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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 5. Edward III

Of the historical plays attributed to Shakespeare, but not included in the first folio, the most important is Edward III. The conjecture that he had a hand in this play was not put forward during his lifetime, and rests entirely on internal evidence. Edward III was first published, anonymously, in 1596, and a second edition followed in 1599; but it was not until Capell re-edited the play in his Prolusions (1760) that the claim for Shakespearean authorship was seriously put forward.

Written in verse throughout, the play opens with a scene which is similar to the first scene of Henry V; but no sooner are the preparations for king Edward’s foreign campaign begun than the main action is impeded by the introduction of the romantic love story of the king and the countess of Salisbury, which occupies the rest of the first, and the whole of the second, act. Then, when the monarch has at last conquered his adulterous passion, the narrative of military conquest, with the prince of Wales as its hero, is resumed, and proceeds, without further break, along the path prescribed to the dramatist by Froissart and Holinshed. But, although the countess episode impairs the little unity of action which this desultory chronicle play would otherwise have, it must be remembered that that episode is no extraneous matter foisted into the play for the sake of dramatic effect; the author goes to Bandello, or, rather, to Bandello’s English translator, William Painter, for the details of the story, but the main outlines of it are faithfully recorded by Froissart and subsequent chroniclers of English history. If, however, the double plot of the play furnishes, in itself, no reason for assuming double authorship, that assumption must, nevertheless, be made on other and more substantial grounds. In diction and verse, in the portrayal of character and in the attainment of dramatic effect, the author of the love scenes stands apart from the author of the battle scenes. The number of riming verses and verses with double endings in the love scenes, is considerably greater than in all the remainder of the play. Soliloquy is unknown in the battle scenes, whereas, in the countess episode, one sixth of the total number of verses are spoken in monologue. The love scenes are also distinguished from the rest of the play by the strain of lyricism in which the author indulges; it would, indeed, be difficult to find in the whole range of Elizabethan drama a passage more completely imbued with lyric feeling than that in which Edward converses with Lodowick, his secretary. It is not the tempestuous lyricism of Marlowe which we meet with here, but the elegiac lyricism of the sonneteers, the unfeigned delight in the play of amorous fancy and the fond lingering over airy sentiment. Characteristics such as these isolate the countess episode from the rest of the play, and, at the same time, associate it with much of the early work of Shakespeare, above all with Romeo and Juliet.

But, in the absence of all external authority, it would be unsafe to claim the episode for Shakespeare upon such evidence as this alone; and the same may be said for the resemblances of idea, imagery and cadence which many passages in these love scenes bear to passages in his canonical works. If the claim for Shakespearean authorship is to be put forward at all, it must be based upon those elements of Shakespeare’s genius which ever elude the grasp of the most skilful plagiarist—the creation of character, the reaching after dramatic effect and the impalpable spirit of dramatic art. It is in the person of the countess of Salisbury that the genius of Shakespeare first seems to reveal itself, and it has been well said that, without her, his gallery of female characters would be incomplete. She is a woman as resolute in her chastity as the Isabella of Measure for Measure, yet far more gracious and far less austere. We have only to compare her with the Ida of Greene’s James IV to realise the masterly workmanship of the author of Edward III. The situation in which the two women are placed is almost identical; but, whereas Ida is a slight, girlish figure who, for all her purity, has little save conventional commonplace wherewith to rebut the Scottish king’s proffers, the countess rises in the face of trial and temptation to supreme queenliness. And whereas, in his presentation of the story, Greene wastes every opportunity of bringing the love suit to a dramatic crisis, the author of the countess episode displays the highest art of plot construction.

When we compare the dramatic version of the story with that of the Italian novel, we realise at once the transforming touch of a master artist. The action in Bandello extends over a considerable period of time, during which the countess becomes a widow, but persists, in spite of the importunities of her mother, in rejecting the king’s unlawful suit. At last, dagger in hand, she begs the king to slay her, or let her slay herself, in order that her chastity may be preserved. Then the king, impressed now by her fortitude as before by her beauty, offers her his hand in marriage, and the countess straightway accepts him as her husband. As we read the play, we realise how this Pamela ending offended the finer taste of the dramatist. Going carefully over the incidents of the story, he excises here, enlarges there, and, finally, brings his plot to a crisis and dénouement quite unlike, and infinitely nobler than, that of Bandello. The one dagger becomes two, and in the countess’s simple but burning words to the lascivious king, we feel ourselves in the presence of Shakespeare, and of Shakespeare rising at one genial leap to the full stature of his divinity:

  • Here by my side do hang my wedding knives:
  • Take thou the one, and with it kill thy queen,
  • And learn by me to find her where she lies;
  • And with this other I’ll despatch my love,
  • Which now lies fast asleep within my heart:
  • When they are gone, then I’ll consent to love.
  • A prime objection which has been brought against the Shakespearean authorship of these scenes is that they break in upon the action of the main story in a way that Shakespeare would not have tolerated. But a close study of the countess episode reveals the skill with which the dramatist has lessened this defect. Throughout the episode we are made aware that the preparations for the French campaign are proceeding, though the king is wholly absorbed in his amour. At the beginning of act II, sc. 2, Derby and Audley appear and inform their sovereign of the mustering of men and of the emperor’s goodwill. The drum incident which follows, and which leads up to the entrance of the Black Prince, the hero of the main story, effects, in masterly fashion, the purpose of keeping the military scenes before the mind of the spectator. The king’s soliloquies, too, as he beholds first his son all afire with military ardour, and then his secretary returning with a message from the countess, produce a feeling of true dramatic tension; and, as we see the monarch borne this way and that by the impulse of contending passions, we realise once again the hand of the master.

    If we ascribe the countess episode to Shakespeare, there still remains for consideration the difficult problem of determining the nature of his task. The choice lies between collaboration of Shakespeare with another dramatist and revision by Shakespeare of a play already in existence. The latter theory seems the more reasonable. The battle scenes, by virtue of their loose, episodic character, point to a date previous to that reform of the chronicle play which was effected by Marlowe’s Edward II (c. 1590). If, then, we may conjecture the existence of a pre-Edward III, it may be further assumed that it contained already some rendering of the countess episode. Without it, the play would be too brief, and it is hard to believe that any dramatist, especially if he were Robert Greene or a member of Greene’s school, would have allowed the romantic love story to pass unnoticed when reading the pages of Froissart. It is reasonable to believe that, at some time between 1590 and 1596, Shakespeare found himself engaged upon a revision of this pre-Edward III chronicle play, and that, in revising it, he left the story of the king’s French wars practically unaltered, but withdrew entirely the rendering of the countess episode, substituting for it that pearl of great price which now lies imbedded in the old chronicle play.