If you were writing a play about the reign of King John, what would be the one scene you could not dispense with? The sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, perhaps? Yet, this is exactly the scene that the nation’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare forgot to mention in his play The Life and Death of King John.
A page from the First Folio of William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, in which John urges Hubert to murder Prince Arthur, "a very serpent in my way"
This notable omission has puzzled scholars for generations. Why would Shakespeare not mention the most significant event in John’s reign? Some have suggested that it is because Shakespeare was unaware that Magna Carta originated with King John in 1215. Given that copies were reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 this could have been an easy mistake for the bard to have made – but unlikely. Shakespeare knew his history. Written in the 1590s during the reign of Elizabeth I, it is more likely that the courtier in Shakespeare was compelled to leave out Magna Carta as too politically sensitive, something that might be construed as criticising the institution of monarchy or tacitly supporting the idea of internal rebellion against the crown. In the aftermath of the long and bloody Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), Tudor political doctrine had little sympathy for baronial rebellion, weak monarchy or internal conflict; while the turbulence of the Reformation made Magna Carta – with its first clause prescribing the freedom of the English Church – a dangerous document to invoke and of more use to recusant Catholics than Protestant apologists. Given the political climate in which Shakespeare was writing it is, perhaps, surprising that he wrote about King John at all.
In writing his play on King John, Shakespeare followed very closely an earlier play by George Peele entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which, published in 1591, equally failed to mention Magna Carta. For these playwrights John’s story was not one – as it is now – about wrestling rights from a monarch or about making Magna Carta a hallowed symbol of individual liberty. More important for them was how the events in John’s reign exemplified the ever present and dangerous influence a fickle papacy could have on English politics. Throughout Peele’s stridently anti-Catholic The Troublesome Reign, John is represented as patriotically defending the nation against the foreign interference of the Pope. The same is true of Shakespeare's play. Though Shakespeare certainly presents King John as a bad and malevolent king, the play is still tangibly anti-Catholic and the Pope remains an interfering threat. Indeed, in the play King John is eventually poisoned by English monks loyal to Pope Innocent III. This was above all a play which celebrates the Protestant religious settlement, not the liberty of the individual. Given the religious tensions prevalent in Elizabethan England it is unsurprising that Shakespeare would prefer to focus on these religious themes in John’s reign than the sealing of Magna Carta.
Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John by Charles Buchel, kindly loaned to the Magna Carta exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum
Since Shakespeare did not include Magna Carta in his story, subsequent theatre companies have incorporated into their own productions newly written scenes depicting the events at Runnymede in 1215. When, between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900 the leading Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, he inserted a new scene at the beginning of Act III that depicted him, as John, granting Magna Carta to the barons. Short excerpts of Beerbohm Tree’s production were filmed to publicise the play, with the surviving footage, including John’s death scene, being the oldest record of Shakespeare on film. Clearly, by the nineteenth century the Great Charter had become a much more important aspect of John’s reign, imbued with a meaning very different from that which it ever had in the 16th century, and scenes depicting it being granted were expected by audiences. As is ever the case with Magna Carta’s story, the document is interpreted and reinterpreted in line with the preoccupations of the present. And for Shakespeare, it just didn’t matter that much!
You can see a copy of Shakespeare' First Folio (1623) in the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, together with the painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the surviving footage of Tree's performance as King John. But hurry, because the exhibition closes on Tuesday, 1 September. You can book tickets online here.