Monday, 18 April 2016

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe.

This year I've been reading Shakespeare's histories, and I've been planning to read some more historical plays from the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline era, so I'm very happy that this week's Deal Me In has brought me Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. Before I begin, I wanted to share a list of the kings of England from King John to Henry VIII and which kings (so far as I am able to find) have been written about in a play of those eras. 
  • King John (1199-1216); House of Angevin) | King John by William Shakespeare, King Johan by John Bale, King John and Matilda by Robert Davenport.
  • Henry III (1216-1272; House of Plantagenet)
  • Edward I (1272-1307; House of Plantagenet) | Edward I by George Peele.
  • Edward II (1307-1327; House of Plantagenet) | Edward II by Christopher Marlowe.
  • Edward III (1327-1377; House of Plantagenet) | Edward III by William Shakespeare.
  • (James IV of Scotland (1473 - 1513; House of Stewart) | James IV by Robert Greene).
  • Richard II (1377 - 1399; House of Plantagenet) | Richard II by William Shakespeare.
  • Henry IV (1399 - 1413; House of Lancaster) | Henry IV Parts I & II by William Shakespeare.
  • Henry V (1413 - 1422; House of Lancaster) | Henry V by William Shakespeare.
  • Henry VI (1422 - 1461; House of Lancaster) | Henry VI Parts I, II, & III by William Shakespeare.
  • Edward IV (1461 - 1483; House of York) | Edward IV by Thomas Heywood.
  • Edward V (1483; House of York)
  • Richard III (1483 - 1485; House of York) | Richard III by William Shakespeare.
  • Henry VII (1485 - 1509; House of Tudor) | Perkin Warbeck by John Ford.
  • Henry VIII (1509 - 1547; House of Tudor) | Henry VIII by William Shakespeare.
I thought it was interesting to see which king had a play and which didn't (all but Henry III and Edward V have a play it would appear!). And I love a list, so I thought I'd share this! I do have most of these on my Classic Club list so I'll get to them at some point soon.

Enough of lists, onwards: Edward II, or to give it its full title, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer by Christopher Marlowe was written around 1592. It's my first Marlowe and it's absolutely fantastic!

It is of course about Edward II of England, who was born in 1284 and reigned from 1307 until he was deposed in 1327 (he was murdered that year, nine months later in September) when his son Edward III took the throne. Edward II was married to Isabella of France, however there are strong suggestions that Edward II was gay and had a relationship with Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall (known as the "favourite" of the king; Piers Gaveston has also given his name to Oxford's now infamous 'Piers Gaveston Society'). This is partly the subject of Marlowe's Edward II and when I began to read it I wondered: was Marlowe presenting a gay relationship with Gaveston or two men in simply a close 'brotherly' relationship (I think earlier portrayals of the close relationships of men are far less repressed than they are now). I thought at first perhaps it best to err on the side of caution and read it as the latter, but then I learned there are questions too about Marlowe's sexuality - apparently, for instance, he said at some stage "All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools". As I got further into the play I came across this speech in Act I Scene 4:
The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped.
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully loved Octavius,
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.
(Edward II is so full of references to the Ancient Greeks and Romans). Coupled with the portrayal of his wife Isabella as feeling frustration and neglect -
To live in grief and baleful discontent;
For now my lord the king regards me not,
But dotes upon the love of Gaveston:
He claps his cheeks, and hangs about his neck,
Smiles in his face, and whispers in his ears;
And, when I come, he frowns, as who should say,
"Go whither thou wilt, seeing I have Gaveston."
- and a handful of references to Ganymede (a favourite of Jupiter's - see, for example, Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses) it all changed my mind, and this is how I read it - as a gay relationship and I think any other way of reading it is highly unlikely.

Edward II's tomb in Gloucester Cathedral.
And so the play begins with the news that Edward I has died (his father was Henry III, now forever known to me as 'He Who Has No Play') and his son Edward Longshanks is now King Edward II, which means the exiled Piers Gaveston may return to England (he had been exiled for his apparently "extravagant" love for Edward I's son). Edward II is overjoyed however his court is most decidedly not and so he is eventually forced into sending Gaveston to Ireland. Edward says to Gaveston,
Be governor of Ireland in my stead,
And there abide till fortune call thee home.
Here, take my picture, and let me wear thine
O, might I keep thee here, as I do this,
Happy were I! but now most miserable.
This was not enough, however, and Isabella persuaded Mortimer (Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March) to bring Piers back to England where he would be executed by Warwick and Lancaster. It is when Edward takes a new favourite, Spenser (Hugh Despenser the younger: executed later in the play), that Isabella takes Mortimer as her lover and the two plot to depose Edward. He is forced to flee - we see him in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire (among other places) and when his brother Edmund, Earl of Kent, previously unsympathetic to his cause, tries to help him Edmund too is executed. Mortimer's power has grown, he is now essentially de facto ruler of England, and when Edward was in Berkeley Castle he was murdered in a most cold way - Marlowe describes in the stage directions,
[Matrevis brings in a table. King Edward is murdered by holding him down on the bed with the table, and stamping on it
Then, although essentially working with Edward's 'keeper' Lightborn, the aforementioned Matrevis and Gurney immediately stab Lightborn. Here's the full chilling scene:
Kɪɴɢ Eᴅᴡᴀʀᴅ: O, spare me, or despatch me in a trice!
[Matrevis brings in a table. King Edward is murdered by holding him down on the bed with the table, and stamping on it.
Lɪɢʜᴛʙᴏʀɴ: So, lay the table down, and stamp on it,
But not too hard, lest that you bruise his body.
Mᴀᴛʀᴇᴠɪs: I fear me that this cry will raise the town,
And therefore let us take horse and away.
Lɪɢʜᴛʙᴏʀɴ: Tell me, sirs, was it not bravely done?
Gᴜʀɴᴇʏ: Excellent well: take this for thy reward.
[Stabs Lightborn, who dies.
Come, let us cast the body in the moat,
And bear the king's to Mortimer our lord:
Away! [Exeunt with the bodies.
The seizure of Roger Mortimer (1287-1330) 
at Nottingham Castle, October 19, 1330.
What is left but for Edward's son Edward to discover the plot and order the execution of Mortimer before taking the throne to become Edward III.

Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is an outstanding play, I absolutely loved it. It's exciting, disturbing, and very touching at times: I've read that often a homosexual character of this era is portrayed as dubious, even threatening, and unnatural but this is not the case with Marlowe's Edward: he is a sympathetic character and his tale is indeed a tragedy. I would urge everyone to read this. I think Marlowe, widely speaking, seen in terms of Shakespeare - Marlowe is "Shakespeare's contemporary" and perhaps read out of curiosity (I do speak in general terms), but Marlowe, judging by this play, shines in his own right. Edward II was my first Marlowe, and I'm now planning to read Dido, Queen of Carthage (1586) in the coming weeks (which is why I'm also in the middle of reading Virgil's The Aeneid, to enhance the enjoyment!). Furthermore, I was very happy to see a section of the play set in Tynemouth Castle, where some early kings are buried: Oswin - King of the Danes (651), Osred - King of Northurmbria (792), and Malcolm III - King of Scotland (1093). I have struggled so much to find literature concerning Tyne and Wear for the Reading England Challenge, and now I've finally found one! All in all a great experience!

That was my sixteenth title for the Deal Me In Challenge: next week, The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti.

Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston by Marcus Stone (1872).


  1. i always wondered about that... tx for the clarification. Homosexuality was important in the elizabethan period, in the arts anyway, and seems to have been socially accepted to a limited extent: as you say, probably due to the influence and importance of Greek literature. i wonder about shakespeare, also; as do others i suspect. not that it would make any difference to the genius of the plays...

    1. I agree - the influence of Greek lit on their art and literature was huge and yes, I think to some extent it made homosexuality marginally more acceptable, or at least not unheard of. I did read that some thought Shakespeare was gay, but I also read there's little evidence for it. As I said in the post there are SO MANY references to the Ancient Greeks in this play! Glad I've been doing some reading on the Greeks and Romans or I would have been completely lost and I doubt I'd have enjoyed it as much.

  2. Really love this post. I will certainly put this play in my to-read list. I agree that Marlowe often hints homosexuality here and there in his plays. In his poem Hero and Leander, Neptune's sexual advances is also pretty explicit. Looking forward to reading the play myself. Thanks for the post.

    1. Thank you! I loved loved loved this play! :)

      I haven't read any of his poetry, so I'll read Hero and Leander as soon as I can, thanks for mentioning it (I don't know any of his poetry at all) :D


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