For its time, Edward II is remarkably open about the kind of relationship that exists between the king and his favorite, Gaveston. As Marlowe depicts them, the two men are almost certainly lovers. While the concept of homosexuality as it is understood today may not have existed until the 19th century, homosexual behavior and relationships obviously did exist, and in the times when the play was set and was written were extremely taboo. It is therefore not surprising that Edward’s relationship with Gaveston is a point of contention in the play. What is surprising, however, is that the play’s characters are more concerned with Gaveston’s status as a commoner than his sexual behavior. In fact, Edward II does not ultimately seem to condemn homosexuality at all, but instead uses the two men’s relationship to make a broader point about the role of sexuality in a society based on class, rank, and birthright.
Initially, the objections of the nobility to Gaveston seem quite clearly rooted in sexual prejudice in light of his presumed romantic relationship with the king. Mortimer Senior, for instance, remarks that it is “strange” that Edward is “bewitched” by Gaveston. Edward’s sexual preferences, however, are ultimately of less concern to the nobility than his willingness to follow the advice of Gaveston, a commoner, rather than their own. It is this, at least as much as Gaveston’s gender, that Mortimer Junior suggests has disrupted the rightful order of things, sparking discontent among the common people and robbing the nobility of their legitimate position at court. “Thy court is naked,” Mortimer Junior says, “ being bereft of those / That makes a king seem glorious to the world— / I mean the peers whom thou shouldst dearly love.” In other words, Mortimer Junior asserts that the authority of the court depends on its members being of high social rank. That being the case, Mortimer argues, Edward should love those of his own class, which further implies that he should not love the commoners.
To the extent that Edward’s relationship with Gaveston is a problem, then, it is a problem not so much because it is homosexual, but because it ignores the categories according to which society is organized. In Edward II’s world (and Marlowe’s), ties of blood were far more important than ties of romance, because an individual’s rank hinged entirely on whom he was biologically related to. By prioritizing a sexual relationship over the inherited claims of the nobility, Edward is in effect undermining the entire system by which power was allocated, making it possible for a “peasant” like Gaveston to enjoy more political power than the nobility. Isabella’s eventual affair with Mortimer Junior creates a similar problem, because Mortimer—though a noble—is not in the direct line of succession for the throne. By choosing to pursue a relationship with him, however, Isabella opens up both herself and her newly crowned son to Mortimer’s manipulation. This culminates in a scene where Mortimer orders Kent’s executions over Edward III’s protests before dragging the King bodily from the room. This flagrant disrespect for the wishes of a king—even a young king—is clearly problematic in a monarchical society.
From start to finish, then, Edward II depicts sexuality as a force that potentially threatens the entire social order. This is particularly clear in the repeated use of the word “unnatural”—a term often applied to sexual transgressions—to describe a variety of broken social ties. Kent, for instance, claims that only an “unnatural king” would “slaughter noblemen / And cherish flatterers,” while Edward III says he has difficulty believing his mother “unnatural” enough to conspire in her husband’s murder.
The ascension of Edward III to the throne at the end of the play seems to mark a return to the social norm, since the new king explicitly invokes his father (that is, his bloodline) when imprisoning his mother and executing her lover. Presumably, he will also defer to the nobility when appropriate, thus preserving social order on a broader scale as well. However, readers may find it difficult not to sympathize with Edward II’s love for Gaveston, or even with the frustration that drives Isabella to her affair with Mortimer. In other words, while Marlowe depicts these relationships as a threat to the status quo, he does not entirely condemn them, leaving open the possibility that he does not entirely support the return to normalcy in the play’s final lines.
Sex, Lineage, and the Natural Order ThemeTracker
Sex, Lineage, and the Natural Order 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.
Edward: Lay hands on that traitor Mortimer!
Mortimer Senior: Lay hands on that traitor Gaveston!
[The NOBLES draw swords]
Kent: Is this the duty that you owe your King?
Warwick: We know our duties; let him know his peers.
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.
Base leaden earls that glory in your birth,
Go sit at home and eat your tenants' beef,
And come not here to scoff at Gaveston,
Whose mounting thoughts did never creep so low
As to bestow a look on such as you.
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.
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.
King Edward III: Traitor, in me my loving father speaks
And plainly saith, 'twas thou that murd'redst him.
Mortimer Junior: But hath your grace no other proof than this?
King Edward III: Yes, if this be the hand of Mortimer.
[He presents the letter]