The play opens with the newly installed king recalling his banished favorite from the exile to which his father sent him. Now that Edward II sits on the throne, both he and Gaveston quickly reconcile themselves to the enjoyment of each other at the expense of everything—and everyone—else. Edward even admits that he would rather see his entire kingdom fall to the fates than lose his precious Gaveston. What follows is the story of a monarch so consumed by his passion for another man that he forgets, ignores or simply does not care about the matters of state. This turns out to be a major problem for a man surrounded by Machiavellian schemers, plotters, and conspirators.
Machiavellian Court Intrigue
Just as Edward gives in to his lust for the flesh, so do others around him become consumed by a lust for power. What is particularly interesting, however, is how Marlowe goes about exploring the idea of power and the myriad forms that lusting for it takes. For instance, Edward’s Queen, Isabella, and her lover, Mortimer, are passionate for each other and for the pursuit of Edward’s throne. They are willing to take the risks necessary to purge Edward from the throne and kill him in the bargain. On the other hand, there are the nobles who see Gaveston as a threat to their own position with the king and genuinely as a threat to the country. They are willing to take Gaveston—in the name of service to the country—but remain essentially loyal to the king himself. Their rebelliousness only heightens once Edward refuses to make any sort of compromise.
With Great Power…
Mortimer is a cold-blooded, Machiavellian schemer, Isabella is a vengeful wife, Gaveston is selfishness incarnate, and various other assorted characters are hardly heroic, but it is clear that for most of the play the real villain here is King Edward II. It is not because of his "immoral" sexual proclivities, for even his closest noble advisers do not seem all that particularly bothered by this aspect of the king’s behavior until he starts to push it too far into the realm of his duties. They may be jealous of Gaveston, but the conspiring doesn’t start in earnest until it has become painfully obvious that Edward’s sexual obsession is interfering with his ability to carry out his duties and responsibilities as monarch. His brother, Kent, is even willing to remain loyal to his brother after it has become clear the nobles have moved to the point of considering action. At the other end of the spectrum are Mortimer and Isabella who plot not out of any conscience to duty, but merely from their own lust for power. Representing the opposite but no less dangerous alternative to Edward—too much focused on the duties and responsibilities of power than not focused enough—they are doomed to the same fate of death and imprisonment, respectively.
Fitness to Rule
What makes someone fit to rule? Is it merely the fact that their father was king, so they get to be king? Is it their social class, wealth, prestige? Or is it that they keep the realm's health and harmony in mind, that they are generally smart and selfless and seek compromise? Marlowe poses all of these questions for his readers. We want to be careful to impose more contemporary frameworks regarding good government and democracy on Marlowe, but he does seem to be hinting that "divine kingship" is not what makes someone fit to rule. He also suggests that being too prideful and selfish—the nobles, especially Mortimer—makes someone a poor ruler. Only Kent (who dies before he has the ability to be useful to the realm) and Edward III are seen as good rulers because they are (mostly) pragmatic, self-aware, and interested in more than just themselves.
Almost all the characters in the play understand the hierarchy of the world in which they inhabit—a hierarchy that has the king as divinely appointed at the top, his aristocratic nobles below him, and everyone else even further below. When Edward upends this order by bringing in the once-exiled, basely-born Frenchman Gaveston and appointing him to high positions, giving him the defrocked Bishop of Coventry's property, and letting him sit in the Queen's chair, it threatens all the nobles hold dear. They are affronted by Gaveston's elevation and their new, subordinate position, and claim that since this hierarchy is not being upheld, the entire realm is in danger of instability. The nobles hold this hierarchy so dear that, ironically, they don't mind ousting the legitimate king if he threatens it.
Rebellion is everywhere in this text—Edward rebelling against his nobles and his own common sense, the nobles rebelling against Edward, Kent switching his rebellion multiple times between the main actors, Isabella throwing her lot in with Mortimer and the nobles and rebelling against her husband. These rebellions, with the exception of Kent's, are all self-serving. The characters want power, influence, wealth, or complete freedom to do exactly as they please even if it's deleterious to the realm. All of these rebellions fail, demonstrating that if a rebellion is not rooted in something legitimate, it is not likely to succeed.
Critic David Thurn says frankly, "Spectacle and power are central issues in Marlowe's English history play." The spectacle of Gaveston is the problem; he has no real power or intelligence, but the fact that he is at the king's right hand, that he wears gaudy clothing and accoutrements, that he parades around the court—that is the problem. He "disturbs the spectacle of state, undoing sexual, political . . . and linguistic proprieties." The nobles cannot help but grumble and then rebel, adding to the specular sense of disarray. There is then the spectacle of a king "who no longer has the power to mediate and stabilize the threat within the political realm, and therefore to sustain an illusion of natural order within it."
Edward II Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Edward II is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.