William Shakespeare wrote King John in the 1590’s, probably after Richard II but before Henry IV, Part I. It was first published as part of the First Folio in 1623. Along with Richard II, King John is one of only two plays by Shakespeare written entirely in verse. While it was very popular in the Victorian era, it is now one of Shakespeare’s least familiar and least performed works. None-the-less, the realization that danger to a country can come as much from internal power struggles as from external enemies is certainly still a very salient point, and the play is a very engaging read. Sir Paul Harvey, in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932), summarizes:
The play, with some departures from historical accuracy, deals with various events in King John‘s reign, and principally with the tragedy of young Arthur. It ends with the death of John at Swinstead abbey. It is remarkable that no mention of Magna Carta appears in it. The tragic quality of the play, the poignant grief of Constance, Arthur’s mother, and the political complications depicted, are relieved by the wit, humor, and gallantry of the Bastard or Faulconbridge.
Of Shakespeare’s fictional creation of the Bastard, one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, the English critic/writer John Middleton Murry says:
His function is to embody England, to incorporate the English soul: that indefinable reality of which the anointed king is but a symbol….The Bastard is a cynic, and not a cynic at all. He is a realist and idealist at once, yet he is not divided. He is the natural Man, in whom the gift of consciousness has served only to make nature more truly itself. He is detached from the world only to be more effectively part of it…High-spirited, brave, dare-devil, witty, humorous, penetrating, yet capable of a profound depth of feeling, he is manifestly Shakespeare’s ideal of an Englishman.
In my recent reading, there are fewer than the normal large set of Shakespeare quotes that hit a chord with me compared to many of his plays. Still a few are brilliant, such as:
Louis (the Dauphin): Lady, with me, with me thy fortune lies.
Blanch: There where my fortune lives, there my life dies.
Some of the best soliloquy in the play comes from Constance, in her grief with the loss of her son Arthur, Here she speaks of death as her only way out from the pain she suffers:
No, I defie all Counsell, all redresse,
But that which ends all counsell, true Redresse,
Death, death: O amiable, lovely death
Here Constance agonizes in a way only parents who have lost a child can fully appreciate:
Greefe fils the room up of my absent childe:
Lies in his bed, walkes up and downe with me,
Puts on his pretty lookes, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffes out his vacant garments with his forme;
Then, have I reason to be fond of griefe?
Fareyouwell: had you such a losse as I…
…O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my faire sonne,
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world:
King John speaks a warning that unfortunately is rarely heeded in history:
There is no sure foundation set on blood:
No certain life atchiev’d by others death:
King John is part of the marvelous 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club (LEC), which was designed by the great Bruce Rogers. Like all editions in this set, it uses the text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon. The type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Bruce Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face. It is bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine. The cover design is based on a decorative wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently.
A different artist was used for each of the 37 volumes in this set. King John was illustrated by the brilliant Italian-American artist Valenti Angelo. Angelo came to the United States from Italy (where he was born) as a small boy. He grew up in California, and as a boy worked in a photo-engraving establishment. He became an artist, and by his thirties he was famous as a decorator of books, working in the printing house of the Grabhorn brothers. In his six years at Grabhorn, he did some spectacular work, including The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, and one of greatest of all fine press books, the Grabhorn/Random House Leaves of Grass. He then moved to New York, and began doing work for George Macy and The Limited Editions Club (LEC). There are many stories about the sour relations between the Grabhorns and Macy (starting with the publication of Robinson Crusoe by the Grabhorns for LEC in 1930, from which both design changes and money topics caused consternation). Mr. Angelo found himself in the middle of this acrimony since the Grabhorns did not appreciate his leaving for LEC (and Edwin Grabhorn implied that Macy had appropriated the illustrations for a planned Grabhorn edition of The House of the Seven Gables). In any case, Angelo ended up illustrating eleven books with LEC, starting in 1934 with the six volume The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night from Richard Burton, and ending with Twice-Told Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1966.
Though I enjoy Angelo’s work in this edition, stylistically I do not find it a great match to the Elizabethan images I have in my head while reading this play. Perhaps I have Angelo so associated with work such as he did for Vathek, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, or The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, I just cannot make the leap to associate his work with Shakespeare. In any case, one can sometimes find a near fine or better copy for $100 or so, and at such price is well worth having.
About the Edition
- Part of the 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club
- Designed by Bruce Rogers
- Text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon
- Illustrations are drawings, by Valenti Angelo, printed in three colors and gold
- Note concerning the play (in the prospectus) by Sir Paul Harvey, from The Oxford Companion to English Literature
- Preface to the play (in the prospectus) by John Middleton Murry, from ‘Shakespeare’ (Harcourt, Brace, 1936)
- Printed at the Press of A. Colish in New York
- Type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face
- New paper created for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company of Springfield
- The binding was done by Russell-Rutter Company in New York
- Bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine
- Cover design based on a decoration wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently (a friend of his)
- 8 3/4″ x 13″, 98 pages
- Limited to 1950 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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