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First is prolonged five or six years beyond its actual period,
for no other purpose, apparently, than that Richard's natural
son may have the honour of revenging his father's wrongs
and death. Richard fell in a quarrel with Vidomar, Viscount
of Limoges, one of his own vassals. A treasure having been
found on Vidomar's estate, the King refused the offer of a
part, and insisted on having the whole ; and while, to enforce
this claim, he was making war on the owner, he was wounded
with an arrow by one of Vidomar's archers. This occurred
in 1 1 99, when Leopold of Austria had been dead several
years. The play, however, drives the sin against history to
the extreme point of making Austria and Limoges the same
person. Now, if such an exploit were needful for the proper
display of Falconbridge's character, it does not well appear
but that the real Vidomar would have answered the purpose ;
at all events, the thing might surely have been compassed
without so signal a breach of historical truth. Here, how-
ever, the vice stops with itself, instead of vitiating the other
parts, as in the former case.

Again : In the j^lay the people of Anglers stoutly refuse
to own either John or Arthur as their king, until the ques-


tlon shall have first been decided in battle between them ;
whereas in fact Anjou, Touraine, and Maine declared for
Arthur from the first, and did not waver at all in their
allegiance. The drama also represents the imprisonment
and death of Arthur as occurring in England ; while in fact
he was first put under guard in the castle of Falaise, and
afterwards transferred to a dungeon in the castle of Rouen,
from whence he was never known to come out alive. These,
however, are immaterial points in the course of the drama,
save as the latter has the effect of bringing Arthur nearer to
the homes and hearts of the English people; who would
naturally be more apt to resent his death, if it occurred at
their own doors. Other departures from fact there are,
which may easily be justified, as being more than made up
by a gain of dramatic truth and effect. Such, for instance,
are the freedoms taken with Constance, who, in the play,
remains a widow after the death of her first husband, and
survives to bewail the captivity of her son and the wreck
of his hopes ; but who, in fact, after a short widowhood was
married to Guy of Thouars, and died in 1201, the year before
Arthur fell into the hands of his uncle. A breach of history
every way justifiable, since it gives an occasion, not otherwise
to be had, for some noble outpourings of maternal grief and
tenderness. And the mother's transports of sorrow might
well consist with a second marriage, though to ha\e repre-
sented her thus would have imi)aired the pathos of her
situation, and at the same time have been a needless em-
barrassment of the action. It is enough that so she would
have felt and sjjoken, had she been still alive ; her proi)er
character being thus allowed to transpire in circumstances
which she did not live to see.

But, of the justifiable departures from fact, the greatest


consists in anticipating by several years the jiapal instigations
as the cause of the war in which Arthur was taken prisoner.
For in reality Rome had no hand in setting on that war ; it
was undertaken, as we luxve seen, by Philip of his own will
and for his own ends ; there being no rupture between John
and the Pope till some time after Arthur had disaj^ipeared.
But the laws of dramatic effect often recjuire that the force
and import of divers actual events be condensed and massed
together. To disperse llie interest over many details of
action involves sucli a weakening of it as poetry does not
tolerate. So that the Poet was eminenUy judicious in this
instance of concentration. The conditions of right dramatic
interest clearly recjuired something of the kind. United, the
several events might stand in the drama ; divided, they must
fall. Thus the course of the jjlay in this matter was fitted
to secure as much of actual truth as could be told ilramati-
cally without defeating the purpose of the telling. Shake-
speare has many hajipy instances of such condensation in
his historical pieces.

Political Bearings.

The reign of King John was specially remarkable as being
the dawn of genuine English nationality, such as it has con-
tinued substantially to the present day. And the faults and
crimes of the sovereign seem to have had the effect of testing
and so toughening the national unity ; just as certain diseases
in infancy operate to strengthen the constitution of the man,
and thus to prepare him for the struggles of life. England
was then wTestled, as it were, into the beginnings of that just,
sturdy, indomitable self-reliance, or sclfJwod, which she has
ever since so gloriously maintained.

The Poet's vigorous and healthy national spirit is strongly


manifested in the workmanship of King John. Falconbridge
serves as a chorus to give a right poHtical interpretation of
the events and action of the pla\'. To him, John imperson-
ates the unity and majesty of the nation ; so that defection
from him tends to nothing less than national dissolution.
Whatever he may be as a man, as King Patriotism has no
way but to stand by liim at all hazards ; for the rights and
interests of England are inseparably bound up with the rever-
ence of his person and the maintenance of his title. The
crimes of the individual must not be allowed to peril the
independence and life of the nation. Thus, in Falcon-
bridge's view, England can only rest true to herself by stick-
ing to the King against all comers whatsoever. And such,
undoubtedly, is the right idea of the English State, and of
the relation which the Crown bears to the other parts of her
l)olitical Constitution. No philosophy or statesmanship has
got beyond Shakespeare in the mastery of this principle.
And this principle is the moral backbone of the drama, how-
ever the poetry of it may turn upon other points.

As for the politics of the piece, these present a rather
tangled and intricate complication, which it would hardly
pay to trace out in detail ; at least, the doing so would
strike something too wide of my usual method and purpose
in these discourses. Besides, the ground in this respect is
well covered by Cervinus, who has worked through the
process with great ability indeed, though, as it seems to me,
at a rather imconscionablc length.*

• M(.Tc is a brief portion: "John, impruJcnt once in resting; on f.ilso
supports, is so now in the wicked removal of weak enemies, and in the dan-
gerous provocation of strong opposition, lie contrives the niurdiT of the
harmless Arthur, an<i irritates the already-disturijcd (Jhurch l)y fresli extor-
tions. The legate I'andulf, a master of Machiavclian policy, watches these


The characterization of King John corresponds very well,
in the degree of excellence, with llie period to which I have
on other grounds assigned the writing. Much of it, and
indeed nearly all, at least in the germs and outlines, was
taken from The Trpuhlcsomc Reign ; and the use of the
borrowed matter discovers a mark-worthy exercise of judg-
ment in much retrenching of superfluities, in not a little
moral purging and refining, in skilful recasting of features,
and in many ennobling additions.

The delineation of the English barons is made to reflect
the tumultuous and distracted condition of the time, when
the best men were inwardly divided and fluctuating be-
tween the claims of parliamentary election and actual pos-
session on the one side, and the rights of lineal succession
on the other. In such a conflict of duties and motives, the

errors, and builds upon them the new unhallowed league between France
and Rome ; with cold blood he speculates how Arthur's death may be oc-
casioned by a French invasion, and this again may be advanced by the
accusation jsroduccd by the murder. This practical prophecy is fulfilled :
the country becomes unruly : the King's evil conscience is roused ; sus-
piciously lie has himself crowned a second time, and this makes his nobles
suspicious also. The murder of Arthur comes to their hearing; they revolt
from the King. A new antinational league is formed between the English
vassals on the one side and France and tlie Pope on the other; and the
French Dauphin prepares on his part a treacherous death for the traitors to
England. Meanwhile the fearful and perplexed John loses his old courage
and confidence so far, that he takes his land as a fief from the Pope, and
enters into a shameful treaty of subjection to the most virulent of his ene-
mies. Tiie King has forgotten his former vigour, which the enemy has now
learned from him ; he turns his hardened zeal against poor prophets, only
to benumb his superstitious fear; his energy is gone. The unnaturalness
of all these complicated alliances is now speedily manifested ; the league
between England and the Papacy, that between the Papacy and France,
that between France and the English vassals, all are are broken up, without
attaining the object of one of them : they change throughout into the natural
enmity which several interests necessitate,"


moral sense often drawing sharply at odds with urgent politi-
cal considerations, the clearest heads and most upright hearts
are apt to lose their way ; nor perhaps is it much to be won-
dered at if in such a state of things self-interest, the one con-
stant motive of human action, gain sucli headway at last as
to swamp all other regards. The noble and virtuous Salis-
bury successfully resists this depraving tendency indeed, yet
the thorns and dangers of the time prove too much for his
judgment. From the outset he is divided between alle-
giance to John and to Arthur, till the crimes and cruelties
of the former throw him quite over to the side of the latter.
Humanity outwresdes nationality in his breast, and this even
to the sacrifice of humanity itself, as matters turn : his scru-
pulous preference of moral to prudential regards draws him
into serious error ; which, to be sure, his rectitude of pur-
pose is prompt to retrace, but not till the mistake has nearly
crippled his power for good. His course well illustrates the
peril to which goodness, more sensitive than far-sighted, is
exposed in such a hard tussle of antagonist principles. In
the practical exigencies of life, doing the best we can for
those who stand nearest us is often nobler than living up to
our own ideal. So there are times when men must set up
their rest to stand by their country, right or wrong, and nut
allow any faults of her rulers to alienate them from her cause.
Sometimes the highest sacrifice which Providence requires
of us is that of our finer moral feelings, nay, even of our
sense of duty itself, to the rough occasions of patriotism.
Is it that our own salvation may even deijcnd on willingness
to be lost for the saving of others? All this is rarely exem-
plified in Salisbury, who, by the way, was the famous William
Ix)ngsword, natural son to Ikiiry the Second, and so half-
brother tu John. It is considerable that our better feelings


Stay with him even wlien tlic more reckless spirit and coarse
nature of Falconbridge carry off our judgment.

Character of John.

The King, as he stands in authentic history, was such a
piece of irredeemable depravity, so thoroughly weak-headed,
rotten-hearted, and bloody-handed, that to set him forth
truly without seeming to be dealing in caricature or lampoon,
required no little art. The Poet was under the necessity, in
some sort, of leaving his qualities to be inferred, instead of
showing them directly : the point was, to disguise his mean-
nesses, and yet so to order the disguise as to suggest that it
covered something too vile to be seen. And what could
better infer his slinking, cowardly, malignant spirit, than his
two scenes with Hubert? Here he has neither the boldness
to look his purpose in the face, nor the rectitude to dismiss
it ; so he has no way but to " dodge and palter in the shifts
of lowness " : he tries by hints and fawning innuendoes to
secure the passage of his thought into effect, without com-
mitting himself to any responsibility for it ; and wants
another to be the agent of his will, and yet bear the blame
as if acting of his own accord. And afterwards, when the
consequences begin to j)ress upon him, he accuses the aptness
of the instrument as the cause of his suggestion ; and the
only sagacity he displays is in shirking the responsibility of
his own guilty purpose ; his sneaking, selfish fear insjjiring
him with a quickness and fertility of thought far beyond his
capacity under any nobler influences.

The chief trouble with John in the play is, that he con-
ceives himself in a false position, and so becomes himself
false to his position in the hope of thereby rendering it


secure. He has indeed far better reasons for holding the
throne than he is himself aware of, and the utter selfishness
of his aims is what keeps him from seeing them. His soul
is so bemired in personal regards, that he cannot rise to any
considerations of patriotism or public spirit. The idea of
wearing the crown as a sacred trust from the nation never
once enters his head. And this is all because he lacks the
nobleness to rest his title on national grounds ; or because
he is himself too lawless of spirit to feel the majesty with
which the national law has invested him. As the interest
and honour of England have no place in his thoughts, so he
feels as if he had stolen the throne, and appropriated it to
his own private use. This consciousness of bad motives
naturally fills him with dark suspicions and sinister designs.
As he is without the inward strength of noble aims, so he
docs not feel outwardly strong ; his bad motives put him
upon using means as bad for securing himself; and he can
tliink of no way to clinch his tenure but by meanness and
wrong. Thus iiis sense of inherent baseness has the effect
of casting him into disgraces and crimes ; his very stings
of self-reproach driving him on from bad to worse. If he
had the manhood to trust his cause frankly with the nation,
as rightly comprehending liis trust, he would be strong in
the nation's supi)ort ; but this he is too mean to see.

Nor is John less wanting in manly fortitude than in moral
ljrincii)le : he has not the courage even to be daringly and
resolutely wicked ; that is, there is no backbone of truth in
him either for good or for evil. Insolent, heart-swollen,
defiant under success, be becomes utterly abject and cring-
ing in disaster or reverse. " ICven so doth valour's show
and valour's worth divide in storms of fortune." When
his wishes are crowned, he struts and talks big ; but a slight


whirl in the wind of cliancc at once twists him off liis pins
and lays him sprawling in the mud. That his seeming great-
ness is but the distention of gas, appears in that the touch
of pain or loss soon pricks him into an utter collapse. So
that we may almost apply to him what Ulysses says of
Achilles in Troilus and Cressida :

Possess'd he is with greatness ;
And speaks not to himself, but with a pride
That quarrels at self-breath : imagined worth
Holds in his blood such swoln and hot discourse,
That 'twixt his mental and his active parts
Kingdom'd Achilles in commotion rages,
And batters down himself.

And as, in his craven-hearted selfishness, John cares nothing
for England's honour, nor even for his own as king, but only
to retain the spoil of his self-imputed trespass ; so he will at
any time trade that honour away, and will not mind eating
dirt to the King of France or to the Pope, so he may keep
his place.

All this was no doubt partly owing to the demoralizing
influences of the time. And how deeply those influences
worked is well shown in the hoary-headed fraud and heart-
lessness of priestcraft as represented in Cardinal Pandulf;
who makes it his special business to abuse the highest fac-
ulties to the most refined ill purposes ; with subtle and tor-
tuous casuistry explaining away perfidy, treachery, and mur-
der into works of righteousness. The arts of deceit could
hardly have come to be used with such unctious self-approval,
but from a long discipline of civilized selfishness in endeav-
ouring to prevent or to parry the assaults of violence and bar-
barism. For, in a state of continual danger and insecurity,
cultivated intelligence is naturally drawn to defend itself by


subtlety and craft. The ethereal weapons of reason and
sanctity are powerless upon men stupefied by brutal passions ;
and this is too apt to generate even in the best characters a
habit of seeking safety by " bowing their gray dissimulation "
into whatever causes they take in hand. \\'hich, I suspect,
would go far to explain the alleged system of " pious frauds "
once so little scrupled in the walks of religion and learning.
Be this as it may, there was, it seems, virtue enough in the
England of King John to bring her safe and sound through
the vast perils and corruptions of the time. That reign was
in truth the seed-bed of those forces which have since made
England so great and wise and free.

.Ml through the reigns of Henry the Seventh and Henry
the Eighth, the lately-experienced horrors of civil slaughter
in the York and Lancaster wars made the English people
nervously apprehensive as to the consequences of a disputed
title to the throne. This apprehension had by no means
worn off in Shakespeare's time : tlie nation was still extremely
tenacious of the lineal succession, as the only practicable
safeguard against the danger of rival claimants. The dogma
of the divine right, which then got such headway, was prol^a-
bly more or less the offspring of this sentiment. It has often
seemed to me that the Poet, in his sympathy with this strong
national feeling, was swayed somewhat from the strict line of
historic truth and reason, in ascribing Jolin's crimes and fol-
lies, and the evils of his reign, so much to a public distrust
of his title. I question whether such distrust really had any
considerable hand in those evils. The King's title was gener-
ally lield at the time to be every way soimd and clear. TJic
nervous dread of a disputed succession was mainly the growth
of later experience, and then was putatively transferred to a


time when, in fact, it had been little felt. And the anxiety
to fence off the evils so dreaded naturally caused the powers
of the Crown to be strained up to a pitch hardly compatible
with any degree of freedom ; insomuch that in no long time
another civil war became necessary, to keep the liberties of
England from being swallowed up in the Serbonian bog
of royal prerogative. In the apprehension of an exj^erienced
danger on one side, men comparatively lost sight of an equal
danger on the other side.


I suspect that the genius and art of Mrs. Siddons caused
the critics of her time and their immediate successors to set
a higher estimate upon the delineation of Constance than is
fully justified by the work itself. The part seems indeed to
have been peculiarly suited to the powers of that remarkable
actress ; the wide range of moods, and the tugging conflicts
of passion, through which Constance passes, affording scope
enough for the most versatile gifts of delivery. If I am right
in my notion, Shakespearian criticism has not even yet quite
shaken off the spell thus cast upon it. At all events, I find
the critics still pitching their praise of the part in a some-
what higher key than I can persuade my voice to sound.
The abatement, however, which I would make refers not so
much to the conception of the character as to the style of
the execution ; which, it seems to me, is far from displaying
the Poet's full strength and inwardness with nature. There
is in many of her speeches a redundancy of rhetoric and
verbal ingenuity, giving them a too theatrical relish. The
style thus falls under a reproof well expressed in this very


When workmen strive (o do better than well,
They do confound their skill in covetousness.

In pursuance of the same thought, Bacon finely remarks the
great practical difference between the love of excellence and
the love of excelling. And so here we seem to ha\e rather
too much of that elaborate artificialness which springs more
from ambition than from inspiration. But the fault is among
those which I have elsewhere noted as marking the work-
manship of the Poet's earlier period.

The idea pervading the delineation is well stated by Haz-
litt as " the excess of maternal tenderness, rendered desper-
ate by the fickleness of friends and the injustice of fortune,
and made stronger in will, in proportion to the want of all
other power." In the judgment of Ger\'inus, " ambition
spurred by maternal love, maternal love fired by ambition
and womanly vanity, form the distinguishing features " of
Constance ; and he further describes her as " a woman
whose weakness amounts to grandeur, and whose virtues
sink into weakness." I am not indeed gready in love with
this brilliant way of putting things ; but Gervinus is apt to
be substantially right in such matters. My own tamer view
is that the character, though drawn in the best of situations
for its amiability to appear, is not a very amiable one.
Herein the play is perhaps the truer to history; as the
chroniclers make Constance out rather selfish and weak ;
not so religious in motherhood but that she betrayetl a
somewhat unvenerable impatience of widowhood. Never-
theless it must be owned that the soul of maternal grief and
affection speaks from her lips with not a little majesty of
pathos, and occasionally flows in strains of the most melting
tenderness. I know not how the voice of a mother's sorrow
could discourse more clocjuently than in these lines :


Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in liis bed, walks up and down with me ;
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers mc of all his gracious parts.
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form :
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief.

Nor is there any overstraining of nature in the imagery here
used ; for the speaker's passion is of just the right kind and
degree to kindle the imagination into the richest and finest

On the other hand, the general effect of her sorrow is
marred by too great an infusion of anger, and she shows
too much pride, self-will, and volubility of scorn, to have
the full touch of our sympathies. Thus, when Eleanor
coarsely provokes her, she retorts in a strain of still coarser
railing ; and the bandying of taunts and slurs between them,
each not caring what she says, so her speech bites the other,
is about equally damaging to them both ; a storm of mutual
abuse, in which there is neither modesty nor wit. It is true,
she meets with very sore trials of patience, but these can
hardly be said to open any springs of sweetness or beauty
within her. When she finds that her heart's dear cause is
sacrificed to the schemes of politicians ; when it turns out
that the King of France and the Archduke of Austria are
driving their own ends in her name, and only pretending
pity for her and conscience of right, to cover tlicir selfish
projects, the heart-wringing disappointment inflames her
into outbursts of sarcastic bitterness and scorn ; her speech
is stinging and spiteful, and sounds quite as much of the in-
temperate scold as of the sorrowing and disconsolate mother.
The impression of her behaviour in these points is well de-
scribed by Gervinus : " What a variety of feeling is expressed
in those twenty lines where she inquires anxiously after the


truth of that which shocks her to hear ! How her grief, so
long as she is alone, restrains itseh" in cahiier anguish' in the
vestibule of despair ! how it first bursts forih in the presence
of others in powerless revenge, rising to a curse which brings
no blessing to herself! and how atoningly behind all this
unwomanly rage lies the foil of maternal love ! We should
be moved with too violent a pity for this love, if it did not
weaken our interest by its want of moderation ; we should
turn away from the violence of the woman, if the strength
of her maternal affection did not irresistibly enchain us."

Prince Arthur,

As Shakespeare used the allowable license of art in stretch-
ing the life of Constance beyond its actual date, tliat he

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Online LibraryWilliam ShakespeareShakespeare's history of King John → online text (page 4 of 13)