Edward III
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Historical Background
Plot Summary
Small Stage, Strong Writing
Imagery: Nature, Animals
Imagery: Horror of War
Imagery: Yearning Heart
House of Plantagenet
Complete Text: U of Virginia
Hundred Years' War
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work

.......Edward III is a history play. The battlefield feats of Prince Edward, known as the Black Prince, resemble those of Prince Hal (later King Henry V) in Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V.  

Key Dates

Date Written: Probably between 1589 and 1592
First Printing: Probably 1596. 

Authorship Question

.......Since the publication of Edward III more than 400 years ago, its creator has been in doubt for two key reasons: (1) The publisher, Cuthbert Burby, failed to identify the author when the first copies of the play appeared in print, probably in 1596; (2) the Great Fire of London in 1666 probably destroyed any records referring to the author. However, over the centuries, scholars began to recognize similarities between the style of Edward III and other Shakespeare plays, although Edward III is clearly inferior to the great Shakespeare plays. 
.......One of the most obvious similarities is its use of Shakespeare’s preferred poetic meter, iambic pentameter. In addition, the play contains direct quotations from three of Shakespeare's Sonnets—Numbers 29, 94, and 142—and includes many obscure words (such as mote, conventicle, belike, orison, vail, and bruit) which also appear in other Shakespeare plays. In the late 1990s, several prestigious publishers decided to acknowledge Shakespeare as the author of Edward III and include the play in new editions. In addition, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play as a Shakespeare work at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Gielgud Theatre in London. 


.......The action takes place at the royal palace in London; Roxborough Castle, near the Scottish border; a French camp near Sluys, Flanders; a field near Crécy; English camps near Calais; battlefield.

The English
Edward III Plantagenet: King of England. He is quick-tempered and arrogant but yields to wise counsel when pressed.
Queen Philippa de Hainault: Wife of Edward III.
Prince Edward (The Black Prince): Edward III's noble and courageous son, whom the king calls Ned.
Robert of Artois: Banished French nobleman who supports King Edward's claim on the French throne.
Earl of Salisbury: A nobleman loyal to King Edward.
Countess of Salisbury: Beautiful wife of Salisbury whom the king covets but cannot win.
Earl of Warwick: Father of the Countess of Salisbury.
Sir William Montague: Salisbury's nephew.
Earl of Derby, Lord Audley, Lord Percy: Nobles.
John Copland: Esquire who captures the rebellious Scottish king.
Lodowick: Secretary of King Edward.
Lord Montfort: Duke of Brittany.
Gobin de Graie: French peasant who aids the English.
Herald and Squires

The French and Their Allies
John (Valois): King of France
Prince Charles of Normandy: His eldest son.
Prince Philip: Another son.
Duke of Lorraine: Emissary from King John II of France.
Lord Villiers of Normandy
King of Bohemia, Polonian Captain: Allies of John.
Captains, Heralds, Citizens, Mariner, Man, Woman

The Scots 
David II: King of Scotland.
Scottish Messengers

Historical Background

.......This play focuses first on one of the causes of the Hundred Years' War between England and France: the claim of King Edward III (b. 1312, d. 1377) to the French throne as the son of Isabel, the only surviving child of the French king Philip IV (1268-1314). The last of Philip's three sons died in 1328. The play then shifts its focus to King Edward's quelling of an uprising by Scots, who had been aided by the French, and finally to the war in France in the 1340's, where the English win a glorious victory, thanks in large part to the derring-do of the king's son, Prince Edward, known as the Black Prince.

Plot Summary
Based on the First Quarto Text of 1596
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......In a palace council chamber in London, King Edward III confers the title Earl of Richmond on Robert of Artois, a banished Frenchman. Well does Artois deserve the honor, Edward believes, for Artois is helping the king understand the line of line of succession to the throne of France--a line of succession that appears to favor Edward, the undisputed King of England, as the rightful king of France. Here is the the gist of what Artois tells the king:
......Upon the death of his father, Edward II, in 1327, fifteen-year-old Edward inherited the English throne as Edward III. Because his mother, Isabel, was the daughter of King Philip IV of France, Edward also stood to inherit the throne of France through his mother if Philip's three sons died before Edward. These three sons did accede to the French throne as Louix X, Philip V, and Charles IV, but the last of them--Charles--died in 1328 while Edward was still a teenager. Since there was no remaining male heir to the throne, the right of succession should have passed through Isabel, the last of Philip's surviving children, to Edward, Artois says. He concludes, saying:

    The French obscured your mother's privilege,
    And, though she were the next of blood, proclaimed
    John of the house of Valois, now their king.
    The reason was, they say, the realm of France,
    Replete with princes of great parentage,
    Ought not admit a governor to rule,
    Except he be descended of the male. (1.1.19-27)
.......Another Frenchman, the Duke of Lorraine, arrives at court to tell Edward that if he presents himself before John within forty days and acknowledges him as the rightful ruler of France, John will grant Edward the dukedom of Guienne. Artois and Prince Edward, the worthy son of the English king, both dismiss the brazen offer and ridicule John. Lorraine leaves in a huff. War looms.
.......Meanwhile, belligerent Scots under King David invade England, capture Berwick and Newcastle, and besiege a castle at Roxborough that lodges the beautiful Countess of Salisbury, the daughter of the Earl of Warwick. King Edward dispatches troops to engage the French while he marches against David and the Scots. When Edward reaches Roxborough, the Scots flee and Edward prepares to pursue them until he sees the countess. Her charm and her looks utterly bewitch him, and he abandons his campaign against David to woo her. Although he and the countess are both married, Edward unabashedly proclaims his love for her. Morally upright, she rejects him—and refuses to yield to importunities from her father, whom Edward has forced into speaking up on his behalf. In the end, Edward and the countess never know each other except through eye contact.
.......In France, the English capture Barfleur, Lo, Crotoy, and Carentan and lay waste the countryside even though John has a massive army that includes allies from Denmark, Bohemia, Sicily, Russia, and Poland. After John withdraws with 100,000 men to the plain of Crécy, he and King Edward—now encamped in France—meet briefly during a lull in fighting and exchange insults before the French move on. On King Edward's behalf, the Earl of Derby tells King John that Edward has a just claim to the French crown:
    Was ever any of thy father's house king 
    But thyself, before this present time? 
    Edward's great lineage, by the mother's side, 
    Five hundred years hath held the scepter up. 
    Judge then, conspirators, by this descent, 
    Which is the true born sovereign, this or that? (3.3.130-135)
.......Prince Edward, known as the Black Prince, receives a splendid suit of armor from the Earl of Derby, Lord Audley, and Artois, then pursues John and his forces. But the French wheel and set upon him. All seems lost for the young warrior, especially when King Edward refuses to march to his aid. His son must fend for himself to prove his mettle—or die. However, the prince rallies his forces and wins the day. When he arrives at his father’s camp with the body of the King of Bohemia, his father pronounces the prince a “fit heir unto a king.” King Edward then orders his son and Audley to pursue John’s army as it flees toward Poitiers while the English king and his forces besiege Calais, a seaport in northern France.
.......At Calais, bully news arrives from England: Armies of the crown have defeated the Scots. Moreover, John Copland, an esquire, has captured King David. King Edward sends a dispatch summoning Copland just as Edward’s wife, the queen, arrives at the port of Calais for a visit with her husband. After Edward pitches his tent near the shore to await his wife, the burgesses of Calais agree to surrender if Edward grants the town clemency. Edward tells a French captain that six of the town’s wealthiest merchants must 
    Come naked all, but for their linen shirts,
    With each a halter hanged about his neck,
    And, prostrate, yield themselves upon their knees,
    To be afflicted, hanged, or what I please. (4.2.74-77)
.......King John, meanwhile, turns the tide and traps Prince Edward. Then he dispatches a herald to deliver this message to the prince: John will spare the prince if he surrenders on his knees with one hundred high-ranking men. Ever bold and proud, Prince Edward spurns the offer. Suddenly—and inexplicably—a strange darkness descends on the French camp, and ravens hover over the troops, unnerving them. Attempting to hearten his army, John says the ravens are merely awaiting the spill of English blood. While the troops cower beneath the ominous birds, a French officer arrives with a prize captive, the Earl of Salisbury. The king summarily orders him to the gallows. Salisbury protests, declaring that he has a passport granting him travel rights through French ranks. He had obtained it from the Duke of Normandy, he claims, in exchange for the release of a French prisoner named Villiers. John refuses to honor the pass; however, the duke (John's eldest son) steps forward and confirms that he granted the passport, swearing a vow to honor it. The king then releases Salisbury, telling him he may go to Calais to tell King Edward to prepare a grave for his son.
.......Prince Edward’s situation indeed appears hopeless, for his archers have spent all their arrows. But the resourceful prince orders his troops to use what French soil has in abundance—flint. Still distracted by the ravens, the French troops panic. When some of them flee, their own compatriots turn against them. John’s son, Prince Philip, observes: “One poor David hath with a stone foiled twenty stout Goliaths. Some twenty naked starvelings with small flints have driven back a puissant host of men. . . .” Prince Edward once again has turned what appeared to be certain defeat into a victory.
.......At Calais, King Edward decrees death for the six merchants brought before him. However, after the queen persuades him to show mercy, he relents. Copland then arrives with the captive Scottish king and Salisbury with news that Prince Edward appears doomed. Shortly thereafter, though, a herald delivers the glorious tidings that the young prince has won another great victory and, what is more, has brought with him two royal captives:
    Rejoice, my lord, ascend the imperial throne. 
    The mighty and redoubted Prince of Wales, 
    Great servitor to bloody Mars in arms, 
    The Frenchman's terror and his country's fame, 
    Triumphant rideth, like a Roman peer, 
    And lowly, at his stirrup, comes afoot 
    King John of France together with his son 
    In captive bonds; whose diadem he brings 
    To crown thee with and to proclaim thee king. (5.1.177-184)
.......All is well for the English after these opening battles of the Hundred Years War.

.......The climax occurs when Prince Edward, the Black Prince, turns the tide of battle and wins a smashing victory, enabling his father to receive the crown of France from the Prince's captive, King John. 


The clash between England and France over the throne of France. Edward III, King of England, believes he is the rightful heir to the throne of France as the son of Isabel, the only surviving child of Philip IV of France (1268-1314). His claim 
The French maintain that inheritance of the throne can pass only through a man. 
Coming of age of the king's son. Young Prince Edward proves his worth on the field of battle, fighting bravely and narrowly escaping death or capture. His father tells him that he is a “fit heir unto a king.” 
The key role of women in the life of nations--and a king. Edward's lineage as the son of Isabel, the daughter of a king of France, is one of the main reasons that he claims the throne of France and goes to war. It is also a woman, the Countess of Salisbury, who humbles the king. Though he has a wife and she a husband, he makes advances toward her, unable to control his emotions. However, she rebukes him and, holding a knife to her breast, threatens to kill herself unless he backs off: 

    Either swear to leave thy most unholy suit, 
    And never henceforth to solicit me, 
    Or else, by Heaven, this sharp-pointed knife 
    Shall stain thy earth, with that which thou would stain: 
    My poor chaste blood. Swear, Edward! Swear, 
    Or I will strike and die before thee here. (2.2.181-186)
Small Stage, Great Writing

.......Edward III was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. While writing it, he practiced a skill that served him well in later plays: making believable for his audiences a scene that was too large in scope for an Elizabethan stage (a raging battle, for example). In Act III, Scene I, Shakespeare accomplishes this task by having a mariner describe to King John of France an encounter between the English and French navies. The mariner’s description says, in part:

    Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
    With streaming gore that from the maimèd fell,
    As did her gushing moisture break into
    The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
    Here flew a head, dissevered from the trunk;
    There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft,
    As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
    And scatters it in middle of the air.
    Then might ye see the reeling vessels split,
    And, tottering, sink into the ruthless flood,
    Until their lofty tops were seen no more. (161-171)
.......Thus, the physical limitations of the stage spurred Shakespeare to broaden the power of his language in order to present a panoramic scene which today, in a film, requires teams of cinematographers and experts in special effects to present in credible form. These limitations ultimately benefited Shakespeare as a playwright, for they forced him to rely on his writing genius to inform the audience about a battle, a shipwreck, a riot, a violent thunderstorm, etc. And what came out of Shakespeare's quill is certainly greater by far than what comes out of modern movie cameras and computers. 

Imagery: Nature, Animals

.......Edward III, like all other Shakespeare plays, is rich in imagery. Often, the imagery uses nature and animals to make comparisons, as the following two examples demonstrate:

Metaphor Comparing Edward to a Garden Flower

    And from the fragrant garden of her [Edward's mother, Isabel] womb,
    Your gracious self, the flower of Europe's hope,
    Derivèd is -- inheritor to France. (1.1.14-16)
Metaphor Comparing Serpents to the French
Personification/Metaphor Comparing Swords to Advocates
    Let creeping serpents hid in hollow banks,
    Sting with their tongues; we have remorseless swords,
    And they shall plead for us and our affairs. (3.3.98-100)
Metaphor Comparing Ships to Pines and Ensigns to Flowers
    Near to the coast I have descried, my lord, 
    As I was busy in my watchful charge, 
    The proud armada of King Edward's ships, 
    Which, at the first far off when I did ken, 
    Seemed as it were a grove of withered pines; 
    But, drawing near, their glorious bright aspect, 
    Their streaming ensigns wrought of colored silk, 
    Like to a meadow full of sundry flowers, 
    Adorns the naked bosom of the earth. (
Imagery: the Horror of War

.......Shakespeare also drenches the audience in gore, as he sometimes does in other plays--most notably Titus Andronicus. In the following passage, a mariner delivers a gruesome report to King John on the progress of the fighting:

    Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
    With streaming gore that from the maimèd fell,
    As did her gushing moisture break into
    The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
    Here flew a head, dissevered from the trunk;
    There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft,
    As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
    And scatters it in middle of the air.
    Then might ye see the reeling vessels split,
    And, tottering, sink into the ruthless flood,
    Until their lofty tops were seen no more. (3.1.161-171)
Imagery: the Yearning Heart

.......King Edward, captivated by the beauty of the Countess of Salisbury, cannot resist making a play for her. He experiences overwhelming desire that he cannot control--and overwhelming guilt when he sees the reflection of his wife's face in the face of his son. 

Metaphor: the Alluring Eyes of the Countess of Salisbury Are Eloquent Orators

    What needs a tongue to such a speaking eye, 
    That more persuades than winning oratory? (1.2.139-140)
Paradox and Metaphor: "Wisdom is foolishness," "Beauty is slander"
Metaphor: Looks Compared to Summer, Disdain Compared to Winter
    Wisdom is foolishness but in her tongue, 
    Beauty a slander but in her fair face, 
    There's no summer but in her cheerful looks, 
    Nor frosty winter but in her disdain. (2.1.40-43)
Metaphor/Personification: A Face Becomes a Person
    I see the boy. Oh, how his mother's face, 
    Modelled in his, corrects my strayed desire, 
    And rates my heart, and chides my thievish eye, 
    Who, being rich enough in seeing her, 
    Yet seeks elsewhere. (2.1.74-79)
England's House of Plantagenet

Henry II (son of Henry I's daughter and Geoffrey Plantagenet) 1154-1189. Age at death: 56. 
Richard I ("the Lion-Hearted," son of Henry II), 1189-1199. Age at death: 42. 
John (son of Henry II), 1199-1216. Age at death: 50. 
Henry III (son of John), 1216-1272. Age at death: 65. 
Edward I ("Longshanks," son of Henry III), 1272-1307. Age at death: 68. 
Edward II (son of Edward I, deposed), 1307-1327. Age at death: 43. 
Edward III (son of Edward II), 1327-1377. Age at death: 65. 
Richard II (grandson of Edward III), 1377-1399. Forced to abdicate and died a year later, in 1400, a victim of starvation or murder. Age at death: 33.

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