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Shakespeare’s Missing Magna Carta

To modern audiences, there appears to be a missing scene in William Shakespeare’s “King John.” The play, which was written in the mid-1590s and first published in 1623, dramatizes key events in John’s reign (1199-1216). In the first three acts, Shakespeare portrayed John challenging his nephew, Arthur of Brittany and King Philip II of France for control of his kingdom, and being excommunicated by Pope Innocent III for refusing to accept Stephen Langton, purported author of the Magna Carta, as Archbishop of Canterbury. In last two acts, Philip II’s son invades England at the invitation of John’s barons and John reconciles with the Papacy to fight the revolt.

Today, John is best known for affixing the royal seal to Magna Carta in 1215, becoming the first English King to ratify limits on his power imposed by his subjects. This historic meeting between John and his barons occurred between John’s conflict with the Papacy and the Dauphin’s invasion. In Shakespeare’s work, however, the Magna Carta is never mentioned let alone displayed on stage in a dramatic confrontation between John and his barons. This omission is so disconcerting to modern audiences that it has been blamed for the steep drop in the play’s popularity in the twentieth century.

Shakespeare was writing for an Elizabethan audience rather than a modern one and interpreted the significance of John’s reign differently than we do today. For Shakespeare, John’s villainy was tempered by his willingness to confront the papacy and the barons threatened England’s independence by inviting a French invasion. During Elizabeth I’s reign, the Magna Carta was a comparatively obscure document best known to legal scholars. Without mention of the Great Charter, the significance of the First Baron’s Revolt appears to be a threat to England rather than an attempt safeguard to traditional liberties.

Conflict between the English monarchy and the Papacy was a major theme during Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), influencing popular perceptions of John’s excommunication in 1209. Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII created an independent Church of England through a series of Statutes passed between 1532 and 1537. The break from Rome allowed Elizabeth to be born a legitimate Princess in 1533. Since Pope Paul III was unwilling to annul Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the King secured an annulment from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and married Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn that year.

Anne was pregnant with Elizabeth at the time of her wedding and Henry undoubtedly hoped that the child would be a son. Despite the arrival of a second daughter, Henry continued with his religious program, passing the 1534 Act of Supremacy that declared the King “the only Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England.” As Head of the Church of England, Henry VIII remained doctrinally Roman Catholic, justifying his break with the papacy as a matter of jurisdiction rather than theology. The King presented the royal supremacy to the public as a patriotic development that prevented interference in English affairs by foreign clergy. Loyalty to the Crown and loyalty to the Church of England were combined because it was treason to deny the royal supremacy. It was Henry VIII’s children who introduced extensive theological changes. His son Edward VI was a staunch Protestant, his elder daughter Mary was a Roman Catholic and Elizabeth I presided over a distinct Church of England that combined Protestant theology with elements of Roman Catholic ritual. Like her father, Elizabeth I conflated loyalty to the English Church with loyalty to the state. In this climate, John’s defiance of the Papacy appeared to be a patriotic act that made him appear a more sympathetic figure to Elizabethan audiences.

In his confrontation with the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pandulph, Shakespeare’s King John speaks as a Tudor monarch. When the legate demands to know, “Why thou against the church our holy mother, our holy mother/So willfully dost spurn; and force perforce/Keep Stephen Langton, chosen Archbishop/Of Canterbury, from that Holy See,” John responds with a message for the Pope that reflects the religious changes introduced by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

John declares to the Cardinal, “Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England/Add thus much more, that no Italian priest/Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;/But as we, under heaven, are supreme head, So under Him that great supremacy…” To the Elizabethan Protestants in Shakespeare’s audience, John appeared to be a patriot and defender of a distinct English church against papal interference.

Changing perceptions of France between the reigns of John and Elizabeth undermined popular sympathy for John’s barons and their grievances. By Elizabeth I’s reign, England and France were distinct kingdoms with clearly delineated borders that did not exist in John’s time. Elizabeth I’s elder half-sister and predecessor, Mary I, lost the port of Calais, England’s last territory on what is now French soil. Henry VIII idealized the Hundred Years War between England and France and mounted a number of French invasions. Religious conflict compounded the differences between the two realms. In 1572, thousands of French Protestants were massacred in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris.

In contrast, the English nobility of John’s reign viewed the King of France as a regional counterweight to their King. John’s father, Henry II controlled more of modern day France than the French King through inheritance and marriage. John’s loss of much of this French territory contributed to baronial discontent with his rule. The future Louis VIII had a claim to the English throne through his marriage to John’s niece, Princess Blanche of Castile. (The marriage negotiations and wedding are part of Shakespeare’s play). For John’s barons, the decision to seek French assistance for their cause was uncomplicated by the religious or patriotic concerns of later centuries.

For Elizabeth I’s Protestant subjects, a strong monarch was necessary to defend England from external threats from the Papacy or continental Roman Catholic kingdoms such as France and Spain. The Tudor period (1485-1603) emphasized the might and glory of the monarch rather than the role of parliament in the administration of the kingdom. While Catholics traditionally displayed images of saints in their homes, Protestants kept images of the King or Queen. Odes to Elizabeth I described her in explicitly religious terms as a Protestant Deborah, the only female judge in the Old Testament, or Gloriana, the heroine of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, the Faerie Queen whose knights challenged Catholic adversaries.

After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a portrait of Elizabeth I emphasized her uncontested power with her hand encircling a small globe. The concerns of John’s barons, codified in Magna Carta, seemed remote to Elizabeth I’s subjects.

“King John” is being performed throughout the summer as part of the 2014 repertoire at the Stratford festival in Stratford, Ontario. Since the first staging of “King John” in Stratford in 1960, the festival has ignored the twentieth century decline in the play’s popularity, performing it as often as Shakespeare’s other history plays. The 2014 staging makes clear that the audience is viewing the controversial king from an Elizabethan perspective. Director Tim Carroll follows the “Original Practices” of Shakespeare’s time. The cast wears Elizabethan costumes and the lighting suggests an afternoon performance that ended at dusk. There is some medieval music and weaponry but the world of the play is an Elizabethan one.

While Shakespeare’s most famous Kings, MacBeth, Lear, Henry V and Richard III, all dominate their namesake plays, John (played by Tom McCanus in the 2014 Stratford staging) is part of a vast ensemble of royal family members, courtiers, allies and rivals. “The Bastard” (Graham Abbey), inspired by Richard the Lionheart’s illegitimate son, Philip de Cognac, serves as narrator for the events of the play. John’s rival for the throne, his nephew Arthur (Noah Jalava), written by Shakespeare as an innocent child engulfed in the political machinations of his relatives, is at the centre of a series of poignant scenes while John is offstage.

As a result, John remains an enigma throughout the play. The audience learns more about how John is viewed by his associates than how he views himself. There are indications that Shakespeare himself was not entirely sure how to reconcile John’s villainous acts, particularly the attempted blinding of young Arthur, with his defiance of the Papacy and determination to protect England from a French invasion. The tone of the play changes mid-way through. The first three acts, prior to the intermission, are full of comic touches as John schemes to keep his Crown. The second two acts descend into tragedy, emphasizing John’s ruthlessness toward his nephew, the deaths of close family members and paranoia toward his courtiers.

The Stratford Festival’s 2014 staging of Shakespeare’s “King John” provides a fascinating glimpse into the Elizabethan world, revealing that Magna Carta was not always considered the more significant aspect of the controversial king’s reign. Elizabethan audiences recognized John’s villainy but also admired him for willingness to confront the papacy and fight the French. Magna Carta would return to centre stage in reign of Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, when the writings of renowned jurist Sir Edward Coke celebrated the liberties enshrined in the Great Charter.

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  1. Bruce Harpham
    July 14, 2014 at 11:38

    Thank you for bringing your insight to this play. It's interesting that Protestants favored images of monarchs (compared to the Catholic practice of preferring images of saints). I did not know that about Protestants in the Shakespeare's era.

  2. Pingback: Review of "King John" at the Stratford Festival (2014) | The View From Bruce

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