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Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains, Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious, Patch'd with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then would be content; For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou Become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown. But thou art fair; and at thy birth, dear boy, Nature and Fortune join'd to make thee great: Of Nature's gifts thou mayst with lilies boast, And with the half-blown rose: but Fortune, O! She is corrupted, changed, and won from thee; She adulterates hourly with thy uncle John; And with her golden hand hath pluck'd on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty, And made his majesty the bawd to theirs. France is a bawd to Fortune, and King John; That strumpet Fortune, that usurping John:Tell me, thou fellow, is not France forsworn? Envenom him with words; or get thee gone, And leave those woes alone, which I alone Am bound to under-bear.
characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and, therefore, none is to be sought. In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action." Taking these observations together, as a general definition of the character of Shakspere's histories, we are constrained to say that no opinion can be farther removed from the truth. So far from the "unity of action” not being regarded in Shakspere's histories, and being subservient to the "chronological succession," it rides over that succession whenever the demands of the scene require
a unity of a higher order, which connects the events by reference to the workers, gives a reason for them in the motives, and presents men in their causative character."* It is this principle which in Shakspere has given offence to those who have not formed a higher notion of an historical play than that the series of actions should be the transcript of a chronicle, somewhat elevated, and somewhat modified, by the poetical form, but "without any tendency to introduce and regulate the conclusion."
The great connecting link of the chain that binds together all the series of actions in the King John' of Shakspere, is the fate of Arthur. In this series of actions we find no events that arise out of other causes. From the first to the last scene, the hard
I will instruct my sorrows to be proud:
Dr. Johnson, in his preface to Shakspere, speaking of the division, by the players, of our author's works into comedies, histories, and tragedies, thus defines what, he says, was the notion of a dramatic history in those times: "History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological succession, independent on each other, and without any tendency to introduce and regulate the conclusion." Again, speaking of the unities of the critics, he says of Shakspere—“ His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the
Duke of Brittany either led to the action, or form a portion of it, or are the direct causes of an ulterior consequence. We must entreat the indulgence of our readers whilst we endeavour to establish this principle somewhat in detail.
In the whole range of the Shaksperean drama there is no opening scene which more perfectly exhibits the effect which is produced by coming at once, and without the slightest preparation, to the main business of the piece:
"Now say, Chatillon, what would France with us?"
In three more lines the phrase "borrow'd majesty" at once explains the position of
* Coleridge's 'Literary Remains,' vol. ii. p. 160.
John; and immediately afterwards we come | to the formal assertion by France of the "most lawful claim" of "Arthur Plantagenet"
"To this fair island, and the territories;
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine.” As rapid as the lightning of which John speaks is a defiance given and returned. The ambassador is commanded to "depart in peace;" the king's mother makes an important reference to the "ambitious Constance;" and John takes up the position for which he struggles to the end,
"Our strong possession, and our right, for us." The scene of the Bastard is not an episode entirely cut off from the main action of the piece; his loss of "lands," and his "new-made honour," were necessary to attach him to the cause of John. The Bastard is the one partisan who never deserts him.
The second act brings us into the very heart of the conflict on the claim of Arthur. What a Gothic grandeur runs through the whole of these scenes! We see the men of six centuries ago, as they played the game of their personal ambition-now swearing hollow friendships, now breathing stern denunciations; now affecting compassion for the weak and the suffering, now breaking faith with the orphan and the mother;-now "Gone to be married, gone to swear a peace;" now keeping the feast "with slaughtered men;" -now trembling at, and now braving, the denunciations of spiritual power;-and agreeing in nothing but to bend "their sharpest deeds of malice" on unoffending and peaceful citizens, unless the citizens have some "commodity" to offer which shall
"To a most base and vile-concluded peace." With what skill has Shakspere, whilst he thus painted the spirit of the chivalrous times,-lofty in words, but sordid in acts, given us a running commentary which interprets the whole in the sarcasms of the Bastard! But amidst all the clatter of conventional dignity which we find in the speeches of John, and Philip, and Lewis, and
Austria, the real dignity of strong natural affections rises over the pomp and circumstance of regal ambition with a force of contrast which is little less than sublime. In the second act Constance is almost too much mixed up with the dispute to let us quite feel that she is something very much higher than the "ambitious Constance." Yet, even here, how sweetly does the nature of Arthur rise up amongst these fierce broils,-conducted at the sword's point with words that are as sharp as swords, to assert the supremacy of gentleness and moderation:
"Good my mother, peace!
I would that I were low laid in my grave;
This is the key-note to the great scene of Arthur and Hubert in the fourth act. But in the mean time the maternal terror and anguish of Constance become the prominent objects; and the rival kings, the haughty prelate, the fierce knights, the yielding citizens, appear but as puppets moved by destiny to force on the most bitter sorrows of that broken-hearted mother. We have here the true characteristic of the drama as described by the philosophical critic,-"fate and will in opposition to each other." Mrs. Jameson, in her very delightful work, 'The Characteristics of Women,' has formed a most just and beautiful conception of the character of Constance :
"That which strikes us as the principal attribute of Constance is power-power of imagination, of will, of passion, of affection, of pride: the moral energy, that faculty which is principally exercised in self-control, and gives consistency to the rest, is deficient ; or rather, to speak more correctly, the extraordinary development of sensibility and imagination, which lends to the character its rich poetical colouring, leaves the other qualities comparatively subordinate. Hence it is that the whole complexion of the character, notwithstanding its amazing grandeur, is so exquisitely feminine. The weakness of the woman, who by the very consciousness of that weakness is worked up to desperation and defiance, the fluctuations of temper and the bursts of sublime passion, the terrors,
the impatience, and the tears, are all most true to feminine nature. The energy of Constance, not being based upon strength of character, rises and falls with the tide of passion. Her haughty spirit swells against resistance, and is excited into frenzy by sorrow and disappointment; while neither from her towering pride nor her strength of intellect can she borrow patience to submit, or fortitude to endure."
How exquisitely is this feminine nature exhibited when Constance affects to disbelieve the tale of Salisbury that the kings are "gone to swear a peace;" or rather makes her words struggle with her half-belief, in very weakness and desperation!
is now ready to encounter all the perilous chances of another war, and to exhort France to fall off from England, even upon her knee "made hard with kneeling." This would appear like the intensity of selfishness, did we not see the passion of the mother in every
"Thou shalt be punish'd for thus frighting me, For I am sick, and capable of fears; Oppress'd with wrongs, and therefore full of act and word. It is thus that the very weak
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears;
A woman, naturally born to fears;
ness of Constance the impotent rage, the deceiving hope-become clothed with the dignity that in ordinary cases belongs to
And, though thou now confess thou didst but patient suffering and reasonable expectations.
Soon, however, this conflict of feeling-almost as terrible as the "hysterica passio" of Lear
is swallowed up in the mother's sense of
her final bereavement :
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!"
Matchless as is the art of the poet in these scenes;-matchless as an exhibition of maternal sorrow only, apart from the whirlwind of conflicting passions that are mixed up with that sorrow;-matchless in this single point of view when compared with the 'Hecuba' which antiquity has left us*, and with the 'Merope' which the imitators of the Greek drama have attempted to revive;
*In the Troades' of Euripides.
wounds, and the slaver which pollutes, of the
-are we to believe that Shakspere intended | showing us, as it were, the sting which that our hearts should sustain this laceration, and that the effects should pass away when Constance quits the stage? Are we to believe that he was satisfied that his "incidents should be various and affecting,” but “independent on each other, and without any tendency to produce and regulate the conclusion?" Was there to be no "unity of feeling" to sustain and elevate the action to the end? Was his tragedy to be a mere dance of Fantoccini? No, no. The remembrance of Constance can never be separated from the after-scenes in which Arthur appears; and, at the very last, when the poison has done its work upon the guilty king, we can scarcely help believing that the spirit of Constance hovers over him, and that the echo of the mother's cries is even more insupportable than the "burn'd bosom" and the "parched lips," which neither his " "kingdom's rivers" nor the "bleak winds" of the north can "comfort with cold."
Up to the concluding scene of the third act we have not learnt from Shakspere to hate John. We may think him an usurper. Our best sympathies may be with Arthur and his mother. But he is bold and confident, and some remnant of the indomitable spirit of the Plantagenets gives him a lofty and gallant bearing. We are not even sure, from the first, that he had not something of justice in his quarrel, even though his mother confidentially repudiates "his right." In the scene with Pandulph we completely go with him. We have yet to know that he would one day crouch at the feet of the power that he now defies; and he has therefore all our voices when he tells the wily and sophistical cardinal
"That no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions."
But the expression of one thought that had long been lurking in the breast of John sweeps away every feeling but that of hatred, and worse than hatred; and we see nothing, hereafter, in the king, but the creeping, cowardly assassin, prompting the deed which he is afraid almost to name to himself, with the lowest flattery of his instrument, and
"By Heaven, Hubert, I am almost ashamed To say what good respect I have of thee-" make our flesh creep. The warrior and the king vanish. If Shakspere had not exercised his consummate art in making John move thus stealthily to his purpose of blood—if he had made the suggestion of Arthur's death what John afterwards pretended it was"the winking of authority "-the "humour" "Of dangerous majesty, when, perchance, it frowns,"
we might have seen him hemmed in with revolted subjects and foreign invaders with something like compassion. But this exhibition of low craft and desperate violence we can never forgive.
At the end of the third act, when Pandulph instigates the Dauphin to the invasion of England, the poet overleaps the historical succession of events by many years, and motive of policy for the invasion :— makes the expected death of Arthur the
Of all his people shall revolt from him, And kiss the lips of unacquainted change; And pick strong matter of revolt, and wrath, Out of the bloody fingers' ends of John." Here is the link which holds together the dramatic action still entire; and it wonderfully binds up all the succeeding events of the play.
In the fourth act the poet has put forth all his power of the pathetic in the same ultimate direction as in the grief of Constance. The theme is not now the affection of a mother driven to frenzy by the circumstances of treacherous friends and victorious foes; but it is the irresistible power of the very helplessness of her orphan boy, triumphing in its truth and artlessness over the evil nature of the man whom John had selected to destroy his victim, as one
"The bloody fingers' ends of John" have not been washed of their taint :“Your uncle must not know but you are dead," tells us, at once, that no relenting of John's purpose had prompted the compassion of Hubert. Pleased, therefore, are we to see the retribution beginning. The murmurs of the peers at the once again crown'd,"-the lectures which Pembroke and Salisbury read to their sovereign,—are but the preludes to the demand for "the enfranchisement of Arthur." Then come the dissembling of John,
"We cannot hold mortality's strong hand,”—
and the bitter sarcasms of Salisbury and Pembroke:
"Indeed we fear'd his sickness was past cure. Indeed we heard how near his death he was, Before the child himself felt he was sick." "This must be answer'd" is as a knell in John's ears. Throughout this scene the king is prostrate before his nobles;-it is the prostration of guilt without the energy which too often accompanies it. Contrast the scene with the unconquerable intellectual activity of Richard III., who never winces at reproach, seeing only the success of his crimes and not the crimes themselves,-as,
for example, his answer in the scene where
his mother and the widow of Edward braid him with his murders,
"A flourish, trumpets! strike alarums, drums! Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women
Rail on the Lord's anointed."
The messenger appears from France :-the
mother of John is dead;-"Constance in a frenzy died;" the "powers of France" have arrived "under the Dauphin." Superstition is brought in to terrify still more the weak king, who is already terrified with “ subject «prophet of Pomfret " and the "five moons enemies " and "adverse foreigners." affright him as much as the consequences of "young Arthur's death." He turns upon Hubert in the extremity of his fears, and attempts to put upon his instrument all the guilt of that deed. Never was a more striking display of the equivocations of conscience in a weak and guilty mind. Shakspere is here the true interpreter of the secret excuses of many a criminal, who would shift upon accessories the responsibility of the deviser of a wicked act, and make the attendant circumstances more powerful for evil than the internal suggestions. When the truth is avowed by Hubert, John does not rejoice that he has been spared the perpetration of a crime, but he is prompt enough to avail himself of his altered position :—
"O haste thee to the peers."
Again he crawls before Hubert. But the storm rolls on.
The catastrophe of Arthur's death follows instantly upon the rejoicing of him who exclaimed, "Doth Arthur live?" in the hope to find a safety in his preservation upon the same selfish principle upon which he had formerly sought a security in his destruction. In a few simple lines we have the sad dramatic story of Arthur's end :—
"The wall is high; and yet will I leap down:— Good ground, be pitiful, and hurt me not!— There's few, or none, do know me; if they did, This ship-boy's semblance hath disguised me