Edward IV died on 9 April 1483. As a Shakespearean character, he is little-known to most audiences beyond his brief appearance, ‘sick’[i], in act II of Richard III. No sooner has Edward appeared, declared his readiness for death and registered his shock at his brother Clarence’s murder, than he exits. He dies offstage soon after, clearing the way for his demonic brother’s rise. His death, as noted by Shakespeare’s source, the historian Raphael Holinshed, was from ‘evil diet’.[ii] But what does that mean?
Richard III gives a peculiar, offhand treatment to the death of a character who would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences as the vital, warlike son of the Duke of York from Henry VI parts two and three, wherein he fights alongside his father and brothers against anyone unwise enough to get in their way.
In 3 Henry VI, Edward argues for York to break his oath to King Henry and take the English crown by force:
But for a kingdom any oath may be broken;
I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year. (I.ii.16-17)[iii]
Through the historical – and theatrical – chaos of the Wars of the Roses and the Henry VI plays, Edward emerges as a forceful young king. He was, indeed, only eighteen years old.
But the nature of his fatal ‘evil diet’ is implied in the moment of his triumph. No sooner king, Edward attempts to seduce the widow Lady Grey, promising the return of her husband’s lands as reward for certain favours, to which he clumsily alludes before finally giving up – ‘I aim to lie with thee,’ he explains, in case she hasn’t quite understood (III.ii.69). Clarence calls him ‘the bluntest wooer in Christendom.’ (III.ii.83)
Lady Grey resists. This spurs the lascivious Edward, rashly, to make her his queen. John Julius Norwich notes ‘the almost universal unpopularity of his action’.[iv]
In fact, the match was so strategically unwise that the Duke of Warwick (the ‘Kingmaker’) turned against Edward and, briefly, looked sure to return that hapless chesspiece Henry VI to the throne. But Warwick was defeated at the Battle of Barnet leaving Edward ‘supreme.’[v] For twelve years he ‘ruled England wisely and well.’[vi]
War had kept Edward ‘in superb condition’. But peace, as foreshadowed in his seduction of Lady Grey, made him ‘self-indulgent’.[vii] John Julius-Norwich puts it as politely as he can:
Always strongly-sexed … he had now become a compulsive womanizer … he was also an equally compulsive glutton … immensely fat and prematurely aged by drink and debauch.[viii]
One wonders why, being keen to discredit the Yorkist line in order to flatter their Tudor queen, Shakespeare and his contemporaries made so little of this aspect of Edward’s character. Perhaps they feared such a portrayal could be misread as satirising her father…
A few years after Richard III was staged, Edward featured in his own eponymous two-part play, published in 1600 and possibly written by Thomas Heywood.[ix] Even in this, however, he seems sidelined by the story of his mistress Jane Shore and the rise of his brother. Once again, Edward’s death occurs offstage[x], upstaged once more by his legendary brother.
By Kim Gilchrist
You can follow Kim on Twitter at @KimGilchrist
[i] Shakespeare, William, Richard III, (Blaisdell Publishing Company, 1968), (II.i.sd)
[ii] Holinshed, Raphael, Holinshed’s Chronicle: as used in Shakespeare’s plays, Allardyce & Josephine Nicoll (eds), (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1927), 138
[iii][iii] Shakespeare, William, 3 Henry VI, Randall Martin (ed.), (Oxford University Press, 2001)
[iv] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p312
[v] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p316
[vi] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p321
[vii] Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, (Touchstone, 2001), p325
[ix] The First and Second Parts of King Edward IV, Richard Rowland (ed.), (Manchester University Press, 2005), p9
[x] The First and Second Parts of King Edward IV, Richard Rowland (ed.), (Manchester University Press, 2005), p266