Shakespeare's Life and Death of King John is not from the literary standpoint one of his best or most interesting plays, and though, as I am told by actors who have played it, by no means ineffective in the theatre, it is rarely seen upon the modern stage. Nor is there any external evidence of its popularity during the lifetime of its author. It was, however, essentially a topical play, and there were occasions during the period 1590—1610 when it might well have secured excited audiences. Probably, as we shall find, first performed quite early in his career, it seems to have been originally drafted in haste, though the inconsistencies and confusions of the received text may possibly be due in part to later revision.
‘The tragedy,’ writes Dr Johnson, ‘is varied with a very pleasing interchange of incidents and characters. The Lady's grief is very affecting, and the character of the Bastard contains that mixture of greatness and levity which this author delighted to exhibit.’ It is full also of lines and passages which only Shakespeare could have penned. Yet we seldom feel that the pen was dipped in his own heart's blood; and if the much-praised, and over-praised, portrait of the boy Arthur be really the dramatist's obituary notice of his own son, as many have supposed, his paternal affection must have been conventional and frigid to a degree which is very difficult to reconcile with the tender and passionate nature that gives warmth and reality to his later dramas.