The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, published in 1591 and reprinted as by "W.Sh." in 1611, is generally considered a source for Shakespeare's King John but "was in all probability a shorthand copy of the real play surreptitiously taken down in the theatre, a common practice of which Heywood so loudly complains, which resulted in badly garbled versions of popular plays" (Clark 477; cf. (Ogburn and Ogburn 417). Bloom comes close to this position (Bloom 57) but also acknowledges that Shakespeare "was as facile a self-revisionist as he was a play-maker" (Bloom 51). Earlier, an anti-Catholic 1538 play by John Bale, Kynge Iohan, was revised in 1561. It is speculated that this was presented before Queen Elizabeth when she visited Castle Hedingham that year, the home of the de Veres (Farina 105). The 16th Earl was a patron of Bale, and his play was available only in manuscript and not performed after the early 1560s (Anderson 13). Clark believes the canonical Shakespeare play to have been written around 1581 when Oxford was out of favor with Elizabeth (Clark 483-484) and when Euphuism was a hot mode (Ogburn and Ogburn 397).
The action takes place early in the thirteenth century, long before the era in which Shakespeare shows the most interest. Critics remark on the absence of reference to the Magna Carta, often without explanation (e.g., Garber 270).
The striking omission of any mention of the Great Charter [Magna Carta] is habitually brought to notice. It need not surprise us, however. In the 1580s, with the Spanish at the door, the dramatist was not going to publicize the fragmentation of the central power -- that of the Throne -- at the hands of rebellious barons. All his historical plays would be written with an eye to the present, and the parallels between John's situation and Elizabeth's would cry out to him as to his audiences. The two monarchs were alike threatened by the Papacy, which they had defied and which would gladly have encompassed their ruin.... Neither John nor Elizabeth held an unquestionable title to the crown. As John's hold on the throne was imperilled by the claims of Arthur, grandson of Henry II, so too was Elizabeth's by those pressed on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots, granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister. (Ogburn 420; cf. Clark 490)
Shakespeare makes no mention of Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford, but he had joined a rebellion on the Dauphin's side against John (Anderson 5) and had been one of the twenty-five nobles who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, as if the playwright "wanted to erase the memory of someone (an ancestor?) who opposed the English monarchy at a time of crisis" (Farina 108). Besides, "an increasing necessity for anonymity" is operating (Ogburn and Ogburn 427).
Even orthodox scholars acknowledge the topical relevance to Elizabeth's reign. "If her death were followed by a disputed succession, England might once again experience the horrors of civil war" (Asimov 205; Bloom 57). Garber's framing of the parallels as something "various modern scholars have emphasized" makes the perspective sound arbitary (Garber 271). But if the play was written during Oxford's court banishment, it makes sense that he was "setting forth the danger of usurpation and the egregious folly of vacillation or infirm purpose on the part of a monarch" (Ogburn and Ogburn 415).
An ambassador from France named Chatillion reports to King John that the French King Philip demands, on behalf of Arthur, posthumous son of John's late older brother Geoffrey, that John give up his "borrowed majesty" (I.i.4): the throne, England, and other lands. "By the strict tenets of legitimacy, Arthur, heir of the fourth son, had precedence over John, the fifth son, to the crown of England" (Asimov 212). So immediately we face an issue of stand-ins, posers, imposters. John's mother, Elinore (of Aquitaine, widow of Henry II, and portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in the 1968 movie The Lion in Winter), acts haughtily affronted. In the face of a threat of war with France, John says bring it on. Elinor delivers an I-told-you-so regarding the young Arthur's ambitious mother Constance of Brittany, warnings which could apply to Mary Stuart not ceasing "Till she had kindled France" (Clark 479). John's belief in "Our strong possession and our right" (I.i.39) makes him bold, but Elinore acknowledges only the primacy of a sort of squatter's rights for the throne. And "John has never grown up. He is mentally dominated by his ambitious mother" (Goddard, I 140), wimpy, and "the smallest-minded in his pursuit of selfish aims" (Wells 110), "about the unkingliest king Shakespeare ever created" (Goddard, I 140)
John taxes the Church -- "Our abbeys and our priories shall pay" (I.i.48) -- to help fund the war. Then, at the announcement of "the strangest controversy" (I.i.44), he gives audience to the Faulconbridge brothers, introduced into the play "via a disinheritance scheme not unlike the 1563 de Vere case" (Anderson 25). Philip is the eldest son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge; Robert claims he is son and heir. John thinks they must have had different mothers, since they are so different in appearance (I.i.58). Although it seems that Sir Robert was not Philip's father, he raised him as a son, and John decides that the deathbed dispossession happened too late. Philip resembles and probably is the son of John's brother, the late King Richard Lionheart (Coeur-de-Lion, or Cordelion here), and he is "a good blunt fellow" (I.i.71) and a "madcap" (I.i.84) -- "madcap" just as the Earl of Oxford was reputed (Ogburn and Ogburn 421). Clearly, Oxford represents himself in Faulconbridge (Ogburn and Ogburn 199), and an identity clue comes in the assertion "Truth is truth" (I.i.105) -- akin to the de Vere motto "Vero nihil verius" (Ogburn and Ogburn 427). And note the focus on land land land (I.i.73, 91, 93, 137, etc.), and the toothpick mention (I.i.190). Elinor asks him,
Whether hadst thou rather be a Faulconbridge,Some intriguing lines here for Prince Tudor advocates within the Oxfordian movement. The character Faulconbridge has been declared "next to Hamlet perhaps the clearest authorial voice in the canon. The names 'Falconbridge' and 'Oxenford' are precisely parallel in construction: an animal (two syllables) followed by a means of crossing a river (one syllable)" [Chuck Berney, "The Merchant of Venice: 2004 and 1980." Shakespeare Matters 4.2 (Winter 2005): 31].
And like thy brother, to enjoy the land;
Or the reputed son of Cordelion,
Lord of thy presence and no land beside?
After an irreverent answer from Philip that insults his half-brother, Elinor encourages Philip, henceforth referred to as "the Bastard," to pursue his status as Richard's son. She commends his good nature and hopes he'll join John against the French. John knights him Sir Richard and he is accepted as a Plantagenet. Elinor tells him to call her "grandame" (I.i.168). As with his initial complaint that "'a pops me out / At least from of fair five hundred pound a year" (I.i.68-69), "His language is deliberately colloquial, full of regionalisms, contractions, and local color" (Garber 276).
Madam, by chance, but not by truth [Ver?]; what though?After this enigmatic speech, the Bastard notes to himself, "A foot of honor better than I was, / But many a many foot of land the worse" (I.i.182-183) -- the "loss of land" theme resonating again with Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 421). A reference to "poison" -- "Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age's tooth" (I.i.213) -- signifies "not flattery but truth" being administered (Bloom 54) and is how Oxford saw his work (Ogburn and Ogburn 1218).
Something about, a little from the right,
In at the window, or else o'er the hatch.
Who dares not stir by day must walk by night,
And have is have [avere is avere?], however men do catch.
Near or far off, well won is stil well shot,
And I am I [close to a famous Oxford assertion], howe'er I was begot.
Lady Faulconbridge arrives with her servant James Gurney, who seems to exist solely to introduce the name into the play since he has a few syllables and is dismissed. The Bastard's mother complains of the shame to her in light of the inheritance dispute. The Bastard audaciously elicits from her the identity of his father (Goddard, I 142) and it is indeed Richard Lionheart. Rather than dwelling on the shame of the adultery, son and mother reconcile and he is supportive, indeed enthusiastic at the confirmation of having had so splendid a father, although the historical Richard I considered the Aquitaine his home and visited England only twice, briefly, in his life, "and then only to collect money" (Asimov 214). "Knight, knight, good mother, Basilisco-like" (I.i.244) supposedly alludes to The Tragedy of Solyman and Perseda, a play printed in 1588 and ascribed to Thomas Kyd (Asimov 218). The theme of bastardy occurs yet again in Shakespeare, as it was an all too frequent issue in the life of Oxford (Clark 482). Unlike the "ambitious social climber" Shakspere, "Shakespeare the writer seemed unconcerned with personal, economic upward mobility, but was apparently mesmerized by an assumed and intrinsic superiority of breeding" (Farina 109), and "Faulconbridge is Shakespeare's only amiable bastard" (Bloom 52). "A heroic and entrepreneurial figure -- here, the Bastard Falconbridge -- emerges to combine the popular and the 'noble,' and to offer a spirit of patriotic energy otherwise lacking from the tired court" (Garber 275). "If all Shakespeare's history plays were named after their most vigorous, interesting, and theatrically attractive characters (and those that have the longest role in the play), King John would be called The Bastard (Wells 109-110).