The 47 Rônin are Introduced to the World
John Masefield
by Justin Hulog

John Masefield, The Faithful, (London: William Heinemann, 1915).

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Written in 1915, John Masefield's The Faithful is a British interpretation of the Japanese Chushingura legend. It had a run of forty-nine performances in New York at the Garrick Theater which began on October 13, 1919 and was performed in Tokyo on May 21, 1921 as a kind of reverse import. Masefield was known to have been a great friend of the poet William Butler Yeats, and it is hypothesized that Yeats's interest in the Far East may have led Masefield to choose the Chushingura legend as the basis for his play. Other theories point to Masefield's friendship with certain British Orientalist scholars and his avid interest in Buddhism.

Regardless of the origins of the play, Masefield's rendering of the Chushingura legend stays more or less true to the original story. There are some minor adjustments to the plot and the exact society, presumably to make it more accessible to a European audience. For one thing, the conflict between Asano and Kira arises out of a territorial dispute as opposed to Kira's womanizing of Asano's wife in the Chikamatsu version. The society depicted in Masefield's The Faithful is more akin to a Medieval English feudal society as opposed to the traditional samurai society of the original legend. 

The main theme of The Faithful, as the title implies, is duty; the ronin in the book feel a sense of obligation to their dead lord that makes them unwaveringly continue their quest for revenge. Unfortunately, Masefield does not succeed in going beyond this theme. His Japan is unconvincing, more of a kind of stylized backdrop as opposed to a vibrant, unique environment. Furthermore, his characters seem two-dimensional, lacking the depth and complexity to truly convey the conflicting emotions and interests in the novel. Masefield's interpretation of the Chushingura legend is black and white, an opposition of the bad (Kira) and the good (Asano and his followers). There is no real development of the idea of revenge and what the cost of revenge is. We only get a hint of what the retainers lose in Act III, Scene II, where each retainer has a small monologue describing references to family members who have conveniently killed themselves so as not to hamper the quest. Other interesting leitmotifs are introduced throughout the play but not really developed. The Envoy and the Prescence, for example, have an element of Christ and God, something that Masefield seems to be aware of in Act I, Scene I, but quickly drops by Act I, Scene II. Certain characters such as the Herald and the Youth seem to have greater meanings implicit in their existence, but these meanings are never really exploited or defined. The loyalty of the ronin to their dead lord is mechanical, almost inhuman, and because of this, the characters never really penetrate the audience. Masefield's characters do not show, they tell; his attempt at exploring the complexities of honor and revenge is simply that: an attempt.

Nevertheless, Masefield's play remains an interesting example of the West's interpretation of the Chushingura legend. Masefield's play, adapted for a European audience, does a sufficient job of bringing the gist of the story to an English-speaking audience.

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John Masefield was born on June 1, 1878 in Ledbury, Herefordshire. In his early years, he dabbled in various careers throughout England and the United States. A chance meeting with the poet William Butler Yeats led him to forgo his bank job and pursue writing, a profession that led him to the celebrated position of British Poet Laureate in 1930. Masefield wrote poetry, plays and novels.

Of all the plays that Masefield wrote, four are considered his most influential works: The Tragedy of Nan (1909), Pompey the Great (1910), Phillip the King (1914) and The Faithful (1915). He is best known, however, for his poetry, especially the poems "August, 1914," "The Wanderer," and "The River," all published in Sonnets and Poems (1916). Of the twenty two novels he wrote, The Bird of Dawning (1933) and Victorious Troy (1935) are considered his best. Masefield was a prolific writer and wrote many other works, but most Masefield scholars agree that he had certain literary weaknesses that rendered most of his work stagnant and uninspiring. His style is best described as post-Romantic; lyrical and melodic at its best, clichéd and repetitive at its worst. 

Masefield died June 20, 1967. His ashes were memorialized in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.


Lamont, Corliss. Remembering John Masefield. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1971.

Sternlicht, Sanford. John Masefield. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

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The noble lord of the ronin. Asano embodies good: the ideal lord who loves his men more than anything. Kira provokes him into a rage, however, leading him to forsake his men and attempt to kill his enemy. He fails, however, and is forced to commit seppuku.  Asano's men idealize him so much that after his death, they start a suicide-revenge pact to avenge their wrongfully condemned master.


Asano's chief retainer and the leader of the revenge pact against Kira. He is shown to be a very human character, wavering at times in his role as leader of the ronin. He goes through bouts of indecision and disillusion. Ultimately, however, he succeeds in leading his men against Kira.


The antagonist of the play. Kira is an ambitious landlord who schemes to take over as much land as possible, especially Asano's. This is the source of the original conflict between the two. Kira invites Kamei and Asano to his palace to greet the Envoy and teach them a ceremony, but his pompous attitude drives both of them into a rage, leading both of them to attempt to murder him. He is also a womanizer and completely selfish, although he does display some pity in Act III, Scene III, when he expresses concern over Kurano's well-being.


Kira's servant. He investigates the activities of the ronin after Asano's death, suspecting Kurano of making a revenge pact against Kira. 


A retainer of Asano.


A servant of Kira.


Another Japanese lord, lower in rank than Kira and peer of Asano. Asano and Kamei both are insulted by Kira. Kamei tries to kill Kira but is thwarted by Fate and saved by his retainer, Honzo.


Kamei's chief retainer. He saves Kamei from death by placating Kira with pearls.

Youth of Kira's Palace

A young boy who talks to the Envoy and makes a case for Asano. He says that Asano did not deserve death because Kira provoked him. The Envoy sentences Asano to death despite the Youth's opinion.

Woman of Kira's Palace

A concubine seduced by Kira in Act III, Scene III. As Kira attempts to seduce her, the ronin break into Kira's palace and kill him.

The Envoy

A mysterious overlord and a representative of the Prescence. The Envoy sentences Asano to death.

A Poor Girl

A girl whose lover was killed by Kira. She and Kurano find solace in each other's sorrow after Asano's death.

Lady Kurano

Kurano's wife who calls him home to save him from death. She kills herself after Kurano and the ronin leave on their quest.

A Captain of Kira's Guard

This man accompanies Sagisaka in his investigation of the ronin. He is more relaxed and convinces Sagisaka to leave Kurano and the men alone.


Kurano's son.

First Ronin, Second Ronin, Third Ronin, Fourth Ronin, Fifth Ronin

Members of the suicide pact.

A Herald

A minor character that appears in the second act. Presumably he accompanies the ronin, singing of their deeds.

Guards, Nobles, Attendants, Ronin

Various minor characters in the play.

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Scene 1: The Outer Scene
Characters: Asano, Kurano, Voices, Hazama 

This scene functions to establish the conflict between Asano and Kira. Kira is portrayed as an overly ambitious landlord, whose thirst for territory has led to the appropriation of lands that Asano's fiefdom had had access to in the past. Kira's acquisition of these lands heralds his impending campaign against Asano's fiefdom. Asano, the ever-noble lord, attempts to save his men by proposing a scheme to take them to the outer islands, a suggestion strongly opposed by Kurano, Asano's chief retainer. Hazama, another of Asano's retainers, brings hope by announcing the coming of the Envoy of the Prescence (presumably a melding of the Japanese-Shogun/Crown-Duke relationships) who has the power to thwart Kira's schemes. The Envoy of the Prescence promises hope for the oppressed, which seems to be a light metaphor for Christ and his role as the Savior, but is not really developed later on in the play. Asano is invited by Kira to greet the Envoy of the Prescence at his mansion and suspects a trick on Kira's part.

Scene 2: The Inner Scene
Kira, Sagisaka, Kamei, Honzo, Asano, Shoda, Voices, The Envoy, The Youth

Kira and his servant, Sagisaka, talk about a ritual that must be done to show honor to the Envoy of the Prescence. Asano and Lord Kamei are brought into the room and are taught the ritual, but not before being warned that the room they are in is sacred; violence within the room demands immediate death and confiscation of all the offender's goods. Kira insults both Kamei and Asano, trying to spur each to action. Kamei tries to kill Kira but is thwarted by a chance encounter with Shoda. Honzo takes this distraction as an opportunity to placate Kira with rare jewels, which has the effect of making Kira fawn over Kamei, stilling Kamei's anger and saving Kamei from death. Kamei meets the Envoy and performs his ritual correctly. Asano meets the Envoy and does not perform the correct ritual, causing him to be humiliated in front of the court and drives Asano into a rage, leading him to attack Kira. The Envoy is made aware that Kira did not teach Asano the ritual purposely, but chooses to condemn him to death anyway. Asano commits seppuku.

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Scene 1: The Outer Scene

Voices, First Ronin, Second Ronin, Hazama, Kurano, Third Ronin, Fourth Ronin, Girl, Lady Kurano, Captain, Sagisaka

Kurano announces Asano's death to the household, spreading despair among the members of Asano's house. Asano's retainers rally for revenge after hearing that they are to be thrown out of their homes by order of the Envoy. A Girl appears who hates Kira because he killed her lover. Lady Kurano reveals that she was the one who called Kurano home to save him from death. The Captain and Sagisaka come and become inebriated with Kurano and the Girl, after which Sagisaka displays his suspicion of Kurano.

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Scene 1: Outer Scene
Herald, Kurano, Chikara

In this scene, Kurano and Chikara, Kurano's son, talk about their quest for revenge. Lady Kurano committed suicide nearly a year earlier. Kurano expresses his disillusion with the quest and is quickly motivated by Chikara's resolve to continue the quest. Father and son resolve to continue their quest at all costs.

Scene 2: The Ronin grouped in the dark in the snow, moaning to themselves.
First Ronin, Second Ronin, Third Ronin, Fourth Ronin, Fifth Ronin, Voices, Kurano, Chikara

The ronin express their disillusion with the league. They talk about the deaths of their loved ones and how this has crushed their spirit. They disband, but Kurano comes and gives a rousing speech which rekindles their fire for revenge. He reveals that Kira is vulnerable at the moment and the group rebands and rushes to assault Kira's mansion. 

Scene 3: The Inner Scene, Kira's Palace
Sagisaka, Kira, Ono, Woman, Voices, Hazama, Kurano, First Ronin, Second Ronin

Sagisaka reveals to Kira that the ronin of Asano have been disbanded. Kira asks Sagisaka to retrieve Kurano and give him some security within the Kira's palace. An insistent tapping is heard at the window. Kira finds a note and calls his serving woman, Ono. Kira's house god falls and breaks; Ono says this is a sign of Kira's impending downfall. Kira brings in a concubine from the town and attempts to seduce her, but Kurano and his men break in. They search for Kira and find him, killing him.

Scene 4: The Outer Scene
Kurano, The Ronin, the Herald

The retainers commit suicide by Asano's grave and are saluted as "the faithful ones" by the Herald.

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