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Author: Michael Best
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Actors' Interpretations of King John


21W. C. Macready

From Reminiscences, ed. F. Pollock (New York, 1875), 1823, 201.

King John was the next play of Shakespeare's that added another character to my list. Kemble's reputation in this part had reference chiefly, if not exclusively, to the grand scene of John's temptation of Hubert. On this I bestowed, of course, my utmost pains, but brought also into strong relief that in which the coward monarch endeavors to shift his own criminality on Hubert, a scene to which Kemble, in his impressive representation of the part, had neglected to give prominence. It was in this play that Charles Kemble appeared to very great advantage. His handsome person answered to the heroic idea of Faulconbridge, and his performance of the character was most masterly.

From Diaries, ed. W. Toynbee (London, 1912), April 19, 1836; Oct. 16, 1836.

22Acted King John in a way that assured me that I could play it excellently; it seemed to make an impression on the house, but I had not made it sure, finished, and perfectly individualized. Some fools set up a monstrous hubbub at the passage of defiance to the Pope, and Mr Charles Dance told me afterwards in the green room that the Catholics would 'cut our throats.' It is a sin or ought it not to be to have the faculty of reason and power of cultivating it by examination, and yet remain so low in the intellectual scale. Mrs Sharpe was very ineffective in the effective part of Constance. What a character! But it is because every line is so effective that common minds cannot arise from one level, and have not the skill by contrast and variety to give relish and effect without great effort.

From C. Cowden Clarke, Shakespeare Characters (London, 1863), 339.

23[Clarke gives the following account of Macready's performance of King John at Drury Lane in 1842.] 'In the first place, the difficulty of representing the skirmishes and alarms of battle on the stage -- till then historically and proverbially ludicrous -- was on that occasion triumphantly overcome. The siege of Angiers was a serious event. Also, the whole department which is technically styled the "getting up," the scenery, and the costume, were absolutely perfect; it was a gorgeous pictorial illustration of a great dramatic poet. But what I would principally distinguish as the crowning talent displayed in that very fine revival was the conception of the character of King John himself. It was the more artistical, inasmuch as the peculiar moral features of that bad king are rather to be suggested to the imagination than palpably and broadly developed. The stealthy watchfulness, the crafty caution, and the want of faith in human goodness, are all features that demand acute discrimination to perceive, and refined and delicate touches to embody. It requires subdued deportment, self-mistrust, or rather the want of self-confidence -- nice points of character to study, and all which few actors dare to personate with fidelity, because, unless they be understood and appreciated by an audience, it is frequently thought to be tame or under acting.

24The whole character and bearing of John, in the version of Shakespeare, form a striking contrast to those of Henry V. The one is ardent, brave, confident in the love and support of his people -- the true English king; the other, wily, artful, making every movement by a stratagem, and feeling that he holds his subjects by no other tenure than the right of might, and an appeal to the baser passions of their nature. They who call to mind those two brilliant and impetuous speeches those rousing appeals to the zeal of his people in Henry V. beginning "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," in the 3rd Act; and, "What's he that wishes so? my cousin Westmoreland?" the celebrated speech upon the eve of the Agincourt fight; and then draw a parallel between them and the speech that King John makes to the citizens of Angiers in the 2nd Act

"These flags of France that are advanced here,
Before the eye and prospect of your town,"

sneaking his way, as it were, and feeling the pulse, as he proceeds, of those whom he is addressing they, I repeat, who institute a comparison between these speeches in the two plays, will perceive my meaning. These words may be taken as keys to the two characters. In John we have no confiding appeals, no "dear friends"; but the extortionate tyrant to his people appears in such phrases as

Ere our coming, see thou shake the bags
Of hoarding abbots; imprison'd angels
Set at liberty: the fat ribs of peace
Must by the hungry now be fed upon:
Use our commission in its utmost force.

Compare this with Harry Monmouth's courageous and magnanimous reflection:

"There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out,
For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry:
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all; admonishing,
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself."

25And then note his playful intercourse with his soldiers, and those sprightly exclamations to his faithful old adherent, Sir Thomas Erpingham, "God' amercy, old heart, thou speakest cheerfully." Compare his confident reliance on his English bosoms with John's misgivings and doubts, as of a man conscious and feeling that he has no right to the love of his subjects in the scene of his recoronation: "And looked upon, I hope, with cheerful eyes." And again, "I have a way to win their loves again "; as well as his storm of reproach and remorse, and base endeavour to shift the ponderous load of his guilt on to the shoulders of his instrument, Hubert. They who fortunately witnessed the performance will not forget the manner in which Mr Macready impersonated the King, and the artistical way in which he demonstrated the unhappiness of wickedness throughout; the gradual and constant declension of his spirit, its tide being always at the ebb; his small amount of confidence, his suggested consciousness of meanness, guilt, and the loss of all respect; his bearing latterly as that of a man who felt that indignant eyes were flashing on him, and his gait as if surrounded by pitfalls, in short, the general substratum of wretchedness which pervades the whole character, and yet is only known and felt, not blazoned; all this unprotruded demeanour, and which the million do not appreciate, greatly surpassed in merit the conception even of his dying scene, terrifically real as that was. Alexander placed the poems of Homer in a jewelled casket of inestimable price, the shrine being an emblem only of the offering; and the late theoretical regenerator presented the public with illuminated editions of the world's poet; superb, indeed, and wholly worthy of the text, were it only by reason of the zeal with which they were executed.'