There are two types of people in the world of Christopher Marlowe’s plays: those who are born to power, and those who take it. The silver-spoon brigade consists of Marlowe’s noble-born creations; his great queen, Dido, and his doomed king, Edward II. The rest are all outsiders - characters whom the critic Harry Levin famously called the ‘overreachers’ - individuals who strive above all to achieve greatness and great things, remaking themselves into the image of gods. They are Tamburlaine, the lowly shepherd turned emperor of half the world; Faustus the scholar who sought ultimate knowledge even at the cost of his immortal soul; and Barabas, who contained infinite riches in a little room. Their ambitions for power, knowledge and wealth are limitless, which is why they ultimately end in failure. These characters strive for the impossible that lies beyond even their superhuman grasps. Noble-born Dido shares this fate. Attempting to hold her lover, Aeneas, from his divine mission, she pits herself against Olympian deities and challenges the lord of Heaven himself. And so, of all Marlowe’s creations, Edward II is the only one who fails because he is weak.
The Troublesome Reign of Edward II
History has not dealt kindly with King Edward II. Son of Edward Longshanks1, his reign was characterized by extravagances, civil disputes and lost wars. Marlowe compresses his twenty-year rule, which spanned from 1307 to 1327, into a five act play; telescoping the action where necessary for dramatic effect, though remaining throughout remarkably faithful to his historical sources. The play opens with Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite (though lowly born) courtier, returning to England at the new King’s command. Exiled by the recently deceased Edward I for corrupting his son, Gaveston is a cynical and manipulative, and yet at times engaging and sympathetic figure, who makes it clear from the outset that he has no love for the land he has returned to. Gaveston’s only concerns are the King and himself.
The sight of London to my exil’d eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul:
Not that I love the city or the men,
But that it harbours him I hold so dear -
The king, upon whose bosom let me die,
And with the world be still at enmity.
Gaveston, Act I, scene i.
Gaveston’s love for the king is real and constant, but his affections do not blind him to the advantages that being the favourite of a King bring him. He soon reveals the arrogance and pride that will be both his own and his beloved Edward’s downfall, when he declares that his knee shall bow to none but to the king, and plots to surround Edward with
…wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please
Gaveston, Act I, scene I.
Edward’s relationship with Gaveston, and his stubborn refusal to give him up, is at the heart of the tragedy in the play, for this upstart is not welcomed by the Barons of the land. Edward’s favouritism and Gaveston’s behaviour soon push the English nobility to their limits, and it is not long before they are demanding his return to exile. Despite the fact that his control of the nobles, and the country as a whole, is hanging by a thread, Edward refuses, and so the country descends into civil war.
The rest of the play charts Edward’s fall, and the rise of his nemesis, Mortimer the younger. Mortimer is a dynamic and passionate young baron - much more of a typical Marlovian protagonist than Edward is. Mortimer leads the Barons into rebellion and then, with the aid of Edward’s neglected wife, Isabella, forces his abdication. As Lord Protector of the realm, Mortimer arranges the excruciatingly gruesome (though historically accurate in its details) murder of the king2, only to be thwarted in his ambitions by Edward's young son, Edward III3. Thus, by the close of the action legitimate rule is established once more.
The play is unique in the Marlovian cannon for several reasons. It is the only play about English history; it is the only play concerned as much with weakness as with power; and it is the only play to make a range of characters the subject of its focus. Each of them embodies a perspective on the main themes of desire and duty, the will to power, willfulness and weakness.
Edward and Gaveston
Marlowe, the 'father' of blank verse, is renowned for the rich and grandiose language he gave to his principle characters. Tamburlaine might have been born a shepherd, Barabas a merchant and Faustus a scholar, but when they spoke they revealed the greatness in themselves. When Edward II speaks however, all we hear are interruptions. For a great and powerful king of England, Edward is given remarkably little opportunity to speak. Almost every speech he attempts is interrupted or contradicted and contested, the respect that should be his due is obvious only in its absence.
Only when speaking to Gaveston does Edward achieve anything like the poetic fluency of Marlowe's other protagonists, and even then his imagery is often hackneyed and full of cliches. The opening lines of the play,
My father is deceas'd, come Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend
are part of a letter from Edward that Gaveston, his newly-returned lover reads aloud with glee, and a feeble echo of what was to become Marlowe's most famous4 poem, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love:
Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods, or steep mountain yields.
Edward and Gaveston's relationship is the embodiment of this idyllic love song, and it is Edward's single-minded determination to cling to Gaveston that ultimately seals their fate. Edward is a king who tries to live the simplistic life of a shepherd, but Tamburlaine, a shepherd who wanted to be a king, should have served as a warning that it is impossible to be both things at once. In Marlowe's world it is the will to power, and not to love, that governs man's fate.
Isabella, a fiend-like queen?
For the first half of the play, Isabella makes a sympathetic figure as the faithful yet scorned wife of the king. Her conversion to villainess comes late and sudden, and for some may seem justified given the provocation she receives. Until she is swayed by the influence of the ambitious baron, Mortimer the younger, Isabella is a paragon of virtue - she sues the barons for clemency towards Gaveston, her husband's lover and her rival, because she cannot stand Edward's pain. 'Let him stay' she pleads with them,
For, rather than my lord
Shall be oppress'd by civil mutinies,
I will endure a melancholy life,
And let him frolic with his minion.
Act I, scene iv
Even after Edward has repeatedly chosen Gaveston over Isabella, and called her honour into account over her friendship with Mortimer (despite the fact that she has only used this friendship to aid both Gaveston and himself), Isabella stays with Edward. Her relationship with Mortimer has progressed so far that on the eve of the barons’ first rebellion, Mortimer starts to woo her in earnest, but Isabella yet again chooses to remain with the king:
So well hast thou deserv'd, sweet Mortimer,
As Isabel could live with thee for ever.
In vain I look for love at Edward's hand,
Whose eyes are fix'd on none but Gaveston.
Yet once more I'll importune him with prayers...
Act II, scene iv
When the barons begin their uprising Edward sends her and their young son to her brother, the King of France, on a futile mission to win French aid; and so it is in France that Isabella once more encounters Mortimer. Rejected by both husband and brother, Isabella is seduced by the barons' proposal to put Prince Edward on the throne in place of his 'ungentle' father.
Returning to England with her reluctant son and Mortimer, it is at this point that Isabella quickly metamorphosises into the 'French strumpet' and 'unnatural queen, false Isabel' that Edward has accused her of being. She very soon demonstrates how she has transferred her affections to Mortimer and now is willing to plot with him on the overthrow and even murder of her husband. In many ways she has become the perfect match for Mortimer (once he has toned down her unwarrior-like tendency to 'passionate speeches'), able to act out the part of the noble queen and mournful wife who has been forced to put her adopted country's welfare before her happiness and marriage. She sheds a few Machiavellian tears in front of sympathetic audiences and succeeds in putting her son on Edward's throne, and Edward himself into an early grave.
Isabella is a woman eternally scorned, unable to accept that the man she loves does not return her affection. Edward's harsh treatment of her makes it always apparent that she has no hope of winning his heart, and also reveals how Edward is unable to dissemble when it comes to his feelings - in a perverse way, his lack of gentleness to Isabella becoming a virtue. Isabella's ability to lie and deceive, on the other hand, is what finally marks her as a true villan, despite her sympathetic beginings. Her unrequited passion turning to poison that destroys Edward and Gaveston before finally consuming her.
Mortimer and the Barons
If he had appeared in many of Marlowe's other plays, Mortimer would have been the hero. He is the embodiment of such 'manly' virtues as a courageous, warlike temperament and great physical prowess, as well as more strictly Marlovian virtues such as Machiavellian cunning and ruthless political ambition. He also has a soft spot for the ladies, but, like Tamburlaine, rules them5 with a firm hand. Mortimer is set up as the antithesis of the King. He represents strength, political guile and heterosexual love (all very orthodox Elizabethan values) as opposed to Edward, who embodies weakness, political naivete and homosexual love – undeniably rather subversive qualities for a King.
So from the moment these two characters face each other on the stage, the audience is forced to make a hard choice. Do they side with a man who represents the orthodox model of a noble king in every respect, apart from birth? Or do they side with his enemy; a man who represents every value the establishment tells them is deviant, and yet is the divinely ordained ruler who should receive their unconditional loyalty? The authority figure has become the social outcast, and the rebel has become the representation of orthodoxy. Slyly subversive, Marlowe makes it almost impossible for his audience to decide, doubling their uncertainty by allowing both characters to develop and grow in an almost twenty-first century fashion. Edward, the homosexual, weak king, shares a true and inspirational love with Gaveston, and becomes an eloquent and noble figure of wronged virtue, while Mortimer is revealed to share only a shallow and self-serving passion with the queen, tainted by treachery and intrigue, and to possess an unrepentant Machiavellian soul that is, in the end, not nearly as cunning as he thinks.
Mortimer starts the play well enough. He is a dominant figure among the barons, vocal in his disgust over the king’s affection for Gaveston, and yet willing to be swayed by Isabella to show a leniency towards them even in the face of overwhelming opposition from his peers. A hint of his true nature is glimpsed when he reveals that it was not the queen’s tears that moved him, but rather consideration of the old adage ‘keep your friends close, and your enemies closer’. A Gaveston at liberty in exile overseas, with pockets filled with the King’s gold that could be used to gather foreign armies, was more of a threat to the barons’ power than a Gaveston in an England where no love for him was felt, and would-be assassins were ten-a-penny.
Mortimer's slide to the 'dark side' is therefore not unexpected, and as with Isabella comes with exile to France. Up to this point, his actions could be interpreted as being motivated at least in part by genuine fears for his country, but his ambitious nature soon leads him to overstep the mark. Establishing himself as the Queen's lover and the young Prince Edward's protector, Mortimer holds, for a brief time, the power of the realm in his hand. But, like all villains, his paraniod fears lead him to actions which seal his fate, and destroy any remnants of nobility that may have lingered in his character. Mortimer plots not only to kill the king, but also to absolve himself (and the queen)from any responsibility. With Machiavellian cunning, he sends an unpunctuated note written in Latin that sanctions the murder if read one way, but condemns it if read another6. But this ruse does not fool the young Prince when the note is discovered, and thus Mortimer is condemned by his own hand, and is taken unrepentant to his death.
Edward III - a New Hope?
The young Prince, and future King, Edward III is the only character in the play who consistently maintains any dignity or nobility of character. As Prince, Edward spends most of the play as a loving son to both parents, reluctantly parting with his father on his futile mission to win the King support in France, and sorrowing with his mother over the King's treatment of her. However Edward the prince is always unswervingly loyal to Edward the king, reacting in horror to Mortimer's suggestion that he replace him on the throne. The young prince's cynical remarks in response to Mortimer and Isabella's protested reasoning for userping the rightful ruler show how unlikely he is to ever fall for their deceptions.
The two 'Protectors' discover this for themselves after the death of the king. Enraged by his father's death, Edward seizes control of his throne in a way his father was unable to do, and swiftly (and unlike his father, successfully) has Mortimer taken away for execution. Isabella's fate is left unresolved by the end of the play, as Marlowe emphasises that this is no 'unnatural' son. Edward's love for his devious mother is apparent in his reluctance to believe that she could have participated in his father's death, but his worthiness as a king is simultaneously underlined by his determination to have her investigated and tried, despite his misgivings, and if found guilty the audience is left in no doubt that she will share her lover's fate.
At the end of the play, the traditional status quo is re-established by the crowning of a strong and altogether more orthodox king, who embodies the best virtues of both Edward (in his genuine and deep loyalties and loves) and Mortimer (in his strength and ruthlessness). The subversive King Edward II is buried with full honours (as befitting a rightful king), while the rebel Mortimer is executed without repentence or forgiveness - damned for his presumption in a valuable lesson to any like-minded Elizabethan audience member, who may have tried to take an entirely different lessson from the play.
Edward II beyond Marlowe
Marlowe's play and the life of Edward, with its controversial and contemporary themes, has meant that this is one of the few of his works not only performed regularly but also re-interpreted to fit the times. Bertolt Brecht's early work, Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England is an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's play and the climax of Sidney Lumet's 1966 film The Deadly Affair, starring James Mason, takes place during a production by Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. The play's contemporary relevance is clearly centred on interpretations of the sexual conflict at the heart of the play (between the orthadox, heterosexual love of Isabella, and the subversive, homosexual love of Gaveston). Derek Jarman's film Edward II focuses on the positive example of homosexuality that Edward and Gaveston set, while Mel Gibson's film Braveheart makes Edward a deviant minor character in the background of an epic tale of a staunchly heterosexual hero.
Have a look at other pages on Marlowe and his work:
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Edward II
- The Jew of Malta
- Tamburlaine the Great
- A Biography of Christopher Marlowe
- Conspiracy Theories and Christopher Marlowe
- What is Blank Verse?
Sir Ian McKellen talks about Playing Edward on his official website.
Joseph Fiennes is interviewed about the appeal of Marlowe's Edward in The Guardian newspaper.
All Christopher Marlowe's plays, poems and classical translations can be found online at Marlowe: The Complete Texts