Analysis of Christopher Marlowe’s "Edward II" as a Historical Play


Man’s eternal quest is to know the unknown, to see the unseen and is to discover the undiscovered things. That’s the very spirit of the Elizabethan age. They have the nostalgia to sink into the historical past and fetch the pearl of spirit undaunted. Thus, Christopher Marlowe, the excellent Elizabethan writer squares the juice of historical background and unlocked them in full-throated ease in his play Edward II. He just poured the ‘new wine into old bottles’ and stimulates the dozing spectators into frenzied drunkards. So if anyone raises the question ‘Edward II – as a historical play’, we must not hesitate to apt for other answers.

 Marlowe is not the first Elizabethan to is write the historical play, there are so many university wits to flourish their blossoms. After writing a number of tragedies with gigantic figures, Marlowe were deeply inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry VI. So his Edward II is the direct outcome of the historical agenda presented in episodes. But it mainly surpassed Shakespeare in dealing with King Edward II, a king deposed and assassinated one with his weaknesses. It is a marvel still in historical plays; it is modern in its outlook and anti-heroic in its approach. Edward, the king is not important, Edward the man claims our sympathy. It gives Shakespeare the model for his Richard II (1595).




Marlowe’s Edward II is the finest flowering of a historical play. The historical fervour and the spirited zeal are well conceived here. Marlowe invites the Elizabethans who bubbled with national pride and looked is the dramatists for information about national heroes and their deeds. Marlowe depicts the narrow bar from the very historical threshold but by the rosy wings of poesy flights to the castle of keatsian world of imagination. Here we see ‘the life of sensations rather than of thought! The historical background Edward I reigning England successively from 1272-1307 and banishment of his son’s most dissolute friend Gascon – can not be said tracked. Yet, Marlowe does not slavishly follow the chronological order of even. He adopts, abridges, transposes and juxtaposes them to create new situations. Gascon becomes piers Gaveston. He has abridged the time span and omitted certain events to compress the plot. The time span of 27 years following the arrest and execution of Gaveston has been compressed into consecutive scenes. The gap of about three  years between the king’s murder and execution of Mortimer has been completely eliminated.

Image Courtesy: Christopher Marlowe
Clumsy plot construction characterizes all historical plays. The playwright is interested mainly in episodes. But Edward II has a plot, well unit and it is the direct outcome of Marlowe’s realism that a plot has to be coherent. Such scenes grow out of and are a continuation of the previous scene and it has beginning middle and an end.     

Marlowe, the poet-playwright creates a tragedy but the tragedy is not his, it is the part of history. The characters are not puppets tied to strings; they are not wooden and flat-line Shavian character. His characters are vividly decorated rather than the historical figures. Like Pygmalion Marlowe injects the new blood to the petrified characters. In actual life Edward was not so great a voluptuary figure as he is presented in the play. Nor did he so ill treat the queen as he is present in the play. To quote Prof. Tout
            “He has no other wish than to amuse himself… If he
            did not like work he was out very vicious, he stuck



loyalty to his friends and was fairly harmless, being
nobody’s enemy so much as his own”.

Perhaps Gaveston was not so such deliberate Miss Leader of the king as Marlowe has presented him to be. He has 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 Spencers. They were neither needy adventure, nor were they low-born. They were introduced to the king six years after the execution of Gaveston. To add some 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 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”.
But in spite of an these drawbacks Edward II stands supreme as the historical play. History has been well presented and dramatized. The characters are essentially historical. They speak for themselves. They audience may also mark Edward’s weaknesses, his lowness 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 barons, the selfish and unpatriotic spirit of Mortimer and faithlessness and hypocrisy of the queen.

            The play may lack the vigorousness and vitality of Shakespeare’s Richard. But to quote Charles Lamb we can say –
            “The death scene of Marlowe’s king moves pity and terror
            beyond any scene, ancient or modern with
            which I am acquainted”.
History is a platform to Marlowe, to test the limit of human indulgence. Says Wilson, Marlowe manages his stuff from Holinshed’s Oromiete but shapes out of the Chronicle History of “disagreeable reign into historical tragedy”. Una Ellis Fermor remarks – the excellence of the play lies in Marlowe’s delineation of Edward’s character, ‘he is not a king but a man as a whole, a truly pathetic figure, the victim of maladjustment of circumstances.'

To conclude, Marlowe’s Edward II owes to history and is historical. But the the play should not be interrelated as the two words – ‘history’ and ‘historical’. History is only a record of events in the order they took place. But a play is a piece of art, meant to transport the readers to the world of ‘beauty and truth’. It is an amalgamation of these two genres. 



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