King John is concerned with many of the same issues dramatized in Shakespeare's other history plays: the problem of an inadequate ruler, legal succession versus right by might, and fear of social chaos. Yet King John is for several reasons singular among these works. Its date of composition is uncertain, but the play is likely the middle piece between the two tetralogies. It is the only history that is set not against the background of the York-Lancaster rivalry and the generations succeeding, but against events that occurred roughly 100 years before. Finally, this history is the only one based on another play, The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, an anonymous work published in 1591. Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the earlier piece, and perhaps that is why this play is burdened by difficulties. In fact, its lack of organization and energy has been taken as indication that Shakespeare wrote it under some obligation.
Whatever the reason, the play suffers from at least two defects. One, no single character grips audience attention. The title figure is a usurper, at times greedy and determined, but not of sufficient stature to hold center stage for long. Furthermore, his tentative acts at times clash with the boldness of his statements, and his motivations are difficult to ascertain. John should not be judged a profound character; rather he is a confusing one. In addition, the play has far too much talk about politics and too little action in politics. Many characters lack vigor, and their speeches tend to be wordy and flat. The result is a work thematically reflective of Shakespeare's view of history and kingship, but theatrically not always gripping.
In terms of historical accuracy, Shakespeare's John, although unsympathetic, does not match the incompetence and cruelty of the real King, often judged the worst monarch ever to sit on the English throne. He lost great expanses of territory won by Henry II, ruled in perpetual conflict with the English church over his own divorce and other issues, and outraged his nobles with taxation and additional demands. Eventually these abuses caused the aristocracy to unite against him, an uprising that led to the creation of the Magna Charta in 1215. Even that document, however, did not stop John, and in reneging on it he further