Study Guide

Richard II

by William Shakespeare

Richard II Essay - Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II

Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II


Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II

Meredith Skura, Rice University

In an often-quoted judgement, Charles Lamb noted that Shakespeare's Richard II took hints from, but 'scarce improved' on, 'the reluctant pangs of abdicating Royalty' in Marlowe's Edward II But was Shakespeare in fact trying to 'improve' on Marlowe when he created his own 'weak king' in Richard II?1 Or was he doing something else? This paper re-examines Shakespeare's play as a more complicated response to Edward II that reveals dynamic tensions between the two playwrights. Bertolt Brecht's modern response to Marlowe in his 1922 Edward II provides a useful introductory comparison. Brecht seems to have been drawn to Marlowe's play not so much for its political as for its personal relevance, in particular for its portrayal of the doomed bond between Edward and Gaveston—the kind of bond Brecht had just written about in The Jungle. Brecht was indeed trying to improve on, or at least to outdo, Marlowe's bleak play. With a 'savage pessimism', he rewrote Marlowe to create a world where, as his Edward says, 'There is nothing in life besides the touch of men's bodies, and even that is minimal and vain.'2 What interests me about Brecht's play however is that it is not only about the difficult closeness between two men but—as adaptation, collaboration, and partly cribbed translation—it is also the product of such closeness. Edward II was the first of the collaborative ventures that were to serve Brecht so effectively as catalysts for creativity throughout his career.

On the face of it, Shakespeare's response to Marlowe seems to have been quite different from Brecht's. He was interested in the politics of Richard II, not the touch of men's bodies in Edward II; and, even politically, the difference between Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays has always seemed far more striking than the similarity. Where Marlowe reduces politics to personal appetite and a struggle for power, Shakespeare transcends the personal, contextualizing abdication in a universe that makes moral and political sense. Where Marlowe's play is full of sex and violence, Shakespeare's is almost devoid of both. For one thing, Edward II's passion for Gaveston seems to have left no trace on Richard's relationships. Edward's favourites (and Richard's favourites in the anonymous Woodstock (c. 1592), which Shakespeare also knew), all but disappear in Richard II3 For another, Edward's extraordinary pain at losing Gaveston is paralleled only by Richard's regret that his roan Barbary now serves the new king Bolingbroke so willingly and by his abstract complaint that 'love to Richard / Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world' (5.5.65-6). As for violence, no one has found any trace of Edward's appalling murder in Richard II In fact Shakespeare, offered a choice of deaths in Holinshed, could have scripted a passive starvation or even suffocation for Richard; but instead he chose to make his king die fighting. Edward's death is devastatingly physical as the world bears in on him in the form of a burning spit thrust up his fundament; but Richard's death allows him to escape the world of bodies altogether ('Mount, mount, my soul. . . / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward' [5.5.111-12]).

I shall argue, however, that Shakespeare was more influenced than we have realized by the erotic passion and erotic violence associated with male friendship and male rivalry in Marlowe. Both Edward's love for Gaveston and his erotically suggestive death affect the portrayal of Richard, his friends, and his (often premature) visions of death. Marlowe's love and death have been ousted from Shakespeare's plot by the more languid 'pangs' of abdication, but they return in Shakespeare's language, or rather in what Ruth Nevo has called Shakespeare's 'other language', the unconscious effects that words and verbal images create as they circulate between Marlowe and Shakespeare.4 They imply less about Richard's sexuality than about his subjectivity—less about whom he loves than about who he is—but their quiet presence is particularly important in Richard II, because it helps fill in the gaps of a plot that is so undermotivated in places that critics have had to postulate a missing 'part I' in order to understand why Richard attacks Bolingbroke at the beginning of the play, and they have had to postulate neurosis in order to understand why Richard abdicates even before Bolingbroke claims the throne at the end of the play. In what follows, I will first single out aspects of Marlowe's Edward II that were important to Shakespeare insofar as they left their mark on his other plays; and then I will suggest how such material might fill in the missing gaps of Richard II as well, even though it is supposed to have been eliminated from that play. Finally, I will suggest that Shakespeare's response to Edward II may help us understand new dimensions of dramatic collaboration on the early modern stage.

What Shakespeare saw in Marlowe's Edward II: Twins and rival twins

Sex and violence per se have hardly been neglected in Marlowe's play. Critics no longer either discreetly ignore Edward's homosexuality or mention it only to condemn it; indeed, the erotic implications of Edward's death have become increasingly important to our understanding of the play.5 And yet I am not sure that we appreciate the range of fantasies in this play if we stop short after specifying the gender of Edward's lover or the particular orifice implicated in their coupling. One can certainly see why Edward's Queen Isabel refers to him and Gaveston bitterly as 'Jove and Ganymede' (or why the barons cite as models Hylas and Hercules, and other famous male lovers). But Edward and Gaveston also compare themselves to the heterosexual Hero and Leander, Jupiter and Danae, and Actaeon and Diana. In fact, Edward and Gaveston in this play are very different from the Jupiter and Ganymede whom Marlowe had actually staged in his earlier Dido, Queen of Carthage. The difference is important: in Dido, Jupiter and Ganymede are canny, in control—and comically unequal. The couple in this play are tragic. Edward's dotage is far more serious than Jupiter's; and even Gaveston, opportunistic as he is, loves Edward. Edward's love for Gaveston is actually like the heterosexual dotage Marlowe portrays in the rest of Dido, between Dido and Aeneas, or like the dotage he draws on for Edward II's lines6—like Margaret and Suffolk's love in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One, or like Andrea's love for Bel-Imperia in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. In any case, more than its classification as 'homosexual' or 'heterosexual',7 what matters in Marlowe's play is not only the actual 'object' of Edward's love but Edward's—and Marlowe's—narratives (or fantasies) about that object and about love.

Marlowe's narrative of love involves not only love but friendship—and even rivalry. It needs to be read in the context, not only of Jupiter and Ganymede or Hero and Leander, but also of the twinning that Bacon, Montaigne, and Elyot see as prerequisite for ideal friendship. (A friend is 'another Γ, Elyot writes; 'another himself, says Bacon; they 'entermixe and confound themselves one in the other', says Montaigne.)8 Gaveston, Edward says, 'loves me more than all the world' (I.4.164); but instead of simply loving back, Edward responds with an 'almost manic desire'9 to be 'another Gaveston' (I.1.142-3) and to 'knit' his soul to Gaveston.10 In addition, Edward's love is defined partly by its difference from his other relationships—to his father and the barons, and to his rival Mortimer. Edward II is not only a 'weak king' but also a bad boy, one of the Elizabethan prodigals whom Richard Helgerson saw moving out of the old school plays and into Elizabethan prose fiction, and who had leapt up onto the contemporary stage with Prince Hal in The Famous Victories.11 Like all prodigals, Edward is matched against a straight man or "'good' son" and Mortimer plays this role in Edward's story. If Gaveston is Edward's mirror, Mortimer is his reversal; if Gaveston is his twin, Mortimer is his 'rival twin'. Edward is thus defined not only by his twin, the man he wants to be, but also by his rival, the man who wants to be him and take his place.

We might see in this doubling a Girardian structure of rivalry between Edward and Mortimer, that is, a social truth about division between competitors trying to create difference between them in order to avoid the terrible truth of similarity.12 In this reading Mortimer seems to be defined by sheer difference from Edward—rational where Edward is passionate, macho where Edward is effeminate—but the two men turn out after all to be alike, two versions of egocentric wilfulness, undistinguished twins who take turns being 'good' or 'bad', but who are finally defined simply by being on opposite sides and competing for the same place. Similarly, we might see a political structure in the subsequent rivalry between Gaveston and Mortimer, whereby each calls forth one of 'the king's two bodies' in Tudor doctrine, or one side of 'the king's twin nature', as Anne Barton calls it, the vulnerable human king versus the divinely protected warrior king.13 But for the moment I want to focus on the psychological rather than the political or social repercussions of the fact that Marlowe's Edward has both a twin and rival twin, so that he himself is split into two: Gaveston's Edward and Mortimer's Edward, lover's Edward and rival's. The presence of both pairings situates Edward II among examples of what Bruce Smith calls 'the myth of combatants and comrades', which, he argues, shaped so many early modern texts.14 Read this way, Gaveston and Mortimer, twin and enemy twin, can be seen as two different faces of Edward's relationships to other men, possibly even to the one other man who counts most, Gaveston. Edward's death at Mortimer's hands, in fact, has been read as a nightmare version of Edward's love for Gaveston, in which the twin (Gaveston) is not only replaced by the enemy twin (Mortimer) but metamorphosed into a satanic version of the enemy (Mortimer's tool, Lightbourne) who promises to 'comfort' but comes to kill (5.5.2)—and whose attack transforms sodomy into rape.15 Passionate love calls forth...

(The entire section is 2207 words.)

Edward II: In Richard II

It may seem nonetheless that neither Edward's passion nor his violent death by penetration has any part in Richard II Richard's trio of minions is unimportant and erotically neutral compared to Edward's Gaveston—it is hard to imagine Richard wishing to be 'another Bushy' or 'another Bagot', for example. Unlike Gaveston, these friends are just friends, although Bolingbroke nonetheless accuses them of coming between Richard and his Queen in bed.23 Yet these friends are far more important to Richard than would first appear. In fact, it is the thought of his friends' betrayal and news of their death that marks the turning point of Shakespeare's play—the moment at which Richard first collapses and...

(The entire section is 6658 words.)