Gaveston, who until recently was in exile in France, reads aloud from a letter informing him of the death of the former king of England, Edward I. As Gaveston goes on, it becomes clear that the writer of the letter is Edward II, who has inherited the throne from his father and is now inviting Gaveston to return to court and “share the kingdom” with him.
Edward II opens with the King extending a fairly shocking invitation to Gaveston. Although the romantic nature of the men's relationship does not become fully clear until a few lines later, this is largely beside the point: from the point of view of the English nobility, Edward has no right to elevate a commoner like Gaveston to a position of power (and certainly not to a position of equality with the King himself, as Edward's remark about sharing his kingdom suggests).
Gaveston responds to the letter with delight, declaring his intention to rejoin Edward II immediately and comparing himself to Leander, who in Greek myth swam across the Hellespont every night to be with his lover Hero. Furthermore, Gaveston says, he will willingly suffer the “enmity” of the world in order to be with Edward, whose presence he compares to the sun. That being the case, Gaveston casually dismisses the common people and the nobility alike, vowing to bow only to the king.
Gaveston's reference to the myth of Leander and Hero is the first of several classical allusions in the play, many of which hint that Gaveston and Edward's relationship is sexual. This particular allusion, however, also hints that the men's relationship will come to a bad end, since Hero and Leander's affair ended with Leander drowning and Hero killing herself in grief. Furthermore, as Gaveston goes on, it becomes clear why the men's relationship might pose problems. Gaveston is totally dismissive of everyone except Edward, but a ruler (or, in Gaveston's case, an advisor to a ruler) cannot simply disregard the welfare of his people or the ambitions of the other nobility. The comparison of Edward to the sun underscores the self-absorption of Gaveston's dreams, since he is using a symbol typically meant to evoke the king's centrality to the nation as a way of describing a personal relationship.
Gaveston is interrupted by the arrival of three poor men seeking employment. In response, Gaveston questions them about who they are, and each man provides a different answer. Gaveston dismisses all three carelessly, telling the last—a soldier—that there are “hospitals” (i.e. charities) for veterans. This angers the soldier, who says that he hopes a soldier will kill Gaveston one day. In an aside, Gaveston admits to being unmoved but says it costs him nothing to “flatter” the men's hopes. He therefore tells them he will help them if he is successful at court, and the men leave expressing their gratitude.
Gaveston's disinterest in the poor men's plight foreshadows the issues that will dominate the argument between him and Edward on the one hand, and the English nobility on the other. The nobles (Mortimer Junior in particular) see the King's disregard for military matters as evidence of his weakness as a ruler. Gaveston's dismissal of the soldier lends some credibility to this position. Regardless of whether war is itself a good thing, Gaveston's treatment of the soldier is callous, and part of a broader pattern of indifference toward the well-being of the kingdom.
After the poor men leave, Gaveston explains why they will not suit his purposes: Edward loves poetry and music, and Gaveston hopes to surround him with artists and performers in order to better “draw the pliant King which way [he] please[s].” He then envisions Edward walking through an elaborate tableau of men dressed like nymphs and satyrs while others act out a scene from Greek mythology: the goddess Artemis transforming a man who caught sight of her bathing into a deer.
Although Gaveston's feelings for Edward are quite obviously reciprocated, Gaveston is marked as a sexual outsider in a way that the King mostly is not. In this passage, for instance, Gaveston speaks openly about homosexual desire, which he plans to use to manipulate Edward. By contrast, while Edward often expresses intense affection for Gaveston and his other male favorites, he doesn't ever draw on the explicitly sexual imagery present in this passage. The discussion of poetry and theater, meanwhile, lays the groundwork for the conflict between violence and language in the play. Edward explicitly favors the latter, but his words become increasingly powerless and empty as time goes on, and the actual violence of rebellion rises.
Gaveston is again interrupted, this time by the arrival of Edward and several nobles: Lancaster, Warwick, Mortimer Senior, Mortimer Junior, and Kent. Edward is attempting to persuade the nobility to allow Gaveston's return, although he says in an aside that he intends to do what he pleases regardless of what the nobles say. In response, Mortimer Junior explains that he and his uncle promised Edward I that Gaveston would never return from exile. Going further, he threatens to forgo fighting on Edward's behalf if the King does not listen to him now. Meanwhile, Gaveston, who has remained hidden, eavesdrops on the conversation, declaring in an aside his hatred for both Lancaster and Mortimer Junior.
The power struggle between Edward and the English nobility is well underway by the time the play begins, and neither side comes across as entirely in the right. Although Edward's frustration is understandable from a personal perspective, his willingness to completely ignore the wishes of the nobility flies in the face of English monarchical tradition. On the other hand, Mortimer's quickness to resort to threats implies a lack of respect for the King's status, and comes across as bullying in tone.
Edward and the nobles continue to argue, with the King threatening the nobles and openly stating his intention to have Gaveston by his side. In response, Lancaster questions why Edward should prefer the low-born Gaveston to those who would “naturally…love and honour [the king]”—i.e. the nobility. Kent then echoes Edward's earlier warning against defying a sovereign, saying that in his father's time anyone who dared “brave the King unto his face” was risking death. Turning to Edward, Kent urges his brother to execute the nobles as a warning to others. Mortimer Junior responds to this threat with one of his own, saying that the nobles will “henceforth parley with [their] naked swords.” Mortimer Senior, Lancaster, and Warwick agree that they can each raise armies in their respective lands, and all four nobles leave, warning Edward that his throne will “float in blood” if he doesn't reconsider.
Much of the nobility's hatred for Gaveston is rooted in his status as a commoner. As Lancaster's words make clear, the nobles view Edward's favoritism not simply as an insult but also as a challenge to the "natural" order of things—namely, the social structure that provides them with their own power and status. In a sense, Gaveston's ability to leapfrog the social hierarchy by pursuing a relationship with the King is an existential threat to the idea of power as something that is inherited. This helps explain the nobles' boldness in confronting Edward, although it does not necessarily excuse it: Kent's criticism of the nobles implies that it is basically never acceptable to challenge the King's authority so openly. Finally, this first exchange between Edward and the nobility also introduces the idea of violence as a form of communication (e.g. Mortimer saying the nobles will "parley" (speak) with their swords). Similar images recur throughout the play, underscoring the complex relationship between violence and language.
With the nobles gone, Edward complains about the their attempts to “overrule” him and orders Kent to raise his military banners: he would rather die than give up Gaveston. Hearing this, Gaveston bursts out from hiding, and Edward—surprised but elated—urges him to embrace him: “Why shouldst thou kneel; knowest thou not who I am? / Thy friend, thy self, another Gaveston!” The two men describe how much they have missed each other, and Edward reiterates that he will never give Gaveston up.
Just as Mortimer’s open defiance of the king seems out step with English tradition, so do Edward's complaints about the nobility reveal an attitude that is itself not totally compatible with English monarchical tradition, since he seems to believe he should enjoy unlimited power as king. Such an outlook would likely cause problems regardless, but what makes it especially troubling (at least from the nobles' perspective) is the fact that Edward is not truly suited to hold power. Here, for instance, Edward's total identification with his lover reflects his inability to separate his personal life from his political role. Arguably, it also suggests that Edward has a rather weak sense of self, which would help explain the nobles' persistent claims that the King is somehow out of his mind.
Over the protestations of both Kent and Gaveston himself, Edward makes the latter Earl of Cornwall, Lord High Chamberlain, and Chief Secretary. Edward explains that his only joy in being king is the ability to honor Gaveston, and goes so far as to tell Gaveston that he can enjoy everything Edward himself does: a guard, access to the treasury, the ability to issue commands in the king's name, etc. In response, Gaveston says that he is content simply to have Edward's love.
Since, later in the play, Kent eventually (though temporarily) joins the nobility in opposing his brother's rule, his objections in this passage are significant. Although he earlier defended Edward's rights as king, he evidently shares some of the nobility's concerns about elevating a commoner like Gaveston. Edward's response, meanwhile, further demonstrates the extent to which he allows his private feelings to dominate political decisions. In fact, he redefines his public role as king in entirely personal terms when he claims to only care about power as a way of advancing Gaveston.
The Bishop of Coventry enters on his way to Edward I's funeral rites. He reacts with displeasure to the sight of Gaveston, and Edward warns Coventry that Gaveston wants revenge on the bishop for the role he played in his exile. Coventry defends his former actions, saying he intends to see Gaveston exiled again. Edward urges Gaveston to attack Coventry even as Kent warns his brother of angering the Pope. Gaveston ignores Kent and assaults the bishop and rips his clothes, but does not kill Coventry or take him as his chaplain, as Edward first recommends. Instead, he has Edward orders his guards to take Coventry to the Tower of London. Edward then advises Gaveston to confiscate Coventry's house and property, and Gaveston mocks the fact that a priest would have “so fair a house” to begin with.
Like his earlier snubbing of the nobility, Edward's attack on Coventry oversteps his authority as King. At the time the play is set, the Church was separate from the English monarchy and (at least in theory) superior to it in some respects. Despite the violence of the scene, however, Edward and Gaveston's treatment of Coventry would likely have been more sympathetic to the audience of the play than their treatment of the nobility would be: England had broken away from the Catholic Church earlier in the 16th century precisely because the monarch at the time (Henry VIII) did not acknowledge the Pope's authority over his actions. Gaveston's remarks about the implicit hypocrisy of a wealthy priest are also very much in keeping with prevailing 16th-century attitudes toward Catholicism, and therefore cast Gaveston himself in a favorable light.