Edward II


Christopher Marlowe

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Edward II: Allusions 5 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Hero and Leander:

Piers Gaveston, a “favourite” of King Edward II who had previously been exiled by his father, uses both hyperbole and allusion in responding to the news that his banishment from England has been lifted upon Edward’s succession to the throne. Gaveston says: 

What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston 
Than live and be the favourite of a king? 
Sweet prince, I come; these, these thy amorous lines 
Might have enforced me to have swum from France, 
And like Leander gasped upon the sand, 
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy arms.

This dark and somber play begins on a light note, as Gaveston speaks excitedly of his love for King Edward and his excitement at being restored to the court. In his excitement, he hyperbolically claims that he would “have swum from France,” crossing the long English channel, to be at the King’s side.

Further, he alludes to the Greek myth of Hero and Leander by describing himself as being “like Leander” who “gasped upon the sand.” In the myth of Hero and Leander, Leander is a young man who lives in Abydos, a city on one side of the Hellespont, an oceanic strait. Every night, he swims across the Hellespont in order to be with his beloved, Hero, who lives in Sestos, on the other side of the strait. Gaveston, then, imagines his relationship with Edward through the lens of classical romance, alluding to a mythological story that Marlowe actually adapted into a poem several years after completing this play. 

Act 1, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Midas and Proteus :

Mortimer uses hyperbole and a number of classical allusions in describing Gaveston’s wasteful and extravagant lifestyle in conversation with his uncle, Mortimer Senior: 

Uncle, his wanton humour grieves not me, 
But this I scorn, that one so basely born 
Should by his sovereign’s favour grow so pert 
And riot it with the treasure of the realm.
While soldiers mutiny for want of pay, 
He wears a lord’s revenue on his back, 
And Midas-like he jets it in the court 
With base outlandish cullions at his heels, 
Whose proud fantastic liveries make such show  
As if that Proteus, god of shapes, appeared.

Here, Mortimer provides some important historical background: the English army is under-funded and many soldiers have begun to “mutiny for want of pay” while the King’s lover “wears a lord’s revenue on his back.” Here, Mortimer hyperbolically claims that the entire English treasury has been spent on Gaveston’s fine clothing. He describes Gaveston as “Midas-like,” suggesting that he is richly adorned in gold despite being “basely born,” or in other words, a commoner. In another classical allusion, he suggests that the embroidery and decorations on Gaveston’s clothing are so excessive that it is as if “Proteus, god of shapes” has appeared and created magical illusions. Mortimer’s speech accuses Gaveston and the King with misusing funds that would be better served elsewhere, such as supporting the army.

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Explanation and Analysis—The King's Favorites:

Mortimer Senior implores the other lords to be more patient with King Edward II. Arguing that the young King’s fixation with Gaveston does not necessarily mean he cannot rule effectively, Mortimer Senior alludes to a list of figures from mythology and history who had their own male “favourites”: 

The mightiest kings have had their minions: 
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, 
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, 
And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. 
And not kings only, but the wisest men: 
The Roman Tully loved Octavius, 
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.

Here, Mortimer Senior draws up a list of figures from antiquity who have been associated with homoerotic or same-sex desire and relationships. He begins this list of historical figures with Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King whose empire spanned continents. He also includes brave warriors from mythology, such as the divine heroes Hercules and Achilles. After considering these figures who lead nations and armies, Mortimer Senior adds to the list “the wisest men,” such as Tully (a nickname for the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero) and the Greek philosopher Socrates.

Mortimer Senior’s list of classical allusions places King Edward’s relationship to Gaveston in a long classical tradition of same-sex attraction, suggesting that many famous male heroes, Kings, and philosophers were similarly involved in intimate relationships with other men. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Jove on Ganymede :

After being dismissed by her husband, King Edward II, in favor of his lover, Piers Gaveston, the Queen expresses her bitter and mournful feelings in a soliloquy. In the course of this soliloquy, she alludes to various figures from classical mythology: 

Would when I left sweet France and was embarked, 
That charming Circes, walking on the waves, 
Had changed my shape, or at the marriage day 
The cup of Hymen had been full of poison, 
Or with those arms that twined about my neck 
I had been stifled and not lived to see
The king my lord thus to abandon me. 
Like frantic Juno will I fill the earth 
With ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries, 
For never doted Jove on Ganymede 
So much as he on cursèd Gaveston.

In this private speech, she registers a sense of homesickness upon leaving “sweet France” in order to marry Edward in England, even wishing that Circe, a witch-like enchantress and minor goddess in Greek mythology, had transformed her into something else so that she could avoid her fate. Next, she alludes to Hymen, a god associated with weddings and marriage, in wishing that she had been poisoned at her own wedding banquet in order to avoid her current heartbreak. Last, she alludes to Juno, who was neglected by her husband, Jupiter, in favor of Ganymede, a mortal boy whose beauty captured the god’s attention. This last allusion daringly registers the homoerotic implications of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston. In her monologue, then, the Queen speaks freely about her many woes and bitterly laments the King’s treatment of her. 

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Act 2, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Greekish Strumpet :

Lancaster alludes to the mythological figure of Helen of Troy in his condemnation of Piers Gaveston. In Scene 9, Gaveston and the King separate after facing an overwhelming assault from the combined forces of the various rebelling lords, and Gaveston is captured while attempting to flee. The lords are now able to speak with Gaveston without censorship, and they criticize him in harsh terms. Lancaster states: 

Monster of men, 
That, like the Greekish strumpet, trained to arms 
And bloody wars so many valiant knights, 
Look for no other fortune, wretch, than death. 
Kind Edward is not here to buckler thee.

Lancaster compares Gaveston in a simile to “the Greekish strumpet,” a derogatory description of Helen of Troy, a figure in Greek mythology who was generally considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. A daughter of Zeus, Helen was married to Menelaeus of Sparta but was abducted and brought to Troy by Paris. This abduction was the primary cause of the Trojan War as reported in most mythological accounts, including Homer’s Iliad. 

Lancaster’s allusion is layered. Much as Paris was willing to make great sacrifices for his relationship with the beautiful Helen, King Edward II has defended the charming Gaveston despite the dire consequences. Lancaster characterizes Helen as a “strumpet" whose sexual promiscuity has resulted in the deaths of many soldiers and civilians in the Trojan War; likewise, Gaveston’s return from exile has divided the nation, setting the armies of the King and the lords against each other. 

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