Shakespeare's Edward III: A Consolation for English Recusants


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

With the publication of three new editions in the past five years, The Raign of King Edward the Third has reemerged as a prominent candidate for inclusion in the Shakespeare canon.1 Nonetheless, the play still continues to be received with suspicion. Critics recognize it is written in a genre, the chronicle history, that Shakespeare dominated in his day and admit the play has the same variety of imagery, a similar texture of vocabulary, and verbal parallels to Shakespeare's other dramas.2 Notwithstanding, few scholars are willing to embrace the play wholeheartedly as Shakespeare's own. The problem, they claim, is the play lacks dramatic unity. As they see it, the play appears to be divided into two poorly integrated halves. The first two acts focus on the king's campaign to seduce the Countess of Salisbury; then, the theater of operations shifts abruptly to France and the Hundred Years' War to detail the English conquests at Sluys, Crecy, Calais, and Poitiers. This largely unexplained bifurcation within the play between love and war, shame and honor, England and France, has cast the play and its playwright into disrepute for centuries, and it is upon this legacy of censure that skepticism about Shakespeare's authorship of the play has its most secure foundation.3


1 King Edward III, ed. Giorgio Melchiori, in The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Edward III, ed. J. J.M. Tobin, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans {Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and Shakespeare's Edward III, ed. Eric Sams {New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), were published nearly simultaneously and largely without knowledge of each other's specific arguments. All citations from Edward III in this paper are from the Melchiori edition. For other Shakespeare plays I have used The Riverside Shakespeare.

2 See, for instance, Eliot Slater, The Problem of The Reign of King Edward III: A Statistical Approach, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

3 For centuries, the split nature of the play has been the chief grounds for doubting Shakespeare's authorship. Charles Knight, Studies in Shakespeare (1849), 279, quoted in Melchiori, 35-36, wrote: "If the writer of this play had more dramatic skill, he might have made the severance of the action less abrupt. As it is, the link is snapped short:' In the 1891 edition of King Edward III (London: M. E. Sims, 1891), xiii, A. F. Hopkinson wrote, "I admit I cannot discern in this drama that ability in the manipulation of the plot which Shakespeare invariably shows in his works; also that it is a defect that the two parts are not interwoven." In 1908, Tucker Brooke, Shakespearean Apocrypha (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908) wrote, "The play is brokenbacked, falling into two irreconcilable halves," prior to attributing the play to George Peele. In his 1911 edition of the play, Hopkinson wrote again, "Judging this method by the method used by Shakespeare in his later plays, the one is as contrary to the other as it can possibly be, and it is a difficult manner to reconcile the defect with the hypothesis that Shakespeare was the author of it." Likewise, in 1960, Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator (London: Methuen, 1960), 54, wrote, "There is enough attempt at unity to make it fit uneasily into the class of chronicle plays, but not enough unity is achieved to allow it to rank with the History play as developed by Marlowe and Shakespeare." The accretion of such elegant condemnations of Edward III ought not disguise the fact that all the commentators are remarking on their inability to see dramatic unity in the play.

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