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Introduction & Overview of King John by William Shakespeare

This Study Guide consists of approximately 36 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of King John.
This section contains 680 words
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King John Summary & Study Guide Description

King John Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Reading on King John by William Shakespeare.

Introduction

Many elements of the struggle for political power in thirteenth-century England are universal. They can be found in the history of every country in the world. Shifting alliances within factions and political backstabbing—as when Philip and Lewis desert Arthur's cause in exchange for Blanch's dowry, or when the English nobles desert John and then rush back to him upon learning that Lewis means to kill them—are not uncommon in many nations, even today. The cynicism about national leaders expressed by the Bastard in his second major soliloquy (II.i.561-98) resembles the alienation from politics felt by many people in modern times. And when the Bastard describes the weakened John as a bold leader, a "gallant monarch," and a fierce warrior (V.ii.127-58 and 173-78), his words recall those of a political image maker, trying to present a candidate in the most favorable light.

On the international level, the historical enmity between England and France depicted in King John has many counterparts in contemporary times: in Central Europe, the Mideast, and Southeast Asia, for example. To outside observers, some nations' justifications for declaring war are no more valid than, for instance, the reasons that Pandulph gives to induce Lewis to invade England. And regardless of changes in battlefield technology—from arrows to anti-ballistic missiles, from horses to tanks—the victims of war have always included foot soldiers, widows, and orphans. This is pointed out by several characters, especially in Act II; see II.i.41-3, 210-21, 258-66, 300-11, and 352-60.

A central issue in King John is the importance of values in motivating human action. How does a person with deeply held principles react when an unethical course of action would serve his or her self-interest? To what extent should loyalty—to a principle, an individual, a political faction, or a religious belief—determine one's behavior? In the play, rumors of Arthur's death inflame the people against John. Many ordinary citizens are reported to have put up little resistance to the French invasion; some have even welcomed Lewis and his foreign army (V.i.30-35). Are there circumstances in which rebellion against authority can be justified? The Bastard presents the issue of rebelling against "the system" or accommodating oneself to it in his soliloquy on commodity (II.i.561-98). In the course of the play, he goes through a process of "selling out," relinquishing family honor for personal gain; yet when his country is in extreme danger, he is the champion of national unity and England's most passionate patriot. Can moral or political expediency serve a noble or virtuous cause? In King John, the distinction between good and evil is not always clear, and choosing the most ethical course of action is no easy matter.

The question of church-state relations takes a different form today than in the thirteenth century, though it is still a relevant issue. In America, for example, there is no official, established church, as there was in many European countries six or seven centuries ago. Yet today there is active debate about what role, if any, organized religions and members of different religious faiths should have in shaping government policies. Cardinal Pandulph appears to have a mixture of motives for his actions, and he is one of the play's most effective manipulators of words. Are late twentieth-century religious leaders always ethical in their conduct, or are some as manipulative or unethical as Pandulph?

One other contemporary issue presented in the play is the role of women in society. In King John the female characters—from Elinor the power broker to Blanch the pawn—disappear after Act III. What does this signify, if anything? From time to time, the female characters use deceit (Lady Faulconbridge), manipulation (Queen Elinor), and emotional appeals (Constance). In the thirteenth century, women were denied the independent exercise of power; they had to resort to indirect means to achieve their goals. To what extent is this different today?

Twentieth-century productions of King John have frequently focused on the play's topicality and relevance to modern audiences. It raises issues that are not limited to thirteenth-century England but echo throughout human history, and will likely continue to confront us forever.

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This section contains 680 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our King John Study Guide
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King John from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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