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lines can often seem unrelated to the story being told; they are thus all too easy to dismiss as curious but rather outdated examples of the parlance of the day.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.

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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 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 motto Undique 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...

(The entire section contains 3571 words.)

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Critical Overview