By Jeffrey Masten
Spy, atheist, Catholic conspirator, blasphemer, counterfeiter, and sodomite. Lover of “tobacco and boys.” These are a few of the allegations made about Christopher Marlowe in the weeks surrounding his murder in suspicious circumstances in a tavern brawl.
We may never get to the bottom of who conspired to kill Marlowe and why. But these sensational allegations have shaped our understanding of Marlowe’s plays and our sense of him as one of the most edgy and darkly provocative of Renaissance British playwrights—an English Caravaggio of the stage.
Born the same year as Shakespeare but dead by 1593 at age 29, Marlowe and his plays have uncannily continued to speak to our times. The protagonist of Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for extraordinary knowledge. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine attempts world conquest, dying soon after he burns the Koran. And Edward II, a history play as tragedy, has seemed to resonate with twentieth- and twenty-first century struggles over gay rights. (Derek Jarman’s evocative, visually stunning 1991 film adaptation sees just such a play.)
Based on historical accounts of the early fourteenth-century English king and likely first performed in 1592-93, Edward II has at its center the fervent romantic attachment of King Edward for the commoner and Frenchman Piers Gaveston. But the play does not simply romanticize same-sex love in an era when “sodomy” (as almost any non-reproductive sex act could then be called) was punishable by death.
Instead, Edward II focuses on a more complex set of problems. At a time when same-sex friendships were often described as more intense and as important as marriage, the play asks: yes, but should a king have such a friend and equal? “Come, Gaveston, and share the kingdom with thy dearest friend,” Edward writes, in the play’s opening love-letter.
What happens when a king begins to dismantle the very throne in which he sits? “Embrace me, Gaveston, as I do thee,” Edward says, in lines that are revolutionary: “Why shouldst thou kneel; knowest thou not who I am? / Thy friend, thy self, another Gaveston.”
Elizabethans would have recognized this language of passionate friendship as utterly standard, but Marlowe mixes it with the actions of a monarch who jeopardizes the integrity of the kingdom, and with a king’s love for a foreigner of low social status.
Thus the play gives us a tragedy in which personal desire and affections are at odds with the performance of public duties. At the same time, the play troubles our understanding of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship as something modern and equitable: does Gaveston love Edward as Edward loves him, or are his actions simply strategies, as he says, to “draw the pliant king which way I please”?
Edward risks England’s security through his disregard for threatened invasion from Scotland and France. But the second, tragic half of the play has seemed to many readers and audiences to turn the tables, building great empathy for Edward as he loses Gaveston, agonizes over the loss of the crown, and is finally put to a horrific death. In his final hours, Edward sees himself with a double-vision—wanting to retain his royalty at its full height, but also seeing himself as a simple “private man.” Edward’s final meditations on the nature of kingship and private emotion will be familiar to audiences of Shakespeare’s later Richard II, to which this play is often compared, as well as Henry V and Lear.
The play presents no simple solution to replacing Edward. No mere homophobe, Mortimer—the rebel whose “tragical fall” is also mentioned on the play’s earliest title pages—turns out to be an efficient leader, but ruthless and self-absorbed. The murderer he hires is named Lightborn, an English translation of “Lucifer.”
“What are kings when regiment is gone,” Edward asks, “but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” In the end, Edward II’s radicality may have as much to do with social class as with sexuality. Does it stage Edward’s relationships with multiple “minions” in order to emphasize his departure from kingly “regiment,” or to argue for a leveling of social distinctions? Are the play’s final debasements of Edward a punishment for his transgressions, an attempt to produce sympathy for Edward and his desires, or a terrifying reversal of fundamental hierarchies?
In its final moments, the play re-establishes a kind of order, with another, younger Edward on the throne. But not until it has first staged a radical vision of social mixing, examined the emotional costs to an abandoned queen, and questioned the ability of nearly everyone to govern.
Mourned by his contemporaries as a reincarnation of Orpheus, the first poet, Marlowe’s legacy may be his critical stance on the far margins of all the dogmas of his time—and perhaps, still, of ours.