« PreviousContinue »
sive reign. Kings ought never to be seen upon the stage. In the abstract, they are very disagreeable characters: it is only while living that they are the best of kings.” It is their power, their splendour, it is the apprehension of the personal consequences of their favour or their hatred, that dazzles the imagination and suspends the judgment of their favourites or their vassals; but death cancels the bond of allegiance and of interest; and seen as they were, their power and their pretensions look monstrous and ridiculous. The charge brought against modern philosophy as inimical to loyalty is unjust, because it might as well be brought against other things. No reader of history can be a lover of kings. We have often wondered that Henry VIII. as he is drawn by Shakspeare, and as we have seen him represented in all the bloated deformity of mind and person, is not hooted from the English stage.
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 terrour, 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 puppel and plaything of our fapcies. “ 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 digoity of tragedy.
King Joun 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 bimself is kept pretty much in the back-ground; 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 meapness and cruelty by the tender picture of the beauty and helplessness of the object of it, as well as by the frantick 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 dramatick skill, but it is still inferiour, very inferiour to the scene between Hubert and Arthur, when the latter learns the orders to put out his eyes. If any thing ever was penned, heartpiercing, mixing the extremes of terrour and pity of that which shocks and that wbich soothes the mind, it it this scene. We will give it entire, though perhaps it is tasking the reader's sympathy too much,
"Enter HUBERT and Executioner.
Executioner. I hope your warrant will bear out the deed.
Hubert. Uncleanly scruples ! fear not you ; look to't.-
Arthur. Good morrow, Hubert.
Arthur. As little prince (having so great a title
Hubert. Indeed I have been merrier.
Arthur. Mercy on me!
Hubert, If I talk to him, with bis innocent prate He will awake my mercy, which lies dead; Therefore I will be sudden, and despatch.
[Aside Arthur. Are you sick, Hubert ? you look pale to-day? 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
(Shewing a paper. How now, foolish rheum, i
[dside. Turning dis-piteous 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.
Hubert. Young boy, I must.
Arthur. Have you the heart ? When your head did but ache,
Hubert. I've sworn to do it ;
Arthur. Oh if an angel should have come to me,