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  • Title: Additional Footnotes to King John
  • Author: Michael Best
  • ISBN:

    Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Michael Best
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    Additional Footnotes to King John

    1Program note: Herbert Beerbohm Tree Production (1899)

    "THE Life and Death of King John" is the full title of the drama which just three centuries ago Shakespeare wrote around the sinister but fascinating figure of the last, the worst and possibly the greatest of our Angevin kings. The action of the play does not begin until the thirty fourth year of the king's life, and takes in, through an interval of about seventeen years, only a few transactions of his reign to the time of his death. But what a chapter in our national history those seventeen years present! During their passing England lost her Continental possessions; her king having defied the Pope, died his vassal; the people, through the nobles, exacted from an absolute sovereign that Great Charter of their liberties, the advantages of which, in the guise of freedom, justice and equality, we to-day enjoy. These were times from many points of view as spacious as those in which Shakespeare himself lived and wrote. The men and women who then made history were large, adventurous spirits, winning or losing all as the whirlwind of their passions and ambitions swept them along. The masses of the people were waiting for the moment when, their ancient language restored and their ancient laws secured to them, they should be moulded into an united English nation. With such times for a frame, with such events for a background, and with such men and women for figures, small wonder that the greatest of all dramatists has given us a great picture. We have found dozens to tell us accurately the story of "the troublesome reign"; but one to irradiate it with the poetry, the pathos and the beauty which the Master has shown it possesses.

    As in the case of most of Shakespeare's plays, when, where and in what circumstances he wrote "King John" it is impossible exactly to determine. That it could not have been composed before 1591 nor after 1598 seems now beyond doubt. The date of publication of an old play on which Shakespeare's is undoubtedly founded gives the earlier limit: Francis Mere's list of Shakespeare's works in his "Palladis Tamia," issued in 1598, but probably written as early as 1597, supplies the later. To attempt to fix precisely when, between these dates, it came into being would force us to follow a purely academic discussion among the critics, for which there is here neither space nor necessity. Assuming, as most of the commentators do, that 1596 is the correct date, then it will be of greater interest to the playgoer to be reminded that "King John," the first in the order of history and the second in the order of writing of Shakespeare's historical plays, was given to the world when the poet was thirty-two, and after he had been writing for the stage for only five years. So far as we know, it was not printed until 1623, when it appears in the folio of that year, and surpassing, as it does, most other plays in that edition in clearness and accuracy, presents but few textual difficulties for either critic or editor.

    The events of John's reign had twice been made the subject of dramatic treatment before Shakespeare took them in hand. First by John Bale, the notorious Bishop of Ossory, probably about 1550, in a two-act historical and allegorical play, entitled "Kynge Johan," to which Shakespeare is little, if at all, indebted; and secondly, in a brace of anonymous dramas in twenty one scenes, together entitled "The troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, with the discoverie of King Richard Cordelion's base sonne (vulgarly named the Bastard Fawconbridge) also the Death of King John at Swinstead Abbey."

    Seeing that in "King John" Shakespeare copied the incidents of these two plays in the order in which they are exhibited, and that there is no evidence of any contemporary accusation of plagiarism on this head, we may safely assume either that Shakespeare supplied the plot for the earlier work, or that he, came to some arrangement with the author of the same by which he was permitted to avail himself of the story already employed. In the development of the story, in the juxtaposition of the characters and in the catastrophe--in historical troth and historical error--the two plays are almost exactly alike. But here the similarity ends. The beauty of language exhibited in the later work, the power of characterization, the grace of restraint and the force of dramatic contrast are Shakespeare's own and his alone.

    5With regard to his estimate of John's character, Shakespeare has been kinder than many writers who preceded and succeeded him. It so happens that with the reign of King John began a new school of ecclesiastical chroniclers, associated with the monastery of St. Albans, who reflected the change in the clergy of the age from political neutrality to active partisanship on behalf of the claims of the Church. By such historians John was not likely to be treated very leniently, and much, therefore, that has conic down to us concerning this monarch must be received with extreme caution. Perhaps, of all his biographers, Holinshed, when summing up John's character from these very monastic chronicles, has given the most favourable view of it, and it is therefore quoted here on account of its singularity and candour towards a sovereign whom nearly all others have delighted in condemning: "He was comelie of stature, hot of looke and countenance displeasant and angrie ; somewhat cruel of nature, as by the writers of his time he is noted, and not so hardie as doubtful in time of perill and danger. But this seemeth to be an envious report, uttered by those that were given to speake no good of him whom they inwardlie hated. Howbeit, some give this witnesse of him, as the author of the booke of Bernewell Abbey and other, that he was a great arid mightie prince, but yet not very fortunate, much like Marius, the noble Roman, tasting of fortune both waies; bonntifull and liberall unto strangers, but of his owne people (for their dailie treasons practised towards him a great oppressor, so that he trusted more to forreners than to them, therefore in the end he was of them utterlie forsaken.

    "Verilie, whosoever shall consider the course of the historie written of this prince, he shall find that he hath beene little beholden to the writers of that time in which he lived; for scarselie can they afoord him a good word, except when trueth inforceth them to come out with it as it were against their willes. The occasion whereof (as some thinke) was, for that he was no freend to the clergie. And yet vndoubtedlie his deeds show that he had a zeale to religion, as it was then accompted; for he founded the abbeie of Beaulieu in the New-forrest, as it were in recompense of certaine parish churches which, to inlarge the same forrest, he caused to be throwne downe and ruinated. Certeinlie it should seeme the man had a princelie heart in him, and wanted no thing but faithful subjects to haue assisted him in reuenging such wrongs as were doone and offered by the French king and others."

    A lapse of nearly three hundred years since these words were written has done little to improve the estimation in which John is presently held. In fact, across the centuries his character has gone from bad to worse, if we may judge by the statements of later-day historians. Representative and in the foremost rank of these is, of course, Professor Green, of Oxford, whose "History of the English People" affords the following graphic, if somewhat highly-coloured, portrait of this much-abused monarch: "Externally John possessed all the quickness, the vivacity, the cleverness, the good-humour, the social charm which distinguished his house. His worst enemies owned that he toiled steadily and closely at the work of administration. He had a strange gift of attracting friends and of winning the love of women. But in his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness their insolence, their tyranny, their selfishness, their unbridled lust, their cruelty and shamelessness, their superstition and their cynical indifference to honour and truth. His ingratitude and perfidy had brought down his father with sorrow to his grave. To his brother he had been the worst of traitors. All Christendom believed him to be the murderer of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. He abandoned one wife and was faithless to another. His punishments were the refinements of cruelty--the starvation of children, the crushing of old men under copes of lead. He was as craven in his superstition as he was daring in his impiety. He scoffed at priests, and turned his back on the mass, even amidst the solemnities of his coronation; but he never stirred on a journey without hanging relics round his neck. But with the supreme wickedness of his race he inherited its profound ability. In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time. Throughout his reign we see him quick to discern the difficulties of his position, and inexhaustible in the resources with which he met them. The overthrow of his Continental power only spurred him to the formation of a great league which all but brought Philip to the ground; and the sudden revolt of all England was parried by a shameless alliance with the Papacy. The closer study of John's history clears away the charges of sloth and incapacity with which men tried to explain the greatness of his fall. The awful lesson of his life rests on the fact that it was no weak and indolent voluptuary, but the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins who lost Normandy, became the vassal of the Pope, and perished in a struggle of despair against English freedom." Whatever be our estimate of John's character, there can be no doubt that if his faults were monumental his qualities were also on a heroic scale.

    The granting of Magna Charta--the most important event in John's reign and one of the most solemn moments in our history--finds no mention in Shakespeare's play. Of course, the Charter was no novelty, nor did it claim to establish any new constitutional principles. But it came at a time when the pressure of the nobles, the despotism of the king, and the power of the clerics threatened to stifle the English constitution. Magna Charta gave back to the people that government of themselves which in a century-and-half of foreign dominion and of foreign wars had been denied, or at least waived aside. What was the law of the land the monarch, under his seal, was forced to admit in clear and precise language. Custom and tradition were transmuted into living words. The law was written for everyone to read. It is unnecessary to recall all the sixty-one articles of the famous grant, but the ten principal provisions--the Ten Commandments of our existence as a free people--may well bear recapitulation:

    1. No tax shall be imposed without the authority of the common council of the Kingdom.
    2. The liberties of London and other burghs, towns and ports shall not be violated.
    3. Justice shall not be sold, denied or delayed.
    4. Freedom of commerce with foreign merchants shall not be disturbed.
    5. The Courts of justice shall not follow the king but shall be fixed at Westminster.
    6. Life, liberty and property shall be protected, and none shall be condemned to forfeit these but by lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land.
    7. None shall be condemned on rumours or suspicions but only on evidence of witnesses.
    8. Fines shall not be imposed except in proportion to the magnitude of the offence.
    9. No villein or rustic shall be deprived of his necessary chattels.
    10. No man shall be deprived of his right to dispose of his property by will.

    10The stage history of "King John" is an oft-told tale, and may here be dismissed in a few lines. No doubt the play was originally given at the Curtain Theatre, in Shoreditch, where in 1596 Romeo and Juliet" was also performed. Shakespeare himself was then a member of Chamberlain's company, and it is interesting to think that he may have taken part in the first representation of King John." It is not, however, until a hundred and fifty years later that we have any trustworthy record of the tragedy having been performed. It was then given (in 1737) by Rich, at Covent Garden, who put it up as an answer to a threat by Colley Cibber that he was about to produce his own mutilation of Shakespeare's play, entitled, "Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John." The same day that this perversion was produced at Covent Garden "King John" proper was put into rehearsal at Drury Lane, and produced there on February 20th, with Garrick as King John, Delane as the Bastard, and Berry as Hubert. Mrs. Cibber was great as Constance, and seems to have never been eclipsed, even by Mrs. Siddons. In 1754, in another revival, Garrick played the Bastard, Mossop the King, and a Scotchman named Simpson, Faulconbridge. In 1746 Garrick had played in Dublin with Sheridan in King John," the two famous actors alternating the King and the Bastard. In 1760 the experiment was repeated at Drury Lane, where Sheridan (the father of Richard Brinsley) is said to have eclipsed the mighty David as the King, and Garrick was so annoyed at the praises lavished on Sheridan by George III., that he stopped the run of the piece. But notwithstanding, the play was revived on April 2nd of the same year for the benefit of Mrs. Yates, and the rivals appeared therein agreeably enough. Kemble played King John to Mrs. Siddons' Constance in 1783, and again in 1800 to the Constance of Mrs. Powell and the Bastard of his son, Charles Kemble In fact the Kembles often revived the tragedy, and on February 4th, 1804, at Covent Garden, John Kemble played the King, Charles Kemble, Faulconbridge, and Mrs. Siddons, Constance. Miss O'Neill played Constance for the first time in 1816. Edmund Kean was highly successful in the part of the King in 1818. Charles Kean revived it at the Princess's in 1852--it was the first of his great Shakespearian revivals--and Phelps gave it several times at Sadler's Wells--first in 1844, when it was played for eighteen nights. Samuel Phelps also filled the part of the King in a grand revival of the piece at Drury Lane Theatre in November, 1865. It ran till December 16th, and was revived again the following year with Phelps as the King, Barry Sullivan as Faulconbridge, and Mrs. Hermann Vezin as Constance. James Anderson played the King at the Haymarket in '868 to the Constance of Miss Francis Bouverie, a sister of Lady Bancroft. At the Queen's Theatre, Long Acre, June, 1873, W. Creswick impersonated the King; John Ryder, Hubert; George Rignold, Faulconbridge; Miss Clive, Constance; Katie Logan, the Prince Arthur, and Rose Egan, Prince Henry,

    Of "acting editions" of the play there are several extant; the first appeared in 1734, and was issued by the well-known publishing firm of Tonson. This held the boards till Kemble's version in 1814, and was in turn followed by a not much patronized mutilation by the old actor and playwright, Oxberry, in 1818, to be succeeded by yet. another in 1829, by George Daniel, which is substantially identical with that of Lacy's edition of 1850, and has practically since been followed until the present day.

    Unlike so many of Shakespeare's other plays, "King John" is but little known on the Continent. In German state-theatres it forms an important item in most repertories, but except in Germany we can find no trace of its having been performed outside English speaking countries. It compares also poorly indeed in the matter of translations with most of our poet's other plays. As against about forty-three foreign versions of "Julius Caesar" in every language of Europe, we find that " King John" has only been rendered into French (twice), German (three times) and Polish.

    The present version is the first in which the play has been divided into three acts. If "King John" is critically examined it will be found that the death of Arthur and the consequences ensuing therefrom are the real pivot of the play. It is with this in view that the new version has been prepared as it has. The first act ends with Arthur's capture, the second with his destruction, and the third with the King's death as an indirect result of that of his nephew. By means of this division it is hoped that swiftness of action is assured, and that the new sequence of scenes, together with the excisions that have been made, will permit the real story of the play to be told in quick, coherent and logical manner.