How is the "irony of kingship" evident in Christopher Marlowe's play Edward the Second?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One way to discuss the “irony of kingship” in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II is to focus on the ways in which Edward himself falls short of Renaissance ideals of a good king.  Edward, in other words, has inherited the title of monarch, but he often fails to live up to the responsibilities of ruling a monarchy.  His personal affection for Gaveston is so great that he often neglects his duties to his other subjects. This kind of neglect is already implied in Gaveston’s opening speech.

In that speech, Gaveston begins by reading two sentences from a personal letter he has received from Edward:

My father is deceas'd. Come, Gaveston,

And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.

No sooner does Edward’s father die, and no sooner does Edward thereby become king, than he is already focusing, ironically, on his own personal desires. The idea that a monarch could “share” the kingdom with a friend (no matter how “dear”) would have struck many of Marlowe’s contemporaries as foolish and irresponsible. Gaveston’s reaction – in which he delights in the prospects of being “the favourite of a king” – already suggests the potentially ironic outcome of Edward’s plan: he hopes to benefit himself by giving too much power to a man who ironically seems primarily interested in his own “bliss” and “delight.” Instead of feeling summoned to England as a responsible statesman, Gaveston correctly sees an “amorous” intention in Edward’s words. Many Elizabethans would have thought that the king now had a responsibility to put his personal affections aside (especially since he was already married) and act in the best interests of the nation. Instead, Edward’s motives seem, ironically, the opposite of those of a king who should be truly devoted to his people.

Clearly, Gaveston has no great desire to go to England and encourage Edward to be a selfless ruler.  Instead, Gaveston next mentions his desire to be held in the king’s “arms.” Speaking of Edward, Gaveston refers to “The king, upon whose bosom let me lie,” even if doing so means that he will “be still at enmity” with “the world” (that is, with others in the kingdom). Gaveston’s desires, like those of Edward, are mainly personal.  The crucial difference is that Gaveston is not the king. Edward is, and his subsequent behavior will seem ironic in light of his very important social role. Gaveston assumes that once he has become the personal favorite of the monarch, he will not have to show respect to other important people in the realm:

Farewell base stooping to the lordly peers!
My knee shall bow to none but to the king.

Given the nature of the relationship between Gaveston and Edward, the last line just quoted would have struck many Elizabethans as especially ironic and even shocking. The play’s opening speech already implies that little good can come to the kingdom from the kind of relationship the ambitious “favourite” desires.