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Shakespeare's Characters: King John

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 12. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

The King reigns neither by warrant of a just title, nor, like Bolingbroke, by warrant of the right of the strongest. He knows that his house is founded upon the sand; he knows that he has no justice of God and no virtue of man on which to rely. Therefore he assumes an air of authority and regal grandeur. But within all is rottenness and shame. Unlike the bold usurper Richard, John endeavours to turn away his eyes from facts of which he is yet aware; he dare not gaze into his own wretched and cowardly soul. When threatened by France with war, and now alone with his mother, John exclaims, making an effort to fortify his heart:
"Our strong possession and our right for us."
But Elinor, with a woman's courage and directness, forbids the unavailing self-deceit:
"Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me."
King Richard, when he would make away with the young princes, summons Tyrrel to his presence, and inquires, with cynical indifference to human sentiment:-
"Dar'st thou resolve to kill a friend of mine?"
and when Tyrrel accepts the commission, Richard, in a moment of undisguised exultation, breaks forth with "Thou sing'st sweet music!" John would inspire Hubert with his murderous purpose rather like some vague influence than like a personal will, obscurely as some pale mist works which creeps across the fields, and leaves blight behind it in the sunshine. He trembles lest he should have said too much; he trembles lest he should not have said enough; at last the nearer fear prevails, and the words "death," "a grave," form themselves upon his lips. Having touched a spring which will produce assassination, he furtively withdraws himself from the mechanism of crime. It suits the King's interest afterwards that Arthur should be living, and John adds to his crime the baseness of a miserable attempt by chicanery and timorous sophisms to transfer the responsibility of murder from himself to his instrument and accomplice. He would fain darken the eyes of his conscience and of his understanding.

The show of kingly strength and dignity in which John is clothed in the earlier scenes of the play must therefore be recognized (although Shakspere does not obtrude the fact) as no more than a poor pretence of true regal strength and honour. The fact, only hinted in these earlier scenes, becomes afterwards all the more impressive, when the time comes to show this dastard king, who had been so great in the barter of territory, in the sale of cities, in the sacrifice of love and marriage- truth to policy, now changing from pale to red in the presence of his own nobles, now vainly trying to tread back the path of crime, now incapable of enduring the physical suffering of the hour of death. Sensible that he is a king with no inward strength of justice or of virtue, John endeavours to buttress up his power with external supports; against the advice of his nobles he celebrates a second coronation, only forthwith to remove the crown from his head and place it in the hands of an Italian priest.
Dowden: Shakespeare.

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