Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
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Actors' Interpretations of King John


10Mrs. Siddons

From Fletcher, G., Studies in Shakespeare, (London, 1847), 22.

The remarks extracted from Mrs Siddons's memoranda on the character of Constance, whom she designates as 'the majestic, the passionate, the tender,' show that she felt and appreciated the essential tenderness of the character more fully and justly than the literary critic of her own sex, [Mrs Jameson]. Still we find, from a careful perusal of the great actress's observations, that the ideas of pride and majesty and command unduly predominate in her conception of the 'gentle Constance.' Our source of this error it is important to point out. The first mention of Constance in the play speaks of her as 'that ambitious Constance'; and we affirm most confidently that there is not another syllable in the piece from which it is possible to infer ambition on her part. It is quite plain that the indolence or carelessness of most readers -- a carelessness or indolence of which we might cite many similar examples -- has caused this description of Constance to pass with them as the dramatist's own view of the character. But what is the fact? That these words come from the lips of Constance's deadly enemy and rival, Queen Elinor, who almost in the same breath confesses to us the fact of her and her son John's usurpation. This same essential fact, attested by their own words, leaves not the smallest scope for ambition in Constance, even supposing that the poet had, which he has not, represented her as loving power for its own sake. Surely it is no more a proof of ambition, that she desires to see her son possessed of a crown which is his birthright, than it is of covetousness for a man to desire the payment of a debt which is justly due to him.

11Yet we find even the acute perception of Mrs Siddons to have been misled by the prevailing prepossession, though, abandoning the most absurd form of it, she says, 'I believe I shall not be thought singular when I assert, that though she has been designated the ambitious Constance, she has been ambitious only for her son. It was for him, and him alone, that she aspired to and struggled for hereditary sovereignty.' The same mistaken impression leads the great performer to speak repeatedly of 'disappointed ambition,' 'baffled ambition,' as among the indignant feelings of Constance at the treachery of her allies. To the same source it must surely be attributed that this interesting critic tells us at the very outset of her observations: 'My idea of Constance is that of a lofty and proud spirit, associated with the most exquisite feelings of maternal tenderness.' This mistake of regarding her, in the grand scene with her treacherous protectors, as possessed by a pride inherent and personal, instead of seeing that her sublime scorn and indignation spring exclusively from her deep, keen sense of violated friendship, now added with lightning suddenness to outraged right and feeling and affection, tent, We suspect, a colouring not quite appropriate, a too predominant bitterness and asperity of tone, to Mrs Siddons's acting of this scene, majestic and wonderful as it must have been. The sarcasms, we fear, were uttered too much in the manner of a woman habitually sarcastic; and she seems to have fallen somewhat into the same error which we have pointed out in Mrs Jameson's criticism, of confounding with mere frenzy the awful poetry that bursts from the tortured heart of the heroine. 'Goaded and stung,' she stays, 'by the treachery of her faithless friends, and almost maddened by the injuries they have heaped upon her, she becomes desperate and ferocious as a hunted tigress in defence of her young, and it seems that existence itself must surely issue forth with the utterance of that frantic and appalling exclamation

"A wicked day, and not a holy day! ! &c."

12Yet Constance might more justly be likened to a hunted hind than a hunted tigress; nor should her exclamations on this occasion, however appalling, be termed frantic. In all this the poet, ever true to nature, has observed a due gradation. Here, indeed, is grief at its utmost, its proudest intensity; but here is no despair she is not even on the way to frenzy, as we find her to be in the scene which follows the capture of her son.