A Note on Ironies of Kingship in Marlowe’s Edward II


In Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II,” the concept of the ironies of kingship takes center stage, delving into the paradoxical nature of monarchy and the inherent contradictions that arise when power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual. This article explores the prominent theme of the ironies of kingship in “Edward II,” shedding light on its implications and significance within the context of the play.

Understanding Edward II as a Weak King:

Marlowe’s “Edward II” portrays the dramatic and catastrophic events of King Edward II’s reign, drawing inspiration from the historical accounts of Holinshed and Stowe. The play exemplifies Marlowe’s recurring theme of transgression followed by retribution, presenting Edward II as a weak and irresponsible king. Rather than leading his country and uniting his kingdom, Edward II indulges in wasteful pleasures and surrounds himself with flatterers. He even goes as far as dividing his kingdom to protect his lover, Gaveston, instead of considering the welfare of his realm. This portrayal sets the stage for the unfolding of a civil war within the kingdom of England, as the nobles disregard Edward II’s orders.

The Tragic Downfall of Edward II:

As the play progresses, Edward II experiences a tragic downfall, losing everything he holds dear. He loses his friends, his lover Gaveston, his kingdom, and ultimately faces betrayal from his own wife, Isabella. The emotional climax of the play occurs in Act V, Scene I, where Edward II’s image as a weak and irresponsible king undergoes a transformation. He emerges as a tragic figure, realizing the worthlessness of a king stripped of power, akin to the portrayal of the King in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

The Renaissance Anxiety and the Tragedy of Power:

In this pivotal scene, Marlowe’s exploration of the futility of human endeavors becomes evident, reflecting the anxieties of the Renaissance era. Edward II’s understanding of the tragic nature of power is tied to personal factors, particularly his loss of desire to live after Gaveston’s death. He becomes controlled by the death-instinct, losing interest in pomp and pleasure. Instead, he focuses on honor, betrayal, conspiracy, and concern for the future of his son. His refusal to surrender the crown to the Bishop of Winchester symbolically defies Mortimer’s authority, leading to a reversal of audience sympathy in favor of the king.

The Paradox of Kingship:

One of the ironies of kingship in “Edward II” lies in the isolation experienced by monarchs. Despite being surrounded by courtiers and subjects, kings can often feel emotionally detached. Additionally, the transitory nature of kingship adds to the irony. While kings are seen as symbols of stability, their reigns can be marked by turmoil and change, as depicted in the play. The expectations placed upon kings further contribute to the ironies, as personal desires clash with the responsibilities of their role.

Flaws in the System of Monarchy:

The ironies of kingship in “Edward II” raise questions about the inherent flaws in the system of monarchy itself. Concentrating power in a single individual can lead to abuses, misrule, and the potential for unchecked tyranny. These ironies highlight the fragility of monarchical rule and the contradictions inherent in entrusting vast power to a sole person.

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By exposing the inherent flaws and contradictions in the institution of monarchy, Marlowe prompts the audience to critically reflect on the nature of power and authority. The ironies of kingship in “Edward II” serve as a powerful commentary on the limitations and vulnerabilities of those who hold positions of immense authority.

The play challenges the notion that kings are infallible and omnipotent. Instead, it presents a complex portrayal of Edward II as a weak and flawed ruler, highlighting the consequences of his actions and the impact of his personal desires on the stability of his kingdom. Marlowe skillfully distributes this weakness among various characters, including Edward II himself and the corrupt agents of power who manipulate and exploit him.

Through the character of Mortimer, the play also exposes the transient nature of power. Mortimer’s rise to authority following Edward’s decline is short-lived, ultimately leading to his own downfall. This irony highlights the precariousness of power dynamics and the inherent instability that can accompany positions of influence.

Furthermore, the ironies of kingship in “Edward II” raise larger questions about the role and purpose of monarchy. While kings are often expected to embody strength, authority, and leadership, the play reveals the tensions and conflicts that arise when personal desires clash with the responsibilities and expectations of the crown. The audience is forced to confront the contradictions inherent in the system of monarchy, where the concentration of power can lead to abuses and misrule.

Marlowe’s exploration of the ironies of kingship ultimately invites the audience to critically examine the concept of monarchy itself. By exposing the flaws and contradictions, the play challenges the idealized image of kings and encourages a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of leadership.

In summary, the ironies of kingship in “Edward II” illuminate the contradictions and complexities inherent in the institution of monarchy. The play explores the contrast between the idealized image of kings and the flawed reality of human nature. It raises questions about the limits of power, the challenges of fulfilling the expectations placed upon a king, and the potential for personal desires and flaws to undermine the stability and legitimacy of a ruler. Through these ironies, Marlowe challenges traditional notions of kingship and prompts the audience to critically examine the nature of power and authority.

In conclusion,

Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” skillfully examines the ironies of kingship, highlighting the paradoxes and contradictions within the institution of monarchy. Through the portrayal of a weak and flawed king, the play questions traditional notions of power and authority. By delving into the transitory nature of kingship, the personal isolation experienced by rulers, and the limitations and vulnerabilities of monarchs, Marlowe prompts the audience to critically reflect on the complexities of leadership and the inherent flaws in the system of monarchy.



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