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King John, KING JOHN is founded on an old play, entituled, “ The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, with the Discoverie of King Richard Cordelion's base Son, vulgarly named the Bastard Fawconbridge: also, the Death of King John at Swinstead-Abbey. Imprinted at London, for Sampson Clarke, 1591." Doctor Farmer conjectures that Rowley was the author of this piece; but Malone, with greater reason, assigns it to Marlowe. A subsequent edition, printed in 1611, has the letters W. Sh. inserted in the titlepage; but this is evidently the trick of a fraudulent bookseller, to foist it on the public as the genuine production of Shakspeare. But, as Pope justly remarks, the acknowledged play of Shakspeare is entirely different, and infinitely superior to it.
The hero of this tragedy belongs to a period of British history that can never be forgotten- the wresting of Magna Charta from a treacherous and cruel tyrant, and thereby confirming the rights and liberties of the English nation. Whether, in this bold achievement, the barons had in view, independent of their own immediate interests, the welfare of future generations, it is not our purpose to inquire. Magna Charta is unquestionably the most valuable legacy that a rude and barbarous age ever bequeathed to posterity.
The plot of King John is from the English historians : on this foundation Shakspeare bas raised a superstructure of great variety and beauty. If the towering majesty that distinguishes some of his grander productions be not always discernible in this, there are cer. tain parts that bear fall evidence of the master's hand : and terror and pity, two of the most powerful attributes of tragedy, are excited in no ordinary degree by the unrelenting cruelty of John, and the maternal sorrows of Lady Constance.
The portrait of King John is maintained with historical truth. He has all the ferocity of Richard, without any of his bravery-cruel, fickle, and treacherous-irrresolute, save in the commission of evil and then pursuing his dark purposes without pity or remorse ; for, in the scene with Hubert, where he reproaches his minion with the death of young Arthur, and impatiently exclaims
“ It is the curse of kings, to be attended
By slaves, that take their humours for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life”it is not compunction for the deed, but dread of the consequences, that wring from him those passionate expressions. The incursions of France, with a powerful army into his dominions-the unexpected death of his mother-the desertion of his most attached courtiershave broken down his spirit: added to these disasters, his superstitious fears are awakened by signs and wonders equally mysterious and alarming:
My lord, they say five moons were seen to-night:
-Old men, and beldams, in the streets
ate expresminions-ched cou
In the vain hope of appeasing the wrath of man and the still vainer one, of heaven-he becomes reconciled with the Romish church; and, if the authority of history may be relied on, falls by the treachery of one of that communion, into whose arms he had thrown himself for pardon and protection.
There is no character in the writings of Shakspeare that bears stronger evidence of his peculiar manner than the Bastard Faulcon. bridge. He is a singular compound of heroism, levity, and if his accommodating himself to the spirit of the times deserve so harsh a term--servility. He is, in truth, a soldier of fortune; acknowledging no law but that of honour, which, in a military sense, has somewhat of an equivocal signification. He compromises his own interest, and his mother's fame, for the proud distinction of being esteemed the base-born son of the Lion-hearted Richard; and enlists himself under the banners of a tyrannical usurper, for the vaunted display of personal prowess against the injured and unprotected. Yet, with all These blemishes, Shakspeare has painted him in such bewitching colourg—he has given him such nobleness of spirit-o much candour and frankness-such exquisite powers of wit and raillery-that his very errors are turned to good account, and, like the irregu. larities of Falstaf, form the most seductive parts of bis character. To reconcile such seeming incongruities, is one of the many triumphs of Shakspeare. He knew that character consists not of one, but of various humours; and to blend them skilfully, without violating nature or probability, was an art that he left for the study and emula. tion of all future dramatists.
But the great charm of this play, is the Lady Constance: a character conceived with Shakspeare's profoundest art, and finished with his utmost skill. Every feeling of her bosom-every emotion of joy or sorrow-have their origin in maternal tenderness. In that all. powerful passion every thing is centered : her anxious solicitudeber bitter reproaches-her phrenzy-her despair. Can indignation and contempt borrow stronger terms than her reply to Austria :
* O Lyonoges I O Austria! thou dost shame
That bloody spoil. Thou slave, thou wretch, thou coward :
And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs." Where is sorrow depicted with greater pathos, than her distraction for the death of Arthur; and grief unutterable and past consolation, never produced an image more solemn and majestic than the following
« To me, and to the state of my great grief,
Here I and sorrow sit Here is my throne-bid kings come bow to it.” The belief that those whom we have loved, and have been beloved by, on earth, shall meet, and recognise each other in a happier state of ex. istence a belief, glorious for the consolation that it affords, and perfectly consistent with our ideas of immortality is thus pathetically alluded to by Lady Constance, in her reply to Cardinal Pandulph:
" O, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again.” . There are two scenes of superlative excellence in this play: the one, where John discloses his dark purpose to Hubert; the other, where the horrible imaginings of Hubert are defeated by the artless innocence and pathetic entreaties of the unhappy Arthur. Indeed, the latter is almost too powerful a trial for our sensibility: the effects are so truly distressing, that to render them bearable is the strongest test of dramatic skill.
The language of this play is for the most part dignified and impres. sive. All that belongs to Lady Constance is of the highest mood of sentiment and poetry. The gaiety of Faulconbridge, though occa. sionally running into freedom and extravagance, is bold and characteristic, and might be allowable in an age when thoughts and words bore less palpable constructions. The incidents are deficient in connexion aud continuity, and embrace a considerable portion of time: the scene is alternately laid in England and France.
The assumption of Lady Constance by Miss O'Neil, taught ns, by comparison, rightly to estimate the wonderful powers of Siddons. To a just conception of the character, Miss O'Neile added grace, dignity, and true feeling; but the electric fire that Mrs. Siddons in fused into the “ thoughts that breathe, and words that burn," of Shakspeare, fairly drew the line betwixt superlative excellence and absolute perfection. The braggart Austria stood annihilated beneath her contemptuous reproaches; and, when she pleaded her wrongs, and poured forth her sorrows, every heart was bowed in subjection, and
“ All was silence, sympathy, applause." So great was Lord Byron's admiration of Mrs. Siddons, that he could never be persuaded to see Miss O'Neil, lest she should disturb his recollection of her: this was the homage of kindred genius. For ourselves, we must behold some effort far beyond any thing that we ever conceived of acting, to disturb our remembrance of Siddons.
Sheridan, the father of our great dramatist, played King John, to Garrick's Faulconbridge. A sort of rivalry existed between these two actors, in this play, similar to that between Quin and Garrick, in Horatio and Lothario. Garrick was full of fire and impetuositysomething too much so in the opinion of George the Third, who pre. ferred Sheridan in the king. This was conveyed by some good. natured friend to Garrick, whose awakened jealousy stopped the successful run of the play. Indeed, we have the best authority for Sheridan's excellence, in Churchill, who, though niggardly of praise to every other actor but Garrick, makes this honourable exception in favour of Sheridan, in the cbaracter:
« Behold him sound the depth of Hubert's soul,
Wbilst in his own contending passions roll;
• Or the successors to Mrs. Siddons and Miss O'Neil, in this character, we decline speaking. Like the Irishman's blanket, that was too long at the top, and too short at the bottom, various have been their disqualifications. Which produced the strongest carica. tare, and misunderstood the author most effectually, let other critics decide. We cannot, as Johnson says stop to settle the point of pre cedence betwixt a louse and a flea.
Mr. Kemble played the king with his accustomed skill. His scene with Hubert, and the death of John, in the orchard of Swinstead Abbey, were equal to any thing that we remember of bim. Mr. Young's King John ranks second to his Hamlet; and Mr. Macready, in the part, seems to have some glimpse of the author's meaning-which is not often the case when he attempts Shakspeare.
Mr. Charles Kemble topp'd the character of Faulconbridge. Were such performances rendered more familiar to us, we might as here tofore
« To the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
The Conductors of this work print no Plays but those which they have seen acted. The Stage Directions are given from their own personal observations, during the most recent performances.
EXITS and ENTRANCES. R. means Right ; L. Left ; D. F. Door in Flat ; R. D. Right Door ; L. D. Left Door; S. E, Second Entrance; U. E. Upper Entrance ; M. V. Middle Door.
R. RC. C. LC.
MEMOIR OF MR. MACREADY.
MR. WILLIAM CHARLES MACREADY is the son of the actor and dramatic writer of that name, and was born in Charles Street, Fitzroy Square, on the 3rd March, 1793. He completed his education at Rugby School, and had some thoughts of making the bar his future support; but his love of the drama prevailed, and at the age of seventeen he made bis debut at the Birmingham Theatre, in the character of Romeo.
How far a youth of seventeen might be able to give the text of Shakspeare with even tolerable effect and grace, we may be permitted to doubt; but it seems Mr. Macready's performance satisfied the Birmingham critics, and their applauses stimulated him to further efforts, and confirmed him in the choice of his profession. His subsequent exertions were at Liverpool, Dublin, Bath, and Newcastle. His first appearance in London, was at Covent-Garden Theatre, on the 16th September, 1816.
For some years he continued a member of that establishment; when, on some misunderstanding, he removed to Drury Lane. At the latter theatre, he has particularly distinguished himself in Virginus, Caius Gracchus, and William Tell : other characters he has attempted with less success. His best Shaksperian performance is King John.