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What Are the Origins of Shakespeare's "Edward III"?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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The origins of Shakespeare’s Edward III are uncertain at best. It is not even clear that William Shakespeare was in fact the play’s author. This is because it was published anonymously and not included in the earliest collections of his work. Scholars of Shakespearean and Elizabethan drama have tentatively concluded that the Bard collaborated on the play with at least one other writer. Shakespeare may have later distanced himself from the play because of its disparaging portrayal of Scottish people.

The play was first published in London as The Reign of King Edward the Third in 1596. At the time, Shakespeare was already active in the theater, writing historical dramas based on the British monarchy, such as Henry V and Richard III. Modern-day scholarly studies have concluded that the play was based on the same literary source he used for most of his histories. Some of its passages are also very similar to Shakespeare’s writing style. Others are not, however, and this, combined with the anonymous publication, led to centuries of debate over the play’s authorship.

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The first part of Edward III involves the king’s ill-advised wooing of a married noblewoman. In the second half, he leads England into a territorial conflict with France. While he is thus occupied in the south, Scottish rebels attack from the north. This is historically accurate, but the Scottish characters are portrayed as duplicitous and cowardly. This reflected contemporary British attitudes toward the Scots people; such portrayals, however, strained diplomatic relations with Scotland during the 1590s.

In 1598, the British envoy to Scotland complained to Lord Burghey, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, about the portrayal of Scottish people in a particular play. While the play’s name is not mentioned in the surviving letter, it was long suspected to be Edward III. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died, and the British throne was occupied by her Scottish cousin, James I. It is now thought that this explains why Edward III was not included in the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623. This omission was the strongest argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the play in succeeding centuries.

Modern-day scholars have noted that some lines in Edward III are identical to poems written by Shakespeare. In 2009, a researcher ran the play through a computer program designed to analyze the authorship of college theses. The program concluded that Shakespeare collaborated on the play with another noted dramatist of the time, Thomas Kyd. Research into the matter is ongoing, but in the 1990s, university presses published Shakespeare’s Edward III, attributing the play to him for the first time. It has also been performed at Shakespeare festivals as part of the “Apocrypha,” or disputed works, of the Bard.

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