Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
The full title is Edmund Ironside, the English King — a true Chronicle History called ‘War hath made all friends’. Ephraim Everitt first argued Shakespearean attribution of this play in 1954. “He was pilloried for his pains by pundits far his inferior in learning and insight, and I fear that he died a deeply disappointed man” (Sams 1).
Only amateurs ever attempt to define the relevant facts (about the Sonnets for example), and their voices are in clamant discord. The professionals are far more reticent and discreet, but no more assured or agreed. As a result, students lack a simple factual ABC of attribution, biography and chronology. What did Shakespeare actually write, and when, and in what circumstances? (Sams 1)
In arguing for inclusion in the Shakespeare canon, Sams notes cynically that “parallels can always be called ‘stage commonplaces of the period’; it sounds well. Indeed any suggested common source for any shared idiosyncrasy or error can be claimed as a commonplace, thus showing extensive background knowledge” (Sams 3).
“At least it is difficult to deny that Ironside is closely welded to the canon. For example it contains some 260 words or usages which on the evidence of the Oxford English Dictionary were first used by Shakespeare himself, with the strong presumption that it was he who coined them. Further, it exhibits 635 instances of Shakespeare’s rare words including some 300 of the very rarest, and 700 clear parallels with the First Folio, including 350 phrases shared verbatim” (Sams 5).
The play is particular akin to Titus Andronicus.
Sams, Eric. Shakespeare’s Lost Play Edmund Ironside. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.
Canutus — Prince of Denmark and, now that Ethelred is dead, sovereign of early 11th-century England — addresses the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Earl of Southampton, and other peers who have supported his succession. He tells them to resist the “private coronation” (I.i.21) of an “upstart prince of prates” (I.i.18). The Archbishop assures Canutus of his support, calling the upstart — soon to be identified as Edmund Ironside — a rash troublemaker. Southampton, Leofric, and Edricus all remind Canutus of their proven support. Edricus recounts his own role:
‘Twas I that first did counsel Ethelred
to pay you tribute and to buy your league
whereby we emptied all the treasury
and had not gold failed you had ne’er been king.
Edricus also kept Canutus’ father informed of Ethelred’s councils andswitched sides from Ironside to Canutus more recently. Canutus seems cheesed off at all this verbiage, baffled by why they would think he doubted them: “I cannot speak but some or other straight / misconsters me” (I.i.86-87). Southampton invites Canutus to his castle, and Canutus accepts when Uskataulf suggests that accepting the invitation “will confirm the people’s hearts to you / and make him live and die to honour you” (I.i.99-100).
Various countrymen enter and announce that they “are all Danes by birth” (I.i.110),
who when thy father lived, lived here secure
and dwelt among the fattest of this land.
We then did yoke the Saxons and compelled
their stubborn necks to ear the fallow fields.
We then did force them honour us as lords
and be our slaves, our drudges and our dogs.
They’re worried about the native English now rebelling under Edmund Ironside. Uskataulf acknowledges to Canutus that the Saxons are “stubborn, unwieldy, fierce and wild to tame / scorning to be compelled against their wills / abhorring servitude” (I.i.146-148). Edricus advises harsh treatment, and Uskataulf notes what a “flattering mate” (I.i.163) he is, a “Base vild insinuating sycophant / degenerate bastard, falsely bred / foul mother-killing Viper, traitor, slave / the scum of vices, all the ill that may be” (I.i.165-168) to advise Canutus to act the tyrant. He reminds Canutus of his father Sveyn’s tyranny which sparked only bloody rebellion: “win their hearts, not be severity / but by your favour, love and lenity” (I.i.204-205). Canutus agrees to try to calm down:
I will endeavor to suppress my rage
and quench the burning choler of my heart
which sometimes so inflames my inward parts
as I fall out with my best-lovéd friends.
I will therefore so moderate myself
as Englishmen shall think me English born.
Leofric pulls aside Turkillus when all others depart for Southampton’s place. He resembles Cassius with Brutus, claiming to note discontent in subtle body language.
Oh what a grief is it to noble bloods
to see each base-born groom promoted up
each dunghill brat arreared to dignity
each flatterer esteemed virtuous
when the true noble virtuous gentlemen
are scorned, disgraced and held in obloquy.
Leofric considers Ironside, “mirror of majesty” (I.i.250), their proper sovereign and themselves traitors while they oppose him. Turkillus agrees, insisting he’s been thinking this too. He worries about their sons, but Leofric says, “Tut, ’tis no matter, if they die, they die. / They cannot suffer in a better time / nor for a better cause, their country’s good. / We gave them life, for us they shed their blood” (I.i.271-274). And Turkillus agrees, “He that sent them can send us more again” (I.i.275) — all very like Stanley’s vaunt to Richard III regarding his hostage son George.
Edricus revels in his powers: his abilities to flatter and mislead Canutus and to have his enemies exiled. He admits to being able to “play an Ambodexter’s part” (I.ii.330) — able to switch to Edmund’s side though he prefers Canutus.
Edmund’s first lines concern adequate preparations and supplies for his soldiers. Alfric assures him on this matter: “for th’only means to mar a soldier’s fight — / pinch him of meat and pay and pinch his might” (I.iii.343-344). Edmund laments the current tendency for military leaders to benefit themselves — for “private base commodity” (I.iii.346) — from shortchanging their soldiers and essentially selling their lives (I.iii.355f). Turkillus and Leofric enter and ask pardon. Edmund is noble and generous: “Give me your hands and with your hands your hearts. / I more esteem the life of one true subject / than the destruction of a thousand foes” (I.iii.368-370). He reckons that the only true danger to England is its own internal strife. “Go in, brave lords, your sight doth me more joy / than Agamemnon when he conquered Troy” (I.iii.381-382).