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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 play-thing 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 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 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 master-piece 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 any thing ever was penned, heartpiercing, 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!
Hubert. If I talk to him, with his innocent prate
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— [Showing a paper.
How now, foolish rheum, [Aside.
Arthur. Too fairly, Hubert, for so foul effect.
Hubert. Young boy, I must.
Hubert. Have you the heart? When your head did but- ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
Why then you must. Will you put out mine eyes?
These eyes, that never did, and never shall,
Hubert. I've sworn to do it;
Arthur. Oh if an angel should have come to me,
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.