Memory Traces in The Reign of King Edward III
As if anticipating his future monarch and patron’s address by a few years, Shakespeare explores the rather surprising value of historical error and of a diminished historical memory in his second sequence of history plays. History is not an unassailable city or town in Shakespeare’s plays on England’s late medieval past. The plays of the second tetralogy in particular, from Richard II to Henry V, show that no matter how well-fortified and defended, history always has breaches, and these are especially wide in theatrical accounts of the past, which are of necessity highly abbreviated. Often the plays themselves make these gaps visible in such a way as to implicitly urge audiences once more unto the breaches in the historical record. Furthermore, the profound and widespread effects of the Reformation on both narrative history and historical drama, explored by David Womersley and others, indicate how dynamic and malleable the past had become for early modern England (Womersley 2010).For euen as little brookes lose their names by their running and fall into great Riuers, and the very name and memorie of the great Riuers swallowed vp in the Ocean: so by the coniunction of diuers little Kingdomes in one, are all these priuate differences and questions swallowed vp.
As in Hamlet’s Graveyard Scene, where the Gravedigger doubles as a homely keeper of the nation’s memory, the reference to Adam functions as a mnemonic trump card, so to speak. Before there were kings there were husbands. Adam was a husband though no king. The heritage of the former title has precedence and therefore, the Countess implies, bears more honor. Early in the reign of Richard II, the priest John Ball’s famous rhyme that added fuel to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then a gentleman?” challenged the very idea of social rank. It is unlikely that the Countess intends her Adamic reference to be socially subversive, but it does have the inadvertent effect of shifting honor and authority to the commoner in such a way as to grant him a longer pedigree than a king. The breaking of a marriage vow appears to be a sin against memory itself: against the memory not only of a specific vow but also of its deep pre-history. To forget one’s marriage vows is to forget “your progenitor,/Sole reigning Adam.” Like Edward’s injunction to his son the Black Prince, the Countess’ language—”forgetting your allegiance and your oath”—recalls both the charge against the Scottish King, his “forgetting of his former oath,” and that against the French for rewriting or “obscur[ing]” of Edward’s mother Isabel’s “privilege” (1.1.19). The Countess defends her honor in such a way as to mark Edward, who has just been shown to be using history to justify a war of conquest, as one of the forgetful. He stands in need of a second history lesson, one that will remind him of his vows by returning him to the very beginnings of human history.…and will your sacred selfCommit high treason against the king of heaven,To stamp his image in forbidden metal,Forgetting your allegiance and your oath?In violating marriage’ sacred lawYou break a greater honour than yourself.To be a king is of a younger houseThan to be married: your progenitor,Sole reigning Adam on the universe,By God was honoured for a married man,But not by him anointed for a king.(2.1.257–67)
The clash of two competing and mutually exclusive oaths is figured as a dispute between remembering and forgetting. When at the end of the second act Edward eventually recovers from his obsession with the Countess, he simultaneously recovers an awareness of the value of remembrance. He remembers the obligation to remember, and in doing so he becomes simultaneously a fit king and a fitting object of the audience’s collective remembrance, at the head of what seems to be a nation no longer internally divided between an obligation to remember and a desire to forget.I’ll keep mine oath,And to my daughter make a recantationOf all the virtue I have preached to her.I’ll say she must forget her husband Salisbury,If she remember to embrace the king….(2.1.355–9)
Under siege by the Scots and soon to be besieged sexually by her imagined savior King Edward, the Countess imaginatively evokes yet another form of siege, the encircling of a stage by an audience. Like Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedy, she summons the very theatrical conditions with which she is surrounded, the often rambunctious playing conditions of the public theatres, which regularly included “vile uncivil skipping jigs.” She does so in a manner that implicitly figures the playhouse as a place of siege.Thou dost not tell him, if he here prevail,How much they will deride us in the North,And, in their vile uncivil skipping jigs,Bray forth their conquest and our overthrow,Even in the barren, bleak, and fruitless air.(1.2.10–14)
Anticipating Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few”), Ned’s wrestling with the superior numbers of the French is designed to quell English fears before the battle. “Parcelling” the enemy as Audley does would overwhelm (“confound”) the memory, now tasked with itemizing all the parts of a whole: a hopeless endeavor akin to counting “a thousand millions” grains of sand. Dividing the French power into “quarters, squadrons, and these regiments” serves to obscure the fact that the French are “but a power.” No matter how often one divides that power, the foe is “no more indeed than one.” As the Arden editors R assert, “Prince Edward devises an argument to dispel his own fear of superior enemy numbers, with transparent sophistry and false logic.” (Proudfoot and Bennett 2017, p. 304).Thy parcelling this power hath made it more.As many sands as these my hands can holdAre 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 sandThe number would confound my memoryAnd make a thousand millions of a taskWhich 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 by 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 kingHath but the puissant legion of one king;And we have one. Then apprehend no odds,For one to one is fair equality.(4.4.41–65)
Canterbury’s representation of the Battle of Crécy (1346) in theatrical terms, likening it to a “tragedy” with his father and his power looking on like a playhouse audience, helps bind the bishops’ rhetoric of remembrance to the audience viewing Henry V in 1599. E. Pearlman observes, “The words ‘play’d,’ ‘Tragedie,’ and ‘ground’ ... conjoin to construct a vision not of the real geographical Crécy (a plain in France), but of Crécy, the stage setting in Edward III where fictional battles had been recently and ‘sundry times’ enacted” (Pearlman 1995, p. 527; Kerrigan 2011). Huw Griffiths writes of Canterbury’s speech that what he “describes is not really the monument at all but something like a staged scene from a play based on Edward’s reign” (Griffiths 2015, p. 478). At least some members of that audience would have recalled the “tragedy” referred to by the Archbishop, having witnessed it six or seven years earlier11 in the play Edward III. Figuring the original battle as play-like establishes an intimacy between the history evoked by the bishops and the living memories of theater audiences. Both plays induce a further intimacy between their monarchs and their audiences. The Chorus of Henry V refers to kings in the plural as members of an audience: “monarchs to behold the swelling scene” (1 Chorus.4), a reference that recalls the King’s beholding the swelling scene of the earlier play’s Battle of Crécy, at which the King tested his son’s mettle by passively watching the scene unfold.Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,From whom you claim. Invoke his warlike spirit,And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,Who on the French ground played a tragedy,Making defeat of the full power of France,Whiles his most mighty father on a hillStood smiling to behold his lion’s whelpForage in blood of French nobility.(1.2.103–10)
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Sams (1996). For a critical response to Sams, see Kirwan (2015). Current critical opinion trends toward the idea of collaborative authorship. According to editor Melchiori, “probably Shakespeare is not its sole author” (p. 3). The editors of the recent Arden edition, Richard Proudfoot and Nicola Bennett, also make a case for collaborative authorship: (Proudfoot and Bennett 2017, p. 49f). Among the many scholars who contend that Shakespeare had a hand in the play are (Hope 1994; Smith 1991; Harold 1989; Slater 1988; Proudfoot 1985; Lapides 1980). Kirwan provocatively argues for the need “to sever the productive use of authorship studies from the single focus on the author for authorship’s sake” (p. 163).
Wells and Taylor (2005). The editors note that “intensive application of stylometric and other tests of authorship … has strengthened the case for including it among the collected works” (p. 257). The most recent Oxford edition of the complete works has an excellent and newly edited text of the play by Rory Loughnane, who prefaces the play with three pages of excerpted comments about the play over four centuries (Loughnane 2015).
I borrow the phrase from the title of Eric Foner’s book (Foner 2002).
For an extended version of this argument, see (Baldo 2012). See also Isabel Karremann’s marvelous study (2015).
James Shapiro has argued that even Henry V (1599), first staged eleven years after the attempted invasion, qualifies as a “late Armada play.” (Shapiro 1989).
Melchiori writes, “It is well known that the most indubitable Shakespearean scenes of the play are those connected with the episode of Edward’s infatuation with the Countess of Salisbury.” (Melchiori 1994).
Kirwan observes that “the play sits neatly alongside the Shakespearean history cycles: it dramatises the beginnings of the Hundred Years’ War that Shakespeare concluded in I Henry VI, and it provides an obvious reference point for the frequent mentions of the Black Prince and earlier French wars in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy” (p. 157).
Although Act 1, scene 2 of Henry V bears many echoes of Act 1, scene 1 of Edward III, the latter belongs to the group of “more firmly attested non-Shakespeare parts of Edward III.” is not among those thought to have been written by Shakespeare (Merriam 2009).
The play was entered in the Stationer’s Register on 1 December 1595. Its quarto edition, printed “for Cuthbert Burby” in 1596, gives no indication as to when and where it was performed, but only that it was “sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London.” It is thought to have been performed c. 1592–3. See Melchiori (1998, pp. 3–9), for an extended discussion of the date of the play.
For a discussion of William Hazlitt’s biting response to Westmorland’s lines, see (Maley and Murphy 2004), “Introduction,” 8–9. Maley and Murphy’s collection provides a richly varied sense of the scope and history of intersections between Shakespeare’s plays and Scottish history and culture: of the mutual influence of Shakespeare’s writing and reception and of Scotland on one another.
It is fascinating that the same word, “breach,” is used to evoke an imagined assault on England in Henry’s army’s absence, and later—and famously—by Henry himself to rally his troops during the English army’s siege of Harfleur.
The context is a war of succession, the so-called Second War of Scottish Independence, involving English supporters, including Edward III, of Edward Balliol, disinherited son of a Scottish king and claimant to the Scottish throne.
As Andrew Hadfield has written, “Elizabethan England was neatly framed by its relationship with Scotland: most specifically, through the Stuart claim to the English throne, but also because Scotland was acknowledged as the site of the most advanced and controversial political ideas in post-Reformation Europe.” “Hamlet’s Country Matters: The ‘Scottish Play’ within the Play,” Maley and Murphy (2004, p. 87).
Thomas Merriam argues that the play bears a “Marlovian framework, reworked and added to by Shakespeare, possibly after Marlowe’s death in 1593.” (Merriam 2000). Nine years later he revisited the evidence for Marlowe vs. Kyd as author of the non-Shakespeare parts of the play, using “multidimensional analysis of relative frequency of function words.” The results of the later analysis, Merriam found, “favours Marlowe over Kyd.” Thomas Merriam, “Marlowe Versus Kyd as Author of Edward III, I.i, III, and V,” pp. 549–50. David Kernot, Terry Bossomaier, and Roger Bradbury, using a “neurolinguistic approach,” conclude that Kyd was the play’s principal author. Although they find that “the four scenes commonly attributed to Shakespeare also identify as Kyd,” they allow that while “Thomas Kyd wrote the majority of the play … William Shakespeare played a lesser role.” “Did William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd Write Edward III,” International Journal on Natural Language Computing 6, no. 6 (2017), 7. Using software designed to detect plagiarism, Brian Vickers has made a strong case for Kyd as principal author, allowing for Shakespeare as a co-author responsible for a smaller portion of the overall play. “Kyd, Edward III, and ‘The Shock of the New,’” (Cussen 2020). J. P. Conlan, who sees the play as a cohesive critique of the persecution of recusants in the wake of the victory over the Armada that is entirely “worthy of Shakespeare’s authorship” (“Shakespeare’s Edward III: A Consolation for English Recusants,” p. 201). He attributes the entire play to Shakespeare, as does Eric Sams in his landmark edition of the play. Rory Loughnane and Gary Taylor ascribe the Countess scenes to Shakespeare in the recent (Taylor and Egan 2017).
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Baldo, J. Memory Traces in The Reign of King Edward III. Humanities 2022, 11, 59. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11030059
Baldo J. Memory Traces in The Reign of King Edward III. Humanities. 2022; 11(3):59. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11030059Chicago/Turabian Style
Baldo, Jonathan. 2022. "Memory Traces in The Reign of King Edward III" Humanities 11, no. 3: 59. https://doi.org/10.3390/h11030059