1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 10: King Edward III, by Shakespeare (?)

I set out this year to read the every Shakespearian play. King Edward III is arguably the final play of that mission. I say arguably because ‘scholars’ (whoever they are) don’t all agree that the play is by Shakespeare (and I wouldn’t have even known of the play if my good friend Mr. Jeff Marontate hadn’t given me the heads up on it), and it is not often included in the Complete Works Of Shakespeare (CWOS). Like The Two Noble Kinsmen, some believe that King Edward III was co-authored by Shakespeare, while some believe Billy was the only author involved in the piece, while others still claim that Bill had nothing to do with the play at all. So why the confusion? Well aside from the authorship debate of all of Shakespearian works, the authorship of this is questioned because it was first published anonymously (which was common), and wasn’t included with the folio. Still, Billy did do a number of historical plays, and had written at least one for every king between King John and Henry VIII, save Edward III, so it makes sense that he may have written one for Edward III. There is also the fact that, like all of Bill’s other historical plays, King Edward III seems to have been borrowed from both Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, and Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (apparently historians back in the day were capable of coming up with original names for their monographs).

William Shakespeare

The play itself, whether it be by Shakespeare or not, is not entirely unlike Shakespeare’s historical plays. Most of the action (nay, all of the action) takes place off stage and is merely summarized by the characters on stage. And also like many of Shakespeare’s historical plays, there is a ‘love’ story of sorts (or rather a ‘lust’ story) and also a battle narrative, but unlike Shakespeare’s historical plays, the two narratives are abruptly separated. Shakespeare often had the romantic or comical narratives of historical plays woven in with the battle narrative, and if it was not then the romantic narrative would conclude the historical play in the fifth act with a marriage to conclude the play as a sort of traditional comedy. In King Edward III however, the romantic narrative takes place over the first two acts, during which the battle narrative that is shared between England and France is completely absent. The ‘romantic’ narrative (its more of a moral narrative than a romantic one), concludes sharply at the end of the second act, and the battle narrative takes up the remainder of the play. Which is an odd structure for a Shakespearian historical play.

King Edward III

That said though, both the ‘moral’ narrative of the first two acts, and the battle narrative of the final three acts, are worthy of being placed alongside Shakespeare’s other works. In the moral narrative, Edward III wishes to ‘possess’ (and by possess I mean shag) the wife of a nobleman, and has her father promise to promote his desires to his daughter. The daughter, wishing to stay faithful to her husband displays cleverness often associated with some of Shakespeare’s heroines, and suggests that each of them kill their spouses, assuming that Edward III will then rescind his proposal, but when he agrees she announces that she would kill herself first, in a noble gesture which motivates the king to concede to her wishes. Warwick, the father of the lady in question, when he realizes what the king has asked of him announces in an aside that he is but “an attorney from the court of hell”, a heated metaphor that could be placed alongside any of Shakespeare’s best, and when Warwick first delivers the king’s message to his daughter (whom the king has just rescued), he admits that he has “apparelled sin in [a] virtuous sentence”, to which his daughter despondently replies how unhappy she is to “have escaped the danger” of her foes only to “be ten times worse envired by friends”. Likewise an exchange which is as deftly written as anything I’ve read in the historical plays attributed to Shakespeare.

 

The battle narrative of the final three acts is likewise on a par with the historical plays attributed to Shakespeare in that they have long drawn out dialogue in which characters speak of loyalty and bravely, and lull you to sleep in the process while peppering the play with a few bright passages that the reader may miss should they be in a yawn-induced stupor inspired by the drawn out poetics of the play. King Edward announces that he intends to battle, not to pillage, but for the crown, and vows to the self-proclaimed king of France on of the two “shall fall into his grave”, to which the France’s King John replies: “This champion field shall be a pool of blood.” and later warns: “If thou call forth a hundred men of name, of lords, knights, esquires, and English gentlemen, and with thyself and those kneel at his feet, he straight will fold his bloody colours up, and ransom shall redeem lives forfeited; If not, this day shall drink more English blood than e’er was buried in our British earth.” Such passage detail the morbidly macabre nature of nationalistic pride that motivates such battles, and does so as well, or better, than most of the plays found in the CWOS. Both kings also warn against the other’s tyrannical nature, the English compare King John to a “thirsty tiger” who would suck up the blood and entrails of his own people, while King John returns that Edward III would make “slaves… and with a heavy hand [c]urtail and curb” liberties, exchanges that are not written unlike many such passages that one would find in the historical plays of the CWOS.

 

As far as Elizabethan historical plays go, this one is as good as most, and as dry in spots. For those who like Elizabethan plays in general, and historical plays from that period, this is certainly one worth reading. For those of you who are looking for some on a par with Othello, or Macbeth, Hamlet or Titus Andronicus, I’d suggest you skip this one.

If you like this, try these titles, also by Shakespeare:

 

Richard III: My personal favourite among the historical plays in the CWOS, it describes the tyrannical nature of jealousy, as the deformed and repulsive younger brother of the king desires to obtain power of the land and stops at nothing to achieve that goal, and promises to “prove a villain”. Killing children and honest men, only to find those around him turn on him by the plays end. It is on a par with Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

Titus Andronicus: A military patriarch who possesses both humility and loyalty to his country and its customs, finds that the former of the two qualities is far too abundant, as his rescinding of the crown puts him and his family at the mercy of his enemies, while the later quality earns him enemies and divides his family. My personal favourite from the CWOS.

Coriolanus: A roman general, with a condescending view of the plebs and an inability to curtail his views, is pushed into power by the shear will of his own mother (Volumnia: one of the strongest women in the CWOS), only to find himself exiled due to his big mouth and unpopular views, and needless to say, he brings an army back and requests an apology of sorts from Rome. I don’t want t spoil the ending, but lets just say it’s a tragedy.

Up next… hmm…. I think some more Faulkner!

Word I thought I’d look up:

Fealty: An allegiance to a feudal lord, from the Latin word which fidelity was derived from.

Vehement: Done forcefully or with conviction, from the Latin meaning forceful. I thought that word might be a little more interesting, but apparently is was borrowed straight from Latin without changing much.

Progenitor: Ancestor, or one who helped to generate you. From the Latin meaning beget.

Peise: To weigh something.

Misdo: To have failed to have done, or to do awkwardly.

Vassal: From the Latin for servant, meaning one who is dependant upon the landholder, or a nation dependant on another.

Imperator: Roman general, from the Latin for commander.

Puissant: Strong, from the Latin “posse” meaning to be able, which is the root/source of the word power.

Engirt: Within a glacier? Um… that does NOT fit the context of the play! But that is all I got.

Proffer: To hold something out as an offering, or to propose something.

Derision: Mocking scron.

Obstinate: Stubborn. It now has a bit of a negative context, but back in the day it was more associated with being resolved. It is from the Latin meaning ‘to stand’.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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