Thursday, January 09, 2014

William Shakespeare: Edward III

This is a play which was published anonymously in 1596 and never attributed to Shakespeare until its claims were unveiled by Capell in 1760. In fact the play disappears from notice so abruptly after its second quarto of 1599 that this requires some explanation regardless of who wrote it - the likeliest is that its crude anti-Scottishness rendered it unperformable and therefore unwanted after royal reproof in 1598. And of course that might also explain its absence from the First Folio. For Shakespeare's presence is pervasive - two rather different Shakespeares indeed. In much of the play we are reminded of Shakespeare in his earliest period. But in certain scenes a more mature Shakespeare seems to emerge, e.g. the Countess of Salisbury scenes in Act II and the taunting scene before Poitiers in IV.4. One possible solution (as per Melchiori) is that Shakespeare was a minor collaborator on the first version c. 1591 and a couple of years later keyed in some revised scenes on his own. There are some indications that the author(s) of the original Edward III anticipated not having access to such features of the big London playhouses as an upper stage - e.g. surprisingly not making any use of the traditional "Enter besieged citizens on the walls" when dramatizing the siege of Calais; yet earlier in the play, when the Countess of Salisbury appears, she precisely is on these "walls" - so that might suggest a time-gap in composition, during which performance expectations had changed.

There is at any rate enough of Shakespearian echoes (and no-one else's - the occasional Marlovianisms were mere common currency) to more than justify the play's inclusion in a canon that already includes other collaborative plays. Indeed the question is not so much whether Shakespeare was one of the authors as whether anyone else but Shakespeare was involved. (The latest computer study proposes Kyd.)

And yet, reading this some thirty years after I last experienced reading a Shakespeare play for the first time, I feel a reluctance to wholly give way to its claims; a reluctance that, evidently, scholars have felt too. A little of this - I think, a very little - might be down to the lack of attestation; more, probably, is down to the patina that the canonized plays have all accrued - we read a play, even such as the Henry VI plays, vaguely aware of sitting among an audience that spans the centuries and includes enthralled and wise and reflective and hotly engaged responders. But still, when all this is conceded some other reluctance remains that is down to Edward III itself.      

Enter at one door Derby from France, at another door Audley with a drum.

Derby.   Thrice noble Audley, well encountered here.
How is it with our sovereign and his peers?

Audley. 'Tis full a fortnight since I saw his highness,
What time he sent me forth to muster men,
Which I accordingly have done, and bring them hither,
In fair array before his majesty.
What news, my lord of Derby, from the Emperor?

Derby. As good as we desire: the Emperor
Hath yielded to his highness general aid,
And makes our king lieutentant-general
In all his lands and large dominions;
Then via for the spacious bounds of France

There is verse as bare and functional as this in Henry VI. What is different is more a matter of stagecraft. What Derby and Audley report they have done is just exactly what Edward commanded them to do back in the first scene of the play. Nothing is unexpected, there is no dramatic tension. And that first scene, if we compare it with the first scene of others of Shakespeare's history plays, well, it does have a lot in common with them. It begins in the middle of a conversation, without preamble, just with the king helpfully giving us the interlocutor's name, exactly as in King John or Richard II:

King Edward.  Robert of Artois, banished though thou be
From France thy native country....

King John. Now say, Chatillon, what would France with us?

King Richard. Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster,
Hast thou, according to thy oath and hand....

Soon enough, we are dealing with the matter of dynastic claims, just as in 3 Henry VI, King John, or Henry V. Soon enough, we have the hurling of defiance, just as in those three plays. And yet, comparing these opening scenes, the overwhelming feeling is that Edward III gives less. It accomplishes all that one would have expected at the outset, no more.

But what grips us in the acknowledged history plays is precisely that "more". We are not passively following out the dutiful enactment of a chronicle, we are instantly involved, piqued, engaged, in the drama's unexpected turns and anticipations. In King John, for example, we are hardly a page into the familiar material before we are wondering about the king's personality and the tension in his relationship with his mother, and we haven't had a moment to take that on board before the scene switches direction unpredictably with the appearance of the Bastard. The ending of the scene could not have been anticipated in how it began. And this is about the least of the scenes in question. Think how in 3 Henry VI the fiery confrontation fizzles into a truce that no-one believes in, then before we can catch our breath the king is facing the wrath of his queen. Where will this lead us? Who are the major players? What of Warwick's pride, will he stay committed to York? How do York's several sons feel about all this? What of the tensions between Henry and his own followers? By the end of the scene our minds are already intrigued and perplexed by a host of questions. 
But the end of the first scene of Edward III is merely rousing. There are no tensions within the English camp. No-one has any discernible personality, and the Prince ends it, to general consensus and without any foretaste of troubles ahead, with

Then cheerfully forward, each a several way,
In great affairs 'tis naught to use delay. 

It is still (modestly) exciting to anticipate clashes with the Scots and the French, but that is all. So if you put this down to being Shakespeare's work in total, I think we must be looking at his first essay in the history genre (except for the revised scenes). It is not a satisfying solution - it is both complicated in terms of the play's genesis, and rather too easy to defend, since anything unShakespearian can be attributed to habits later outgrown. But it makes a certain amount of sense -

1. If the history play genre has its roots in the patriotic mobilization of a nation at the time of the Armada, then Edward III seems closest to this model. (And note the reference to Spain in the Prince's speech at the end of the play.)

2. 1 Henry VI suggests an audience's prior familiarity not just with Henry V's famous victories but with the earlier triumphs of Crécy and Poitiers.  

3. A fundamental challenge for the patriotic play is how to deal with other, enemy nations; and you could see a development from Edward III's anti-Scottish lampooning to the treatment of La Pucelle in 1 Henry VI before such crude propaganda is finally outgrown.

Yet Edward III is somewhat more than a mere precursor. The most difficult point of honour is negotiated within the French camp, i.e. Salisbury's passport.
Also, there are certain points where a refusal to dramatize and make character motivation is quite interesting. When Edward believes that his son is doomed, he makes the speech about working out his grief in revenge -

An hundred fifty towers shall burning blaze
While we bewail our valiant son's decease.

It would have been easy to place Salisbury's arrival before the scene in which Edward reluctantly allows Calais to go unsacked, and that would have provided motivation for his initial fierceness, and made its repression heroic. The current arrangement is more convincing, but it does lack drama, especially as we already know that the Prince has in fact triumphed.  

A couple of other points go to France. At the end of the play Edward accuses King John of having been responsible for all the terror of invasion, because if he had given in to Edward from the start this need not have happened. This feels meretricious: Edward is the invader. And earlier, when King John addresses his troops, before Crécy,

He that you fight for is your natural king,
He against whom you fight a foreigner;....

you feel that in a nationalistic context (i.e. in Shakespeare's own time, and in a play that constantly makes a clash of nations out of a dynastic quarrel) this is a very strong argument. What matter the rights and wrongs of dynastic succession? To fight for Edward is clearly not to fight for France, whatever Artois may argue to the contrary. 

From the above it is evident that Edward, though never quite a character, has a consistent fierceness that we don't simply cheer for. The fierceness is most overtly debated when Edward refuses to send aid to his imperilled son, who shares the fierceness too.  


Edward III uses rhyme, chiefly though not always at the end of a speech, also throughout some speeches, e.g. the Countess's urging Edward to stay with her. It also has several passages where the same word or words reappear in successive lines.

If she did blush, 'twas tender modest shame,
Being in the sacred presence of a king;  
If he did blush, 'twas red immodest shame,
To vail his eyes amiss, being a king.... (and there’s more)

                         When we name a man,
His hand, his foot, his head hath several strengths,
And being all but one self instant strength,
Why all this many, Audley, is but one,
And we can call it all but one man's strength.

This repetition of the end-word is locally common in Shakespeare's Henry VI plays (prominent in Act II of 2H6, or Henry's big speech in 3H6). Whether its presence here tells for or against his authorship I don't know. It's an intermittent kind of device and it would be hazardous to base any argument on statistics.

Switching speeches in mid-line is chiefly prominent in the Countess scenes. Full stops in mid-line are a feature of the scenes between the Prince and Audley at Poitiers but are hardly found elsewhere.

(2009, 2014)



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger