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King John, Renaissance dramas, medieval legend


Although King John died of dysentery in 1216, three Renaissance dramas, John Bale's King Johan, The Troublesome Reign of King John, and Shakespeare's King John, reflect the influence of late medieval legends that John was dramatically poisoned. Bale and the anonymous author of The Troublesome Reign emphasize the horror of the king's death, dwelling upon his role as a religious leader; Shakespeare, however, separates John from the kingship, focusing our attention upon a frightened man. This separation echoes the medieval political theory that the kingship is composed of two bodies. By deliberately stripping away the Christian images that surround John's death in the earlier plays, Shakespeare establishes a contrast between John the man (the body natural) and the ideal of kingship (the body politic), the patriotic ideal enunciated by Faulconbridge. Examination of the medieval chronicles and the two early plays demonstrates that Shakespeare, although concerned about the responsibilities of the ruler, removes kingship from a religious context, turning King John into a more political statement.