Internet Shakespeare Editions

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    Not Peer Reviewed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

    1Early actors

    [These descriptions of early actors are taken from A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. H. H. Furness. Third impression. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1919.]

    From Francis Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor, ii, 167 (London, 1770).

    Mr Quin was the first we remember to see figure away in royal John; and, as in most of his tragedy undertakings, he lumbered through the part in a painful manner; growled some passages, bellowed others, and chaunted the rest. Mr Churchill has sneered at Mr Mossop for browbeating the French king; had he seen and remembered the gentleman under consideration, he would have thought the poor tame monarch in danger of being swallowed up alive by his voracious brother of England. Mr [Thomas] Sheridan has, no doubt, impaired as his faculties are at present, very striking merit; where he is working Hubert to the murder of the prince his utterance and attendant looks are highly picturesque. We allow him to be also deserving of praise where he upbraids Hubert with so readily obeying his bloody orders; but in other scenes of the four first acts, low as they are, he sinks beneath them; in dying, he overacts to a degree of particular offence. Mr Mossop, whom we have been obliged to find fault with upon several occasions, here deserves our warmest praise, and we are happy to give it to him. That stiffness and premeditated method which, in other characters, took off from his great powers and good conception, being less visible in his King John. The rays of glowing merit here broke upon us unclouded and dazzling; where the author's genius soared aloft, he kept pace with equal wing; where Shakespeare flagged, he bore him up; wherefore, we are venturous to affirm that no performer ever made more of good and bad materials mingled together than Mr Mossop did in this play. Mr Powell was too boyish, he wanted weight and depth of expression to excel in John.

    Of the chip-in-pottage French king we shall say nothing, as no actor can make anything of him; nor can his son, for the like reason, deserve much notice. However, we remember two performers that are worth mention, one Mr Lacy, who did more in the Dauphin than criticism had any right to expect; and Mr The[ophilus] Cibber, who was undoubtedly the veriest bantam-cock of tragedy that ever crowed, strutted, and flapped its wings on a stage. The Cardinal is a very well drawn churchman of those times, subtle, proud, irascible; rather prone to promote than prevent public calamities, where his master's interest seems concerned; a mere politician, not incumbered with delicacy of principle, or the feelings of humanity; he is not in favour of the actor, yet appeared very respectable in Mr Havard's performance of him, no other person strikes our recollection.

    The Bastard is a character of great peculiarity, bold, spirited, free indeed, too free spoken; he utters many noble sentiments, and performs brave actions; but in several places descends to keep attention from drowsing, at the expense of all due decorum; and what is very disgraceful to furious composition, causes the weaker part of an audience to laugh at some very weak, punning conceits. Mr Ryan had some merit in this part, by no means equal to what he showed in many others. The unhappy impediment of his utterance being more conspicuous in it than usual. Mr Sheridan has apologized for it, but from what we have already said concerning his executive abilities, the reader may easily judge how very unlike the character he must be. Mr Holland was too stiff, and made too much use of his strong lungs. Mr Smith is pretty and spirited, but wants weight and bluntness. We have seen one Mr Fleetwood appear in it this season, at the Haymarket, with every fault of Mr Holland improved, and all his strokes of merit diminished. If ever Mr Garrick's figure made against him, it was in this part; he struck out some lights and beauties which we never discovered in the performance of any other person, but there was a certain petiteness which rather shrunk the character, and cut short the usual excellence of this truly great actor. Upon the whole, we are obliged to declare that our idea of the Bastard and Shakespeare's meaning, to our knowledge has never been properly filled. Mr Barry, for external appearance and general execution, comes nearest the point. This remark may serve to show that though we greatly admire, and have hitherto warmly praised our English Roscius, we are not so idolatrously fond of his extensive merit as to think him always foremost in the race of fame.

    Hubert, though upon the whole an agreeable agent, is by no means an estimable personage; he appears in a very recommendatory light, and favours representation where there are any tolerable feelings. Messrs Sparks and Berry did him very considerable justice, and Mr Bensley has exhibited him with deserved approbation; we cannot say so much for Mr Gibson. At the Haymarket, Mr Gentleman has passed muster, as not having conceived or ill expressed the part; but we cannot, as a public performer, congratulate him much on the happiness of his figure or features. Prince Arthur is a very amiable and interesting character of the drama; we have seen it done affectingly by several children, whose names we forgot; however, recollect being particularly pleased with Miss Reynolds, now Mrs Saunders, some twenty years since. Who did the revolting lords has entirely escaped our memory, except at Mr Foote's, this summer, and those gentlemen who personated them there may wish to be forgot also.

    5Every one of the female characters are too contemptible for notice except Constance; she, indeed, seems to have been an object of great concern with the author, and very seldom fails to make a deep impression upon the audience; her circumstances are peculiarly calculated to strike the feeling heart; dull, very dull must that sensation be which is not affected with the distress of a tender parent, expressed in such pathetic, forcible terms; even Mrs Woffington, who, from dissonance of tones might be called the screech owl of tragedy, drew many tears in this part; to which her elegant figure and adequate deportment did not a little contribute. A fine woman robed with grief is a leading object of pity. Mrs Cibber, in the whole scope of her great excellence, never showed her tragic feelings and expression to more advantage than in Constance; there was a natural tendency to melancholy in her features, which heightened in action, and became so true an index of a woe-fraught mind, that with the assistance of her nightingale voice, she became irresistable and almost obliged us to forget every other character in raptured contemplation of her merit. Mrs Bellamy fell far, very far short of the forementioned lady, and cathedralized the unhappy princess offensively. Mrs Yates and Mrs Barry have both powerful capabilities for the part, but can never justly hope to equal their great predecessor, Mrs Cibber, who must be always remembered with pleasure and regret by all persons of taste, who had the happiness to shed the sacrifice of tears at the shrine of her melting powers.