Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “King Edward III”

You have never read King Edward III. And nor had I–indeed, nor have most people, even Shaksespeare fans, because Edward III is a queer thing: a play only recently accepted as being substantially penned by Shaksepeare.

It’s a disenchanting moment for any young bookworm when they first encounter the idea that Mr. Shakespeare (whoever he was) may not have written all the plays attributed to him. So unromantic. And that makes Edward III all the more remarkable since, as the authorship of so much else has come under question in recent years, Edward III has actually come to be regarded more and more as a product of Shakespeare. It’s undoubtedly a co-authored one, and I think that (although I have only just read it for the first time) even someone only moderately familiar with Shakespeare can pick that up. The play is heavy on military exploits, with most of the action following Edward III’s (1312-1377) successful campaigns in France, and, especially early on, the military dialogue seems quite pedestrian–and then Shakespeare bursts in. It’s kind of like watching a Michael Bay movie, and then finding there’s a scene where Aaron Sorkin got pulled in for rewrites.

To summarise the plot: King Edward III declares war on France, claiming a right to the throne after the French king’s death. First, however, he must deal with a Scottish invasion in the North. Liberating the besieged castle, King Edward becomes infatuated with its mistress, the Countess of Salisbury, despite both being married. He attempts to woo her, rebuffed in the end only by her threat of suicide. Ashamed, Edward admits his fault, acknowledging that he must learn to rule himself if he is to rule England and France.

The action then shifts to the war in France, following both King Edward and his son, Prince Edward, the Black Prince. The English clutch numerous victories from the jaws of defeat, eventually capturing the French King John. King Edward declares he will execute some leading Frenchmen, but his hand is stayed by his wife, Queen Philippa, and he shows clemency.

Among my scattered reflections on the play, one theme sticks out the most: the nature of oaths and loyalty against a Reformation backdrop.

Oaths, Loyalty, and the Reformation

Broken and competing loyalties and oaths drive the action of the play. The plot’s catalyst is a contested kingship: does Edward owe loyalty to John as King of France, or vice versa? Act 1, Scene 1 begins with Artois, a Frenchman who begrudges John, encouraging Edward to fight for the crown:

“Perhaps it will be thought a heinous thing
That I, a Frenchman, should discover this’ 
But, heaven I call to record of my vows, 
It is not hate, nor any private wrong, 
But love unto my country and the right 
Provokes my tongue thus lavish in report. 
You are the lineal watchman of our peace, 
And John of Valois indirectly climbs. 
What then should subjects embrace their king; 
And wherein may our duty more be seen 
Than striving to rebate a tyrant’s pride 
And place the true shepherd of our commonwealth?” 


We see in Artois the various allegiances which will animate other characters throughout the play: allegiances to nation, to blood, and to heaven itself. Note also that Valois speaks of the need for “subjects” to show right loyalty, even to the point of resisting tyranny. Loyalty and the keeping of oaths, then, is not simply for kings and princes, but for their subjects too.

The most fascinating exploration of competing loyalties and oaths is in Edwward’s fruitless attempts to pressure the Countess of Salisbury into becoming his mistress–a scene with obvious echoes of David and Bathsheba. Resisting Edward’s advances, the Countess cites the priority of loyalty to her husband over her loyalty to the King:

“To be a king is of a younger house 
Than to be married; your progenitor,
Sole-reigning Adam on the universe,
By God was honoured for a married man,
But not by Him anointed for a king.
It is a penalty to break your statutes,
Though not enacted with your highness’ hand;
How much more to infringe the holy act
Made by the mouth of God, sealed by His hand.”


Her argument: Adam was made a husband, but never (like Saul and David presumably) never anointed a king (although, interestingly, she does refer to Adam as “reigning”). As such, marriage bonds have priority over national ones.

Not yet rebuffed, Edward commands the Countess’ father, the Earl of Warwick, to persuade his daughter for him. He does this by tricking Warwick: seeing the King upset (unaware that this is because the Countess has rejected him), Warwick pledges his willingness to do himself harm for the King’s good; Edward then gets Warwick to concede that to break an oath is “An office for the devil, not for man.” Edward then springs his trap:

“That devil’s office must thou do for me, 
Or break thy oath, or cancel all the bonds 
Of love and duty ‘twixt thyself and me. 
And, therefore, Warwick, if thou art thyself, 
The lord and master of thy word and oath 
Go to thy daughter and in my behalf  
Command her, woo her, win her anyways 
To be my mistress and my secret love. 
I will not stand to hear thee make reply; 
Thy oath break hers, or let thy sovereign die.” 


Edward exits, leaving Warwick to contemplate his competing loyalties as both father and subject:

“O doting king! O detestable office! 
Well may I tempt myself to wrong myself 
When he hath sworn me by the name of God 
To break a vow made by the name of God. 
What if I swear by this right hand of mine
To cut this right hand off?” 


How, then, is Warwick to reconcile his oath to the King and his oaths to his daughter? He decides that he can keep the former by simply offering the King’s petitions, but the latter by undercutting everything he says on the King’s behalf:

“The better way 
Were to profane the idol than confound it. 
But neither will do: I’ll keep mine oath, 
And to my daughter make a recantation 
Of all the virtue I have preached to her. 
I’ll say she must forget her husband Salisbury 
If she remember to embrace the King; 
I’ll say an oath may easily be broken, 
But not so easily pardoned being broken; 
I’ll say it is true charity to love, 
But not true love to be so charitable; 
I’ll say his greatness may bear out the shame, 
But not his kingdom can buy out the sin; 
I’ll say it is my duty to persuade, 
But not her honesty to give consent.” 


Warwick notably lands on duty, hoping that his course of action will allow him to do his duty to the King, and allow his daughter to do her duty to her husband. In his dialogue with the Countess, it’s almost as if Warwick is refracted through a prism, broken up into his constituent parts, such that we see him acting not as a man in full but in tandem as both a subject and a father.

Many other instances and discussions on oaths, loyalty, and duty run throughout the play–time does not permit us to say much more on them.

My overwhelming thought reading all this is that to explore questions of oaths and loyalty in England in the 1590s would have been very different to exploring the same in the 1490s. The issues of vows and competing loyalties were utterly transformed by the Reformation. The whole era can be viewed somewhat like the scene between Warwick and the Countess: the Reformation was the prism which split and refracted loyalties which had once seemed (and I stress seemed) harmonised under the monolithic structure of medieval Christnedom atop which sat the pope.

Consider: Edward seeks to exert his kingly authority in order to violate the bonds of marriage. I find it hard not to read Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon into that–a curious thing, given that the daughter of Anne Boleyn sat on the throne. The annulment episode and the break with Rome are often characterised as being simply about Henry’s lust for Anne and desire for an heir–but even if they were, they nonetheless threw up genuine, significant questions regarding loyalties in marriage, the church, and the nation which animated the Reformation for decades.

One such question would have been how Christians should respond to tyrants. Despite our caricature of them as revolutionaries, the Reformers were, to a man, surprisingly conservative on this question. The broad agreement was that it was better to suffer wrong at the hands of tyranny than to venture revolution and risk anarchy. Loyalty to the appointed authorities, however imperfect, was a Christian duty. So too was pursuing opposition through the proper channel of the Lesser Magistrate, but, in Reformed political theology, one may often find themselves having to defer to loyalty to the crown over against other loyalties for the sake of peace and good order.

The fallout of Martin Luther’s doctrine of Christian liberty also threw questions of loyalty to the crown into question. Luther’s maxim in The Freedom of a Christian that “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” provided immense spiritual liberation but not much practical direction. Sure, one was not bound by law to perform good works for justification before God; one was simply bound by love to perform good works for their neighbour’s edification–but did this mean that the church and/or state could not legislate conduct? Who was to decide what “love for neighbour” entailed–the Christian man or the Christian prince? In matters of adiaphora, where should one’s loyalties lie: their conscience? Their neighbour? Their prince?

One thinks also of the competing loyalties of Roman Catholics under Elizabeth. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in the papal bull Regnans in excelsis. The bull also charged Romanists that “they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.” After a brief suspension in the 1580s, the bull was renewed in 1588 in response to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and so still stood in the 1590s when Edward III was written and performed. Although the Spanish Armada (also in 1588) showed that most English Romanists largely remained loyal to the Queen, the knowledge of the official papal policy still made their consciences uneasy. And, over the water in predominantly Romanist Ireland, loyalties were always less secure.

Moreover, one thinks of the Reformation’s effect upon monastic vows. By the time of Edward III, Article XXXIX of the Thirty Nine Articles stated “it is lawful for all men who are not fitted for single life to contract matrimony, because vows cannot annul the ordinance and commandment of God.” The consensus on this matter among Protestants was fairly universal. And yet, in the popular imagination, one wonders if the idea of breaking vows made to God still proved hard to shake off by the 1590s.

These are scattered thoughts (and I’ve gone on too long). It will take further readings of Edward III for me to decide what I think Shakespeare (and his co-author) is doing with these questions of oaths and loyalty. However, they are an undeniable focus of the play, and the issues laid out above seem to me an undeniable part of its context.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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