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CRITICAL OPINIONS ON KING JOHN.
"If ' King John,' as a whole, be not entitled to class among the very first-rate compositions of our author, it can yet exhibit some scenes of superlative beauty and effect, and two characters supported with unfailing energy and consistency.
"The bastard Faulconbridge, though not, perhaps, a very amiable personage, being somewhat too interested and worldly-minded in his conduct to excite much of our esteem, has, notwithstanding, so large a, portion of the very spirit of Phntagenet in him; so much heroism, gaiety, and fire, in his constitution; and, in spite of his avowed accommodation to the times,—
'For he is but a bastard to the time,
such an open and undaunted turn of mind, that we cannot refuse him our admiration ; nor, on account of his fidelity to John, however ill-deserved, our occasional sympathy and attachment. The alacrity and intrepidity of his daring spirit are nobly supported to the very last; where we find him exerting every nerve to rouse and animate the conscience-stricken soul of the tyrant.
"In the person of Lady Constance Maternal Grief, the most interesting passion of the play, is developed in all its strength ; the picture penetrates to the inmost heart; and seared must those feelings be, which can withstand so powerful an appeal; for all the emotions of the fondest affection and the wildest despair, all the rapid transitions of anguish, and approximating frenzy, are wrought up into the scene with a truth of conception which rivals that of nature herself.
"The innocent and beauteous Arthur, rendered doubly attractive by the sweetness of his disposition and the severity of his fate, is thus described by his doting mother:—
'But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy!
When he is captured, therefore, and imprisoned by John, and consequently sealed for destruction, who but Shakspeare could have done justice to the agonizing sorrows of the parent? Her invocation to Death, and her address to Pandulph, paint maternal despair with a force which no imagination can augment, and of which the tenderness and pathos have never been exceeded.
"Independent of the scenes which unfold the striking characters of Constance and Faulconbridge, there are two others in the play which may vie with anything that Shakspeare has produced; namely, the scene between John and Hubert, and that between Hubert and Arthur. The former, where the usurper obscurely intimates to Hubert his bloody wishes, is conducted in a manner so masterly that we behold the dark and turbulent soul of John lying naked before us in all its deformity, and shrinking with fear even from the enunciation of its own vile purposes. 'It is one of the scenes,' as Mr. Steevens has well observed,'to which may be promised a lasting commendation. Art could add little to its perfection; and time itself can take nothing from its beauties.'
"The scene with Hubert and the executioners, where the hapless Arthur supplicates for mercy, almost lacerates the heart itself; and is only rendered supportable by the tender and alleviating impression which the sweet innocence and artless eloquence of the poor child fix with indelible influence on the mind. Well may it be said, in the language of our poet, that he who can behold this scene without the gushing tribute of a tear,—
'Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;—
"As for the character of John, which, from its meanness and imbecility, seems not well calculated for dramatic representation, Shakspeare has contrived, towards the close of the drama, to excite in his behalf some degree of interest and commiseration; especially in the dying scene, where the fallen monarch, in answer to the inquiry of his son as to the state of his feelings, mournfully exclaims,—
'Poison'd,—ill fare;—dead, forsook, cast off.'"
"The dramas derived from the English history, ten in number, form one of the most valuable of Shakspeare's works, and partly the fruit of his maturest age. I say advisedly one of his works, for the poet evidently intended them to form one great whole. It is, as it were, an historical heroic poem in the dramatic form, of which the separate plays constitute the rhapsodies. The principal features of the events are exhibited with such fidelity ; their causes, and even their secret springs, are placed in such a clear light, that we may attain from them a knowledge of history in all its truth, while the living picture makes an impression on the imagination which can never be effaced.
"In King John the political and warlike events are dressed out with solemn pomp, for the very reason that they possess but 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. The bastard Faulconbridge 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 wishes rather to belong to the deceivers than the deceived, for in his view of the world there is no other choice. His litigation with his brother respecting the succession of his pretended father, by which he effects his acknowledgment at court as natural son of the most chivalrous king of England, Richard Cceur-de-Lion, forms a very entertaining and original prelude in the play itself. When, amidst so many disguises of real sentiments, and so much insincerity of expression, the poet shows us human nature without a veil, and allows us to take deep views of the inmost recesses of the mind, the impression produced is only the more deep and powerful. The short scene in which John urges Hubert to put out of the way Arthur, his young rival for the possession of the throne, is superlatively masterly; the cautious criminal hardly ventures to say to himself what he wishes the other to do. The young and amiable prince becomes a sacrifice of unprincipled ambition; his fate excites the warmest sympathy. When Hubert, about to put out his eyes with the hot iron, is softened by his prayers, our compassion would be almost overwhelming, were it not sweetened by the winning innocence of Arthur's childish speeches. Constance's maternal despair on her son's imprisonment is also of the highest beauty ; and even the last moments of John,—an unjust and feeble prince, whom we can neither respect nor admire,—are yet so portrayed as to extinguish our displeasure with him, and fill us with serious considerations on the arbitrary deeds and the inevitable fate of mortals."— Schlegel.
The earliest editions of this drama are two quartos, both published in 1600, one by Thomas Usher, the other by James Roberts, entitled, "A Midsommer Nights dreame. As it hath beene sundry times publickely acted, by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his truants. Written by William Shakespeare." Fisher's impression was duly registered at Stationers' Hall; but no memorandum of Roberts's has ever been found: and from this circumstance, and the greater accuracy of its text, the fonner has usually been considered the authorized version. Yet, strange to say, the player editors of the first folio, when they reprinted the work twentv-tliree years afterwards, adopted the text of Roberts, and appear to have been unacquainted altogether with the more correct quarto of Fisher.
Malone. in his attempt to determine the chronological order in which these plays were written, assigns the composition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to 1594; and Titaniii's fine description of the unnatural succession of the seasons and the "progeny of evils," which fairy discords had brought upon the " human mortals," is singularly applicable to a state of things prevalent in England during the years 1593 and 1594. Strype (A nnah, b. IV. p. 211) has printed an extract from one of Dr. J. King's " Lectures upon Jonas," preached at York in 1594, in which that divine reminds his hearers of the various signs of God's wrath with which England was visited in 1593 and 1594; as storms, pestilence, dearth, and unseasonable weather. Of the last he says, "Remember that the spring" (that year that the plague broke out) "was very uukind, by means of the abundance of rains that fell; our July hath been like to a February: our June even as an April; so that the air must needs be corrupted." Then, having spoken of the three successive years of scarcity, he adds—" and see whether the Lord doth not threaten us much more, by sending such unseasonable weather and storms of rain among us; which, if we will observe, and compare it with that which is past, we may say, that the course of nature is very much inverted; our years are turned upside down; our summers are no summers: our harvests are no harvests: our seeds-times are no seeds-times." The passage is quoted by Blakeway; and it certainly bears a striking resemblance to the picture drawn by the Fairy Queen, beginning,—
"Therefore the winds piping to lis in vain," &c.
But we are not disposed to attach much importance to these coincidences as settling the date of the play, and still less to the interpretation of the well-known lines,—
"The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
which Warton and Malone conceive to be an allusion either to Spenser's poem, " The Tears of the Muses on the Neglect and Contempt of Learning," or to the death of Spenser. The poem in question was first published in 1591, three years before the period fixed for the production of this piece, and the death of Spenser did not take place till 1599, five years after it. Mr. Knight conjectures, with more plausibility, that the allusion was to the erring but unfortunate Robert. Greene, who died in 1592. Whatever uncertainty may attend these speculations, the internal evidence of the play proves at least that it was written in the full vigour of Shakespeare's youthful genius, and subsequent, there is every probability, to " The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Love's Labour's Lost," " The Comedy of Errors," " The Taming of the Shrew," and "Romeo and Juliet."
The commentators have been even less successful in their attempts to discover the origin of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," than in fixing the period of its production. Their persistence in assigning the ground-work of the fable to Chaucer's " Knight's Tale," is a remarkable instance of the docility with which succeeding writers will adopt, one after the other, an assertion that has reallv little or no foundation in fact. There is scarcely any resemblance whatever between Chaucer's tale and Shakespeare's play, beyond that of the scene in both being laid at the Court of Theseus. The Palamon, Arcite, and Emilie of the former are very different persons indeed from the Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia, of the latter. Chaucer has made Duke