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Shakespeare's Characters: Arthur (King John)

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

As Shakespeare used the allowable license of art in stretching the life of Constance beyond its actual date, that he might enrich his work with the eloquence of a mother's love; so he took a like freedom in making Arthur younger than he really was, that he might in larger measure pour in the sweetness of childish innocence and wit. At all events, we cannot in either case blame the fault, if it be one, the issue of it being so proper. And in Arthur he gained thereby the further advantage, that the sparing of his eyes is owing to his potency of tongue and the awful might of unresisting gentleness; whereas in actual history he is indebted for this to his strength of arm. The Arthur of the play is an artless, gentle, natural-hearted, but high-spirited and eloquent boy, in whom we have the voice of nature pleading for nature's rights, unrestrained by pride of character or of place; who at first braves his uncle, because set on to do so by his mother, and afterwards fears him, yet knows not why, because his heart is too full of the holiness of youth to conceive how anything so treacherous and unnatural can be, as that which he fears.

In his dying speech "O me! my uncle's spirit is in these stones" our impression against John is most artfully heightened, all his foregoing inhumanity being, as it were, gathered and concentrated into an echo. Of the scene between him and Hubert, when he learns the order to put out his eyes, Hazlitt justly says: "If anything ever were penned, heart-piercing, mixing the extremes of terror and pity, of that which shocks and that which soothes the mind, it is this scene." Yet even here the tender pathos of the loving and lovely boy is marred by artificial conceits and prettinesses which we cannot believe Shakespeare would have let fall in his best days. The Poet has several times thrown the sweet witchery of his genius into pictures of nursery life, bringing children upon the scene, and delighting us with their innocent archness and sweet-witted prattle, as in case of Hermione and Mamillius in The Winter's Tale, and of Lady Macduff and her son in Macbeth; but the part of Arthur is by far his most charming and powerful thing in that line. That his glorious, manly heart loved to make childhood its playmate, cannot be doubted.
Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.

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