King John is the last of the historical plays we shall have to speak of; and we are not sorry that it is. If we are to indulge our imaginations, we had rather do it upon an imaginary theme; if we are to find subjects for the exercise of our pity and terror, we prefer seeking them in fictitious danger and fictitious distress. It gives a soreness to our feelings of indignation or sympathy, when we know that in tracing the progress of sufferings and crimes we are treading upon real ground, and recollect that the poet’s ‘dream’ denoted a foregone conclusion—irrevocable ills, not conjured up by fancy, but placed beyond the reach of poetical justice. That the treachery of King John, the death of Arthur, the grief of Constance, had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination. Something whispers us that we have no right to make a mock of calamities like these, or to turn the truth of things into the puppet and plaything of our fancies. ‘To consider thus’ may be ‘to consider too curiously’; but still we think that the actual truth of the particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of it, is a drawback on the pleasure as well as the dignity of tragedy.
King John has all the beauties of language and all the richness of the imagination to relieve the painfulness of the subject. The character of King John himself is kept pretty much in the background; it is only marked in by comparatively slight indications. The crimes he is tempted to commit are such as are thrust upon him rather by circumstances and opportunity than of his own seeking: he is here represented as more cowardly than cruel, and as more contemptible than odious. The play embraces only a part of his history. There are however few characters on the stage that excite more disgust and loathing. He has no intellectual grandeur or strength of character to shield him from the indignation which his immediate conduct provokes: he stands naked and defenceless, in that respect, to the worst we can think of him: and besides, we are impelled to put the very worst construction on his meanness and cruelty by the tender picture of the beauty and helplessness of the object of it, as well as by the frantic and heart-rending pleadings of maternal despair. We do not forgive him the death of Arthur because he had too late revoked his doom and tried to prevent it, and perhaps because he has himself repented of his black design, our moral sense gains courage to hate him the more for it. We take him at his word, and think his purposes must be odious indeed, when he himself shrinks back from them. The scene in which King John suggests to Hubert the design of murdering his nephew is a masterpiece of dramatic skill, but it is still inferior, very inferior to the scene between Hubert and Arthur, when the latter learns the orders to put out his eyes. If anything ever was penned, heart-piercing, mixing the extremes of terror and pity, of that which shocks and that which soothes the mind, it is this scene. We will give it entire, though perhaps it is tasking the reader’s sympathy too much.
Enter Hubert and Executioner
Hubert. Heat me these irons hot, and look you stand
Within the arras; when I strike my foot
Upon the bosom of the ground, rush forth
And bind the boy, which you shall find with me,
Fast to the chair: be heedful: hence, and watch.
Executioner. I hope your warrant will bear out the deed.
Hubert. Uncleanly scruples! fear not you; look to’t.—
Young lad, come forth; I have to say with you.
Arthur. Good morrow, Hubert.
Hubert. Morrow, little Prince.
Arthur. As little prince (having so great a title
To be more prince) as may be. You are sad.
Hubert. Indeed I have been merrier.
Arthur. Mercy on me!
Methinks no body should be sad but I;
Yet I remember when I was in France,
Young gentlemen would be as sad as night,
Only for wantonness. By my Christendom,
So were I out of prison, and kept sheep,
I should be merry as the day is long.
And so I would be here, but that I doubt
My uncle practises more harm to me.
He is afraid of me, and I of him.
Is it my fault that I was Geoffery’s son?
Indeed it is not, and I would to heav’n
I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert.
Hubert. If I talk to him, with his innocent prate
He will awake my mercy, which lies dead;
Therefore I will be sudden, and dispatch. [Aside.]
Arthur. Are you sick, Hubert? you look pale today?
In sooth, I would you were a little sick,
That I might sit all night and watch with you.
Alas, I love you more than you do me.
Hubert. His words do take possession of my bosom.
Read here, young Arthur—[Showing a paper.]
How now, foolish rheum, [Aside.]
Turning dispiteous torture out of door!
I must be brief, lest resolution drop
Out at mine eyes in tender womanish tears.—
Can you not read it? Is it not fair writ?
Arthur. Too fairly, Hubert, for so foul effect.
Must you with irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert. Young boy, I must.
Arthur. And will you?
Hubert. And I will.
Arthur. Have you the heart? When your head did but ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
(The best I had, a princess wrought it me)
And I did never ask it you again;
And with my hand at midnight held your head;
And, like the watchful minutes to the hour,
Still and anon cheer’d up the heavy time,
Saying, what lack you? and where lies your grief?
Or, what good love may I perform for you?
Many a poor man’s son would have lain still,
And ne’er have spoke a loving word to you;
But you at your sick service had a prince.
Nay, you may think my love was crafty love,
And call it cunning. Do, and if you will:
If heav’n be pleas’d that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.—Will you put out mine eyes?
These eyes, that never did, and never shall,
So much as frown on you?
Hubert. I’ve sworn to do it;
And with hot irons must I burn them out.
Arthur. Oh if an angel should have come to me,
And told me Hubert should put out mine eyes,
I would not have believ’d a tongue but Hubert’s.
Hubert, Come forth; do as I bid you. [Stamps, and the men enter.]
Arthur. O save me, Hubert, save me! my eyes are out
Ev’n with the fierce looks of these bloody men.
Hubert. Give me the iron, I say, and bind him here.
Arthur. Alas, what need you be so boist’rous rough?
I will not struggle, I will stand stone-still.
For heav’n’s sake, Hubert, let me not be bound!
Nay, hear me, Hubert, drive these men away,
And I will sit as quiet as a lamb:
I will not stir, nor wince, nor speak a word,
Nor look upon the iron angrily:
Thrust but these men away, and I’ll forgive you,
Whatever torment you do put me to.
Hubert. Go, stand within; let me alone with him.
Executioner. I am best pleas’d to be from such a deed. [Exit.]
Hubert. Come, boy, prepare yourself.Arthur. Alas, I then have chid away my friend.
He hath a stern look, but a gentle heart;
Let him come back, that his compassion may
Give life to yours.
Arthur. Is there no remedy?
Hubert. None, but to lose your eyes.
Arthur. O heav’n! that there were but a mote in yours,
A grain, a dust, a gnat, a wand’ring hair,
Any annoyance in that precious sense!
Then, feeling what small things are boist’rous there,
Your vile intent must needs seem horrible.
Hubert. Is this your promise? go to, hold your tongue.
Arthur. Let me not hold my tongue; let me not, Hubert;
Or, Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue,
So I may keep mine eyes. O spare mine eyes!
Though to no use, but still to look on you.
Lo, by my troth, the instrument is cold,
And would not harm me.
Hubert. I can heat it, boy.
Arthur. No, in good sooth, the fire is dead with grief.
Being create for comfort, to be us’d
In undeserv’d extremes; see else yourself,
There is no malice in this burning coal;
The breath of heav’n hath blown its spirit out,
And strew’d repentant ashes on its head.
Hubert. But with my breath I can revive it, boy.
Arthur. All things that you shall use to do me wrong,
Deny their office, only you do lack
That mercy which fierce fire and iron extend,
Creatures of note for mercy-lacking uses.
Hubert. Well, see to live; I will not touch thine eyes
For all the treasure that thine uncle owns:
Yet I am sworn, and I did purpose, boy,
With this same very iron to bum them out.
Arthur. O, now you look like Hubert. All this while
You were disguised.
Hubert. Peace! no more. Adieu,
Your uncle must not know but you are dead.
I’ll fill these dogged spies with false reports:
And, pretty child, sleep doubtless and secure,
That Hubert, for the wealth of all the world,
Will not offend thee.
Arthur. O heav’n! I thank you, Hubert.
Hubert. Silence, no more; go closely in with me;
Much danger do I undergo for thee. [Exeunt.]
His death afterwards, when he throws himself from his prison-walls, excites the utmost pity for his innocence and friendless situation, and well justifies the exaggerated denunciations of Falconbridge to Hubert whom he suspects wrongfully of the deed.
There is not yet so ugly a fiend of hell
As thou shalt be, if thou did’st kill this child.
—If thou did’st but consent
To this most cruel act, do but despair:
And if thou want’st a cord, the smallest thread
That ever spider twisted from her womb
Will strangle thee; a rush will be a beam
To hang thee on: or would’st thou drown thyself,
Put but a little water in a spoon,
And it shall be as all the ocean,
Enough to stifle such a villain up.
The excess of maternal tenderness, rendered desparate by the fickleness of friends and the injustice of fortune, and made stronger in will, in proportion to the want of all other power, was never more finely expressed than in Constance, The dignity of her answer to King Philip, when she refuses to accompany his messenger, ‘To me and to the state of my great grief, let kings assemble,’ her indignant reproach to Austria for deserting her cause, her invocation to death, ‘that love of misery’, however fine and spirited, all yield to the beauty of the passage, where, her passion subsiding into tenderness, she addresses the Cardinal in these words:
Oh father Cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heav’n:
If that be, I shall see my boy again,
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud,
And chase the native beauty from his cheek,
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heav’n,
I shall not know him; therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
K. Philip. You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Constance. Grief fills the room up of my absent child:
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me;
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
The contrast between the mild resignation of Queen Katherine to her own wrongs, and the wild, uncontrollable affliction of Constance for the wrongs which she sustains as a mother, is no less naturally conceived than it is ably sustained throughout these two wonderful characters.
The accompaniment of the comic character of the Bastard was well chosen to relieve the poignant agony of suffering, and the cold, cowardly policy of behaviour in the principal characters of this play. Its spirit, invention, volubility of tongue, and forwardness in action, are unbounded. Aliquando sufflaminandus erat, says Ben Jonson of Shakespeare. But we should be sorry it Ben Jonson had been his licenser. We prefer the heedless magnanimity of his wit infinitely to all Jonson’s laborious caution. The character of the Bastard’s comic humour is the same in essence as that of other comic characters in Shakespeare; they always run on with good things and are never exhausted; they are always daring and successful. They have words at will and a flow of wit, like a flow of animal spirits. The difference between Falconbridge and the others is that he is a soldier, and brings his wit to bear upon action, is courageous with his sword as well as tongue, and stimulates his gallantry by his jokes, his enemies feeling the sharpness of his blows and the sting of his sarcasms at the same time. Among his happiest sallies are his descanting on the composition of his own person, his invective against ‘commodity, tickling commodity’, and his expression of contempt for the Archduke of Austria, who had killed his father, which begins in jest but ends in serious earnest. His conduct at the siege of Angiers shows that his resources were not confined to verbal retorts.—The same exposure of the policy of courts and camps, of kings, nobles, priests, and cardinals, takes place here as in the other plays we have gone through, and we shall not go into a disgusting repetition.
This, like the other plays taken from English history, is written in a remarkably smooth and flowing style, very different from some of the tragedies, Macbeth, for instance. The passages consist of a series of single lines, not running into one another. This peculiarity in the versification, which is most common in the three parts of Henry vi, has been assigned as a reason why those plays were not written by Shakespeare. But the same structure of verse occurs in his other undoubted plays, as in Richard ii and in King John. The following are instances:
That daughter there of Spain, the Lady Blanch,
Is near to England; look upon the years
Of Lewis the Dauphin, and that lovely maid.
If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,
Where should he find it fairer than in Blanch?
If zealous love should go in search of virtue,
Where should he find it purer than in Blanch?
If love ambitious sought a match of birth,
Whose veins bound richer blood than Lady Blanch?
Such as she is, in beauty, virtue, birth,
Is the young Dauphin every way complete:
If not complete of, say he is not she;
And she again wants nothing, to name want,
If want it be not, that she is not he.
He is the half part of a blessed man,
Left to be finished by such as she;
And she a fair divided excellence,
Whose fulness of perfection lies in him.
O, two such silver currents, when they join,
Do glorify the banks that bound them in;
And two such shores to two such streams made one,
Two such controlling bounds, shall you be, kings,
To these two princes, if you marry them.
Another instance, which is certainly very happy as an example of the simple enumeration of a number of particulars, is Salisbury’s remonstrance against the second crowning of the king.
Therefore to be possessed with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before;
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, to add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heav’n to garnish:
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.