Brief Biography of Christopher Marlowe
The son of a shoemaker, Christopher Marlowe nevertheless earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge, where he completed a bachelor’s degree. The school also awarded him a master’s degree, apparently on the recommendation of the government, which had praised Marlowe for services to his country—possibly a reference to a role as a secret agent. Marlowe likely began writing plays while still at Cambridge, but the exact date of most of his work is uncertain. What is clear is that after graduating, Marlowe moved to London to pursue a career as a playwright, but was frequently sidetracked by problems with the authorities (among other things, Marlowe was suspected of blasphemy and atheism). He died in a tavern fight shortly after a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and most of his plays were published posthumously. Marlowe was enormously popular as a playwright, however, and his style (including his use of blank verse and his experimentation with historical drama) influenced Shakespeare, whose own career as a playwright overlapped with Marlow’s, significantly.
Historical Context of Edward II
Marlowe's play (based largely on the work of a chronicler of English monarchy named Rapheal Holinshed) is broadly historically accurate in its treatment of Edward II's reign. It does, however, significantly compress the timeline, since the real Edward II ruled for nearly 20 years (1307–1326). The rising tensions in the play over Edward's military defeats and personal favoritism are also true to life, though it's difficult to say with certainty that the historical relationship between Edward and Gaveston was sexual. Marlowe's only major departure from historical fact concerns Edward's murder, though his depiction is, again, based on Holinshed's. The real Edward II was almost certainly not murdered in the karmic way Marlowe and Holinshed describe—i.e. rectally impaled on a heated spit. In fact, Edward might not have been murdered at all. It's possible that he instead died of natural causes, and even at a much later date; a letter sent by an Italian priest to Edward III, for instance, claimed that the king had escaped and fled the country.
Other Books Related to Edward II
Marlowe's most famous play by far is Doctor Faustus
. His Edward II
, however, arguably has more in common with William Shakespeare's work than with much of Marlowe's—commonalities are particularly strong between Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II
and Henry VI Part 1
, Henry VI Part 2
, and Henry VI Part 3
. Like Edward II
, these plays all center on the rule of a "weak" king and the domestic turmoil and bloodshed that results. The parallels with Richard II
in particular are striking, since both works also raise questions about the nature of monarchy and the legitimacy of rebellion. In fact, it is highly likely that Edward II
influenced Shakespeare's play.
Key Facts about Edward II
Full Title: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England: with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer
When Written: Early 1590s
Where Written: London, England
When Published: 1593
Literary Period: Elizabethan/Renaissance
Genre: Drama, Historical Play
Setting: 14th-century England and France
Climax: Lightborne murders Edward II.
Antagonist: Mortimer Junior and Isabella are the play's primary antagonists in the sense that they act in opposition to the main character, Edward II. It's worth noting, however, that both Mortimer and Isabella are somewhat sympathetic characters, particularly in the first half of the play. Neither, in other words, is a villain per se.
Extra Credit for Edward II