Character of King Edward II in Marlowe’s Edward II

Character of King Edward II in Marlowe's Edward II

Character Analysis of Edward 2


Marlowe has delineated the character of Edward II on the lines of the royal majesty, priding upon its glory but hollow in power. The pathetic authority, though asserting with vigour but remaining ineffective in its execution, forms the core of such a character. The then English monarch, as depicted by the great dramatist, comes before us as an antithesis of Tamburlaine, the most ferocious, cruel, ruthless in his assertion of authority. The irony of kingship of Edward II looks like a slab of state cheese as compared to this oriental despot, ‘savage extravagant, half insane’. The power of authority of the King remains damp, and does not explode like squib soaked in water. Ellis Fermor correctly observes :

“Presumes upon the sacredness of his kingship like a child using a talisman whose magic it does not understand, but in which it has a superstitious faith.”

The character has been drawn as subtly as in the character of Shylock of Shakespeare ; like him Edward II has also been more sinned against than sinning. His authority is not equal to the collective force of the rebels headed by Mortimer. His own wife, Queen Isabella, turns against him. He suffers only from the spasms of vengeful anger, and lacks the grit of a soldier and a diplomat.

Edward 2: A monomaniac

Like all the outstanding characters of Marlowe Edward 2 is also a monomaniac. His love for Gaveston lacks proportion and balance. The king does not play heed to the affairs of the state, and even acts in a manner which alienates the love of his Queen and the possible allegiance of the barons. The first note in the drama be-speaks of monomania of the King in which he desires the company of Gaveston on the death of his father. ‘My father is deceas’d. Come, Gaveston, Bad share the kingdom with thy dearest friend’.

Curiously the King presents an ideal of friendship, but he is too much drunk with it which upsets the balance of the state of affairs. ‘Embrace me Gaveston’, he says ‘kiss not my hand.’ He squanders titles and wealth on him, which should naturally incense their enemies. Lancaster observes: ‘Thus arm in arm the king and he doth march’. Queen Isabella tells junior Mortimer, ‘The king regards me not, but dotes upon the love of Gaveston.’

‘The mightiest king have had their minions : Great Alexander lov’d Hephaestion ; the conquering Hercules for Hylas wept : And for Patroclus stern Achilles droop’d……….The Roman Tully lov’d Octavius : Grave Sacrates, wild Alcibiades.’

Thus we see that the King’s passion is not an isolated ground for his monomania. The disaster rather stems from the manner in which he loves his minion.

His Artistic Taste

The others in the play indulge an expression of hostility, plot and intrigue, but the main humour of the king rests in his artistic pursuits, the course he would have followed if left to himself. Gaveston observes: ‘Music and poetry is his delight.’ His artistic temperament crosses the will to merge into the engagements of his royal office.

Will Without Power

There is will to rule in the king, but he has no power. The executive functionaries fail him miserably. His minion is much more fidel in his relationship with him than the force behind him. The yawning chasm between the will of the king and his power paves the way for the tragedy. He comes to assert himself forcefully, often self-consumed in rage, but singlehanded he could not do so.

Unfit as a Monarch

Symonds calls him ‘unlikely king’ and think it is a most correct observation. He really wields and uncharged sceptre. His superstitious faith in the position of a king has not a log to stand upon. He is ‘unkingly king’ because of his temperament, and in his inability to adapt himself to the exigency of the office he is required to hold. The later phase of the king’s career truly moves us to pity for him and arouses the impulse of condemnation for his enemies.

Frivolous Nature

Frivolity is the marked trait of the king. He is serious only in his privileges as a monarch, and not in the various walks of life. We cannot say he has a low taste, we can only say that he lacks the temperament which views the office and the attitudes of living with concern. He cannot be condemned but, of course, criticized justly for his one-sided attention to his minion, which he pays in an unswerving manner. Had the king been less frivolous and more serious he would hardly have been responsible for creating the conditions which scar his rule.

His Courage

We may say anything but we cannot but admire the courage of the king which is indeed singular in its capacity to face the predicaments. He cannot cope with the adversities, it is true, but he certainly looks at the events not like a frightened rabbit, but like a tiger at bay, knowing not what to do. There is only the natural fear which comes upon the king when he is on the verge of his murder: “Something still buzzeth in mine years, and tells me if I sleep I never wake.” He is too weak and feeble to resist’ and prays to god to receive his soul. Yet he does not behave like a coward. He says to Lightborn just before his death: “O spare me, or despatch me in a trice.”

Sense of Proportion

The sense of proportion in a king should be a sterling virtue, for the power is most likely to deprive one of the balance required in the virtue of proportion. Here we find the weakness of the king. He is aware of his power, but he does not visualize the possibility of its source of execution. A wise king would have instantly realized this fact, but he never does. He suffers because he cannot maintain the equilibrium between his position as a king and his deeds. Prudence is none of his concern. He behaves most imprudently when he asks Gaveston to maul and molest the bishop. He is not a diplomat; and the lack of diplomacy stems from his fault of lack of proportion.


The faults of the king are of an order which only merit his deposing and not decapitation. The tragedy of his death is an overdone act. Should he die for his irresponsibility? He is less soft and more imperious, imperious even to the degree or insolence. But should he die for this fault of his? No.

At the back of his irresponsibility and lack of proportion lies his surplus emotion for his friend Gaveston. Further, he lacks the faculty to assess the dimensions of the urgent fact of life. There is a mental blockade. He underrates the spirit of rebellion among the barons. Fuddled with the notion of his kingship he does not see through the seething trouble in the realm. A wiser king would have easily perceived the coming storm, but he does not.

The king is a person with no brakes to check his passions. He cannot govern them. King Edward II is a man of larger emotions and lesser grey cells as one may call him. He is more impulsive than brainy.

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In the earlier phase of his life he truly appears to be a ‘culprit’ and in another, later one, a martyr’. Marlowe capitalizes on his faults, but at the same time has an eye on the much severe faults of his adversaries. He

Irony of Kingship

Edward II’s kingship presents the ironical fact. Being a king he is seen without an iota of power. He commands, but he is not heard and heeded to. He shouts but no one pays any attention to this staccao utterance. He is a king without a properly greased executive machinery. This is perceived right from the beginning. Marlow presents him as one utterly shorn of power. Perhaps this lack of power makes the queen decide to move to Mortimer, in whom she sees, with the vile of a woman, the accumulating reservoir of power. The emptiness of the king perhaps makes her revolt against him.

The way the king tends to wield his power is fraught, with pathos. It is more of an outburst than an expression. It is power without force in it. It is the irony of his fate that the time also proves to be out of joint.

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