Shakespeare's King John


William Shakespeare's play The Life and Death of King John notably makes no mention of Magna Carta. Based on an earlier, anonymous dramatisation (The Troublesome Raigne of John, c. 1589), Shakespeare’s play was probably written in the 1590s, but it was not published until 1623. Whereas John Foxe (1516–87) had portrayed John in a favourable light in his Actes and Monuments, Shakespeare (1564–1616) demonised the king. Central to the plot was King John's treatment of Prince Arthur: John describes Arthur as ‘a very serpent in my way’, and he commands the Prince’s gaoler to murder him. Ultimately, the executioner shrinks from his task, but Arthur instead throws himself to his death from the walls of his prison. Shakespeare’s failure to include any reference to Magna Carta has puzzled later generations, and many revivals of King John have incorporated newly written scenes describing the events at Runnymede in 1215.

Full title:
Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, etc.
William Shakespeare
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Public Domain
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British Library

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When Magna Carta was created, England had endured 16 years of John’s kingship – a rule based largely on extortion, legal chicanery, blackmail and violence. Here Dan Jones discusses King John's infamous reign.

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