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THE reign of King John seems to have had considerable attraction for English dramatic writers. Some time before 1563, and probably not earlier than 1548, John Bale, Bishop of Ossory (6. 1495, d. 1563), had seized upon the subject as a weapon with which to attack the Papists. While still preserving the form and methods of the Morality play, the zealous bishop introduced into his Kynge Johan a certain amount of the historical element; for we find King John represented as the champion of Protestantism endeavouring to aid “Ynglond” in shaking off the chains of Papacy. For this he is excommunicated and the country is laid under an interdict, while invasion is threatened by the French, Spaniards and Northmen in aid of the Papal cause. To save his country from these accumulated horrors John submits to the Pope, but is poisoned by “ Dyssymulacyon," otherwise “Simon of Swinsett," and dies a Protestant martyr.
With the exception of the King the characters of this play are little better than the personified abstractions of the Morality, who occupy their time in religious and political discussions while the action is at a standstill. Dramatic propriety of any kind is entirely wanting throughout.
Though ineffably tedious to read at the present day,
this production is interesting from at least two points of view. In the first place it is a point of fusion between the Morality and the Historical play. In the second place it is very kind to the memory of “Johan” and exalts him into a hero, saint and martyr :
This noble Kynge Johan, as a faythfull Moyses
He takes part with “Englandes ryghtfull herytage”. for Bale carefully avoids any mention of Arthur-and is made to declare that his enemies have ever hated him “ for doynge justice” (line 2125). The panegyric pronounced by “Veryte” best explains the author's attitude towards his "hero."
I assure ye, fryndes, lete men wryte what they wyll,
Thynke you a Romane with the Romans can not lye ?
For his valiauntnesse many excellent writers make,
Nothynge is allowed in hys lyfe of Polydorus,
Of hys godlynesse thus muche report wyll I:
i Note the “liaison" between the last rhyme of one stanza and the first rhyme of the next.
Great monymentes are in Yppeswych, Donwych, and Berye, Whych noteth hym to be a man of notable mercye;
The cytie of London, through his mere graunt and premye,
Though he now be dead, hys noble actes are alyve.
The good bishop's idea of John is as faulty as his idea of poetry and verse; his bias is due chiefly to his hatred of Catholicism which appears continually in such passages as
· thou menyst the Pope. Ynglond. I mean none other but hym, God geve hym a rope !
(Kynge Johan, i. 75.)
Kynge Johan lay in manuscript until printed by Collier for the Camden Society in 1838. If acted at all, it seems to have left no trace behind, for in 1591 there was
Imprinted at London for Sampson Clarke, to be solde at his shop, on the backe-side of the Royall Exchange, a play entitled The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, with the discoverie of King Richard Cordelions Base Sonne (vulgarly named, The Bastard Fawconbridge): also the death of King John at Swinstead Abbey. As it was (sundry times) publikely acted by the Queenes Majesties Players, in the honourable citie of London ; and in this play the influence of Kynge Johan is nowhere visible. The Troublesome Raigne was divided into two parts, the second being entitled The Second part of the troublesome Raigne of King John, conteining the death of Arthur Plantaginet, the landing of Lewes, and the poysning of King John at Swinstead Abbey, and it was probably written about 1589; but this is only conjecture, for we have no definite evidence on the point. Another edition,
Imprinted by Valentine Sims for John Helme," appeared in 1611, claiming to have been “written by W. Sh.," while a third edition of 1622 shamelessly asserts itself to have been "written by W. Shakespeare."
No one who compares the Troublesome Raigne with King John can for a moment entertain the idea that the former is a “first draft” of the latter. If any argument of disproof were needed it would be sufficient to point out, as Mr. Rose has done, that no writer could possibly recast his own work in such a manner as to remodel every line but four. The explanation of the claim on the title-pages of the later editions of the Troublesome Raigne is quite simple; it was a deliberate attempt to make the public believe that the play for sale was the King John of Shakespeare, of which no Quarto seems to have appeared. King John had been performed before 1598 (vide infra), and so a wily publisher might easily gull the public in 1611 and 1622 into the belief that the Troublesome Raigne was the Shakespearian play.
Tieck clung to the belief that Shakespeare wrote the Troublesome Raigne, maintaining not only that every line of it bears the impress of Shakespeare's hand but that it is superior to King John! Pope says that it was written
1 Since the above was written Prof. Courthope's volume dealing with King John has appeared, in which the Troublesome Raigne is given to Shakespeare. I still fail to see that there is the slightest justification for this.