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THE earliest text of King John is that contained in the Folio of 1623. As far as the mere text is concerned the task of the editor is comparatively light, and those passages requiring typographic deciphering are pleasurably few. It is become so much the custom to speak derogatively of the editorship and the printing of the Folio that it is pleasant to speak in commendation of any part of that work. King John, in the Folio, contains a little over two thousand seven hundred lines. In the Cambridge text there are but fourteen examples wherein the Folio reading has been abandoned as corrupt and an emendation by a modern editor adopted. A table showing these will be found in the Appendix to this volume. A further evidence of the excellent state of the text may be seen in the list of CRUCES, prepared by F. A. LEO, for all the plays (Jahrbuch, xx, p. 158); therein King John provides twenty-four passages, but this does not, by any means, imply that these are all due to corruptions of the text; in the majority of passages given by LEO the crux consists in the fact that a word, or expression, has given rise to a discussion as to a particular meaning or interpretation, such, for example, as 'Alcides shooes upon an Asse'; 'greefe is proud and makes his owner stoope'; 'a new untrimmed bride, etc. Upon passages such as these the editors and commentators have expended their labor and ingenuity; in fact, an examination of the Notes will show that passages which have been fruitful of discussion are, in number, greater than in almost any other Play in this series, but, as has been already said, this does not mean that the Text itself is come down to us imperfect or corrupted. This is, however, not the case as far as the Act and Scene divisions are concerned, and modern editors have not hesitated to alter the headings where necessary, a source of great confusion to the student using a modern text and with the Folio text before him, as in the present volume. For example, Act I, sc. ii. of the Folio is in all modern editions Act II, sc. i.; Act II. in the Folio is but 77 lines, and, accordingly, modern editors, following THEOBALD, have made this Act III, Sc. i, and the Folio's Act III, sc. i. a continuation of the scene where Constance awaits the return of the wedding procession with the two Kings. And here at once a difficulty confronts us. If we retain the Folio divisions completely, the modern line numbers are utterly useless for reference; if we adopt the modern division completely, the line numbers in Act III, sc. i. (the Folio's Act II.) up to line 77 will be repeated in the Folio's actual Act III, sc. i, which in the modern text is made a continuation of the preceding scene. In disentangling this I fear I have been only partly successful. It seemed too drastic a treatment of the Folio text to suppress entirely the heading Act III, sc. i. and all the line numbers. I have, therefore, retained the Folio heading Act III, scena prima, and its line numbers, placing in brackets the line numbers as in the Cambridge text. This will enable the student with a modern text before him to locate any passage, which otherwise would be a matter of some difficulty and consequent loss of time.
The question of the exact year-even the month-wherein each of SHAKESPEARE's plays was written was, for the earliest editors, one of singular interest. Any passage which might be supposed to refer, even remotely, to an event of the historic days of SHAKESPEARE's life in London was eagerly seized upon as a means to settle the question once for all. This is termed internal evidence; again, manifest allusions to the play, or parts of it, by contemporary writers are taken as external evidence. In later years much time has been expended in classifying the plays according to the structure of the verse; this belongs also to the class of internal evidence.
King John is included in MERES' list in the Palladis Tamia, 1598, and, although there are several commentators who have adopted an earlier date of composition, this same year has been accepted by the majority. The dates range, however, between 1592 as the earliest and 1611 as the latest; this last having but one proposer and supporter. Beyond its inclusion in MERES' list, we have no other piece of external evidence for a date of composition of King John, and it is not, moreover, given in the list entered by JAGGARD and BLOUNT when applying for license to print the First Folio in 1623. The Applicants then gave the titles of all those other plays of SHAKESPEARE the licenses for which had not been assigned to other men. The reason for this complete omission from the Stationers' Registers is now impossible of explanation. HALLIWELL suggests that, either it was a mere oversight on the part of the printers, JAGGARD and BLOUNT, or that the license to print SHAKESPEARE's play had already been assigned to another; if this latter, where then is the entry of that other license in the Registers ?
As to internal evidence, WARBURTON decided that King John's berating Hubert for a too zealous following out of a hint to put Arthur to death was suggested by Elizabeth's anger at Davison for like behavior towards Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed in 1587; but, as was quickly demonstrated, this was far too early a date, and it was hardly probable that an audience would recognise and apply an occurrence of several years before, granting even that knowledge of the Queen's action was widely and publicly known. Constance's heart-rending grief and passionate words on the loss of Arthur was accepted by MALONE as the outpouring of SHAKESPEARE's sorrow and personal loss of his little son Hamnet in 1596, and this date with MALONE receives corroboration from the description by Chatillon (Act I, sc. ii.) of the expedition accompanying King John against France, being like to the expedition of Raleigh and Essex against Spain at this same period, but for this last suggestion MALONE acknowledges his indebtedness to a remark on this similarity by DR. JOHNSON. MALONE's theory of Shakespeare's method of composition, to me at least, does not commend itself. Are the jealous pangs of Othello; Cleopatra's infinite variety; Falstaff's buffoon jests; King John's despicable villainy, but reflections of some exterior impulse on SHAKESPEARE, or due solely to a passing mood? Such a supposition, instead of enhancing, detracts from our awe at the power of that mind which could so project itself into the innermost thoughts of any and all types of mankind.
Metrical, and other verse-tests, are corroborative of the conclusion that King John belongs to SHAKESPEARE's early period, and we cannot, therefore, be far wrong in assigning it to a date somewhere between 1596 and 1598, which, for all practical purposes, is quite close enough.
For the main conduct of his drama SHAKESPEARE did not, as with several others of the Histories, have recourse directly to the Chronicles. The basis of King John is an older play, The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, in two parts, first issued anonymously in 1591; it was re-issued in 1611 with the superscription by W. Sh.' on the title-page, evidently for the purpose of deceiving the public, that this was SHAKESPEARE's play, which had appeared in the interim. A third edition was printed in 1622 and the letters 'W. Sh.' on the title-page were changed to ‘W. Shakespeare.' The proximity of this last date to that of the First Folio might possibly be a reason for the omission of SHAKESPEARE's play from the list given by JAGGARD and BLOUNT, as before mentioned; there is, unfortunately, no entry of The Troublesome Raigne to be found in the Stationers' Registers for the year 1622, but the play was printed in that year, and its re-issue shows that it was well known.
The complete lack of cumulative interest and absence of character development are inconsistent with the assumption that SHAKESPEARE was wholly responsible for this examplar of the two-part tragedy or historical play. Nevertheless, so astute a critic as CAPELL declared in favor of SHAKESPEARE's authorship, and saw in the later King John but a rewriting of one of SHAKESPEARE's own juvenile productions. STEEVENS likewise included The Troublesome Raigne among the twenty Shakespearian plays published in quarto during the life of SHAKESPEARE, but later admitted that he recanted from this opinion and was content to allow the Author his anonymity. The most steadfast opponent of those who refused to accept SHAKESPEARE as the author of the older play was LUDWIG TIECK, who discerned in The Troublesome Raigne a power and beauty which has curiously been invisible to the English Commentators; he declared that, had this play but been the acknowledged work of one of SHAKESPEARE'S lesser brethren, the opinion as to its position among the works of that age would have been far different. Unlike STEEVENS, TIeck maintained his opinion to the last, and, in spite of the adverse views and criticism bestowed upon him by his own countrymen, declared that further examination but confirmed his first decision. COLERIDGE, in his first tentative chronological order of the plays, placed The Troublesome Raigne in the earliest or prentice period of SHAKESPEARE's work, characterizing the work as 'not his but of him'; in later attempts COLERIDGE rightly rejected the older play, but hesitated as to assigning its true authorship. This last question is fully discussed in the Appendix to this volume, and therefore need not be repeated here.
The anonymous author drew the main incidents of his plot from HOLINSHED's Chronicle, and therefore SHAKESPEARE, as he closely followed his predecessor, was indirectly indebted to the early historian. Although the general order of The Troublesome Raigne is followed, there is substantially not a scene or speech which is not entirely recast; in but one or two instances has SHAKESPEARE reproduced even so much as an entire line, and has compressed the two parts of five acts each into one drama of five. A careful study of SHAKESPEARE's procedure in the present instance will be, for those interested in either the theory or practice of play-writing, a task both pleasant and certainly profitable. His keen intuition as to the dramatic value of any incident; the equally clear perception as to what was retarding the progress of his drama with its consequent omission, and, over and above all, his marvellous use of every means to develop and make real each and every character—all these are excellent object-lessons in the art of dramatic construction.
There was an older play than The Troublesome Raigne on the subject of King John's contest with the Pope, written by JOHN BALE, Bishop of Ossory, entitled Kynge Johan. From its general style and what is known of BALE its probable date of composition lies between the accession of Elizabeth and the year 1563, the date of BALE's death. Beyond the fact that both the anonymous author and BALE used the historical material furnished by the Chronicles, there is no evidence to show that the author of The Troublesome Raigne had any recourse to the work of his predecessor; still less that SHAKESPEARE even knew of its existence. BALE's work is now chiefly interesting to students of the development of dramatic forms. It is the earliest known example of a drama in English wherein personages connected with public affairs in England are represented; and since abstract impersonations, such as Civil Order, Verity, Sedition, are also introduced, it bears a certain relation to the older moralities, occupying an intermediate place between these and the later historical plays. It is the only example of this form which now exists. An analysis of Kynge Johan, with copious extracts, is included in the Appendix to this volume.
Coming down to more modern times, in 1745 we find COLLEY CIBBER, doubtless incited by the alarming attempts of Charles