Edward II

Edward II Study Guide

Edward II, first performed probably between 1587-1592 and published in 1594, is one of Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe’s most famous works. Based off of the history of King Edward II, the play depicts the king’s homosexuality and love for a lowborn man as dangerous to the realm, thus leading to his nobles’ revolt and his own brutal death at their hands. The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe says by way of introduction, “As Marlowe has emerged in recent years as early modern England's most modern playwright, Edward II has emerged as his most modern play, not merely because it treats the life and loves, and stages the brutal debasement, of a recognizably (if not exclusively) homosexual monarch, but also because it presents a decidedly direct and demystified portrayal of power politics at work, showing political positions to be little more than transparent extensions of the personal desires and ambitions that motivate them.”

Marlowe looked to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle for the events of Edward’s reign (1307-1327); this was a famous compilation of British, Irish, and Scottish history that many writers such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser turned to for inspiration. Many literary scholars believe that Marlow was compelled by the story of the love between Edward and Gaveston as Marlowe was homosexual himself.

The first performances were carried out by Pembroke’s Men, which Shakespeare may have been a part of. The play was popular in its time but languished until the twentieth century. A contemporary director, David Gammons, explains, “Edward II was kept off the stage for more than 200 years, in large part because of the cultural ambivalence of its social matter and the spectre of male sexuality as a threat to the civilized order of society and power. It depicts a gay relationship in the 14th century, written in the 16th century, in a way that most stories and lives were not openly portrayed until the late 20th century.” A famous revival occurred in the 1970s with Ian McKellen as Edward; it was notorious for its broadcasting of the first same-sex kiss on British television. The play has been adapted for the radio, the ballet, and film.