Ramon Jiménez considers The Troublesome Raigne of John the first Shakespeare play in print (1591), as he explained at the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference in Portland, April 2005. Although Clark had declared the play a shorthand copy of the King John we have in the canon, taken down surreptitiously in the theater (Clark 477), Jiménez demonstrates that Troublesome Raigne was Oxford's earlier version of the play, revised into the canonical King John: "The Troublesome Raign of John, King of England. Shakespeare's First Version of King John." The Oxfordian 12 (2010): 21-55.
The work was in performance in the 1580s and may have owed something to the 1587 edition of Holinshed (Farina 106). The play is "harshly anti-Catholic" (Asimov 232) with the Bastard ransacking monasteries and discovering naughty papists. The business concerning the death of Arthur with John "sidestepping" responsibility suggests perhaps Queen Elizabeth not wanting to sanction the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (Anderson 216).
J.W. Sider, ed. The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England. NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1979.
Elinor facilitates a transition from the late King Richard Lionheart to her younger son John. John introduces himself: "John your Lord, contented uncontent, / Will (as he may) sustaine the heavie yoke / Of pressing cares, that hang upon a Crowne" (i.12-14). The Lords Pembrooke and Salisbury fetch the French ambassador Shattilion while Elinor anticipates that this embassy comes to claim the throne for Arthur, John's older brother Jeffrey's son. She's right. Elinor, Arthur's grandmother, blames Arthur's mother, the "head-strong" Constance (i.53). She tells Shattilion to invite Arthur to leave the King of France and come live at John's court.
The next order of business is that of two brothers and the inheritance of the Fauconbridge estate: Robert vs. "Bastard," the older [half-]brother. John is at first puzzled: "Thy Brother and thine elder, and no heire: / Explaine this darke Aenigma" (i.118-119). Robert "can proove, and doo averre / Both to my Mothers shame and his reproach" (i.125-126). "The proofe so plaine, the argument so strong" (i.159), all come around to accept that the "Bastard" Philip is Richard Lionheart's son with Margaret, Mrs. Fauconbridge: "Help hands, I have no lands, honour is my desire; / Let Philip live to shew himselfe worthie so great a Sire" (i.293-294). "Ist not a slacknes in me worthie blame, / To be so olde, and cannot write my name" (i.390-391). Margaret wails, "Upbraid me rather with the Romane Dame / That shed her blood to wash away her shame" (i.405-406). The Bastard parts with half-brother Robert: "Then Robert Fauconbridge I wish thee joy, / My Sire a King, and I a landles Boy" (i.415-416). "Ile act some wonders now I know my name" (i.420).
King Philip of France announces support of Arthur's claim of the English crown. Arthur tells his mother Constance that "sooner would he [John] scorne Europaes power, / Than loose the smallest title he enjoyes; / For questionles he is an Englishman" (ii.28-30). Chattilion brings back report of John's answer and the invitation to Arthur. Soon John and his entourage is on the scene. Elinor warns Arthur, "thy mother makes thee wings / To soare will perill after Icarus" (ii.108-109). The Bastard cops a 'tude against Lymoges of Austria, who is responsible for the death of Richard Lionheart; the Bastard rails against him and calls him "loathsome dunghill swad" (ii.146). John similarly but less colorfully defies Philip of France. The people of Angiers are summoned to their wall to pronounce to whom they are loyal, but the main Citizen is cautious and ambivalent. John and Philip must battle, and the Bastard chases Lymoges so that he leaves behind the lion skin, his trophy from Richard, the Bastard's father. The two kings appeal to the Angiers people again, each claiming victory. The main Citizen proposes that they "knit" their "kingly strengths" (ii.316). Lewes the Dolphin (Dauphin) of France should marry John's niece Blanche, the daughter of the Spanish king. Everyone is happy with this except Constance, who insists that this deal "springs from Arthurs losse" (ii.363). She hates Elinor especially: "Why flye I not upon the Beldames face, / And with my nayles pull forth her hatefull eyes" (ii.394-395). But the deal is confirmed, with John sacrificing five provinces to Philip. Constance continues raging about Philip selling out Arthur by making deals with "Elnors damned brat" John (ii.466).
The peace has been established with the marriage, though Constance still gripes. The Bastard also wants a chance to avenge his father against "The butcher of the great Plantiginet" (iii.10) and so challenges him to combat. John makes the Bastard a Duke, but Lymoges is incensed and leaves. Cardinal Pandulph from Rome complains of John's anulling of the appointment to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. John, anachronistically, defies this churchman: "as I am King, so wil I raigne next under God, supreme head both over spirituall and temrall: and hee that contradicts me in this, Ile make him hoppe headlesse" (iii.79-82). Pandulph proclaims complete pardon and forgiveness of sin for anyone warring against John or murdering him, and excommunicates him. (This happened to Elizabeth.) Philip of France says he must obey the Pope and war against John. The Bastard pursues Lymoges and kills him this time. The French take Elinor prisoner so that Constance has a chance to taunt her, despite Arthur's call for dignity.
John has prevailed and now Arthur is his prisoner. Elinor assures John, "soone shall we teach him [Arthur] to forget / These proud presumptions, and to know himselfe" (iv.11-12). It's back to England for most, and John commands Philip the Bastard to sack the abbeys, cloisters, and priories there. Hubert de Burgh is to serve as Arthur's jailer, and John remarks, "For on his life doth hang thy Soveraignes crowne, / But in his death consists thy Soveraignes blisse" (iv.32-33). Elinor is remaining in France. The Bastard looks forward to harassing clergy.
King Philip mourns Lymoges; Pandulph offers cliché comfort. Constance comes to say she told them so. Pandulph assures Lewes the Dolphin of the Pope's support in taking England.
In a mostly rhyming scene, the Bastard investigates Franciscans and appropriates the treasures of an Abbot, threatening their executions by hanging. "Now balde and barefoote Bungie birds when up the gallowes climing, / Say Philip he had words inough to put you downe with ryming" (v.16). Friar Thomas, Friar Anthony, and Nunne Alice seem to represent a sleazy lot, but the Bastard pretty much is one to them. Friar Laurence unintentionally cites Chaucer's Prioress:
Amor vincit omnia, so Cato affirmeth,This seems to sum up Chaucer's church-people in The Canterbury Tales. Peter, a local supposed prophet, joins the scene. The Bastard reminds Laurence of the hundred-pound ransom for himself and the others and, knowing he is "a dissembling knave" (v.143), brings Peter the Prophet along with him "to receive a Prophets rewarde" (v.148-149).
And therefore a Frier whose fancie soone burneth:
Because he is mortall and made of mould,
He omits what he ought, and doth more than he should.
Hubert speaks with three men in preparation for violence against Arthur. Arthur is kind enough with Hubert for evil intentions to waver, as Arthur reads aloud the written command for Hubert to put out Arthur's eyes. Hubert and Arthur engage in a rhyming philosophical exchange about blame. Finally, Hubert resolves to lie to John that the deed was done.
John rejoices in his good fortune and wants to renew his coronation with another ceremony. The Lords advise against it: "that were to busie men with doubts, / Once you were crownd, proclaimd, and with applause" (viii.32-33). But John is insistent. The Bastard reports on his marauding and his bringing to court the prophet. John is re-crowned and blindly grants a boon; the Lords request the liberty of Arthur. The Bastard notices five moons, so John wants to consult the prophet, who enters and offers an international reading of the sign. John turns it into a positive reading for himself, but Peter qualifies this, earning John's wrath. He withdraws his boon from the Lords just before Hubert arrives with the news of Arthur's blinding and death. The Lords are aghast and leave John to ruminate, eventually calming down enough to realize, "not a title followes after John, / But Butcher, bloudsucker and murtherer" (viii.251-252). When John curses Hubert, Hubert reveals the good news that he was lying and Arthur is alive and fine. John is jubilant.
Arthur wavers but decides eventually to leap from the prison wall. He breaks bones, calls on his mother -- "Why cald I mother, how did I forget? / My fall, my fall, hath kilde my Mothers Sonne" (ix.16-17). He dies before the Lords arrive and find his corpse "A pray for birds and beasts to gorge upon" (ix.36). Hubert's explanation cannot dissuade the Lords from planning to join France against John: "And let us all yclad in Palmers weede, / The tenth of April at Saint Edmonds Bury / Meete to confer" (ix.98-100).
John acts paranoid with Peter, and rightly so when Hubert announces Arthur's death. Peter is executed, and the Bastard reports, "the rope his latest friend, / Kept him from falling headlong to the ground" (x.55-56). The Bastard also tells John that the Lords have allied themselves with Lewes and will invade at any minute. John frets: "Theres not a lowring clowde to frowne on them; / The heaven, the earth, the sunne, the moone and all / Conspire with those confederates my decay" (x.96-98). He orders the Bastard away despite the latter's protestations of loyalty. John explains that part of his angst is the recent death of Elinor, "my noble Mother Queene, / My onely hope and comfort in distresse" (x.119-120). But he resolves:
Though John be faultie, yet let subjects beare,John reasons through his next act, motivated by a desire to keep his crown: "Priests and Women must be flattered" (x.198). So he kisses up to Pandulph, asking pardon. It works.
He will amend and right the peoples wrongs.
A Mother though she were unnaturall,
Is better than the kindest Stepdame is:
Let never Englishman trust forraine rule.
The Bastard meets the Lords. Essex rails against John without naming him; but who cannot guess? "But least Enigmas shadow shining truth / Plainely to paint as truth requires no arte" (xi.39-40). The Lords cement their alliance, but without the Bastard who says, "For Lewes his right alas tis too too lame, / A senselesse clayme, if truth be titles friend" (xi.134-135). To him, the others are traitors. He departs, and Lewes arrives with assurances of reward for the Lords' allegiance, which is granted. Among the French alone, though, we learn that the Lords, once they've served their purpose, will be killed.
Theres not an English traytor of them all,"A smile of France will feed an English foole" (xi.276). The Lords are called back in for Lewes' words of alliance.
John once dispatcht, and I faire Englands King,
Shall on his shoulders beare his head one day,
But I will crop it for their guilts desert:
Nor shall their heires enjoy their Signories,
But perish by their parents fowle amisse.
Pandulph has absolution for John, who remarks in an aside, "A proper jest, when Kings must stoop to Friers" (xii.8). When the French arrive, Pandulph in the name of the Pope orders them back to France. Meeting defiance, he excommunicates Lewes and his allies. The Bastard urges John to ignore the church business and fight the French: "The English Archers have their quivers full, / Their bowes are bent, the pykes are prest to push" (xii.82-83). On the battlefield, a dying Melun informs the English Lords of the intended betrayal of the French against them. They fret.
John is in decline again, "Sickly and succourles, hopeles of any good, / The world hath wearied me, and I have wearied it: / It loaths I live, I live and loath my selfe" (xiii.3-5). The Bastard reports that because the rumor of John's withdrawing from the field spread, the English soldiers are disheartened, despite the Bastard's Trojan-War-inspired rallying speeches. John needs to be conveyed to the Swinsteed Abbey for a cure for his fever. The Abbot assures the Bastard that they have victuals for the King. John tactlessly remarks,
Phillip, thou never needst to doubt of cates,Thomas the Friar soliloquizes against John, enemy of the church. When the Abbot returns but remains unperceived, Thomas asks himself aloud, "What if I say to strangle him in his sleepe?" (xiii.101). The Abbot thinks Thomas intends to murder him for his office. In an exchange, though, Thomas reveals his true intentions and argues for murder of the King. The Abbot is pleased: "O blessed Monke, I see God moves thy minde / To free this land from tyrants slavery" (xiii.133-134). Thomas receives a free pass to Heaven in advance and a promise for lots of Mass singings.
Nor King nor Lord is seated halfe so well,
As are the Abbeys throughout all the land,
If any plot of ground do passe another,
The Friers fasten on it streight....
Lewes struts in victory, mourning Melun and irked at Dover Castle holding out. Still, "if good fortune serve as she begins, / The poorest peasant of the Realme of Fraunce / Shall be a maister ore an English Lord" (xiv.19-21). But a messenger reports that the English Lords have fled with their armies to join John. The reversal of fortunes is quick. Lewes claims Philip of France will send reinforcements.
Friars prepare for the King's meal. Why is the Abbot acting weird? Because the King has no money to pay for the food? Because the "cheere" is "too homely to entertaine so mighty as guest" (xv.22)? Because they remember the last time the Bastard came around? Thomas served as the King's taster, and he dies. The King instructs the Bastard not to drink and starts turning colors. The Bastard rages against the Abbot, and John calls for something cool to drink, worrying he'll be damned for, among other things, Arthur's death. The Bastard advises he forgive all and call on Christ. John laments that since he submitted to Rome he has not prospered (xv.95-96). The Lords and John's son Henry request an audience. "His speach doth faile" (xv.130), but John witnesses the Lords requesting forgiveness and swearing allegiance to Henry. John dies. The Bastard wants to "beate the power of Fraunce to sea againe" (xv.154), but Pandulph will arrange a "parle" between the Prince of France and the English. Young Henry commands the Bastard (his uncle), "Let not a stone of Swinsted Abbey stand, / But pull the house about the Friers eares" (xv.160-161).
Pandulph tells Lewes that John is dead; he faces Henry now. Lewes admits that John "was the chiefest enemie to Fraunce" (xvi.17) and that no one should try conquering England, especially without the help of treasonous allies inside the country. "I am contented to depart the Realme" (xvi.33). The Bastard oversees the crowning of Henry and announces the start of "Englands peace" (xvi.43). "If Englands Peeres and people joyne in one, / Nor Pope, nor Fraunce, nor Spaine can doo them wrong" (xvi.53-54).