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KIN G J O Η Ν. The Life and Deuth of King John occupies twenty-two pages in the folio of 1623 ; viz., from p. 1 to p. 22 inclusive, in the division of Histories, — each of the three great divisions of that volume having its own numeration of pages. The play is there divided into Acts and Scenes, but with a transposition, in the second Act, of Actus Secundus and Scena Secunda. It is without # list of Dramatis Personæ, which was first supplied by Rowe.
HAKESPEARE'S Historical Plays are often discoursed
about as if they were a projected series of interdependent works, written in pursuance of a plan, the purpose of which was to illustrate English History. That they illustrate history, and in a certain sense were meant to do so, is manifest upon their very face; but that they do this in conformity with a systematic design, there is neither external nor internal evidence to show. The origin of a contrary opinion must be traced to a tradition first mentioned by Gildon, according to which Shakespeare told Ben Jonson, that “finding the nation generally very ignorant of history, he wrote plays in order to instruct the people in that particular.” But of all the unfounded stories told of Shakespeare, this is the most difficult of belief. Such a declaration could not have been made by one of those men to the other with a grave face, actors though they were. For His toxical Plays, or Histories, as they were called, were in vogue with our ancestors before Shakespeare began to write for the stage ; and so far was he from seeking to impart historical knowledge to the audiences at the Blackfriars, that he did not even attempt to correct the grossest violations of historical truth in the older play upon which he founded one of his Histories this very King John; and in other instances, in which he went for his story directly to the Chronicles, he did not hesitate to bring together events really separated by years, (though connected as cause and effect, or means to a common end,) when, by so grouping them, he could produce a vivid and impressive dramatic picture of the period which he undertook to represent.
In writing the Histories he had the same purpose as in writing the Comedies and Tragedies; that purpose always being, to make a good play: and with him a good play was one which would fill the theatre whenever it was performed, and at the same time give utterance to his teeming brain, and satisfy his dramatic intuition. He wrote Histories because they suited the taste of the day; and in their composition, no less, and no more, than in that of Comedies and Tragedies, – he used, as the basis of his work, the materials nearest at hand and best suited to his purpose. He would have written a play upon the life and death of King Lud, had any incidents in the reign of that monarch susceptible of dramatic treatment been known to him; and, above all, had some dramatist of the preceding generation produced a successful play founded upon them which he could have used as foundation or as scaffolding.
The Wars of the Roses and the events which led to them offered him a succession of stirring scenes filled with famous actors, which could be worked into dramatico-historical pictures of the reigns of the monarchs under whom they took place, and which would appeal directly to the love of knowledge, the chivalric sympathies, and the patriotism that animated the audiences for which he wrote. The bloody struggle that began with the deposition of one Richard at Westminster, and ended with the death of another at Bosworth Field, its long succession of internecine horrors relieved only by the glorious episode of Agincourt, had for our ancestors in Shakespeare's time the charms of fable united to the sober interest of history. The nearest events were so remote that their harsh features were mellowing by distance, and their sharp outlines crumbling into the picturesqueness of antiquity, while those of earliest occurrence were yet sufficiently near to be familiar objects of contemplation, prescrved from oblivion as they were in the traditions of men removed only by a few generations from the actors who took part in them. To this interest in the subject, an interest to the audience intrinsic, to the dramatist extrinsic, — and not to historical plan or instructive purpose of any kind, we owe the series of plays beginning with Richard the Second and ending with Richard the Third. The epic of our race became a drama : our Homer sang upon the stage; our Virgil recited to the people.
The Historical Plays having been produced in this spirit, with this motive, and, as we shall see when we consider them in detail, without system or order, * no examination of them as
* There is, in my opinion, no room for doubt that they appeared in the following order: Henry VI., Richard II., King John, Richard III., Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VIII.
a series can consistently be made, and no essay upon them as a whole can be written, except in a literal, chronological spirit wholly at variance with that in which they were conceived. Dramatically they differ from the other plays, not because of a different purpose on the part of their author, -a purpose peculiar to him, — but on account of conditions imposed by the materials upon which he worked, and to which all writers of dramatic histories must needs conform. Poetically they are distinguished only by the same indications of mental development and change of moral tone which are discernible in the Comedies and Tragedies. The appearance of the same personages in more than one of them, and the connection of the incidents of one with those of another, are dependent entirely upon the chronological relations of the events on which they are based. Had each History been the work of a particular author, the Bolingbroke of Richard II. must no less have become the King of Henry IV., the Prince Henry of Henry IV. the King of Henry V., and so on through the series, even down to the least prominent of the historical characters; and as to the characters not historical — Falstaff and his satellites
in three of these plays, what audience, having seen them attendant upon Prince Hal in the First Part of llenry IV., would have pardoned Shakespeare for depriving him of their company in the Second Part, or have found even the glory of Henry V. complete without their mellowing ray of humor! If the presence of these characters in three plays is to be accepted as evidence that a plan had been formed for a historical series, of which those plays were a part, then we must enlarge the plan and make room for an eleventh historical play — The Merry Wives of Windsor. But Henry IV. and the story of Falstaff's hapless amours must both be regarded from the same point of view, - as plays only; there being only these differences between them, — that one is more serious than the other, and that in one the incidents, being historical, determined for the poet the dramatic progress of the play, while in the other the incidents, and consequently the dramatic progress, were entirely within his control. In accordance with these views, our Introductory Remarks upon the Historical Plays have no bearing upon the conformity of those plays to the facts of History; and such historical remarks as are made in the Notes, whether upon events or personages, have merely an illustrative purpose the gratification of a reason