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This historical play was founded on a former drama, entitled “ The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, with the Discoverie of King Richard Cordelion's base Son, 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 honorable Cittie of London.” This piece, which was in two parts, was
printed at London for Sampson Clarke, 1591,” without the author's name: was again republished in 1611, with the letters W. Sh. in the title-page ; and afterwards, in 1622, with the name of William Shakspeare at length. It may be found by the curious reader among the “Six Old Plays on which Shakspeare founded,” &c., published by Mr. Steevens and Mr. Nichols some years since.
Shakspeare has followed the old play in the conduct of its plot, and has even adopted some of its lines. The number of quotations from Horace, and similar scraps of learning scattered over this motley piece, ascertain it to have been the work of a scholar. It contains likewise a quantity of rhyming Latin and ballad metre; and, in a scene where the Bastard is represented as plundering a monastery, there are strokes of humor, which, from their particular turn, were most evidently produced by another hand than that of Shakspeare. Pope attributes the old play to Shakspeare and Rowley conjointly ; but we know not on what foundation. Dr. Farmer thinks there is no doubt that Rowley wrote the old play; and when Shakspeare's play was called for, and could not be procured from the players, a piratical bookseller reprinted the old one under his name.
Though, as Johnson observes, King John is not " written with the utmost power of Shakspeare,” yet it has parts of preëminent pathos and beauty, and characters highly interesting, drawn with great force and truth. The scene between John and Hubert is perhaps one of the most masterly and striking which our Poct ever penned. The secret workings of the dark and turbulent soul of the usurper, ever shrinking from the full development of his own bloody purpose; the artful expressions of grateful attachment by which he wins Hubert to do the deed; and the sententious brevity of the close, manifest that consummate skill and wonderful knowledge of human character which are to be found in Shakspeare alone. But what shall we say of that heart-rending scene between Hubert and Arthur?
-a scene so deeply affecting the soul with terror and pity that even the sternest bosom must melt into tears; it would perhaps be too overpowering for the feelings, were it not for the “ alleviating influence of the innocence and artless eloquence of the poor child.” His death afterwards, when he throws himself from the prison walls, excites the deepest commiseration for his hapless fate. The maternal grief of Constance, moving the haughty, unbending soul of a proud queen and affectionate mother to the very confines of the most hopeless despair, bordering on madness, is no less finely conceived, than sustained by language of the most impassioned and vehement eloquence. How exquisitely beautiful are the following lines !
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Shakspeare has judiciously preserved the character of the Bastard Faulconbridge, which was furnished him by the old play, to alleviate by his comic humor the poignant grief excited by the too painful events of the tragic part of the play. Faulconbridge is a favorite with every one: he is not only a man of wit, but an heroic soldier; and we lean toward him from the first for the good humor he displays in his litigation with his brother respecting the succession to his supposed father ;
“ He hath a trick of Caur-de-lion's face,
The very spirit of Plantagenet!”
This bespeaks our favor toward him: his courage, his wit, and his frankness secure it.
Schlegel has remarked that, in this play, “the political and warlike events are dressed out with solemn pomp, for the very reason that they possess but little true grandeur. The falsehood and selfishness of the monarch are evident in the style of the manifesto; conventional dignity is most indispensable when personal dignity is wanting. Faulconbridge ridicules the secret springs of politics without disapproving them, but frankly confesses that he is endeavoring to make his fortune by similar means, and wishes rather to belong to the deceivers than the deceived.” Our commiseration is a little excited for the fallen and degraded monarch toward the close of the play. The death of the king and his previous suffering are not among the least impressive parts ; they carry a pointed moral. Malone places the date of the composition in 1596.