Edward, Isabella, Lancaster, Mortimer Junior, Warwick, Pembroke, and Kent are waiting for Gaveston's arrival. The King is impatient and preoccupied with thoughts of Gaveston, which irritates Isabella and the nobles—most notably Mortimer, who reminds the King that he ought to be thinking of “matters of more weight,” like France's attempts to recapture Normandy. Edward, however, dismisses this as a “trifle” and asks what kind of heraldic device Mortimer has designed for the welcoming ceremony.
One of the nobles' central complaints with Edward is that he is not adequately interested in military matters. In many cases, these complaints may strike a modern reader as excessive, if not downright bloodthirsty: Mortimer Junior in particular seems to value war above virtually everything else. In this instance, however, the criticism does point to a real shortcoming on Edward's part. Edward's infatuation with Gaveston is so all-consuming that he completely dismisses a threat to England's holdings.
Mortimer Junior describes the scene that will decorate his shield: “A lofty cedar tree fair flourishing…And by the bark a canker creeps me up / And gets unto the highest bough of all.” Edward then asks what Lancaster's device will be, and Lancaster describes a flying fish being captured by a bird. The King, realizing that these are symbols for Gaveston, questions whether the nobles have really made peace with him and his favorite: “Can you in words make show of amity, / And in your shields display your rancorous minds?”. Isabella attempts to reassure her husband that the nobles “love” him, but Edward argues that no one can love him and hate Gaveston before turning the nobles' heraldry around: “And “Æque tandem” shall that canker cry / Unto the proudest peer in Brittany.”
The device Mortimer describes draws heavily on a fairly common symbol in Elizabethan theater: the idea of the society or nation as a tree (or plant, garden, etc.). As Mortimer's speech demonstrates, the image is especially evocative when it comes to describing the overall health of society. In this case, for instance, Mortimer imagines Gaveston as a "canker" (worm) that feeds parasitically on both Edward and the kingdom as a whole. Not surprisingly, Edward responds badly, and effectively defends upending the entire social order to promote Gaveston's interests: he adopts the motto Mortimer sarcastically proposes ("Æque tandem"—i.e. "equal in height") as an appropriate one for Gaveston. He also notes the discrepancy between the nobles' words and the images they intend to display on their shields, which again points to the tension between language and violence in the play. In this case, the nobles' shields—a symbol of warfare—"speak" more honestly than their actual words.
In an aside to the other nobles, Mortimer Junior worries that Gaveston's presence will just deepen Edward's fervor. At that very moment, however, Gaveston arrives. The two share a joyful reunion, with Edward comparing himself to the lovers of Danaë, who “desired her more and waxed outrageous” when her father locked her in a tower. When the nobles greet Gaveston, however, they do so by mockingly referring to his many titles. Edward, appealing to Kent for support, complains of the nobles' behavior, while Gaveston says he cannot tolerate their treatment of him. Encouraged by Edward, he mocks the nobles, telling them to return home and cease to bother him, since his “mounting thoughts did never creep so low / As to bestow a look on such as [them].” In response, Lancaster draws his sword. Edward attempts to remove Gaveston to safety, but Mortimer Junior succeeds in wounding Gaveston first.
The confrontation between Gaveston and the nobility once more centers on social status. The nobles refer to Gaveston's titles sarcastically, making it clear that regardless of the status Edward bestows on him, they will always view Gaveston as a commoner. Gaveston, however, refuses to take the bait. Although he does grow angry with the nobles, he mocks their own status rather than defending his own. In particular, Gaveston's remark that the nobles "glory in their birth" undercuts the idea that there is anything special about being a noble by blood. The fact that the nobles immediately respond by drawing their swords arguably proves Gaveston's point, particularly given Spencer Junior's earlier remarks about the link between nobility and violence: in order to maintain the distinctiveness of their status, the nobles must resort to force.
As Gaveston leaves, Isabella laments Mortimer Junior's rash actions. Mortimer, unrepentant, implies that his only regret is that he didn’t kill Gaveston. Edward responds by sending both Mortimer Junior and Lancaster away from court. Edward further implies that they are in danger of being executed, to which Warwick responds that Edward is in danger of losing his crown. Kent attempts to quiet Warwick, but Edward interrupts, saying he will “tread upon their heads / That think with high looks thus to tread me down.” He then summons his brother to come with him to raise an army, and the two men exit, accompanied by Isabella.
Given that the scene opened with a discussion of the military threat posed by France, it is striking that the violence so quickly turns inward, with Edward now arguing that war is the only way to deal with the nobles' rebelliousness. This is in keeping with the fact that the most serious threats in the play ultimately come from within rather than without. It is also worth noting that Edward's threats of violence are characteristically over-the-top. Throughout the play, Edward describes in elaborate detail what he intends to do to his enemies, but rarely follows though on his threats.
Warwick, Mortimer Junior, Lancaster, and Pembroke are now more convinced than ever of the need for Gaveston's death. They further feel that there is no point talking with Edward further; as Lancaster says, the King “means to make [them] stoop by force of arms.” They therefore prepare to send heralds to Edward—a symbolically significant act, since heralds were typically used to communicate during war.
Like Edward himself, the nobles feel that violence is the only solution to the situation they find themselves in. Although they frame this as a response to Edward's own threats, it is worth noting that Mortimer Junior, at least, has argued in favor of rebellion all along.
As the nobles make plans, a messenger arrives with a letter from Scotland, informing Mortimer Junior that his uncle, Mortimer Senior, is being held for ransom. Mortimer feels that Edward should pay this money, since Mortimer Senior was fighting on his behalf when he was captured, and Lancaster offers to go with him to make this case to the King. Meanwhile, Warwick and Pembroke depart to go to Newcastle to begin to raise an army.
The conflict surrounding Mortimer Senior's ransom is another example Edward's and the nobility's differing views on the responsibilities of a monarch. Not unreasonably, Mortimer Junior believes that the services the nobles provide (e.g. military service) should inspire some reciprocal loyalty on Edward's part. Edward, however, apparently does not share this view, perhaps because the nobles' loyalty is itself in question by this point. Whatever the case, the nobles take Edward's ultimate refusal to pay the ransom as yet another way in which he has breached an implicit contract with them.
A guard arrives just as Mortimer Junior is hinting darkly at what he will do if Edward does not agree to his demands that his uncle be ransomed. The guard attempts to prevent Mortimer Junior and Lancaster from seeing the King, but the commotion attracts the attention of both Edward and Kent, who emerge from the King's chambers. Mortimer explains what has happened to Mortimer Senior before Edward has a chance to leave, but Edward refuses to pay the ransom, even when Mortimer begins to threaten him. Instead, he offers to give Mortimer authorization to raise money, implying that the Mortimer family is poor. In response, Mortimer grasps his sword and says his family “never beg[s], but use[s] such prayers as these.”
Although Edward's refusal to ransom Mortimer Senior would likely have angered Mortimer Junior regardless, it comes across as particularly unfair in context. The implied insult to the Mortimer family makes it clear that Edward's refusal stems mostly from personal dislike. While this is to some degree understandable, given how Mortimer Junior himself has treated Edward, it speaks to Edward's unfitness as a ruler: he is unable to set aside his personal grievances to address the broader political issues in question. What's more, the particular insult Edward chooses is one that targets Mortimer's status as a member of the nobility—a point of particular pride for him and the other lords. As Lancaster did earlier, Mortimer responds to a challenge to his rank by threatening violence.
Edward begins to complain about the behavior of Lancaster and Mortimer Junior, but the nobles cut him off in order to list their own grievances: that the nation's wealth is being wasted on pageantry and gifts, that the King's treatment of Isabella jeopardizes international relations, that England is rapidly losing territory to the French, Scottish, and Irish, and that the common people are turning against Edward and Gaveston as a result of overtaxation and lack of military protection. Mortimer Junior further complains that Edward himself has almost never been to war, and that when he did ride to battle at Bannockburn, he treated it as a spectacle rather than a serious military engagement: “Thy soldiers marched like players, / With garish robes, not armour.”
By and large, the accusations the nobles level at Edward in this scene are (if true) legitimate grounds for complaint. As the nobles describe it, Edward has abused his power as king for his own pleasure while neglecting the overall good of the kingdom—for instance, by overtaxing his subjects in order to shower his lover with expensive gifts. Furthermore, the nobles argue, Edward's policies have weakened England to such an extent that it is now vulnerable to multiple attacks from outside. All these charges arguably furnish the nobles with grounds for rebelling against the king as a way of protecting the country's overall welfare. With that said, Mortimer Junior's complaint about Edward's conduct during battle seems petty and personal in tone, which to some extent undercuts the nobility's claim to the moral high ground: although the concerns they raise may be valid, their motives are not totally pure.
Mortimer Junior and Lancaster leave, resolving to sell the Mortimer castle for ransom money and then “purchase more” by force. Edward, enraged, says he will no longer be held back by fear of the nobles, but will instead, “unfold [his] paws / And let their lives' blood slake [his] fury's hunger.” Kent, however, is alarmed by the threat of war and urges his brother to banish Gaveston once and for all, for the good of the country. Edward is predictably upset to learn that Kent does not approve of Gaveston's influence, and the two argue briefly before Edward dismisses Kent in anger. Alone on stage, Edward says that he does not care if his castle is besieged as long as he has Gaveston with him.
Although Kent has repeatedly defended Edward's decision in the past, it becomes clear in this exchange that he was acting at least in part out of respect for the monarchy itself. Kent does not approve of Gaveston or—to the extent that Edward persists in defending Gaveston—of Edward's own actions. Edward, who consistently views people and events in terms of his own personal feelings, sees this as treason, despite Kent's attempts to justify his position in terms of his loyalty to the country as a whole.
Edward notices Isabella, whom he describes as the cause of all his problems. Isabella reports the rumors about the nobles going to war, and Edward again taunts her about her supposed affair with Mortimer Junior. Lady Margaret and Gaveston, who have entered with Isabella, urge Edward to be kinder to his wife, and he apologizes.
Edward's response to Isabella again reveals his understanding of loyalty as something that is due to him personally, rather than to the monarchy or country in general. Although he does not seem particularly disturbed by the news that the nobles are plotting an uprising, he takes the time to criticize Isabella for supposedly committing adultery. Edward's quick about-face, meanwhile, illustrates the extent to which Gaveston is able to control him, since a few words persuade him to apologize to his wife.
Edward and Gaveston discuss what to do about Mortimer Junior now that he is openly threatening “civil wars”: Gaveston favors imprisoning or murdering him, but Edward fears upsetting the common people. Edward's attention then turns to Baldock and Spencer Junior, and he asks first Lady Margaret and then the men themselves who they are. Edward promises to let both men “wait on” him and (thanks to Gaveston's recommendation) to provide Spencer Junior with a title at some point in the future.
Although Gaveston's overtly violent solutions to dealing with Mortimer Junior are likely to be jarring to a modern reader, this kind of ruthlessness was widely accepted at the time Marlowe was writing. Edward's failure to act decisively is thus another indication of his ineffectuality as a ruler. Although Edward's remark that killing Mortimer could backfire does demonstrate a degree of political awareness, his quick dismissal of the brewing rebellion is unwise. What's more, the fact that he turns his attention away from the problem in order to interview Baldock and Spencer Junior—two new prospective favorites—underscores his persistent preoccupation with the personal rather than the political.
Turning back to Lady Margaret, Edward tells her that she and Gaveston will be married today, in part as a demonstration of his love for Gaveston. Edward then reiterates that the “headstrong barons shall not limit [him]” and says that they will begin preparing for war as soon as the wedding is over.
Edward appears to push forward the date of the wedding as a way of reaffirming his loyalty to Gaveston in the face of the nobility's (and now Kent's) opposition. Gaveston and Margaret's marriage, in other words, is in some sense the opening salvo in the war Edward says will follow the wedding.