The Archbishop of Canterbury and several nobles enter, putting their final signatures on the order for Gaveston's exile. Mortimer Junior is especially hopeful that the addition of his name will intimidate Edward.
Mortimer's greatest flaw is his pride, which eventually becomes outright hubris as his power grows later in the play. Mortimer hasn't reached those heights of arrogance at this point in the play, but it's striking that he assumes that his own name will make a particularly lasting impression on Edward. Throughout the play, Mortimer’s motives are a complicated mix between wanting to protect his country and personal ambition and desire for power.
Kent, Gaveston, and Edward enter. As he seats himself on his throne, Edward taunts the nobles by placing Gaveston at his side. The nobles fume about the indignity of seeing the low-born Gaveston treated with such respect, and Warwick suggests that Gaveston is manipulating the King: “Ignoble vassal, that like Phaëthon / Aspir'st unto the guidance of the sun.” Mortimer Junior, however, assures his fellow nobles that Edward and Gaveston's “downfall is at hand.” This prompts Edward to call for Mortimer Junior's arrest on charges of treason—a charge Mortimer Senior immediately throws back at Gaveston. The nobles draw their swords and manage to seize Gaveston, ignoring Kent's warning that they are forgetting their “duties” to their monarch.
Edward's words and actions in this scene seem designed to antagonize the nobility; he not only seats Gaveston on his own level, but also comments directly on the nobles' discontented expressions. Presumably, this is a power play meant to demonstrate Edward's absolute authority. It backfires, however, and instead leads into another dispute about where power truly lies. Although Kent once more supports Edward's royal prerogative to do as he pleases, the nobles clearly feel that Edward's responsibilities to them supersede his personal desires. This in turn has implications for what one considers treasonous, or (as in this passage) whom one considers a traitor. If, for instance, treason is mostly about betraying the best interests of the country, it's possible to describe Gaveston as a traitor despite his personal loyalty to Edward.
Enraged, Edward threatens to kill the nobles if they leave with Gaveston. Mortimer Senior says that it is unfair to threaten them as if they were “traitors,” and Gaveston begins to describe what he would do if he were king. This further angers Mortimer Junior, who says that Gaveston has no right to even talk about kings, given his low birth. Edward, however, replies that “were [Gaveston] a peasant, being [his] minion, / [he'd] make the proudest…stoop to him.” Lancaster responds that the King cannot speak to the nobles so disrespectfully, and Gaveston and Kent are taken away under guard. Edward views this as the equivalent of “laying violent hands upon” the King himself, and says as much, bitterly complaining that the nobles might as well sit on his throne and wear his crown. Lancaster, unmoved, retorts that Edward should “learn to rule [them] better, and the realm.”
The same questions about loyalty and legitimacy that emerged in the previous section continue to play out in this exchange. Lancaster, for instance, hints that the nobles view Edward's claim to rule as dependent on his skill at ruling. Meanwhile, Edward's claim that the nobles' actions amount to an assault on their king reflect his belief that any defiance of his wishes constitutes treason. It also, however, speaks to the degree to which Edward identifies with Gaveston—so much so that he views himself and Gaveston as one and the same person. Finally, the exchange gets to the heart of the controversy surrounding Gaveston's social status. Edward defends elevating Gaveston above the nobility on the grounds that Gaveston is his "minion" ("favorite," but with a sexual undertone). This, however, is exactly why the nobles oppose Gaveston: his power stems from a relationship of choice (with Edward) rather than from birthright, and therefore undermines the social order that gives the nobles their own power.
Mortimer Junior and Warwick continue to defend the justice of their actions, but Edward refuses to speak to them. At this point, the Bishop of Canterbury intervenes and, urging Edward to be “patient,” presents the decree for Gaveston's banishment. Edward defiantly states that England will “flete upon the ocean / And wander to the unfrequented Inde” before he will agree to give up Gaveston. Canterbury refuses to give up, however, reminding Edward of both his “allegiance” to the Pope and the attack on the Bishop of Coventry. Meanwhile, Mortimer Junior urges Canterbury to excommunicate Edward so that the nobles can legally depose him—something Canterbury suggests he will in fact do if Edward does not cooperate.
Canterbury's intervention presents another twist on the idea that rebellion against the king might be justified in some circumstances. Since medieval England was a deeply Catholic society, a ruler who was excommunicated—barred from participation in the Catholic sacraments, which were considered necessary for salvation—would lose much of his legitimacy. In fact, since obeying a ruler who had been excommunicated could theoretically jeopardize the nobles' own souls, Edward's excommunication would relieve his subjects of their obligations to him.
Edward, realizing that his options are limited, appears to agree, but then invites the nobles to divide up his kingdom amongst themselves provided they leave him “some nook or corner…to frolic with [his] dearest Gaveston.” Growing impatient, the Bishop of Canterbury and Lancaster again urge the King to sign the order. Mortimer Junior, meanwhile, questions why Edward “should love him whom the world hates so,” and Edward retorts that Gaveston “loves [him] more than all the world.” As a result, he says, only “rude and savage-minded men” would want to harm Gaveston. Under pressure, however, the King signs the order as Mortimer Junior taunts him for being “love-sick.”
The fact that Edward values Gaveston in large part for his personal devotion is telling, because it speaks to Edward's own tendency to prioritize his personal relationships over everything else. This arguably makes Edward unsuited to ruling, assuming that a ruler's first responsibility is to safeguard the country's well-being. This, however, is a relatively modern idea: medieval notions of responsibility, for instance, were much more intertwined with personal relationships. Perhaps for this reason, Gaveston and Edward's personal loyalty to one another appears in the play in a relatively sympathetic light.
Lancaster takes the signed order to display publically, while Mortimer Junior goes to see to Gaveston. Pembroke speculates that the common people will profit from Gaveston's banishment, and Mortimer Senior says that that is beside the point: Gaveston should be exiled regardless. Satisfied, the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the nobles leave.
Pembroke and Mortimer Junior's exchange about the common people is typical of the play's broader depiction of civic duty. On the one hand, many characters (e.g. Mortimer Junior) justify their actions as necessary for the overall good of the country. However, it is never entirely clear whether these expressions of patriotism are genuine: Mortimer Senior's response here, for instance, suggests that the well-being of the common people is little more than a pretext for the nobility to pursue their own goals.
Now alone, Edward laments that he—a king—must defer to the Pope. He grows angrier as he speaks, threatening to set fire to Rome's buildings and “with slaughtered priests make Tiber's channel swell.” Furthermore, he says, he will kill any noble who sides with the Church.
Once again, Edward defends the idea that, as king, his power should be virtually unchecked—in this case, by the Pope. Because Edward is once more positioning himself against the Catholic Church, however, his speech would likely have played well with a Protestant Elizabethan audience that was itself generally fervently anti-Catholic. His scorn for the "superstitious" practices of the Church, for instance, reflects a then common Protestant critique of Catholicism.
Gaveston appears, saying that he has heard rumors he is to be exiled. Edward confirms his suspicions, but consoles Gaveston with the fact that his departure will allow Edward to remain king: in time, therefore, he will be able to take revenge on the nobility. In the meantime, he promises to send Gaveston money. Gaveston, however, remains inconsolable, which in turn upsets Edward: Gaveston, he says, is merely leaving England, but Edward “from [his] self [is] banished.” Gaveston responds that it is the separation from Edward that upsets him, because the King is the only source of his “felicity.”
Edward's description of feeling "banished" from himself is in one sense simply a way of conveying the depth of his attachment to Gaveston. Within the context of the nobles' allegations of "brainsickness," however, it could also imply mental instability: Edward's sense of himself is disturbed or divided.
Edward urges Gaveston to act as Governor of Ireland until he can return. The two men then exchange miniature portraits, and Edward's resolution wavers several times: he first suggests hiding Gaveston, then decides to part from him in silence, then finally outright pleads with him to stay. For his part, Gaveston seems to realize his departure is necessary and begs Edward not to make it more difficult. Eventually, Edward resigns himself, but insists on accompanying Gaveston on his way.
As he does here, Edward frequently resolves to remain silent only to then immediately begin speaking again. Besides indicating Edward's generally indecisive nature, these moments suggest that he is very literally "all talk": no matter how desperate the situation, he does not seem able to stop speaking long enough to act. With that said, the play ultimately vindicates Edward's preference for language over action by allowing him to "speak through" his son, Edward III, at the end of the play and after Edward II’s own death.
Kent and Isabella appear, and the Queen asks where Edward is going. Edward rebukes her for bothering him and calls her a “strumpet.” Isabella questions who she should “fawn on” if not her husband, and Gaveston responds with Mortimer Junior's name, implying the two are having an affair. Isabella denies the accusation, saying it is bad enough for Gaveston to “corrupt” the King without shaming her as well. Edward, however, has picked up on Gaveston's insinuation and scolds Isabella for being “too familiar” with Mortimer. He further suggests that she is responsible for Gaveston's exile, and orders her to change the minds of the nobles in order to get back into his good graces. Isabella protests that she has no power over the nobles and, turning to Gaveston, accuses him of “robbing her” of her husband. Gaveston throws the same accusation back at her, as Edward reiterates his determination to ignore Isabella until she complies with his wishes.
Edward's open contempt for Isabella is another way in which his relationship with Gaveston threatens to destabilize the social order—not so much because it violates his marriage vows, but because Isabella is the sister of the King of France. Their marriage is therefore a political alliance, and Edward's mistreatment of her could conceivably threaten the relationship between the two countries. That said, it is clearly the personal betrayal that is uppermost in Isabella's mind, since she describes Gaveston as having stolen her husband's affection from her. Under the circumstances, this presumably makes the accusations of infidelity especially galling to Isabella, and it seems likely that her later affair with Mortimer is motivated at least in part by spite.
Edward, Gaveston, and Kent leave, and Isabella—now alone—imagines all the ways she might have been spared her husband's abandonment: poisoned on her wedding day, “stifled” in Edward's embrace, and so on. At first, she vows to “fill the earth / With ghastly murmer of [her] sighs and cries” as Hera did when Zeus neglected her in favor of Ganymede. Isabella quickly realizes, however, that complaining of her situation will just estrange Edward further, and therefore resolves to try to overturn Gaveston's banishment, even if it costs her her husband.
Although Isabella eventually participates in the rebellion against her husband, her first impulse is toward self-destruction: she wishes she had died before Edward abandoned her. This sets her apart from the English nobility, who from the start direct their anger and violence outward, toward Gaveston and the King. Isabella's passivity here may partly reflect the limitations she faces due to her gender, but it also links her—ironically—to her husband, who tends to lament his situation rather than address it with action. This becomes especially clear when Isabella talks about "filling the earth with her sighs," as if simply speaking about her grief will change the situation.
Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, Mortimer Senior, and Mortimer Junior enter and witness Isabella's distress. The nobles speculate that Edward must have been cruel to her and blame her suffering on Gaveston. Eventually, Mortimer Junior addresses Isabella directly and asks her what is wrong, to which she replies that the King no longer loves her. In response, Mortimer Junior urges her to “cry quittance… and love him not,” but Isabella says she would rather die. Lancaster then attempts to comfort the Queen by telling her that Edward's affections will return to her now that Gaveston is gone, forcing Isabella to explain why she must work for Gaveston's “repeal.” The nobles are outraged and attempt to dissuade her, but Isabella is adamant, saying that it is “for [her]self [she] speaks, and not for him.” Eventually, she takes Mortimer aside to explain her reasoning in more detail.
Isabella's private conversation with Mortimer Junior is the first hint as to the change that will take place in her character over the course of the play. Since Mortimer returns from the conversation convinced that Gaveston should be recalled so that he can be killed, it seems likely that ease of assassination was one of the "reasons" Isabella cited in making her case. It's interesting, however, that Marlowe chooses not to reveal the details of what passes between Mortimer and Isabella in this scene—particularly because he elsewhere does use asides to depict private exchanges.
As Mortimer Junior and Isabella talk privately, Lancaster asks the other nobles for assurance that they will not change their minds about Gaveston's exile. Mortimer Senior says he will not go against his nephew's wishes, and the rest of the nobles debate whether Isabella will be able to change Mortimer Junior's mind.
Mortimer Senior's determination to support his nephew even in an action he himself considers unwise speaks to how deep ties of blood run in this society: questions about the overall good of the country go out the window when family loyalty is on the line. Meanwhile, the nobles' debate about the effect Isabella's words are likely to have introduces a new wrinkle to the play's treatment of language. If it is in fact Isabella who proposes killing Gaveston, her words are the catalyst for much of the violence that follows.
When Mortimer Junior rejoins the nobles, he says that while he hates Gaveston, he is now convinced they should bring him back to England “for the realm's behoof and for the King's.” Lancaster erupts, calling Mortimer's honor into question and denying that there can be any good in Gaveston's return, but Mortimer and Isabella urge him and the other nobles to hear what they have to say. Asking whether the other nobles do not wish to see Gaveston dead, Mortimer Junior explains his reasoning. With Edward's financial support, Gaveston might be able to find allies in Ireland, making it that much harder for the nobles to “overthrow” him. If, however, Gaveston returns to a place where he is “detested,” it will be relatively easy to find someone to assassinate Gaveston, “And none so much as blame the murderer, / But rather praise him for that brave attempt.”
As he outlines his plan to kill Gaveston, Mortimer Junior again argues that he is acting out of a sense of patriotism. Interestingly, however, he also suggests that murdering Gaveston is a way of serving the King. Given Edward's feelings for Gaveston, this is obviously not true in any straightforward sense, and it's possible that Mortimer doesn't truly care about helping Edward anyway. That said, the basic threat that Gaveston poses to the social hierarchy is arguably just as much an issue for the King as it is for the nobility. Gaveston is a commoner who has become powerful by currying favor rather than inheriting a title, and the monarchy is of course also an inherited position — so any destabilization of the tradition of inherited power could be seen as a threat to the role of the King.
The nobles agree that Mortimer Junior's plan is sound but are not entirely convinced. He therefore points out additional advantages: for instance, the possibility that Gaveston, realizing that the nobles have the power both to exile him and call him back, will treat them more deferentially in the future. When Mortimer Senior questions what will happen if Gaveston does not reform, Mortimer replies that in that case they will go to war, “For howsoever we have borne it out, / 'Tis treason to be up against the King.” He further claims, however, that if they do revolt that they will have the support of the common people, who “cannot brook a night-grown mushroom”—i.e. an upstart like Gaveston. The nobles agree to Mortimer's plan, and Isabella promises not to forget the “favour” they have done for her.
Mortimer's words here contradict what he has earlier claimed about the lawfulness of revolting against an unlawful king. Now, he suggests that no amount of ill-treatment ("howsoever we have borne it out") negates the fact that the actions the nobles are discussing are in fact treason. This again points to the play's ambivalence toward royal legitimacy: on the one hand, Edward does shirk some of his responsibilities as king, but on the other, even the most outspoken of his critics realizes that contradicting the king is a serious mater. In fact, Mortimer might not be so eager to rebel if he were not so sure he had the backing of the common people. His certainty, however, rests on the idea that they too will perceive Gaveston as a threat to the social status quo: his description of Gaveston as a "night-grown mushroom" is another jab at Gaveston's desire to rise above his allotted station in life.
Isabella notices Edward returning from seeing Gaveston off, and looks forward to cheering him up with the news of the banishment being overturned. She is exasperated, however, to hear him “harp[ing] upon his minion”—wishing he could exchange all his wealth for Gaveston's return and describing his heart as “an anvil unto sorrow, / Which beats upon it like the Cyclops' hammers, / And with the noise turns up [his] giddy brain.” Nevertheless, she approaches her husband saying she has “news” for him, which Edward immediately implies is evidence of her supposed affair with Mortimer Junior. Isabella ignores this and informs him that Gaveston will soon return, asking whether this will cause Edward to love her again. Edward, delighted, lavishes praise on his wife and says that this is the beginning of a “second marriage” between them.
Edward's grief over Gaveston's exile seems to have caused his mental state to deteriorate somewhat: he describes his mind as "giddy," and says he is "frantic" for Gaveston. This is in keeping with his earlier description of feeling "banished from himself" as a result of separation from Gaveston, and again suggests that he may suffer from some form of mental instability or division. His moods are certainly unstable: because Edward views everything and everyone through the prism of his relationship with Gaveston, he goes from accusing his wife of adultery to showering her with gifts over the course of a few lines.
Isabella reminds Edward of the nobles, who are now kneeling before him. Edward addresses Lancaster first, urging him to, “as gross vapours perish by the sun, / Even so let hatred with [his] sovereign's smile.” The King then speaks to each noble in turn, welcoming them back into his good graces and giving them various responsibilities: Warwick will be his “chiefest counsellor,” Pembroke will carry the sword of state on official occasions, Mortimer Junior will be Lord Marshal, and Mortimer Senior will lead the army that is ready to do battle with the Scots. Isabella watches all this approvingly and remarks that Edward is truly “rich and strong” now that he enjoys the nobles' loyalty.
Edward's brief reconciliation with the nobles offers a glimpse into what a working relationship between the monarchy and the nobility would be like. Although Isabella has her own reasons for encouraging this development, her remark that it is the nobility's "love" for the king that makes him "rich and strong" does reflect a historical truth about the English monarchy. Because the Magna Carta placed some limits on royal power, compromise and cooperation with the nobility became necessary for English kings.
Edward instructs the Clerk of the Court and Lord Beaumont to fetch Gaveston from exile in Ireland, and both leave. He then announces a feast and tournament to celebrate Gaveston's return, as well as his plans to “solemnize” Gaveston's marriage to his niece, Lady Margaret de Clare. He urges the nobles to spare no expense in planning all this, and leaves after they have restated their obedience to his wishes. Isabella, Pembroke, Warwick, and Lancaster also exit, leaving Mortimer Senior and Mortimer Junior alone.
Edward's desire for Gaveston to marry Lady Margaret might seem odd, assuming the relationship between the two men is romantic. Margaret, however, is a member of the royal family, so marriage to her will give Gaveston more formal standing at court. In fact, by bringing Gaveston into the royal family, Edward is quite literally doing what the nobles have feared all along: undermining the traditional system of inherited rank by elevating a commoner to noble status.
Mortimer Senior reminds Mortimer Junior that he will soon be leaving for Scotland, and urges his nephew to let Edward have his way in his absence. He further explains that the “wisest men” and “mightiest kings have had their minions,” and lists a number of classical pairs popularly assumed to be lovers: Alexander and Hephaestion, Hercules and Hylas, etc. In time, Mortimer Senior says, Edward will be “weaned” from Gaveston. Mortimer Junior, however, retorts that he doesn't care about the King's “wanton humour,” but cannot bear the thought that the low-born Gaveston is allowed to “riot it with the treasure of the realm / While soldiers mutiny for want of pay.” He further complains of the elaborate foreign fashions Gaveston and his followers wear while mocking Mortimer and the other nobles. Mortimer Senior again attempts to calm his nephew down, saying the King is “changed,” but Mortimer Junior remains skeptical, saying he will not “yield” to Gaveston as long as he has “a sword, a hand, [and] a heart.”
This conversation between the two Mortimers is likely the play's most detailed exploration of the nobility's true feelings about Gaveston, and some elements of it are surprising, given the date the play was written. Gaveston's homosexuality is in and of itself only a minor concern to Mortimer Junior, and his uncle goes so far as to advise a live-and-let-live approach. That said, Mortimer Junior does take issue with Gaveston's sexual behavior as part of a broader pattern of "otherness": in his speech, he implicitly associates Gaveston's sexuality with both his low birth and his foreignness (Gaveston has a fondness, for instance, for Italian fashions). In other words, Mortimer sees Gaveston as an alien and threatening presence on multiple levels, but first and foremost on grounds of rank. His comments about Gaveston's spending, for instance, seem to imply that someone less "basely born" would not risk destabilizing the country in the way that Gaveston is doing (i.e. by driving soldiers to "mutiny").