“Edward II” is a Renaissance or Early Modern period play written by Christopher Marlowe. It is one of the earliest English history plays. The play telescopes most of Edward II’s reign into a single narrative, beginning with the recall of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, from exile, and ending with his son, Edward III, executing Mortimer Junior for the king’s murder. Marlowe’s play opens at the outset of the reign, with Edward’s exiled favourite, Piers Gaveston, rejoicing at the recent death of Edward I and his own resulting ability to return to England. The Mortimers, Lancaster and others are unhappy with the fact that Gaveston has been recalled from exile and that he is being shown so much favor and the king is only defended by his brother, the Earl of Kent. Edward II does not care what the lords have said and informs them that he has no intention of sending his beloved Gaveston away.
The lords depart in anger, threatening open war if Gaveston is not expelled. The king then proceeds to give Gaveston titles, access to the royal treasury and promises him any protection he needs against his enemies. The Bishop of Coventry, the man who passed the sentence of exile on Gaveston, then enters and is immediately upset to see the exiled man back in England. Coventry promises that there will be retribution for breaking the law and the king responds by stripping the bishop of all his possessions, giving them to Gaveston and imprisoning him. The first scene opens with Gaveston reading a letter from Edward II who is inviting him to return and share the kingdom with him. In a few quick lines Gaveston’s soliloquy makes clear the homosexual nature of their relationship 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 and dreams of turning the court into a sybaritic playland filled with “men like satyrs grazing on the lawns.”
When the king and his entourage enter, Gaveston steps aside and listens in to the noble’s conversations, a physical posture symbolic of his presumptuous, unwelcome, and inappropriate status in court. 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 Gaveston with unctuous deceit and depravity. In the opening scene of Marlowe’s play, Edward is self indulgent, a playboy with little aptitude for or interest in the governance of his country. He never seems to comprehend the noble’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 honours on the lowborn, manipulative man. He does not have the right balance of heart and leadership and is unable to hold a straight course between personal and public demands.
He seems incapable of performing the duty he had inherited and ultimately becomes a broken and destroyed man who followed his impetuous heart instead of his sovereign duty. Renaissance writers like Marlowe were well versed in the themes and stories of classical writers. Certain images and allusions, however, carry more significance than others. In “Edward II” the first pageant image occurs oddly out of context with Gaveston’s daydream about the kinds of court entertainment. The brief image has set the scene for the action of the play to come. Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II” 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 the early fourteenth-century England. Marlowe’s craftsmanship is notable in using history in the shape of drama. His ability to use short and swift lines increases the tempo of action. The innovative blank verse of “Edward II” led Marlowe’s contemporary George Peele to dub Marlowe the “Muse’s darling.” His skill seems to be excellent at creating characters that are not true to life but convincing in theatre. Marlowe captured the interest of the nineteenth-century Romantics, who saw him as the unfettered genius of the Renaissance.