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THE KING JOHN' of Shakspere was first | imagination, casting off the trammels which printed in the folio collection of his plays, a rigid adoption of the facts of those hisin 1623. We have followed the text of this torians would have imposed upon him; but edition almost literally. “King John' is it is the King John,' in the conduct of the one of the plays of Shakspere enumerated by story, in the juxtaposition of the characters, Francis Meres, in 1598.
and in the catastrophe—in the historical There can be no doubt that Shakspere's truth, and in the historical error of the 'King John' is founded on a former play. play which preceded him some few years. That play, which consists of two Parts, is The old play of The Troublesome Reign' entitled The Troublesome Raigne of John was, in all likelihood, a vigorous graft upon King of England,' and was first printed in the trunk of an older play, which “occupies 1591. The German critics agree in giving an intermediate place between moralities and the original authorship to Shakspere. historical plays,"—that of 'Kynge Johan,' by
Assuming that Shakspere did not write John Bale, written probably in the reign of the King John' of 1591, it is impossible Edward VI. Shakspere, then, had to choose now, except on very general principles, to between forty years of stage tradition and determine why a poet, who had the authentic the employment of new materials. He took, materials of history before him, and pos- upon principle, what he found ready to his sessed beyond all men the power of mould- hand. But upon this theory, that The ing those materials, with reference to a dra- Troublesome Reign' is by another poet, matic action, into the most complete and none of the transformations of classical or beautiful forms, should have subjected him oriental fable, in which a new life is transself, in the full vigour and maturity of his fused into an old body, can equal this astointellect, to a general adherence to the course nishing example of the life-conferring power of the conventional "history” of the stage. of a genius such as Shakspere's. On the But so it is. The ‘King John' of Shakspere other hand, if The Troublesome Reign' be is not the ‘King John' of the historians a very early play by Shakspere himself (and whom Shakspere had unquestionably stu- we doubt this greatly), the undoubted King died; it is not the ‘King John' of his own | John' offers the most marvellous example of
HISTORIES. — VOL. I.
the resources of a mature intellect, in the dency to introduce and regulate the conclucreation of characters, in the conduct of a sion.” Again, speaking of the unities of the story, and the employment of language, as critics, be says of Shakspere—“His histories, compared with the crude efforts of an un-being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not formed mind. The contrast is so remarkable subject to any of their laws; nothing more that we cannot believe in this theory, even is necessary to all the praise which they exwith the whole body of German critics in its pect, than that the changes of action be so favour.
prepared as to be understood, that the inciThat the Kynge Johan' of the Protestant | dents be various and affecting, and the chabishop Bale was known to the writer of the racters consistent, natural, and distinct. No • King John' of 1591, we have little doubt. other unity is intended, and, therefore, none Our space will not allow us to point out the is to be sought. In his other works he has internal evidences of this; but one minute well enough preserved the unity of action." but remarkable similarity may be men- Taking these observations together, as a tioned. When John arrives at Swinstead general definition of the character of ShakAbbey, the monks, in both plays, invite him spere's histories, we are constrained to say to their treacherous repast by the cry of that no opinion can be farther removed from “ Wassail.” In the play of Bale we have no the truth. So far from the "unity of action" incidents whatever beyond the contests be- not being regarded in Shakspere's histories, tween John and the Pope—the surrender of and being subservient to the "chronological the crown to Pandulph—and the poisoning succession," it rides over that succession of John by a monk at Swinstead Abbey. whenever the demands of the scene require The action goes on very haltingly ;-but not "a unity of a higher order, which connects 80 the wordy war of the speakers. A vocabu- the events by reference to the workers, gives lary of choice terms of abuse, familiarly used a reason for them in the motives, and prein the times of the Reformation, might be sents men in their causative character."a constructed out of this curious performance. The great connecting link that binds toIn the John of 1591 we have none of this vio- gether all the series of actions in the King lence; but the writer has exhibited a scene John' of Shakspere, is the fate of Arthur. of ribaldry, in the incident of Faulconbridge From the first to the last scene, the hard hunting out the “angels" of the monks; struggles and the cruel end of the young for he makes him find a nun concealed in a Duke of Brittany either lead to the action, holy man's chest. This, no doubt, would be or form a portion of it, or are the direct a popular scene. Shakspere has not a word causes of an ulterior consequence. of it. One of the most remarkable charac- As an historical picture the ‘King John' teristics of Shakspere's 'John,' as opposed is wonderfully true. What a Gothic granto the grossness of Bale and the ribaldry of deur runs through the whole of these scenes ! his immediate predecessor, is the utter ab- We see the men of six centuries ago, as they sence of all invective or sarcasm against the played the game of their personal ambition Romish church, apart from the attempt of --now swearing hollow friendships, now the Pope to extort a base submission from breathing stern denunciations ;-now affectthe English King. Here, indeed, we have ing compassion for the weak and the sufferhis nationality in full power;—but how dif- ing, now breaking faith with the orphan and ferent is that from fostering hatreds between the mother;- now two classes of one people !
“Gone to be married, gone to swear a peace;" Dr. Johnson, in his preface to Shakspere,
now keeping the feast “with slaughtered speaking of the division, by the players, of
| men;"-now trembling at, and now braving, our author's works into comedies, histories,
the denunciations of spiritual power ;-and and tragedies, thus defines what, he says,
agreeing in nothing but to bend "their sharpwas the notion of a dramatic history in those
est deeds of malice" on unoffending and times : "History was a series of actions, with
peaceful citizens, unless the citizens have no other than chronological succession, independent on each other, and without any ten
• Coleridge's Literary Remains.