Page images
PDF
EPUB

of his own mind,"—nothing of that quality which gives so deep an interest to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron,-and which Byron, with all his genius, could not throw aside in dramatic composition. We are, for this reason, not disposed to regard the opinion of Malone upon this point as of much importance. The conjecture is, however, recommended by its accordance with our sympathies ; and it stands, therefore, upon a different ground from that absurd notion that Shakspere drew Lear's "dog-hearted daughters” with such irresistible truth, because he himself bad felt the sharp sting of " filial ingratitude.”

If the domestic history of the poet will help us little in fixing a precise date for the composition of King John, we apprehend that the public history of his times will not assist us in attaining this object much more conclusively. A great armament was sent against Spain in 1596, under the command of Essex and Lord Howard. “ The fleet,” says Southey,*

,*“consisted of one hundred and fifty sail; seventeen of these were of the navy royal, eighteen men of war, and six store-ships, supplied by the state ; the rest were pinnaces, victuallers, and transports : the force was 1,000 gentlemen volunteers, 6,368 troops, and 6,772 seamen, exclusive of the Dutch. There were no hired troops in any of the queen's ships; all were gentlemen volunteers, chosen by the commanders.” Essex, in a Jetter to Bacon, speaking of the difficulty of his command, with reference to the nature of his force, describes his followers as “the most tyrones, and almost all voluntaries.” “In numbers and strength,” continues Southey, “the armament was superior to any that this country had sent forth since the introduction of cannon." This expedition was directed, as the reader of English history knows, against Cadiz. It left Plymouth on the 3rd of June, 1596; and returned on the 8th of August; having effected its principal object, the destruction of the Spanish fleet. It is to this great armament that Malone thinks Shakspere alludes, in the following lines in the second Act, where Chatillon describes to King Philip the expected approach of King John :

" all the unsettled humours of the land
Rash, inconsiderate, fiery, voluntaries,
With ladies' faces, and fierce dragons' spleens,
Have sold their fortunes at their native homes,
Bearing their birthrights proudly on their backs,
To make a hazard of new fortunes here.
In brief, a braver choice of dauntless spirits,
Than now the English bottoms have wast o'er,
Did never fioat upon the swelling tide,
To do offence and scath in Christendom."

-are

The supposed coincidence is, a great armament, principally composed of voluntaries. But does Shakspere speak of these voluntaries in a manner that would have been agreeable to an English audience; or that, however just it might be, was in accordance with the public recognition of the conduct of the army at Cadiz? The "unsettled humours of the land "—the “rash, inconsiderate fiery voluntaries "-—the “birthrights on their backs”—the “ offence and scath to Christendom," — somewhat opposed to the sentiment expressed in the public prayer of thanksgiving, written by Burleigh, in which the moderation of the troops in the hour of victory was solemnly recognised. “War in those days,” says Southey, “was conducted in such a spirit, that for the troops not to have committed, and with the sanction of their leaders, any outrage upon humanity, was deemed a point of special honour to the commanders, and calling for an especial expression of gratitude to the Almighty." But the narrative of this expedition, given in Hakluyt's Voyages, by Dr. Marbeck, who attended the Lord High Admiral, is not equally honourable to the “voluntaries," as regards their respect for property. He speaks of the “great pillage of the common soldiers ”—“the goodly furniture that was debased by the baser people”-and “the intemperate disorder of some of the rasher sort.” Shakspere might have known of this,--but would be go out of his way to reprobate it? If he had written this play a few years later than 1596, he might have kept the expedition in his eye, and have described its “ voluntaries," without offence to the popular or the courtly feeling. If he had written it earlier than 1596, he might have described “ voluntaries" in general, from the many narratives of reckless military adventure with which he would be familiar.

There is another allusion, according to Johnson, which fixes this date to 1596, or to the later date of 1605, which sets aside the evidence of Meres altogether, unless it be supposed that he assigned the old King Johu to Shakspere. Pandulph thus denounces John :-

• Naval History, vol. iv. p. 39

And meritorious shall that hand be call'd,

Canonized, and worshipp'd as a saint,
That takes away by any secret course
Thy hateful life.”

The pope published a bull against Elizabeth in 1596 ;--and in 1605, the perpetrators of the Gunpowder treason were canonized. We have, fortunately, a proof that Shakspere, in this case, abstained from any allusion to the history of his own times. In the old play of King John he found the following passage :

“ I, Pandulph," &c. "pronounce thee accursed, discharging every of thy subjects of all duty and fealty that they do owe to thee, and pardon and forgiveness of sin to those or them whatsoever, which shall carry arms against thee, or murder thee."

Chalmers carries the passion of mixing up Shakspere's incidents and expressions with passing events, to a greater extent than Malone or Johnson. According to him, the siege of Angiers is a type of the loss and recapture of Amiens, in 1597; the altercations between the Bastard and Austria were to conduce to the unpopularity of the Archduke Albert; and the concluding exhortation,

"Nought shall make us rue,

If England to itself do rest but true," had allusion to the differences amongst the leading men of the Court of Elizabeth, arising out of the ambition of Essex.*

For the purpose of fixing an exact date for the composition of this play, we apprehend that our readers will agree with us, that evidence such as this is not to be received with an implicit belief. Indeed, looking broadly at all which has been written upon the chronology of Shakspere's plays, with reference to this particular species of evidence, namely, the allusion to passing events, we fear that, at the best, a great deal of labour has been bestowed for a very unsatisfactory result. The attempt, however, has been praiseworthy; and it has had the incidental good of evolving many curious points connected with our history and manners, that present themselves more forcibly to the mind in an isolated shape, than when forming a portion of any large historical narration.

Yet we are anxious to guard against one misapprehension which may have presented itself to the minds of some of our readers, as it did to our own minds, when we first bestowed attention upon the large collection of facts, or conjectures, that have regard to the chronological order of our poet's plays. Properly to understand the principle upon which Shakspere worked, we must never for a moment suffer ourselves to believe that he was of that class of vulgar artists who are perpetually on the look out for some temporary allusion (utterly worthless except in its relation to the excitement which is produced by passing events), for the mean purpose of endeavouring to “split the ears of the groundlings.” If we should take literally what has been told us as regards this play, without examining the passages upon which such opinions are founded,—that it had allusions, for instance, to the expedition to Cadiz, to the bull of the pope against Elizabeth, and to the factions of Essex,—we might believe that the great poet, who, in his “ Histories," sought

" To raise our ancient sovereigns from their hearse,

Make kings his subjects, by exchanging verse;
Enlive their pale trunks, that the present age
Joys in their joys, and trembles at their rage," +

[ocr errors]

а

was one of those waiters upon events who seized upon a fleeting popularity, by presenting a mirror of the past in which a distorted present might be seen. But, rightly considered, the allusions of Shakspere to the passages of his own times are so few and so obscure, that they are utterly insufficient to abate one jot of his great merit, that “ he was for all time.” He was, indeed, in dealing with the spirit of the past, delighted, as Wordsworth has beautifully said in delineating his character of the poet,“ to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them.” I His past was, therefore, wherever it could be interfused with the permanent and universal, a reflex of the present. Thus, in the age of Elizabeth, and in the age of Victoria, his patriotism is an abiding and unchanging feeling; and has as little to do with the mutations of the world as any other of the great elements of human thought with wbich he deals. When the Bastard exclaims,-

* Supplemental Apology, p. 356. + On worthy Master Shakespeare and his Poems, by J. M., S. From the folio of 1632. 1 Observations prefixed to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads,

“This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them: "

we feel such lines had a peculiar propriety when they were uttered before an audience that might have been trembling at the present threats of a Spanish invasion, had they not been roused to defiance by the “lion-port” of their queen, and by the mightier power of that spirit of intellectual superiority which directed her councils, and, what was even more important, had entered into the spirit of her people's literature. But these noble lines were just as appropriate, dramatically, four hundred years before they were written, as they are appropriate in their influence upon the spirit two hundred and fifty years after they were written. Frederick Schlegel has said of Shakspere, "the feeling by which he seems to have been most connected with ordinary men is that of nationality.” It is true that the nationality of Shakspere is always hearty and genial ; and even in the nationality of prejudice there are to be found very many of the qualities that make up the nationality of reflection. For this reason, therefore, the nationality of Shakspere may constitute a link between him and “ordinary men,” who have not yet come to understand, for example, his large toleration, which would seem, upon the surface, to be the antagonist principle of nationality. The time may arrive wheu true toleration and true nationality may shake hands. Coleridge has, in a few words, traced the real course which the nationality of Shakspere may assist in working out, by the reconciliation of these seeming opposites :-“ Patriotism is equal to the sense of individuality reflected from every other individual. There may come a higher virtue in both-just cosmopolitism. But this latter is not possible but by antecedence of the former." *

There is one other point connected with Shakspere's supposed subservience to passing events, which we cannot dismiss without an expression of something more than a simple dissent. In reading the grand scene of the fourth Act, between John and Hubert, where John says,

a

“ It is the curse of kings to be attended

By slaves, that take their humours for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life,"-

«

had we not a commentator at our elbow, we should see nothing but the exquisite skill of the poet, in exhibiting the cowardly meanness of John in shrinking from his own warrant” when its execution had proved to be dangerous. This, forsooth, according to Warburton, "plainly hints at Davison's case, in the affair of Mary Queen of Scots ;” and Malone thinks "it is extremely probable that our author meant to pay his court to Elizabeth by this covert apology for her conduct to Mary." Apology? If Shakspere had been the idiot that these critics would represent him to have been, Elizabeth would very soon have told him to keep to his stage, and not meddle with matters out of his sphere;—for, unquestionably, the excuse which John attempts to make, could it have been interpreted into an excuse for Elizabeth, would have had precisely the same effect with regard to Elizabeth which it produces with regard to John, -it would have made men despise as well as hate the one as the other. As an example of the utter worthlessness of this sort of conjecture, we may add, that Douce says, “may it not rather allude to the death of Essex ?”+ Mr. Courtenay, in his “Shakspere's Historical Plays considered historically,"— which we have noticed in the Illustrations to Act I., -agrees with Warburton and Malone in their construction of this passage. Mr. Courtenay is not, however, a blind follower of the opinions of other critics, but has theories of his own upon such matters. One of these conjectures upon Shakspere's omission of the event of the signature of Magna Charta, is at least amusiug: "How shall we account for Shakspere's omission of an incident so essential in the life and reign of King John?' It had occurred to me, especially when considering the omission of all reference to popular topics, that as Shakspere was a decided courtier, he might not wish to remind Queen Elizabeth, who set Magna Charta at nought in its most interesting particular, of the solemn undertakings of her ancestors." Mr. Courtenay sub

* Literary Remains, vol. ii.

p. 161

+ Ilustrations, I. 406.

sequently says, that no great stress was laid upon Magna Charta, even by constitutional writers, before the days of Coke; but that, nevertheless, “ Magna Charta ought to have been the prominent feature of the play.” He says this, upon Coleridge's definition of an historical play, which is, at the best, not to understand Coleridge. Colley Cibber, in 1744, altered King John, and he says, in his dedication, that he endeavoured “ to make his play more like one than what he found it in Shakspere.” He gave us some magnificent scenes between John and the pope's nuncio, full of the most orthodox denunciations of Rome and the Pretender. He obtained room for these by the slight sacrifice of Constance and the Bastard. We have no doubt that upon the same principle, an ingenious adapter, into whom the true spirit of “ Historical Plays considered historically" should be infused, might give us a new King John, founded upon Shakspere's, with Magna Charta at full length,-and if Arthur and Hubert were sacrificed for this end, as well as Constance and Faulconbridge, the lovers of poetry might still turn to the obsolete old dramatist,—but the student of history would be satisfied by dramatic evidence, as well as by the authority of his primer, that

" Magna Charta we gain'd from John,

Which Harry the Third put his seal upon." The end and object of the drama, and of the Shaksperean drama especially, is to maintain that " law of unity, which has its foundations, not in the factitious necessity of custom, but in Nature itself, the unity of feeling.” * In Shakspere's King John this object is attained as cornpletely as in Macbeth. The history at once directs and subserves the plot. We have shewn this fully in our Supplementary Notice; and we think, therefore, that the omission of Magna Charta in King John may find another solution than that which Mr. Courtenay's theory supplies.

SOURCES OF THE HISTORY' OF King Jonn.

9

In the “ Historical Illustrations" which we have subjoined to each Act, we have followed out the real course of events in the life of King John, as far as appeared to us necessary for exhibiting the dramatic truth of the poet, as sustained by, or as deviating from, the historic truth of the chroniclers. But to understand the Shaksperean drama, from this example, –

-to see the propriety of what it adopted, and what it laid aside, ,-we must look into less authentic materials of history than even those very imperfect materials which the poet found in the annalists with which he was familiar. It is upon the conventional "history” of the stage that Shakspere built his play. It is impossible now, except on very general principles, to determine why a poet, who had the authentic materials of history before him, and possessed beyond all men the power of moulding those materials, with reference to a dramatic action, into the mo complete aud beautiful forms, should have subjected himself, in the fuil rigour and maturity of his intellect, to a general adherence to the course of that conventional dramatic history. But so it is. The King John of Shakspere is not the King John of the historians which Shakspere had unquestionably studied; it is not the King John of his own imagination, casting off the trammels which a rigid adoption of the facts of those historians would have imposed upon him; but it is the King John, in the conduct of the story, in the juxta-position of the characters, and in the catastrophe,--in the historical truth, and in the historical error,-of the play which preceded him some few years. This, unquestionably, was not an accident. It was not what, in the vulgar sense of the word, is called a plagiarism. It was a submission of his own original powers of seizing upon the feelings and understandings of his audience, to the stronger power of habit in the same audience, The history of John had been familiar to them for almost half a century. The familiarity had grown out of the rudest days of the drama, and had been established in the period of its comparative refinement, which immediately preceded Shakspere. The old play of King John was, in all likelihood, a vigorous graft upon the trunk of an older play, which “occupies an intermediate place between moralities and historical plays," — that of ' Kynge Johan,' by John Bale, written probably in the reign of Edward VI. Shakspere, then, had to choose between forty years of stage tradition, and the employment of new materials. He took, upon principle, what he found ready to his hand. But none of the transformations of classical or oriental fable, in which a new life is transfused into

* Coleridge's Literary Remains, vol. ii., p. 77.

[ocr errors]

<

an old body, can equal this astonishing example of the life-conferring power of a genius such as Shakspere's. Whoever really wishes thoroughly to understand the resources which Shakspere possessed, in the creation of characters, in the conduct of a story, and the employment of language, will do well, again and again, to compare the old play of King John, and the King John of our dramatist.

Bale’s“ pageant ” of Kynge Johan' has been published in the series by the Camden Society, under the judicious editorship of Mr. J. P. Collier. This performance, which is in two parts, has been printed from the original manuscript in the library of the Duke of Devonshire. Supposing it to be written about the middle of the sixteenth century, it presents a more remarkable example even than “Howleglas,” or “Hick Scorner” (of which an account is given in Percy's agreeable Essay on the Origin of the English Stage),* of the extremely low state of the drama only forty years before the time of Shakspere. Here is a play written by a bishop; and yet the dirty ribaldry which is put into the mouths of some of the characters is beyond all description, and quite impossible to be exhibited by any example in these pages. We say nothing of the almost utter absence of any poetical feeling,of the dull monotony of the versification,-of the tediousness of the dialogue.---of the inartificial conduct of the story. These matters were not greatly amended till a very short period before Shakspere came to “reform them altogether.” Our object in mentioning this play is to shew that the King John upon which Shakspere built, was, in some degree, constructed upon the 'Kynge Johan'of Bale; and that a traditionary King John had thus possessed the stage for nearly half a century before the period when Shakspere wrote his King John. We must, however, avail ourselves of an extract from Mr. Collier's Introduction to the play of Bale :

“ The design of the two plays of 'Kynge Johan' was to promote and confirm the Reformation, of which, after his conversion, Bale was one of the most strenuous and unscrupulous supporters. This design he executed in a manner until then, I apprehend, unknown. He took some of the leading and popular events of the reign of King John, his disputes with the pope, the suffering of his kingdom under the interdict, his subsequent submission Rome, and his imputed death by poison from the hands of a monk of Swinstead Abbey, and applied them to the circumstances of the country in the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII. * * * * This early application of historical events, of itself, is a singular circumstance, but it is the more remarkable when we recollect that we have no drama in our language of th & date, in which personages connected with, and engaged in, our public affairs are introduced. In ‘Kynge Johan’ we have not only the monarch himself, who figures very prominently until his death, but Pope Innocent, Cardinal Pandulphus, Stephen Langton, Simon of Swynsett (or Swinstead), and a monk called Raymundus; besides abstract impersonations, such as England, who is stated to be a widow, Imperial Majesty, who is supposed to take the reins of government after the death of King John, Nobility, Clergy, Civil Order, Treason, Verity, and Sedition, who may be said to be the Vice, or Jester, of the piece. Thus we have many of the elements of historical plays, such as they were acted at our public theatres forty or fifty years afterwards, as well as some of the ordinary materials of the old moralities, which were gradually exploded by the introduction of real or imaginary characters on the scene. Bale's play, therefore, occupies an intermediate place between moralities and historical plays, and it is the only known existing specimen of that species of composition of so early a date."

That the Kynge Johan' of the furious Protestant bishop was known to the writer of the King John of 1591, we have little doubt. Our space will not allow us to point out the internal evidences of this; but one minute but remarkable similarity may be mentioned. When John arrives at Swinstead Abbey, the monks, in both plays, invite him to their treacherous repast by the cry of “Wassail.” In the play of Bale we have no incidents whatever beyond the contests between John and the pope, the surrender of the crown to Pandulph,—and the poisoning of John by a monk at Swinstead Abbey. The action goes on very haltingly:—but not so the wordy war of the speakers. A vocabulary of choice terms of abuse, familiarly used in the times of the Reformation, might be constructed out of this curious performance. Here the play of 1591 is wonderfully reformed ;—and we have a diversified action, in which the story of Arthur and Constance, and the wars and truces in Anjou, are brought to relieve the exhibition of papal domination and monkish treachery. The intolerance of Bale against the Romish church is the most fierce and rampant exhibition of passion that ever assumed the ill.

* Religues of English Poetry, vol. i.

« PreviousContinue »