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Edward III in Henry V

(Shakespearean Criticism)

E. Pearlman, University of Colorado at Denver

Shakespeare knew the play called The Raigne of King Edward the Third as well as he knew Holinshed's Chronicle or North's Plutarch or Ovid's Metamorphoses. He might have become intimate with Edward III in any of a number of ways, for it was "sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London,"1 during the early 1590s, and it is hard to imagine that Shakespeare, himself a practitioner of the art of chronicle history, would not have taken the trouble to look in at one of its various performances. Shakespeare might also have laid down his sixpence for a copy of Edward III, for the play was readily available, having been published by Cuthbert Burby in 1596 and once again in 1599. There is also the possibility that Shakespeare the actor might have undertaken a role or two as a member of the Earl of Pembroke's Men2—the company often thought to have the best claim to Edward III. And finally, if an emerging scholarly consensus is to be credited, Shakespeare may very well have written the play in part or even in its entirety3. It is not beyond possibility that he would have been familiar with Edward III in every conceivable way—as writer, actor, reader, and spectator. But by whatever means Shakespeare came to know the play, he knew it exceedingly well. It was a work that left as profound a mark on his work as any piece of contemporary writing, even including the productions of Kyd and Marlowe. And of all Shakespeare's works, the most surely touched was Henry V.

There are sundry points of contact between Edward III and Shakespeare, none more suggestive than the case of the "scarlet ornaments." King Edward III, replicating the light of a hundred heroes of romance, has fallen desperately in love with the chaste, married, and moral Countess of Salisbury. Edward's private secretary Lodowick has scrutinized king and countess and has observed that in their embarrassment they share an unusual complexional complementarity—a color morphing that causes the one to grow red as the other grows white. Lodowick confides to the audience that

& when shee blusht, euen then did he looke
 pale,
As if her cheekes by some inchaunted power
Attracted had the cherie blood from his;
Anone with reuerent feare, when she grew
 pale,
His cheeke put on their scarlet ornaments.&
                        (sig. B3v-B4; 341-345)

If Shakespeare did not compose Edward III, he must have been taken aback to hear these lines spoken by one of the actors. Would he not have remembered his own Sonnet 142 ("Loue is my sinne, and thy deare verrue hate")4 where "the speaker" complains that the lips of his faithless mistress have "prophan'd their scarlet ornaments" (6)? Did he know or guess that the author of Edward III was one of the private friends among whom his sugared sonnets had circulated? There is yet another possibility: that Shakespeare did not write Sonnet 142 until much later (in the first years of the following century, quite likely) and that Edward III precedes the sonnet. Did Shakespeare then take note of the striking phrase and store it away for future use? Or (to shift the ground and give credence to the surmise that Shakespeare was in fact the author of Edward III) was it then laziness or self-congratulation (or simply forgetfulness) that caused him to reuse the phrase "scarlet ornaments" in another and very different context?

If such inquiries as these can be triggered by a single repeated phrase, they are provoked all the more by a second encroachment a few scenes further on in Edward III. The lustful king is still in hot pursuit of his countess. Now the countess's father, the Earl of Warwick, encouraging his daughter (who in truth needs no encouragement) to slap the hand of the lascivious Edward, reminds her that "[a]n honorable graue is more esteemd / Then the polluted closet of a king" (sig. D2r; 767-68). Warwick goes on to launch a fusillade of proverbs and sentences that are intended to fortify his daughter's resolve. The sins of...

(The entire section is 7,168 words.)