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Shakespeare's EdwardIII: A Consolation for English Recusants J. P. CONLAN With the publication of three new editions in the past five years, The Raign ofKing Edward the Third has reemerged as a prominent candidate for inclusion in the Shakespeare canon.1 Nonetheless, the play still continues to be received with suspicion. Critics recognize it is written in a genre, the chronicle history, that Shakespeare dominated in his day and admit the play has the same variety of imagery, a similar texture ofvocabulary, and verbal parallels to Shakespeare's other dramas.2 Notwithstanding, few scholars are willing to embrace the play wholeheartedly as Shakespeare's own. The problem, they claim, is the play lacks dramatic unity. As they see it, the play appears to be divided into two poorly integrated halves. The first two acts focus on the king's campaign to seduce the Countess of Salisbury; then, the theater of operations shifts abruptly to France and the Hundred Years' War to detail the English conquests at Sluys, Crecy, Calais, and Poitiers. This largely unexplained bifurcation within the play between love and war, shame and honor, England and France, has cast the play and its playwright into disrepute for centuries, and it is upon this legacy ofcensure that skepticism about Shakespeare's authorship of the play has its most secure foundation.3 Among those who see Shakespeare's hand in the play, this perceived lack ofdramatic unity has generated a wide range ofspecial pleading. To explain this singular fact, A. F. Hopkinson has told us that Shakespeare's "sublimegeniusspurnedatarbitraryrulesandrestraints,"4thatthetwoplots in themselves must be considered as separate plays, and as the dramatic unity in each is perfect, the play as a whole is therefore in Shakespeare's manner.5 Kenneth Muir has told us that Shakespeare collaborated with 177 178Comparative Drama anotherplaywright, asyet undiscovered.6Melchiori and others havetold us that Shakespeare contributed the king and countess scenes to a play alreadywritten.7 J. J. M. Tobin has told us that EdwardIIIstages an education of princes, its two episodes tied together by a concern for selfmastery .8And Eric Sams, to support his contention that past complaints about EdwardTITs lack ofdramatic unity are overstated, has argued that "each [subplot] is adroitly aligned as a separate aspect ofone single unifyingtopic , namelythe rights and wrongs ofvows and promises,"9 in the process conflating unity oftheme with unity of plot. Such descriptions of"Shakespeare's"craftsmanship,however,leavethisplayabroken thing. In neglecting the rationale that necessitates the sequence of action, the play's defenders inadvertently confirm the century-old hypothesis that "[t]hough there may indeed exist a sort of interior connexion between the episode and the principal plot, yet it appears more than doubtful whether the linkjoining the two parts was easily, ifat all, discoverable by the play-going public ofthe age."10 In actuality, this century-oldhypothesis is unfounded. In sustaining it, critics do not merely consign this play to ignominy. Edward III is most cohesive as a brilliantly incisive critique of the official propaganda sustaining the persecution of English recusants after the Invincible Armada's defeat. Denying the unity of the play and thus Shakespeare's authorship perpetuates the myth ofShakespeare as a Tudor apologist unconcerned with the course ofthe English Reformation. Allusions to the Armada's defeat within Edward III have been used to date the play, but critics remarking on them have tended to assume that the play was originally written to exploit swelling patriotic feeling.11 But this reading ofthe play is entirely too naive. Certainly to Elizabeth, as to other members of Shakespeare's audience who were educated in medieval history and who had seen in Mary's last year on the throne the loss ofCalais, Edward'svictoryinFrance wasbut a temporaryhighpoint, a peak in the long and tumultuous Hundred Years' War. Just as educated viewers would have known that the Black Prince would break his health in later years while pursuing the claim to France, finally dying in 1376, so too they would have been aware that Edward III finally succumbed to his lust, wallowing in the shocking affair with Alice Perrers, /. P. Conlan179 misconduct which encouraged the Good Parliament to impeach the King's lack ofrestraint and introduce...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 177-207
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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