The King is enamoured with his male lover, lowly-born Piers Gaveston, to the disgrace of his Queen Isabella and the disgust of his earls Warwick, Lancaster, and young Mortimer, Earl of March. Political machinations and abuse of the church add to the ruckus, bringing England to civil war at a time when it can least afford it – France is snatching back Norman lands, and Scotland is trouncing England on the battlefield.
Edward II is the sort of traditional history play we are familiar with from Shakespeare onwards, sticking to plausible versions of the events as far as Marlowe wishes to tell them (after all, Edward I by George Peele, written two years earlier, had the wonderful fantasy of the evil Queen Elinor being swallowed up by the ground). Events are compressed to show Edward’s II whole reign from his gaining the throne and recalling Gaveston from exile, to his extremely violent death by red hot poker while held prisoner at Berkeley Castle. In fact, his horrible death was the only thing I knew about this English King and period, so Mortimer’s eventual villainy and pairing up with Isabella was a surprise to me, even though Edward insists throughout the play that they are scheming against him. Yes, Edward is proven correct in his suspicions and fears about the two of them, at least according to the play, but it is in part due to the King’s own behaviour and weakness, and his insistence on playing favourites, firstly with Gaveston as his lover, and secondly with the Spencers as his confederates.
Gaveston comes across as little more than a schemer after what’s best for himself – his affection for Edward simply does not ring true. He has latched on to the King and is making himself wealthy and powerful in the process, which with his rudeness to the Earls drives their resentment (the homosexual relationship and the insults to the Queen and the Church are minor but convenient issues for them)
While Edward II is not as renowned or memorable as Marlowe’s other works, and the language was not particularly outstanding but the fate of each player was compelling. 6/10
My copy was part of the Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, edited by J. B. Steane and published by Penguin Books, 1969. Not quite back to 1591 where I left to jump forward from to read Don Quixote, but I was away from home and this was the only classic I had with me after finishing Quixote a couple of days earlier than expected. Back on track with Shakespeare next time, and more history.