Like many works of English Renaissance drama, Edward II deals extensively with the nature and limits of monarchical rule. Although the English kings and queens of the time certainly wielded more power than they would in later years, they were not absolute monarchs in the way that many rulers in continental Europe were. Instead, England had a tradition of semi-constitutional monarchy dating back to the rule of King John and the signing of the Magna Carta—a document that gave the nobility some checks on the king’s power. This tug-of-war between the monarchy and the nobility continued for the next several centuries, and forms the backdrop for Edward II, in which the nobility eventually overthrows Edward in favor of his son, whom Mortimer intends to use as a puppet ruler. However, Marlowe’s take on history also incorporates questions of personal loyalty and patriotism which—although anachronistic to the era in which the play is set—add further nuance to the conflict between Edward and the nobility.
Perhaps more than anything else, Edward’s repeated complaints about being “overruled” by the nobility reveal his shortcomings as a king. For one, the remarks betray his lack of awareness, since Gaveston is in fact “overruling” Edward’s decisions on a continual basis through his influence. Even more to the point, however, Edward’s preoccupation with the indignity of his treatment by the nobles suggests that he has difficulty viewing the broader political implications of events beyond whatever personal meaning they hold for him. This is to some extent understandable, particularly given that Edward at times expresses a desire to be free of the burdens of kingship (at one point telling the nobility to “Make several kingdoms of this monarchy, / And share it equally amongst you all, / So I may have some nook or corner yet / To frolic with my Gaveston”). For as long as he is king, however, Edward has a responsibility to abide by the norms and responsibilities of the position, which includes paying attention to the concerns of the nobility. As Warwick puts it, “We know our duties [to the king]; let [the king] know his peers.” Ultimately, the nobles decide the king has failed to leave up to his duties, and they rise up in revolt to depose him.
Whether Edward’s flouting of his kingly responsibilities does justify deposing him is a complicated question. Early in the play, even those characters who are most frustrated with the king are wary of actually taking action against him because they believe the role of the king demands loyalty, regardless of the fitness of the individual who has the role. The Bishop of Canterbury, for instance, cautions Mortimer Junior to “lift not [his] swords against the King.” The exception, as this exchange demonstrates, is Mortimer, who repeatedly argues that the king’s actions have broken the implicit contract that makes him king in the first place, and that it is therefore “lawful” to rise up against him. His argument is based not only on the idea that Edward’s actions have wronged his nobles, but also that they have “wronged [the] country.” Warwick and even Kent—Edward’s own brother—eventually come to share in this view, citing their duty to England as a reason to support the coup that deposes the king. This line of reasoning, if accepted, transforms the nobles’ rebellion (which would normally be an act of treason) into an act of patriotism. In addition, this logic also redefines treason as a matter of undermining the country’s welfare, rather than rebelling against any particular leader. The nobles, for instance, repeatedly describe Gaveston as a “traitor” despite his loyalty to the king.
This idea of civic or patriotic loyalty—loyalty not to a person but to a country—however, is tarnished by Mortimer’s own ambition, and his behavior after his own ascent to power. His pleasure at seeing the “proudest lords salute [him]” does not make him seem like someone who places the interests of his country before his own. Perhaps, then, the best way to understand Marlowe’s treatment of loyalty and royal legitimacy is to view it in the context of the time in which the play was written (not the time in which it was set). Renaissance England was moving away from the medieval feudal system, where individuals owed allegiance to a particular lord or monarch, and was beginning to embrace something like modern nationalism, where individuals owe allegiance to a nation-state that exists independently of any particular ruler. The transition was incomplete at the time Marlowe was writing, however, and in fact England at the time was strongly united under Elizabeth I, though tensions over succession marked both the times before and after her reign (and in fact, about 40 years after the publication of the play England would erupt in a civil war that would end with the execution of its king). This may explain why Edward II views Mortimer’s patriotism with some suspicion, while painting Gaveston and Edward’s personal devotion to one another in a relatively sympathetic light.
Monarchy, Legitimacy, and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Monarchy, Legitimacy, and Loyalty 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.
Bishop of Canterbury: …We and the rest that are his councillors
Will meet and with a general consent
Confirm his banishment with our hands and seals.
Lancaster: What we confirm the King will frustrate.
Mortimer Junior: Then may we lawfully revolt from him.
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.
Mortimer Junior: Then, Edward, thou wilt fight it to the last,
And rather bathe thy sword in subjects' blood
Than banish that pernicious company?
Edward: Ay, traitors all! Rather than thus be braved,
Make England's civil towns huge heaps of stones
And ploughs to go about our palace gates.
Warwick: A desperate and unnatural resolution.
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.
Successful battles gives the God of kings
To them that fight in right and fear his wrath.
Since then successfully we have prevailed,
Thanks be heaven's great architect and you…
Sith the fates
Have made [Edward II] so infortunate,
Deal you, my lords, in this, my loving lords,
As to your wisdoms fittest seems in all.
Spencer, I see our souls are fleeted hence;
We are deprived the sunshine of our life.
Make for a new life, man; throw up thy eyes,
And heart and hand to heaven's immortal throne,
Pay nature's debt with cheerful countenance.
Reduce we all our lessons unto this:
To die, sweet Spencer, therefore live we all;
Spencer, all live to die, and rise to fall.
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
My nobles rule; I bear the name of King.
I wear the crown, but am controlled by them