Spencer Junior and Baldock enter. Baldock asks Spencer whom he will serve now that the Earl of Gloucester is dead, and Spencer replies that he will serve the Earl of Cornwall, who holds the king’s favor. He’s heard that Gaveston is coming back, and will marry the king’s niece, their lady.
Spencer suggests Baldock throw off his scholarly mien now that he will be at court. Baldock is skeptical that he can deal with the “common pedants” (II.1.346).
The Niece comes in and is reading a letter from Gaveston and then one from the king, urging her to come to court. The Niece says Spencer shall bear her company, and promises Spencer that he will be looked after if things go well.
Edward, the Queen, Lancaster, Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke, Kent, and attendants enter. Edward is anxiously awaiting Gaveston’s return. Mortimer reminds him he must also think of France, because the king of France has set foot in Normandy. Edward scoffs that it is a mere trifle.
Edward then asks what Mortimer’s device/emblem is, which Mortimer says is a cedar tree for kingly eagles to perch upon, but with a canker moving up it. Lancaster says his is a flying fish whom the other fish hate, but a fowl seizes it. Edward is annoyed with these answers and says he had hoped for amity. He tells them he knows what they are saying with their shields, to which Mortimer privately wonders how ardently he will favor Gaveston when he is actually present.
Gaveston joins them and Edward joyfully exclaims that he was pining away for him. The other men stiffly greet Gaveston and he does so in turn.
Suddenly, Lancaster and Mortimer Junior draw their swords, as does Gaveston. Edward cries “Treason!” Mortimer wounds Gaveston, and he is taken away. Edward screams that they will pay for their “riotous deed” (II.2.88). Warwick warns him to mind his own head, which Kent rebukes him for.
Edward, Kent (his brother Edmund), and the Queen exit. The nobles say they must have the people call for Gaveston’s death. As they speak, a messenger from Scotland arrives and Mortimer reads a letter saying his uncle has been taken prisoner in Scotland. The nobles suggest Mortimer ask the king to pay the ransom, for it is his responsibility.
When a guard enters, Mortimer asks to see the king. The guard says he will see no one, but the king himself returns and asks what is going on. Mortimer tells him, and demands he pay the ransom. Edward suggests he use the king’s seal to ask the people to pay, and Mortimer, enraged, says his family does not beg.
Furthermore, he says the king’s “prodigal gifts bestowed on Gaveston / Have drawn thy treasure dry and made thee weak, / The murmuring commons overstretched hath” (157-59). Lancaster adds that Edward should look for rebellion and deposition; France is causing trouble, as is Ireland and even Denmark. Mortimer says the king’s court is naked, “being bereft of those / That makes a king seem glorious to the world” (II.2.173-74). The people slander and mock him in the street, and those on the northern borders curse him and Gaveston. The soldiers in the field are ridiculous now, wearing garish robes and frippery like “women’s favours” (II.2.186).
Mortimer orders Wigmore to set his uncle free, and Lancaster plans to get more swords for their cause. They depart.
After they leave, Edward brims with anger at having been baited by these men. He must be as a lion and revenge himself. Kent tells him that his love for Gaveston is hurting the realm, and he regrets favoring him. Edward calls him a traitor and bids him out of his sight.
Alone momentarily, Edward bemoans the fact that Gaveston has no friend but himself. He sees Queen Isabella coming towards him with three ladies, their niece, Gaveston, Baldock, and Spencer.
At first Edward speaks sharply to his queen, but Gaveston tells him to be fair so he corrects himself. Edward announces what Mortimer has done and Gaveston asks why he not be committed to the Tower. Edward sighs that the people love Mortimer well, and he wishes he and Lancaster would just drink poison to each other’s health.
The Niece asks Edward to meet two of the servants of her father before his death, and introduces Baldock and Spencer. Gaveston says Spencer is well-allied. Edward is pleased to hear this, and smiles that this will be his niece’s marriage feast, for she will wed Gaveston and he shall become the Earl of Gloucester. Once the marriage ceremony ends, they will “Have at the rebels and their complices” (II.2.264).
Kent joins Lancaster, Mortimer Junior, Pembroke, and Warwick and their followers. Lancaster is nervous that he is there by some trick, but Kent assures them he is finished with his wayward brother and has come to join them.
The men discuss how Gaveston is here in Tynemouth with the king, and how they plan to assail him. Lancaster warns not to touch the king, but Gaveston and his friends shall not be spared.
Edward and Spencer come together in alarm, Spencer saying he thinks Gaveston has been slain. To Edward’s relief, Gaveston comes toward them. Edward warns them all to fly to Scarborough. Gaveston tells him the barons will not touch him, but Edward is unsure. He bids Gaveston and his niece a warm farewell, but an icy one to Isabella, referencing Mortimer.
Alone, she is mournful that her husband has no love for her. She sees the barons arrive and tells Mortimer that all was in vain—Edward does not love her and only cares for his minion. Lancaster asks where they are and the Queen tells them that Gaveston and the others have gone to Scarborough.
Mortimer asks if she will come with them there, but she says there cannot be any hint of her having even spoken to him since the king is so suspicious. She will join her husband instead.
Again alone, she thinks on Mortimer’s sweetness and decides she will try for her husband’s love one more time, then she will take their young son to France and complain to her brother, the king of France. Hopefully, though, Gaveston will be slain and that will be the end of it.
Gaveston, pursued, crows that he has fled the barons. However, the barons find him and Mortimer demands he yield. Lancaster deems him a “Monster of men” (II.5.14) and Mortimer calls him a “Base flatterer” (II.5.11). The exasperated Warwick tells them to stop talking to him, and apprehend him to cut his head off or hang him from a tree.
The Earl of Arundel enters with a message from the king, saying he wishes to see Gaveston once more before he is put to death. The barons are astonished at this audacity and say no, with Mortimer suggesting they merely send Gaveston’s head. Arundel swears Gaveston will be sent back after they say goodbye. Again, the barons refuse.
Pembroke speaks up and says he will take this upon his honour to carry Gaveston and bring him back again, and Arundel can stay with him. Warwick is surprised but Lancaster sighs that it is fine.
Gaveston enters Pembroke’s custody and the men depart. Pembroke tells Arundel they will go to his house nearby before setting out. Pembroke tells James, a soldier, to be in charge of Gaveston this night. Gaveston hangs his head sadly.
In Act II the reversals of fortune for Edward and Gaveston continue apace. Gaveston is recalled home from banishment, but is attacked by Lancaster and Mortimer. He escapes, but then is captured once more. Edward thinks he will be able to have one final meeting with Gaveston before his lover is put to death, but it will be clear soon enough that will not be the case. Isabella decides she will turn Edward and Gaveston over to the barons, and the king’s brother, Kent, will also throw his hat in with the nobles given his frustration with Edward’s irrationality. A bright spot for Edward is the assumption of a soon-to-be new favorite—Spencer—who brings with him a fighting force, but overall the future seems bleak for the beleaguered Edward at the close of the second act.
One of the aspects of the play that adds to its sense of bleakness and ominousness is the apparent absence of God. Critic Wendy Stocker explains in her article on the play that there is no God who brings order or harmony, no “place for divine guidance and aid.” If there is a God, he is “content to remain aloof and merely observe the spectacle of men destroying one another,” and “Man has only himself and Fortune.” Only Kent seems to be Christian; the Archbishop invokes God to express his disdain over the Bishop of Coventry’s being stripped of his property, but it is the property that seems more offensive to him than anything else. The reason why the lack of God matters in this play is that without Him, who is the “first link in the chain of being,” order and authority are doomed to collapse and devolve into chaos. Stocker suggests that Marlowe’s absent God is either reflective of his own personal lack of belief in God, or that he is “demonstrating his belief in a divine order by showing the chaos which results when this order is ignored or destroyed by men.” Regardless of which of these is the case, the absence of God reinforces the absence of so much else—compromise, rationality, understanding.
Edward continues to show himself as a ruler who is weak and cannot rule or understand both others or himself. Stocker suggests that even up to the last moments of the play, “there is no awareness of his own faults, his bad government, and his excesses.” William B. Kelly agrees, stating that Marlowe created a “rhizomatic” figure in Edward, meaning he is a “subject that maps lines of escape from circumscriptions, by grafting—so to speak—tracings onto a map.” Edward does not adhere to an understanding of the "arboreal," hierarchical world. Edward doles out new titles and cares not for the tree of hierarchy; he wants to lose himself in these additions and “turns the tree of genealogy into a rhizome by joining the branches—manifested as titles by right of birth—into a web that circumvents the tracings implied by hierarchy and obscures the origins upon which identity and power are founded in his monarchy.” Because of this, the nobles, who desperately want to maintain the status quo and order of their world, deem Edward “unnatural.”
In the discussion of faults and excess, of the “unnaturalness” of Edward’s reign, where does Edward’s putative homosexuality come into play? Critics have spent a copious amount of time considering this aspect of the play, focusing on Marlowe himself, what was considered acceptable for same-sex relations in Elizabethan England, what the actual understanding of “sodomy” was, if Edward’s mode of death was reflective of homophobia, etc.
The term “sodomy” is seen as the appropriate term for early modern sexual relationships between men, but the term is also more complicated than that. Jonathan Crewe explains how it was also historically used to suggest any sort of threat to the sexual, and thus political, order. Sometimes sedition and atheism were linked to the term, and even adultery was sometimes categorized as such (meaning Isabella could be guilty of “sodomy”). English law provided for punishment of sodomy, but punishments were rarely levied. Nevertheless, same-sex relationships could not usually be safely pursued or sustained. Crewe sees some of the significance of Edward II being that it “[foregrounds] the power and complexity of what can fairly be called homophobia.” We will explore that claim further in the Act V analysis, which deals with the way in which Edward is put to death.