A Critical Appreciation Of The Play Edward II

Edward II has been regarded by several critics as the finest play of Marlowe. “The drama of Marlowe’s,” says A. W. Ward, “which seems to me to be entitled to the highest and least qualified tribute of praise, is his historical tragedy of Edward II.” According to Havelock Ellis: in Edward II. “Marlowe reached the summit of his art.” Hazlitt and Dyce, however, have made more temperate estimates of the play than these critics. Hazlitt thought that the last scenes were “not surpassed by any writer whatever,” but he found the characters worthless, the lines often feeble and desultory, the whole inferior to Richard Il in conduct, power and effect.” Dyce detected in the play “that heaviness which prevails more or less in all chronicle histories anterior to those of Shakespeare.”

Edward II certainly surpasses all the other history plays written upto the year of its composition. When we compare it with the Chronicle Plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V. Life and Death of Jack Straw, The Troublesome Reign of King John and Edward I, we can not but be greatly impressed by its tragic unity, its force and clarity and the beauty of style. For the first time in Edward II. chronicle narrative is transformed into a regular play. Instead of the older method of mere panoramic presentation, Marlowe deliberately chooses his scenes, and even alters historical relations to make the story fit into a preconceived design. While the earlier writers of Chronicle Plays present a series of a regular plot, and are thus episodic in their method. Marlowe in Edward II gives us a well-designed plot.

Not only this. in design and workmanship. Edward II surpasses all the other plays of Marlowe. It is undoubtedly his finest technical achievement. Tamburlaine and Faustus are inferior to it in structure. The regular dramatic conflict and unity of design is wanting in them. Each presents a series of scenes which are linked together by the presence of the hero. In each, the hero far surpasses the other characters in might and power, and so there is no character or group of characters to offer him any real opposition. Tamburlaine is invincible, and Faustus with the Devil’s aid attains to a super human power which makes him mightier than any other person on earth. So, their power remains uncontested till the hour of their death. Each scene of the play just emphasizes their power, or reveals a newer aspect of it. It is in Edward II that we come across a real conflict, an equilibrium of contending forces, and a regular plot for the first time.

Another noteworthy thing about Edward II is its naturalistic quality. The play is akin in spirit to Arden of Feversham than to the plays of Shakespeare, Tai rlaine and Faustus are gifted with superhuman powers, and Barabbas, the Jew is seized with a fury that does not belong to the common man, These character are built on a scale larger than human, and consequently their mighty achievements, their great crimes, stagger our imagination. But the characters of vard II are real enough human-beings, taken from the pages of history. Lighthorn, perhaps, is the only fictitious character, and with his diabolical practices is nearer to the devil than to man. For once Marlowe does not invest his characters with supernatural powers. Their strivings success and failure are all human. Mortimer, of course, possesses great physical courage and has much greater ability than the other characters. In the second half of the play, he turns a Machiavellian villain. But, even he does not rise to the stature of Tamburlaine and Faustus. While Tamburlaine is overpowered by Death alone and Faustus by the Devil, Mortimer’s schemes are checkmated by a boy in his teens, who sends him to death’.

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But realism and technical excellence alone do not make a play great. Edward II is, no doubt, well-constructed, and is realistic in character: still it is not a great tragedy. For, its hero is not a tragic hero in the real sense. The tragic hero suffers because of a flaw in his character. But he has also something good. great or noble in him. He suffers nobly or has great potentialities in him. Tragedy exhibits the greatness or nobility of human soul. That is why the spectacle of human suffering that it offers to our view has not a depressing effect on us. Man suffers, but through this process of suffering he also reveals his innate greatness. But King Edward II is not a great tragic figure. He suffers because of his folly and inefficiency, because he cannot overcome his infatuation for Gaveston. But, there is hardly a redeeming feature in his nature and character. He insults his lords, ill-treats his wife and acts on the advice of self-seeking opportunists. He is weak and irresolute. Hamlet has also irresolution. But irresolution in his case is born of high philosophy. Excessive thinking paralyses his will to act. But King Edward, on the other hand, is incapable of thinking, at least of right thinking Lear suffers because of an initial tragic mistake he commits. But he is at his greatest when burdened by the retribution for his own folly: he rises to a passionate greatness. King Edward fails to rise to this greatness even in the last scenes of the play which depict his suffering and death. He has indeed our pity in his agony: but pity is not the same thing as admiration. We cannot regard him as a great soul defeated, but still great in his defeat. Shakespeare’s Richard II is weak and inefficient like Edward II. Still, he has a fineness of temperament, a beauty in his nature, which makes his fate not only piteous but tragic. There must be a greatness, a spiritual greatness, in the tragic hero, if fate is to inspire in us terror and pity; King Edward, however, does not possess this greatness.

Another weakness of the play lies in the delineation of the characters of Mortimer and Queen Isabella. There is a break in their character, a change which divides each into two distinct and inconsistent parts. Mortimer begins as a blunt, downright and hearty “Hotspur,” and ends as a “Machiavellian” villain, and astonishingly great change indeed. Within the apparent time limit of the play, the change comes as too sudden. Mortimer’s character does not get sufficient time to develop from one thing into another, from Hotspur into Machiavelli. Likewise, the change in the Queen’s character is not convincing. Though spurned and neglected by her husband, she eagerly hankers after her husband’s love. She is a loving wife and wishes well of her husband. But after her return from France, she is a scheming adulteress and a secret contriver of her husband’s murder. Between these two pictures of the Queen, there is hardly any compatibility. Critics have tried to prove the uniformity of her character by pointing to her growing intimacy with Mortimer in the earlier parts of the play. Subsequently, that intimacy grows into full-fledged love. Still the Queen, in the second half of the play, develops a masculine nature which is incompatible with her nature in the first half in the earlier parts of the play, she is a forlorn, neglected and long-suffering wife: in the latter parts, she is scheming, active and revengeful, the proverbial Hyrcanian tigress.

The great tragedies of Shakespeare involve a moral conception, a conflict between good and evil from which good ultimately emerges triumphant. The basis of a great tragedy is some “moral” law or concept. But, in Edward 11. there is no moral pattern. We are not made to consider whether the King deserved his fate or not; nor are we led to be sorry for the Queen or repelled by her treachery and cruelty. It can be said that a moral pattern is wanting in Tamburlaine and Faustus also. But they are the plays dealing with the impossible. Their theme is the Will to Power which knows no moral consideration, a Blind Force, a Fury, which must achieve its objective at any cost, and which must overcome all obstacles, moral or nonmoral, in its way. But Edward II is a play of normal human characters and involves a conflict of human motives. So, it has to be judged from considerations which would not apply to Tamburlaine and Faustus. We have in Edward II “the inhumanity of Tamburlaine or The Jew, without the elan, the poetry, the armored I’ impossible which makes us forget temporarily their extreme exaggeration.”

So far we have been considering only the drawbacks of Edward II on account of which it cannot be regarded as a great tragedy. But, notwithstanding its shortcomings, it is one of the finest plays of the Elizabethan period. Marlowe is the poet of passion par excellence. He is not so successful in the inter-play of character and consistent unfolding of situations as he is in the exposition of emotional states. His Tamburlaine and Faustus are moved by mighty passions, desires and aspirations: their thoughts are just emotions and are expressed in lyrical and rhetorical passages. Some of those passages, of course, have the finest poetic beauty about them, for instance, the one in Faustus which contains the Doctor’s eulogy of Helen.

The finest scenes in Edward II are those in which Marlowe presents the downfall and agony of the King. The abdication and the murder-scenes, both of which occur in the fifth Act, are among the most powerful tragic scenes in the gallery of the British drama. In the scenes, depicting Edward’s downfall. Marlowe endows the King with an emotional fineness which has been hidden so far, and unbars a conflict in his mind as he does in the death-scene of Forests. But this attractiveness of his piteous position is kept in harmony with his character as we have known it. Even while resigning his crown, he is impotently willful and defiant as of old.

The abdication scene in Edward II served as a model to Shakespeare for similar scene in Richard II. Both Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s abdication scenes are deeply pathetic, and reflect clearly the psychology of the abdicating King. The helplessness of the resigning ruler, his mind divided between resignation and the faint-dying desire to retain the power which is already lost, the deep pity and pathos of the situation are all remarkably well-depicted in the resignation scenes, which, as already pointed out. is one of the finest scenes in the dramatic literature of England.



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