Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2613
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 question and an assertion of royal prerogative, as the play unfolds it seems as if Edward himself questions whether he is, in fact, a king.
Shakespeare's Richard II is also predisposed toward wavering and uses the concept of kingship to mask his caprice and indecisiveness. In Act I, Richard first approves of the trial by combat proposed by Bullingbrook and Mowbrey, but he then changes his mind. Rather than rendering a decision in the case before him, Richard simply banishes both parties. Still, after seeing Gaunt in despair at his son Bullingbrook1s exile, he reduces the term of the exile from ten to six years. His actions are the product of momentary "feelings" undertaken with an evident disregard for consequences .
In due course we find Richard acting out the part of a king for the purpose of evoking a reaction of submission to his desires. In doing so, he displays a sense of kingship that is at the same time exalted and fragile. Upon his return from Ireland, he adopts a maternal role towards his realm:
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smile in meeting
So weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favors with my royal hands (III, ii 8-11).
Yet we know that Richard himself has left his beloved realm exposed to invasion by Bullingbroke, having absented himself from the kingdom and having taken his "regiments" with him. Despite the threat that he (and England) now confront, Richard makes no plans for a counter-offensive. Instead, he merely professes a faith in his own divine right to rule and the protection it affords him:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an anointed king;
The breathe of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord (Ill.ii. 54-57)
Yet when he learns of Bullingbrook's triumph in the field, Carlisle and his other loyal subjects must remind him that he is, in fact, a king. Immediately thereafter, however, when he receives news that York has defected, Richard lapses into rage, despair, and, above all, questioning of his own right to rule, portraying himself as an ordinary man in an effort to elicit sympathy.
...throw away respect.
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty.
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends; subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king? (Ill, ii, 172-177).
Gone are the bold contentions as to a divine right of rule, replaced by a pathetic bout of self-pity that ironically confirms that Richard is not, in fact, a king.
Marlowe's Edward II is equally given to brash statements about his royal authority as a divinely-appointed regent. Thus, upon hearing of Gaveston's murder, he swears to his treacherous barons,
If I be England's king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood
And stain my royal standard with the same (III, ii, 135- 138).
The fact that Edward II is entirely incapable of making good on these lurid threats effectively answers the indirect question: as with Richard II, Edward's impotency demonstrates that he is not England's king. During Edward II's deposition scene, Marlowe's protagonist again underscores his own impotency, speaking the famous lines, "But what are kings when the regiment is gone/But perfect shadows in a sunshine day? (V, i, 26-27) . Like Richard II, Edward is merely a "shadow" king, enacting the role of a sovereign without possessing the substance of a true king.
At the start of the deposition scene, Edward II, akin to Richard II seeks to evoke sympathy for his fallen estate, telling Leicester:
The griefs of private men are soon allayed,
But not of kings; the forrest deer being struck
Runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds,
But when the imperial lion's flesh is gored,
He rends and tears it with his wrathful paw,
(And) highly scorning that the lowly earth
Should drinke his blood, mounts up into the air:
And so it fares with me, whose dauntless mind,
The ambitious Mortimer would seek to curb (V, i, 8-16).
About to be divested of this throne, Edward lapses into a series of metaphors and similes, trying to remain the king, yet concurrently and inappropriately seeking the sympathies from his subjects.
This seemingly innate tendency to counter actions with poetic language is also epitomized in Shakespeare's Richard II. Falling into Bullingbrook's "mighty hold," Richard responds to his adversary's offer in an arrogant tone, assuming the role of a king, but then quickly accepts Bull-ingbroke's terms. He then launches into a speech which exhibits a greater love for poetic language than it does for his rights as a king.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figur'd goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for,a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave (III, iii 147-54).
He then smashes the mirror before him, while Bullingbrook penetrates the erstwhile monarch's facade by saying to Richard: "The shadow of our sorrow hath destroy'd/ The shadow of your face" (IV, i, 293-294) . To this, Richard replies, "Say that again," the "shadow" king being more keenly struck by the poetic possibilities of Bullingbrook's comment than by the accuracy of its contents.
Entirely consistent with their "shadow king" natures, both Edward II and Richard II exhibit a pathetic attachment to the accoutrements of kingship. In Marlowe's play, even as his downfall is apparent, Edward begs to retain the trappings of his authority, begging Leicester for the privilege of wearing his crown a little longer.
But stay a while, let me be king till night,
That I may gaze upon the glittering crown,
So shall my eyes receive their last content,
My head, the latest honor due to it,
And jointly both yield up their wished right.
Continue ever though celestial sun,
Let never silent night possess this clime,
Stand still you watches of the element,
All times and seasons rest you at a stay (V, i, 59-67)
Not only is all of this beyond mortal capacity, when Leicester demands the crown from him as a symbol of his resignation, Edward first declares his firm intention to retain
the throne, but then lapses into an oddly despairing indifference.
Like Marlowe's Edward, Shakespeare's Richard II exhibits a strange, superstitious attachment to his crown. Thus, when Bullingbrook demands his abdication, Richard II responds by saying:
Here, cousin, seize the crown
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another
Emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water:
That bucket down, and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, while you mount up on high (IV, i, 181-89).
While Richard seems unable to actively relinquish his crown, his passivity and his emotional instability nevertheless allow Bullingbroke to wrest this symbol of authority from him. Richard II, like Marlowe's Edward II, is a shadow king, dependent upon the symbols of authority to conceal the absence of regal substance in his person. At the end of the deposition scene, Richard consoles himself: "You may my glories and my state depose/But not my griefs, still am I king of those" (IV, i, 191-93). This is, or should be, cold comfort, for the fact that Richard is still (some type) of king in his own mind stands in sharp relief to his passive relinquishment of his throne. It is as if Richard merely wants to retain the capacity to enact the role of a monarch, having long ago abandon the obligations of kinship and having already relinquished all power to Bullingbrook.
Immediately before his murder, Richard appears to have gained some insight into the sources of his downfall. In Act V, scene v, he allows, "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me" (1.49). Still playing the part of the king, he strikes his jailer and is, in his turn, stabbed to death. We then see Bullingbrook (soon to be Henry IV) on the throne, and Shakespeare provides us with an example of how a Christian regent should comport himself. Bullingbrook magnanimously forgives Carlisle's loyalty, understanding the cleric's loyalty to a divinely-appointed regent. Indeed, upon hearing of Richard's death, Bullingbrook feels a certain guilt for his role in the killing of a king, pledging to atone by leading a crusade to the Holy Land. Through these concluding actions on Bullingbrook's part, Shakespeare reaffirms a conditional divine right of kings. So long as they fulfill their obligations to their realm, Shakespeare indicates, kings do have a special status in the eyes of God.
Marlowe's play offers no such affirmation of true kingship. Upon coming to power, Edward II's son, Edward III exacts revenge upon Mortimer as a matter of policy. He then sentences his royal mother to the tower, rejecting her emotional pleas for clemency. In contrast to Richard II's successor, Edward III adopts a stance toward the throne which resembles that of Mortimer. For Marlowe, it is only the "regiment," only naked power, which keeps the monarch on his throne. While this is not a direct repudiation of the divine right of kings, it is an ambivalent posture which Marlowe assumes toward royalty. Thus, while Shakespeare "preserves" the exalted view of kingship advanced by Richard II, Marlowe leaves the issue of the divine right of kings adumbrated.
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