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flippant shallowness. For, in truth, however we may exult
in the free soarings of the spirit beyond the bounds of time
and sense, one foot of the solid ground of Facts, where our
thoughts must needs be limited by the matter that feeds
them, is worth far more than acres upon acres of cloud-land
glory where, as there is nothing to bound the sight, because
nothing to be seen, so a man may easily credit himself with
"gazing into the abysses of the infinite." And perhaps the
best way to keep off all such conceit is liy holding the mind
down to the specialties of local and particular truth. These
specialties, however, it is not for poetry to supply ; nay, rather,
it would cease to be jjoetry, sliould it go about to supply
them. ;\nd it is enough that Shakespeare, in giving us wliat
lay within the scope of his art, facilitates and furthers the
learning of that which lies out of it ; working whatever mat-
ter he takes into a lamp to light our way through that wlii( h
he omits. This is indeed to make the Historical Drama
what it shoul<l be, a " concentration of liislory " ; setting our
thoughts at the point where the several lines of truth con-
verge, and from whence we may survey the field of his sub-
ject both in its unity and its variety.

.All this is to be understood as referring spcciall\ to the


Poet's dramas in ICnglisl: history ; thougli much of it holds
good also in regard to the Roman tragedies.* Of those
dramas, ten in number, King John comes first in the his-
torical order of time. And in respect of this piece the
foregoing remarks are subject to no little abatement or quali-
fication. As a work of art, the i)lay has indeed considerable
merit ; but as a piece of historical portraiture its claims may
easily be overstated. In such a work, diplomatic or docu-
mentary exactness is not altogether possible, nor is it even
desirable any further than will run smooth with the conditions
of the dramatic form. For, to be truly an historical drama,
a work should not adhere to the literal truth of history in

* The dramas derived from the English history, ten in number, form
one of the most valuable of Shakespeare's works, and are partly the fruit of
his maturest age. I say advisedly one of his works ; for the Poet evidently
intended them to form one great whole. It is, as it were, an historical heroic
poem in the dramatic form, of which the several plays constitute the rhapso-
dies. The main features of the events are set forth with such fidelity ; their
causes, and even their secret springs, arc placed in so clear a light ; that we
may gain from them a knowledge of history in all its truth ; while the living
picture makes an impression on the imagination which can never be effaced.
But this series of dramas is designed as the vehicle of a much higher and
more general instruction; it furnishes examples of the political course of
the world, applicable to all times. This mirror of kings should be the man-
ual of princes : from it they may learn the intrinsic dignity of their heredi-
tary vocation ; but they will also learn the difficulties of their situation, the
dangers of usurpation, the inevitable fall of tyranny, which buries itself
under its attempts to obtain a firmer foundation ; lastly, the ruinous conse-
quences of the weaknesses, errors, and crimes of kings, for whole nations,
and many subsequent generations. Eight of these plays, from Richard the
Second io Richard Ihe Third, axe linked together in uninterrupted succes-
sions, and embrace a most eventful period of nearly a century of English
history. The events portrayed in them not only follow each other, but are
linked together in the closest and most exact connection ; and the cycle of
revolts, parties, civil and foreign wars, which began with the deposition of
Richard the Second, first ends with the accession of Henry the Seventh to
the throne. — SCHLEGEL.


such sort as to hinder the proper dramatic life ; that is, the
laws of the Drama are here paramount to the facts of his-
tory ; which infers that, where the two cannot stand together,
the latter are to give way. Yet, when and so far as they are
fairly compatible, neither ought to be sacrificed; at least,
historical fidelity is so far essential to the pe7-fcction of the
work. And Shakespeare's mastery of his art is especially
apparent from the degree in which he has reconciled them.
And the historical inferiority of King John, as will be shown
hereafter, lies mainly in this, that, taking his other works in
the same line as the standard, the facts of history are disre-
garded much beyond what the laws of Art seem to require.

Time of the Composition.

The only extant or discovered notice of King John, till
it appeared in the folio of 1623, is in the often-quoted list
given by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia, 1598. So
that all we can say with certainty is, that the play was written
some time before that date. Various attempts have been
made to argue the date of tlie writing from allusions to
contemporary matters ; but I cannot see that those attempts
really amount to any thing at all. On the other hand, some
of the German critics are altogether out, when, arguing from
the internal evidences of style, structure of the verse, and
tone of thought, they refer the piece to the same period of
the author's life with The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, and
Cymheline. In these respects, it strikes me as having an
intermediate cast between The Tiao Gentlemen of Verona
and The Merehant of Venice. From the characteristics of
style alone, I am quite persuaded that the ])lay was written
some considerable time before King Henry the Junirth. It


thus synchronizes, I sliould say, very nearly with King Rich-
ard ilie Second. The matter is well stated by Schlcgel : " In
King John the poHtical and warlike events are dressed out
witli solemn pomp, for the very reason that they have little
of true grandeur. The falsehood and selfishness of the
monarch speak in the style of a manifesto. Conventional
dignity is most indispensable where i)crsonal dignity is want-
ing. Falconbridge is the witty interpreter of this language ;
he ridicules the secret springs of politics, without disap-
proving of them ; for he owns that he is endeavouring to
make his fortune by similar means, and would rather be of
the deceivers than the deceived ; there being in his view of
the world no other choice." Schlcgel thus regards the
peculiarities in question as growing naturally out of the
subject ; whereas I have no scruple of referring them to
the undergraduate state of the Poet's genius ; for in truth
they are much the same as in several other plays where no
such cause has been alleged. These remarks, however,
are hardly applicable except to the first three Acts of the
])lay ; in the last two we have much more of the full-grown
Shakespeare, sure-footed and self-supporting; the hidden
elements of character, and the subtle shapings and turnings
of guilty thought shining out in clear transparence, or flash-
ing forth amidst the stress of passion ; with kindlings of
poetic and dramatic inspiration not unworthy the best work-
manship of the Poet's middle period.

Bale's Pageant of King John.

Shakespeare drew the material of his other histories from
Holinshed, and no doubt had or might have had access to
the same source in writing Ki?ig John. Yet in all the


Others the rights of historic truth are for the most part duly
observed. AVhich would seem to argue that in this case he
not only left his usual guide, but had some special reason for
doing so. Accordingly it appears that the fore- mentioned
sins against history were not original with liim. The wliole
plot and plan of the drama, the events and the ordering of
them, all indeed but the poetry and character, were borrowed.
The reign of King John was specially fruitful of doings
such as might be made to tell against the old claims and
usages of the Medireval Church. This aptness of the matter
caused it to be early and largely used in furthering the
great ecclesiastical revolution of the sixteenth century.
The precise date is not known, but I'ishop Bale's pageant
of King John was probably written in the time of l-klward
the Sixth. The design of this singular performance was to
promote the Reformation, of which Bale was a very stren-
uous and unscrupulous supporter. Some of the leading
events of John's reign, his disputes with llie Pope, the
sufferings of his kingdom under the interdict, the surrender
of his crown to the Legate, and liis reputed dcalh by
poison, are there used, or abused, in a way to suit the time
and jjurpose of the writer. The historical characters are
the King liimself, Pope Innocent the Third, Pandulf, Lang-
ton, Simon of Swinstead, and a monk called Raymundus.
With these arc mixed various allegorical personages, —
England, who is said to be a widow, Imperial Majesty,
Nobility, Clergy, Civil Order, Treason, Verity, and Sedition,
the latter scr\'ing as the Jester of the piece. Thus we ha\e
the common material of the old Moral-plays rudely com-
bined with some elements of the Historical Drama such as
grew into use on the jjublic stage forty or fifty years later.
And the jjicce, though written by a bi'^hop, teems with the


lowest ribaldry and vituperation : therewithal it is totally
barren of any thing that can pretend to the name of poetry
or wit ; in short, the whole thing is at once thoroughly stu-
pid, malignant, and vile. There is no likelihood that Shake-
speare knew any tiling of Bale's pageant, as it was never
printed till some fifty years ago, the original manuscript
having then been lately discovered in the library of the Duke
of Devonshire.

Foundation of the Play.

The TroiibIeso7tie Reign of John, King of England, upon
which Shakespeare's play was founded, came from the press
first in 1591, again in 161 1, and a third time in 1622. The
first issue was anonymous ; the other two were put forth
with Shakespeare's name as author ; which really does noth-
ing towards proving it to be his, as we have divers instances
of other men's workmanship being fathered upon him.
Steevens at one time thought it to be Shakespeare's, but
afterwards gave it up, as well he might. Several of the Ger-
man critics have taken the other side, arguing the point at
great length, but with little effect. To answer their argu-
ments were more easy than profitable ; and such answer can
better be spared than the space it would fill, since no Eng-
lish reader able to understand the reasoning will need it, after
once reading the play. Coleridge indeed went so far in 1802
as to pronounce it "not his, yet of him"; a judgment in
which few, I apprehend, will concur. In effect, all the Eng-
lish critics agree that he did not write it, though scarce any
two of them agree who did.

The Trouhlcsome Reign, which is in two Parts, bears strong
internal marks of having been written when the enthusiasm
of the nation was wrought \\\y to the height about the Spanish


Armada, and when tlie Papacy was spitting its impotent
thunders against the throne and State of the Hon-Queen.
Abounding in spoken and acted satire and invective, the
piece must have been hugely grateful to that national feeling
which issued in the Reformation, and which was mightily
strengthened afterwards by the means made use of to put the
Reformation down. The subject was strikingly apt for the
purpose ; which was no doubt the cause of its being chosen.

The piece, however, is a prodigious advance upon Bale's
performance. The most considerable exception to this is
where Falconbridge, while by the King's order he is plunder-
ing the religious houses, finds a fair young nun hidden in a
chest which is supposed to contain the Abbot's treasures.
Campbell regrets that the Poet did not retain this incident, —
a regret in which I am far from sympathizing ; for, surely, to
hold up the crimes of individuals in such a way or at such a
time as to set a stigma upon whole classes of men, was a
work that might well be left to meaner hands.

An intense hatred of Popery runs as a special purpose
through both of the older pieces. Which matter is reformed
altogether in Shakespeare ; who understood well enough, no
doubt, that any such special purpose was quite inconsistent
with the just proportions of Art. He therefore discovers no
repugnance to Popery save in the form of a just and genuine
l)atriotism ; has no j^articular symjjtoms of a Protestant spirit,
but only the natural beatings of a sound, honest English
heart, resolute to withstand alike all foreign encroachments,
whether from kings or emperors or jjopes. Thus his feeling
against Rome is wisely tempered in that proportion which is
required by the laws of morality and Art, issuing in a firm,
manly national sentiment such as all men may justly respond
to, be their creed what it may.


So tliat King JoJiii, as compared wiih the piece out of
which it was built, yields a forcible instance and jiroof of the
Poet's universality, lie follows his predecessor in those
things which appeal to the feelings of man as man, but for-
sakes him in whatever flatters the prejudices and antipathies
of men as belonging to this or that party or sect. And as
aversion to Rome is chastised down from the prominence of
a special purpose, the parts of Arthur and Constance and
Falconbridge proportionably rise ; parts that spontaneously
knit in with the common sympathies of humanity, — such a
language as may always dwell together with the spirit of a
man, and be twisted about his heart for ever.

Still the ([uestion recurs, AVhy did Shakespeare, with the
authentic materials of history at hand, and with his own
matchless power of shaping those materials into beautiful
and impressive forms, — why did he, in this single instance,
depart from his usual course, preferring a fabulous history
to the true, and this too when, for aught now appears, the
true would have answered his puri)osc just as well ? It is to
come at a probable answer to this (juestion that I have dwelt
so long on the two older pieces. We thus see that for spe-
cial causes the subject was early brought upon the stage. The
same causes long operated to keep it there. The King John
of the stage, striking in with the passions and interests of the
lime, had become familiar to the people, and twined itself
closely with their feelings and thoughts. A f^iithful version
would have worked at great disadvantage in competition with
the theatrical one thus established. This prepossession of the
popular mind Shakespeare may well ha\c judged it unwise
to disturb. In other words, the current of popular associa-
tion being so strong, he probably chose rather to fall in with
it than to stem it. \\c may regret that he did so ; but we


can hardly doubt that he did it knowingly and on principle :
nor should we so much blame him for not stemming that
current as thank him for purifying it.

Historic Outline.

I will next present, as briefly as may be, so much of au-
thentic history a;s will throw light dirccUy on the subject. —
Henry the Second, the first of the Plantagenet kings, had
four sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. ICleanor,
his queen, was first married to Louis the Seventh of France,
and some sixteen years after the marriage was divorced on
suspicion of conjugal infidelity. Within six weeks after the
divorce, she was married to Henry, then Earl of Anjou,
and much younger than lierself. She brought him large
possessions indeed, but not enough to offset the trouble she
caused in his family and kingdom. Unfaithful to her first
husband, and jealous of the second, she instigated his sons
into rebellion against him. In 1189, after a reign of thirty-
five years, Henry died, invoking the vengeance of Heaven
on the ingratitude of his children, and was succeeded l)y
Richard, Henry and Geoffrey having died before him.
Geoffrey, Duke of liretagne in right of Constance his wife,
left one son, Arthur. In 1190, when .A.rthur was a mere
child, Richard contracted him in marriage with the daughter
of Tancred, King o( Sicily, at the same lime owning him as
"our most dear nephew, and heir, if by chance we should
die without issue." At Richard's death, however, in 1199,
John produced a testament of his brother's, giving him the
crown. Anjou, 'I'ouraine, and Maine were the jjroper ]);Uri-
mony of the I'lantagenets, and therefore devolve<l to Arthur
as the acknowledged representative of that House, the rule


of lineal succession being there fully established. To the
ducal chair of Bretagnc .'\rthur was the proper heir in right
of his mother, who was then Duchess-regnant of that province.
John claimed the dukedom of Normandy, as the i)roi)er inher-
itance from his ancestor, William the Conqueror, and his
claim was there admitted. Poitou, Guienne, and five other
French provinces were the inheritance of Eleanor his mother ;
but she made over her title to him ; and there also his claim
was recognized. The English crown he claimed in virtue of
his brother's will, but took care to strengthen that claim by a
parliamentary election. In the strict order of inheritance,
all these possessions, be it observed, were due to Arthur ;
but that order, it appears, was not then fully established, save
in the provinces belonging to the House of Anjou.

As Duke of Bretagne, Arthur was a vassal of France, and
therefore bound to homage as the condition of his title.
Constance, fecHng his need of a protector, engaged to
Philip Augustus, King of France, that he should do homage
also for the other provinces, where his right was clogged
with no such conditions. Philip accordingly met him at
Mans, received his oath, gave him knighthood, and took
him to Paris. Philip was cunning, ambitious, and unscrupu-
lous, and his plan was to drive his own interests in Arthur's
name : with the Prince entirely in his power, he could use
him as an ally or a prisoner, whichever would best serve his
turn ; and in effect " Arthur was a puppet in his hands, to be
set up or knocked down, as he desired to bully or cajole
John out of the territories he claimed in France." In the
year 1 200, Philip was at war with John in pretended mainte-
nance of Arthur's rights ; but before the end of that year the
war ended in a peace, by the terms of which John was to
give his niece, Blanche of Castile, in marriage to Louis the


Dauphin, with a dowry of several \-aluabIe fiefs ; and Arthur
was to hold even his own Bretagnc as a vassal of John. At
the time of this treaty Constance was still alive ; and Arthur,
fearing, it is said, his uncle's treachery, remained in the care
of Philip. In less than two years, however, the peace was
broken. John, though his former wife was still living, hav-
ing seized and married Isabella of Angouleme, already be-
trothed to the Count de la Marche, the Count headed an
insurrection, and Philip joined him, brought Arthur again
upon the scene, and made him raise the flag of war against
his uncle. For some time Piiilip wa.5 carrying all before
him, till at length Arthur was sent with a small force against
the town of Mirabeau, where his grandmother Eleanor was
stationed ; and, while he was besieging her in the castle,
John " used such diligence, that he was upon his enemies'
necks ere they could understand any thing of his coming."
His mother was quickly relieved, Arthur fell into his hands,
and was conveyed to the castle of Falaise ; and Philip with-
drew from the contest, as the people would have nothing to
do with him but as the protector of their beloved Prince.
The capture of Arthur took place in July, 1202, he being
seventeen or eighteen years old.

The King then betook himself to England, and had his
coronation repeated. Shortly after, he returned to France,
where, a rumour being spread abroad of Arthur's death, the
nobles made great suit to have him set at liberty. Not
prevailing in this, they banded together, and " began to
levy sharp wars against King John in divers places, inso-
much that it was thought there would be no quiet in those
parts so long as Arthur lived." A charge of murder being
then carried to the French Court, the King vv'as summoned
thither for trial, but refused to go ; whereupon he " was


found giiilty of felony and treason, and atljudgcd to forfeit
all llic lands which he held 1)\' homage." Thence sprang
up a war in wliicli John was totally strip[)cd of his French
possessions, and at last stole olT with inexpressible baseness
to England.

The quarrel of John with Pope Innocent did not break
out till 1207. It was about the election of Cardinal Lang-
ton to the See of Canterbury. First came the interdict ;
then, some two years after, the excommunication ; and
finally, at a like interval, the deposition ; Philip being en-
gaged to go with an army, and execute the sentence ;
wherein he was likely to succeed, till at length, in the Spring
of 12 13, John made his full submission. The next year, he
was desperately involved in the famous contest with his
barons, which resulted in the establishment of the Great
Charter. Of this great movement, so decisive for tlic lib-
erties of England, Langton was the life and soul. As Pri-
mate he had been forced upon the King by the Pope ; but
he now stood by his country against both Pope and King.
No sooner had John confirmed the Charter than his tyr-
anny and perfidy broke out afresh ; whereupon the barons,
finding that no laws nor oaths could curb the faithless and
cruel devil within him, offered the crown to Louis the Dau-
j)hin on condition of his helping them put down the hated
tyrant. John died in 12 16.

Breaches of History.

The point where all the parts of King John centre and
converge into one has been rightly stated to be the fate of
Arthur. This is the heart, whose pulsations are felt through-
out the entire structure. The alleged right of Arthur to the
tlirone draws on the wars between Philip and John, and


finally the loss from the English crown of the provinces in
France. And so far the drama is strictly true to historical
fact. But, besides this, the real or reputed murder of Arthur
by John is set forth as the main cause of the troubles which
distracted the latter part of John's reign, and ended only with
his life. Which was by no means the case. For though, by
the treatment of his nephew, John did greatly outrage the
loyalty and humanity of the nation, still that was but one act
in a life-long course of cruelty, cowardice, lust, and perfidy,
which stamped him all over with baseness, and finally drew
upon him the general hatred and execration of his subjects.
Had he not thus sinned away and lost the hearts of the peo-
ple, he might have safely defied the papal interdict ; for who
can doubt that they would have braved the thunders of the
Vatican for him, since they did not scruple afterwards to do
so against him ? But the fact or the mode of Arthur's death
was far from being the main cause of that loss. Pope Inno-
cent the Third was a very great man ; his proceedings against
John were richly deserved : at that time there was no other
power in Europe that could tame or restrain the savagery of
such lawless and brutal oppressors ; and the Church had, by
her services to liberty and humanity, well earned the preroga-
tives then exercised in her name. The death of Arthur,
though the consequences thereof survived in a general weak-
ening of the English State, had quite ceased to be an active
force in Euro]jean politics when the ecclesiastical tempest
broke loose upon John.

Here, then, we have a breach of history in the very cen-
tral point of the drama ; this too without any apparent reason
in the laws of the dramatic form. Such a Haw at the heart
of the piece must greatly disarrange the order of the work as
a representation of facts, and make it very untrue to the ideas


and sentiments of the English people at the time ; for it
implies all along that Arthur was clearly the rightful sover-
eign, and that he was so regarded ; whereas in trulli the rule
of lineal descent was not then settled Jn the State, and the
succession of John to the throne was so far from being irreg-
ular, that of the last five occupants four had derived their
main title from election, — the same right whereby John him-
self held it.

The same objection holds proportionably against another
feature of the play. The life of the Austrian Archduke who
had behaved so harshly and so meanly towards Richard the

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Online LibraryWilliam ShakespeareShakespeare's history of King John → online text (page 3 of 13)