Composed within a few years of each other and drawn, in part, from the common source of Holinshed's Chronicles. Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and William Shakespeare's Richard II are in some ways strikingly similar. Both of these history plays relate the story of an English monarch who is deposed and eventually murdered. In each case, a regent's basic character defects contributes to his fate, both Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Richard II being unfit to rule. The two characters hold an exalted view of their divine right to reign, yet both waver, lapse into inaction and are impotent against the forces arrayed against them. In the respective deposition scenes of the two plays (Act V, scene i of Marlowe's drama; Act IV, scene i of Shakespeare's history) a now-fallen king pathetically clings to the trappings of rule, i.e., the crown and scepter, each of these climactic junctures underscoring the "shadow" nature of their respective protagonists. Nevertheless, Shakespeare concludes Richard II with an affirmation of the divine right of kings, effectively endorsing Richard II's sense of his divine office even as he shows us that Richard effectively abdicated his throne long before he cedes it to Bullingbrook who proves more fit to rule than his predecessor. By contrast, Marlowe displays considerably greater ambivalence toward the "divine right" of kings, suggesting that Edward II is as Machiavellian as Mortimer, that might alone, rather than divine right, supports the crown.
In the opening scene of Edward II we receive our first impression of the play's eponymous character through the words of his favorite, Piers Gaveston. Having received a letter from the king, Gaveston readily discloses his plans to manipulate his lover, musing as to how he will transform court into a place of pleasure, with himself as its master of ceremonies:
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching a string,
May draw the pliant King which way I please;
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I'll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
(I, i, 50-55).
Even at this early point it is apparent that Edward II is "pliant" and hence, unfit to rule, being given more to "shows" than to the management of his realm. This is confirmed when Edward II appears on stage and responds to Mortimer's complaints against Gaveston with the empty threat: "I will have Gaveston, and you shall know/What danger tis to stand against your king" (I, i, 95-96). He rashly alienates his nobles, furnishing Mortimer with a pretext for pursuing his own ambitions.
Playing the role of a true patriot, Mortimer asserts that Edward II's extraordinary largesse toward Gaveston is undermining the basic stability of his realm. Thus, taking the part of the common man, Mortimer says to his uncle:
...his wanton humour grieves not me,
But this I scorn, that one so basely born
Should by his sovereign's favour grow so pert,
And riot it with treasure of the realm
While soldiers mutiny for want of pay (I, iv, 401-
Not only is Edward's desire to buy Gaveston's affection unseemly in a king, it has created disorder within the commonweal, the monarch's singular attachment to his favorite being accompanied by his profound neglect of his sovereign duties towards his subjects.
In virtually identical fashion, Shakespeare's Richard II quickly reveals a character that is at odds with the demands of kingship. In Act I, scene 2, we learn that Richard arranged the murder of his uncle, Duke of Gloucester, an admired, member of royal family. Like Marlowe’s king, Richard's profligacy is underscored, as in Act I, scene 4, where we learn that the king's "coffers with too great a court/And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light" (43-44) . To compensate for his misappropiations, Richard II engages in a host of "illegal" acts, privatizing the tax collection system, extorting loans from his nobles and confiscating the estates of John of Gaunt and, with it, the rightful the inheritance of Bullingbrook. Indeed, when Richard announces his intentions to seize Gaunt's estates, York (Gaunt's brother who maintains his loyalty to "God's anointed" despite this transgression), compares this abuse of royal power to an act of usurpation.
As is the case with Marlowe's Edward II, Richard II's "unkingly" behavior undercuts the stability of his entire realm. He is, in fact, a king only in name rather than substance, and his illegal actions create the conditions for Bullingbrook's rebellion and York's ultimate abandonment. As the lowly Gardener's servant says in Act III, scene iv:
Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,
Her fruit-trees are unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars? (Ill, iv. 40-47) .
The instability and the disorder of Richard II's kingdom stem directly from the actions of a man who is unfit to rule but nonetheless, retains the crown.
Marlowe's Edward II is a man of extreme emotional states, characteristically swinging between fits of rage and self-indulgent depression, on the one hand, and exceeding exuberance, on the other. Thus, Edward wails inconsolably over Gaveston's departure and displays a school girl's giddiness upon his lover's return. In essence, Edward wavers between an exaggerated sense of his power and privileges as king and his obvious desire to be alleviated of the responsibilities of kingship, including his marriage to Queen Isabel. Whenever the contradictions in his behavior become acutely plain, Edward II falls back upon his special status as a divinely-appointed mo monarch, as, for example, in the opening scene of the play when he responds to his barons' complaints about Gaveston, "Am I a king and must be overruled?" (I, i, 134). Throughout the play, Edward II repeatedly inquires of his subjects about his kingship. While the first of these interrogations comes as a rhetorical...
(The entire section is 2613 words.)