Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1118
Edward II, probably the last play (the dating of his dramas is conjectural) written by Christopher Marlowe before his untimely death, is a chronicle in its highest form. In fact, the drama was in the past attributed to William Shakespeare. Unlike Marlowe’s earlier work, this play is polished in form, sustained in theme, and consistent in characterization. Marlowe’s first real success in the field of historical drama, Edward II sacrifices for a highly dramatic and tragic ending the lyrical beauty of language and of metaphor present in his other plays. A further accomplishment to be noted here is Marlowe’s use of a large group of dominant characters; in his earlier plays he employed only two central figures.
Edward II, regarded by many as Marlowe’s finest work, shows tighter structure and greater clarity and unity than his earlier works. Since it was published almost immediately after his death, the text escaped the corruption that his other works suffered, and there are relatively few problems with establishing an accurate text. Scholars also possess the source material for the work, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the edition of 1577 or 1587. By comparing this play with others of its genre and with its source, it is possible to arrive at an appreciation of Marlowe’s achievement.
Holinshed’s account of the reign of Edward II (r. 1307-1327) is relatively unstructured and, though providing much material, does not establish clear relationships or a connected series of events. Marlowe, who worked closely enough with Holinshed’s text to incorporate actual phrases from the chronicle, nevertheless set about to structure the story and bring out salient features, developing relationships and characterizations, and compressing the events of more than twenty years—from Gaveston’s return in 1307 to the execution of Mortimer in 1330—into what seems on stage to be a relatively short span. While this creates some problems in terms of improbably swift shifting of loyalties and changes of policy, it gives the drama a forward movement that underscores the alienation of Edward’s associates—his wife, the loyal Edmund, and the outraged barons.
This surging wave of hostility is the central event of the play, which begins with the return of the king’s beloved Gaveston from exile. Marlowe makes it quite clear that the two men are lovers, but it is not the homosexual relationship that disturbs the barons—in fact, at one point the elder Mortimer explains “the mightiest kings have had their minions,” and lists famous pairs of male lovers in history. Rather it is the fact that Edward ignores his role as king for the sake of Gaveston that enrages the nobles. Gaveston is lowborn, but Edward elevates him to share the throne, and in his infatuation, he forgets his duties to his realm. He is following his personal will and shows this weakness in his inability to give up his personal pleasure for the good of his kingdom. He is childish both in his willfulness and in his stubbornness, and he remains blind to the facts of his own misrule and of the justice of the nobles’ grievances.
The Tudor world saw rebellion against an anointed king as a grievous breach of natural law, and the play documents the slow evolution of rebellion. At first it is solely against Gaveston that the hostility is directed. Only gradually does this hostility spread to the king, first after the death of Gaveston, and then when Edward fastens his affections upon new flatterers, primarily Spencer. Whereas the loyalty of Gaveston and Edward, for all its folly, had a touch of nobility about it, Spencer is merely a sycophant, and the king, in listening to him, reveals his fatal weakness of character. His early frivolousness turns to vengeance when the barons move to open revolt, and even his loving queen and the loyal Edmund slowly turn against him. It is perhaps a weakness of the play that neither party in the conflict can arouse the audience’s admiration; there is no moral framework to the play, no good side and evil side, or even wisdom to oppose the folly. The misrule of the king is overthrown by a Machiavellian villain, the hypocritical Mortimer. Whereas Shakespeare tended to glorify those who put an end to misrule, as does Bolingbroke in Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), which bears many similarities to Edward II, Marlowe paints a picture of unrelieved gloom, as the rebels, led by the unfaithful queen and the power-grabbing Mortimer, depose the king. It is only at the very end, as Edward III comes to the throne, executing Mortimer and imprisoning the queen, that rightful rule is restored. Edward III specifically seeks the counsel of his nobles before he acts and in so doing restores the reciprocity upon which the well-being of the realm rests.
Beyond the concept of divine right remains the concept that the king must rule not by whim but with concern for the welfare of his land and in concert with his nobles, who, like him, are born to their station. Though the play has strong political overtones, the absence of any developed conflict between right and wrong robs it of the sort of symbolic value that marks Shakespeare’s finest history plays. Indeed, the absence of a figure with whom the audience can identify may be in part responsible for the unpopularity of the play, which perhaps because of its historicity lacks the fascination of the powerfully imaginative Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (1587) and Doctor Faustus (1588).
Marlowe’s genius was at its best when expressing strong emotions and characters with extravagant poetic imaginations. In Edward II there is less opportunity for such luxuriant language, and for many, the play does not really come alive until the downfall of the king, when in spite of his unsympathetic character, the pathos of his situation commands the involvement of the audience. To be sure, Gaveston is also very much a Marlowe character, perhaps much like Marlowe himself—impulsive, poetic, a lover of pleasure and beauty, both irresponsible and passionate. It is Edward, however, who sticks in the mind. Aside from his touching and loyal love for Gaveston, he has no redeeming qualities; the extremity of his suffering gives him a nobility that is not destroyed even by his anguish. Even at the end he can exclaim, “I am still king!” Marlowe constructs one of the most harrowing death scenes to be found in Elizabethan drama—though he actually softens the even more horrible historical fact—and the pathos of Edward’s intense emotional suffering elevates the play beyond the level of historical chronicle and assures its place among the world’s great dramas.
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