At the time Edward II was written, the casual xenophobia of its characters would not have seemed out of the ordinary in English society. War was common, both in Marlowe’s day and in Edward’s, and tensions with the French, Scottish, and Irish ran correspondingly high. With that said, the mistrust of foreigners and the pervasive threat of war in the play also points to a broader suspicion of “otherness,” whether based on ethnicity, sexuality, or even class. Ultimately, however, these fears prove to be misguided, as the most serious threats faced by characters in the play are internal.
The character who most clearly fulfills the role of outsider in Edward II is Gaveston. In fact, Marlowe underscores Gaveston’s otherness by making him low-born—something that was not true of the historical Gaveston, but which clearly unnerves the nobles, who have inherited their position in the court. Gaveston’s sexual behavior is also more obviously at odds with societal norms than Edward’s. This is partly because Isabella and the nobles view Gaveston as the corrupter of an otherwise innocent (though weak) king, but it is also because Gaveston is quite open about where his sexual preferences lie. He talks, for instance, about arranging homoerotic “masques” with “men like satyrs grazing on the lawns” and “a lovely boy in Dian’s shape, / …in his sportful hands an olive tree / To hide those parts which men delight to see.” Finally, Gaveston is a foreigner both by birth (he is French) and by habits and appearance; in a speech that links Gaveston’s class, sexuality, and foreignness, Mortimer Junior complains that Gaveston “wears a short Italian hooded cloak” and goes around “with base outlandish cullions at his heels.” Since “cullions”—an insult comparable to the modern “low-life”—also was sometimes used as slang to refer to testicles, the term captures much of what marks Gaveston as different, and much of what other characters malign him for.
What is ultimately threatening to the nobles about Gaveston, however, is not his threefold status as an outsider (homosexual, low-born, and foreign), but rather his status as an insider—specifically, the fact that Edward views his favorite as an extension of himself. Edward not only gives Gaveston permission to issue commands in his own name, but repeatedly describes the two of them as being one and the same person: Edward responds to Gaveston’s exile, for example, by claiming, “I from my self am banished.” To some extent, then, Gaveston’s influence over the king (and all the ill effects that follow) are simply a reflection of Edward’s own “brainsickness”—a problem that is internal to both England and Edward himself. What exactly this sickness consists of is never entirely clear, but Edward’s remarks about being separated from himself suggest that his sense of identity is unstable or divided. In this way, Edward’s inner state mirrors the political divisions that eventually erupt into civil war. In fact, when fighting eventually does break out between Edward and the nobility, Isabella’s remarks underscore the idea that the violence is an outward manifestation of the king’s own state of mind; her description of “kin and countrymen / Slaughter[ing] themselves in others” recalls Edward’s comments about his relationship with Gaveston, and she concludes by attributing these problems to “misgoverned kings.”
In the end, then, it is not the foreigner—the “wild O’Neill” or the “haughty Dane”—that poses the real danger to England, but rather internal discord, which manifests not only in the rebellion of the nobility against the king, but also in the psychology of the king himself. In fact, as the political situation deteriorates further under Mortimer’s rule, Edward descends so far into inner turmoil that he becomes a complete stranger to himself: he says, for instance, that he cannot tell whether he has “limbs” or not. By the end of the play, Marlowe suggests that the true “other” is not an external enemy but rather something that comes from within.
Fear of the Other and Internal Discord ThemeTracker
Fear of the Other and Internal Discord Quotes in Edward II
These are not men for me;
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant King which way I please.
…In the day when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad.
My men like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay;
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl above his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring.
My lord, why do you thus incense your peers
That naturally would love and honour you,
But for that base and obscure Gaveston?
Rend not my heart with thy too-piercing words.
Thou from this land, I from my self am banished.
Edward: Fawn not on me, French strumpet; get thee gone.
Isabella: On whom but on my husband should I fawn?
Gaveston: On Mortimer, with whom, ungentle Queen—
I say no more; judge you the rest, my lord.
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 wear's 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.
I have not seen a dapper jack so brisk;
He wears a short Italian hooded cloak,
Larded with pearl; and in his Tuscan cap
A jewel of more value than the crown.
Whiles other walk below, the King and he
From out a window laugh at such as we,
And flout our train and jest at our attire.
Lancaster: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed:
Thy garrisons are beaten out of France,
And, lame and poor, lie groaning at the gates;
The wild O'Neill, with swarms of Irish kerns,
Lives uncontrolled within the English pale;
Unto the walls of York the Scots made road
And, unresisted, drove away rich spoils.
Mortimer Junior: The haughty Dane commands the narrow seas,
While in the harbour ride thy ships unrigged.
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;
King Edward is not here to buckler thee.
Edward: O, shall I speak, or shall I sigh and die?
Spencer Junior: My lord, refer your vengeance to the sword
Upon these barons.
Isabella:…A heavy case,
When force to force is knit, and sword and glaive
In civil broils make kin and countrymen
Slaughter themselves in others, and their sides
With their own weapons gored. But what's the help?
Misgoverned kings are cause of all this wrack;
And Edward, thou art one among them all,
Whose looseness hath betrayed thy land to spoil
And made the channels overflow with blood.
Of thine own people patron shouldst thou be,
Mortimer Junior: Nay madam, if you be a warrior,
Ye must not grow so passionate in speeches.
And there in mire and puddle have I stood
This ten days' space; and lest that I should sleep,
One plays continually upon a drum.
They give me bread and water being a king,
So that for want of sleep and sustenance
My mind's distempered and my body's numbed,
And whether I have limbs or no, I know not.