Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RE: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:


Gil asks, in his "Edward III and Historical Myth" posting, if Edward III's seeming disconnect between Edward's seduction sequence and the "heroic victories on the killing fields of France" isn't analogous to the transition from the Eastcheap and Falstaff sequences to "the emergence of the militarily unprepared Prince Harry as he arms to fight Hotspur at Shrewsbury." I don't think the analogy holds, though, for two reasons.

We are led to make some comparison by the opening scene of Edward III, where Edward, seeking a legal foundation for his battle with France, discusses his right of rule with Robert Artois. Edward's claim will rest on the fact that his mother is the sole heir of France's previous king, Philip LeBeau, his three sons having died without issue. France, of course, denies her claim due to Salic law, which excludes women from inheriting the throne. This is the same Salic law that Henry V learns has exploitable loopholes allowing him to make his claim on France with "right and conscience." Hence, both plays begin by justifying England's right to do battle in and for France, a predictable bit of national propaganda in two plays that present great historical English victories.

Once we have similar starting points it is easy to extend the comparison to the two kings. In Edward III and Henry V, though, we get two very different rulers. Edward's lapse into temptation and attempted seduction represents a deviation from his role as king, putting his success in France at risk. In fact, at the moment that he becomes smitten with her, he says:

What strange enchantment lurked in those her eyes,
When they excelled this excellence they have,
That now her dim decline hath power to draw
My subject eyes from piercing majesty
To gaze on her with doting admiration? (1.2.102-106)

Giorgio Melchiori, in his footnote to this passage in my New Cambridge edition, points out the contrast between "subject" and "majesty." In short, Edward is unkinged by his lust ... um, admiration ... for the Countess. (And it's no surprise that in unwittingly wielding this power over him, the Countess has been cast as a witch by the playwright's use of the word "enchantment." As we learn from Joan of Arc in Henry VI or Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, women who exert power over men can only be in league with the devil.) And this is where the comparison between Edward and Hal begins to fall apart for me.

Both men face publicly acceptable and unacceptable paths to their future. Edward begins on an acceptable path (rightful king pursues legal claim to greater territory and national pride) but deviates to an unacceptable path (seduction of chaste, married woman, a personal rather than public goal inappropriate for someone who wields the royal "we" and the moral obligations that go with it). Gil reminds us that our comparison begins not with Henry V but with 1 Henry IV, where Hal is hanging out in a tavern, plotting robberies with scruffy ne'er-do-wells. Hal, then, has begun on the unacceptable path, as noted bitterly by his father ("riot and dishonor stain the brow/ Of my young Harry"). By the end of 1 Henry IV though Hal has moved to the accepted path, defeating Hotspur and distinguishing himself in battle. Even before the final showdown between the two Harrys, Sir Richard Vernon, who might be seen as a sort of public voice, acquaints Hotspur with Hal's kingly qualities:

...let me tell the world:
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope
So much misconstrued in his wantonness. (1 Henry IV, 5.2.68-71)

Ah, "misconstrued." We're asked to finally recognize what Hal has been arguing all along -- that his "wantonness" is part of an essential path to kingship. Or, as Hal puts it,

Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (1 Henry IV, 1.2.204-210)

So, Gil asks, is the disconnect between the two worlds, the two paths of each character, so different? I think so because while Edward's represents a clear deviation from (and therefore a challenge to) his success as a king, Hal's is not. Instead of being unkinged by his association with Falstaff and his cohorts, it has made him a better king. As he tells the emissary from the Dauphin in response to the gift of tennis balls in Henry V, "we understand [the Dauphin] well,/ How he comes o'er us with our wilder days,/ Not measuring what use we made of them" (1.2.266-268). To turn this around, what use is Edward's temptation by and attempted seduction of the Countess? In the second half of the play, does his emergence from the temptation reveal him to be something stronger, greater, or more aware than he was? No.

In fact, and this would be my second reaction to the comparison, Edward's disappearance as a main character in the second half of Edward III shifts the emphasis on to Edward the Black Prince. While 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V keep a fairly strong focus on Hal's journey, mitigating a division between Hal's experiences in the tavern and his experiences on the battlefield, Edward III emphasizes the disconnect between its two parts with a significant character shift. This reminds me of the focus on events rather than on central character that we found in the Henry VI plays, and if we agree with Gil about Edward III's probable placement between those plays and the Henry IV and Henry V trilogy, that would make some structural sense. Ernst suggested we spend some time comparing this play to the Henry VI trilogy, "especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward III's characters." I throw that out there for anyone willing, and I'll leave it at this: while Shakespeare's second set of Henry plays treats Hal like an epic hero, this play, Edward III, is more like the first set of Henry plays, a dramatic mirror for magistrates.


[Quotes: 1 Henry IV from Folger edition; Henry V from Signet edition; Edward III from New Cambridge edition.]

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