Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Brief Note on King John

In her recent paper Shakespeare, Guy of Warwick, and Chines of Beef, Katherine Duncan-Jones discusses the ‘Philip, sparrow’ passage in King John (see my previous post), and concludes that if the Bastard’s ‘sparrow’ reference in the passage is an allusion to Guy of Warwick, then that play must “ante-date King John, and cannot be later than the mid-1590s”. I want to make the brief point here that while this conclusion is perfectly reasonable, it’s not necessarily correct.

King John is usually dated 1595/6 and must have existed by 1598 at the latest (when Francis Meres mentioned it in Palladis Tamia), hence Duncan-Jones’s conclusion that if this passage in King John is an allusion to Guy, then the latter “cannot be later than the mid-1590s”.  The problem with this is that it implicitly assumes that performances of King John in the mid-1590s actually contained the ‘Philip, sparrow’ passage, and this is by no means certain. The only record of the play we have is the text in the First Folio, and how closely this text matched actual performances in Shakespeare's time, we have no idea.

If the ‘Philip, sparrow’ passage was integral to King John this wouldn’t be such a problem; we could be reasonably confident that it existed in any performance of the play. But the passage is the opposite of integral. It’s extremely short (14 lines). It’s entirely detachable from the main text.  It doesn’t exist in The Troublesome Raigne. It seems to serve some ‘immediate and topical point’ (see Cooper quote in The Mysterious James Gurney), and editors have ‘strained’ to interpret it (see Duncan-Jones quote in There's Toys Abroad). The passage looks like an addition to me, and my own tentative dating of Guy to 1598 is predicated on that assumption.