Marlowe was not the first Elizabethan to write a historical play. In his own life-time such plays as The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, partly in prose and partly in blank verse, and The Troublesome Raigne of King Johan were in existence. Peele’s Famous Chronicle of Edward 1 Surnamed Edward Longshanks, with his return from the Holy Land, had already been acted. There are some other plays of doubtful authorship. Two of them are The First part of the contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of York. In these plays it is believed that Marlowe might have collaborated, for there are many points of likeness between them and Marlowe’s Edward II.
Marlowe was well acquainted with all the available accounts of the reign of Edward II. There were several poems dealing with the life and tragic death of the King. Besides, the account of his reign and his final defeat and death is given in the Chronicles of Fabyan, of Stowe and of Holinshed. The principal source of Marlowe’s plot is Holinshed’s Chronicle which was first published in 1577. Some of the incidents in the play Edward II are not found in Holinshed, but are mentioned in the Chronicle of Fabyan and Stowe. The most notable of them is the scene where Matrevis and Gurney wash the king in puddle water and shave his beard away. Marlowe must have found this episode in Stowe’s Annals of England published in 1580.
The charm of Edward II lies in the skillful dramatic representation of the history. Though the play has often been criticized on account of the nature of achievement and the material, yet the job of Marlowe certainly involved skillful construction. Twenty three years of history are compressed so that the events seem to pass credibly in something like twelve months. Marlowe often makes necessary changes in history for the sake of dramatic effect and still more, for the sake of a close-knit plot. The actual history as represented by Holinshed, is a dull and uninteresting enumeration of disjointed events. which are confused. Marlowe, therefore, had not only to select the salient events, but also to reshape them according to his requirements. In fact, here it may be noted that a historical play is not a piece of history. It is history altered for the sake of dramatic effect.
As has already been noted the Marlow considerably shortens the time- duration of the reign of Edward II. The incidents of the play actually occurred in about twenty-seven years. from 1307 to 1330. But their development in the play is much more rapid. It appears as if all the events, from the beginning of the play to the end, occur in one year. The whole series of events have been compressed. The duration of time between one event and the other has frequently been abridged: at times events occurring at different times have been presented as occurring simultaneously. In the play. Gaveston’s banishment and recall from exile occur in one and the same scene (Act 1. Sc. iv). But actually between these two events there was a time-gap of one year. Again, three years intervene between Gaveston’s return from exile (1309) and his final execution (1312). But the events of these three years are compressed only in a few scenes: Likewise, the events of some ten years are compressed into the two scenes which follow the arrest and execution of Gaveston. In the play the Queen is sent to France before the king defeats his barons on the battlefield of Boroughbridge: actually, she went to France some-three years after the battle. Lastly, there is a gap of some three years between the king’s murder and Mortimer’s execution. But in the play, King Edward III puts Mortimer’s severed head on the hearse of his father.
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Marlowe’s characters are also not the exact versions of the figures of history. In actual life, King Edward II was not so great a voluptuary figure as he is presented in the play. Nor did he so ill-treat the Queen as he has been shown to do. As Prof. Tout has said. “He had no other wish than to amuse himself…..If he did not like work. he was not very vicious, he stuck loyalty to his friends and was fairly harmless being nobody’s enemy so much as his own”. Perhaps Gaveston, too was not such a deliberate mis-leader of the king as Marlowe has presented him to be. He was attached to the king as his friend from childhood and sincerely loved and admired him.
Edward II of Marlowe shows several other historical digressions and inaccuracies. Marlowe has exercised great freedom in the treatment of the Spencer’s’. They were neither needy adventures, nor were they low born. They were introduced to the king six years after the execution of Gaveston. But in the play their story forms just an extension of the Gaveston theme. Again. the king had to fight two successive battles to defeat his barons, but in the play only one is presented. The Mortimer’s had actually submitted to the king before the battle, but in the play. Mortimer Jr. is imprisoned in the Tower after the battle of Boroughbridge. Warwick had actually died before the battle, but is kept alive to aid Lancaster and share his fate. Likewise, the prominence given to Mortimer in the play is historically incorrect. Marlowe has presented him as Edward’s bitterest enemy from the very beginning of the play. But in reality he was the Queen’s associate in her rebellion against the king. It was after her return from France with the rebel army that he came into prominence. Another historical inaccuracy is the perpetual hostility of the Bishops and prelates to the King. The ecclesiastics are all against him in the play. But actually, they were sometimes on the side of the king and sometimes his adversaries. It was with their support that the king revoked the decree of banishment against the Spencers. According to Holinshed, the Bishop Herford was a bitter enemy of the king, and had a hand in his cruel and treacherous murder. Lightborn, who was sent by Mortimer to murder Edward II, is a fictitious character.
To add some more digressions, Mortimer’s downfall in the play is too abrupt and sudden. He was accused of treason, and was executed in 1330. The charges against him included that of having procured the late King’s murder and that of having been “more privy with Queen Isabella, the king’s mother, than stood either with God’s law or the King’s pleasure:” In the play his arrest and execution follow, closely on the murder of Edward II. Mortimer’s sudden downfall serves a definite dramatic purpose. It reveals the great power and ability of the young Edward III. In that, power alone lies the hope of England. The Queen is sent to the Tower by the order of her son in the same hour in which Mortimer dies. But actually, she was not imprisoned. Rather she was granted a pension off £1000 a year, was ordered to stay in one place. and visited by her son dutifully once a year.
Edward Il a typical English historical play. In it. history has been well presented and well dramatised. Though there are digressions and changes made in the historical events, yet the characters’ are essentially historical. They speak for themselves. The audience may very well mark Edward’s weaknesses, his coldness to his wife, his dotage to Gaveston, his haughtiness’ to his barons and carelessness about the interests of England and English people. They may also mark the insolence and haughtiness of the barons, the selfish and unpatriotic spirit of Mortimer and faithlessness and hypocrisy of the Queen.
They play may lack the vigorousness and vitality of Shakespeare’s Richard II. But, as Charles Lamb says, “the death-scene of Marlowe’s king moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern with which I am acquainted. And a comparison of the King Edward II of Marlowe with the King Richard II of Shakespeare cannot fail to leave a strong impression of the force, passion and tragic power of Marlowe.”