Sunday, May 8, 2011

Discussion: Edward III

The play: Edward III

The plot tweet: English battle both Scots and French; Edward takes a break to woo a married woman. Rejected, he heads to France, gives son a trial by fire.

My favorite line:
... Shall I not
Master this little mansion of myself?


We're almost at the end of our Shakespeare in a Year journey, but with this play we're back at the beginning. This play was written early in Shakespeare's career, almost certainly as a collaboration, and it reminds me very much of his other early history plays.

The authorship of Edward III is hotly disputed, with many critics refusing to acknowledge it as Shakespearean. According to my edition of the play (the New Cambridge Shakespeare), there is some scholarly consensus that Shakespeare wrote 1.2, 2.1, 2.2 and 4.4 -- the Countess of Salisbury scenes and the taunting of Prince Edward by his French foes. Yet the play was printed anonymously in both 1596 and 1599, and it doesn't appear in the First Folio of 1623.

The New Cambridge editor makes a persuasive argument about this: The play was "forgotten" by Shakespeare and his contemporaries because, in the later years of Elizabeth's reign, there was a crackdown on derogatory stage portrayals of Scots. That obviously continued when James I (also James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne. So, when the First Folio was being assembled a quarter-century later, it's not surprising that its compilers would forget one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, a collaboration that hadn't been performed in decades.

Either way, this feels like an early Shakespearean history play to me, with similar language and themes. It's no secret that the history plays aren't my favorites, but Edward III seems to move more quickly, and Prince Edward's bravery is a nice preview of Henry V.

I'm not sure how to feel about Edward III here. His interlude with the Countess of Salisbury (while he has a pregnant wife at home), his refusal to send help to his son during a battle, his alternating cruelty and mercy toward the French citizens -- I don't know the actual history here, but doesn't this guy seem like kind of a snake? If you're better schooled in British history than I am, please advise.

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