Edward the Second
By Christopher Marlowe
Edited by Mathew R. Martin
Broadview Editions, 2010
This excellent edition of Marlowe’s incendiary play is based on the quarto published in 1594, a year or so after the playwright’s death.
Besides the text of the play itself, extensively annotated by Mathew R. Martin, there are a number of appendices, focusing on such topics as the office of king, the law relating to sodomy, friendship (or ‘amity’, a pretty word) between men, and Marlowe’s historical sources.
What’s extraordinary about the play is that it is quite clearly – explicitly and unapologetically – about what we’d now call a gay relationship between two men, Edward and his favourite or minion (a recurring word throughout), Gaveston. In the very first scene, for example, Gaveston is excited to return to the capital:
The sight of London to my exiled eyes
Is as Elysium to a new come soul. 1:10-11
Why? Only because:
…it harbours him I hold so dear,
The king, upon whose bosom let me die… 1:14-15
To die means, of course, to come: he can’t wait to get it on. And there’s a robust defence of the legitimacy of love between men somewhat later in the play (Scene 4, lines 390-400), which is not exactly what you would expect to see in a play first performed in sixteenth century England. But Marlowe, famously, was of the opinion ‘that all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools.’
Edward’s boyfriend is despised by the barons, since Gaveston is not only queer and a rival and a beguiling influence on the king; he is also of low birth and therefore base. And in time their rancour escalates into an all-out civil war. There’s a lot of violent action, dastardly intrigue and sinister incident; and there’s a malice, a diabolical glee almost, to much of Marlowe’s language too. It’s like a gangster film, only when guys are whacked – whether a baron or one of the king’s men – they’re beheaded too. It’s The Sopranos, medieval style (Edward the Second ruled from 1307-1327).
The editor writes that Edward the Second influenced Shakespeare’s history plays (and in particular Richard the Second) and there is clearly a kinship to Macbeth too. Not least in the character of Lightborn (compare with Seyton in the Scottish play) and the bathetic manner in which the deaths of Edward and Lady Macduff are treated: the grandeur of those about to die, the pettiness of their respective murderers. The body count’s comparable as well.
I saw Edward the Second at the Royal Exchange in September (here’s that review) and this fine edition of the play, ably edited and prepared by Mathew R. Martin, confirms me in my conviction of its greatness.
The publisher’s description of Edward the Second can be read here.