Reading Shakespeare: King Edward III

King Edward III is not going to find a spot on even my longest list of favorite Shakespeare plays, but it is Shakespeare (or so the consensus has it) and I’ve yet to experience reading any Shakespeare play wholly without reward.

The two most interesting aspects of King Edward III are the King’s thwarted attempt to seduce the Countess of Salisbury, during which–depending on ones interpretation–he either displays an immense weakness or is overcome by the kind of instant love at first sight that is the stuff of myth, and the emergence of Prince Edward as a deserving future king, perhaps a stronger man than his father.

In the case of the Countess, the King’s power is understood as nearly absolute, convincing even Warwick that it is better for his own daughter to acquiesce to the Kings advances than to defy their all-powerful ruler:

… I’ll keep mine oath,
And to my daughter make a recantation
Of all the virtue I have preacht to her:
I’ll say, she must forget her husband Salisbury,
If she remember to embrace the king;
I’ll say, an oath may easily be broken,
But not so easily pardoned, being broken;
I’ll say, it is true charity to love,
But not true love to be so charitable;
I’ll say, his greatness may bear out the shame,
But not his kingdom can buy out the sin;
I’ll say, it is my duty to persuade,
But not her honesty to give consent.

But the Countess is stronger than all of them and brings Warwick back to his senses, to the point that he fully recants his earlier thoughts:

Why, now thou speakst as I would have thee speak:
And mark how I unsay my words again.
An honorable grave is more esteemed
Than the polluted closet of a king:
The greater man, the greater is the thing,
Be it good or bad, that he shall undertake:
An unreputed mote, flying in the Sun,
Presents a greater substance than it is:
The freshest summer’s day doth soonest taint
The loathed carrion that it seems to kiss:
Deep are the blows made with a mighty Axe:
That sin doth ten times aggravate it self,
That is committed in a holy place:
An evil deed, done by authority,
Is sin and subornation: Deck an Ape
In tissue, and the beauty of the robe
Adds but the greater scorn unto the beast.

And then, by threatening to take her own life if the King persists in his course–which eventually includes the murder of both his own wife and the Countess’s husband–she convinces the King that she values her honor above even death, as should he. At which point he wakes from his “idle dream” and, it would seem, vents his passion in the war with France.

He wins the war in no small part thanks to the bravery of his son, Prince Edward, who he initially leaves in a desperate position, the better to prove his worth:

Rescue, king Edward! rescue for thy son!

Rescue, Artois? what, is he prisoner,
Or by violence fell beside his horse?

Neither, my Lord: but narrowly beset
With turning Frenchmen, whom he did pursue,
As tis impossible that he should scape,
Except your highness presently descend.

Tut, let him fight; we gave him arms to day,
And he is laboring for a knighthood, man.

But Edward proves his worthiness in battle, ultimately emerging from an overwhelmingly bleak position with his “shivered lance” and the body of the King of Bohemia in his hands. the one line I was sure came from this play–”Let him earn his spurs!–in fact comes from a different account of this famous battle.

Prince Edward not only demonstrates his courage, but he also shows himself to be a masterful leader and inspirational orator. When faced with overwhelming numbers of French soldiers, Prince Edward exhorts his men to fight on through a nice rhetorical play on the idea of numbers:

As many sands as these my hands can hold,
Are but my handful of so many sands;
Then, all the world, and call it but a power,
Easily ta’en up, and quickly thrown away:
But if I stand to count them sand by sand,
The number would confound my memory,
And make a thousand millions of a task,
Which briefly is no more, indeed, than one.
These quarters, squadrons, and these regiments,
Before, behind us, and on either hand,
Are but a power. 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.
He that hath far to go, tells it by miles;
If he should tell the steps, it kills his heart:
The drops are infinite, that make a flood,
And yet, thou knowest, we call it but a Rain.
There is but one France, one king of France,
That France hath no more kings; and that same king
Hath but the puissant legion of one king,
And we have one: then apprehend no odds,
For one to one is fair equality.

It turns out that there is some question as to how much of this play Shakespeare authored, if he authored any of it at all. The consensus (based on various ideas including textual analysis of word choice) seems to be that the play is mostly Shakespeare’s, the rest likely the work of Thomas Kyd, a fascinating dramatist and character in his own right (when I finally get over my Shakespeare binge I plan to read up on Kyd and the equally interesting Christopher Marlowe). Harold Bloom, on the other hand, steadfastly maintains that Shakespeare couldn’t have written King Edward III because there is nothing of the Shakespeare that Bloom loves in it.

Even from my layman’s point of view, I can sympathize with Bloom’s position. There is little of the musicality and memorability I associate with later works by Shakespeare… yet the play isn’t completely lacking in passages worthy of Shakespeare and I have no problem thinking of it as an early work in which Shakespeare may have been working out the techniques he would use to such masterful effect later on.

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