King John — the king of England, the third son of Henry II; his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, was king before him
Eleanor — John's mother
Philip — the king of France; Arthur's champion
Arthur — son of Geoffrey; John's elder brother
The Bastard — Philip, the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart and a chorus for the play
Louis — Philip's son Pandulph — a messenger from the pope
Hubert — one of John's men
Constance — Arthur's mother
Earl of Pembroke — one of John's followers
Earl of Salisbury — one of John's followers
Lymoges — Duke of Austria; one of Philip's men, killed by the Bastard
Blanch of Spain — John's niece; she marries Louis, thus cementing a bond between John and Philip
Earl of Essex — one of John's followers
Lord Bigot — one of John's followers
Melun — one of Louis's men
Robert Faulconbridge — the Bastard's younger (legitimate) brother
Lady Faulconbridge — the Bastard's mother
Chatillon — a messenger from France
Prince Henry — John's son; he becomes King Henry III at John's death
King John was written about 1596 or earlier and stands as the odd play out in the early histories that trace the Wars of the Roses. It was published in the First Folio of 1623. Chronologically, it is the earliest of the history plays, covering the period of John's reign from 1199 to 1216.
While parallels oversimplify the facts, they nevertheless capture the themes Shakespeare wanted to emphasize in this play. John's claim to the throne is based on his older brother Richard the Lionheart's will. Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, made Elizabeth his heir by will, despite disputes about the legality of appointing successors. Also, the pope excommunicated both John and Elizabeth for disobedience.
John's rival to the throne was Arthur, the son of Geoffrey, John's elder brother, in much the same way that Elizabeth's rival, Mary, was the daughter of Henry VIII's older sister who married into the Scottish line of kings. (Her son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England on Elizabeth's death.) Because succession traditionally passed to the son of the oldest child, both John's and Elizabeth's claims to the throne were weak. Arthur's cause was championed by King Philip of France, while Mary's claims were supported by King Philip II of Spain.
John brought about Arthur's death, regrets his decision, and tries to distance himself from it, just as Elizabeth ordered Mary's execution and then distanced herself from it. Arthur's death provided an excuse for a French invasion; Mary's death provoked Philip II to launch the Spanish Armada. What's more, the invasion against John in England is wrecked by a storm that shipwrecks the French reinforcements, while a storm also saved England from the brunt of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
King John's nephew, Arthur, believes he is the rightful heir to the throne of England and is backed by Philip of France in a rebellion. Refusing the king of France's demand that he surrender his throne, John sends an army to France under the command of Philip Faulconbridge (also known as Philip the Bastard), illegitimate son of Richard I and Arthur's half-brother.
The English army clashes with the French at Angiers, but neither can claim a decisive victory. John proposes peace, ceding Philip some English territory in France and arranging for the dauphin (the French King's son) to wed his niece, Blanch.
The pope excommunicates John over a dispute concerning the appointment of the archbishop of Canterbury. Pandulph, the pope's legate, orders the French to resume their war with King John. John's army beats back the French and captures Arthur. John wishes him executed. His chamberlain, Hubert, disobeys the order, but Arthur later plunges to his death while trying to escape. Ironically, the nobles suspect John of murder, his original intent, and desert him for the French. Meanwhile, John arranges peace with Pandulph, to whom he turns over the Crown of England. He will receive it back, therefore becoming a vassal of the church.
Now that John is back in the fold of Mother Church, Pandulph tries to stop the war. The French won't play ball, and the armies clash at St. Edmundsbury. During the battle, a French noble named Melun warns the turncoat English noblemen that the king of France will have them executed as soon as John has been conquered. The nobles, seeing the winds of fortune shift, return their allegiance to King John.
Without his allies, the French king comes to terms with Pandulph and John. John is hardly able to enjoy his victory. While staying at Swinstead Abbey he is poisoned by one of the monks. His son will ascend the throne as King Henry III.
King John focuses on historical events, but the events in King John seem repeatedly to get in the way of intention and outcome — the characters are continually thwarted by historical accident and adversity. It is almost the antithesis of Cassius's famous speech in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”: in other words, we control what happens to us. In King John, it seems that no one controls things.
King John treats history as an unpredictable unfolding of events. Decisive moments seem insignificant episodes in a haphazard universe. Elizabethan audiences would have picked up on King John's comment on the contemporary debate about Queen Elizabeth I's legitimacy to the throne, as opposed to that of Mary, Queen of Scots.
While John thinks he can secure his hold on the throne by killing Arthur, his lords turn against him, proving him wrong. Arthur is actually spared, only to panic and kill himself by accident. John is again foiled by fate.
“I would that I were low laid in my grave:
“Talks as familiarly of roaring lions
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
“Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
“Make haste; the better foot before” (Act IV, Scene II).