William Shakespeare’s name is, undeniably, synonymous with Renaissance literature and culture. No objections here, the bard is the best, let’s all fan girl over him and recite his sonnets. Is your Shakespearean mania out of your system? Good, because I’m going to tell you a story about a man named Christopher Marlowe. The first thing you should know about Marlowe is that he was shady as flowers (flowers, in an effort to avoid writing the other f word…). The second thing you should know about Marlowe is that he was the Renaissance equivalent of Sid Vicious. Translation: Marlowe was punk as…flowers. He started studying theology in Cambridge but never graduated, he was accused of being a spy and his plays were full of heretic images, homoerotic innuendos and demonic references. Marlowe’s career was short as he was killed in a relatively young age and the circumstances of his death/murder are still not clear. His work is subversive and worth studying even today. You have probably heard of his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, but today I’m going to talk about Edward the Second.
The play was published in 1593, weeks after Marlowe’s death, but the historical action takes us back to 14th century England. Imagine a realm where politics are like Game of Thrones: the Starks die and the Lannisters send their regards. Unfortunately, there are no dragons. The story is this:
The King of England, Edward the first, is dead so his son, Edward the second, becomes the lawful King. Edward is married to Isabella of France and has a son, Prince Edward (let’s just say that name giving wasn’t one of the crown’s strongest talents). So, Edward the second is now the new King, may the Lord bless him. What is the first thing he does as the new monarch? Does he ask his advisors for information on the financial state of the country? Does he have the common sense of saying “Hello head of the army! Enlighten me please, are we strong enough to fight off any potential attacks from our many enemies, say, oh I don’t know, FRANCE?”. No, Edward ignores all his duties and instead decides to send a letter to Piers Gaveston. Who is Gaveston, you ask? Gaveston was exiled by Edward the first when he realized that he and his son were close, like, really close. The King feared that Gaveston would be a bad and corruptive influence on his son, so he threw him out of the country. When our boy Edward becomes King, the first thing he does is to welcome back Gaveston. Spoiler alert: this was a really bad decision.
The play opens with Gaveston reading a letter by Edward who invites Gaveston to come back and share his kingdom with him. Now, as you can easily imagine, Edward’s court isn’t happy at all. The nobles Lancaster, Mortimer senior and junior, and Warwick are strongly opposed to Gaveston’s return, whereas the earl of Kent, Edward’s brother, is neutral. Mortimer junior is Edward’s main antagonist and is a Machiavellian character, meaning that he has no moral restrictions and wants to usurp all the power for himself (note: from now on I will refer to him simply as Mortimer). Edward and Gaveston are shamelessly showing their affection to each other and everyone is scandalized, not because they are both men, but because a peasant, an outsider, dares to get too close to the King. Technical terminology time: Gaveston is a Marlovian overreacher, meaning that he aims too high and out of his reach.
What happens next is an endless amount of plotting and backstabbing (the backstabbing is literal and metaphorical…). Lancaster, the Mortimers and Warwick arrange for Gaveston to be exiled, whereas Queen Isabella tries to stomach her husband’s love for Gaveston and his total rejection of her. Edward reluctantly agrees to Gaveston’s exile, but, after even more plotting, Gaveston is recalled, only to be murdered later in the play. Meanwhile, Edward is so sad that he finds solace in a new boy toy, Spencer. He alienates his wife, who in return takes Mortimer as a lover and goes back to France to seek for allies. Do you follow? Good.
King Edward is eventually captured, forced to give up his crown and is imprisoned. The new King is Edward’s heir, Edward the third, but due to his young age Queen Isabella and Mortimer are the ones who actually rule. Mortimer knows that as long as Edward is still alive their power is at stake, so he decides to have him killed, and killed he is. Mortimer sends Lightborne (whose name is an anglicized version of Lucifer, oh Marlowe, you sly bastard!) to kill Edward, but he makes it clear that the deed must be done in such a way that it cannot be traced back to him. Lightborne goes to Edward who knows that he is bound to die. Even though Edward has given up his crown, he is still royalty so we would expect him to have a death fit for a King, like decapitation. Edward’s death, however, is painful and humiliating: Lightborne inserts a red-hot iron spit into his anus and surprise, surprise, Edward dies. When Edward the third finds out that his father has been murdered, he gets really angry, orders the execution of Mortimer and the imprisonment of his mother and that’s how the play ends.
Are you confused by the plot? You have every right to be, just remember that everyone is betrayed and plotted against. Why should we care for a Renaissance play of homoerotic love and betrayal when Game of Thrones does exactly the same with more dragons and incest? Because Edward the Second is an excellent study on power politics, kingship, sexuality and royal identity, all happening in 14th century England, but also applying to Marlowe’s Elizabethan reality. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Edward and Gaveston and the Body of the King
First things first, Edward and Gaveston, still a better love story than Twilight!
The play opens with Edward’s invitation to Gaveston. Historically, Edward and Piers Gaveston were close friends and rumour had it that they were more than just friends. In 14th century England homosexuality was condemned by the Church and even considered to be a heresy, so Edward and Gaveston’s close relationship was bound to raise some eyebrows. Still, homosociality was a huge trend, for instance Edward could defend his special bond with Gaveston by saying “Dad, chill, we’re not homosexuals! We are homosocials! We love each other, but in a social context. There’s nothing sexual going on between us! Now, will you excuse me? I have to go and exchange pictures with Gav!” (in the play, when they say goodbye to each other they exchange pictures and swear to wear them and cherish them…). Are they lovers? It really doesn’t matter, because Marlowe would never object to some homosexual love.
Their relationship isn’t problematic because of its supposed homosexual nature; their relationship is problematic because it breaks the rules of how one should behave when in the presence of the King. Gaveston is hated by the Queen and the barons because he influences Edward and is a potential danger to the realm. Example time: if Gaveston wakes up with a thirst for French wine, Edward will be so eager to please him that he might declare war on France. That’s why their relationship makes everyone uncomfortable. Since the Mortimers, Lancaster and Warwick cannot control Gaveston, automatically they lose their control over Edward. Also, Gaveston is unfit for Edward’s love not because he’s a man, but because he’s low-born. “Okay”, the barons think, “let the King play, he can have his boy toy. Oh wait, the boy toy is a peasant? Off with his head!”. In the play, Edward sabotages himself a lot. He is a reckless King who lacks the gift of diplomacy. Gaveston is just the catalyst for what happens. Edward shows more affection to Gaveston than he does to his Queen, wrong move Edward! Don’t forget that your Queen also happens to be the daughter of the King of France, you don’t want to anger the wrong people but you repeatedly do!
Once he becomes King, Edward stops having ownership over his body. His body now is the body of a ruler. His body is no longer private but public and in the play it is used as a canvas for political games. Edward is torn between his desire for Gaveston and his duty to the realm. He tries to get rid of his royal responsibility by equating himself to Gaveston: “Knowest thou not who I am? Thy friend, thy self, another Gaveston” (1 142-143). A King should never speak like that! A King is the highest authority, he is practically a god! Edward tries to fashion a new identity for himself by denouncing his public body, as he hasn’t reconciled yet with the royal role assigned to him. Gaveston’s fatal mistake wasn’t that he got too close to the physical body of Edward, Gaveston got too close to the metaphorical body of the King. Speaking of Edward’s body, let’s focus on his murder. His death isn’t dignified; instead, the body of the king is defiled. The sodomitical nature of his death echoes the accusations of sodomy that stained his reputation when he was alive. His body is left without any scars that point to his murderers. The metaphorical body of the King, however, is damaged beyond repair.
What were Edward’s mistakes? He ignored the barons and shamelessly showed favouritism. It’s one thing to desire Gaveston or Spencer; Edward’s transgression wasn’t entirely sexual, his transgression was political and put his realm at stake. Towards the end of the play, Edward becomes a tragic figure; he finally knows what it takes to be a good King, but he is forced to abdicate in favour of his son. “The griefs of private men are soon allayed, but not of kings” (21 8-9) he laments and he finally understands what he did wrong; he let his private desire overpower his royal authority and responsibility.
I don’t want to bore you, so I’m going to make this easier for all of us: Edward the Second is an excellent play as it shows what happens when an unfit King tries to balance the duty of his reign and his personal life. The play also makes it quite clear that in an unstable court the power games that take place are insane and often fatal. The barons’ hate for Gaveston wasn’t homophobic. It all comes down to class: Gaveston was a threat to the old nobility they represented. In terms of Marlowe’s time, Edward’s favouritism translates into Elizabeth’s favouritism, namely to the Earl of Essex, but I don’t even want to go there so google it if you want to know more.
Does the play have a happy ending? Depends on what your definition of happy is. Gaveston dies, Edward dies, Mortimer dies, Kent dies, Spencer dies, Spencer’s dad dies, Warwick and Lancaster die, but after all the blood bath Edward the third reigns in success. In Game of Thrones this is the definition of a happy ending.
Is it worth your time? It is. Bear in mind that in Renaissance drama we always need to read between the lines. Edward the Second isn’t just the story of a sodomite King; it’s an example of scheming and how power needs to be destabilized before some peace can prevail. Also, Marlowe’s writing style is enjoyable and a must-read.
Can we get proper fan fiction out of it? We can and we have, it’s called Game of Thrones and it’s excellent.
Dinosaurs, vampires or zombies? Any supernatural or paleontological being would further complicate an already complicated storyline. However, I wouldn’t object to a couple of loose velociraptors…
Dream cast in a movie? A one-man show with Sean Bean playing all the roles. Everybody dies so Sean Bean is perfect.