For over 400 years The Reign of King Edward III has been classified as an anonymous play by everyone but a handful of renegade critics.
First printed in 1596 by the London bookseller and publisher, Cuthbert Burby, the play's title page told Elizabethan readers that "it hath bin sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London", but Burby credited no author. The play likely was very successful at the time, for Burby published another edition in 1599, again without naming an author.
Edward III passed through the centuries in relative obscurity until a noted Shakespearean editor named Edward Capell published the play in his book Prolusions; or, Select Pieces of Ancient Poetry, Compil'd with great Care from their several Originals, and Offer'd to the Publicke as Specimens of the Integrity that should be Found in the Editions of worthy Authors, written in 1760. He concluded that the play was "writ by Shakespeare."
Although Capell's assertions garnered attention for the play and received some support in the nineteenth century, most significantly from Tennyson, critics remained wholly unconvinced and Edward III seemed doomed to remain part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha.
Three primary problems hindered the play from the outset. First, it was not mentioned in Francis Meres' book Palladis Tamia (1598), a work which listed Shakespeare's early plays. Second, editors John Heminge and Henry Condell did not include the play in the First Folio of 1623. And third, the play is viewed by many to be a spiritless creation, devoid of Shakespeare's superior dramatic skills:
Notwithstanding their figurative richness of style, their melody and forcefulness of expression, and their real likeness in many outward features to Shakespeare, the scenes between the countess and the king will hardly bear frequent re-reading. Tried by the test of what they say, not how they say it, these passages sound hollow and insincere; the sophistry of nearly all the arguments becomes more objectionable as one knows the play better, as one comes to feel—once the bewildering effect of the declamation has abated—how much the characters guide their actions by the dictates of complex academic reasoning and how little by the inner voice of nature. (Tucker Brooke xxi)
However, in just the last few years many critics have begun to reassess the merits of the play and are beginning to argue that "hollow and insincere" passages are not reason enough to deny that Shakespeare wrote the drama. Despite the sometimes-stilted verse, the writing in Edward III measures up, at least to Shakespeare's early work in the Henry VI trilogy and King John, and selected passages clearly show the hand of a burgeoning master:
The quarrel that I have requires no arms
But these of mine: and these shall meet my foe
In a deep march of penetrable groans;
My eyes shall be my arrows, and my sighs
Shall serve me as the vantage of the wind,
To whirl away my sweetest artillery. (70)
Ah, but, alas, she wins the sun of me,
For that is she herself, and thence it comes
That poets term the wanton warrior blind;
But love hath eyes as judgement to his steps,
Till too much loved glory dazzles them.-- (2.2)
Moreover, the play contains three direct quotes from Shakespeare's other works -- "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds" (2.2), from sonnet 94; "scarlet ornaments" (2.1), from sonnet 142; and "bootless cries" (5.1), from sonnet 29 -- and a multitude of allusions to lines and passages in Shakespeare's canonical plays and poems.
Could this be the work of a talented Shakespeare admirer who had intricate knowledge of the Bard's works? Certainly. But it is equally likely that Shakespeare wrote the play himself and that it was excluded from the First Folio and Palladis Tamia for reasons that are lost to us.
With the inclusion of Edward III in the New Cambridge edition of Shakespeare's dramas in 1998, the play reached a new level of legitimacy and it will no doubt be the subject of countless essays and books for years to come.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Edward III?. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/edwardIII.html" >.