Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

Actors' Interpretations of King John


44Charles Kean

From Cole, John W., The Lfe and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean (London: R. Bentley, 1859) 1:344.

In the year 1846 Charles Kean ventured on an experiment never before hazarded in America -- the production of two historical tragedies of King John and Richard the Third on a scale of splendour which no theatre in London or Paris could have surpassed. The scenery, the decorations, the banners, armorial bearings, heraldic blazonry, groupings, weapons of war, costumes, furniture, and all the minor details were so correctly studied that the most scrutinizing reader of Montfaucon or Meyrick would have been puzzled to detect an error. But our brethren of the stars and stripes are utilitarians rather than antiquaries; more inclined to look in advance than to turn over pages of the past, or to pore into ancient chronicles. They appeared not to understand or enjoy with a perfect zest the pomp of feudal royalty, and the solemn display of baronial privileges. The upshot of all was that the expenditure far exceeded the return, and the produce of the second year bore no comparison with that of the first.

From Cole, John W., The Lfe and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean (London: R. Bentley, 1859), 2:26.

45[Under the management of Charles Kean, at the Princess's Theatre, London] The Merry Wives of Windsor ran for twenty five nights, and then made way for King John, produced on the 9th of February, 1852. This may be considered the new manager's first great attempt on the plan he has since carried out with such indomitable success. He had long felt that, even by his most eminent predecessors, Shakespeare in many respects had been imperfectly illustrated. He had seen what earlier actors had accomplished. He felt that steps had been taken in the right direction, and longed ardently to press farther on in the same path, to a more complete end. No longer fettered by restraining influences, and confident in the result, although previous experiments were attended by failure, he entered boldly on the enterprise. The result is before the public. It has worked a complete revolution in the dramatic system by the establishment of new theories and the subversion of old ones.

46The time had at length arrived when a total purification of Shakespeare, with every accompaniment that refined knowledge, diligent research, and chronological accuracy could supply, was suited to the taste and temper of the age, which had become eminently pictorial and exacting beyond all former precedent. The days had long passed when audiences could believe themselves transported from Italy to Athens by the power of poetical enchantment without the aid of scenic appliances. In addition to the managerial credit which Mr Charles Kean established by this early effort, and the still higher expectations he gave birth to from the manner in which King John was placed baefore the public, he made an important step in his reputation as an actor of the first class by a very complete and well studied embodiment of the principal character -- one of the most difficult, and perhaps altogether the most repulsive on the stage. There is nothing to assist the representative -- no taking qualities, no commanding energy, no brilliancy, even in crime. All is sordid, contemptible, gloomy, ferocious. Yet there is dramatic strength in this craven monarch, as Shakespeare has drawn him, which has commanded the attention of the greatest tragedians.

47Old stage records tell us how the 'shining' lights of the other days acquitted themselves in this arduous part. John Kemble's performance of the King was considered faultless; Young, following in the track of Kemble, played it with almost equal effect. Many estimated it as Macready's best Shakespearian attempt; and in Charles Kean's list it may perhaps take the fifth place, giving precedence to his Hamlet, Lear, Wolsey, and Shylock. In the Lady Constance Mrs C. Kean stepped out of the line peculiarly recognized as her own, and assumed a character of matronly dignity and agonizing passion, which had been supposed to tax their utmost the surpassing energies of her greatest predecessor, Mrs Siddons. She had performed the part with universal approbation in New York, but had not yet ventured it in London. It was a hazardous undertaking, with the reminiscences attached to it. The result completely took the public by surprise. Never was a character represented with more true feeling and natural pathos; with more convincing evidence of careful study, or a more complete demonstration of having thoroughly caught up the spirit with superior awe, Mrs C. Kean drew more largely upon their tears. Campbell says, in his Life of Mrs Siddons, that it was not unusual for spectators to leave the house when her part in the tragedy was over, as if they could no longer enjoy Shakespeare himself when she ceased to be his interpreter. This sounds very much like a poet's hallucination. The sentence reads with an imposing air, but we have never heard it! corroborated.