The island empire of England, the first “British Empire”, what has been called the “Atlantic Archipelago” was fundamentally an anti-European phenomenon. There is a tendency, to view Renaissance England as a flat homogenous whole, whether in the idealised form of “Merry England” or in the old historicist terms of the “Elizabethan World Picture”. To focus on the matter of Britain is not to lose sight of the continent, but to cut through the fog that obscures the English Channel.
The Renaissance in England coincided with the reign of Elizabeth I who was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until 1603, so it is often referred to as the Elizabethan period. Elizabeth’s reign saw a rise in the concept of ‘nationalism’ in England and this can be seen in the increased interest that writers, like Shakespeare, had in writing literary and dramatic works in the English language. As a result, Elizabethan England saw a significant growth in cultural developments.
A number of important historical events contributed to making England a powerful nation during this period. England made significant advances in the realm of navigation and exploration. Its most important accomplishment was the circumnavigation of the world by Sir Francis Drake between 1577 and 1580. England’s reputation as a strong naval power was enshrined in history by its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and by the turn of the century England was at the forefront of international trade and the race for colonisation.
The outpouring of historiographic texts, including chronicles and plays dealing with English history, in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign, played a crucial part in the fostering of national self-awareness. The late sixteenth century vogue for historical drama is said to have “incited interest in England’s past, and participated in the process in which the English forged a sense of themselves as a nation.” More specifically, it provided a myth of origin for the emerging nation whose people learned to know who they were, by seeing what they had been.
It is one of the paradoxes of English Renaissance culture that a period characterised by Europeanisation can be viewed as a time when England turned its back on Europe in order to concentrate on things domestic, in order, in fact, to domesticate the British Isles in the interests of British sovereignty. The Reformation isolated England from a Catholic Europe.
Shakespeare’s histories deal with the problem of civil strife and through conflict, with English Expansionism abroad and consolidation at home. But these terms, “home” and “abroad” are especially fraught in a British context, and it is difficult, and not necessarily desirable, to separate the question of English aggrandisement within the British Isles from the issue of war, and, by extension, competition for territory with its European neighbours.
The play King John portrays Shakespeare’s growing political sophistication by changes in dramatic technique. Increasingly, Shakespeare experiments with representational tactics. The scenes are arranged to give the audience divided loyalties, politics become embedded in personal relationships rather than abstract ideas. Civil war is still a major concern, but the moral – that England must be true to itself – is only openly stated in the play’s last lines. The issues of sovereignty and legitimacy cloud any facile moralising on the evils of civil war and hence represent a deeper exploration of political realities.
King John opens in medias res. It presents an isolated series of episodes that are linked to the reign of one king. These episodes are important, not for their interconnectedness with other events, nor for their consequences to Britain’s future, but for their own sake. Vaughan states that there is a sense of history as a continuing process missing from the play, and further, what is gained, is an intense focus on the political present – the here and now of decision making. She also contends that it is the first time where Shakespeare rejects the traditional Elizabethan notions of order and degree. But more than a simple case of acceptance or rejection, King John shows Shakespeare newly aware that political questions are seldom as easy to answer as the traditional hierarchical model suggests.
Unlike earlier histories that exploit political relationships as a means of defining stages in the historical process, King John exploits history as a means of exposing and resolving dramatically a specific political problem. In this play, Shakespeare probes the underlying causes of political behaviour. He reveals political society as a network of personal relationships. Instead of presenting his age’s preconceived ideas ad hoc, Shakespeare begins to examine characters more closely to provoke more varied and complex responses in his audience.
King John conveys Shakespeare’s growing sophistication by changes in dramatic technique. Increasingly, Shakespeare experiments with representational tactics. In the clashes between John and Arthur, the Bastard and his brother, Constance and Elinor, the barons and John, and finally, Pandulph and Lewis, each side has some legitimacy Critics have almost unanimously claimed that King John is neither a hero or villain-hero, since he is in no real sense, a real protagonist. In casting about for a substitute hero, critical attention has focused on the Bastard, otherwise known as, Phillip Falconbridge, who is a major and ubiquitous figure in the play and the only character in it who is least likeable.
Falconbridge has long been regarded as one of the most interesting characters in the play, but for years he was seen primarily as a representative of a type – the common, robust, patriotic Englishman who is a faithful follower and a good soldier. It would appear that Shakespeare intended to have him represent the sturdy heart of English manhood, which, while often misused, humiliated, and beaten back, finally conquered and rose to its rightful place in the making of a later and nobler England; as the commons; not the legislature of that name narrowly, but the makers of the legislatures.
Throughout the play, one is able to see that the Bastard is flippant in his outlook, and makes light note of his meteoric rise to “fame.” He rails against the settlement with the Papal legate, and hurls defiance at the Dauphin and rioting Lords. It is he, basically, who holds the day, According to van de Water, he bubbles over with wit and merriment, is prone to tease and scoff, yet despite all this, he is a decent blunt fellow out to make his fortune.
Shakespeare’s corpus under girds the Englishness of British literary culture and his work is often is enlisted in the service of conservative English nationalism. Yet Shakespeare was preoccupied with putting the problems of the state on stage. His representations of the history, formation, and future of the British state are complex and heterogeneous. The closing speech from King John contains several recurring features of English nationalism; a siege mentality; England backed into a corner by Europe; the myth of an expatriate culture – specifically the monarchal culture – repatriated; a defiant claim to global power; and an identity and claim of right to self-determination that transcends nations and empires:
"O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them.
Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true."
Added to all the points mentioned in the previous paragraph, the play points to an obvious anti-Catholic sentiment. This would have had some sway with the audience, whose country was at that time, under threat of invasion by Imperial Spain, itself a puppet of the Papal league. If there is any play of Shakespeare’s of which politics seem beyond dispute, it is King John, which ends, or so it would appear, on a note of refreshed, exile- rated patriotism and newly forged national integrity;
King John shows the pretensions of majesty – the monarch’s glory and greatness, his just right to govern, and his moral obligation to govern well – being undercut at every turn by tickling commodity. There is patriotism in the play, but it is questioning and thoughtful. No righteous hero miraculously appears to deliver England from John’s incompetent and unjust reign. It is the Bastard, son of Richard the Lion Hearted who is the spokesman for the patriotism of the famous concluding lines of the play.