An introduction to Edward II

An introduction to Edward II

The complex portrayal of Edward II’s love for his male favourite Gaveston has fascinated audiences for centuries. Here Martin Wiggins discusses the play’s depiction of same-sex love, homophobia, power and tragedy.

Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy of Edward II loses no time in establishing, implicitly but unambiguously, the terms of the King’s relationship with his favourite, Piers Gaveston. The play begins with Gaveston reading Edward’s letter recalling him from banishment, to which he responds:

Sweet prince, I come; these, these thy amorous lines,
Might have enforced me to have swum from France,
And, like Leander, gasped upon the sand,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy arms. (1.1.6-9)

The allusion to Leander, the classical lover who nightly swam the Hellespont to be with his lover Hero, defines the sexual nature of the consummation that will follow. And for many people in the 1590s, that was a problem.

Marlowe's Edward II, 1612

Marlowe's Edward II, 1612

The play was first printed in 1594, and reprinted in 1598, 1612 and 1622. These later editions feature a new title page emphasizing the role of Gaveston as Edward’s ‘mighty favorite’.

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Marlowe’s challenging plays often require an effort of historical imagination, in that the attitudes and ideas he challenges are, thankfully, no longer the way most of us think about the world or its people. For instance, 16th-century moralists and theologians believed that sex was not about pleasure but about procreation, and this meant that the choice of sexual partner was more than just a matter of personal preference. Homosexuality was regarded as a sin against God, because its pleasurable consummation could not lead to conception; and in consequence, buggery had a specific legal status. So in looking forward to a sexual reunion with Edward, Gaveston is admitting to, and implicating the King of England in, a capital crime.

Derek Jarman's 'Queer' sketchbook

Derek Jarman's 'Queer' sketchbook

In his 1991 film of Edward II, Derek Jarman drew connections between the homophobia of the past and the late 20th century. He used extras from an Outrage! gay rights protest to play Edward’s army, and saved their stickers in his sketchbook.

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The Virgin Queen

The very question of royal sexuality was one that was surrounded by complexes and phobias in Elizabethan times. For the first half of Elizabeth I's reign, one of the most fervent political hopes was that the Queen would marry and produce an heir to the throne. Without a clear successor to carry on the Tudor dynasty, it was feared that competing candidates for the English crown would brew a civil war like the one that was then devastating France. But the Queen never married, and by the 1590s, she was well past child-bearing age. It is understandable that people didn't want to think about what the future had in store. Instead, they turned Queen Elizabeth into an almost mythological figure: constant, unchanging, immortal. A crucial element of this wish-fulfilment was that Elizabeth's body had never been sexually penetrated: she was a Virgin Queen. In short, they were making a virtue of necessity: the hope that she would become sexually active turned into a celebration of the fact that she had not.

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1583

This portrait (c. 1583) shows Elizabeth carrying a sieve as a symbol of her virginity.

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A curiously attractive figure

It was into this atmosphere that Marlowe released his portrayal of Edward II and his love for Gaveston. Gaveston’s analogy with Leander carries a further implication, concerning (to put it indelicately) who sleeps with who. In effect, he leaves the woman’s part to Edward, and so enables a second analogy, this time a contrasting one: whereas Queen Elizabeth was celebrated for her inviolate body, Edward's has been penetrated.

So Gaveston is established from the first as, in 1590s’ terms, a sexual criminal and a traitor; but he is also a curiously attractive figure. Marlowe never wrote drabber verse than he gives to most of the people in this play, but the effect is to make Gaveston’s evocatively sensuous language stand out from the stark, plain, regular speaking around him. His lyrical speeches create, amid the harsh, grey realities of politics, little islands of beauty that reflect the sort of private world that he and Edward are trying to create for themselves, and help the audience to appreciate and empathise with the attraction that Edward feels for him, and thereby compromise any orthodox, disapproving response to the relationship.

Photograph of Ian McKellen, James Laurenson and Diane Fletcher in Marlowe's Edward II, 1970

Photograph of Ian McKellen, James Laurenson and Diane Fletcher in Marlowe's Edward II, 1970

In this Prospect Theatre production, James Laurenson played Gaveston, with Ian McKellen as Edward in a ‘blond wig and a huge codpiece’.

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Sympathy and prejudice

Marlowe had to modify the audience's reaction like this, not because the play is a tragedy about royal homosexuality, but precisely because it is not. He does not seek to qualify judgement and prejudice with sympathy, as he might if the play were simply about the baiting to death of a pair of gay men by homophobic barons. Rather, sympathy and prejudice are both encouraged, each independently of the other: the 1592 audience would have felt, paradoxically, both attraction and revulsion for Edward and Gaveston; they would be made to see both sides of the issue. Internalising the conflict like this is a way of removing it from the centre of the play.

Edward’s preferences are a factor in the play’s wider, political concerns, but it is striking that the oppositional barons do not take the moralistic line. Mortimer Senior argues that Edward is not the only great man to have had male lovers (and he cites four historical precedents to prove it), and that in due course he will grow out of it: ‘riper years will wean him from such toys’ (1.4.401). And though his nephew, the play’s main Mortimer, is being disingenuous when he says that Edward’s ‘wanton humour grieves not me’ (1.4.402), the issue is not so much that the King is gay as that he is glad to be gay: the relationship with Gaveston is threatening because it is not carried out in secret, because it impinges on the public sphere and on public policy.

Miniatures of King Edward II, Hugh Despenser and Queen Isabella

Miniature paintings of King Edward II, Hugh Despenser and Queen Isabella

This text suggests the tension between Edward’s private and public worlds. The painting shows his marriage to Isabella, but the French text describes his love of Gaveston.

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The King and his lover are criticised for their misplaced priorities: they spend public money on fashionable clothes rather than using it to maintain the army, which is not an entirely groundless point in a nation at war with its territorial neighbour, Scotland. The fact that they are specifically Italian clothes adds an unsightly element of xenophobia to the objection to Gaveston, who is himself French. And there is also a dimension of aristocratic pride: ‘That villain Gaveston is made an earl,’ (1.2.11) remarks the astonished Earl of Lancaster at one point, the word villain conveying not just moral disapproval but a sense of his lowly rank. (The medieval connotations of villein, or peasant, still lingered in the word.) To promote him into the nobility as Edward does is to devalue title and rank, and to insult the men who were born to them.

What all this means is that, in various ways, Edward's relationship with Gaveston disrupts the traditional ways in which value and importance are measured and expressed. For the barons, it is good to be manly, English and aristocratic; but in favouring Gaveston, who is none of these things, the King privileges the effeminate, the foreign and the plebeian.

A political threat

But the real problem of Gaveston is that he is also a political threat. He may love Edward ‘more than all the world’ (1.4.77), as the King believes, but he also sees Edward as a key to his own advancement, so that there will have to be no more ‘base stooping to the lordly peers’ (1.1.18). The entertainments he plans for Edward – the ‘wanton poets’ (1.1.50), ‘Italian masques’ (1.1.54), and overtly eroticised transvestite goddesses – may be a shared cultural pleasure, but they are also a way of achieving influence: his declared objective is to ‘draw the pliant King which way I please’ (1.1.52).

‘If you love us’, the barons tell Edward, ‘hate Gaveston’ (1.1.79). This crudely absolute opposition threatens to turn the narrative of the play into a see-saw, hoisting Gaveston up and down in repetitive series. The principal developments in the first half-hour seem to cancel each other out: Gaveston is recalled from exile in France, then exiled to Ireland, then recalled from Ireland. And as a result, the story gets nowhere fast – or, at least, so it seems if we join the King and the barons in paying too much attention to Gaveston. But if we see Gaveston not as the play’s leading figure but as the focus of its conflict, a conflict between the King and the barons, the action no longer merely goes round in circles, because the circles are stages of a progressive escalation.

So in production, Gaveston needs to be both attractive and transparent: we must see him as both a desired person and a bargaining counter. He must be an element in our sense of the clash between monarch and nobility, but he must not dominate it. That's important not least because he is murdered by the barons halfway through. The murder doesn't bring the civil war to an end; instead, a herald arrives with an ultimatum to Edward. It is as though the barons have suddenly realised that they have let themselves be diverted by a symptom of the problem, rather than tackling the problem itself; for the problem is not Gaveston, but Edward. But this must not be a sudden revelation to a Gaveston-focussed audience; for then the play would be broken-backed.

Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577

Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577

Marlowe used Holinshed’s Chronicles as one of his main sources for the play. This page describes Gaveston’s death and shows him being beheaded.

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Power

The problem that gives the tragedy its coherence is not of sexuality but power: not how Edward sees Gaveston, but how he sees his office as king. One of the great absent presences in the play is his dead father, King Edward I, who originally banished Gaveston, and who was remembered in Elizabethan times as a great warrior monarch, the conqueror of Wales and subjugator of Scotland, an exemplar of many of the core values the barons stand for. His gay elder son’s reaction to his death could be summed up in the phrase, ‘Free at last!’ ‘My father is deceased; come, Gaveston’ (1.1.1), begins the letter that opens the play, and we might wonder whether the two parts of the verse line should be connected with a colon expressing a logical consequence from one to the other. He’s also king at last, and the two conditions, freedom and kingship, seem associated in his mind, with the kingdom understood as a personal possession to be shared at will with his favourite.

The immediate replacement of the dead Gaveston by Spencer as the King’s new minion, reinforces the public dimension of the issue. Edward’s private tastes are generating a new political system in which the source of power is no longer inherited aristocratic titles, but royal favour: as Spencer says:

No greater titles happen unto me
Than to be favoured by your majesty. (2.2..253-54)

The barons’ conservative attitude duly asserts itself by reiterating the importance and value of noble birth and blue blood. Gaveston is forever under attack for his base birth; but the insult doesn't stick: Gaveston returns it, reversing the implied values, calling them 'Base leaden earls that glory in your birth' (2.2.74).

Marlowe repeatedly underlines the difficulty of the conflict with rhetorical repetition: characters tend to pick up and throw back, slightly amended, not just their opponents’ ideas but their actual words. When Mortimer speaks out against Gaveston, Edward's response is the command, 'Lay hands upon that traitor Mortimer!’ (1.4.20). Mortimer reacts with the counter-command, 'Lay hands upon that traitor Gaveston!’ (1.4.21). Each of them has a different concept of what it is to be a traitor: in Edward's personal concept of kingship, Mortimer is a traitor for speaking against his wishes as king; but for Mortimer, Gaveston is the traitor because he violates the King, in a very literal and physical sense.

A tragic hero

So the play develops into a kind of political tit for tat that reaches its grim apogee in the manner of Edward’s final destruction. Everyone knows how this King of England died, by a horrible form of symbolic buggery. In the play, it’s meted out by a killer who learned a full range of murder methods in Italy, and who speaks of them with a similar sensuousness to that used by Gaveston when he speaks of the ‘Italian masques’ he will give to Edward. And since orthodox eschatology (the theology of the end of the world and afterwards) asserted that the damned would receive punishments in Hell by the grotesque re-enactment of their earthly crimes, it is also pertinent that the murderer’s name is Lightborne, an English translation of Lucifer. The climax of the tragedy is set up to invite the view that the King gets his just deserts.

Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577

Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577

Marlowe’s view of Edward’s murder seems inspired by Holinshed, who describes how the King’s killers thrust a ‘hot spitte’ up ‘into his bodie’.

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Derek Jarman's 'Queer' sketchbook

Derek Jarman's 'Queer' sketchbook

In his 1991 film of Edward II, Derek Jarman changed Marlowe’s ending so that Edward dreams he’s impaled with a poker, but then wakes up and is kissed by Lightborne (played by Jarman’s partner Keith Collins).

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But is this what an audience really feels when seeing the murder enacted? It is most easily performed with Edward’s head downstage, closest to the audience, so that the actor playing Lightborne can be masked off as he seems to insert the red-hot spit. So the impact of the moment of murder depends primarily on the facial and vocal performance of the actor playing Edward: the audience sees a human face contorted in indescribable agony, and a scream that is loud enough, Maltravers fears, to wake the town. Can you still argue that the punishment fits the crime?

This sort of effect is typical of Edward II. The audience is constantly being prompted to respond at cross-purposes with itself: judgement of Edward never overrides sympathy for him, and sympathy never overrides judgement. And that is how Marlowe’s immature, obsessive, weak king ultimately achieves the status of a tragic hero.


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  • Martin Wiggins
  • Dr Martin Wiggins is the Senior Scholar of The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and works on the whole corpus of drama written in the British Isles, in all languages, in the eleven decades between the English Reformation and the English Revolution. His published works include Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time, Drama and the Transfer of Power in Renaissance England, and the ten-volume British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue.

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