The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lost In France

Just finished reading another Christmas present, the play Edward III. It’s lots of fun, very clear and easy to follow (most of the footnotes are historical or textual pedantry rather than explaining the language, and when they do, they are usually superfluous). Oh, I’m talking about the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition here, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence with this howler of a typo in the second speech of the play:

Three sons of his, which all successively
Did sit upon their father’s regal throne,
Yet died and left no issue of their lions.

The reason I was interested in reading it was, of course, that it’s recently entered the Shakespeare canon, with its entire second act (along with bits of acts one and four) widely attributed to Shakespeare, written in collaboration with one or more authors including Thomas Kyd.

The play reminded me of the Henry VI plays, as it is has a very episodic structure – the King defeats the Scots that have been besieging the Countess of Salisbury, the King attempts to seduce the Countess, the King launches an attack of France with a spectacular naval victory at Sluys and a land victory at Crecy, and for the last two Acts the narrative splits into three, one concerned with the progress of the Earl of Salisbury through French-held territory to meet King Edward at Calais, one concerned with King Edward holding Calais under siege, and the third the other with the progress of King Edward’s son Prince Edward (aka the Black Prince)  in battles against the French at Poitiers. Although there are elements that link the different episodes – for instance, the Scottish King David is captured and brought to King Edward in Act 5, and characters that only appear in later acts are mentioned in Act 1– it is easy to imagine it being a composite work.

This piecemeal structure does have some flaws. Although it is adhering to historical fact, to have Prince Edward achieving a miraculous victory practically singlehanded against overwhelming Frenchmen in Act 3 and then again in Act 4 is repetitious (and doesn’t exactly create much suspense the second time around). Also all three of the major battles are won the same way; not through any particular ingenuity of the English (save for Prince Edward’s trick with the flint-stones at Poitiers) but because both the Scots and the French are habitually disorganised and cowardly.  The play also makes the point that the English victories at Sluys and Poitiers are both partially down to freak weather conditions acting in their favour (the victory at Sluys being deliberately reminiscent of the celebrated defeat of the Spanish Armada which was 'hot' at the time the play was written). Freak weather conditions being, of course, an indicator of god taking sides.

Act 2 is regarded by those who know better than me as being the work of Shakespeare, and it’s not hard to see why, as the language suddenly becomes more poetic (and speeches become longer!), and the arguments posited by the characters become more subtle and nuanced and, in the case of King Edward, as the character himself abruptly changes from what was established in Act 1; it seems the sight of the Countess of Salisbury is enough to change a warmonger into a poet (though he does fall for her immediately in Act 1, to be fair, she has pretty eyes). He then changes back to the warmonger in Act 3, as though waking from a dream.

This Act largely concerns the idea of ‘what to do if your king asks you to break an oath’ – a theme visited elsewhere in the play, but whereas in Act 4 the arguments are quite black-and-white (honour dictates that oaths are paramount) in Act 2 things are much more complex; as King Edward uses the fact that he’s King first to effectively order the Countess into bed with him and then to order her father to order his daughter to sleep with him (the King).  Rather amusingly her father reconciles this conflict of honour  by instructing his daughter to sleep with the King, in order to fulfil her oath of loyalty to the king, and then immediately tells his daughter not to as instructed in order to fulfil her oath of loyalty to her husband and god.

Acr 2 reminded me very strongly of the interlude in Henry VI Part One where Talbot is briefly imprisoned by Auvergne, partly because of its tonal incongruity of being a chunk of light-hearted love story pasted into an otherwise battle-focused place and also because Talbot also undergoes a weird shift in personality once he’s placed in a romantic setting.

What really struck me about this Act, though, was how funny it was. The book’s introduction to the play describes it as entirely humourless which I found baffling given that the whole scene with King Edward and his poet-for-hire Lodowick (free Lodowick!) is pure comedy. The gags are broad, yes, but they work; Lodowick struggling to keep up with King Edward’s detailed and lengthy instructions on what Lodowick should put into his love poem to the Countess is clearly the struggle of any writer-for-hire trying to satisfy the demands of an unhelpful client.

My favourite part was the first big joke which consist of King Edward spending a good couple of minutes describing the subject and recipient of the poem in extravagant terms (‘more beautiful than beautiful’) while neglecting to give any pertinent details, leading Lodowick to eventually ask:

Write I... to a woman?

To which the King responds:

What, thinkst thou I did bid thee praise a horse?

Yes, I’m doing the thing of quoting the best jokes in the review, so sue me. Then a short while later, after the King has spent another few minutes telling Lodowick what to write in his love poem, he finally asks Lodowick to show him his finished work. Which consists of two lines! Which the King immediately finds fault with and gets Lodowick to cross out and start again. And then when the Countess walks in, there’s a funny little bit where the King pretends that he and Lodowick have been discussing battle strategies.

The rest of the play is not dissimilar to Henry V, with its various sieges and with Prince Edward a prototype Hal, though with much less personality; he is a model son, courageous and obedient, as a paragon of virtue, quite dull. King Edward is a more interesting character – even overlooking his entirely different personality in Act 2 – and recalls some of Hal’s bloodthirstier moments in Henry V (i.e. his threats to the citizens of the city of Harfleur). King Edward makes similar threats to the citizens of Calais and it’s only the intervention of his wife that prevents him executing six merchants just to make a point. His attitude to his son is also rather harsh; when the Prince  is in trouble in battle, King Edward won’t sent him help, on the basis that either the Prince will survive, and gain honour and experience, or he’ll die honourably in battle and it won’t matter much because King Edward has plenty of other sons to take his place! So King Edward is portrayed heroically, but not sympathetically – rather like the depiction of Talbot in Henry VI Part One.

The big difference, though, is that Edward III relates the battles from the point of view of the losing side; we see the French King being given the bad news of his defeat at Sluys, we see French refugees fleeing from Crecy, and the defeat at Poitiers is also depicted from the French end. By focusing on the French perspective, the play enhances the image of the English as an unstoppable, terrible force of nature; each battle begins with the French boasting (taunting from the battlements!) about how they will win, and depicts how they become unstuck due to over-confidence (their fatal flaw at Crecy and Poitiers is their assumption of an easy victory; the mere fact that the English are prepared to fight back rattles the French troops so much they flee in terror).

Where it scores over Henry V is that it has its romantic interlude in Act 2, rather than as an anticlimax in Act 5. Of course it’s nowhere near as well-written, but I’d certainly say it was the equal of King John or the Henry VI plays and probably easier to sit through than Richard II. The main fun for me, though, was that it depicts an unfamiliar period of history (though the story of English soldiers killing lots of French soldiers is fairly familiar!) so I felt I was learning something (or remembering bits of history I’d forgotten) as well as having the novelty of a new play. I hope The Globe does a production soon, it would be ideal for that venue, and as I was reading it, I could easily imagine how it would be staged. Bring it on!

1 comment:

  1. The episodic structure is what we've begun to call "Centrifugal plotting", where the acts of a play are linked by character or theme but don't really have a strong through line, i.e. the play 'revolves' around a central concern rather than progressing linearly. It's common with the generation of writers before Shakespeare, from what we can tell from what we've got to look at anyway.