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King John Criticism: Selections


The eighteenth century

[There is no recorded criticism on King John earlier than the eighteenth century. For many of the selections that follow, I am deeply indebted to Joseph Candido's fine anthology of early criticism on King John.]

1Gildon, Charles, 1710

Remarks on the Plays of Shakespeare London, 1710 (Vickers, 2:246-47).

Topics: character, Bastard, Constance, Eleanor, maternal love, language

He begins with King John, whose History you will find not only in the common English Chronicles, but also in Mr. Daniel, in Mr. Tyrel, Mr. Echard; especially in Mr. Tyrel, in all its Extent and Particularities. But it must be remark'd that he begins not the History with the Birth of King John or the Manner of his obtaining the Crown, but of the Breach betwixt him and France on the Behalf of Arthur the Son of Geffry Plantagenet the true Heir.

. . .

As for the Characters of this History I think there are none of any Figure but the Bastard and Constance; they indeed engage your Attention when ever they enter. There is Boldness, Courage, self-Assurance, Haughtiness, and Fidelity in what ever he says or does. But here is the Misfortune of all the Characters of Plays of this Nature, that they are directed to no End and therefore are of little Use, for the Manners cannot be necessary and by Consequence must lose more than half their Beauty. The Violence, Grief, Rage, and Motherly Love, and Despair of Constance produce not one Incident and are no Manner of Use, whereas if there had been a just Design, a tragic Imitation of some one grave Action of just Extent, both these Characters being form'd by the Poet must have had their Manners directed to that certain End and the Production of those Incidents which must beget that End.

There are too many good Lines in this Play for me to take Notice or point to them all . . . .

The Scolding betwixt Elinor and Constance is quite out of Character, and indeed 'tis a difficult Matter to represent a Quarrel betwixt two Women without falling into something indecent for their Degree to speak, as most of what is said in this Scene is. For what ever the Ladies of Stocks Market might do, Queens and Princesses can never be suppos'd to talk to one another at that rate. The Accounts which the French and English Heralds give of the Battle to the Town of Angiers is very well worded, and it had been better he had heard more of the Battles and seen less of those ridiculous Representations. The Citizens Proposal of the Lady Blanch, &c. to the King's contains many Lines worth reading and remarking from this Line—

If lusty Love shou'd go in Quest of Beauty, &c. [TLN 741]

There is a considerable Part of the second Act lost of this Piece, it containing only two Pages, which are so well adorn'd with the well-drawn Passion of Constance that we are oblig'd to Fortune that it is not lost with the rest. Her Passion in the first Scene of the third Act is likewise just as masterly, and well worthy our perusing with Care.

. . .

Whatever Pandulph might really have urg'd to make a Breach betwixt the Kings, what Shakespeare makes him speak is perfectly the natural Result of the Notions and biggotted Opinions of those Times: see [TLN 1063 ff]. The Passion of Constance in the third Scene of Act 3 is extreamly touching; among the rest, this one Line is admirable,

He talks to me, that never had a Son. [TLN 1476]

The pleading of Prince Arthur with Hubert is very natural and moving, allowing for the two or three Playing on Words which seems not so proper for that place (see Scene 1st Act 4). Hubert's Description of the Peoples Confusion on the Prodigies is very well . . . and King John's Anger with Hubert in the next page is well drawn, as the King's Madness is. The Hearty Englishman appears to well in the last Speech of the Play that I must point it out for some of the Gentlemen of this Age to Study.

[Note: Charles Gildon, the first critic to seriously examine the play, identifies Constance and the Bastard as being the only characters of any "Figure" in King John. Despite his admiration for these characters, Gildon finds them wasted since neither has any power to change the outcome of the play. Gildon condemns the scene between Eleanor and Constance as out of character and indecent, although he finds Constance's "Passion . . . extreamly touching." Gildon also admires the scene between Arthur and Hubert, and as well as King John's anger with Hubert and later madness, though Gildon discusses these much more briefly than he discusses Constance.]

2The Occasional Prompter, 1737

"Number XXI" from The Daily Journal, London, 1737 (Vickers, 3:76)

Topics: structure, dramatic unities.

King John then being principally deficient in the three grand Unities which, it has been before observed, Shakespeare did not regard, to attempt to bring this Play into Rule must be absurd, since the Time (viz. 17 Years), the Place (viz. sometimes in England, sometimes in France), and the Action (which contains some chosen Events which happened to that Prince during a Course of 17 Years) can never be reconciled to Dramatick Laws without losing almost every Incident in the Play and the Beauties which arise from those Incidents, where our Poet is always strongest. It has been before observed That there is not one low or burlesque Character in the Play: so that a Reformation must be very little necessary to cure that Defect our Author falls into.

[Note: The Occasional Prompter admits that King John does not follow the dramatic laws of unity of time, place, and action but concludes that it would be impossible for the play to conform to these, and that, indeed, the beauty of Shakespeare's text comes from ignoring those laws of unity.]

3Cibber, Colley, 1745

Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John, 1745. Peter Wilson: Dublin, 1745, iii-vi.

Topics: religion, adaptation, Catholicism

In all the historical Plays of Shakespear there is scarce any Fact, that might better have employed his Genius, than the flaming Contest between his insolent Holiness and King John. This is so remarkable a Passage in our Histories, that it seems surprising our Shakespear should have taken no more Fire at it. . . . How then shall we account for his being so cold upon so much higher Provocation? Shall we suppose, that in those Days, almost in the Infancy of the Reformation, when Shakespear wrote, when the Influence of the Papal Power had a stronger Party left, than we have reason to believe is now subsisting among us; that is, I say, might make him cautious of offending? Or shall we go so far for an Excuse, as to conclude that Shakespear was himself a Catholic? . . . Had Shakespear been a Romanist, he would scarce have let his King John have taken the following Liberty with his Holiness, where he contemns the Credulity of Philip the French King that can submit to----

Purchase corrupted Pardon of a Man,
Who, in that Sale, fells Pardon from himself. [TLN 1093-94]

This is too sharp a Truth to come from the Pen of a Roman Catholic. If then he was under no Restraint from his Religion, it will require a nicer Criticism than I am master of to excuse his being so cold upon so warm an Occasion.

It was this Coldness then, my Lord, that first incited me to inspirit his King John with a Resentment that justly might become an English Monarch, and to paint the intoxicated Tyranny of Rome in its proper Colours. . . . I have endeavour'd to make it more like a Play than what I found it in Shakespear. . .

. . .

The hardy Wretch, that gives the Stage a Play,
Sails in a Cockboat, on a tumbling Sea!
Shakespear, whose Works no Play-wright could excel,
Has launch'd us Fleets of Plays, and built them well:
Strength, Beauty, Greatness were his constant Care;
And all his Tragedies were Men of War! . . .
Yet Fame, nor Favour ever deign'd to say,
King John was station'd as a first rate Play;
Though strong and sound the Hulk, yet ev'ry Part
Reach'd not the Merit of his usual Art!

[Note: In his dedication to the Earl of Chesterfield and his prologue to the play, Cibber justifies his wholesale adaptation of King John by arguing that the play, which presents the first instance of an English monarch resisting the authority of the Pope, fails to depict this crucial moment in English history with enough Protestant enthusiasm. For Cibber, the play lacks "Fire" in its attack against Rome and this default must be rectified.]

4Johnson, Samuel, 1765

Notes on Shakespeare, 1765. London, 1765. In Arthur Sherbo, The Yale Editions of the Works of Samuel Johnson: Johnson on Shakespeare (Yale U P; New Haven, 1968) 7:428

Topics: Bastard, Constance, TRKJ

[Annotation to TLN 992: Constance. To me and to the state of my great grief/ Let kings assemble.] In Much Ado about Nothing, the father of Hero, depressed by her dis- grace, declares himself so subdued by grief that a thread may lead him. How is it that grief in Leonato and Lady Constance produces effects directly opposite, and yet both agreeable to nature? Sorrow softens the mind while it is yet warmed by hope, but hardens it when it is congealed by despair. Distress, while there remains any prospect of relief, is weak and flexible, but when no succor remains, is fearless and stubborn; angry alike at those that injure and at those that do not help; careless to please where nothing can be gained and fearless to offend when there is nothing further to be dreaded. Such was this writer's knowledge of the passions.

[Concluding Remarks on the play]

The tragedy of King John, though not written with the utmost power of Shakespeare, is varied with a very pleasing interchange of incidents and characters. The Lady's grief is very affecting, and the character of the Bastard contains that mixture of greatness and levity which this author delighted to exhibit.

There is extant another play of King John, published with Shakespeare's name, so different from this, and I think from all his other works, that there is reason to think his name was prefixed only to recommend it to sale. No man writes upon the same subject twice, without concurring in many places with himself.

[Note: In his annotation on the grief of Constance, Johnson compares her to Hero's father in Much Ado. Johnson arrives at a fairly neutral conclusion regarding King John, only casually mentioning his admiration for Constance and the Bastard. He also dismisses the idea that Shakespeare wrote TRKJ.]

5Gentleman, Francis, 1770.

The Dramatic Censor; or, Critical Companion (J. Bell: London, 1770) 2:160-73.

Topics: structure, character, Bastard, John, Constance

We do not know any passage, in any piece, that can boast merit superior to the method King John takes of working Hubert to the destruction of Arthur. His diffidence, his soothing, his breaks, pauses, and distant hints are most descriptive lines of nature in such a depraved state of agitation. What follows we think so rich a regale for poetical taste, that we should deem ourselves very blameable not to offer it to the reader's palate [Quotes TLN 1333-1352].

. . .

After King John has wrought up Hubert to his murderous purpose, and goes for England, the audience still remain in France, to hear Philip lament the effects of his late defeat; and Constance breathe deep lamentation for the captivity of her son. The unhappy mother's plaints are extremely forceable and tender; yet, amongst the beauties, we must object to that speech wherein she speaks of the courtship of death, in such figurative extravagance.

. . .

At the beginning of the fourth act, humanity encounters the painful circumstances of Hubert's commission to burn out Arthur's eyes, to prevent, by the Ottoman method, his succession or advancement to the throne; this scene, with respect to the young prince's part of it, does our author great credit; he has most happily traced nature, and has touched the tender feelings in a powerful manner, without straining them too much. Hubert's reluctance and pity are well described, the two characters impress an audience with compassion and esteem, insomuch, that tears of concern and fascination alternately flow.

. . .

At the beginning of the fifth act, we meet an incident utterly disgraceful to English annals, King John's resignation of his crown, and receiving it from Pandulph, as a mean dependency on to the Pope. His situation might politically require such a concession, but any man of even tolerable spirit would have rather died than shame an exalted station so basely . . .

. . .

We have now brought royalty to the last thread of life, and are sorry to be under the necessity of observing, that our author has not displayed his usual force of genius in what the expiring monarch says; his speeches are too figurative for one in great pain, and are otherwise far short of the circumstances; he resigns his breath too in a manner very unfavouring for stage action; though a most abandoned politician, not one pang of guilty conscience is mentioned, which even in the midst of distraction, seldom fails to show itself.

. . .

In writing this play, Shakespeare disclaimed every idea of regularity, and has huddled such a series of historical events on the back of one another, as shame the utmost stretch of probability; his muse travels lightning winged, being here, there, and every where, in the space of a few minutes. We are by no means advocates for that pinching limitation which so disadvantageously fetters modern composition; imagination will indulge several trespasses of liberty, but must be offended when all the bounds of conception are arbitrarily trodden under foot.

In the point of characters King John is a very disagreeable picture of royalty; ambitious and cruel; not void of spirit in the field, yet irresolute and mean in adversity; covetous, overbearing and impolitic; from what we can observe, totally unprincipled; strongly tainted with the opposite appellations which often meet, fool and knave; during his life we have nothing to admire, at his fall nothing to pity.

There is no capital character within our knowledge of more inequality; the greater part of what he has to say is a heavy yoke upon the shoulders of an actor. His two scenes with Hubert are indeed masterly, and do the author credit; like charity they may serve to cover a multitude of sins; the dying scene is not favourable to action.

. . .

The Bastard is a character of great peculiarity, bold, spirited, free—indeed too free spoken; he utters many noble sentiments, and performs brave actions; but in several places descends to keep attention from drowsing, at the expence of all due decorum; and what is very disgraceful to serious composition, causes the weaker part of an audience to laugh at some very weak, punning conceits.

. . .

Every one of the female characters are too contemptible for notice except Constance; she indeed seems to have been an object of great concern with the author, and very seldom fails to make a deep impression upon the audience; her circumstances are peculiarly calculated to strike the feeling heart; dull, very dull must that sensation be which is not affected with the distress of a tender parent, expressed in such pathetic, forceable terms.

6Gentleman, Francis, 1774

Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (J. Bell: London, 1774) 4:16-19.

Topics: Bastard, Cibber

[17] [On TLN 435-440:the dispute between King Philip and King John. The second edition reads:]

The scene, as here offered to view, is considerably, and we think very justifiably, curtailed for representation; the behaviour of the Bastard is sometimes too licentious in the presence of monarchs;

but it is probable some of his speeches were meant to be spoken aside; the others should be somewhat corrected by a nicety of manner in the deliverance.

. . .

[19] [End note to King John]

Much the greater part of this Tragedy is unworthy its author; a rumble jumble of martial incidents, improbably and confusedly introduced; the character of Constance intire, four scenes, and several speeches of Faulconbridge's, are truly Shakespearean. Colley Cibber altered this piece, but as we think for the worse; it is more regular, but more phlegmatic than the original.

7Davies, Thomas, 1784

Dramatic Miscellanies (S. Price: Dublin, 1784) 1:23-35.

Topics: Eleanor, character, Constance, Cibber

[Quotes TLN 426-28]

To understand the propriety of Lady Constance's speech, which contains so heavy a charge, it is necessary that the reader of this tragedy should be previously acquainted with Queen Eleanor's character.

This lady was daughter of the duke of Guinne, and wife to Louis VII of France, to whom she brought in dowry some of the richest provinces of that kingdom. Her reputation for chastity was far from being clear, when Louis took her with him on a crusade into the holy land. The French historians . . . tells us strange stories of her inordinate and unsatisfied lust.

. . .

Notwithstanding Eleanor's ill fame, and her being divorced from her husband for lewdness, in reality, though pretendedly, on account of too near consanguinity, our King Henry II was not so squeamish as to neglect the opportunity of adding several noble and rich provinces to his dominions by accepting her hand. They were both in the prime and vigour of life, and their eagerness to come together was evident by the quick journeys they took to meet each other. No couple of ardent lovers seemed more willing to be united in the nuptial bond than Henry and Eleanor. Their happiness did not last long; she was as jealous of Henry as her first husband had been of her, and with reason: but Henry was not so mild as Louis; he confined her to in prison during the greatest part of his reign.

. . .

Hitherto the character of Constance has been seen to little advantage. Her speeches were rather more conformable to the scold or virago than the injured princess and afflicted mother. In the first scene of the third act she appears with all the dignity of just resentment and majesty of maternal grief. To suppose that the art of acting was not amply, if not perfectly, understood and practised, in the days of our author, would be an injury to the discernment of every intelligent reader. How many variations of action and passion are in the first speech of this scene, consisting of only twenty-six lines, all naturally resulting from the agitations of a mind anxiously inquiring into the truth of what it dreads to know! Even the under character, Salisbury, is called upon, by the words of Constance, to express the different passions of his mind by variety as well as justness of action; as in the following lines: [Quotes TLN 940-45]

Lady Constance's passionate effusion of rage, grief, and indignation, from which scarce a line or thought can be expunged, to his eternal disgrace, Cibber has either entirely suppressed, or wretchedly spoiled, by vile and degrading interpolations: nay, the whole scene is so deformed and mutilated, that little of the creative power of Shakspeare is to be seen in it.

8Malone, Edmond, 1790

The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare London, 1790 (Candido, 32)

Topics: Constance, date of play, biographical reading

King John is the only one of our poet's uncontested plays that is not entered in the books of the Stationers' company. It was not printed till 1623, but is mentioned by Meres in 1598, unless he mistook the old play in two parts [TRKJ], printed in 1591, for the composition of Shakespeare.

It is observable that our author's son, Hamnet, died in August, 1596. That a man of such sensibility, and of so amiable a disposition, should have lost his only son, who had attained the age of twelve years, without being greatly affected by it, will not be easily credited. The pathetick lamentations which he has written for Lady Constance on the death of Arthur, may perhaps add some probability to the supposition that this tragedy was written at or soon after that period.

9Chalmers, George, 1799

A Supplemental Apology for the Believers in the Shakespeare-Papers: Being a Reply to Mr. Malone's Answer London, 1799 (Candido, 50-51).

Topics: date of play, biographical reading, historical reading, Malone, Johnson

This tragedy [King John] exhibits, to the discerning eye, another example of Shakespeare's custom, of borrowing, continually, from preceding writers, plots, sentiments, speeches, and language. As early as 1591, there had been a play, entitled, The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England. Shakespeare's tragedy was known to Meres, in 1598; as he named it in his Wit's Treasury, among our poet's other tragedies . . .

Such are the proofs, which show pretty certainly, that Shakespeare's King John, was written, between 1591, and 1598. In order to draw these extreme points closer together, Mr. Malone says, that Shakespeare having lost his only son, in 1596, was brought, by this misfortune, into a proper temper, for writing the pathetic lamentations of Constance, on her Arthur's death. But, at what time of his life, was Shakespeare unfit for drawing similar scenes of deeper distress? [Samuel] Johnson has observed, in a note, on this play, what applies more pertinently to the purpose, 'that many passages, in our poet's works, evidently show, how often he took advantage of the facts, then recent, and passions, then in motion.' The fact is, that there are many allusions, in Shakespeare's King John, to the events of 1596, and to some, in 1597; though the commentators have not been very diligent, to collect them. The Pope published a Bull, against Elizabeth, in 1596; and the Pope's Nuntio made some offers to Henry IV, against Queen Elizabeth. The scene with Pandulph, the papal legate, which alludes to those offers, must, as Johnson remarks, have been at the time it was written, during our struggles with popery, a very captivating scene. The contradictory, shifting policy of England, and France, as represented in King John, forms an admirable parody on the adverse, friendly, conduct of Elizabeth, and Henry the IV. Let the siege of Angiers, in King John, be compared with the loss, and recapture of Amiens, in 1597, chiefly by the velour of the English reinforcements, under the gallant Baskerville. The altercations between the bastard, Faulconbridge, and Austria, while the conduct of the Archduke Albert was so unpopular in England, must have afforded a rich repast to an English audience. There is a strong allusion, particularly, in the last act, to the quarrel between Essex, and Raleigh, which began at Calais, in 1596, and rose to a more remarkable height, in 1597. Owing to the many piques among the great, occasioned by the selfish ambition of Essex, the concluding remark of Faulconbridge must have been felt, and applauded, by the auditory:

---------Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. [TLN 2728-29 ff.]

If to all those intimations, we add the remark of Johnson, how much advantage Shakespeare, constantly, derived from facts then recent, and the passions then in motion, there can no doubt remain, but that our poet's King John must be fixed to the print time of 1598; as the true epoch of its original production.