Friday, June 25, 2010

RE3: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:

Ernst and all,

That's an interesting question about the genesis of theme. As a high school teacher, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to look at a text's implicit values. Do I suggest they are all intentional? No. A writer may completely avoid establishing thematic coherence as part of the creative process and think nothing of it. Themes, we suggest, emerge. But is the expectation that writers concern themselves with narrative coherence merely a product of a certain way of looking at literature? Or can we assume that all playwrights work toward a satisfactory narrative. If a writer establishes the most basic structure -- a beginning, middle, and end -- doesn't that imply a beginning, middle, and end of something?

Taking Edward III specifically, are we looking at the beginning, middle, and end of Edward III's battle for France? Or the beginning, middle, and end of a personal and public crisis in his life? Or the beginning, middle, and end of the rise of Edward the Black Prince? Can the playwright(s) in this case be expected to have asked themselves, "what story are we telling?"

Beyond the simple, we talk about comedy and tragedy, among the generic conventions of which we find a narrative component, a relationship between order and chaos and a transition from one to the other. Certainly, history plays can challenge narrative coherence, pre-determining a character's biography, choices and actions, the existence of social order and chaos, and even the public's attitude toward the story's figures and events. Perhaps history plays expose an author's creative process more completely precisely because history has provided a template by which we can observe narrative choices, deviations, amendments, agreements. And when we can put our finger on an author's choices we can determine attitude.

For me, that provides a connection between narrative coherence and theme. For example, in 1348, a third of the English people died from the plague, eight years before the battle of Poitiers. The Edward III playwright chooses to leave out Edward's successfully getting his people through this portion of English history. Did the ravages of the disease not fit the warrior story? Is reference to the plague box office suicide? Does the play let us explore the possibility that the real challenges of leadership come from within or from other people, rather than forces of Nature? The Edward III playwright does include Edward's interaction with the Countess of Salisbury, which he gets from William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1566). Again, he has a choice: either depict the temptation as Painter did (Edward is single, the Countess a widow) or retain the historical fact that both are married. The latter path addresses Edward's stature as a hero in the story. Can we move from that to the idea that the story has something to say about heroism?

Ernst has given us on a number of occasions the suggestion that Shakespeare may approach his stories from the standpoint of a question: why would a character act this way? That question has been quite fruitful for me in reading the plays. With Edward III, though, I don't find adequate exploration of the Countess sequence. I don't find a clear foundation for Edward's harsh refusal to rescue the younger Edward in Act 3, scene 4 (Audley says, "O cruel father"), and by the end of the play I'm uncertain about the kind of person I'm expected to associate with Edward. I certianly don't feel that way about Henry V or even Henry VI or, to extend beyond Shakespeare, Thomas of Woodstock.

One last thought: given that this play may have undergone some revision, which may account for the possible Shakespearean passages, we might even have a greater right to expect a narrative coherence and the resultant emergence of some thematic coherence, as playwrights work to smooth the story into a pleasurable, and marketable, piece. On the other hand, too many cooks may spoil the soup, but with this play it's hard to tell which situation we have.


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