The latest early work from Shakespeare

Special to The Times

Things are not going well for the Countess of Salisbury. She has finally managed to turn away a rowdy group of Scots, led by their king, when the lustful king of England, Edward III, comes 'round the castle. Never mind that her husband is out defending king and country. Declares Edward: "I must enjoy her."

So goes "Edward III," a historical drama not accepted into the Shakespeare canon until the 1990s and now being performed on London's West End by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Critics and scholars alike have mixed reactions to the play, and nearly all of them still aren't sure it is entirely the Bard's work. But the RSC production gives Shakespeare's authorship more credence.

Part of a five-play season of rarely done late 16th and early 17th century works, "Edward III" has traveled from RSC's home in Stratford-upon-Avon to Newcastle and, in December, to London's Gielgud Theatre. A sellout in Stratford, it has fared so well here that its eight-week season was recently extended another eight weeks to March 22.

The life of a king

Written around 1592, "Edward III" dramatizes the life of the warrior-king who reigned for 50 years and launched the Hundred Years War. "We shall have wars on every side," he says early in the play. While the language of Edward's unsuccessful seduction of the comely countess is more, well, Shakespearean, the RSC production spices up wordy battle scenes with armor-clad soldiers running up and down the theater aisles.

"Edward III," which serves as a prequel to Shakespeare's other histories, also explores the nature of kingship, says Gregory Doran, the RSC associate director who put together the season.

Even if the play is a collaboration, it's not easy to tell who wrote each part. "But in the theater, we weren't meant to guess who wrote what. You're just supposed to watch the play."

Yet even Thelma Holt, who is co-producing "Edward III" on the West End, says that when she first went to Stratford to see the play, she couldn't stop making notes in her program. Sometimes she'd write, "No way," other times, "Yes, that's him."

" 'Pericles' wasn't all his," Holt says. "There's a lot of Shakespeare that isn't all Shakespeare. It's rather a nice jigsaw puzzle."

It's a jigsaw puzzle that continues to baffle Shakespeare scholars. "Edward III" was officially registered in 1595 and published anonymously in 1596, with a second edition in 1599. But Roger Warren, who edited the play for the RSC performance, has written that the first suggestion of Shakespeare's authorship didn't come until 1760.

Think TV scripts, urges Shakespeare scholar Hugh Richmond, director of UC Berkeley's Shakespeare Program. In Shakespeare's time, there was often a "plotter" who outlined a play, after which several "writers" turned in bits to flesh it out. Actors tossed in their phrases, revisions were often made during performances, and clerks made copying errors getting it all down.

"It's as if you were trying to look up a script for 'I Love Lucy,' " Richmond says. "You might find an edited script or shooting script, and over the years that's what happened with Shakespeare. The individual plays weren't published when they were written nor when they were first performed. Some of his plays weren't even printed until after he died. We have to work on each script. Say this may be a rough draft or what a clerk copied and got wrong, or a prompt copy or a revision done for a revival."

No one person was necessarily identified as author either, continues Richmond, "and that's the key. When Shakespeare became well known, he was usually identified because it was a selling point. But because he was well known, sometimes his name was put on plays even if he hadn't written them."

A successful play at that time was also often up for grabs. People stole scripts or even bribed actors to get copies of their parts and what they remembered of others. Shakespeare was also very good at building on what other people had done, continues Richmond, who quotes Shakespeare contemporary Robert Greene's remark that Shakespeare was "an upstart crow beautified with our feathers."

The Bard also rewrote his own plays, and several exist in different versions. It appears he went back a few times to fix "Hamlet," says Richmond, and there are two versions of "King Lear." Both "Richard II" and "Richard III" had to be revised to accommodate government policy, while other Shakespeare plays were condemned by the Victorians for their obscene lines or bawdy scenes.

"Edward III" has long been included in what is known as Shakespeare apocrypha -- plays that may or may not have been by Shakespeare. Following further study as well as sophisticated computer analysis of existing early scripts comparing language in the play and in other Shakespeare works, it has been included in scholarly Shakespeare collections only since 1997.

Phrases and situations are duplicated in other Shakespeare plays. In his introduction to a 2002 publication of the play, the RSC's Warren refers to verbal or structural links to such plays as "Love's Labour's Lost" and "Measure for Measure," noting that the line "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds" also appears in Sonnet 94.

'A curiosity'

"Edward III" had been performed a few times before -- including Los Angeles in 1986. The RSC had done readings of the play in 1999 and 2000, and the RSC's Doran says he felt its recent canonization would help it attract a wider audience. Writing in the Guardian newspaper when the play appeared in Stratford, critic Michael Billington said, "Even if it is not solely by Shakespeare, at least this production will add merry fuel to the debate."

Richmond thinks critics tend to be hard on plays of doubtful authorship, and that has been the case here. While one London critic wrote that "all Shakespeare connoisseurs had better catch this production," more typical were such muted critical comments as "a curiosity but a welcome one," and "modestly gripping."

"If you're going expecting a masterpiece, you'll be disappointed," concedes actor David Rintoul, who plays Edward III for the RSC. "But if you go expecting a very odd and interesting piece of Elizabethan drama, with a lot of questions to be asked about it, you'll have a good evening."

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