Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Ironside reads a letter delivered by the disguised Edricus regarding his “master” — Edricus — who claims that he defected because of rumors that Ironside was gunning for him. He realizes now that he was too gullible, that the rumor-mongers were his own enemies, and he begs for mercy. Ironside is right to be skeptical:
Your master is become an orator
but tell him Edmund is not lunatic
so like a woman to be won with words.
Ironside recognizes Edricus beneath the eye-patch, pulls it off, and asks him for an explanation. Edricus calls on his wit and answers that he had decided to feel out Ironside’s opinion about him. If good, he would reveal himself and realign himself with Ironside; if poor,
I meant with secret speed
to leave my native country and to exile
myself from England, sailing into Spain
whereas I meant in contemplation
in pilgrimage and prayers for your grace
to end my life.
A messenger much given to similes alerts Ironside that Danes are swarming along the coasts “like little gnats / over a river in a summer’s night” (IV.i.1334-1335). Ironside remarks on fickle fortune and returns some attention to Edricus, accusing him of that most hateful of motivations: “Policy” (IV.i.1365). Edricus claims he’s got insider information regarding Canutus’ plans, but heck if you don’t trust me…. Ironside is interested in what he might have to say, although Alfric thinks this is a trick. Ironside dismisses him as old. Aylward tries to reason with Ironside next, reminding him of Edricus’ proven sliminess, but Ironside dismisses him as a youth and announces that he thinks it would be a good idea to give Edricus a military command. Edricus and Ironside have a private conversation, after which Edricus notes, “See what dissimulation brings to pass / how quickly I can make the king an ass” (IV.i.1426-1427).
Emma, widow of King Ethelred and stepmother of Ironside, bids good-bye to her two young sons Alfred and Edward (later The Confessor) who are off to stay with her brother Duke Richard the Fearless of Normandy while the Danes ravage the land. Emma engages in an ubi sunt lament and warns Alfred “not to believe foul fortune’s flattery” (IV.ii.1464). Edward and an officer, Gunthranus, suggest she shed fewer tears, but,
To dam my eyes were but to drown my heart
like Hecuba the woeful Queen of Troy
who having no avoidance for her grief
ran mad for sorrow ’cause she could not weep….
[Cf. Titus IV.i.20, Hamlet II.ii.528, Cymbeline IV.ii.513.] The Hecuba reference casts an ominous cloud over this scene of sending away children for safekeeping! Emma drags out the melodrama of parting, and Gunthranus, I suppose with little else to do, remarks on motherly devotion. After half a dozen near partings, Emma decides to go with them to the dock and have their final parting there.
Canutus exults in Edricus’ successful insinuation into Ironside’s confidences, as reported in a letter. Canutus’ soldiers look forward to their own battlefield successes: e.g., “if I had steel sides as he hath Ironsides / I would gore him then, that I would” (IV.iii.1542-1543). But Southampton, quoting Hannibal, has some misgivings about the treacherous plot as it is unfolding:
Tell not your chickens, sirs, ere they be hatched
perchance the eggs are rotten in the nest
then all your brooding hopes is cast away
and you remain as rich as new-shorn sheep.
Canutus is nevertheless optimistic as the drums sound.
Edricus meets with Canutus and give him the plan whereby Edricus will be nowhere in sight when Ironside needs him most. Privately, Edricus admits that it doesn’t matter which of the leaders dies first since the other will follow shortly. “I here remain a neuter, free from fear” (IV.iv.1583). But again, he prefers that Canutus prevail.
When Ironside attacks Canutus, Edricus backs Canutus up to drive Ironside off. Canutus thanks him and promises him rewards. Edricus will chase after Ironside and offer some fake explanation.