What do you like about the ISE? What could we do better? Please tell us in this 10-minute survey!

Start Survey

Internet Shakespeare Editions

Become a FriendSign in

About this text

  • Title: Actors' Interpretations of King John
  • Author: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Actors' Interpretations of King John

    J. P. Kemble

    From Hazlitt, William. View of the London Stage (London, 1818, reprinted 1906), 271.

    (King John was revived at Covent Garden, Dec. 3, 1816.) We went to see Mr Kemble's King John, and he became the part so well, in costume, look, and gesture, that if left to ourselves, we could have gone to sleep over it, and dreamt that it was fine, and 'when we waked, have cried to dream again.' But we were really told that it was fine, as fine as Garrick as fine as Mrs Siddons, as fine as Shakespeare; so we rubbed our eyes and kept a sharp lookout, but we saw nothing but a deliberate intention on the part of Mr Kemble to act the part finely. And so he did in a certain sense, but not by any means as Shakespeare wrote it, nor as it might be played. He did not harrow up the feelings, he did not electrify the sense; he did not enter into the nature of the part himself, nor consequently move others with terror or pity.

    The introduction to the scene with Hubert was certainly excellent: you saw instantly, and before a syllable was uttered, partly from the change of countenance, and partly from the arrangement of the scene, the purpose which had entered his mind to murder the young prince. But the remainder of this trying scene, though the execution was elaborate painfully elaborate and the outline well conceived, wanted the filling up, the true and master touches, the deep piercing heartfelt tones of nature. It was done well and skilfully, according to the book of arithmetic; but no more. Mr Kemble, when he approaches Hubert to sound his disposition, puts on an insidious, insinuating, fawning aspect, and so he ought; but we think it should not be, though it was, that kind of wheedling smile, as if he was going to persuade him that the business he wished him to undertake was a mere jest; and his natural repugnance to it an idle prejudice, that might be carried off by a certain pleasant drollery of eye and manner. Mr Kemble's look, to our apprehension, was exactly as if he had just caught the eye of some person of his acquaintance in the boxes, and was trying to suppress a rising smile at the metamorphosis he had undergone since dinner. Again, he changes his voice three several times in repeating the name of Hubert; and the changes might be fine, but they did not vibrate our feelings; so we cannot tell. They appeared to us like a tragic voluntary. Through almost the whole scene this celebrated actor did not seem to feel the part itself as it was set down for him, but to be considering how he ought to feel it, or how he should express by rule and method what he did not feel. He was sometimes slow and sometimes hurried; sometimes familiar and sometimes solemn; but always with an evident design and determination to be so. The varying tide of passion did not appear to burst from the source of nature in his breast, but to be drawn from a theatrical leaden cistern, and then directed through certain conduit pipes and artificial channels, to fill the audience with well regulated and harmless sympathy.

    15We are afraid, judging from the effects of this representation, that 'man delights not us, nor woman either,' for we did not like Miss O'Neill's Constance better, nor so well as Mr Kemble's King John. This character, more than any other of Shakespeare's females, treads perhaps upon the verge of extravagance; the impatience of grief, combined with the violence of her temper, borders on insanity; her imagination grows light headed. But still the boundary between poetry and frenzy is not passed; she is neither a virago nor mad. Miss O'Neill gave more of the vulgar than the poetical side of the character. She generally does so of late. Mr Charles Kemble, in the Bastard, had the 'bulk, the thews, the sinews' of Faulconbridge; would that he had had 'the spirit' too. There was one speech which he gave well 'Could Sir Robert make this leg?' And suiting the action to the word, as well he might, it had a great effect upon the house.