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Shakespeare's Characters: Constance (King John)

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

We have seen that in the mother of Coriolanus, the principal qualities are exceeding pride, self-will, strong maternal affection, great power of imagination, and energy of temper. Precisely the same qualities enter into the mind of Constance of Bretagne; but in her these qualities are so differently modified by circumstances and education, that not even in fancy do we think of instituting a comparison between the Gothic grandeur of Constance and the more severe and classical dignity of the Roman matron.

The scenes and circumstances with which Shakespeare has surrounded Constance, are strictly faithful to the old chronicles, and are as vividly as they are accurately represented. On the other hand, the hints on which the character has been constructed, are few and vague; but the portrait harmonizes so wonderfully with its historic background, and with all that later researches have discovered relative to the personal adventures of Constance, that I have not the slightest doubtful of its individual truth. The result of a life of strange vicissitude; the picture of a tameless will, and high passions, forever struggling in vain against a superior power; and the real situation of women in those chivalrous times, are placed before us in a few noble scenes. The manner in which Shakespeare has applied the scattered hints of history to the formation of the character, reminds us of that magician who collected the mangled limbs which had been dispersed up and down, reunited them into the human form, and reanimated them with the breathing and conscious spirit of life. . . .

Constance is certainly an historical personage; but the form which, when we meet it on the record of history, appears like a pale indistinct shadow, half melted into its obscure background, starts before us into a strange relief and palpable breathing reality upon the page of Shakespeare.

Whenever we think of Constance, it is in her maternal character. All the interest which she excites in the drama turns upon her situation as the mother of Arthur. Every circumstance in which she is placed, every sentiment she utters, has a reference to him; and she is represented through the whole of the scenes in which she is engaged as alternately pleading for the rights and trembling for the existence of her son. . . .

But, while we contemplate the character of Constance, she assumes before us an individuality perfectly distinct from the circumstances around her. The action calls forth her maternal feelings, and places them in the most prominent point of view; but with Constance, as with a real human being, the maternal affections are a powerful instinct, modified by other faculties, sentiments, and impulses, making up the individual character. We think of her as a mother, because, as a mother distracted for the loss of her son, she is immediately presented before us, and calls forth our sympathy and our tears; but we infer the rest of her character from what we see, as certainly and as completely as if we had known her whole course of life.

That which strikes us as the principal attribute of Constance is power — power of imagination, of will, passion, of affection, of pride; the moral energy, that faculty which is principally exercised in self-control, and gives consistency to the rest, is deficient; or rather, to speak more correctly, the extraordinary development of sensibility and imagination, which lends to the character its rich poetical colouring, leaves the other qualities comparatively subordinate. Hence it is that the whole complexion of the character, notwithstanding its amazing grandeur, is so exquisitely feminine. The weakness of the woman, who by the very consciousness of that weakness is worked up to desperation and defiance, the fluctuations of temper and the bursts of sublime passion, the terrors, the impatience, and the tears are all most true to feminine nature.

The energy of Constance not being based upon strength of character, rises and falls with the tide of passion. Her haughty spirit swells against resistance, and is excited into frenzy by sorrow and disappointment; while neither from her towering pride nor her strength of intellect can she borrow patience to submit, or fortitude to endure. It is, therefore, with perfect truth of nature, that Constance is first introduced as pleading for peace:—

"Stay for an answer to your embassy,
Lest unadvis'd you stain your swords with blood:
My Lord Chatillon may from England bring
That right in peace, which here we urge in war;
And then we shall repent each drop of blood
That hot, rash haste so indirectly shed."
And that the same woman, when all her passions are roused by the sense of injury, should afterwards exclaim,
"War, war! No peace! Peace is to me a war!"
that she should be ambitious for her son, proud of his high birth and royal rights, and violent in defending them, is most natural; but I cannot agree with those who think that in the mind of Constance ambition — that is, the love of dominion for its own sake — is either a strong motive or a strong feeling; it could hardly be so where the natural impulses and the ideal power predominate in so high a degree. The vehemence with which she asserts the just and legal rights of her son is that of a fond mother and a proud-spirited woman, stung with the sense of injury, and herself a reigning sovereign, — by birth and right, if not in fact; yet when bereaved of her son, grief not only "fills the room up of her absent child," but seems to absorb every other faculty and feeling — even pride and anger. It is true that she exults over him as one whom nature and fortime had destined to be great, but in her distraction for his loss she thinks of him only as her "Pretty Arthur."
"O lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrow's cure!"
No other feeling can be traced through the whole of her frantic scene; it is grief only — a, mother's heart- rending, soul-absorbing grief — and nothing else. Not even indignation or the desire of revenge interferes with its soleness and intensity. An ambitious woman would hardly have thus addressed the cold, wily Cardinal: —
"And, Father Cardinal, I have heard you say,
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven," etc.
The bewildered pathos and poetry of this address could be natural in no woman who did not unite, like Constance, the most passionate sensibility with the most vivid imagination.

It is true that Queen Elinor calls her on one occasion "ambitious Constance"; but the epithet is rather the natural expression of Elinor's own fear and hatred than really applicable. Elinor, in whom age had subdued all passions but ambition, dreaded the mother of Arthur as her rival in power, and for that reason only opposed the claims of the son; but I conceive that in a woman yet in the prime of life, and endued with the peculiar disposition of Constance, the mere love of power would be too much modified by fancy and feeling to be called a passion.

In fact, it is not pride, nor temper, nor ambition, nor even maternal affection which in Constance gives the prevailing tone to the whole character; it is the predominance of imagination. I do not mean in the conception of the dramatic portrait, but in the temperament of the woman herself. In the poetical, fanciful, excitable cast of her mind, in the excess of the ideal power, tinging all her affections, exalting all her sentiments and thoughts, and animating the expression of both, Constance can only be compared to Juliet.

In the first place, it is through the power of imagination that when under the influence of excited temper, Constance is not a mere incensed woman; nor does she, in the style of Volumnia, "lament in anger, Juno-like," but rather like a sibyl in a fury. Her sarcasms come down like thunderbolts. In her famous address to Austria —

"O Lymoges! O Austria! thou dost shame
That bloody spoil! thou slave! thou wretch! thou coward!"
it is as if she had concentrated the burning spirit of scorn, and dashed it in his face; every word seems to blister where it falls. In the scolding scene between her and Queen Elinor, the laconic insolence of the latter is completely overborne by the torrent of bitter contumely which bursts from the lips of Constance, clothed in the most energetic, and often in the most figurative expressions. ...

And in a very opposite mood, when struggling with the consciousness of her own helpless situation, the same susceptible and excitable fancy still predominates:—

"Thou shalt be punish'd for thus frighting me:
For I am sick, and capable of fears;
Oppressed with wrongs, and therefore full of fears.
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears;
A woman, naturally born to fears;
And though thou now confess thou didst but jest
With my vexed spirits, I cannot take a truce,
But they will quake and tremble all this day."
It is the power of imagination which gives so peculiar a tinge to the maternal tenderness of Constance; she not only loves her son with the fond instinct of a mother's affection, but she loves him with her poetical imagination, exults in his beauty and his royal birth, hangs over him with idolatry, and sees his infant brow already encircled with the diadem. Her proud spirit, her ardent enthusiastic fancy, and her energetic self-will, all combine with her maternal love to give it that tone and character which belongs to her only. . . .

Constance, who is a majestic being, is majestic in her very frenzy. Majesty is also the characteristic of Hermione; but with a difference between her silent, lofty, uncomplaining despair, and the eloquent grief of Constance, whose wild lamentations, which come bursting forth clothed in the grandest, the most poetical imagery, not only melt, but absolutely electrify us!

On the whole, it may be said that pride and maternal affection form the basis of the character of Constance, as it is exhibited to us; but that these passions, in an equal degree common to many human beings, assume their peculiar and individual tinge from an extraordinary development of intellect and fancy. It is the energy of passion which lends the character its concentrated power, as it is the prevalence of imagination throughout which dilates it into magnificence.

Some of the most splendid poetry to be met with in Shakespeare, may be found in the parts of Juliet and Constance; the most splendid, perhaps, excepting only the parts of Lear and Othello; and for the same reason, that Lear and Othello as men, and Juliet and Constance as women, are distinguished by the predominance of the same faculties — passion and imagination.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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