The Life and Death of King John receives little stage time these days, but to Francis Meres, writing in 1598, it stood on footing equal to Romeo and Juliet and Richard II as a testament to Shakespeare’s distinctive eloquence:
“As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds…
As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”
Meres’s admiration, thankfully preserved in print, has helped scholars set a putative date for the play; if nothing else, it must have been written before 1598, and some year earlier—perhaps 1595—would seem to be an even more accurate estimate.
The history of the play’s print versions, though, is a checkered one, interesting largely for its myriad aberrations. Another version of the play, The Troublesome Reign of King John, was first published anonymously, in two parts, in 1591. Some time after Meres recorded his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s style, a second version of that other, anonymous play was printed, in quarto format, in 1611. The printers replaced the play’s anonymity, however, with a more recognizable source: “Written by W. Sh.,” the title page reads towards its bottom. Here is a copy of it:
Several years later, in 1622, a third quarto of the Troublesome Reign would be published; its authorship, this time, even more worth boasting about: “Written by W. Shakespeare,” the title page announces:
This was a year before the publication of the first folio of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, the collection that would offer the version of King John we read today. Still, these apocryphal versions of Shakespeare’s history play offer tantalizing, valuable documents in assessing the early modern afterlife of Shakespeare. If nothing else, there is something suggestive in them about what the name and the style of “Shakespeare” had become—a shorthand for writing worth reading.