At some points when I was reading Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II I wondered, is this play a big gay joke?
Edward II is a young king, who has inherited the realm from his father Edward I, a great and brutal warrior, the hammer of the Scots (and Welsh, and the Jews etc.) Edward is married to the beautiful French queen Isabella, and they have a young son, a clever, noble young man, who will one day become Edward III. But Edward scorns his wife and son and instead lavishes his attentions on his ‘minion’, the young Frenchman Gaveston that is his favourite, and his homosexual lover. England’s nobles are not impressed – not only is the King’s behaviour unbecoming, but he is neglecting the important duties of kingship, and, especially, rewarding the arrogant young Frenchman with some of the greatest positions of state. The story of the play revolves around the protests, and eventually the full-blown rebellion of the nobles against their king.
There is a lot of humour in the situation, particularly in the earlier scenes of the play before the rebellion begins in earnest. One source of humour is the undignified slobbering of the king over his favourite, and Gaveston’s brazen and obsequious responses :
|Edward: Welcome to thy friend!|
|Thy absence made me droop and pine away;|
|For, as the lovers of fair Danae,|
|When she was lock’d up in a brazen tower,|
|Desired her more, and wax’d outrageous,|
|So did it fare with me; and now thy sight|
|Is sweeter far than was thy parting hence|
|Bitter and irksome to my sobbing heart.|
|Gaveston. Sweet lord and king, your speech preventeth mine,|
|Yet have I words left to express my joy:|
|The shepherd nipt with biting winter’s rage|
|Frolics not more to see the painted spring,|
|Than I do to behold your majesty.|
Also to great comic effect is the pained reaction of his nobles, and particularly the pining of his wife who, for all he has neglected her, remains steadfast in her support for her husband (for a while, anyway):
|Heavens can witness I love none but you:|
|From my embracements thus he breaks away.|
|O that mine arms could close this isle about,|
|That I might pull him to me where I would!|
|Or that these tears that drizzle from mine eyes|
|Had power to mollify his stony heart,|
|That when I had him we might never part.|
(Act 8, 15-20)
The tension in the play comes from the incongruity between the wants and whims of Edward as a man and his grave duties as a king. His English audience would have felt secure enough in the steadfastness of their Queen to be able to laugh. Elizabeth, after all, really had put her realm above her own desires – unlike her famously incontinent father, who’d had six wives and a number of lovers; and unlike the king over the border, rumours of whose proclivities must have reached England by the 1590s.
Dramatic tension aside, it must be a very funny play to watch – and how much funnier, and camper, in the 1590s, when, we know, female roles were given to male actors: so a male Isabella be competing with a male Gaveston for the King’s affections. I can imagine Marlowe sniggering backstage.
Marlowe was a great provocateur. His most famous play, Doctor Faustus, had some audiences screaming in terror, hallucinating real devils along with the dressed up ones on stage. His next most famous play, Tamburlaine, was controversial in another way – Tamburlaine comes closest to expressing on stage the atheism that Marlowe was rumoured to hold in private. Homosexuality was held to be abhorrent in Elizabethan times, so there is something provocative in putting a gay king on the stage; but he is not condoning the king’s affair – despite Marlowe’s own homosexuality, it is depicted quite negatively. So on the surface, this seems like one of his less controversial plays, and one can easily imagine a performance playing it for laughs.
On the other hand, the very existence of such a ridiculous and flawed king is an embarrassment to the very institution of monarchy. The reformation was a mixed bag for monarchy in Europe – it set in motion forces that would eventually weaken the institution – indeed, that would cost a Stewart king his head the next century; but in 16th century England its initial development enhanced the power and glory of the monarch, making him or her the head of the church as well as state – effectively the next thing down from a deity. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe only wrote one play about an English monarch: why, of all England’s monarchs, did Marlowe choose such a bad one, such an embarrassing one? Edward II may be the butt of the joke in the play, but while his life may make the Virgin Queen look good in comparison, it hardly encourages faith in the institution she upholds. Perhaps Marlowe held a belief that was even more controversial than atheism back in the sixteenth century: he didn’t believe in the monarchy.