The tragedy Edward II by Christopher Marlowe depicts King Edward's reign, his forced
abdication, and his death as well as his relationship with Gaveston and the rise and fall of his
opponent Mortimer Junior.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term transgression refers to "[t]he action of
transgressing or passing beyond the bounds of legality or right; a violation of law, duty, or
command; disobedience, trespass, sin."
In Elizabethan England, many of the acts which the
Oxford English Dictionary defines as transgressions would have been categorized as acts of
sodomy. Back then, the term sodomy "covered [...] a whole range of sexual acts, of which
sexual acts between people of the same sex were only a part. It was closer, rather, to an idea
like debauchery. [...] It was also a political and a religious crime." (Bray 41) Therefore,
sodomy was not limited to sexual acts, but encompassed a whole range of immoral and illegal
acts, much like the contemporary definition of transgression does now. This theoretical
background is important to understand the use of the term in some of the cited secondary
The following essay will show that the play highlights a problematic entanglement of sexual
and social transgressions. It does so especially in regard to the relationship of King Edward
and Gaveston, but it also interrogates the sexual and social components of Isabel's
relationship with Edward's enemy Mortimer Junior. The causes and effects of the several
transgressions are essential elements of the play and drive the plot forward.
At the core of the plot is the relationship between Edward and Gaveston. It is precisely the
problematic entanglement of private sexual matters and public affairs seen in this relationship
that leads to the other transgressions and tragic events depicted in the play. This will be
illustrated through the analysis of the transgressions by Edward and Gaveston, followed by
the transgressive actions of Isabel and Mortimer.
2. King Edward II and Gaveston
2.1. Sexual Transgressions
The play "refuses to allow a simplistic verdict on Edward's love for Gaveston." (Stewart 93)
Looking at the ideal male friendship in Elizabethan England, Edward's and Gaveston's
relationship may not necessarily be of a sexual nature. It is given an ambiguous erotic
undertone, which is introduced through Gaveston's ideas on how to entertain the king:
"Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape, / [...] / And in his sportful hands an olive-tree / To
hide those parts which men delight to see" (1.1.60, 63/64). While this quote certainly refers to
erotic entertainment, it remains unclear if this entertainment would be of a homosexual or a
heterosexual nature: "is it the body of the boy which is being hidden or of the goddess he is
playing?" (Bray 49) This uncertainty can be seen as representative of the ambiguity in regard
to Edward's and Gaveston's relationship and their sexuality. "Marlowe [...] places [the
relationship] wholly within the incompatible conventions of Elizabethan friendship, in a
tension which he never allows to be resolved" (Bray 49), leaving it open to interpretation
whether or not homosexual acts are a component of this very close friendship. For the sake of
this essay, I will obtain the position that the relationship is indeed a sexual relationship.
Therefore, sexual transgressions in the form of adultery and homosexual acts, which
Elizabethan society considered to be "a crime which anyone was capable of" (Bray 40),
take place from the very beginning of the play.
Even though Elizabethan law considered sexual acts between men a crime, this offense is
neither condemned nor celebrated in the play. As will be shown in detail later on, Edward's
sexuality "takes on meaning primarily when [it] impinges on the political" (Thomas 2). The
sexual transgressions of Edward and Gaveston are only important in relation to the social
transgressions they cause, which become a threat to the just distribution of power, the
monarch-subject bond, and the image of the king as natural ruler and husband.
2.2. Social Transgressions
2.2.1. The Distribution of Power
A sexual relationship between the King of England and "one so basely-born" (1.4.403) as
Gaveston might be considered a breach, but would it be a relationship contained within the
private sphere, it would be a nuisance the nobility would condone. This is illustrated by
Mortimer Senior's statement that "[t]he mightiest kings have had their minions" (1.4.391) and
the hope that "riper years will wean him from such toys" (1.4.401), suggesting that Edward's
love for Gaveston might just be a phase the nobility could endure.
However, since the relationship transgresses the boundaries between private and public life
resulting in favoritism concerning Gaveston, it cannot be accepted by the nobles. Edward
declares Gaveston to be "Lord High Chamberlain, / Chief Secretary to the state and me, / Earl
of Cornwall, King and Lord of Man" (1.1.153-155) as soon as he returns from exile to
England. As Edward's brother Kent points out, "the least of these may well suffice / For one
of greater birth than Gaveston" (1.5.157/8). The king also decides to give Gaveston a
significant amount of wealth. Mortimer Junior states that "Gaveston hath a store of gold"
(1.4.257) and "in his Tuscan cap / A jewel of more value than the crown" (1.4.414/415).
This sudden rise in power of a commoner provokes harsh reactions from Edward's closest
noblemen: "Accursed Gaveston!" (1.2.4) and "villain" (1.2.11), they cry. Through these
reactions, it becomes clear that the nobles condemn Gaveston and see his rise as a social
transgression. Gaveston's characterization as a "villain" (1.2.11) is telling: The nobles
consider his rise in power a criminal, or at least an unnatural, act, because it threatens the
established social order.
2.2.2. The Monarch-Subject Bond
Another offense committed by King Edward is that he cares only for himself and Gaveston.
He puts his relationship with Gaveston before the well-being of his entire realm and all the
other subjects of whom he is supposed to take care. This is shown explicitly in the statements
Edward makes concerning what he is willing to do to keep Gaveston at his side in England.
As an example, Edward states: "And, would my crown's revenue bring him back, / I would
freely give it to his enemies" (1.4.308/9), which means that Edward would be willing to give
up his rightful place as king in other words, he would abandon his people, his queen, and
his kingdom if that meant he would "have some nook or corner left / To frolic with [his]
dearest Gaveston" (1.4.72/73). Edward does not seem to consider his people and his realm,
all he can think about his Gaveston and his wish to never be parted from him. Mortimer
Junior points out that the king "ha[s] matters of more weight to think upon" (2.2.8). He has
the duty to govern and protect his people as "[t]he king of France sets foot in Normandy."
(2.2.9) Edward declares this event to be a" trifle" (2.2.10) and does not concern himself
further with it. Later on, Lancaster declares that "the northern borderers, seeing their houses
burnt, / Their wives and children slain, run up and down / Cursing the name of [Edward] and
Gaveston." (2.2.178 180) Similarly, "the younger Mortimer links the country's financial
distress with the seductions of the favorite" (Stewart 92) by stating that "[t]he idle triumphs,
masques, lascivious shows, / And prodigal gifts bestowed on Gaveston / Have drawn
[Edward's] treasure dry and made [him] weak." (2.2.156 158)
By not exercising his responsibilities, Edward does not carry out his role of king as he should.
To refer back to the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary, these statements and
actions are considered to be transgressions, because Edward passes beyond the bounds of
what is right by violating his inherited duty and role of command. Edward's behavior
therefore "both opposes and destabilizes established social and political arrangements"
(Cartelli 164) as he lets his private matters affect the public life.
Excerpt out of 10 pages
- Quote paper
- Silvia Schilling (Author), 2015, Christopher Marlowe´s Play Edward II (1594) between Sexual and Social Transgression, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/428437