrounding him, such as his supposed association with the quasi-historical figure of Robin Hood. Among the Trust’s holdings is an annotated copy of the 1662 second edition of Robert Davenport’s play King John and Matilda, which itself borrows from an earlier set of plays published during Shakespeare’s lifetime: Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle’s The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (both 1601).

Davenport’s play likely dates from the late 1620s, but it was first printed in 1655 with a list of dramatis personae which names the actors who had performed the play before Parliament’s closure of the theatres in 1642: a valuable resource both for seventeenth-century playbook buyers and for modern scholars interested in the history of the English stage. In contrast, the 1662 edition, printed after the Restoration and the reopening of the theatres, attributes the play to the significantly better-known playwright William Davenant, perhaps (aside from the similar surnames) because he had become a major figure of dramatic production during the theatres’ official closure, and continued to enjoy favor with the new king. The frontispiece of the Trust’s 1662 copy has also exchanged the list of actors from the 1655 edition for a list of characters divided neatly into “the King’s party” and “the Barons party”—a paradigm that would have had particular relevance for a country still attempting to mend the rifts between King and Parliament.

In his preface to the 1655 first edition, Davenport had announced that “The Author of this, had no mind to be a man in Print,” though “he hopes the knowing Reader will rather Crown it by his Candor, then kill it in the Cradle” (A4r). Far from being neglected by readers, however, adaptations like this one help to demonstrate the longstanding (and still ongoing) fascination with the figure of King John through the centuries.


Sources Cited:

Davenant, William [i.e., Robert Davenport], King John and Matilda (London: Richard Gammon, 1662).

Davenport, Robert, King John and Matilda (London: Andrew Pennycuicke, 1655).

Munday, Anthony, and Henry Chettle, The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington (London: William Leake, 1601).

—. The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (London: William Leake, 1601).


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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