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Theatre / Edward II

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As Marlowe's plays are Older Than Steam and this one is based on historical events, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer is a history play in Five Acts, by Christopher Marlowe.

The plot concerns the titular King Edward II of The House of Plantagenet being forced by nobles, led by Mortimer, to send his "favorite" Piers Gaveston away from court. His wife, Isabella, Princess of France, also supports this rebellion, out of hatred for Piers and fondness for Mortimer. The King dithers over sending Piers away, leading to a noble revolt as Civil War breaks out in the country.

This play would later be adapted by Bertolt Brecht for a modern stage production in 20s Berlin. It was adapted by Derek Jarman into a 1991 postmodern film version that renders the already overt gay subtext of the play to the surface.

This play contains examples of:

  • Ass Shove: Edward II meets his end when a branding iron... meets his end.
  • Book Ends: Begins shortly after the death of Edward I and ends with Edward III coming into his own.
  • Brains and Brawn: Matrevis and Gurney. Matrevis likes abstract thinking and long-winded sentences, whereas Gurney's sentences are short and to the point and he's the one who takes actual action. Also, although both know Latin, it is Matrevais who understands the message's meaning.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Happens all the time; even the supposed good characters stab each other in the back by the end.
  • Composite Character: John Maltravers (Matrevis) and the Earl of Arundel (historically, Edmund Fitzalan) — by the time Marlowe was writing, the Arundel and Maltravers titles were held by the same person.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Edward II is impaled (onstage) through the anus with a red-hot poker, as the real Edward was said to have been. His (fictional) assassin, Lightborn, has a speech describing his expertise in Cruel and Unusual Death. Although the real Edward II probably didn't actually die this way, the legend no doubt arose because it was seen as a Karmic Death, given Edward's homosexuality. Marlowe (who was probably gay himself) writes Edward as a fairly sympathetic character, and the scene in the play is absolutely horrifying.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Edward II. Yes he's gay but he's still the King, dammit! That flies about as well as you might imagine in medieval Europe.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • Mortimer.
      Mortimer: Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
      There is a point, to which when men aspire,
      They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d,
      And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
      Why should I grieve at my declining fall?—
      Farewell, fair queen; weep not for Mortimer,
      That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
      Goes to discover countries yet unknown.note 
    • Edward II also insists on facing death with dignity but he's been horribly treated (imprisoned in a cell where the castle's privy shaft offloads toilet-water with shit and urine into the room) and Lightborn intends to brutally torture him to death, that his agony is prolonged, painful and humiliating what with the Ass Shove.
    • The elder Spencer too.
      Rebell is he that fights against his prince,
      So fought not they that fought in Edwards right.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Roger Mortimer starts the play as a gruff, rather unsentimental minor noble unsatisfied with Edward II and ends up as the de facto King of England, replacing Edward's tyranny with his own. An example of Truth in Television as the real Mortimer did indeed become virtual dictator of England.
  • Gambit Pileup: The play is so densely plotted with many gambits and factions that it's amazing the story works on the whole.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Edward II is considered by historians to be a very weak king and ruler, so much so that Marlowe's play is considered the most sympathetic portrayal of the character in both fiction and history. In the play, Edward II heroically supports his lower-class lover over a corrupt nobility that seeks to keep them apart, who refuse any compromise and whose death is stomach churning and painful.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Hugh Spencer the Younger is hated by the barons as another opportunistic upstart who encourages Edward II to stand up to them; he's nowhere as bad as the historical Hugh Despenser, who did things like extort land from his own sister-in-law.
  • Hyperlink Story: Edward II comes very close to this. Despite the title, Edward II is not really the central hero, and he has equal presence with Mortimer, with Isabella, with Kent and others. A lot of the decisive actions and best lines are done by one-scene characters like Lightborn, and Gaveston despite casting a good impression dies midway through the story.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed: Immediately after killing the king, Lightborne is killed by the other conspirators to keep his silence.
  • Lover and Beloved: Edward II and Piers Gaveston. A character recites a list of famous male/male couples, justifying homosexual relationships by saying that "The mightiest kings have had their minions... And not kings only, but the wisest men." Most of these are lover/beloved couples: Hercules and Hylas, Tully and Octaviusnote , Socrates and Alcibiades, Achilles and Patroclus — Achilles and Patroclus are not said to be lovers in the Iliad, but were seen as erastes and eromenos by later Greeks, although in the Iliad Patroclus is the elder. Alexander and Hephaestion, who were coevals, are also mentioned in the list. The historical Edward and his boyfriend Gaveston were actually the same age, but lover/beloved was the predominant homosexual trope in Marlowe's day: people learned the trope from the Greek and Roman classics they read at school.
  • Louis Cypher: "Lightborne" is almost a calque of "Lucifer" (light-maker), and the character is a Torture Technician whose weapon of choice is a red-hot poker. Subtle.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: The nobles (and, perhaps more importantly, his wife) claim this as their reason for having the king offed: he was spending too much time with his... um... friend Piers Gaveston, a mere commoner.
  • No, You:
    Isabella: Villain! 'tis thou that robb'st me of my lord.
    Gaveston: Madam, 'tis you that rob me of my lord.
  • Please Shoot the Messenger: Mortimer pulls this on hired assassin Lightborn, sending him to kill the deposed King Edward with a note to Edward's jailers to kill Lightborn himself once the deed is done.
  • Puppet King: The other members of the Decadent Court fear Gaveston's influence on the king.
  • Royal Brat: Edward II. His son, Edward III, is a rare positive version since he uses his authority to drive away usurpers and treacherous courtiers.
  • Royal "We": Edward employs this frequently considering he is...well...the King of England. A subtle, but dramatic use of the royal "we" occurs late in play after Prince Edward has been crowned King with Mortimer acting as lord protector. Mortimer, despite Edward III's protests, sentences Kent to death. Kent questions "Art thou king? Must I die at thy command?" Mortimer responds with "At OUR command", all but confirming that he views himself as king over Edward III. Compared to Mortimer and his father, Edward III rarely uses the royal "we".
  • Traumatic Haircut: The king has his beard forcibly shaved off during his imprisonment, to prevent his identification and rescue.
  • Unbuilt Trope: It was a successful play that inspired other playwrights (including Shakespeare's history plays) but Marlowe's play is quite a bit more subversive. Shakespeare's history plays and tragedies (Richard III, Macbeth) tend to be highly individualistic character pieces with some amount of moral commentary about Order Versus Chaos and usually ends with the Rightful King Returns. Marlowe's Edward II on the other hand is a Hyperlink Story that shows feudalism to be inherently chaotic, filled with Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, good characters dying unheroically in piteous circumstances, villains dying nobly, and the rightful boy king (Edward III) left cold, alone and Lonely at the Top while lamenting his loss of innocence.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The broad outlines do correspond to the basic facts of Edward II's reign with the main difference being the emphasis and sympathy with the King who history sees as being the guilty party in that situation.