What have you found of interest in Marlowe’s presentation of history in Edward II?
Throughout Edward II, Marlowe uses a variety of stimulating techniques to present the drama as a history play. Marlowe manages to use the tradition of the chronicle or history play and develop it further producing an extremely compelling, unique piece of work. It is a play which on one hand shows structural affinities with the chronicle plays, in that it has a stirring plot with a rapid flow of incident and plenty of variety while on the other hand it has points of contact with tragedy in its attempts to show on stage heart-rending scenes filled with passionate utterances, deep pathos and high tragic dignity. This can be seen in Act four, scene two where the pace quickens as Marlowe deviates between countries. We see Edward receiving the news that Isabella, Mortimer, Kent and the young prince Edward are collecting an army in Hainault to attack on King Edward:
‘Ah villains, hath that Mortimer escaped?
With him is Edmund gone associate?
And will sir John of Hainault lead the round?
Marlowe therefore states historical moments, which did actually occur, but real, human, affectionate feelings are also shown from Edward, which makes the drama so much more intriguing. Also, in this scene the importance of Prince Edward continues to grow in a carefully controlled way. In the midst of Edward’s anger and warlike preparations, Marlowe now has him spare a moment to think kindly of his son, whom he describes as a ‘little boy’:
‘Ah, nothing grieves me but my little boy
If thus misled to countenance their ills.’
Here, Marlowe shows the sentimental, humane feelings of Edward, human emotions we usually do not experience in history plays. In Edward II it is therefore made clear that the characters not only sustain its plot but also carry the emotional burden of the play. He has struck a balance between a plot whose events are directed by its hero and one, which develops independently of him and reacts upon him. The historical evidence is presented in a form that is dramatic and vivid in our minds therefore producing a thought-provoking, emotional drama.
Marlowe manages to telescope time in his production as he has developed a fast-moving plot. The plot is broken up into a great many separate episodes, most of them quite short, but we can follow it as a close-knit, coherent and logical chain of cause and effect, for in all the episodes the person and character of the king are in some way involved. Marlowe uses complex staging to bring characters on and off the stage in such a way that the action keeps going with as little break as possible. This provides a great sense of pace, and contributes to the skill with which Marlowe compresses the events of twenty years into a single dynamic narrative sweep. This can be seen in Act two, scene four where time is compressed in a surreal way, as the flight, the capture, the news of the capture reaching the king, and the appearance of a messenger from Edward all occur within seconds of one another on stage. As Marlowe chooses a more extended period of action though he is compelled to congest or select the episodes so menial, uninteresting occurrences are not included. Moreover, historical dating and historical sequence he’s regarded as wholly within his control if it led to economy and coherence, above all if it led to dramatic power. The audience therefore are presented with an extremely interesting piece of drama.
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Another striking thing about the play is that the kinds of situation which, at an earlier stage in the evolution of English drama, would have been turned into entirely static episodes or declamatory showpieces by a series of long and exaggeratedly rhetorical set speeches, here take the form of swiftly unfolding scenes of action containing a good deal of well developed dialogue. An example is Act one, scene four where the King is made to part from Gaveston:
‘Rend not my heart with thy two-piercing words
Thou from this land, I from myself am banished.’
This new dramatic technique employed here and in certain other episodes bring into prominence a whole variety of changing motive forces in the play; it enables us to apprehend all these episodes with great vividness, as real actions are carried out by the characters. Therefore Marlowe manages to satisfy the craving for realities popular during his period as he introduces a history play filled with a variety of inspiring development which progresses through the play.
Even more than many other history plays, Edward II ranges over the length and breadth of England and displays a wide range of social classes. The play moves from London to Tynemouth in the North, to Cobham in Kent, to Neath in Wales and Kenilworth in the Midlands, and finally to Berkeley Castle all in the space of a few hour production. This rapid movement helps the play to display historical events, keep us intrigues and allows us to experience a variety of settings.
Moreover, Marlowe makes a step in the direction of the Shakespearian type of history plays, altogether remarkable for its economy and dramatic tension and skilful use of its source-for here he is handling social groups and is not concerned so much with one dominating individual. For example the first few scenes show clearly the contrast of society on which the play is based. In Act one, scene one the nobles enter in their formal attire to show their sense of importance and position in the social hierarchy of the time. Their clothing would distinctly contrast with that of Gaveston who is at a lower social class than them. This is typical of the society on which Marlowe wanted his play to structure upon. Everyone wanted a frivolous lifestyle and the higher they were on the social scale the easier this was to achieve. In Jarman’s version of ‘Edward II’ he shows the distinguishable classes of society. He has the nobles and Queen Isabel dressed in royal colours such as red and purple to reflect their important state whilst Gaveston wears a ripped black shirt and trousers, reflecting his unimportance in society.
A particularly large range of characters, part of whose dramatic function is to display the rich variety of social classes whose lives are affected by Edward’s behaviour and bad government, populates the geographical space. The middle classes appear in the persons of the Mayor of Bristol and Trussel, while the presence of Rhys ap Howell displays Wales as part of the realm. All levels of priests make an appearance, from the Bishop of Canterbury down to simple monks. Meanwhile, Edward’s court contains gentleman, both upper such as Spencer and lower such as Baldock, civil officials and servants. Anonymous ordinary people have significant roles: the Three Poor Men and the Mower. In Act one, scene one, Marlowe includes three poor men to support Gaveston’s ambitious state, Gaveston speaks to them as if they were not worth anything:
‘Why, there are hospitals for such as you;
I have no war, and therefore, sir, be gone.’
The three characters represent the poor English peasantry part of the stations of English life at the time Marlowe was writing the play. They introduce the theme of class relations and of the duties one class of society owes to another, which reappears throughout the play. Numerous other unnamed figures such as guards and soldiers keep the structures of the world running, and we sense that we are seeing as complete a picture of society as possible.
Marlowe selects, condenses and adapts history to produce his interpretation of ‘Edward II’. I believe he has shaped out of the chronicle history of a disagreeable reign a historical tragedy. The speed of Marlowe’s version makes Edward’s fall seem inevitable, and runs rapidly over the more successful aspects of the historical reign. The balance of one character or motive with another is here essential, for this is his one play in which his purpose is to illuminate weakness, not strength. Weakness does not act but is acted upon, or if it acts its actions are frustrated and ineffective. We see in Act four, scene six Edward contemplating his fall from wealth and grandeur into his present condition:
‘Whilom I was powerful and full of pomp;
But what is he, whom rule and empery
Have not in life or death made miserable.’
Edward therefore here achieves some tragic status as he realises he has fallen from a height, Marlowe is able to exhibit not only the central figure of Edward on whom the play’s intention is chiefly expressed but also the agents of power and corruption who act upon this figure. Therefore on the most obvious level ‘Edward II’ is a history play but it attains tragic status since it is concerned with the limits of suffering an individual can endure.
Also, in Act four, scene five, we see the king and his party as they panic and flee. Edward is at first opposed to the dishonour of flight, claiming a sense of unified, permanent identity connected to his station in life:
‘What was I born to fly and run away,
And leave the Mortimer’s conquerors behind?
Edward knows that if he leaves he has failed as a King but he is still easily persuaded by the nobles to leave. Edward is alienated from his kingly self as he makes the instant decision, of lowly flight across the changeable sea instead of honourable death on horseback on the battlefield. Edward therefore chooses without knowing it the ignominious course of events that will follow. Edward is seen as ‘unnatural’, because he does not follow the kind of kingship defined by the example of his dominant and successful father, Edward I. The sixteenth century read the word ‘natural’ as a reference to heredity: behaving according to nature meant following one’s parent’s example. It is within a structure supported by ‘nature’ that feudal duty has its place. This is why the Lords can feel that they no longer owe Edward the duty of allegiance, once they see him as unnaturally neglecting them. This can be seen in Act 4, scene 5 as Mortimer Junior says:
‘Madam, have done with care and sad complaint;
Your King hath wronged your country and himself.’
Therefore Marlowe in using the twin concepts of what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’- recurring themes of the play allows us to understand the duties of a King at this time, which therefore makes Edwards’s failure so much more apparent.
One of Marlowe’s narrative techniques is to foreshadow events through curses or promises. For example Mortimer’s prophetic curse in Act four, scene five asking that Edward’s voyage to Ireland should be turned back by storms, comes uncannily true:
‘Some whirlwind fetch them back or sink them all!
They shall be started thence, I doubt it not.’
This also serves the banal narrative function of preparing the audience to comprehend the situation when precisely this has happened in Act four, scene six. Curses that come true give a play a sense of inevitability, and in a way this is so, since the audience knows that certain historical events happened, and the play must work with those. Thus, the sense of premonition is entirely appropriate to a history play.
Marlowe therefore uses a variety of fascinating techniques when presenting history in ‘Edward II’. Whether looked at as a history play with a political focus or a tragedy with a personal focus it is definitely an exhilarating, unique piece of work.