King John at the Globe – the text, the Magna Carta, land and the question of territory

Last night I went to see the rarely performed King John at the Globe theatre in London. The production – the last of the canonical plays to be performed at the Globe – was timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta by King John. The production was previously performed at Salisbury Cathedral and Temple Church, and though I like the Globe, I wish I’d seen it in one of those settings. Some of the ceremonial parts would surely have been very powerful in those buildings. (I’m going to see different productions of Richard II at the Globe later this summer, and at St Bartholomew the Great later this week. It will be interesting to compare the two.)

I was very interested to see King John, which I’d never seen before, partly because of its general interest, but also because it is one of only a handful of Shakespeare’s plays in which the word ‘territories’ appears. There is one mention in the opening scene, and one in the final act.

In the opening scene, it is used in a passage about the claim the French King is making to the English crown, on behalf of Arthur Plantagenet.

Philip of France, in right and true behalf

Of thy deceased brother Geoffrey’s son,

Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim

To this fair island, and the territories:

To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Mainei,

Desiring thee to lay aside the sword

Which sways usurpingly these several titles,

And put thy same into young Arthur’s hand,

Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.

What’s interesting about this passage is that editors frequently amend the text. The phrase ‘the territories’ is sometimes corrected to ‘her territories’ or ‘the territories of Ireland’, with the claim sometimes made that there are no other uses of the phrase in this way by Shakespeare. But given the paucity of references to ‘territory’ and ‘territories’ by Shakespeare I think we need to be careful in extrapolating anything from linguistic absence. It seems clearly a reference to a list of territories beyond ‘this fair island’, which are currently in the possession of the English crown.

9781903436097The Arden Third Series of this text isn’t due for publication until 2016, so I’ve been working so far with the Second Series edition. (I really should get hold of the editions by  Oxford or Cambridge and the new one from Penguin.) In the Arden the editor, E.A.J. Honigman, glosses “territories” as “i.e. dependencies”, and refers to a previous editor’s note (in the 1936 Cambridge edition) on this “rather odd use of the word”.

Yet as Honigmann notes, the term is used in the  anonymous play, The Troublesome Reign of King John, which most people think was one of Shakespeare’s key sources for his play. It has even been suggested that Shakespeare was the author of that play too, and that the play in the Folio is his own revision of an earlier version. Honigmann in contrast argues that Shakespeare’s play precedes The Troublesome Reign, and is its major source. But whichever account is believed, the plays are within a few years of each other, and The Troublesome Reign shows that the use of the term ‘the territories’ to describe places, perhaps belonging to other places, as opposed to lands, belonging to someone, is not without precedent. The instance Honigmann selects is “King to England, Cornwall, and Wales, and to their territories”. But there are four instances of the term ‘territories’ in that earlier play, and one other in Shakespeare’s King John. In The Troublesome Reign the uses are all possessive: “Albion territories”; “our territories”; “your territories”; “their territories”. It is the same in the other King John reference, where towards the end of the play we are told by the Bastard that the King is “well prepar’d/To whip this dwarfish war, these pigmy arms,/From out the circle of his territories”. This sense of ‘territories’, as the lands under the possession of a ruler, is more common in Shakespeare’s use, and doesn’t receive an editor’s gloss in Arden. But ‘Albion territories’ and ‘the territories’ hint at something more.

Equally, the specific territories mentioned recur at several points in the play. King John, like the near-contemporary play Richard II, is very much a play about land, with the word recurring multiple times in the text. (Both plays, incidentally, are entirely in verse, and the only two of Shakespeare’s plays without at least some prose.) But while Richard II is a play that is frequently about the economic uses of land, its use, abuse and yield, King John is much more about conquest and inheritence. John, of course, was nicknamed sans terre, ‘lackland’, either because as a youngest child he was not expected to inherit (or perhaps later because of what he had lost). Both plays, of course, as many of Shakespeare’s histories, concern the question of lineage and succession.There are also some interesting passages which relate to King Lear‘s “interest of territory, cares of state”; and the relation between Robert and the Bastard has some similarities to and differences from the Edgar/Edmund subplot of Lear.

Interestingly, this production took some lines from The Troublesome Reign, and invented some of its own, notably the phrase about the ‘magna carta’, which is not mentioned or even alluded to in Shakespeare’s play. But it worked here, and the audience appreciated it. For most it sounded like a laugh of recognition; for me it was a jolt of surprise: where did that come from?

I was uncertain if or how King John would figure in my planned book on Shakespeare and territory, although I’d been thinking about it because of  Fionnuala O’Neill’s piece “Toward Tyranny: Geopolitics and Genre, A Response to Stuart Elden” (requires subscription) which she wrote as a reply to my “The Geopolitics of King Lear: Territory, Land, Earth” (free download). I now definitely think there is enough to at least warrant a discussion of it in relation to some of the other history plays. Seeing this remarkable production, and going back over my notes on the play has reinvigorated my interest in it.

This entry was posted in Shakespearean Territories, Territory, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to King John at the Globe – the text, the Magna Carta, land and the question of territory

  1. Pingback: Top posts on Progressive Geographies this week | Progressive Geographies

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