Edward III (play)

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Title page of the first quarto (1596)

The Raigne of King Edvvard the Third, commonly shortened to Edward III, is an Elizabethan play printed anonymously in 1596. It has frequently been claimed that it was at least partly written by William Shakespeare, a view that Shakespeare scholars have increasingly endorsed.[1] The rest of the play was probably written by Thomas Kyd. The play contains many gibes at Scotland and the Scottish people, which has led some critics to think that it is the work that incited George Nicolson, Queen Elizabeth's agent in Edinburgh, to protest against the portrayal of Scots on the London stage in a 1598 letter to William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This would explain why the play was not included in the First Folio of Shakespeare's works, which was published after the Scottish King James had succeeded to the English throne in 1603.



Edward the Black Prince (David Mendolsohn) in the American Professional premiere of Edward III, staged by Pacific Repertory Theatre in August, 2001.

The plot of the play consists of two distinct parts. The first is centred on the Countess of Salisbury (the wife of the Earl of Salisbury), who, beset by rampaging Scots, is rescued by King Edward III, who then proceeds to woo her himself. In an attempted bluff, the Countess vows to take the life of her husband if Edward will take the life of his wife. However, when she sees that Edward finds the plan morally acceptable, she ultimately threatens to take her own life if he does not stop his pursuit. Finally, Edward expresses great shame, admits his fault and acquiesces.

In the second part of the play, in several scenes reminiscent of Henry V, Edward joins his army in France, fighting a war to claim the French throne. The play switches between the French and English camps, where the apparent hopelessness of the English campaign is contrasted with the arrogance of the French. Much of the action is focused on young Edward, the Black Prince, who broods on the morality of war before achieving victory against seemingly insurmountable odds.


Like most of Shakespeare's history plays, the source is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, while Jean Froissart's Chronicles is also a major source for this play. Roger Prior[4] has argued that the playwright had access to Lord Hunsdon's personal copy of Froissart and quoted some of Hunsdon's annotations. A significant portion of the part usually attributed to Shakespeare, the wooing of the Countess of Salisbury, is based on Novel 46, "The Countesse of Salesberrie" by William Painter in Palace of Pleasure. Unlike Painter, who wrote Edward as a bachelor and the Countess as a widow, the author of the play is aware that both are married at the time, and Edward tries to get the countess to make a pact with him in which each kills the other's spouse and tries to make it look like a double suicide. Melchiori (p. 104) points out the similarity of the playwright's language to that of Painter in spite of the plotting differences.

Alex Peckman as the Earl of Warrick and Julie Hughett as Countess of Salisbury in the Carmel Shakespeare Festival production of Edward III, August, 2001.


In 1596, Edward III was published anonymously, which was common practice in the 1590s (the first Quarto editions of Titus Andronicus and Richard III also appeared anonymously). Additionally, Elizabethan theatre often paid professional writers of the time to perform minor additions and emendations to problematic or overly brief scripts (the additions to the popular but brief Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare's own additions on the unperformed Thomas More being some of the best known). However, as neither manuscript or earlier version of Edward III survive, all conclusions about its authorship are speculative, and scholars are left with conclusions based only on stylistic evidence.

The principal arguments against Shakespeare's authorship are its non-inclusion in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 and being unmentioned in Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia (1598), a work that lists many (but not all) of Shakespeare's early plays. Some critics view the play as not up to the quality of Shakespeare's ability, and they attribute passages resembling his style to imitation or plagiarism. Despite this, many critics have seen some passages as having an authentic Shakespearean ring. In 1760, noted Shakespearean editor Edward Capell included the play in his 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, and concluded that it had been written by Shakespeare. However, Capell's conclusion was only supported by mostly German scholars.[5]

In recent years, professional Shakespeare scholars have increasingly reviewed the work with a new eye, and have concluded that some passages are as sophisticated as any of Shakespeare's early histories, especially King John and the Henry VI plays. In addition, passages in the play are direct quotes from Shakespeare's sonnets. Stylistic analysis has also produced evidence that at least some scenes were written by Shakespeare.[6] In the Textual Companion to the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare, Gary Taylor states that "of all the non-canonical plays, [Edward III] has the strongest claim to inclusion in the Complete Works"[7] (the play was subsequently edited by William Montgomery and included in the second edition of the Oxford Complete Works, 2005). The first major publishing house to produce an edition of the play was Yale University Press, in 1996; Cambridge University Press published an edition two years later as part of its New Cambridge Shakespeare series. Since then, an edition of the Riverside Shakespeare has included the play, and plans are afoot for the Arden Shakespeare and Oxford Shakespeare series to publish editions.

Giorgio Melchiori, editor of the New Cambridge edition, asserts that the play's disappearance from the canon is probably due to a 1598 protest at the play's portrayal of the Scottish. According to Melchiori, scholars have often assumed that this play, the title of which was not stated in the letter of 15 April 1598 from George Nicolson (Elizabeth I's Edinburgh agent) to Lord Burghley noting the public unrest, was a comedy (one that does not survive), but the play's portrayal of Scots is so virulent that it is likely that the play was banned—officially or unofficially—and left forgotten by Heminges and Condell.[8]

The events and monarchs in the play would, along with the two history tetralogies and Henry VIII, extend Shakespeare's chronicle to include all the monarchs from Edward III to Shakespeare's near-contemporary Henry VIII. Some scholars, notably Eric Sams,[9] have argued that the play is entirely by Shakespeare, but today, scholarly opinion is divided, with many researchers asserting that the play is an early collaborative work, of which Shakespeare wrote only a few scenes.

In 2009, Brian Vickers published the results of a computer analysis using a program designed to detect plagiarism, which suggests that 40% of the play was written by Shakespeare with the other scenes written by Thomas Kyd (1558–1594).[10]

Harold Bloom rejects the theory that Shakespeare wrote Edward III, on the grounds that he finds "nothing in the play is representative of the dramatist who had written Richard III."[11]



The first contemporary performance of the play was on 6 March 1911, when the Elizabethan Stage Society performed Act 2 at the Little Theatre in London. Following this, the BBC broadcast an abridged version of the play in 1963, with complete performances taking place in Los Angeles in 1986 (as part of a season of Shakespeare Apocrypha) and Mold in 1987.[13]

In 1998, Cambridge University Press became the first major publisher to produce an edition of the play under Shakespeare's name, and shortly afterward the Royal Shakespeare Company performed the play (to mixed reviews). In 2001, the American professional premiere was staged by Pacific Repertory Theatre's Carmel Shakespeare Festival, which received positive reviews for the endeavor.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Melchiori, Giorgio, ed. The New Cambridge Shakespeare: King Edward III, 1998, p. 2.
  2. ^ a b See Melchiori, passim.
  3. ^ See Melchiori, 186
  4. ^ Connotations Volume 3 1993/94 No. 3 Was The Raigne of King Edward lll a Compliment to Lord Hunsdon?
  5. ^ Melchiori, 1.
  6. ^ M.W.A. Smith, 'Edmund Ironside'. Notes and Queries 238 (June, 1993):204-5. Thomas Merriam's article in Literary and Linguistic Computing vol 15 (2) 2000: 157–186 uses stylometry to investigate claims that the play is a reworking by Shakespeare of a draft originally written by Marlowe.
  7. ^ Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 136.
  8. ^ Melchiori, 12–13.
  9. ^ Sams, Eric. Shakespeare's Edward III : An Early Play Restored to the Canon (Yale UP, 1996)
  10. ^ a b Malvern, Jack (2009-10-12). "Computer program proves Shakespeare didn't work alone, researchers claim". Times of London. 
  11. ^ Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, p. xv.
  12. ^ Melchiori, p. 15. Melchiori (p.35) dismisses the Marlovian character of the play as having been written under the influence of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Part II, which was recent and popular enough to be fresh in the memory of theatre-goers during the period in which Edward III was written. Melchiori does not believe that the play is entirely Shakespeare's, but he does not attempt to determine whose the other hands in the play are. He also voices his dislike of the publication of the "hand D" segments of Sir Thomas More out of context in many complete Shakespeare editions (ix).
  13. ^ Melchiori, 46–51.

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