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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 17. The Troublesome Raigne of King John

The Troublesome Raigne of King John (printed 1591), considered by A. W. Ward “the best example of the chronicle history pure and simple,” has nothing classical about it, except a few scraps of Latin, mainly introduced for comic effect. It appeals, with a good deal more art than the preceding play, though there is still much to seek on this score, to the national spirit, which had hitherto found dramatic expression only in the folk-play. In the address “To the gentlemen readers” (given in the edition of 1591, but omitted in that of 1611 reprinted by Nichols), the dramatist frankly makes this patriotic interest his first claim for attention:

  • You that with friendly grace of smoothed brow
  • Have entertained the Scythian Tamburlaine,
  • And given applause unto an Infidel:
  • Vouchsafe to welcome (with like curtesie)
  • A warlike Christian and your Countreyman.
  • But the real hero of the play, as of that which Shakespeare founded on it, is the bastard Fawconbridge, who is given due prominence in the title, and whose character is developed with a good deal of spirit and skill. On the whole, however, the artistic merits of the play have been exaggerated by recent critics; blank verse, rime and prose are used with the same careless facility, and “the scenes follow one another without any attempt at dramatic construction.” But in it, as in the earlier play, we catch the first tones of the voice of Elizabethan England to which Shakespeare gave fuller and nobler expression in the historical dramas founded on these first rude attempts:
  • Let England live but true within it selfe,
  • And all the world can never wrong her State.
  • If Englands Peeres and people joyne in one,
  • Nor Pope, nor Fraunce, nor Spaine can doo them wrong.