Thursday, June 3, 2010

RE: Edward III - Opening Thoughts

Ernst writes:

My first response to Edward III was how wonderfully clear the iambic pentameter is—clean, efficient, tremendously easy to follow. Having read (at one time or other) all the surviving English plays written between the mid fifteen hundreds and 1615 or so, I should have something of an “ear,” but I wouldn’t trust it too far.

To me, however, the play feels as it was written around 1589-90. Shakespeare, who, people argue convincingly, surely had a (considerable) hand in it, would have been around 25-26 at the time, married for a number of years and with two children—old enough to have a relatively firm sense of himself as a writer. The chief playwrights of and before the time were John Lyly (fading from favor at the Court), Robert Greene (who wrote competent blank verse), Thomas Kyd (who wrote The Spanish Tragedy in 1587—our melodramatic sense of which may be affected by Ben Jonson’s later, over-the-top additions) and, most sensationally, Christopher Marlowe, whose Tamburlaine plays were an earth-shaking event for the English Theater.

I felt that the characters were pretty flat. What strikes me as Shakespeare’s abiding question in most of his history plays (“What sort of character would do these sorts of things?”) goes largely unanswered. But I found the language that these flattish characters speak to be—often—quite delightful. I could certainly feel Marlowe in the grand posings that sprinkle themselves through the play—especially its earlier parts. Confrontations like those between Kings John and Edward in III.iii remind me of similar confrontations in Tamburlaine—most especially those between Tamburlaine and Bajazeth, or Cosroe, or the coalition of emperors who try to stop his rise to power. Phrases like “Fairer are thou than Hero was;/Beardless Leander not so strong as I,” etc. (II.ii) remind me of Tamburlaine’s apostrophe to his beloved Zenocrate, or the mention of the stars, “When, to the great star-chamber o’er our heads,/The universal session calls to count/This packing evil…” sounds like Marlowe (and foreshadows King Lear).

The cute/clever wordplay reminds me a good bit of Lyly: the carefully balanced remarks such as:

As easy may my intellectual soul,
Be lent away, and yet my body live,
As lend my body, palace to my soul,
Away from her and yet retain my soul.
My body is her bower, her court, her abbey,
And she an angel, pure, divine, unspotted;
I I should lend her house, my lord, to thee,
I kill my poor soul, and my poor soul me. (II.i.236-243)

Like Lyly for adults, not for the children who generally performed his plays. And there is also stichomythia, the bouncing back of lines echoing and answering other lines, a typical Lylyesque trick:

Edward: Thinkst that thou canst unswear thy oath again?
Warwick: I cannot; nor I would not if I could.
Edward: But, if thou dost, what shall I say to thee?
Warwick: What may be said to any perjured villain… (II.i.327-330)

There is a good bit of this Lylyesque word-play in Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labors Lost. It would be good to think of those two plays when trying place Edward III in context, as it might be good to compare the plays to the Henry VI plays—especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward’s characters. There are certainly echoes of situations and character types that Shakespeare uses in this play throughout his later work. I will try to get to that next broadcast. Also, the play mentions two (relatively early, less complex) types of Malcontentedness (my dissertation topic)—Edward being a lover’s-melancholy sort of “malcontent” in his dealing with the Countess, and King Charles referring to England as harboring “malcontents,/Blood-thirsty and sedition Catalines,/Spend-thrifts and such as gape for nothing else/But change and alteration of the state.” Robert Greene put himself forward as having been a “malcontent” in 1592. And the word had been used by both Lyly (jokingly) and Marlowe (darkly) only a year or two earlier than 1590. And Robert Greene was probably returning to England and “ruffling out [his] silks in habit of a malcontent” at about the same time.

Many people seem to think that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets during the mid-1590’s, but one wonders how many of them he got started with earlier. The play’s often-mentioned use of the phrase, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (Sonnet 94) makes one wonder whether Shakespeare was writing sonnets more vigorously during these early years than many suppose. The order in which the sonnets were written is very much up in the air.

Finally, I enclose with this post a discussion of Edward III I pulled from the Internet.


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