Gaveston is reading a letter from Edward, who tells him his father is dead and he is now king, and that he wishes Gaveston to come join him in London. Gaveston does not care for London itself, but he does love the king so dearly and cannot wait to see him.
Three poor men enter, and ask Gaveston if they might be of service to him. He does not need them, but thinks it might be best to give them hope anyway.
After the men leave, Gaveston says he knows these would not be the men he needs to bring with him to court because Edward likes music and poetry. The pages must be clad as sylvan nymphs, or as Diana herself with her hounds. As he is indulging his imagination, he sees the king and some of the nobles from Parliament enter. He stands off to the side undetected.
Edward is clearly displeased with something, and it becomes clear to Gaveston that he is the source of the argument. Mortimer says he and his uncle, Mortimer Senior, swore to Edward’s father that they would not allow Gaveston to return to this realm. Edward scoffs that he ought to rue those words and Gaveston will come here. Lancaster asks why he incenses his peers for the “base and obscure” (I.1.100) Gaveston. Kent, for his part, asks why the nobles are speaking thusly to the king’s own face.
Mortimer throws up his hands and leaves with his uncle. Lancaster tells the king before he departs that he should change his mind or “look to see the throne where you should sit / To float in blood, and at thy wanton head / The glozing head of thy base minion thrown” (I.1.132-32). The nobles exit.
Edward stands with Kent, bemoaning how he is so overruled. He would rather die than live without Gaveston. Gaveston reveals himself and the men embrace ardently. Edward proclaims that anyone can say what they want, but now Gaveston is Lord Chamberlain, Chief Secretary to the state and king, and Earl of Cornwall. Gaveston is stunned and Kent unnerved. Edward smiles that Gaveston’s worth is far more than any of these gifts. He can have whatever he wants—a guard, money, his seal, etc.
The Bishop of Coventry enters and asks why the wicked Gaveston has returned, and demands he go back to France. Gaveston retorts that he wants his pardon. Edward decides to take the Bishop’s mitre and stole, and Kent urges him not to lay hands on him or he will complain to Rome. Edward says his life can be spared but he will serve Gaveston as chaplain. Gaveston would rather he go to prison, so Edward sends him to the Tower. Gaveston will have the Bishop’s house and goods.
The Mortimers, Lancaster, and Warwick speak of what has happened to the Bishop. They cannot suffer Gaveston and must deal with him somehow. Mortimer Senior wonders why no one speaks up, and Lancaster says they do not dare to.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and an attendant join them. Canterbury rues how the Bishop’s sacred garments were torn, and how he was imprisoned. He proclaims God himself must be enraged at this offense.
The Queen enters, despondent that the king has no more eyes for her since Gaveston is here. Mortimer consoles her that they will exile the “sly, inveigling Frenchman” (I.2.57) again. The men will not harm the king, but will certainly rid of Gaveston. Canterbury suggests they meet at the New Temple to confirm the plan for banishment. The Queen implores them not to use violence against the king, and Mortimer says if words work, then he will not.
Gaveston speaks with Kent, saying how glad he is that some of the nobles have left.
Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, Mortimer, Mortimer Senior, Canterbury, and guards enter. Canterbury signs the document in the throne room. Edward and Gaveston enter, and Edward sits on the throne with Gaveston at his side. The nobles are aghast.
Edward calls out for hands to be laid on the traitor Mortimer, but as he says so, Mortimer calls for Gaveston to be apprehended. Gaveston and Kent are led out, while Edward rages that no king was ever overruled as he was. Lancaster replies that he should learn to rule them and the realm better.
Canterbury orders Edward to subscribe to the exile on the allegiance to the see of Rome, and offers him the document. Mortimer hopes he will not sign so they can depose him. Edward sighs that they can curse him or depose him, as he cares not. He asks if he appoints them all to glorious positions if they would leave him and Gaveston with some small corner of the kingdom, but Canterbury says no; they are resolved. Mortimer asks the king why he loves Gaveston so much, and the king replies, “Because he loves me more than all the world” (I.4.77).
Edward sighs that he will write his name with his tears, and signs. Mortimer scoffs at how lovesick he is for his minion. Lancaster snatches the document and says it will be posted in the street. The nobles feel their hearts at ease, and leave the throne room.
Alone, Edward is angry and bereft. He wonders why he is subject to a priest, and deplores “Proud Rome” (I.4.97). He will fight back and make them pay, and if anyone backs the clergy they will lose their lives.
Gaveston steals in nervously, asking if he is truly banished. Edward tells him it is so, but he will be avenged. He tells Gaveston to be patient and he will send him gold to live off of in the meantime. Gaveston grieves his imminent separation for the king, but the two exchange lockets and embraces.
Queen Isabella enters and Edward immediately calls her a strumpet and orders her away. Gaveston tells her she ought to go fawn over Mortimer, insinuating she is involved with him. The Queen denies this firmly, but Edward tells her he knows she is too friendly with him. He asks why she does not try and reconcile the lords to him, but she says she cannot.
The Queen tells Gaveston he has robbed her of her lord, and he says she has done the same. She cries in despair but Edward pushes her away. He and Gaveston leave.
The Queen is miserable, especially as she knows she should call Gaveston home from exile so Edward will be kind to her, but that will mean he will dote on Gaveston.
The nobles return and Mortimer asks what is wrong. The Queen tells him the king told her he does not love her but loves Gaveston instead. Mortimer tells her she should not waste her love on him but she cannot help herself. She asks Lancaster if they cannot revoke Gaveston’s repeal, because as long as he is gone the king banishes her from his presence. Lancaster is shocked, as is Warwick, so the Queen turns to Mortimer and asks him what he can do. He cannot believe she wants him to plead for Gaveston, but she tells him to come sit with her for a moment and she will tell him why this is best.
As the two talk apart, the others watch and wonder. They see Mortimer’s face cold at first, then intrigued. When the Queen and Mortimer come back, Mortimer announces that they should bring Gaveston back. Lancaster cannot believe what he is hearing, but Mortimer calms him and the other nobles down by explaining his reasons. He says Gaveston has gold which can purchase him friends in Ireland, and it will be hard to overthrow him there. If he were here, though, it would be easy to get someone to murder him. Furthermore, if he is called back by the nobles, he will be pliant and grateful for a time.
Mortimer Senior asks what happens if Gaveston does not behave, and Mortimer says they have the people on their side and they can pull Gaveston down. The nobles agree to this plan, and the Queen is pleased.
King Edward enters in mourning garb, piteously ruing the loss of Gaveston. Lancaster is disgusted. The Queen approaches her husband and tells him Gaveston will be repealed. He is exultant and kisses her, telling her this is like a second marriage for them. The Queen is teary-eyed with delight.
In his joy, Edward asks Lancaster to live with him as his companion, Warwick to be his chief councilor, Pembroke to carry his sword, Mortimer to be the Lord Marshal of the realm, and Mortimer Senior the general of the troops ready to assail the Scots. All are thrilled with their appointments and accept them with alacrity. Edward orders Beaumont to fetch Gaveston in Ireland, and he departs. Edward says they will have a general tilt and tournament to celebrate and they will spare no cost.
All leave except for the Mortimers. Mortimer Senior counsels his nephew to simply allow Edward to enjoy his minion, which is something all leaders seem to have, and that in his older years Edward will no doubt grow tired of his toy. Mortimer grumbles that he does not like how basely-born Gaveston is, and how “while soldiers mutiny for want of pay / He wears a lord’s revenue on his back” (I.4.406-07). It is scandalous and inappropriate, and he feels impatient with it all. Mortimer Senior encourages him that the king has changed, and Mortimer simply replies that then so has he, and will do him service but will yield to no upstart.
Though Holinshed’s Chronicles explains that the events of Edward II’s doomed kingship last about twenty years, Marlowe feels no need to draw this out—his play moves quickly and tensely, each insult and offense and threat and vacillation building on top of the others to create a breathless, ominous mood.
The play begins with the exiled Gaveston receiving word from his lover, Edward II, that King Edward I has died, Edward II is now king, and Gaveston is desired back at his side. Gaveston is thrilled and obeys immediately, but the nobles of the court are utterly aghast at Edward’s boldness. We will explore the homosexual nature of the relationship in subsequent analyses, but it becomes clear that this is not the primary reason why the nobles object to Gaveston’s presence. Lancaster calls Gaveston “base and obscure” (I.1.100), Mortimer calls him a “peasant” several times, Pembroke wonders aloud “Can kingly lions fawn on creeping ants?” (I.4.15), Warwick lambasts his “upstart pride” (I.4.41), and nearly all the nobles refer to him as a “minion.” Gaveston himself marvels at the titles Edward gives him, saying “these titles far exceed my worth” (I.1.156).
Gaveston is not well-born in the slightest, and the nobles are affronted that Edward would award him titles and land and put him at his righthand. Mortimer complains to his uncle "that one so basely born / Should by his sovereign’s favor grow so pert / And riot it with the treasure of the realm. / While soldiers mutiny for want of pay / He wears a lord’s revenue on his back, / And Midas-like he jets it in the court / With base outlandish cullions at his heels, / Whose proud liveries make such show / As of that Proteus, god of shapes, appeared" (I.4.403-411). Critic David Thurn sees Gaveston’s lack of fixity as something disconcerting to Mortimer and the other nobles, with even Gaveston’s choice of ostentatious clothing (an “Italian hooded cloak / Larded with pearl” and a “Tuscan cap” with a “jewel of more value than the crown” (I.4.412-414)) acting as a flouting of class distinctions. Gaveston and his disturbing of the spectacle of state upsets the hierarchy that governs their world, and Edward’s refusal to listen to the nobles’ concerns is galling and, eventually, the grounds for their rebellion. Thurn explains that “royal titles under Edward do not reflect a realm unified by hierarchical order” and, coupled with the fact that Marlowe omits “all reference to the divine right of kings . . . emphasizes the arbitrary, even whimsical basis for political power in the world of the play.”
Edward’s treatment of Gaveston and his response to the nobles’ criticisms and questions does not exactly endear him to the audience. He initially seems very stubborn, very irrational; Thurn notes Marlowe’s skill in how he “distributes, divides, directs, and reverses our sympathies,” and how “the play refuses to organize itself into a dramatic spectacle that would allow us to take up stable positions of sympathy.” It’s hard not to understand where the nobles are coming from, even if their audacity is problematic. Edward makes an enemy of the Church by stripping the Bishop of Coventry of his property and power. After the nobles relent and allow Gaveston back from the exile they pushed him into, Edward foolishly ignores the requirements of his rule when he dismisses the Scots’ aggression as irrelevant.
Edward also ignores his wife, Queen Isabella, and treats her cruelly. She does indeed engage in adultery with Mortimer later, but there is little proof that she is doing that at the opening of the play. She seems to love Edward but cannot brook his open affection for Gaveston and the concomitant hostility towards her. On the other hand, her conversation with Mortimer, which we are not directly privy to, is perhaps where the plot to attack Gaveston upon his return from exile is hatched. Critic Sara Munson Deats, in her article on Greek mythology in the play, suggests that Isabella’s reference to herself as Circe, the sorceress who turned Odysseus’s men into swine, held him captive, and later turned the nymph Scylla into a dangerous rock, presages Isabella’s later, more explicitly devious and dissembling behavior. Deats believes it is clear that “the decision to stoop to secret means, the traditional modus operandi of the Elizabethan stage Machiavel, is first conceived by Isabella.” Though many critics are surprised by Isabella’s putatively quick and illogical move from the loving, forlorn wife to the scheming adulteress, Deats says it is all here early on, “gestated in the forsaken yet adoring wife of the earlier acts.” She speaks with flattery and hypocrisy, and clearly knows how to manipulate Mortimer.