Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II
Meredith Skura, Rice University
In an often-quoted judgement, Charles Lamb noted that Shakespeare's Richard II took hints from, but 'scarce improved' on, 'the reluctant pangs of abdicating Royalty' in Marlowe's Edward II But was Shakespeare in fact trying to 'improve' on Marlowe when he created his own 'weak king' in Richard II?1 Or was he doing something else? This paper re-examines Shakespeare's play as a more complicated response to Edward II that reveals dynamic tensions between the two playwrights. Bertolt Brecht's modern response to Marlowe in his 1922 Edward II provides a useful introductory comparison. Brecht seems to have been drawn to Marlowe's play not so much for its political as for its personal relevance, in particular for its portrayal of the doomed bond between Edward and Gaveston—the kind of bond Brecht had just written about in The Jungle. Brecht was indeed trying to improve on, or at least to outdo, Marlowe's bleak play. With a 'savage pessimism', he rewrote Marlowe to create a world where, as his Edward says, 'There is nothing in life besides the touch of men's bodies, and even that is minimal and vain.'2 What interests me about Brecht's play however is that it is not only about the difficult closeness between two men but—as adaptation, collaboration, and partly cribbed translation—it is also the product of such closeness. Edward II was the first of the collaborative ventures that were to serve Brecht so effectively as catalysts for creativity throughout his career.
On the face of it, Shakespeare's response to Marlowe seems to have been quite different from Brecht's. He was interested in the politics of Richard II, not the touch of men's bodies in Edward II; and, even politically, the difference between Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays has always seemed far more striking than the similarity. Where Marlowe reduces politics to personal appetite and a struggle for power, Shakespeare transcends the personal, contextualizing abdication in a universe that makes moral and political sense. Where Marlowe's play is full of sex and violence, Shakespeare's is almost devoid of both. For one thing, Edward II's passion for Gaveston seems to have left no trace on Richard's relationships. Edward's favourites (and Richard's favourites in the anonymous Woodstock (c. 1592), which Shakespeare also knew), all but disappear in Richard II3 For another, Edward's extraordinary pain at losing Gaveston is paralleled only by Richard's regret that his roan Barbary now serves the new king Bolingbroke so willingly and by his abstract complaint that 'love to Richard / Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world' (5.5.65-6). As for violence, no one has found any trace of Edward's appalling murder in Richard II In fact Shakespeare, offered a choice of deaths in Holinshed, could have scripted a passive starvation or even suffocation for Richard; but instead he chose to make his king die fighting. Edward's death is devastatingly physical as the world bears in on him in the form of a burning spit thrust up his fundament; but Richard's death allows him to escape the world of bodies altogether ('Mount, mount, my soul. . . / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward' [5.5.111-12]).
I shall argue, however, that Shakespeare was more influenced than we have realized by the erotic passion and erotic violence associated with male friendship and male rivalry in Marlowe. Both Edward's love for Gaveston and his erotically suggestive death affect the portrayal of Richard, his friends, and his (often premature) visions of death. Marlowe's love and death have been ousted from Shakespeare's plot by the more languid 'pangs' of abdication, but they return in Shakespeare's language, or rather in what Ruth Nevo has called Shakespeare's 'other language', the unconscious effects that words and verbal images create as they circulate between Marlowe and Shakespeare.4 They imply less about Richard's sexuality than about his subjectivity—less about whom he loves than about who he is—but their quiet presence is particularly important in Richard II, because it helps fill in the gaps of a plot that is so undermotivated in places that critics have had to postulate a missing 'part I' in order to understand why Richard attacks Bolingbroke at the beginning of the play, and they have had to postulate neurosis in order to understand why Richard abdicates even before Bolingbroke claims the throne at the end of the play. In what follows, I will first single out aspects of Marlowe's Edward II that were important to Shakespeare insofar as they left their mark on his other plays; and then I will suggest how such material might fill in the missing gaps of Richard II as well, even though it is supposed to have been eliminated from that play. Finally, I will suggest that Shakespeare's response to Edward II may help us understand new dimensions of dramatic collaboration on the early modern stage.