Analysis Of Marlowe’s “Edward II” as a Historical Play

The timeless pursuit of mankind is to explore the unknown, unveil the unseen, and discover the undiscovered. This quest for knowledge and adventure was the essence of the Elizabethan era, a time when people yearned to immerse themselves in the historical past and uncover its hidden treasures. Christopher Marlowe, an exceptional Elizabethan writer, skillfully blended historical context with poetic prowess in his play “Edward II.” With a touch of innovation, Marlowe awakened even the most indifferent spectators and intoxicated them with the fervor of his storytelling. Hence, when the question arises as to whether “Edward II” qualifies as a historical play, there is no doubt that it deserves its place among the finest works of its time.

Marlowe was not the first Elizabethan playwright to explore the realm of historical plays. Many other talented playwrights of the era had already showcased their creative blossoms. However, after writing numerous tragedies featuring larger-than-life characters, Marlowe drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI.” The result was his own masterpiece, “Edward II,” which surpassed Shakespeare in its portrayal of King Edward II—a deposed and ultimately assassinated monarch with all his human weaknesses. This play stood out from other historical dramas; it possessed a modern perspective and an anti-heroic approach. It is Edward as a man, not as a king, who captures our sympathy. In fact, it served as a model for Shakespeare’s later work, “Richard II” (1595).

“Edward II” represents the pinnacle of historical plays, skillfully merging historical fervor with spirited storytelling. Marlowe invited the Elizabethan audience, bursting with national pride, to look to the dramatists for insights into national heroes and their deeds. While the historical background of Edward I’s reign from 1272 to 1307 and the banishment of his son’s dissolute friend, Gascon, may not be meticulously traced, Marlowe did not confine himself to a strict chronological narrative. Instead, he adopted, abridged, transposed, and juxtaposed events to create new situations. Gascon transformed into Piers Gaveston, and Marlowe compressed the time span and omitted certain events to streamline the plot. The 27-year period following Gaveston’s arrest and execution was condensed into consecutive scenes, while the three-year gap between the king’s murder and Mortimer’s execution was entirely eliminated.

Historical plays often suffer from clumsy plot construction, focusing primarily on episodic storytelling. However, “Edward II” breaks free from this pattern, presenting a well-unified plot that reflects Marlowe’s commitment to realism and coherence. Each scene seamlessly grows from the previous one, offering a sense of continuity and a clear beginning, middle, and end.

As a poet-playwright, Marlowe crafts a tragedy that is not entirely his own, but rather a part of history. His characters are not mere puppets pulled by strings or flat caricatures; they are vividly adorned figures who transcend their historical origins. Similar to Pygmalion, Marlowe breathes new life into these characters, infusing them with vitality. In reality, Edward was not as extravagant a figure as depicted in the play, nor did he mistreat the queen to the extent portrayed. To quote Prof. Tout, “His sole wish was to amuse himself… If he did not like work, he was not particularly vicious; he valued loyalty to his friends and was mostly harmless, being nobody’s enemy but his own.”

Perhaps Gaveston was not as deliberately misleading to the king as Marlowe portrays him. He was a childhood friend who sincerely loved and admired Edward, rather than an intentional instigator. Marlowe’s portrayal of other historical digressions and inaccuracies, such as his treatment of the Spencers, also deviates from historical records. They were introduced to the king six years after Gaveston’s execution.

Despite these deviations, “Edward II” remains supreme as a historical play. History is effectively presented and dramatized, with characters who speak for themselves. The audience can observe Edward’s weaknesses, his devotion to Gaveston, his disdain for the queen, his haughtiness toward the barons, and his indifference to the interests of England and its people. They can also witness the insolence and arrogance of the barons, the self-centered and unpatriotic nature of Mortimer, and the queen’s duplicity and faithlessness.

While “Edward II” may lack the vigor and vitality of Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” it possesses a death scene that evokes pity and terror unlike any other, whether ancient or modern, as noted by Charles Lamb. For Marlowe, history serves as a platform to explore the limits of human indulgence. By drawing from Holinshed’s Chronicles, he transforms an unappealing reign into a historical tragedy. The excellence of the play lies in Marlowe’s depiction of Edward’s character—a truly pathetic figure, victimized by circumstances beyond his control.

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The enduring appeal of “Edward II” lies in its ability to capture the imagination of audiences across generations. It serves as a reminder that history is not merely a collection of facts and dates, but a rich tapestry that can be woven into captivating narratives. Marlowe’s skillful storytelling and his ability to breathe life into historical characters make “Edward II” a compelling and engaging play that stands the test of time.

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