Composed within a few years of each other and drawn, in part, from the common source of Holinshed's Chronicles. Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and William Shakespeare's Richard II are in some ways strikingly similar. Both of these history plays relate the story of an English monarch who is deposed and eventually murdered. In each case, a regent's basic character defects contributes to his fate, both Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Richard II being unfit to rule. The two characters hold an exalted view of their divine right to reign, yet both waver, lapse into inaction and are impotent against the forces arrayed against them. In the respective deposition scenes of the two plays (Act V, scene i of Marlowe's drama; Act IV, scene i of Shakespeare's history) a now-fallen king pathetically clings to the trappings of rule, i.e., the crown and scepter, each of these climactic junctures underscoring the "shadow" nature of their respective protagonists. Nevertheless, Shakespeare concludes Richard II with an affirmation of the divine right of kings, effectively endorsing Richard II's sense of his divine office even as he shows us that Richard effectively abdicated his throne long before he cedes it to Bullingbrook who proves more fit to rule than his predecessor. By contrast, Marlowe displays considerably greater ambivalence toward the "divine right" of kings, suggesting that Edward II is as Machiavellian as Mortimer, that might alone, rather than divine right, supports the crown.
In the opening scene of Edward II we receive our first impression of the play's eponymous character through the words of his favorite, Piers Gaveston. Having received a letter from the king, Gaveston readily discloses his plans to manipulate his lover, musing as to how he will transform court into a place of pleasure, with himself as its master of ceremonies:
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching a string,
May draw the pliant King which way I please;
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I'll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
(I, i, 50-55).
Even at this early point it is apparent that Edward II is "pliant" and hence, unfit to rule, being given more to "shows" than to the management of his realm. This is confirmed when Edward II appears on stage and...
(The entire section is 2613 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Richard II Critical Essays. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!