Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Blank Verse

Christopher Marlowe wrote Edward II in blank verse, a verse form utilizing unrhymed lines with traditional meter. Marlowe didn't invent blank verse, but he did popularize it among English dramatists, many of whom wrote in rhyming verse prior to the posthumous publication of Edward II. Marlowe's blank verse freed him from the constraints of traditional rhyming poetry, allowing him to write in a natural rhythm, producing dialogue that sounded colloquial and unrehearsed. He adhered to the constraints of iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables and five metrical feet, where the "feet" are pairs of one stressed and one unstressed syllable) but was otherwise free to experiment. Shakespeare would continue Marlowe's experiments in blank verse to great effect.

Historical Drama

Edward II falls into the category of "historical drama"—a genre for which Shakespeare was famous, with Richard III being a prime example. Historical drama is one of the three main genres of Western theater, alongside tragedy and comedy. Traditionally, history plays are based on historical narratives of some importance, as is Edward II, which dramatizes the downfall of King Edward II of England, who reigned from 1307 to 1327. Other important historical figures include Queen Isabella, Edward's wife; Piers Gaveston, Edward's lover and favorite; and Mortimer Junior, Earl of March, who leads the Marcher lords against Edward in the Despenser War. Marlowe compresses the events of Edward II's twenty-year reign into one play, bringing drama to the historical narrative.

Source Material

Marlowe used Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as source material while writing Edward II. Holinshed's narrative of the reign of Edward II is non-chronological, with a number of events appearing disjointed in place and time. Marlowe reconstructs the story out of this jumble and creates a streamlined narrative that focuses on a few key events and relationships that led to Edward II's downfall. Modern scholars, in comparing Marlowe's text to Holinshed's and to other historical accounts of the time, have for the most part authenticated Marlowe's narrative, affirming that these are generally accurate (if dramatized) representations of events that took place during Edward II's reign.

Machiavelli and Edward II

Many scholars have noted the importance of Machiavelli's political treatise The Prince in discussing Edward II. Though Machiavelli himself would say that The Prince merely provides instructions and guidelines on how to be an effective leader, most readers agree that the methods Machiavelli advocates are brutal, manipulative, and, in certain lights, evil. The word "Machiavellian" has become synonymous with devious, self-serving behavior, in large part because Machiavelli encouraged princes to use force whenever necessary to achieve their goals. In Machiavelli's mind, a prince should be a cunning mastermind capable of outmaneuvering his enemies both in battle and in politics. Edward II does neither. Edward breaks what Machiavelli would consider the cardinal rule: he lets his whims and passions get in the way of governing. Edward's gallivanting and inattention allow the ambitious Mortimer, Earl of March, to plot against him. Ultimately, it is Mortimer, a traitor to the crown, who displays the characteristics Machiavelli praised in The Prince. Mortimer uses his wealth, connections, and influence to manipulate events in Edward II , eventually placing himself in a position of power from which he has King Edward tortured and killed. In the process, however, he reveals himself to be a fatally ambitious man and makes enemies of his friends—including Queen Isabella, whom he professes to love. Mortimer leads the Marcher Lords against Edward II, deposing the king and making himself the de facto ruler of England while Edward III comes of age. Mortimer...

(This entire section contains 790 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

misuses his power by betraying Edward III's wishes and executing Kent, who could have become a powerful ally for the young king.

Depiction of Homosexuality

Edward II is notable for its nonchalant depiction of homosexuality. In 1593, when the play was first published, homosexuality was essentially illegal in England, thanks to Henry VIII's Buggery Act of 1533, which criminalized anal sex. However, in the early 1300s, when the play is set, homosexuality was understood to be fairly common, though it was officially frowned upon by the establishment and remained a punishable offense. In fact, the English noblemen take the fact of Edward's affair with Gaveston more or less in stride, and Mortimer the elder blithely says, "The mightiest kings have had their minions,” as if it is nothing to fret about. If it weren't for the inordinate amount of kingly favor Edward shows his lover by gifting him lands, titles, and wealth, the noblemen wouldn't care in the least about the relationship or Edward's homosexuality (or so Marlowe suggests). This alone distinguishes Edward II from other plays of the period, in which homosexuality is generally treated as the butt of a joke or (worse) a sin.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Blank Verse
Blank verse, unrhymed lines with a measured rhythm, was not invented by Christopher Marlowe, but he is credited with having instituted its use in English drama. The rhythm usually takes the form of iambic pentameter, ten syllables with the accent falling on every other syllable. Marlowe's blank verse demonstrates how the measure can be varied, using slight variations in accenting or in the placement of pauses (caesura) to retain the freshness of normal speech, while maintaining the formality of poetry. Because of its great flexibility, it is a medium that lends itself perfectly to the expression of natural sentences: "Here, take my crown, the life of Edward too, / Two kings in England cannot reign at once.'' Although balanced by the rhythm, these two lines also contain the spontaneity of unrehearsed speech. In the hands of Shakespeare, the same form became even more elastic: ‘‘For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings . . ." (Richard II). Marlowe freed dramatic lyrics from the constraints of rhyming lines, thus paving the way for further lyric innovations. By taking greater liberties with the stresses but holding to the overall rhythm of iambic pentameter, Shakespeare produced his psychologically realistic plays, as he let his characters express even more realistic utterances than Marlowe was able to achieve.

The images conveyed in the language of a play usually suggest or subtly foreshadow the general themes of the play. Also, whether it's purely linguistic or in the form of actual items on stage, imagery can serve to remind the audience of the settings and paraphernalia that accompany a person's status. Images of the external marks of status appear over and over again throughout Edward II, such as the crown, battle ensigns (flags), ceremonial robes, jewelry, hats, and so on. In many cases, the intended function of these items is perverted by the king, in his mania for entertainment and self-indulgence. For example, when the Bishop of Coventry angers him for having signed the order banishing Gaveston from court the first time, Edward punishes the holy man by stripping away his vestments. A priest's vestments hold symbolic importance, and to lay hands upon them is a form of sacrilege that to the Bishop of Canterbury—as well as Elizabethan audiences—represents an act of violence against the Church itself. This scene is essentially repeated with Edward as the victim at the end of the play when he is dressed in tatters in the dungeon, stripped of his crown. He tells Lightborn to convey a message to Isabella saying that he "looked not thus'' when he "ran at tilt in France / And there unhorsed the Duke of Cleremont." His appearance is an integral part of his status. The tournament was a popular Renaissance pageant where the players dressed in their finest to perform mock battles with each other. Renaissance audiences were particularly attuned to the differences between real war and play war, both of which required the players to dress up. That Edward was willing to "undress'' a priest marks him as dangerously irreverent. He is also depicted as overly concerned with pageants and show. His nobles complain that he only once went to battle, at the Battle of Bannockburn, and there he was so garishly dressed that he made himself a laughingstock. Significantly, he lost the battle. His attention to show, rather than substance, led him to ruin. In another case, he asks the nobles to tell him what "device" or design they have put on their ensigns, or battle flags. Each of the nobles in turn describes a scene that can be read as a symbolical threat to the king, and one of their devices contains the Latin phrase Undique mors est, which means "surrounded by death.'' Edward is thus surrounded by subtle visual images that symbolize the danger of his own obsession with image.

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


*London. Center of English political power and of King Edward’s monarchy. Several locations within London are settings for important scenes, including the royal palace, the new temple (a center of legal authority), and the Tower of London, the traditional place of detention for important political prisoners. The first scene of the play is set on a London street and the last at the royal palace.


*Paris. Capital of the French monarchy and home of Edward II’s queen Isabella, sister of the French king. It is in Paris that Isabella meets Kent and the younger Mortimer, with whom she plans to invade England and make war against her husband.

*Neath Abbey

*Neath Abbey. Church in Glamorganshire, Wales, where King Edward is arrested by his enemies after failing to escape to Ireland. Edward II was born in Carnarvon Castle in Wales and was England’s first Prince of Wales.

*Berkeley Castle

*Berkeley Castle (BAHRK-lee). Castle in Gloucestershire that is the place of Edward’s final incarceration and murder.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Reigns of Edward I & II
The historical Edward I (1239-1307) was an effective king, although he made excessive demands on Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. He began the process of building an administration capable of taxing the people through a body called the Commons, adjunct to the Great Council (the king's advisors). The Commons consisted of locally elected representatives, who would be more inclined to collect much-needed taxes for the king if they had loyalties both to the throne and to their constituents. It would take another 500 years for this body to take on the democratic form of representation it has today. The Commons also served as a funnel for petitions requesting national statutes; this process resulted in the growing body of laws that steadily eroded the jurisdiction and power of the baronry and other local landowners and began the scaffolding of nationalism. The final blow to the nobility would be an act that made illegal the conscription of armed forces by any one other than the king himself.

Edward II was apparently as dissolute as Marlowe's play presents him. He lost the faith of the nobles and was imprisoned and probably murdered by them. He lost Normandy to France and his defeat at Bannockburn led inexorably to Scottish Independence. Edward II's deposition, at the hands of his wife and her lover Roger Mortimer, constituted the first deposition of a king since the instatement of William the Conqueror in 1066, but was in line with the slow path toward democracy begun by Edward I. The kingship was no longer seen as inviolable; a precedent was thus set for questioning the king's moral worth, and for taking steps against a king deemed unworthy.

Scottish War of Independence—Bannockburn, 1314
In Marlowe's play, the only reference to Bannockburn comes in Act II, scene ii, when Lancaster mocks King Edward with a gibing song about his defeat there in 1314. Historically, the defeat was devastating for England because it led to the end of its rule of Scotland fourteen years later. In a way, Edward had no business losing the battle. He arrived with 16,000 men and a twenty-mile supply line. Robert the Bruce had only a band of 6,500 desperate but clever men. Edward had superior forces and armaments, but he lacked the drive of Robert the Bruce, a national hero in Scotland to this day. The immediate object of the battle was to assist the English-held Stirling Castle which was under siege by the Scots. English governor Philip Mowbray was about to surrender when Edward arrived. Edward made some strategic mistakes and led his men into a trap, a bog-filled area that was difficult to maneuver in. A handful of Scots were then able to herd them into a nearby river and slaughter them. Edward called a retreat that was so panicked that many English soldiers were shot by their own bowmen who couldn't tell who they were firing at. Edward and 500 men fled to Stirling Castle, only to be rebuffed by Mowbrey, who foresaw that Robert would win. Edward headed elsewhere and ultimately returned home, leaving behind scores of dead, prisoners, and hostages, plus a fortune's worth of equipment. It was a great triumph for the Scots and a devastating blow to Edward's military credibility.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

14th century: Homosexuality was a fairly common practice in the upper-classes and among courtiers. However, sodomy was officially considered anti-Christian and was punishable by law.

16th century: Homosexuality was not openly tolerated in Elizabeth's time, although it was common at the university and elsewhere. The many derogatory terms—sodomite, buggerer, and so on—attest to the negative stigma homosexual activity had in numerous circles of society; and, as in the 14th century, sodomy was punishable by fines, arrest, and placement in the pillory. The act of sodomy was widely considered a vile import from the continent, specifically from Turkey and Italy.

Today: More tolerant values tend to prevail in today's culture. A few states retain laws against sodomy, and though they are rarely enforced, they represent sites of legal and moral controversy for many people. Those who believe that society has progressed beyond such official intolerance and prejudice feel that these laws should be struck down; they also argue that existing laws and rights should be amended to explicitly protect homosexuals. Others, people who are more conservative and perhaps fearful, assert that such laws, and the moralism behind them, represent a kind of corrective for what they see as a lack of morality and discipline in society.

14th century: The King enjoyed god-like status, and his power was thought to be bestowed by heaven. No one dared question him openly for fear of being accused of treason, the punishment for which was death. It was even unlawful to express the thought that the king might die.

16th century: Queen Elizabeth I also reigned under this precept, and she acted upon treasonous activities by imprisoning or executing offenders.

Today: Leaders, of course, are no longer associated with godliness, and it is perfectly legitimate in a democracy like the United State to criticize the president's work (it is somewhat less legitimate, although very popular, to also criticize his life). Threats against a president or other world leader are nevertheless taken very seriously and quickly investigated.

14th century: Kings were expected to be warriors who would defend their territory using all of the means—men, money, arms—at his disposal. It would not be possible to remain king without a show of power, because many nobles could muster enough men, money, and arms to usurp the crown.

16th century: Queen Elizabeth I had to make use of all of her diplomatic skills to maintain her sovereignty in a world dominated by men. She established a veritable cult of herself in order to make her reign seem inviolable. A master strategist, she also used her wiles to keep a bevy of powerful men loyal to her so that she could count on their armed support against the Spanish Armada, among other enemies.

Today: Modern leaders are not necessarily expected to participate in wars; the popular belief is that they should use diplomatic and other nonviolent means to avoid such conflicts. However, the taking of military action is still considered a sign of strong leadership.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

British director Derek Jarman produced a film called Edward II in the United Kingdom in 1991 (it is available on VHS video). Jarman uses Marlowe's text as a springboard for a gay liberation manifesto, taking lines from Marlowe, heightening the homosexual nature of the king's love interest, and encasing it in a modern context. The screenplay, with photos from the film, was published by Jarman and Malcolm Sutherland in 1991 for the Trinity Press, Worcester, under the title QueerEdward II.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Further Reading
Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton, Cornell University Press, 1991. Explores the history and literary representations of homosexuality in the Renaissance.

Deats, Sara Munson. Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe, University of Delaware Press, 1997. Finds instances of role reversals and androgynous characters in Marlowe's plays.

Gill, Roma. "Christopher Marlowe" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 62: Elizabethan Dramatists, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 212-31. A fairly broad representation of critical theory applied to Marlowe's plays.

Godshalk, W. L. The Marlovian World Picture, Mouton, 1974. A standard analysis of Marlowe's plays.

Grantley, Darryll, and Peter Roberts, editors. Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture, Scolar Press, 1996. Describes the historical context of Marlowe's plays and speculates on aspects of the political cultures that find their way into his plots.

Kay, Dennis. "Marlowe, Edward II, and the Cult of Elizabeth," Early Modern Literary Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (September, 1997): 1-30. Considers Edward II a negative exemplum of Elizabeth's monarchy, and thus a tribute to her style of reign.

Kuriyama, Constance Brown. Hammer or Anvil: Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe's Plays, Rutgers University Press, 1980. Attempts to demonstrate that Marlowe's plays show his awareness of the destructive nature of his own egotism.

Levin, Harry. "Marlowe Today," The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1964): 22-31. Argues that Marlowe's characters, with their intensely personal struggles, are a good fit with the modern Theatre of the Absurd.

McAdam, Ian. "Edward II and the Illusion of Integrity," Study of Philology, Vol. 92 (Spring, 1995): 203-29. Analyzes 300 years of commentaries on Marlowe and his plays, beginning with his contemporaries and ending with a George Bernard Shaw essay of 1896.

MacLure, Millar, editor. Christopher Marlowe: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1995. Three hundred years of commentaries on Marlowe and his plays, beginning with his contemporaries and ending with a George Bernard Shaw essay of 1896.

Meehan, Virginia M. Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Playwright, Mouton, 1974. A study of the aptness and musicality of Marlowe's poetic diction and metaphors.

O'Neill, Judith, editor. Critics on Marlowe: Readings in Literary Criticism, George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1969. Three hundred years of commentaries on Marlowe and his plays, beginning with his contemporaries and ending with a George Bernard Shaw essay of 1896.

Pincess, Gerald. Chistopher Marlowe, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1975. Brief biography and analysis of Marlowe's major plays.

Ribner, Irving. "Edward II": Text and Major Criticism, the Odyssey Press, 1970. Includes nine essays on the play, plus the text.

Rowse, A. L. Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work, the Universal Library, 1966. The famed biographer of William Shakespeare turns his attention to Christopher Marlowe.

Sales, Roger. Christopher Marlowe, St. Martin's Press, 1991. A study of Marlowe's major plays in light of the concept of the "theatre of hell" and the Elizabethan obsession with pageantry.

Thomas, Vivien, and William Tydeman, editors. Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources, Routledge, 1994. The three main histories used by Marlowe to compile his play—Holinshed's Chronicles, Stow's Annals, and Fabyan's Chronicles—are generously excerpted.

Zucker, David Hard. Stage and Image in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe, University of Salzburg, 1972. A study of the impact of Marlowe's imagery and stage directions on the meaning of his major plays.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Levin, Harry. The Overachiever: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. Discusses how in Marlowe’s plays men’s passions ultimately betray them. Asserts that whereas Shakespeare deals with the well-being of the state, Marlowe focuses upon individual tragedies.

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second. Edited by Charles R. Forker. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1994. Contains an excellent 136-page introduction. Considers the relationship between Edward II and Shakespeare’s histories.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. Describes Edward II as the first fully developed Elizabethan history play and tragedy of character. Discusses the personalities of Edward and Mortimer and the theoretical underpinning of political issues.

Sales, Roger. Christopher Marlowe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Considers the Elizabethan mentality as revealed in Marlowe’s life. In the analysis of Edward II, the emphasis is on Mortimer and the difficulties posed by deposing and executing a monarch.

Weil, Judith. Christopher Marlowe: Merlin’s Prophet. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A study of Marlowe’s satiric and tragic irony, examining the playwright’s relationship to his public. Argues that Edward becomes sympathetic, one in whom reason is reborn between his defeat and his death.


Critical Essays