Structural Device in Edward II

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The details of a play's descriptive lines can often seem unrelated to the story being told; they are thus all too easy to dismiss as curious but rather outdated examples of the parlance of the day. Renaissance writers like Marlowe were well versed in the themes and stories of classical writers such as Ovid, Virgil, and Homer; it is not surprising then that the names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses appear in their literary works. For example, in Edward II, Edward speaks of his heart beating like "Cyclop's hammer" and Gaveston is likened to Phaeton, who was unable to control his father's chariot and thus serves to intimate that Gaveston will not be able to control the chaos he causes. Certain images and allusions, however, carry more significance than others, and uncracking the code of these images can cast a revealing light on the entire play.

In Edward II, images of pageants and masques, jousts and tournaments, sports and pleasures abound; this is apt given that one of the play's themes is Edward's excessive fondness for entertainment and regalia at the expense of statecraft. The first pageant image, however, occurs oddly out of context, before we know of Edward's tastes. It comes at the very beginning of the play, when Gaveston receives a letter from Edward inviting him to come and share his realm. Gaveston is delighted and begins to daydream about the kinds of court entertainment—comedies and Italian masques—he will plan for his king. One game he describes in detail, with a great deal of relish. He envisions "men like satyrs" who lounge about the palace lawns watching a young boy adorned in pearls and hiding his genitals with a laurel branch. This young boy he likens to Actaeon, a character from Ovid's Metamorphosis who is turned into a hart (deer) as punishment for having seen Diana bathing. In Gaveston's daydream the young-man-cum-hart is brought down by "yelping hounds" and seems to die. Gaveston is quite pleased with his imagined entertainment, for "such things as these best please his majesty." His gruesome vision is interrupted by the arrival of the King, Mortimer, and the lords, and is never alluded to again. However, the brief image has set the scene for the action of the play to come, for it will be the king himself who will be brought to ground while he frolics in foolish games on the palace grounds.

Before the king is set upon, however, another man is made prey to the nobles. The nobles have Gaveston banished, but when they realize that he might raise an army in Ireland, they invite him back so that they can ambush him. It is an unfair hunt, one in which the prey does not know the rules of the game and blindly steps into a trap. While the king and nobles await Gaveston's return, Edward is in a jolly mood and the nobles are feeling more at ease with him than ever before. To bide the time, he inquires of them what device, or flag, they have designed for their battle insignia. To the king, the visible signs of status are more important than the reality. According to David Zucker, "His idea of royal dignity rests exclusively on such forms, which for him define what he is, both as a private and as public man." The king listens as the two nobles relate their designs. Mortimer's, depicting a "canker" climbing the bark of a tree in which an eagle perches, clearly corresponds to his usurping actions against the king (the eagle is a common symbol...

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for a king). Lancaster admits that his is "more obscure." On his flag, a flying fish "takes the air" and is brought down by a fowl. Lancaster's also bears the Latin mottoUndique mors est, which translates to "death is on all sides"; his device portrays a creature leaving its natural element, water in this case, and being seized by a predator it would not normally encounter. Hearing of these symbolically threatening images, the king angrily confronts the two lords for their impertinence; he sees the threat in their symbolic representations, but he fails to respond to them on anything more than a superficial level. It will not be by granting titles to these men that their concerns will be abated. He will find out later that both images foreshadowed his own end: being set upon by social climbers then hunted and devoured by predators (courtiers) that would not normally threaten a king. Immediately upon Gaveston's return, Mortimer wounds Gaveston in the presence of the king, thus enacting the attacks symbolized on the flags. When Gaveston is next seen on stage, he is running from the nobles, "flying" to and fro, again enacting the metaphor in the image. Gaveston taunts his pursuers, saying he has escaped their "hot pursuits"; but his last words as they take him captive echo the Latin motto of Lancaster's ensign—he says "And death is all." He encounters his death not in his imagined Elysian palace grounds, but in a trench. The king threatens war, exclaiming that he will not allow them to "appoint their sovereign / His sports, his pleasures, and his company." In other words, he once again focuses not on the substance of the problem but on the surface, because his main concern is that they denied him the right to pursue his private sport. Ironically, he will become their public sport, and the play presents this as a pageant for an Elizabethan audience.

Images and allusions to sport and game abound in this play; this is a staged masque with real-life consequences. When Mortimer escapes to France, he, the queen, and Sir John of Hainault (a French lord) speak of their upcoming confrontation with King Edward as a game. Sir John asks the young prince what he thinks of the "match'' and likens it to a game called prisoner's base ("to bid the English king a base"). The scene of their arrival (Act IV, scene v) finds Edward and his cohorts "flying about the stage." Edward moans, "What, was I born to fly and run away?" He acts like the flying fish of Lancaster's insignia. When he escapes to Ireland, Mortimer says of him "he shall be started thence''; the word "started," in hunting terminology, refers to routing a wild animal from its hiding place. Edward has become nothing more than a wild animal being hunted for sport. Even Kent sees the king in this position, albeit with more sympathy: "Unhappy Edward, chased from England's bounds." Edward too casts himself in the position of a caught animal, defeatedly telling Leicester to "rip up this panting breast of mine." The motif of hunting appears overtly when, in Act V, scene iv, Isabella suggests it as a way of taking young Edward's mind off of his uncle's beheading. Poignantly, the young man asks, "and shall my uncle Edmund ride with us?" knowing full well that his uncle would not be going. This scene underscores the human devastation of the nobles' game of hunting a sovereign. Such games can lead to the death of worthy individuals.

In the last Act, Edward draws a direct parallel between himself and the hunted beast, comparing his state to that of the "the forest deer [that] being struck / Runs to an herb that closes up the wounds.'' Edward, however, cannot obtain the succor of nature, but instead must "rend and tear" his gored lion's flesh, "scorning that the lowly earth / Should drink his blood.'' He must make of himself a formal sacrifice. Again he likens himself to "a lamb encompassed by wolves" and accuses his jailers of having been "nursed with tiger's milk'' and Mortimer of having "tiger's jaws." Following the theme of the hunted animal, Mortimer tells Isabella that they have the "old wolf by the ears.'' Mortimer torments his prey by sending him from one foul prison to another and commanding that the jailers treat him roughly, as one would an animal. Edward feels ‘‘vexed like a nightly bird / whose sight is loathesome" and asks when Mortimer's appetite "for blood" will be satisfied. Edward has been hunted down like an animal, toyed with mercilessly, stripped of the symbolic crown that made him greater than human, and left to rot in filth; a piece of meat is tossed at him now and again for sustenance. His demise is in some ways a contorted and perverse manifestation of Gaveston's imagined scene of a hunted man turned into prey and brought down by his own courtiers. It is also a tragic reversal of the sport, pageantry, and erotic pleasure-seeking that was Edward's sole interest. He plays the central, sacrificial figure in his final pageant, instead of playing pageant-maker and royal audience, as he would have done.

How might an Elizabethan audience judge this play about the hunting-down of a king? Depicting an act of violation against a monarch bordered on treason in Marlowe's day, because such a depiction would have been seen as, in a way, inviting the questioning Elizabeth herself, and she actively suppressed such "treasonous" acts. In "Marlowe, Edward II, and the Cult of Elizabeth,'' Dennis Kay proposes that "Edward is a negative exemplum of Elizabeth." That is, Edward represented the antithesis of Elizabeth, and his character and the plot represent a kind of extreme "what if" situation: Elizabethans feared that their queen—as a woman—might fall prey to various temptations, like love. Although the play demonstrates the possible outcome of such a situation, the intent was not to incite the audience to "hunt'' Elizabeth, but rather to assuage its fears with an exaggerated depiction of her opposite. She would not allow her love life to interfere with her rule, and her pageants were not the fulsome games of satyrs but legitimate demonstrations of her sovereignty.

Thus, Edward's cruel punishment at the hands of Mortimer serves as a catharsis for the audience, who had real worries about the consequences of Elizabeth's love life but no avenue to express any misgivings (for fear of being charged with treason). Viewing a play such as Edward II allowed the public to explore "treasonous" thoughts—thoughts about sovereigns who do not perform their duties and are therefore punished—and to explore these thoughts in the safe, external, performative space of the theatre. Furthermore, the courtiers portrayed in the play exhibit a variety of ways of working out "conflicts of loyalty implicit in the courtier's life''; models range from Spenser, who follows his king to the abyss, to Arundel, who maintains his integrity throughout. These characters would have had their counterparts in Elizabeth's court, and the play offers a means to assess their contributions as well as the justness of their rewards.

Edward II, then, served at least two purposes: it was a window through which one could view and appraise Elizabeth's court, and it was a means to stage a carnivalesque pageant that celebrated Queen Elizabeth's qualities through an intentionally and extreme opposite depiction.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Narrative Style in Edward II

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In Edward II, arguably his last play, Marlowe departs from the foreign and exotic landscapes of earlier drama and turns to English history to write a de casibus political tragedy. The King's infatuation with the young Piers de Gaveston leads to growing opposition from the barons, spearheaded by the Earls of Lancaster and Warwick, Mortimer, and his nephew, young Mortimer, who becomes the principal antagonist. Resentment of Edward's culpable neglect is fuelled by Gaveston's lowly origins; he is dismissed scornfully by Mortimer as "one so base and obscure". Edward greets such hostility with defiance but the barons are powerful enough to coerce the King into agreeing to Gaveston's banishment. However, they then work to have him recalled so that they can discredit Edward further in the eyes of the House of Commons. Gaveston returns and is treated contemptuously by the earls, who blame Edward's infatuation for the deterioration in national morale and in international status. This erosion of royal authority, coupled with the Mortimers' personal grievance at Edward's refusal to ransom their kinsman, leads to threats of rebellion and deposition. Gaveston tries to escape, but is captured and eventually executed. Edward's expression of grief—"O shall I speak or shall I sigh and die?"—is followed by avowals of revenge and the adoption of a new favourite, Young Spencer. The ambitious Mortimer is imprisoned in the Tower, but he escapes to France and creates a faction around the Queen and her son, the young Prince Edward.

As Mortimer gains ascendancy, Edward's fall appears imminent. The Queen and Mortimer, now lovers, land in England and gather support. Edward is taken captive and, having relinquished his power and craving death, he is passed between jailers until he arrives at Kenilworth Castle. In a scene of hideous cruelty, he is pierced with a burning spit and murdered by Mortimer's agent, Lightborn. Mortimer's triumph is short-lived: the newly crowned Edward III accuses him of treason and orders his death. The final tableau reveals Mortimer's head proffered to Edward's hearse as the young King dons his mourning robes.

Edward II explores the tragic effects of infatuation; in this context Edward is typical of the intemperate Marlovian figure consumed by an overriding desire. But there is little evidence of nobility in the wilful king who squanders his Kingdom because Gaveston is more important to him: "Ere my sweet Gaveston shall part from me/This isle shall fleet upon the ocean/And wander to the unfrequented Inde''. The barons, however, do not act from moral outrage, but because they see in Gaveston a threat to their privileges. They loathe Gaveston because of his lowly birth and because of his foreign and effeminate ways. Gaveston, for his part, despises their uncouthness and hereditary privileges: "Base leaden earls, that glory in your birth,/Go sit at home and eat your tenants' beef". Edward can only respond to this conflict by helplessly following his self-destructive passion, steadfastly believing that Gaveston loves him "more than all the world". Whether this trust is justly founded, or whether Gaveston is motivated by social ambition, remains uncertain.

The play is structured as a series of careers of individuals who scale the summit of their ambition and are destroyed by it. Baldock reminds his friend Spencer that "all rise to fall". Spencer's career as the King's favourite does, indeed, mirror (albeit less spectacularly) that of Gaveston. But it is Mortimer whose ambitions exemplify most fully the de casibus motif. He boasts of his authority which he believes to be unassailable, only to realize that it is unwise to presume upon Fortune's perpetual goodwill: "Base Fortune/now I see that in thy wheel/There is a point to which when men aspire/They tumble headlong down; that point I touched,/and seeing there was no place to mount up higher''.

Marlowe's language in Edward II is uncharacteristically lean, pared of most of the evocative imagery and sensuousness of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. This comparative austerity is relieved by Gaveston's expressions of sensual hedonism and by Edward's pitiful laments, which must have influenced Shakespeare in his portrayal of the deposition of Richard II. In the early scenes Isabella's language too is emotionally affecting, but as she aligns with Mortimer it acquires a plainness and loses the passion which underscored her earlier distress.

Source: Janet Clare, ‘‘Edward II; The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II’' in the International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 213-15.

An Unconventional Interpretation of Edward II

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[Simon is a well-known drama critic. In this excerpt, he reviews an unconventional production of Edward II that was staged in 1991. While the critic has mixed feelings regarding the production's heavy emphasis of Marlowe's homosexual themes, he feels that, overall, the new interpretation is worthwhile.]

Back at the Pit, we get Marlowe's Edward II staged by Gerard Murphy as camp tragedy. Can you imagine a Charles Ludlam or Charles Busch putting all his extravagance—not to mention overexplicit homosexual acts—into a basically somber, almost unrelievedly grief-filled text? It is an eerie affair, by no means ineffectual, but its sensationalism outweighs its tragic dignity. This Edward's historic death—anal impalement with a white-hot poker—is acted out in full gory detail, but it is preceded by Lightborn, the murderer, stripping to the waist and mounting the muckcovered king in his nightgown in a quasicopulation scene, which the script nowise calls for.

On the other hand, the heavy kissing between Edward and his favorite, Piers Gaveston—as well as, later, between Edward and young Spencer— seems appropriate and dramatically helpful. But I cannot condone a floor show by three not very acrobatic young men simulating sex à trois by way of a royal entertainment. And though there is some sort of desperate honesty in making every character in the play both physically and morally unprepossessing, if not repellent, it ends up being as unreal and unconvincing as the old Hollywood's overcosmeticized blanket glamour. Thus Ciaran Hinds, as young Mortimer, . . . Troilus, Queen Isabella and Lady Margaret are both on the overweight and frumpy side, and so on.

Simon Russell Beale, the RSC's rising star, is uncompelling of face, squat of body, acrid of voice. Yet he is a consummate actor, and his Edward is not lacking in a grating, pitiful humanity. His passion for Grant Thatcher's pretty and effeminate—yet in some ways also boyishly loutish—Gaveston is credible enough, and his pathos as a starved and sleepless prisoner knee-deep in filth is as palpable as any stage can make it. But Beale finally lacks the charisma that would explain his queen's passionate yearning for him despite constant, brutal rejection and the flaunting of his affair with Gaveston. Perhaps the most satisfying performance comes from Callum Dixon as young Prince Edward, who makes the transition from boy to boy-king to full-fledged monarch authentic and compelling.

The other unqualified success here is Ilona Sekacz' s score for violin, viola, and cello, some of it live, some of it electronically amplified, which whips up a storm of feelings but is confined to transitions between scenes and never allowed to become a nuisance. There is much to be said for the simple set by Sandy Powell and Paul Minter: a neutral cloth artfully draped over a few poles, and brought to colored life by Wayne Dowdeswell's impassioned lighting. The designers' costumes have an aptly brooding color scheme: mostly black, some gold, Gaveston in white, and, here and there, some sea green flooding the black. But the mixing of exaggerated period elements (e.g., overassertive codpieces further enhanced in some cases with rubbery studs) and contemporary touches (e.g., sneakers for Gaveston) may be too much of a muchness. This is an Edward II that keeps you intellectually stimulated but emotionally at bay—almost as if the RSC were performing Brecht's adaptation rather than Marlowe's original.

Source: John Simon, "London, Part I" in New York, Vol. 24, no. 34, September 2, 1991 , pp. 49-50.

Music in Edward II

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Gaveston's speech reflects the medieval and Renaissance conception of the power of music, which was thought to be capable of inducing specific psychological effects (see James Hutton, "‘Some English Poems in Praise of Music," English Miscellany, II [1951], 1-63, and the exchange of letter between Hutton and the present author, "Spenser's Shepherds' Calendar," TLS, March 30 [p. 197], May 11 [p. 293], and Sept. 7 [p. 565], 1951). Gaveston does not wish to retain the poor men who have just sued to enter his service; instead, in order to maintain his power over Edward, he will employ poets and musicians to stir Edward's less kingly desires. The pliancy of Edward accords with his unsympathetic characterization in the first half of the play, and his first "musical'' image (of the noise of the Cyclops' forge) further rebuffs sympathy, since it serves to express his ignobly passionate harping upon his minion's enforced exile.

Both of these references, however, together with less significant allusions to the drums and trumpets of the battle field (lines 1494, 1526, 1569; xi, 185, 217, 259) and to Pluto's bells (line 1956; xvii, 88), lend added force to Edward's speech just before his murder. He has been characterized increasingly sympathetically since Gaveston's murder and his Queen's seduction. He is no longer the "pliant king"; one of his keepers remarks. "He hath a body able to endure More then we can enflict, and therefore now, Let us assaile his minde another while.'' Just as Richard II is at his most sympathetic in the dungeon scene in Shakespeare's play, so Edward II is in Marlowe's; and just as Richard hears "broken music'' (and moralizes on the topic concord vs. discord, for which there is no parallel in Marlowe's play), so Edward hears the drum beats that ironically realize his own earlier fantasy of the Cyclops' forge and grotesquely parody the effects of Gaveston's music. The final irony is that Edward, unlike Richard II, again becomes a "pliant king'' at the point of death: "I am too weake and feeble to resist" (line 2556; xxii, 106).

The musical images and allusions are hardly central to the meaning and power of Marlowe's play, but they serve to reinforce more obvious elements in its structure and are all too likely to be missed by contemporary readers who are unaware of the Elizabethan significance of Gaveston's "Musitians."

Source: S. F. Johnson, ‘‘Marlowe's Edward II’’ in the Explicator, Vol. X, no. 8, June, 1952, p. 53.


Critical Overview