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The only extant or discovered notice of King John, till it appeared in the folio of 1623, is in the often-quoted list given by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia, 1598. So that all we can say with certainty is, that the play was written some time before that date. Various attempts have been made to argue the date of the writing from allusions to contemporary matters; but I cannot see that those attempts really amount to any thing at all. On the other hand, some of the German critics are altogether out, when; arguing from the internal evidences of style, structure of the verse, and tone of thought, they refer the piece to the same period of the author's life with The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. In these respects, it strikes me as having an intermediate cast between The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice. From the characteristics of style alone, I am quite persuaded that the play was written some considerable time before King Henry the Fourth. It thus synchronizes, I should say, very nearly with King Richard the Second. The matter is well stated by Schlegel : “In King John the political and warlike events are dressed out with solemn pomp, for the very reason that they have little of true grandeur. The falsehood and selfishness of the monarch speak in the style of a manifesto. Conventional dignity is most indispensable where personal dignity is wanting. Falconbridge is the witty interpreter of this language; he ridicules the secret springs of politics, without disapproving of them; for he owns that he is endeavouring to make his fortune by similar means, and would rather be of the deceivers than the deceived; there being in his view of the world no other choice.” Schlegel thus regards the peculiarities in question as growing naturally out of the subject; whereas I have no scruple of referring them to the undergraduate state of the Poet's genius; for in truth they are much the same as in several other plays where no such cause has been alleged. These remarks, however, are hardly applicable except to the first three Acts of the play ; in the last two we have much
more of the full-grown Shakespeare, sure-footed and selfsupporting; the hidden elements of character, and the subtle shapings and turnings of guilty thought shining out in clear transparence, or flashing forth amidst the stress of passion; with kindlings of poetic and dramatic inspiration not unworthy the best workmanship of the Poet's middle period.
Shakespeare drew the material of his other histories from Holinshed, and no doubt had or might have had access to the same source in writing King John. Yet in all the others the rights of historic truth are for the most part duly observed. Which would seem to argue that in this case he not only left his usual guide, but had some special reason for doing so. Accordingly it appears that the forementioned sins against history were not original with him. The whole plot and plan of the drama, the events and the ordering of them, all indeed but the poetry and character, were borrowed.
The reign of King John was specially fruitful of doings such as might be made to tell against the old claims and usages of the Mediæval Church. This aptness of the matter caused it to be early and largely used in furthering the great ecclesiastical revolution of the sixteenth century. The precise date is not known, but Bishop Bale's pageant of King John was probably written in the time of Edward the Sixth. The design of this singular performance was to promote the Reformation, of which Bale was a very strenuous and unscrupulous supporter. Some of the leading events of John's reign, his disputes with the Pope, the sufferings of his kingdom under the interdict, the surrender of his crown to the Legate, and his reputed death by poison, are there used, or abused, in a way to suit the time and purpose of the writer. The historical characters are the King himself, Pope Innocent the Third, Pandulf, Langton, Simon of Swinstead, and a monk called Raymundus. With these are mixed various allegorical personages, —
England, who is said to be a widow, Imperial Majesty, Nobility, Clergy, Civil Order, Treason, Verity, and Sedition, the latter serving as the Jester of the piece. Thus we have the common material of the old Moral-plays rudely combined with some elements of the Historical Drama such as grew into use on the public stage forty or fifty years later. And the piece, though written by a bishop, teems with the lowest ribaldry and vituperation : therewithal it is totally barren of any thing that can pretend to the name of poetry or wit; in short, the whole thing is at once thoroughly stupid, malignant, and vile. There is no likelihood that Shakespeare knew any thing of Bale's pageant, as it was never printed till some forty years ago, the original manuscript having then been lately discovered in the library of the Duke of Devonshire.
The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, upon which Shakespeare's play was founded, came from the press first in 1591, again in 1611, and a third time in 1622. The first issue was anonymous; the other two were put forth with Shakespeare's name as author; which really does nothing towards proving it to be his, as we have divers instances of other men's workmanship being fathered upon him. Steevens at one time thought it to be Shakespeare's, but afterwards gave it up, as he well might. Several of the German critics have taken the other side, arguing the point at great length, but with little effect. To answer their arguments were more easy than profitable; and such answer can better be spared than the space it would fill, since no English reader able to understand the reasoning will need it, after once reading the play. Coleridge indeed went so far in 1802 as to pronounce it “not his, yet of him”; a judgment in which few, I apprehend, will concur.
it, though scarce any two of them agree who did.
The Troublesome Reign, which is in two Parts, bears strong internal marks of having been written when the enthusiasm of the nation was wrought up to the height about the Spanish Armada, and when the Papacy was spitting its impotent thunders against the throne and state of the lion-Queen. Abounding in spoken and acted satire and invective, the piece must have been hugely grateful to that national feeling which issued in the Reformation, and which was mightily strengthened afterwards by the means made use of to put the Reformation down. The subject was strikingly apt for the purpose ; which was no doubt the cause of its being chosen.
The piece, however, is a prodigious advance upon Bale's performance. The most considerable exception to this is where Falconbridge, while by the King's order he is plundering the religious houses, finds a fair young nun hidden in a chest which is supposed to contain the Abbot's treasures. Campbell regrets that the Poet did not retain this incident, — a regret in which I am far from sympathizing; for, surely, to hold up the crimes of individuals in such a way or at such a time as to set a stigma upon whole classes of men, was a work that might well be left to meaner hands.
An intense hatred of Popery runs as a special purpose through both of the older pieces. Which matter is reformed altogether in Shakespeare; who understood well enough, no doubt, that any such special purpose was quite inconsistent with the just proportions of Art. He therefore discovers no repngnance to Popery save in the form of a just and genuine patriotism; has no particular symptoms of a Protestant spirit, but only the natural beatings of a sound, honest English heart, resolute to withstand alike all foreign encroachments, whether from kings or emperors or popes. Thus his feeling against Rome is wisely tempered in that proportion which is required by the laws of morality and Art, issuing in a firm, manly national sentiment such as all men may justly respond to, be their creed what it may.
So that King John, as compared with the piece out of which it was built, yields a forcible instance and proof of the Poet's universality. He follows his predecessor in those things which appeal to the feelings of man as man, but forsakes him in whatever flatters the prejudices and antipathies of men as belonging to this or that party or sect. And as aversion to Rome is chastised down from the prominence of a special purpose, the parts of Arthur and Constance and Falconbridge proportionably rise; parts that spontaneously knit in with the common sympathies of humanity, — such a language as may always dwell together with the spirit of a man, and be twisted about his heart for ever.
Still the question recurs, Why did Shakespeare, with the authentic materials of history at hand, and with his own matchless power of shaping those materials into beautiful and impressive forms, — why did he, in this single instance, depart from his usual course, preferring a fabulous history to the true, and this too when, for aught now appears, the true would have answered his purpose just as well ? It is to come at a probable answer to this question that I have dwelt so long on the two older pieces. We thus see that for special causes the subject was early brought upon the stage. The same causes long operated to keep it there. The King John of the stage, striking in with the passions and interests of the time, had become familiar to the people, and twined itself closely with their feelings and thoughts. A faithful version would have worked at great disadvantage in competition with the theatrical one thus established. This prepossession of the popular mind Shakespeare may well have judged it unwise to disturb. In other words, the current of popular association being so strong, he probably chose rather to fall in with it than to stem it. We may regret that he did so; but we can hardly doubt that he did it knowingly and on principle: nor should we so much blame him for not stemming that current as thank him for purifying it.
I will next present, as briefly as may be, so much of authentic history as will throw light directly on the subject. - Henry the Second, the first of the Plantagenet