Edward II by Christopher Marlowe: Irony of Kingship

Updated on January 12, 2018
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Edward II: Rights and Responsibilities of Kingship

The tragic vision of Marlowe could go beyond a particular time, place and action to include a vast realm of universal experiences. In Edward II, he presents the ironic and tragic implications of royal power through rise and fall of central characters. He weaves the plot through a pattern of amplification and deflation of a king’s stature and power. This is best seen in the progression of King Edward’s career in the play.

According to I.A.Richards, “Irony in the sense consists in the bringing in of the opposites, the complementary impulses”. This is extremely true in the case of King Edward II, whose multifarious weaknesses are responsible for his fatal demise. Ellis Fermor points out that Edward’s position is an obsession with him. He reminds himself continuously that a king should be princely and commanding. He tries to give the impression of strength by fits of blustering rage. He oscillates under the unreal picture of a “ruler” that he idealizes as the model. However, he takes his privileges for granted and fails to maintain the equilibrium between his duties and his rights. His lack of discretion and lack of diplomacy adds to his misfortune as well.

Edward II Spending Christmas at Cirencester, Gloucestershire, 1321 King Edward earned disrepute for his overt preference for sensuous and luxurious pleasures of royalty.
Edward II Spending Christmas at Cirencester, Gloucestershire, 1321 King Edward earned disrepute for his overt preference for sensuous and luxurious pleasures of royalty. | Source

The Tragic Flaw in Edward II:

Throughout the play, Edward II appears to confront adverse fate; whatever he says, the opposite happens. At first he threatens in a soliloquy:

“ I will fire thy crazed buildings and enforce

The papal towers to kiss the lowly ground.”

However, in presence of the Pope he can not gather enough courage to detriment him. Being weak at heart, he is easily overwhelmed by emotions and gets carried away by flattery. There is a hectic uneasiness about this defiance; he is infuriated to find that he does not produce the effect that he thinks he should.

From the very beginning, it is clear that undue and inordinate fondness for favourites is a tragic flaw in a king’s character. Edward II allows his personal friends to override his private life. This is a tactical error with tragic consequence. His Barons openly flout his orders and take up the banner of rebellion against him. All his favourites are slaughtered. He is abandoned by his wife Isabella. The irony of kingship is vividly expressed as the props which should support him—his wife, his brother, his barons, all turn hostile to him, speeding up his downfall into the mud of ignominy. The force he uses in making futile declarations having no significance, pushes him into the dark dungeon of infamy. His hollow notions, and his fixed set of unrealistic ideas about his supposed grandeur earns him infernal torture and a barbaric death.

Edward II And His Favourite Gavestone: A Relationship that Ruined Edward's Chances of Royalty
Edward II And His Favourite Gavestone: A Relationship that Ruined Edward's Chances of Royalty | Source

Source of Power: Ideal vs Real

One may, therefore, pity King Edward II for his sufferings, but it is quite hard to place him on the same platform with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes like Macbeth, Hamlet or even King Lear. Even Doctor Faustus, another famous character by Marlowe, showed repentance and recognition of his error of judgement, passing through a fleeting moment of anagnorisis before the final hour. However, the kind of fortitude and admirable courage that suits a king, which even Mortimer shows towards the end in his memorable speech (“Why should I grieve at my declining fall”), is unmistakably absent in Edward II.

Through the character of King Edward II, Marlowe succeeds in presenting the picture of an impractical king by exposing his frailties. He shows us a king bereft of his crown, the symbol of power already lost. Yet, it is seen that even this symbol is regarded as a protection. When, in the Abdication Scene, the king is commanded to let go of his crown, he clings to it almost childishly. It becomes perfectly clear that he regards the symbol as the actual repository of power instead of regarding his barons as generators of solid, real, royal power.

Kingship- History- Irony

The irony reaches its height in the Murder Scene. Like the traditional tragic hero, Edward II is a royal figure and his downfall is intimately connected to the life of the state. In “Edward The Second”, tragedy and history are deeply combined. Edwards’s sins are the sins of the government; the crisis he faces is a political one, and the civil war that threatens his regime is an expected consequence of his errors. “Marlowe sees history”, observes Irving Ribner, “entirely as the actions of men who bring about their own ability to cope with events.” This is the humanistic attitude of the historians of both classical and Italian Renaissance. At the same time, the fact that kingship is not an unconditional state of command is evident in chronicles. One can cite the recent example of Egypt where the regal power of the President could not shield him from the wrath of the hostile regime. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony, that no matter how many instances are recorded or narrated by chroniclers and playwrights, the kings and rulers never fully comprehend the true meaning of being a king.

© 2018 Monami


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