Leicester urges Edward to keep his head up, but Edward moans that the sorrows of kings are not easily allayed. He has no regiment, wears a crown but is controlled by his nobles, has an inconstant Queen, and has no friends. The Bishop of Winchester tells him this is all for England’s good, but Edward scoffs at this assertion.
Leicester asks if he will yield his crown, and he initially agrees and takes it off. A moment later he decides he wishes to be king for one more day, and puts it back on. Trussell says Parliament wants to know if he will resign or not, and Edward spits out that he will not do so while he still lives.
As Winchester and Trussell turn to go with this answer, Leicester tells Edward that the prince will lose his ascendency. Edward sees that this is the only course, and starts to give them the crown. He then tells them they must take it forcibly, for it is to be taken from him for the murderous Mortimer and treacherous Isabel. He orders them out of his sight.
Berkeley enters with a letter from the Queen for Leicester, asking him to resign. Edward curses Mortimer, whose hand he recognizes. Berkeley is now to be in charge of him, and tells him they must go. Edward is disconsolate, but says “death ends all, and I can die but once” (V.1.153).
Mortimer and Isabel discuss Prince Edward. Mortimer says they will erect him to the throne speedily, and Mortimer will be Protector over him. Isabel agrees and pledges him her love.
A messenger brings them the news that Edward is at Killingworth and has resigned. The Queen rejoices and calls for her son. Mortimer decides he will have Gurney and Matrevis discharge Berkeley and apprehend the king and put him somewhere only they know. The Queen thinks her son will not be safe while the king lives, but does not want to kill the king herself.
Mortimer calls Matrevis and Gurney and gives them his command. He also tells them not to be kind to Edward at all, wanting his spirits and morale to droop. The Queen pretends she cares for Edward and gives the men a ring to take to him.
Kent enters with the prince, and Mortimer and the Queen do not like him providing the boy with counsel. Mortimer tries to flummox Kent by telling him he will be Protector over Prince Edward, but then tells Prince Edward he should not trust Kent because Kent betrayed his own brother. Mortimer and the Prince depart.
The Queen says Kent ought to trust her, but when Kent asks her to give the Prince to him because it is his job to look after him, she refuses. Once alone, Kent tells himself that he will head to Killingworth to free Edward and revenge himself on Mortimer and the Queen.
Matrevis and Gurney visit Edward in his cell, where the king complains of the stench and his starvation, and his desire for water to drink and to be cleansed with. The men give him ditch water, and tell him they are going to shave his hair and beard. As they do so, Edward cries that all of this was for Gaveston and he will take all these wrongs for his beloved.
Matrevis and Gurney blow out their torches as they prepare to bring him to Killingworth, but someone approaches. It is Kent, and he orders them to yield the king. They seize him and he protests that where the king is, the court is, and he must be heard. They ignore this, and have the other soldiers take him away.
Mortimer stands alone, a bit concerned that it appears the commons are starting to sympathize with Edward. He knows something must be done. He calls for Lightborn, who joins him. He asks if Lightborn knows what to do and how to do it, and Lightborn assures him that no one will know how the king died. He brags that it is not the first time he’s killed a man through ingenious and subtle fashion.
Mortimer gives Lightborn a letter for Gurney and Matrevis, and a token as well. Lightborn leaves. Now Mortimer is excited, for he knows he is feared more than he is loved, and he will rule with the Queen over the realm.
Trumpets sound and the young king, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Champion, the Queen, nobles, and attendants enter. The Archbishop heralds him and the Champion affirms. Soldiers bring in Kent, and Mortimer orders him killed. Prince Edward intervenes and asks if he can be spared. Mortimer says it is good for the realm that Kent is beheaded. Prince Edward worries to his mother that he is not safe if his own uncle can be killed, and she assures him that she will guard him from his foes and surely Kent would have come after him.
Matrevis and Gurney discuss the grotesque conditions under which Edward labors. The cell is damp and disgusting, filled with malodorous scents because it is the sewer of the castle. The king suffers immensely and they wonder he is still alive.
Lightborn arrives and presents the letter and the token. The men are wary, but comply and give him the key. Lightborn instructs them to get him a red-hot spit, a table, and a featherbed. After they leave, Lightborn reminds himself that the king must be handled very finely.
Lightborn opens the door of the dungeon and Edward comes forward asking who it is. Lightborn tells him he is a friend there to comfort him. Edward believes nothing Lightborn says, but is resigned to his fate. He is in terrible shape, with a ravaged mind and body. He just wants to know, he tells Lightborn, when the stroke will fall. Lightborn smiles that Edward should not mistrust him. Edward offers him the ring from Isabella if he can spare him.
Lightborn suggests that the weary king lie down on the bed, and Edward complies. He almost falls asleep, but starts, saying he knows if he falls asleep he will not wake again. Lightborn calls for the men, and they bring him the spit. Edward is weak but cannot resist. Lightborn kills him, and he screams as he dies.
Lightborn smiles and asks how well he did, and Gurney stabs him, telling him he can have that for his reward. They throw the body in the moat and take the king’s to Mortimer.
Mortimer is pleased to hear from Matrevis that the deed is done. Matrevis tells him Gurney has already fled and he desires to do so as well. Mortimer agrees, and Matrevis leaves.
The Queen enters, anxiously informing him that her son, now officially King Edward III, has heard of his father’s death and is vowing revenge on them both. He has gone to his peers, and she fears hers and Mortimer’s tragedy has begun.
Edward III and his lords enter. Edward III deems Mortimer a villain, and says he too shall die and his head will lie atop Edward II’s hearse. Mortimer smugly asks how he knows that he had anything to do with it, and Edward III brandishes the initial letter from Mortimer to Gurney. Mortimer knows he is now betrayed.
Mortimer sighs that he sees Fortune’s wheel has stopped for him and he can go no higher but must tumble down. He exits with the First Lord of Edward III. The boy is reluctant to damn his mother but commands her to the Tower where she will wait for trial. Though she weeps, he orders her away.
The First Lord returns with the head of Mortimer. Edward III orders the man to bring his funeral robes and his father’s hearse, where the head will lie.
When the hearse is brought in, he offers the head up to the ghost of his father, and asks that his tears be proof of his “grief and innocency” (V.6.103).
If the audience lacked pity for Edward in earlier acts, they most likely experience a great deal of it for the beleaguered, tortured, and, eventually, brutally murdered, king in Act Five. After Spencer and Baldock are executed and Edward is taken to Killingworth Castle, he is forced to resign, something which gives him immense grief: “weigh how I can hardly brook / To lose my crown and kingdom without cause, / To give ambitious Mortimer my right” (V.1.51-53). He is not only aggrieved to lose his rule, but also because it will ostensibly pass to Mortimer, who will guide the kingdom through Edward III. He almost refuses to do so, caring little if he is killed for it, but gives in when Leicester informs him Prince Edward’s claim would be invalid if Edward did not resign.
Mortimer and Isabella make sure that not only is the king deprived of his crown and his freedom, but that he is insulted in the most grotesque ways imaginable. His imprisonment in the castle’s bowels is purposeful, for that is where the sewage of the castle deposits itself. He complains that his mind is addled, that he is “starved for want of sustenance” (V.3.20), that he needs water to “cool my thirst / And clear my body from foul excrements!” (V.3.25-26). Even henchmen Gurney and Matrevis are astonished by the way the king is kept, with the latter wondering aloud, “Gurney, I wonder the king dies not, / Being in a vault up to the knees in water / To which the channels of the castle run, / From whence a damp continually ariseth / That were enough to poison any man” (V.5.1-5), and the former admitting, “I opened the door but to throw him meat, / And I was almost stifled with the savour” (V.5.8-9). Edward tells Lightborn that “there in mire and puddle have I stood / This ten days’ space, and, lest I should sleep, / One continually plays upon a drum” (V.5.59-61).
Perhaps the most infamous moment in Elizabethan drama is Edward’s assassination by the sadistic Lightborn. Though the text of the play is somewhat vague and some stagings chose to have the king strangled, the Chronicles makes it clear that Lightborn took a red-hot spit and inserted it into the king’s anus. This would not only conceal the mode of death, but also act as, David Thurn writes, “a perverse allegory of homosexual rape, carried out in secret, in the dark.” The whole scene is a tragically ironic one because Lightborn sodomizes Edward to death, which is ostensibly a punishment for Edward’s sodomy (both literal and his unnatural behavior as king). Christopher Shirley explains, “Marlowe suggests that the punishment of sodomy is tantamount to the act of sodomy, and thus stages this persecution’s implosion. Marlowe implies that categorizing a relationship as sodomitic constitutes an act of sodomy because sodomy is not an objective set of acts . . . but an epistemological category . . . The action that sodomy’s punishers take becomes indefensible because it is revealed to be precisely the act that it intends to punish.”
The murder of the king is what prompts Edward III to assume his power and punish those who destroyed his father and, nearly, the realm itself. He has Mortimer beheaded, which is, Thurn notes, “a gruesome rite” that “finally confirms [Edward III’s] authority in the last scene.” By becoming the vehicle for his father’s voice, Edward III helps restore stability to the realm. Wendy Stocker says he is “free of the taint of corruption” and is the only hope for stability in the realm.
However, there is still an uneasiness that pervades the play at its end even though Edward III has taken decisive steps to stabilize the realm. The fact of his youth, his connection to his mother (he is almost always at her side until the end of the play, and has trouble punishing her at the end), his position as a pawn of others all suggest he is far from a strong leader who is going to lead the country into peace and harmony. Marie Rutkoski believes that Edward III is almost always depicted as a smaller version of his father in the play, which is notable because “the presentation of another, miniature Edward suggests that the king will not simply die but be reincarnated in the body of his son as England’s next monarch.” And that depiction of the boy “as weak and ineffective accurately mirrors his father’s flimsy authority.” Ultimately, “Marlowe leaves us wondering if Edward III can disassociate himself from these problems,” meaning, the needs of the realm and the balance of power between the king and his lords.