The play was registered late in 1595 and published by the same publisher
of the first quarto of Love's Labour's Lost and the second quarto
of Romeo and Juliet. A 1656 catalogue attributed the play to
Shakespeare, but it also had him credited as author of Marlowe's
Edward II. Political touchiness may explain why this play
virtually disappeared and was not included in the First Folio: it
includes nasty perspective on Scots nobility, so King James would not be
amused. There is ongoing critical disagreement about if it's Shakespeare
at all or a collaboration, and about the nature of the verse and drama --
sometimes parallelling other Shakespeare plays, often lacking important
features. Edward Capell proposed an attribution to Shakespeare in 1760,
but Eric Sams (1926-2004) finally got the play accepted by many orthodox
scholars as Shakespeare's work. Edward III often remains among the
apocrypha, but the New Cambridge edition and the New Oxford Shakespeare
now include it in the canon.
It strikes me as very much Shakespeare, and written after Richard III and but before other innovations in his histories start appearing full-blown. Lots of proto-Henry V material can be detected (just use of the term "puissance," for example), but without the later sophistication in perspective or effective integration of various plot components. Shakespeare has not yet started including comic characters and their subplots in his histories. But hints of the horticultural metaphors that are part of Richard II and the Henry IV plays do show up, as does a pervasive Shakespearean philosophy which recommends mastery over passions. The play also looks forward to Julius Caesar and Macbeth with its use of battlefield prophecies.
Oxfordians have long thought the work de Vere's (e.g., Ogburn and Ogburn 216). See Richard Desper's article, "Virtue Rewarded: The Premise of The Reign of King Edward III." The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.2 (Summer 2001): 1, 12-14. Included is an Oxfordian explanation as to why the Order of the Garter is never mentioned in the play.
England's 14th-century King Edward III acknowledges Robert of Artois' defection from King John of France by making him Earl of Richmond. Artois spells out Edward's "pedigree" (I.i.5), an argument for his right to the French throne. Philip le Beau's three sons died without heirs; his daughter Isabel was Edward's mother: "And from the fragrant garden of her womb / Your gracious self, the flower of Europe's hope" (I.i.14-15). But Isabel was ignored in terms of the succession: "The French obscur'd your mother's privilege, / And, though she were the next of blood, proclaimed / John of the house of Valois, now their King" (I.i.19-21). Proto-issues such as "Salic law" here will be played out in more sophisticated ways in Henry V; but this perspective also makes the point of the illegitimacy of the Valois royal line. Artois considers his own reputation:
Perhaps it will be thought a heinous thing,Edward considers Artois counsel "like to fructful showers" (I.i.42), and he poetically vows war with France.
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.
The Duke of Lorraine arrives with a message from John of France, that for "lowly homage" (I.i.60) Edward may retain his dukedom of Guyenne. Otherwise it's repossessed, bud. Edward has a different take on the situation: "I mean to visit him as he requests, / But how? Not servilely dispos'd to bend, / But like a conqueror to make him bow" (I.i.73-75). In an exchange of defiances, Edward promises war, and Lorraine has an outburst against Artois, whom he considers a "Regenerate traitor, viper to the place / Where thou wast fost'red in thine infancy" (I.i.105-106). Lorraine draws his sword against Artois, but Edward draws his:
Fervent desire that sits against my heartLorraine exits.
Is far more thorny-pricking than this blade,
That, with the nightingale, I shall be scarr'd
As oft as I dispose myself to rest,
Until my colors be display'd in France.
Sir William Mountague brings news that the Scots have broken the peace treaty and King David has seized the castle of Roxborough, home of the Countess of Salisbury (the daughter of Warwick, who is also present) and her husband. Edward supplies a short apostrophe: "Ignoble David, hast thou none to grieve / But silly ladies with thy threat'ning arms? / But I will make you shrink your snaily horns" (I.i.136-138; cp. Venus and Adonis 1033-1034). Edward plans war with both the Scots and the French and so will need a large army raised: "Let them be soldiers of a lusty spirit, / Such as dread nothing but dishonor's blot" (I.i.143-144). He also enlists his son Edward, eventually to be known as the Black Prince (d. 1376): "and, Ned, thou must begin / Now to forget thy study and thy books / And ure thy shoulders to an armor's weight" (I.i.157-159). The Prince is enthusiastic.
The Countess of Salibury, upon the walls, is disgusted with the Scots and her captivity: "Either to be woo'd with broad untuned oaths, / Or forc'd by rough insulting barbarism. / ... / And in their vild, uncivil, skipping jigs / Bray forth their conquest and our overthrow" (I.ii.8-13).
She hides as King David schmoozes with France through Lorraine and then with the Earl of Douglas haggles over who will get the Countess and/or her jewels. A messenger brings word that King Edward and an army approach, so the Countess emerges and mocks the Scots.
The King, Artois, Mountague, Warwick, and others are greeted by the Countess and Edward is immediately lovestruck, or luststruck, as he reveals in asides. He is sufficiently uncomfortable not to want to stay at the castle but to pursue the Scots (I.ii.117-118). But the Countess, whose husband is away in other wars, is eloquent: "As wise as fair! what fond fit can be heard, / When wisdom keeps the gate as beauty's guard?" (I.ii.162-163). Edward is persuaded to stay at the castle for the night.