You may have noticed, in my reading of Shakespeare, how I’ve so far been skirting around the most acclaimed plays (the most acclaimed tragedies, at least), and I shall continue so to do – by diverting myself with a reading of the pseudo-Shakespearean corpus. Perhaps it is a pity that the question remains always at the back of our minds as we read these plays, is it by Shakespeare? – but we shall do our best too, to consider them in their own terms.
The first of these, neatly fitting into Shakespeare’s English historical sequence is Edward III. Normally outside the canon, this is only one Wikipedia includes in its Shakespeare chronology, just after Richard III, which not co-incidentally was the last play I read. Edward III was, of course, the root from which the houses of York and Lancaster derived – the ultimate cause of, and the play the ultimate prequel to, all the subsequent Richards and Henrys.
The play has a lot of the typical obsessions of Shakespeare’s history plays: kings who are concerned with justifying in minute detail their claims to the throne; a king of England whose ultimate aim is to invade France, but who is prevented from so doing by internal dissension; questions of kingship based on mercy and ruthlessness. That we subsequently watch Edward III’s invasion of France, along with the actions of his absurdly heroic son, Prince Edward, makes this play closest in feel to Henry V, with bits of Henry IV Parts I and II thrown in. The relationship between and nature of Edward III and his son is easily enough compared to Henry IV and V, but in their mature state and working in concert together: a sort of idealisation of what the English king should be – to which in his earlier and subsequent plays Shakespeare’s kings strive. The battle scenes are also very similar to other Shakespeare plays: people running on and off stage all the time. – What may be an issue here, is I don’t actually have any non-Shakespearean English history plays to compare it too (I need to read Marlowe’s Edward II; but then, is there much fighting in it?).
The use of language also seems consistent with Shakespeare: it is rich stylistically, sometimes difficult in its thought, with lots of complex metaphors and touches pleasing to the aesthetic sense.
Prince Edward describes the devastation of France in his army’s wake for instance in the following terms:
Some of their strongest cities we have won,
As Harflew, Lo, Crotay, and Carentigne,
And others wasted, leaving at our heels
A wide apparent field and beaten path
For solitariness to progress in:
Prompting his father to observe:
Ah, France, why shouldest thou be thus obstinate
Against the kind embracement of thy friends?
How gently had we thought to touch thy breast
And set our foot upon thy tender mould,
But that, in froward and disdainful pride,
Thou, like a skittish and untamed cloth,
Dost start aside and strike us with thy heels!
There are two parts of Edward III which stand out from the rest. One is the sequence in which Prince Edward finds himself trapped in a valley with his small army by the entire French army. Facing inevitable death, he rejects all French overtures for submission, and determines to fight to the end; and he and Lord Audley pontificate, before the final battle, on how death is as natural as life, how all life is in any case merely a seeking after death, and death therefore nothing to be feared.
The other is a quite extraordinary scene in Act II, which takes place prior to the invasion of France, where Edward III, having relieved the Countess of Salisbury from the invading Scot, then falls in love with her and demands she yields to him, despite the fact that they are both married (her husband is away fighting in France for his king). The scene in question is between Edward III and his poet, Lodowick, whom he is commissioning to write a poem which will win the Countess. A marvellous irony proceeds, in which the poet asks what he is to write about, and Edward III describes his feelings in brilliant poetry, but all the subsequent examples that Lodowick comes out with are complete rubbish.
Lodowick: Of what condition or estate she is,
Twere requisite that I should know, my Lord.
Edward: Of such estate, that hers is as a throne,
And my estate the footstool where she treads:
Then maist thou judge what her condition is
By the proportion of her mightiness.
Write on, while I peruse her in my thoughts. –
Her voice to music or the nightingale –
To music every summer leaping swain
Compares his sunburnt lover when she speaks;
And why should I speak of the nightingale?
The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong,
And that, compared, is too satyrical;
For sin, though sin, would not be so esteemed,
But rather, virtue sin, sin virtue deemed.
Her hair, far softer than the silk worm’s twist,
Like to a flattering glass, doth make more fair
The yellow Amber: – like a flattering glass
Comes in too soon; for, writing of her eyes,
I’ll say that like a glass they catch the sun,
And thence the hot reflection doth rebound
Against the breast, and burns my heart within.
Ah, what a world of descant makes my soul
Upon this voluntary ground of love! –
Come, Lodowick, hast thou turned thy ink to gold?
If not, write in letters Capital
My mistress’ name, and it will gild thy paper:
Read, Lord, read.
Fill thou the empty hollows of mine ears
With the sweet hearing of thy poetry.
Lodowick: I have not to a period brought her praise.
Edward: Her praise is as my love, both infinite,
Which apprehend such violent extremes,
That they disdain an ending period. …
Then wherefore talkest thou of a period
To that which craves unended admiration?
Read, let us hear.
Lodowick: “More fair and chaste than is the queen of shades,” –
Edward: That line hath two faults, gross and palpable:
Comparest thou her to the pale queen of night,
Who, being set in dark, seems therefore light?
What is she, when the sun lifts up his head,
But like a fading taper, dim and dead?
My love shall brave the eyes of heaven at noon,
And, being unmasked, outshine the golden sun.
Leading to Edward concluding, when tired of Lodowick’s incompetence:
Edward: No, let the Captain talk of boisterous war,
The prisoner of emured dark constraint,
The sick man best sets down the pangs of death,
The man that starves the sweetness of a feast,
The frozen soul the benefit of fire,
And every grief his happy opposite:
Love cannot sound well but in lover’s tongues;
Give me the pen and paper, I will write.
Though he is merely trawling poetic commonplaces, one can’t but be reminded of Shakespeare’s sonnets in all this.
I’m inclined to go along then with a Shakespearean authorship – I’d rather have it in the corpus than a few others plays – Henry V, for instance; and if it’s not Shakespeare, well, it’s a good play with a lot of remarkable writing in it. (I don’t think the rest of pseudo-Shakespeare is going to be this good).