History Play; Tragedy
King John is considered both a "tragedy" (like Hamlet) and a "history play" (like Henry IV Part 1). Okay, fine. So what? Well, it turns out that each of these two genres has its own sets of rules and conventions. Lucky for you, we're gonna break it all down in a couple of nifty checklists.
What Makes it a (Shakespearean) Tragedy?
Dramatic work: Check. We've already covered this. King John is most definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Hmm... King John is all about a lousy monarch who's willing to do just about anything (like murder his nephew and wage war) to maintain control of the crown. Sounds serious and somber to us. Check.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Have you been paying attention? King John's got (more than) a few flaws, all right... so much so that he hardly looks like a "hero" at all. So, if you want to go ahead and call him an "anti-hero," that's okay with us.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. In Shakespeare's tragedies, the hero NEVER makes it out alive, and this play totally portrays the downfall of King John. Not only does he lose his grip on the English crown, but he also gets poisoned by a monk... and croaks. Game over.
Shakespeare's Tragedies ALWAYS end in death: Check. Like we've said, John winds up six feet under by the play's end. But if you're into blood splatter, don't get too excited, because this ending's not as gory or as splashy as the carnage at the end of other tragedies like Titus Andronicus or Hamlet.
Despite the death of individuals at the end, the play's conclusion promises the restoration of political order: Okay. So John gets poisoned by a monk at the play's end and dies in the middle of the French invasion. Does this mean that it's curtains for England, too? Not at all, actually. The French army winds up retreating, and it turns out that John's got a kid (that would be Prince Henry) who pops up in Act 5 and inherits the crown when his old man dies. So England 's future seems pretty safe. In fact, we sort of get the idea that things will be a lot better with King John out of the way.
What Makes it a (Shakespearean) History Play?
Portrays English historical events: Check. Like we've said before, this play covers events that went down during the reign of King John, who ruled England from 1199-1216. FYI: Shakespeare's other history plays portray events from the late 1300's and the 1400's, so King John stands out from the others since it's about an earlier time in English history.
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: Check. King John portrays events from the early 1200's, but it was written around 1596, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. So, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have seen a lot of parallels between John's rocky reign and some of the current political issues Elizabeth I faced. Both monarchs were accused of being illegitimate rulers, both wrangled with the Catholic Church, and both faced foreign invasions. We talk about this more in "Themes: Memory and the Past."
Shakespeare spices up "history" with a little fiction: CHECK. You probably noticed that a major part of the play focuses on Philip the Bastard, a fictional figure who gets to hobnob with the historical monarch. What can we say? Shakespeare likes to spice things up a bit. Go read our Character Analysis of "The Bastard" if you want to know more.