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Magna Carta: Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John

Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King John" lacks one important historical event: the signing of the Magna Carta. In celebration of this document's 800th birthday, Helen Hargest takes us through why this might be the case.

Helen Hargest

The Magna Carta (the Great Charter), one of the most famous documents in the world, is 800 years old!

“The Charter of Runnymede”, as it was first known, was granted by King John (1199-1216) in June 1215, following open rebellion by many of his barons over his excessive taxation to fund his military campaigns, chiefly to regain the Duchy of Normandy, which he had lost to the French in 1204. Magna Carta was revised a number of times subsequently and was first printed in 1509. The current exhibition at the British Library celebrates this anniversary and looks at the legacy of Magna Carta. Only a handful of clauses are cited today, but “Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British Constitution, and it has influenced lawyers, politicians and activists worldwide”. (Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy Exhibition Guide, British Library, 2015).

But as the exhibition points out, Magna Carta is not mentioned in William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (1596).

British Library Magna Carta Exhibition
Cover of the British Library’s exhibition guide for 2015 Magna Carta exhibition

Shakespeare’s play is thought to have been written in 1596, between his plays Richard II and Henry IV Part 1, and was published for the first time in the first Folio (1623). The primary source for King John was an anonymous play in two parts: The Troublesome Reign of King John, published in 1591. This earlier play was based on Raphael Holinshed’s Third volume of Chronicles (1587), and John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of Martyrs (1583), and was notable for its strident anti-Catholicism, with King John standing up against papal authority. Although Shakespeare toned this down considerably, his play was interpreted by some as testimony of his Protestant allegiance. Certainly for an Elizabethan audience, King John’s excommunication and the Pope’s promise to canonise those who plotted to kill the king, had parallels with the Pope’s similar action against Queen Elizabeth 1.

For modern audiences, King John’s reign is synonymous with his signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, and his legendary pursuit of Robin Hood, and thus, it may seem surprising that Magna Carta is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. Holinshed’s third volume of Chronicles mentions the barons’ rebellion and how after the signing, “Great rejoicing was made for this conclusion of peace betwixt the king and his barons...” In Shakespeare’s play, the imprisonment and death of Prince Arthur is given as the cause for the barons’ revolt, since John’s usurpation of the crown goes against the principle of primogeniture, upon which the evolution of monarchy was based.

So why did Shakespeare omit Magna Carta, the most significant event of the period in the very first play of his Histories? In these plays, Shakespeare’s speeches about the role of the sovereign and kingship were critical at times, yet clearly permissible in that era of censorship. In Shakespeare and the Doctrine of Monarchy in King John, Philip Ortega argues that “the Tudor doctrine of Monarchy as it evolved from the time of King John” emerges in Shakespeare’s Histories. “For Shakespeare, history was a means to an end”, since he was more interested in historical truth than in historical fact. In Tudor England the belief of the sovereign’s divine right was absolute, so any failure on the part of the monarch was attributed to God’s will. And with the threat of civil war a constant concern in the sixteenth century, it was not acceptable, especially on the stage, to show the monarch outdone by his subjects. The concessions granted to the barons in Magna Carta implied that rebellion was acceptable if the assurances sought were for the good of the realm. Magna Carta’s significance was emphasised by its omission in King John.

Popular during the Elizabethan and early Jacobean period due to its pageantry and anti-Catholic sentiments, no record of a public performance of King John exists until its revival in 1737 at Covent Garden. Until the 1860s it was performed regularly, but then fell out of favour until Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s revival at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1899. Mirroring current tastes in English culture for historical accuracy, Tree’s staging was an historical spectacular designed by Percy Anderson.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John in his production at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 1899

This production had significant cuts in the text which allowed for a much larger cast and the insertion of sixteen tableaux including a dumb-show of the signing of the Magna Carta in the tradition of Charles Kemble, William Charles Macready, and Charles Kean. Although contemporary respect for original text and changes in cultural taste have removed these tableaux from King John, the omission of the signing of Magna Carta might be a factor in the play’s declining popularity during the twentieth century.

Bate, Jonathan and Rasnussen, Eric (eds). (2012). William Shakespeare: King John and Henry VIII. Basingstoke, Macmillan.
Bullough, Geoffrey. (1962). Narrative and dramatic sources of Shakespeare: volume four: later English history plays: King John, Henry VI, Henry V, Henry VIII. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Dobson, Michael and Wells, Stanley, (2001): The Oxford companion to Shakespeare. Oxford University Press
Ortego, Philip D. (1970). “Shakespeare and the Doctrine of Monarchy in King John”. CLA Journal 13 (1970), 392-401, reprinted in Shakespearean Criticism, volume 38, 49-53.