Shakespeare increasingly, and deservedly, enjoys the reputation of being a political thinker of the first rank. In his King John (ca. 1595) — one of his most infrequently performed and unappreciated plays — Shakespeare uses a twelfth century crisis over King John’s right to succeed to the Crown as a vehicle for exploring the subtle interplay of law, custom and power in the fashioning of political legitimacy. The play is an extended meditation on the effects of John’s illegitimate kingship. Shakespeare presents us with a decentered moral universe that is spiraling towards self-destruction and that is governed solely by the principle of power-seeking or “commodity.” The action of the play concerns how the disintegrating world of “commodity” can be rescued from itself before it collapses.
Although Shakespeare does not use the term “commonwealth” here, it figures in other Tudor-era writers on politics, often in opposition to “commodity.” Indeed, a polar opposition between “commodity” and “commonwealth” structures the play. The roots of the idea of “commonwealth” grow out of a pre-modern communitarian tradition. In the play, the idea is epitomized in the unhistorical, but dramatically powerful, character of “the Bastard,” the illegitimate son of John’s brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted.
King John reveals the corrosive effects of the individualistic ethos of modernity that was already emerging in Elizabethan England. It also dramatizes the power of a countervailing English nationalism that may have looked back to a vanishing past but that was also taking on fresh vitality in this period. This paper seeks to situate a wrongly neglected play in its rich context of Elizabethan law, culture and politics, and to show why it remains of enduring value.
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