The first full critical edition of Marlowe's highly controversial Edward II for twenty-five years, Richard Rowland's scholarly edition presents an old-spelling text which adheres more closely to the first quarto than any prior edition. A full commentary and introduction contextualize the playand give an entirely original account of the relationship between the play, Marlowe's own age, and events which immediately followed it.
Edward II's reign has been labelled as just one squabble after another as the nobles of England sought to gain power at the expense of a king who had no stomach for war. During his reign the Scots defeated the English army at Bannockburn and the French King had seized part of Normandy. Edward surrounded himself with favourites at court particularly the Frenchman Gaveston. The Earls of Warwick, Lancaster, and the Earl of March: Mortimer plot to kill Gaveston. Edward is mortified and with the support of The Spencers (his new favourites) he declares war on the nobles. At first he is successful, but Mortimer who flees to France returns with Isabel Edwards Queen to defeat the King and his followers. Mortimer arranges for the captive king to be murdered, while making himself protector of the new KIng the young Edward III. The play ends with Edward III asserting his authority and executing Mortimer and putting his mother Isabel in the Tower of London.
Marlowe's characters develop over the course of the play; Mortimer appears first as an indignant patriot but develop into a scheming machiavellian lusting for power. Queen Isabella changes from being a patient suffering wife to a conspiring adulteress. Spencer and his attendant Baldock appear as parasitic sycophants but become loyal supporters of the king and suffer courageous deaths. Edward from a weak indulgent king to a heroic king triumphant in battle and finally to a broken and weary ruler who elicits our pity as we witness the last trace of regal dignity struggling vainly against dispare. It is king Edward who dominates the play and modern productions tend to emphasise the homosexual relationship with Gaveston that leads to the nobles incipient rage against the court favourite. Certainly the kings love for Gaveston influences and controls all his actions and homoerotic references in Marlowe's text are evident, however the overriding struggle is one of class. Gaveston and Spenser after him were not nobles by birth and the continual references to their birth right outdoes any accusations against homosexuality. The nobles force the king to send Gaveston into exile again and Edward is distraught which causes Lancaster to remark:
What passions call you these?
Afterwards Mortimer sets out his complaints against Gaveston
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 the treasure of the realm,
While soldiers mutiny for want of pay.
He wears a lord's revenue on his back,
And, Midas-like, he jets it in the court,
With base outlandish cullions at his heels,.......
While others walk below, the king and he,
From out a window, laugh at such as we,
And flout our train, and jest at our attire.
Uncle, 'tis this that makes me impatient.
Some critics read between the lines and claim that Mortimer's jealousy is sexual jealousy or abhorrence of homosexuality, but I don't read it this way. There is no doubt that Gaveston and the king were in some sort of love relationship, but this was hardly an issue at the time unless it was so overt it caused offence. Marlowe himself fell foul of being accused of sodomy, but was not in real danger of being sent to prison although at the time it was an offence.
The real interest for me and what makes this a great Elizabethan play is the final third starting from when Edward has lost his war with Mortimer and Queen Isabel and has sought sanctuary in an abbey. He is there with his followers Spencer and Baldock and one feels drawn to a magnetic personality, Edward was not a warrior king, but attracts people to him and his long sojourn of imprisonment and torture elicits sympathy from the reader. A tortured Edward proves difficult to kill and Mortimer must carefully select a villain to carry out the murder, one who will not feel pity for the dignified king. Marlowe tells us of the method of the murder and why it is done this way: A red hot iron spit is inserted into his anus to avoid any detection of the murder. Marlowe spares us the gory details, but lets one of the murderers say:
I fear me that this cry will raise the town.
Marlowe gives Edward some excellent speeches especially towards the end when he gives the impression of a king at a loss to understand why he is being ill treated and why he must give up his kingship, but there are moments of clear prescience when he says:
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
The king never completely loses his dignity under duress, but one could say that earlier in the play he does lose his dignity in his declarations of love for Gaveston.
Marlowe's text is mainly in iambic pentameters with some rhyming couplets and passages of prose as is appropriate to the speaker. It flows well, but becomes a little pedestrian in the battle scenes. Marlowe introduces scenes of anti-catholicism and critiques of the kings courtiers in lively exchanges between his characters. This is one of the earliest plays to make use of Holinshed's Chronicles and tells the story of a king out of step with the need to be a strong forceful monarch in a time when the nobility were warrior princes looking to get their hands on the levers of power. This was a five star read for me and I finish with Marlowe imagining what Edwards court would be like under the influence of Pier Gaveston: (sounds good to me)
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please:
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I'll have Italian masks by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay;
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there, hard by,
One like Actæon, peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transform'd,
And running in the likeness of an hart,
By yelping hounds pull'd down, shall semm to die:
Such things as these best please his majesty.—
Here comes my lord the king, and the nobles,
From the parliament. I'll stand aside.