Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer

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Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer











Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer is an intense and swiftly moving account of a king controlled by his basest passions, a weak man who becomes a puppet of his homosexual lover, and pays a tragic price for forsaking the governance of his country. The action takes place in early fourteenth-century England, during a period when England was surrounded by enemies in Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, and France. Edward, preoccupied by the banishment of his lover, Gaveston, barely acknowledges the nascent crises that threaten his realm; he indulges his passions and abdicates his duties, failing to recognize that his willful and persistent refusal to attend to state affairs is eroding his royal authority. It is this resulting loss of power, which he has brought upon himself by his own irresponsibility, that irks him more than the absence of his lover. He picks his battles, preferring those petty skirmishes over Gaveston’s fate to those that would benefit his rule and enhance the power of the state. When a group of nobles has Gaveston executed, Edward’s own execution soon follows, and the play closes by unveiling the Machiavellian vices of the would-be saviors.

Marlowe found most of his material for this play in the third volume of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587). He stayed close to the account, but he embellished history with the character of Lightborn (or Lucifer) as Edward’s assassin. First played in 1593 or 1594, Edward II was printed in 1594. It has played sporadically throughout the twentieth century, usually to audiences surprised by the power of a work by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.


Born in the same year as William Shakespeare, 1564, Christopher Marlowe was the son of an affluent shoemaker in Canterbury. Like Shakespeare, Marlowe eventually migrated to London, where he became a member of an erudite social circle that included Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Kyd, and others; these men were regarded as freethinkers, in part because they endorsed the new and controversial “scientific” thinking. Marlowe spent six years as a Cambridge scholar, reveling in subjects such as rhetoric, logic, and philosophy; he was especially drawn to the works of Aristotle, which he approached not from the religious perspective of most of his peers, but from a more philosophical and literary angle. Marlowe probably attended numerous university productions of comedies, satires, and tragedies, many of which dealt with the lives of scholars. His own plays tended toward the philosophic, probing the limits of human knowledge and power and exploring the implications of surpassing those limits. A poetic innovator, he set a new standard for blank verse, creating lines that are lyrical, cadenced, and intellectually taut. His inclination toward the abstract and his broad academic background made his work stand in sharp contrast to that of the young Shakespeare, whose plays and poetry demonstrate a keener interest in questions of human behavior and psychology and greater familiarity with people from all walks of life. Because Marlowe’s plays were in the theaters before Shakespeare’s, and because he was breaking new ground in poetics, Marlowe had a profound influence on his now more famous peer; Marlowe, however, did benefit from seeing Shakespeare’s early plays.

The Elizabethan period of England was a time of fervid Puritanism, and Catholics were actively persecuted. Cambridge, where Marlowe studied, produced Protestant clerics, men who would go on to take positions of power and prestige in the Protestant church. Just before taking his Master’s degree, however, he mysteriously disappeared. It was rumored that he had gone to a Catholic center at Rheims to convert, secretly, to Catholicism. Upon Marlowe’s return, however, and despite the rumors, he quickly obtained the queen’s endorsement for his degree. Her allusion to “matters touching the benefit of his country” indicate that he may have been spying on catholic converts for his queen, merely pretending to practice heresy; it is speculated that she employed him in her extensive espionage network on several other intelligence-gathering missions too. Other aspects of his life are equally shadowy, partly because of an attempt to defame his character after his death. We can surmise, however, that he was bold, intelligent, witty, argumentative, and irreverent.

At the age of twenty-nine, while awaiting trial for a charge of atheism, Marlowe was stabbed in the forehead by a companion. His murderer was pardoned a mere month after the event. There has been much speculation over the nature of the argument that led to his death and whether his murder was planned and politically motivated. Whatever its genesis, his early demise cut down a promising talent whose genius had barely begun to flower.


Act I, scene i

The first scene opens with Gaveston reading a letter from Edward II, newly crowned sovereign of England after the death of Edward I. Gaveston had been banished from court because of his corrupting influence on the young prince Edward. Now, with the elder Edward out of the way, Edward II is inviting Gaveston to return and share the kingdom with him. In a few quick lines, Gaveston’s soliloquy makes clear the homosexual nature of their relationship (“take me in thy arms”) as well as the theme of power that runs throughout the play. Gaveston muses about surrounding himself and the king with all manner of pleasure-seekers: “Wanton poets, pleasant wits,” and “men like satyrs” who for sport might hunt down a “lovely boy” as they would a deer. When the king and his entourage enter, Gaveston steps aside to overhear their conversation.

What he hears displeases him. Lancaster and Mortimer, two noble lords, are counseling the king to break off his relations with Gaveston and attend to affairs of state. Edward bristles at their boldness, and his brother Kent warns them that the king would be within his right to behead them for their impertinence. They exit with a final threat to take up arms

against Edward’s “base minion.” Gaveston steps forth and Edward professes that he would rather “the sea o’erwhelm [his] land” than suffer another separation from his lover. He confers several lofty titles on his lover, all of them in excess of Gaveston’s station.

Now enters the Bishop of Coventry, the one directly responsible for Gaveston’s banishment. Edward punishes the Bishop with exile, first performing a perverse baptism on him by stripping of his holy vestments and having him dumped into the channel. Gaveston leaves to take over the ruined man’s worldly goods as the Bishop is transported to the tower.

Act I, scenes ii & iii

The Mortimers, Warwick, and Lancaster bemoan the “reign” of Gaveston. They are joined by the Bishop of Canterbury, who sees Edward’s treatment of the Bishop of Coventry as violence against the Church itself. Gaveston learns of their plan to take up arms, which he announces to Kent

Act I, scene iv

In this longest scene of the play, Edward commits further consecrations against the kingship by seating Gaveston in the Chair Royal, the queen’s chair. This incites to nobles to exile Gaveston once again, and he is taken away, along with the Earl of Kent. The inclusion of the latter clouds the issue somewhat, since Kent has merely acted as a faithful and sober advisor to his brother. The angry lords admonish the astounded king to “rule us better and the realm,” but the king is obsessed with his lover, and he once again claims that he would let England “fleet upon the ocean / and wander to the unfrequented Ind[ia]” before he would willingly part with his lover. In a last ditch attempt to sway them, he offers each of the usurpers a new title. Alone again, the king wildly imagines slaughtering priests in revenge, then revises Gaveston’s banishment by assigning him the governorship of Ireland, to which border he accompanies him. The queen, Isabella, realizes that being left alone with a mourning husband will not restore him to her, so she attempts to persuade the lords to return Gaveston. The plotters, however, decide that only Gaveston’s death can break the spell he holds over their king. They enlist Isabella to pretend that Gaveston is being returned, which will facilitate his murder. The elated and unsuspecting king forgives all and heaps honors upon them as a reward. A renewed calm, as well as a reminder that other great leaders—Alexander, Hercules, and Achilles—were not impaired by their male lovers, persuades the plotters to leave this pair alone. They pronounce themselves ready, however, to rebel again the moment Gaveston flaunts his riches and power in their faces.

Act II, scene i

In this brief scene the innocent niece of the king, muses upon the affections of her avowed lover, Gaveston. She and two king’s attendants, Baldock and Spenser, believe that Gaveston loves the young lady.

Act II, scene ii

A quarrelsome Edward refuses to perform his kingly duty and ransom one of his warriors, Mortimer’s father, who has been caught by the Scots. The angry lords list the harms done to the realm by Edward’s licentiousness: enemies from Ireland, Scotland, and Denmark have made inroads into England, and English garrisons have been routed from France. Edward’s few military campaigns have made him a laughing stock. The court is a sham to which foreign countries send no worthy ambassadors. In fact, the state of affairs is so bad that Kent turns against his brother and joins Mortimer. Alone but for his lover and Baldock and Spencer, Edward promises his niece to Gaveston in marriage.

Act II, scenes iii & iv

Kent is accepted by the rebels and they leave together to attack Gaveston and Edward. The two try to escape, but Isabella betrays them to the arriving nobles. She and Mortimer exchange admiring words, setting the stage for their liaison.

Act II, scene v

Gaveston is captured and is to be executed for the “country’s cause.” The king sends a message with Arundel begging for one last visit with his lover. Mortimer refuses, diabolically offering to send the lover’s head instead. Both Arundel and Pembroke offer to vouch for Gaveston’s return, and he is sent to await the king’s visit.

Act III, scene i

While waiting for the king’s visit, Gaveston is surprised by Warwick, who takes him away to be killed. The king will not see his lover again.

Act III, scene ii

Hugh Spencer senior comes to Edward with 400 men to defend him. For this display of loyalty, Edward confers a title on Spencer junior. The queen enters with bad news from France, where Edward’s “slack in homage” has lost him Normandy. Edward blithely dispenses Isabella and their fourteen-year-old son to resolve this, being more interested in Gaveston’s fate. Arundel arrives to announce that Gaveston is dead. This has two effects on the King, a decision to punish the nobles through war, and a transfer of his interests to Spencer. At this, the nobles once again overstep their authority and demand the removal of Spencer from “the royal vine.” Edward, embracing Spencer, refuses to reply.

Act III, scene iii

The two factions meet in arms and Edward is victorious. He sends the errant nobles to the tower.

Act IV, scenes i through v

Kent proclaims the wrongs of Edward and once again joins Mortimer to meet the Queen and her son in France, where a friendly French lord offers to assist them against Edward. Back in England, the King receives news that his son has succeeded in frustrating the queen’s attempts to enlist French support for their cause against him. The queen and her entourage return to England and succeed in routing King Edward, who flees for Ireland. Kent notices that Mortimer and Isabella “do kiss while they conspire,” and so once again he switches sentiments; he again questions Mortimer’s right to raise arms against his lawful king. The queen, perhaps sincerely, expresses sorrow for her husband.

Act IV, scene vi

The king has taken refuge at a monastery in northern England, where he is caught by Leicester. Edward resigns himself to his fate as he takes his leave of his remaining loyal nobles. A mower, the man who betrayed the king’s presence at the abbey, asks for payment for his services as the scene ends.

Act V, scene i

The king is deposed, but his crown is needed to instate the new king. Edward at first refuses to give it up, knowing that it will effectively belong to Mortimer, not to his young son, who will be overruled by the powerful nobles. However, he finally relents, sending along with the crown a handkerchief, wet with his tears, to be given to his estranged wife. Berkeley comes to take him away, doing so with quiet respect for the broken king.

Act V, scene ii

Now Mortimer “makes Fortune’s wheel turn as he please,” as he controls the kingdom through the prince. Mortimer is content to let Edward II rot in his cell, but Isabella demands his death, so that she will not have to worry about the possibility of revenge. Mortimer complies, adding to the order that the king is to be treated harshly on his trip. The dissembling queen asks for her kind thoughts to be conveyed to her husband. Kent recognizes the grim situation and attempts to take the prince away, but Mortimer intercedes and carries Levune (the prince) off by force. Kent departs to attempt a rescue of the king.

Act V, scene iii

In a stinking dungeon, the guards shave off the king’s beard with puddle water, a final insult against his sovereign person. Kent arrives and demands the king’s release, saying “Oh miserable is that commonweal where lords / Keep courts, and kings are locked in prison!” Kent is bound and taken away.

Act V, scene iv

Mortimer hires Lightborn to commit the regicide (the murder of a king), planning to place the blame on the other lords if necessary. The newly crowned king enters and discovers that he will not be allowed to rule: Mortimer forces him to sentence his own uncle (Kent) to death. The queen offers to take her son hunting, to take his mind off of his sorrow.

Act V, scenes v & vi

Lightborn has the guards make ready a red-hot spit while he woos his victim into trust. Finally, the king’s screams indicate that he has been impaled upon the instrument. (In Holinshed’s account, the spit was thrust into the king’s anus, in vicious contempt for his sexual proclivities. The guards, Matrevis and Gurney, kill Lightborn and toss his body in the moat; they carry the king’s body to Mortimer. But by the time they arrive at the castle, Gurney has fled. Matrevis warns that Gurney may betray Mortimer. The queen enters to report that the young king is outraged and is busy planning retribution. The queen begs her son more urgently for mercy on Mortimer than she did for her king, but Mortimer accepts his fate—fortune’s wheel simply did not stop while he was at the top. Edward III shows himself decisive and fair; he sends his mother to the tower to await a trial and orders Mortimer beheaded. When Mortimer’s severed head is presented, the king orders a proper burial for his father.


Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop is moved to act upon the king’s immoral behavior when Edward deposes the Bishop of Coventry, sends him to the Tower, and then turns over his lands to Gaveston. He considers Edward’s acts to be a form of violence against the Church itself.

Robert Baldock

Baldock is scholar who read to the king’s niece when she was young and serves her.


A servant to King Edward.

Sir Thomas Berkeley

Berkeley is made to take the king from the abbey to his own castle. He does not keep him long, for Mortimer has the king moved to jail, where Matrevis and Gurney are his guards.

Bishop of Coventry

It is the Bishop of Coventry who pens the order banishing Gaveston the second time, and for this he is shamefully stripped of his symbolic gown and sent to die in the Tower by Edward II.

Bishop of Winchester

The Bishop of Winchester comes to Neath Abbey in Northern England where Edward has sought refuge; his mission is to carry back the crown to Mortimer. He tells the king that “it is for England’s good.”

Piers de Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

The historical Gaveston’s father had loyally served Edward I, so Gaveston was, at an early age, consigned as companion to the young Prince of Wales (Edward II). It is generally believed that Gaveston was Edward’s lover. When Edward I learned of Gaveston’s corrupting influence, the king banished Gaveston. However, after the king’s death, Edward II recalled him. Now Gaveston added insolence to depravity, accepting titles from the king far beyond his lowborn social status and influencing the king’s haphazard administration of the realm. Marlowe presents a Gaveston of unctuous deceit and depravity. He dreams of turning the court into a sybaritic playland filled with “men like satyrs grazing on the lawns.” He nearly succeeds in making his dream a reality, a state of affairs that infuriates the nobility. They force Edward II to banish him once again; but they soon relent and he is recalled. He secretly hides and listens in to the noble’s conversations, a physical posture symbolic of his presumptuous, unwelcome, and inappropriate status in court. He relishes the idea of destroying those of whom he is envious, urging the king to banish Mortimer to the tower for daring to question the king’s refusal to ransom Mortimer senior, taken hostage by the Scots. Arrogant and spiteful while in command of his king, he wheedles and begs when the tables are turned and he has been captured. His death seems an expedient and necessary action to save the king and kingdom.

Earl of March

See Roger Mortimer

King Edward, II

The historical Edward took the throne at the age of twenty-three and managed to hold it through twenty years of intrigue, intoxication, and ineptitude. He was the pawn of his advisors, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser. Reputedly he was Gaveston’s lover as well. His French queen, Isabella, along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, successfully deposed him in 1327, whereupon they locked him in a cold cell in Gloucester Castle, hoping he would die there of disease. Some evidence points to the possibility that in 1328 he was murdered there. In Marlowe’s play, which collapses more than twenty years of his reign into a matter of days, Edward is self indulgent, a playboy with little aptitude for or interest in the governance of his country. He reveals his misguided priorities when he says he’d “sooner the sea o’erwhelm my land / Than bear the ship that shall transport [Gaveston] hence.” He never seems to comprehend the nobles’s accusation that he has abandoned the country for his lover. It is not the king’s homosexuality that bothers the nobles, but his neglect of the realm and his heaping of honors on this lowborn, manipulative man. When the nobles murder Gaveston, Edward merely transfers his interests to a new minion, Spenser. Marlowe’s Edward earns no measure of respect until his imprisonment, when he recognizes what he has lost in losing the kingship. Although he fails to repent or to acknowledge the impact his folly has had on his country, he does become more human, vulnerable, and therefore a more sympathetic character; standing in the filth and mire of a cold dungeon, he asks a messenger to “Tell Isabella the queen, I looked not thus / When for her sake I ran at tilt in France.” He becomes no longer a wicked figure, but a pitiable one, one who seems incapable of performing the duty he had inherited. He ends a broken and destroyed man who followed his impetuous heart instead of his sovereign duty.

Prince Edward, III

The young prince does not figure in the play until his father is imprisoned. At that point he shows his filial loyalty by disobeying his mother (who is French and seeks the English throne) and bribing the French king not to take up her cause by warring with England. In this he is successful. However, he cannot prevent his father’s ultimate fate, and at the tender age of fourteen he ascends to the throne. At first he allows himself to be controlled completely


  • 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 Queer Edward II.

by Mortimer. He accepts his father’s overthrow, because he recognizes his father’s faults. But when his innocent uncle Kent is also executed by Mortimer, the young king’s resolve is galvanized—he asserts his power and, by the end of the play, shows himself poised to recover his kingship. Most importantly, he proves that his reign will differ from his father’s because he won’t allow his heart to betray his kingly obligations. He sends his mother to the Tower to await a proper trial, telling her that “If you be guilty, though I be your son, / Think not to find me slack or pitiful.” He has the right balance of heart and leadership, holding a straight course between personal and public demands.

Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel

Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel remains loyal to the king. He is the messenger who asks if Edward may see Gaveston before he is executed. With the denial of that request, he offers to take Gaveston in his own trust, a guarantee to offer up himself if Gaveston escapes. Although Arundel is honorable, the rebel nobles decide to put Pembroke, one of their own, in charge instead.


These guards at Killingworth Castle, Sir John Matrevis and Thomas Gurney, wash the king with puddle water and shave off his beard. After Lightborn murders the king, they murder Lightborn and throw him into the moat.

Henry, Earl of Leicester

Brother to Lancaster, Leicester attends the king in his exile, where he attempts to assuage Edward’s grief and fear by telling him to imagine he is in his own court. When the Bishop of Winchester arrives, Leicester advises the king to go ahead and give up the crown, so that young Edward will not be hurt. He is trusted by the king and by Mortimer.


See Prince Edward III


Isabella, daughter of the King of France and wife of Edward II, plays a small but vicious role in her husband’s destruction. At first audiences sympathize with her because Edward abandons her for Gaveston, and she seems genuinely to mourn the loss of his attentions, saying “Witness this heart that sighing for thee breaks.” This lack of faith in female loyalty comes straight from Holinshed’s Chronicles and represents standard assumptions during the Renaissance about the fickle nature of women. She is accused the moment she comes on stage of being in love with Mortimer, and indeed, it comes out that they “kiss as they conspire.” She begs her son to spare Mortimer with more sincerity than she had shown when asking Mortimer for mercy toward her husband.

Sir John, of Hainault

A French noble who hosts the queen when she goes to France to garner support for Mortimer against King Edward.


Brother of Edward II, Kent offers sage advice to his errant sibling and provides a weathervane for the audience’s sympathies. At first he is offended by the noble’s questioning of his brother’s command, but he soon finds himself in league with them because he cannot abide Edward’s self-indulgence. Kent remains on the outside of Mortimer’s ring, however, and when he sees how his brother is treated by the vengeful Mortimer, he attempts to rescue Edward. Kent, the audience’s representative in the play, recognizes that political expediency has given way to vile revenge. Mortimer, for the convenience of having him out of the way, foolishly orders Kent executed—a serious political mistake given that Kent had the trust of the new king and would have made an excellent advisor.

Hugh Le Despenser, Junior

Spenser is a lesser lord who serves Gaveston until Gaveston is banished. Edward transfers his attention to Spenser after Gaveston’s death. Spenser encourages the king to stand up to the nobles.

Hugh Le Despenser, Senior

Spenser arrives in the nick of time with four hundred bowmen to defend Edward against Mortimer.


The paid assassin who murders Edward II. He in turn is murdered and thrown into the moat to cover up the king’s murder. His name is a pun on Lucifer (“Luc” being a Latin root word for “light”), and he represents pure evil. His name can also be understood literally as someone of low birth, perhaps someone who simply does not comprehend the intricacies of court, but can be employed to carry out its evil acts because he does not have the sense nor the inclination to question them. It is the lower-born men who are forced to commit the foul deeds designed by higher-born, more powerful men.

Roger Mortimer

The elder Mortimer, uncle of Mortimer junior, does not appear in the play except briefly in the opening scenes. Nonetheless, he figures in the plot when he is taken hostage by the Scots. Edward, ignoring duty and honor, refuses to rescue him, thus setting off a series of events that will lead to Edward’s deposition.

Roger Mortimer, the younger

The historical Roger Mortimer began his association with Edward II honorably enough as a solider in the Scottish wars of 1306-1307. He acquitted himself admirably and earned an assignment in Ireland with the rank of lieutenant. However, he was disturbed by the manipulation of Edward II by Gaveston and the Despensers; thus he joined with the other barons who attempted to oust them. He was captured, then escaped, and then become the paramour of Queen Isabella, who shared his disgust with her dissolute husband. Together they succeeded in deposing the king in 1327. However, the young Edward III, whom Mortimer aided to the throne, chose to eliminate Mortimer’s controlling influence by having the rebel arrested and then hanged in 1330. The character of Roger Mortimer retains all of this material, with an added twist of Machiavellian excess. At his death, he accepts that the wheel of fortune, which he had ridden to its highest point, was now taking him back down.


These noblemen, Guy Earl of Warwick, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, and Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, join with Mortimer to remove Gaveston from court, by force. Of them, Pembroke is seen as most trustworthy and honorable.


Politics: Machiavellian Style

In Elizabethan England, Niccolo Machiavelli’s II Principe (The Prince, 1505) was considered a treatise on the science of evil statesmanship because it outlined how a cunning tyrant could, through brutal and forceful measures, take and maintain control over a region and a people. In fact, it seemed a veritable handbook for tyranny, with its exhortation that “It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” Although The Prince advocates morality in a prince, it also urges the ambitious prince to use whatever means necessary to keep the state intact, and that could mean resorting to evil behavior, supposedly in the name of good. Use of force is an art, the most important one the prince has at his disposal: “A prince ought to have no other aim or thought. . . than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that


  • What consequences should there be for a sovereign who abandons his duties for personal pleasures?
  • Contrast the rise and fall of Mortimer with the fall of King Edward II.
  • Research the role of pageantry in Elizabethan England. How does Edward’s interest in pageantry compare with Queen Elizabeth’s?
  • William Shakespeare wrote Richard III about a year after Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was first performed. Look for parallels between the two plays that indicate ways in which Shakespeare may have been influenced by Marlowe. Pay special attention to the structure of the plays, their use of contrasting characters, for example, and speeches.

belongs to him who rules.” Marlowe’s Edward II explores two aspects of Machiavelli’s theory: the misuse of power, and the neglect of power. Edward breaks a Machiavellian cardinal rule when he lets go the royal reins in order to indulge his private desires; The Prince warns, “When princes have thought more of ease than of arms, they have lost their states.” Edward abdicates his responsibility as head of state, and he pays a dear price for it because the nobles do not tolerate his neglect of power. Mortimer, on the other hand, does not let love interfere with his quest for power; in fact, his love for Isabella serves his larger purpose to take over the state. Thus, at first he seems the epitome of Machiavellian leadership because he does not shirk at using all available means, including executing the king’s lover, to restore order to the kingdom. However, Mortimer becomes a Machiavellian despot when he misuses his power in overriding the young King Edward III and executing Kent, who could have become an important and trustworthy advisor to the king. Machiavelli emphasizes that it is always necessary to portray as much “liberty” and fairness as possible, in order to keep the people’s trust. Mortimer betrays this trust by stepping beyond the line of decency and political expediency, for his murder of Kent alienates him from the young king, who decides to gather forces against him.

Duty and Responsibility

Edward’s preoccupation with Gaveston would not be a matter of concern to the nobles if it did not threaten the state. It is Edward’s lack of interest in pressing matters, such as France’s takeover of Normandy and the battle in Scotland, that drives them to the treasonable point of questioning their king. Edward’s first order of business as king seems to have been to mail a letter to Gaveston, releasing him from banishment and offering to share the kingdom with him. This act of selfish interest would have been harmless in itself, but Mortimer junior and senior had sworn to Edward I on his deathbed to prevent the return of Gaveston at any cost. The dying king knew that his son’s plaything would prevent him from ruling England properly. The titles Edward bestows on his lover shock even Kent, who says “Brother, the least of these may well suffice / For one of greater birth than Gaveston.” Edward admits that he cares for nothing but Gaveston, and when the nobles force him to sign a new banishment order, he tries to bribe them with lands and titles, desiring only to hold back “some nook or corner. . . to frolic with [his] dearest Gaveston.” He is over-liberal in all of his gifts, not using them strategically to advance the state, but squandering them drunkenly. This lavishness and his constant reveling run the treasury dry, putting the entire country at risk, for he will not be able to conscript, feed, and arm a fighting force without money. Twice he acknowledges, using the same metaphor, that he’d rather England were overwhelmed by the sea than give up his minion; his carelessness nearly drowns his realm. Because of his behavior, honored peers and ambassadors have left his court, and his enemies in Scotland, France, Denmark, and Ireland have taken advantage of his weakness to make inroads into his territory.


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.


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.


  • 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.


Edward II first opened in 1594, played by the Earl of Pembroke’s Men. The next record of its performance indicates that it was played at the Red Bull in 1617 by Queen Elizabeth’s acting troupe. The innovative blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) of Edward II led Marlowe’s contemporary George


  • William Shakespeare’s play Richard II depicts another deposed king who laments his loss of status and power. Written just one year after Marlowe’s play, Richard II reveals the influence that Marlowe had on his contemporary; notice especially the similarities between the speeches of the two kings as they surrender the crown.
  • The Renaissance play Edward III—which may have been written by Shakespeare, by Marlowe, or by both (scholars disagree)—takes the story through the next generation, as young Edward III, known as the Confessor, reigns during the Black Plague.
  • The 1995 film Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, portrays the conflict between England and Scotland just prior to the action of Edward II. In Braveheart, Scottish commoner William Wallace unites Scotland in rebellion against the father of Edward II, Edward I (Longshanks), who demands the ancient right of Prima Nocta, the “right” to be the first to sleep with a new bride. The film includes realistic (and gory) depictions of Medieval battle.
  • Niccolo Machiavelli’s II Principe (The Prince, 1505) influenced Marlowe’s development of Mortimer’s character. It is a work that has been interpreted to suit widely differing values, and it makes fascinating reading.

Peele to dub Marlowe the “Muse’s darling.” When Puritanism closed the theaters in 1642, Marlowe’s plays were all but forgotten, although his reputation as a poet (for Hero and heander) survived. Not even Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus earned the attention of dramatists for two centuries. Marlowe the man, however, captured the interest of the nineteenth-century Romantics, who saw him as the unfettered genius of the Renaissance, partly because of the perpetuated myth that he had died in a brawl. It would not be until an American discovered the identity of Marlowe’s murderer (Ingram Frizer) and the account of the crime, that Marlowe’s reputation would be even partially restored. Nowhere near as popular as the Shakespeare histories, Edward II has appeared sporadically at theaters in England and the United States throughout the early twentieth century. Bertold Brecht produced his own inimitable Marxist interpretation of the play in 1924, soon to be followed by other reinterpretations of Western canonical plays with the typical Brechtian spin. Brecht’s Edward II features a pared-down text, which focuses on the conflict between selfish interests and political obligations, and several ballads, a Brecht dramatic signature; a 1987 restaging of Brecht’s version in Chicago was appreciated for its social commentary, with its emphasis on “the common suffering,” and its sparse staging. An especially brilliant performance in the summer of 1958 in London brought wide acclaim and a rekindled interest in the play. It reached American theaters the same year, when it played at the Theatre de Lys in New York, directed by Toby Robertson. Then, in 1969, Ian McKellan’s Edward in a production at the Edinburgh International Festival elicited rave reviews for his portrayal of “this weakest of kings” because, according to Clive Barnes’s New York Times review, Mr. McKellan “induces pity and understanding . . . even though he never once plays for our sympathy.” The play lay dormant in America for some time, even though director John Houseman recognized that the relaxation of sexual mores of the 1970s would enable him to de-emphasize the play’s moral implications and focus on it’s intense portrayal of psychological deterioration. In 1974 Houseman said that “With the fading of sexual inhibitions of our contemporary stage, it has become possible to realize a production of Edward II that I have been dreaming of for more than a dozen years.” Although Houseman never realized this dream, a 1992 production at the Yale Repertory Theatre did create a play that focuses not on “Edward’s sexual orientation, but his lack of political and social discrimination in choosing the distinctly foreign and unworthy Gaveston.” The success of the production led the New Yorker reviewer, Randall Louis Anderson, to predict that “the decade of Edward II is now upon us.” Perhaps this play about intense and selfish personal gratification at the expense of probity in the affairs of state, with its depiction of the brutal consequences that await a leader when he or she tries to evade the demands of an indignant group of officials, will soon find an audience in the United States, where in 1998 the president was impeached for lying under oath to avoid the legal consequences of covering up his illicit liaisons.


Carole Hamilton

Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay, she discusses Marlowe’s use of a particular image as the structuring device that organizes the play’s action.

The details of a play’s descriptive lines can often seem unrelated to the story being told; they are thus all too easy to dismiss as curious but rather outdated examples of the parlance of the day. Renaissance writers like Marlowe were well versed in the themes and stories of classical writers such as Ovid, Virgil, and Homer; it is not surprising then that the names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses appear in their literary works. For example, in Edward II, Edward speaks of his heart beating like “Cyclop’s hammer” and Gaveston is likened to Phaeton, who was unable to control his father’s chariot and thus serves to intimate that Gaveston will not be able to control the chaos he causes. Certain images and allusions, however, carry more significance than others, and uncracking the code of these images can cast a revealing light on the entire play.

In Edward II, images of pageants and masques, jousts and tournaments, sports and pleasures abound; this is apt given that one of the play’s themes is Edward’s excessive fondness for entertainment and regalia at the expense of statecraft. The first pageant image, however, occurs oddly out of context, before we know of Edward’s tastes. It comes at the very beginning of the play, when Gaveston receives a letter from Edward inviting him to come and share his realm. Gaveston is delighted and begins to daydream about the kinds of court entertainment—comedies and Italian masques—he will plan for his king. One game he describes in detail, with a great deal of relish. He envisions “men like satyrs” who lounge about the palace lawns watching a young boy adorned in pearls and hiding his genitals with a laurel branch. This young boy he likens to Actaeon, a character from Ovid’s Metamorphosis who is turned into a hart (deer) as punishment for having seen Diana bathing. In Gaveston’s daydream the young-man-cum-hart is brought down by “yelping hounds” and seems to die. Gaveston is quite pleased with his imagined entertainment, for “such things as these best please his majesty.” His gruesome vision is interrupted by the arrival of the King, Mortimer, and the lords, and is never alluded to again. However, the brief image has set the scene for the action of the play to come, for it will be the king himself who will be brought to ground while he frolics in foolish games on the palace grounds.

Before the king is set upon, however, another man is made prey to the nobles. The nobles have Gaveston banished, but when they realize that he might raise an army in Ireland, they invite him back so that they can ambush him. It is an unfair hunt, one in which the prey does not know the rules of the game and blindly steps into a trap. While the king and nobles await Gaveston’s return, Edward is in a jolly mood and the nobles are feeling more at ease with him than ever before. To bide the time, he inquires of them what device, or flag, they have designed for their battle insignia. To the king, the visible signs of status are more important than the reality. According to David Zucker, “His idea of royal dignity rests exclusively on such forms, which for him define what he is, both as a private and as public man.” The king listens as the two nobles relate their designs. Mortimer’s, depicting a “canker” climbing the bark of a tree in which an eagle perches, clearly corresponds to his usurping actions against the king (the eagle is a common symbol for a king). Lancaster admits that his is “more obscure.” On his flag, a flying fish “takes the air” and is brought down by a fowl. Lancaster’s also bears the Latin motto Undique mors est, which translates to “death is on all sides”; his device portrays a creature leaving its natural element, water in this case, and being seized by a predator it would not normally encounter. Hearing of these symbolically threatening images, the king angrily confronts the two lords for their impertinence; he sees the threat in

their symbolic representations, but he fails to respond to them on anything more than a superficial level. It will not be by granting titles to these men that their concerns will be abated. He will find out later that both images foreshadowed his own end: being set upon by social climbers then hunted and devoured by predators (courtiers) that would not normally threaten a king. Immediately upon Gaveston’s return, Mortimer wounds Gaveston in the presence of the king, thus enacting the attacks symbolized on the flags. When Gaveston is next seen on stage, he is running from the nobles, “flying” to and fro, again enacting the metaphor in the image. Gaveston taunts his pursuers, saying he has escaped their “hot pursuits”; but his last words as they take him captive echo the Latin motto of Lancaster’s ensign—he says “And death is all.” He encounters his death not in his imagined Elysian palace grounds, but in a trench. The king threatens war, exclaiming that he will not allow them to “appoint their sovereign / His sports, his pleasures, and his company.” In other words, he once again focuses not on the substance of the problem but on the surface, because his main concern is that they denied him the right to pursue his private sport. Ironically, he will become their public sport, and the play presents this as a pageant for an Elizabethan audience.

Images and allusions to sport and game abound in this play; this is a staged masque with real-life consequences. When Mortimer escapes to France, he, the queen, and Sir John of Hainault (a French lord) speak of their upcoming confrontation with King Edward as a game. Sir John asks the young prince what he thinks of the “match” and likens it to a game called prisoner’s base (“to bid the English king a base”). The scene of their arrival (Act IV, scene v) finds Edward and his cohorts “flying about the stage.” Edward moans, “What, was I born to fly and run away?” He acts like the flying fish of Lancaster’s insignia. When he escapes to Ireland, Mortimer says of him “he shall be started thence”; the word “started,” in hunting terminology, refers to routing a wild animal from its hiding place. Edward has become nothing more than a wild animal being hunted for sport. Even Kent sees the king in this position, albeit with more sympathy: “Unhappy Edward, chased from England’s bounds.” Edward too casts himself in the position of a caught animal, defeatedly telling Leicester to “rip up this panting breast of mine.” The motif of hunting appears overtly when, in Act V, scene iv, Isabella suggests it as a way of taking young Edward’s mind off of his uncle’s beheading. Poignantly, the young man asks, “and shall my uncle Edmund ride with us?” knowing full well that his uncle would not be going. This scene underscores the human devastation of the nobles’ game of hunting a sovereign. Such games can lead to the death of worthy individuals.

In the last Act, Edward draws a direct parallel between himself and the hunted beast, comparing his state to that of the “the forest deer [that] being struck / Runs to an herb that closes up the wounds.” Edward, however, cannot obtain the succor of nature, but instead must “rend and tear” his gored lion’s flesh, “scorning that the lowly earth / Should drink his blood.” He must make of himself a formal sacrifice. Again he likens himself to “a lamb encompassed by wolves” and accuses his jailers of having been “nursed with tiger’s milk” and Mortimer of having “tiger’s jaws.” Following the theme of the hunted animal, Mortimer tells Isabella that they have the “old wolf by the ears.” Mortimer torments his prey by sending him from one foul prison to another and commanding that the jailers treat him roughly, as one would an animal. Edward feels “vexed like a nightly bird / whose sight is loathesome” and asks when Mortimer’s appetite “for blood” will be satisfied. Edward has been hunted down like an animal, toyed with mercilessly, stripped of the symbolic crown that made him greater than human, and left to rot in filth; a piece of meat is tossed at him now and again for sustenance. His demise is in some ways a contorted and perverse manifestation of Gaveston’s imagined scene of a hunted man turned into prey and brought down by his own courtiers. It is also a tragic reversal of the sport, pageantry, and erotic pleasure-seeking that was Edward’s sole interest. He plays the central, sacrificial figure in his final pageant, instead of playing pageant-maker and royal audience, as he would have done.

How might an Elizabethan audience judge this play about the hunting-down of a king? Depicting an act of violation against a monarch bordered on treason in Marlowe’s day, because such a depiction would have been seen as, in a way, inviting the questioning Elizabeth herself, and she actively suppressed such “treasonous” acts. In “Marlowe, Edward II, and the Cult of Elizabeth,” Dennis Kay proposes that “Edward is a negative exemplum of Elizabeth.” That is, Edward represented the antithesis of Elizabeth, and his character and the plot represent a kind of extreme “what if” situation: Elizabethans feared that their queen—as a woman—might fall prey to various temptations, like love. Although the play demonstrates the possible outcome of such a situation, the intent was not to incite the audience to “hunt” Elizabeth, but rather to assuage its fears with an exaggerated depiction of her opposite. She would not allow her love life to interfere with her rule, and her pageants were not the fulsome games of satyrs but legitimate demonstrations of her sovereignty.

Thus, Edward’s cruel punishment at the hands of Mortimer serves as a catharsis for the audience, who had real worries about the consequences of Elizabeth’s love life but no avenue to express any misgivings (for fear of being charged with treason). Viewing a play such as Edward II allowed the public to explore “treasonous” thoughts—thoughts about sovereigns who do not perform their duties and are therefore punished—and to explore these thoughts in the safe, external, performative space of the theatre. Furthermore, the courtiers portrayed in the play exhibit a variety of ways of working out “conflicts of loyalty implicit in the courtier’s life”; models range from Spenser, who follows his king to the abyss, to Arundel, who maintains his integrity throughout. These characters would have had their counterparts in Elizabeth’s court, and the play offers a means to assess their contributions as well as the justness of their rewards.

Edward II, then, served at least two purposes: it was a window through which one could view and appraise Elizabeth’s court, and it was a means to stage a carnivalesque pageant that celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s qualities through an intentionally and extreme opposite depiction.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Janet Clare

In this essay, Clare provides an overview of Marlowe’s play, contrasting its comparatively sparse narrative style to the playwright’s other works, notably Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus.

In Edward II, arguably his last play, Marlowe departs from the foreign and exotic landscapes of earlier drama and turns to English history to write a de casibus political tragedy. The King’s infatuation with the young Piers de Gaveston leads to growing opposition from the barons, spearheaded by the Earls of Lancaster and Warwick, Mortimer, and his nephew, young Mortimer, who becomes the principal antagonist. Resentment of Edward’s culpable neglect is fuelled by Gaveston’s lowly origins; he is dismissed scornfully by Mortimer as “one so base and obscure”. Edward greets such hostility with defiance but the barons are powerful enough to coerce the King into agreeing to Gaveston’s banishment. However, they then work to have him recalled so that they can discredit Edward further in the eyes of the House of Commons. Gaveston returns and is treated contemptuously by the earls, who blame Edward’s infatuation for the deterioration in national morale and in international status. This erosion of royal authority, coupled with the Mortimers’ personal grievance at Edward’s refusal to ransom their kinsman, leads to threats of rebellion and deposition. Gaveston tries to escape, but is captured and eventually executed. Edward’s expression of grief—“O shall I speak or shall I sigh and die?”—is followed by avowals of revenge and the adoption of a new favourite, Young Spencer. The ambitious Mortimer is imprisoned in the Tower, but he escapes to France and creates a faction around the Queen and her son, the young Prince Edward.

As Mortimer gains ascendancy, Edward’s fall appears imminent. The Queen and Mortimer, now lovers, land in England and gather support. Edward


is taken captive and, having relinquished his power and craving death, he is passed between jailers until he arrives at Kenilworth Castle. In a scene of hideous cruelty, he is pierced with a burning spit and murdered by Mortimer’s agent, Lightborn. Mortimer’s triumph is short-lived: the newly crowned Edward III accuses him of treason and orders his death. The final tableau reveals Mortimer’s head proffered to Edward’s hearse as the young King dons his mourning robes.

Edward II explores the tragic effects of infatuation; in this context Edward is typical of the intemperate Marlovian figure consumed by an overriding desire. But there is little evidence of nobility in the wilful king who squanders his Kingdom because Gaveston is more important to him: “Ere my sweet Gaveston shall part from me/This isle shall fleet upon the ocean/And wander to the unfrequented Inde”. The barons, however, do not act from moral outrage, but because they see in Gaveston a threat to their privileges. They loathe Gaveston because of his lowly birth and because of his foreign and effeminate ways. Gaveston, for his part, despises their uncouthness and hereditary privileges: “Base leaden earls, that glory in your birth,/Go sit at home and eat your tenants’ beef”. Edward can only respond to this conflict by helplessly following his self-destructive passion, steadfastly believing that Gaveston loves him “more than all the world”. Whether this trust is justly founded, or whether Gaveston is motivated by social ambition, remains uncertain.

The play is structured as a series of careers of individuals who scale the summit of their ambition and are destroyed by it. Baldock reminds his friend Spencer that “all rise to fall”. Spencer’s career as the King’s favourite does, indeed, mirror (albeit less spectacularly) that of Gaveston. But it is Mortimer


whose ambitions exemplify most fully the de casibus motif. He boasts of his authority which he believes to be unassailable, only to realize that it is unwise to presume upon Fortune’s perpetual goodwill: “Base Fortune/now I see that in thy wheel/There is a point to which when men aspire/They tumble headlong down; that point I touched,/and seeing there was no place to mount up higher”.

Marlowe’s language in Edward II is uncharacteristically lean, pared of most of the evocative imagery and sensuousness of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. This comparative austerity is relieved by Gaveston’s expressions of sensual hedonism and by Edward’s pitiful laments, which must have influenced Shakespeare in his portrayal of the deposition of Richard II. In the early scenes Isabella’s language too is emotionally affecting, but as she aligns with Mortimer it acquires a plainness and loses the passion which underscored her earlier distress.

Source: Janet Clare, “Edward II; The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward IT” in the International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 213–15.

John Simon

Simon is a well-known drama critic. In this excerpt, he reviews an unconventional production of Edward II that was staged in 1991. While the critic has mixed feelings regarding the production’s heavy emphasis of Marlowe’s homosexual themes, he feels that, overall, the new interpretation is worthwhile.

Back at the Pit, We get Marlowe’s Edward II staged by Gerard Murphy as camp tragedy. Can you imagine a Charles Ludlam or Charles Busch putting all his extravagance—not to mention overexplicit homosexual acts—into a basically somber, almost unrelievedly grief-filled text? It is an eerie affair, by no means ineffectual, but its sensationalism outweighs its tragic dignity. This Edward’s historic death—anal impalement with a white-hot poker—is acted out in full gory detail, but it is preceded by Lightborn, the murderer, stripping to the waist and mounting the muckcovered king in his nightgown in a quasicopulation scene, which the script nowise calls for.

On the other hand, the heavy kissing between Edward and his favorite, Piers Gaveston—as well as, later, between Edward and young Spencer—seems appropriate and dramatically helpful. But I cannot condone a floor show by three not very acrobatic young men simulating sex a trois by way of a royal entertainment. And though there is some sort of desperate honesty in making every character in the play both physically and morally unprepossessing, if not repellent, it ends up being as unreal and unconvincing as the old Hollywood’s overcosmeticized blanket glamour. Thus Ciaran Hinds, as young Mortimer, . . . Troilus, Queen Isabella and Lady Margaret are both on the overweight and frumpy side, and so on.

Simon Russell Beale, the RSC’s rising star, is uncompelling of face, squat of body, acrid of voice. Yet he is a consummate actor, and his Edward is not lacking in a grating, pitiful humanity. His passion for Grant Thatcher’s pretty and effeminate—yet in some ways also boyishly loutish—Gaveston is credible enough, and his pathos as a starved and sleepless prisoner knee-deep in filth is as palpable as any stage can make it. But Beale finally lacks the charisma that would explain his queen’s passionate yearning for him despite constant, brutal rejection and the flaunting of his affair with Gaveston. Perhaps the most satisfying performance comes from Callum Dixon as young Prince Edward, who makes the transition from boy to boy-king to full-fledged monarch authentic and compelling.

The other unqualified success here is Ilona Sekacz’s score for violin, viola, and cello, some of it live, some of it electronically amplified, which whips up a storm of feelings but is confined to transitions between scenes and never allowed to become a nuisance. There is much to be said for the simple set by Sandy Powell and Paul Minter: a neutral cloth artfully draped over a few poles, and brought to colored life by Wayne Dowdeswell’s impassioned lighting. The designers’ costumes have an aptly brooding color scheme: mostly black, some gold, Gaveston in white, and, here and there, some sea green flooding the black. But the mixing of exaggerated period elements (e.g., overassertive codpieces further enhanced in some cases with rubbery studs) and contemporary touches (e.g., sneakers for Gaveston) may be too much of a muchness. This is an Edward II that keeps you intellectually stimulated but emotionally at bay—almost as if the RSC were performing Brecht’s adaptation rather than Marlowe’s original.

Source: John Simon, “London, Part I” in New York, Vol. 24, no. 34, September 2, 1991, pp. 49–50.

S. F. Johnson

In this brief essay, Johnson focuses on the theme of music in Marlowe ‘splay, particularly as it applies to the dialogue.

Gaveston’s speech reflects the medieval and Renaissance conception of the power of music, which was thought to be capable of inducing specific psychological effects (see James Hutton, “Some English Poems in Praise of Music,” English Miscellany, II [1951], 1–63, and the exchange of letter between Hutton and the present author, “Spenser’s Shepherds’ Calendar,” TLS, March 30 [p. 197], May 11 [p. 293], and Sept. 7 [p. 565], 1951). Gaveston does not wish to retain the poor men who have just sued to enter his service; instead, in order to maintain his power over Edward, he will employ poets and musicians to stir Edward’s less kingly desires. The pliancy of Edward accords with his unsympathetic characterization in the first half of the play, and his first “musical” image (of the noise of the Cyclops’ forge) further rebuffs sympathy, since it serves to express his ignobly passionate harping upon his minion’s enforced exile.

Both of these references, however, together with less significant allusions to the drums and trumpets of the battle field (lines 1494, 1526, 1569; xi, 185, 217, 259) and to Pluto’s bells (line 1956; xvii, 88), lend added force to Edward’s speech just before his murder. He has been characterized increasingly sympathetically since Gaveston’s murder and his Queen’s seduction. He is no longer the “pliant king”; one of his keepers remarks. “He hath a body able to endure More then we can enflict, and therefore now, Let us assaile his minde another while.” Just as Richard II is at his most sympathetic in the dungeon scene in Shakespeare’s play, so Edward II is in Marlowe’s; and just as Richard hears “broken music” (and moralizes on the topic concord vs. discord, for which there is no parallel in Marlowe’s play), so Edward hears the drum beats that ironically realize his own earlier fantasy of the


Cyclops’ forge and grotesquely parody the effects of Gaveston’s music. The final irony is that Edward, unlike Richard II, again becomes a “pliant king” at the point of death: “I am too weake and feeble to resist” (line 2556; xxii, 106).

The musical images and allusions are hardly central to the meaning and power of Marlowe’s play, but they serve to reinforce more obvious elements in its structure and are all too likely to be missed by contemporary readers who are unaware of the Elizabethan significance of Gaveston’s “Musitians.”

Source: S. F. Johnson, “Marlowe’s Edward II” in the Explicator, Vol. X, no. 8, June, 1952, p. 53.


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.

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Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer

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