Monday, March 5, 2018

Edward III

Frances, our Fearless Leader, has written an appreciation of a little known play, Edward III. Now accepted as having been written at least in part by our beloved bard, this play is a welcome addition to the canon. Shakespeare was a prolific writer, but not prolific enough for his C21 fans!

Frances says...

As an eight- or nine-year-old I listened rapt during History lessons while our teacher, a brilliant narrator, told stories of mediaeval England.  We heard about Edward III (Longshanks, as he was known), the founding of the Order of the Garter, the battle of Crecy, the gallant Black Prince, and the intervention of kind Queen Philippa for the six burghers of Calais.

I had no idea then, or until very recently, that there was a play about Edward III, apparently by Shakespeare.

From Wikipedia: Alex Peckman as the Earl of Warwick and Julie Hughett as Countess of Salisbury in the Carmel Shakespeare Festival production of Edward III, August 2001.
Edward III was known particularly for three things: he was a powerful warrior, a dedicated supporter of the code of chivalry and a constant philanderer, all of which characteristics are evident in the play.

Actually it reads more like two plays.  Acts 1 and 2 largely concern Edward’s besotted infatuation with the Countess of Salisbury and her spirited rejection of his advances;  Acts 3 to 5 deal with Edward’s successful attempts to claim the throne of France.  The very beginning of the play has a clear summary of the hereditary bases for such a claim, similar to the legalistic arguments later presented for Henry V.

The love story is very wordy, lacking credible feeling.  The one dramatic moment occurs when the Countess suddenly produces two knives with which to get rid of the obstacles to their affair.  One is for Edward to kill his wife, while the Countess will kill herself because, as she says, her husband is there in her heart.  The King’s eventual remembrance of his wife and his final return to duty are strangely unconvincing.

I found the treatment of the French campaign of greater interest.

Unlike the wars in Henry VI and Richard III, for instance, there are almost no actual battle scenes (just one sight of the Prince racing across the stage and the French king and others fleeing.)  All the major events are conveyed by descriptions  (sometimes quite vivid) during or after the action, and there is frequently a lively sense of the chaos of the battles.  The account of the disposal of the troops for the battle of Crecy was astonishingly precise; it could have come from a participant’s report in a history book.

At times there is almost an echo of Greek tragedy, with the action off-stage and then described by, for example, a Messenger.  The Messenger’s description of the sea battle as the English fleet approached the French coast (Act 3 sc. 1) is extraordinarily detailed and conjures dreadful visions of the horrors experienced by the French defenders.

Most of the language is formal and rhetorical, but one scene (Act 3 sc. 2) gives us a more personal and individual glimpse (still applicable) of the universal impact of war.  We see the peasants taking to the road, fleeing the oncoming armies, carrying their goods with them as best they can.  It is the same image that we see so often in our nightly news bulletins.  The French effectively portray the destruction of the countryside by both armies, regardless of which cause is just.

Upon the right hand comes the conquering King,
Upon the left his hot unbridled son,
And in the midst our nation’s glittering host,
All which, though distant yet, conspire in one
To leave a desolation where they come.

Edward’s chivalric interests are shown in an interesting little scene, where the Prince is ritually prepared for his first major command (before Crecy); his breastplate, helmet, lance and shield are presented in order by senior noblemen with solemn formal liturgy.  The King’s extraordinary sense of knightly honour is emphasised by his refusal to rescue his son from mortal danger in the ensuing melee.

Not surprisingly the tone of the play is anti-French.  The English are a heroic crowd, the French cowardly, superstitious and untrustworthy.  Indeed the English have an equally poor opinion of the Scots:  the Scots king, David, is called treacherous and ignoble, and the Countess refers scathingly to the Scots’ 'broad untuned oaths', their 'rough insulting barbarism' and 'their wild, uncivil, skipping jigs.'  Even John of France joins in with a comment about England’s allies, the Dutch: 'Those ever-bibbing Epicures, Those frothy Dutchmen, puft with double beer.'

The unrelenting regularity of the blank verse threatened to make the reading tedious and would challenge skilled actors to hold an audience’s attention, but nevertheless a first look provided for me many striking details and did sustain my interest right to the (inevitably jingoistic) conclusion.

Please feel free to comment on this post. Discussion of plays and matters related to them are always welcome on this blog!