“Edward III” was published anonymously in 1596. The play is likely to be the work of at least two playwrights. Collaboration was nothing unusual in the emerging Elizabethan theatre industry, and one of the hands responsible for “Edward III” was probably Shakespeare, who may have written around four of the play’s eighteen scenes. It’s possible that Thomas Kyd (1558 – 1594) was among his co-authors.
The play was not included in the First Folio (1623), probably because Shakespeare was not the sole author. True, there were notable precedents for collaboration, even among his best-loved plays: “Macbeth” for example may include passages by Thomas Middleton, as was the case, perhaps, with “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well that Ends Well”. Other likely collaborations (with various co-authors) may include “Titus Andronicus”, “Henry VIII” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen”.
“Edward III” was first attributed to Shakespeare in 1656, some forty years after his death. But it took over three hundred years, with the publication of the text by Yale University Press (1996) and by Cambridge University Press (1998), for major publishers to release the play under his name. It was then included in the Complete Oxford Shakespeare in 2005. Computer analysis later suggested around 40% may have been Shakespeare’s.
The play tells the story of the triumph of English arms in France in pursuit of a claim to the French throne by the King of England. Initially the King has other matters on his mind, having fallen in love, or lust, with the wife of one of his leading men at the front. The scene in which Edward reveals his passion to the Countess of Salisbury is probably among those written by Shakespeare, so it is of particular interest. Two further scenes later in the play may also be Shakespeare’s. The key scenes, marked up in the guide below, are 3, 4, 11 and 12.
For Shakespeare himself, this collaboration came at an interesting time. In 1593 and 1594, the theatres had been closed because of the plague. At this point, Shakespeare was becoming known as the author of light Comedies (“Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “The Comedy of Errors”) and Histories (“Henry VI”, Parts One, Two and Three). In “Richard III” (1592?), he had begun to explore the human being behind the face of the King, to dissect motive and personality: to invest these characters from history with “interiority”, an inner life. He attempts something similar with Edward, lending depth and richness to what is otherwise a rather thin text.
Scene by Scene
Scene One / Act One Scene One
Robert Artois, a French nobleman in exile, explains to Edward that the French crown should be his.
Edward admits that Artois’s account has replaced “ignorance” with “Hot courage” in “my breast”.
It emerges that the French King, having made Edward Duke of Guyenne, wants him to pay homage.
Edward agrees to the visit, but announces he will come “not servilely” but “like a conqueror”.
Artois, denounced as a “traitor”, tells the French envoy that France should “surrender” to Edward.
News emerges the King of Scotland has abandoned previous agreements and lays siege to Roxburgh.
Edward, aware that the Countess Salisbury is trapped, arranges to lead an army north to relieve her.
Meanwhile “every shire” must recruit “soldiers of a lusty spirit” to build an army to invade France.
The King’s son Edward, the Black Prince, reveals his enthusiasm for the “rightful quarrel” ahead.
Scene Two / Act One Scene Two
The Countess, trapped at Roxburgh Castle, denounces the “rough insulting barbarism” of the Scots.
She conceals herself, and overhears the Scottish King promise not to “enter parley” with England.
He says his invasion of England will continue until the French tell him to “spare England for pity”.
He reveals that among the spoils of victory he intends to take for himself the Countess Salisbury.
With news that “a mighty host of men” has been seen “marching hitherward”, the Scots flee.
As the English approach, the Countess emerges from hiding to ridicule the Scots as they depart.
King Edward arrives, and he and Warwick discuss “with doting admiration” how good-looking she is.
The King is reluctant to remain at the castle since he “dream’d last night of treason, and I fear”.
But the Countess begs him “to stay awhile with me”, and he accedes: “here will I host tonight”.
Scene Three / Act Two Scene One (Probably by Shakespeare)
The King’s secretary Lodowick notes that the King is beginning “To dote amiss” on the Countess.
He predicts that the Scottish wars will be abandoned, to be replaced by a “siege” of their hostess.
The King muses aloud on the Countess’s beauty, describing her as “all the treasure of our land”.
Edward temporarily abandons his war on the Scots and tells Lodowick to write a love poem for him.
While Lodowick writes, Edward is lost in admiration for the Countess – but the poem disappoints.
References to chastity and constancy are not accepted, leading Edward to take on the composition.
When the Countess appears, Edward pretends to be discussing battle tactics with Lodowick.
She promises she will do all in her power to restore the “sullen melancholy” of the sovereign.
The King tells her he loves her but she reminds him, “That love you offer me you cannot give”.
She asks if, in proposing adultery, he is willing to “Commit high treason against the King of Heaven”.
She pretends his purpose has been to test her chastity, and she leaves without awaiting his reply.
But Edward is not put off, and enlists her father Warwick to “bear my colours in this field of love”.
Warwick reluctantly agrees to the King’s command, but the Countess is horrified and prefers to die.
Warwick is relieved at her refusal, and argues that power and prestige also bring responsibility.
Scene Four / Act Two Scene Two (Probably by Shakespeare)
Two English nobles announce successful recruiting for the English army campaigning in France.
But the King is mysteriously closeted alone and malcontent: “something is amiss”, they observe.
Edward appears, preoccupied not with battle but with his faltering romance with the Countess.
The sound of a military drum-beat merely serves to awaken “the tender Cupid in my bosom”.
Prince Edward arrives, his troops prepared, to hear the King’s plans, but he remains distracted.
The Countess explains that she will accede to the King’s desires if certain conditions are met.
She demands that her husband and the King’s wife be executed to prove “you love me as you say”.
The King agrees, but the Countess demands that he stab his wife himself, and she will stab herself.
He is ashamed, and will never again engage in “such a suit” having “awaked from this idle dream”.
Denouncing his own past behaviour as “folly”, Edward delivers instructions for the war in France.
Scene Five / Act Three Scene One
King John of France compares the opposing English forces and their allies with his “friends”.
On the English side are Dutch and Germans, on the French side, Poles, Russians and Bohemians.
News comes that Edward’s fleet sports a flag pointedly uniting French and English symbols.
Hearing that battle has been joined at sea, the French deploy their forces in case of invasion.
Further news emerges that the French have been defeated, with many grotesque casualties.
The battle has been “untimely lost” and the enemy have landed, so conflict now transfers to land.
Scene Six / Act Three Scene Two
In fields near Crecy, news spreads that the English have destroyed the French navy, and landed.
Doubts remain among the French whether King John has a better claim to the throne than Edward.
A prophecy predicts that a lion “roused in the west” will “carry hence the fleur-de-lys of France”.
Further news arrives that “Slaughter” is “unrestrain’d” and five French cities have been ransacked.
Moreover, “Corn-fields and vineyards” are on fire, with the inhabitants butchered as they flee.
Scene Seven / Act Three Scene Three
King Edward rewards the Frenchman Gobin de Grace for helping the English cross the river Somme.
Prince Edward reports the fall of various cities and the punishments visited on recalcitrant enemies.
He adds that the King of France has “full a hundred thousand fighting men” and is preparing to fight.
Now the King of France appears, and rebukes Edward as a “thieving pirate” who lives “by pilfering”.
He then charges Edward with a lack of integrity, and tries to buy him off with a “store of treasure”.
Edward rejects John’s “wolvish barking” and denounces his forebears as “a strumpet’s artificial line”.
He calls on John to resign but is told that France will be “a pool of blood” before he gains the throne.
John appeals to his followers for loyalty, and calls on them to protect “your country and your king”.
He notes Edward is guilty of “lascivious wantonness” and says he was lately “almost dead for love”.
He ridicules the English, bids his followers “scorn” them and challenges them to join battle at Crecy.
Edward calls on his men to make the departing King pay for the “scandalous crime” of insulting him.
Prince Edward’s first taste of battle is marked by gifts of armour, a helmet, a lance and a shield.
He pledges to protect “the fatherless and poor” before the King issues final instructions for battle.
Scene Eight / Act Three Scene Four
As French soldiers flee the battlefield, it seems many “in the clust’ring throng are press’d to death”.
Scene Nine / Act Three Scene Five
King Edward thanks god for giving victory “unto the right” and for making “the wicked stumble”.
Calls for Prince Edward to be rescued from the battlefield reach the King, but he declines to act.
He observes that the Prince will “win a world of honour”, but should he die, “we have more sons”.
He rejects requests to save the boy, claiming that he must rescue himself to conquer his own fear.
The Retreat is sounded, and a battle-weary Prince appears with the body of the King of Bohemia.
He reveals that he was surrounded by “thousands”, but killed the King – “this first fruit of my sword”.
Claiming his son’s sword is still “reeking warm”, the King uses it to knight this “trusty knight at arms”.
The King again refutes King John’s imputation that he is a “love-sick cockney” given to “wantonness”.
Prince Edward explains his Colours show a pelican wounding itself that its young may drink its blood.
Scene Ten / Act Four Scene One
Salisbury, keen to reach Calais, promises Villiers his freedom if he will “procure me but a passport”.
Villiers agrees to petition the Duke of Normandy for the pass – or “return my prisoner back again”.
Scene Eleven / Act Four Scene Two
At Calais, King Edward, unable to gain entry, resolves to starve “this accursed town” into submission.
But confronted by starving French citizens, he orders they be fed and given “five crowns a-piece”.
News arrives that the King of Scotland has been captured, and that the Queen is heading for France.
Calais surrenders, and Edward orders six prominent citizens be handed over to face “what I please”.
Scene Twelve / Act Four Scene Three (Probably by Shakespeare)
Prince Charles is incredulous that Villiers intends to keep his agreement with the enemy Salisbury.
But Villiers believes in taking the honourable course, “Or else our actions are but scandalous”.
He has sworn an oath to return to captivity if he cannot secure the passport, and means to do so.
Charles and Villiers debate the various ethical issues in keeping one’s word and killing in battle.
When Villiers makes it clear that he means to return to captivity, Charles agrees to sign the passport.
As Villiers departs Charles hopes that, if ever he “hath need”, his soldiers will prove of similar calibre.
King John reveals that Prince Edward has been surrounded, with the English hugely outnumbered.
Charles reads a prophecy to the King, suggesting that the French will enjoy success in battle in turn.
The King is reassured by his interpretation of the prophecy, and focuses on capturing Prince Edward.
Scene Twelve / Act Four Scene Four (Probably by Shakespeare)
Marooned in their camp, Prince Edward and Audley gloomily discuss the enemy surrounding them.
The French King offers Edward to “fold his bloody colours up” if the English will “kneel at his feet”.
The Prince defiantly rejects this proposal, only to receive a second offer of freedom from the King.
Again he rejects the offer, before a third herald brings a prayer book for him to “meditate within”.
The Prince seeks Audley’s advice how best to face “this perilous time”, and is told not to fear death.
Emboldened, the Prince sees death as “new life”, and proclaims himself “indifferent” to dying.
Scene Thirteen / Act Four Scene Five
The mood in the French camp is ominous, as a “flight of ugly ravens” hovers over the soldiers’ heads.
Meanwhile a fog obscures the sun, unnerving the French soldiers, who “stand / Bloodless and pale”.
King John interprets the ravens as waiting to feast on English flesh and sends this reading to his men.
When Salisbury is brought in, a captive of the French army, the King instantly condemns him to hang.
But his son challenges the verdict, citing his own honour, and threatening to “leave to be a prince”.
The King excuses any breach of honour or broken promise on Charles’s part and insists on execution.
Charles is adamant, and John sends Salisbury to Calais to report to Edward the capture of his son.
Scene Fourteen / Act Four Scene Six
In the heat of battle at Poitiers, Artois observes that the French army are transfixed by the crows.
Edward instructs his men to abandon their bows and arrows and pepper the enemy with flint stones.
The “feathered fowls” and “our native stones [that] Rebel” remind King John of the prophecy in 4.3.
He succumbs to “weak and yielding fear” as Charles senses panic among his men and urges retreat.
As John is joined by his sons in a sense of collective shame, Charles orders his men to “charge again”.
As the scene closes, the figure of a dying Lord Audley begs to be conveyed to “the princely Edward”.
Scene Fifteen / Act Four Scene Seven
At the English camp, Prince Edward relishes his power over his prisoners, King John and his two sons.
Audley appears, close to death, aspiring only to see “my liege, they royal father” before he dies.
Prince Edward begs Audley to survive, and announces plans to deliver the King of France to Calais.
Scene Sixteen / Act Five Scene One.
King Edward instructs his army to attack Calais, to “Put all to sword” and enjoy the spoils of victory.
Six Calais citizens appear, barefoot and with halters round their necks, to beg the King for mercy.
He condemns them to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but agrees to leave the town untouched.
Edward is persuaded by Philippa to spare the six men, and he sends them back unharmed to Calais.
John Copland presents his captive King David of Scotland to Edward, to be knighted and rewarded.
Salisbury reports that at Poitiers King John of France advised Edward to prepare a funeral for his son.
He describes the powerful French army, and calls Prince Edward “a bear fast chain’d unto a stake”.
His view of the battle was obscured by smoke, but he fears his tale must end with “Edward’s fall”.
Philippa wishes she’d not lived to hear this, but Edward vows to avenge “our valiant son’s decease”.
Suddenly news breaks that Prince Edward is approaching, with the King of France “In captive bonds”.
On arrival he presents the French king and crown to his father, who blames the French for the war.
The Prince anticipates further feats of arms while his father looks forward to “a rest” from conflict.
The play is familiarly known as “Edward III” though it was published as “The / Raigne of / King Edward / the third” (1596). In practice, however, the play does not live up to this title. It would perhaps be more accurately entitled “The Character of Edward III, together with some episodes from his military adventures in northern France”. In Shakespeare’s day, Edward was revered as a strong and successful monarch, but this reputation does not inhibit at least one of the authors of this play from presenting him in an ambiguous light.
The play begins with the revival of an age-old English anxiety – war to the north coinciding with war to the south: what Edward describes in 1.1 as “wars / On every side”. Certainly war to the south, against the French, is a presiding theme of Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s, dominating his three plays on “Henry VI” (c. 1590 – 2) and the three that cover the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V (c. 1597 – 8). Other (strictly literary) French expeditions include “King John” (1596) and – by way of contrast – “As You Like It” (1599). Apart from England, only Italy is used more often as the setting for his plays.
One reason this play seems to have fallen into obscurity in the Jacobean period may be the negative picture it paint of the Scots in 1.2. Marooned on the battlements of Roxburgh Castle, the Countess Salisbury denounces their “rough insulting barbarism”, their “broad untuned oaths”, their “wild, uncivil, skipping jigs” and their “babble, blunt and full of pride”. It is not only the inhabitants that engage her contempt – even the “air” is derided as “barren, bleak, and fruitless”. In “Henry IV Part Two”, Scotland is seen as a refuge for English rebels fleeing from the crown, a safe haven. Here it is presented as intolerable. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the English crown passed to James I, also James VI of Scotland.
The image of the Countess welcoming King Edward to her castle in 1.2 will evoke memories of Lady Macbeth speaking to King Duncan in the same warm terms. There, however, the similarities end: Edward will emerge as the villain, not the victim; conversely, the Countess will find herself in danger, not the source of the crime. However, it seems unlikely that Shakespeare wrote this particular scene – though it seems it may have stuck in his mind when he came to write the Scottish play some ten years later.
The scene in which the King discusses with Lodowick his love poem for the Countess (2.1) is particularly witty – and somewhat insulting to the memory of the Warrior King. First Lodowick predicts that, with the appearance of the Countess, the King will soon forget about fighting the Scots. So it proves. Next, tasked with writing the love poem, he borrows the kinds of phrase that reflect the chastity and virtue of the beloved, only to be told that these virtues are not desired. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare composed numerous love sonnets during the 1590s – poems in which the reality of love is given priority over traditional notions of romance.
When the Countess tells her father in 2.1 (Scene Three) that she will reject the overtures of the King, Warwick responds with a sequence of examples of the need for the privileged to recognise their responsibilities and exercise restraint. By way of illustration he suggests that “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”. This same line also appears in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, to illustrate the argument that “sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds”. So it has proved with the conduct of the King, busy romancing the wives of those fighting on his behalf in France.
When at the end of 2.2 (Scene Four) the King comes to his senses (“I never mean to part my lips again / In any words that tends to such a suit”), he praises the Countess in terms that suggest her chastity belongs among the most illustrious in history. In particular he praises Lucrece, a Roman woman famed for her modesty but scandalously raped by Tarquin, King of Rome. Shakespeare draws on this myth on a number of occasions in his plays, most famously in “Macbeth”, when the eponymous hero creeps to murder Duncan. Around the time “Edward III” was being composed, Shakespeare was completing the 2,000 line poem “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594).
It’s a striking feature of 3.1 (Scene Five) that the narrative of the sea battle should be told from the French perspective alone. Shakespeare’s plays are normally scrupulous in ensuring that in any battle scenes, both sides are represented: “Richard III”, “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” all follow this pattern, with the playwright’s “eye” drawn first to one side, then to the other. Equally striking is that the battle is described in such gory detail: “Here flew a head, dissever’d from the trunk; / There mangled arms and legs were toss’d aloft” for example. Any sense that war with the French (or anyone else) is a romantic adventure is evidently for the birds.
If 3.1 (Scene Five) presents a vivid picture of slaughter at sea, 3.2 (Scene Six) adjusts its focus to war on land. Once again conflict is presented, not as a romantic enterprise, but as a source of destruction and misery for blameless citizens. In the circumstances it makes sense that the French perspective is given, but 3.2 would be a very different scene if it focused on the back-slapping victors rather than the victims. For that we must go to 3.3.
The summit between the French and English Kings in 3.3 (Scene Seven) breaks down when John derides Edward for “lascivious wantonness” that saw him lately “almost dead for love”. How John has heard about Edward’s flirtation with Countess Salisbury is not explained, but it becomes clear that the insult hit its mark when Edward uses “that scandalous crime” [i.e., the allegation] to motivate his men. As Andrew Dickson drily observes, this stirring call to arms “sounds rather like an offer to make everyone else pay for his misdeeds”.  In 3.5, after the French defeat at Crecy, the King revives the insult, specifically to deny once again that he is a “love-sick cockney”.
How far Shakespeare was responsible for the colourful relationship between King Edward and his oldest son is a moot point. But it’s a distinctive relationship, marked by a cool detachment on the father’s side and a craving to prove himself on the son’s. Shakespeare’s plays are notable for their many expressions of the father / daughter relationship, but the father / son variety is less often explored. Variations on this theme include the anxious Henry IV and his frivolous son Prince Hal, alongside the calculating Polonius and his earnest son Laertes. Other examples are few and far between: it’s striking, for example, that though Montague seems to know Romeo pretty well, he does not once share the stage with him until after the boy has committed suicide.
Scene Eleven (4.3), which bears many of the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s style, falls naturally into two halves. Initially, the honourable Lord Villiers debates the finer points of battlefield etiquette with the French King’s older son, Charles, arguing that, regardless of circumstances, “honourable” behaviour is essential. This theme seems to have been something of a preoccupation of the author, one to which he returns in “Henry IV” Part One, where the back-sliding Falstaff represents the opposite principle: “What is honour?” asks the Fat Knight, replying variously that honour is “a word” and “air”. Villiers would not approve.
The second half of Scene Eleven (4.3) also resonates with familiar Shakespearean concerns, this time evoking “Macbeth”. Here the French King is busy interpreting a prophecy he has had “deliver’d me” by “an aged Hermit”. Nothing more is revealed about the provenance of this prophecy, but it is clear that the King is drawn to it: “By this”, he reflects, “it seems we shall be fortunate”. The prophecy suggests that, so long as a number of improbable events don’t materialise, all will be well for the French. Macbeth receives similar reassurances of course, and is famously confounded.
The relationship between the young Prince Edward and Lord Audley, explored in 4.4 (Scene Twelve), develops against the backdrop of their apparently imminent slaughter in battle. If the scene is Shakespeare’s, as seems likely, it is one of a very small number of relationships between young men and older father figures in his work. The informal friendship between Prince Hal and Falstaff in “Henry IV” Parts One and Two springs to mind, but it is perhaps surprising how rare this kind of relationship is in Shakespeare’s plays.
Scenes Four and Five of Act Four seem designed to present the younger generation – in the shape of the two princes Edward and Charles – and to allow them to bring a theoretical or abstract dimension to the bloody business of battle. In 4.4, Edward questions the aged Lord Audley on the sensitive question of how one should prepare for death. In 4.5, Charles challenges his father King John on the moral question of the obligation to keep one’s word. In both scenes the young men, heirs to their respective thrones, are presented as principled and thoughtful young men.
When in the closing act Lord Salisbury compares the King’s eldest son before Poitiers to “a bear fast chain’d unto a stake”, he anticipates the description Macbeth will use of himself as he awaits his fate at Malcolm’s hands in the last act of the Scottish play. It is a reminder not only that “Edward III” (c. 1595) has a number of parallels with the 1606 play, but – rather more prosaically – that London’s theatres were often used for bear-baiting. This grotesque activity – the bears were tied to a stake and often blindfolded before they were set upon by dogs – was largely confined to an area south of the river reserved for three famously corrupt activities: blood-sports, prostitution and the theatre.
 Andrew Dickson, The Globe Guide to Shakespeare, London: Profile, 2016, p. 88.
Who’s Who / Characters
Edward III King of England
Edward’s character is somewhat contradictory – understandably, perhaps, given that the play has a number of different writers. Initially, the audience’s impression of him is negative: while Salisbury is away at the front in France, fighting for King and country, Edward pursues a romance with his wife from which it emerges that he’s willing to see the death not only of Salisbury but also his own Queen Philippa. The negative impression continues after events move to France. When his son is surrounded in battle by the enemy and desperately needs rescuing (or so it seems), the King leaves him to fight his way out of the problem in a way that seems detached and ruthless: “We have more sons”, he explains.
However, in France a different personality emerges, rational and somewhat given to temper justice with mercy. He takes pity on Calais, and focuses punishment on six citizens. Then, persuaded by his wife to be still more forgiving, he follows her advice and pardons them. John Copland has questions to answer, having refused to hand over the King of Scotland to Philippa, but the King sees his point, and he is forgiven and rewarded with a knighthood. Finally, when it seems that his son has died in battle, he is notably sympathetic to his wife in her grief, though he returns to type with a pledge of violence and vengeance against the French. Happily, in the event, this is a promise he will not need to redeem.
- Give the name of the Scottish castle where Edward encounters Countess Salisbury.
- Who is the Countess’s father, recruited by Edward to support his campaign to win her?
- Which romantic service does Edward insist his secretary Lodowick perform for him?
- How many French towns are we told have been ransacked by the English forces?
- Give the name of the battle in which Prince Edward is abandoned to his fate by his father.
- When Prince Edward emerges triumphant from battle, whose body does he bring with him?
- Which birds figure in the prophecy that seems to promise victory to the French?
- Which weapons do the English use to defeat the French at Poitiers?
- Give the name of the English soldier who captures the King of Scotland.
- What prevents Salisbury from seeing how the battle of Poitiers is won and lost?
- Write a love poem to the Countess
- The King of Bohemia
- Flint stones
- John Copland
- Smoke from the battlefield
It goes without saying that “Edward III” would not now attract the attention it does without the part played in its genesis by Shakespeare. For him this represents a triumph, since when he arrived in London from Stratford in around 1590, he was an outsider in many different ways. As a native of Stratford, three days’ travel from London, he must have felt far from home. Moreover, unlike many of his rivals (the so-called “University Wits”), he lacked an Oxbridge education. So he was seen by some as an “upstart crow”, muscling in where he wasn’t welcome.
But his early plays, though modest in comparison to later achievements, established his reputation, and when the plague closed the theatres, he retired to his desk to write vivid narrative poems (“Venus and Adonis”, 1593, and “The Rape of Lucrece”, 1594) which sold like hot cakes and made his name as the best-known poet in England. His part in the authorship of this play underlines the esteem in which he was held by his colleagues, and the luminous quality of the writing – even here – shows why he was valued by his fellow playwrights.