Edward II as a Historical Play
The tragedy of Edward II has been imaginatively intensified by Marlowe basing the substance on the historical facts. It takes away the chronological dreariness from the bare frame of history and adds to it the pathos and the fictitious tragic circumstances of his own imagination. As a conscious artist he visualizes the tragic possibilities in re-arranging facts of history, and for this the method of condensation is employed by him. The historical truth has been sacrificed on the altar of artistic convenience. The compression and the processes of elimination have been deployed with courage and foresight. Perhaps Marlowe saw that the results would be substantially fruitful if he acted on the Greek dramatic principle of pity and terror, and it really worked. Though we also find that he is not totally Greek in the presentation of the murder of the king, yet he presents it with the modern cunning of an artist. The fact may be unhistorical but it serves as an artistic recipe.
It is said that the tragedy is not the poet’s; it is a part of history. Perhaps, it is wrong to say that the tragedy is not the poet’s. No doubt history contributes to the forming of the infrastructure of the drama but it cannot be said that Marlowe has not added to it the substantial dollops of his fancy and imagination. His old ‘rant and bluster seems to have been subdued in it. New methods have been adopted to make the tragedy look more real.
The revolutionary atheist is here found to have turned to the national history of England, leaving aside the tales of the unknown lands and the half-known characters of fabulous power, scholarship and cupidity.
Edward II is a chronicle play of the purest form. It is found to have effected immense improvement upon the previous English chronicle plays. The materials of the play are drawn from the account of English kingship, given in different chronicles. With much labour and great art, Marlowe is found to have gathered the relevant information about the reign of the weak unfortunate English king. Edward II, and dramatizes his tragic fate effectively. In fact, Marlowe is found to have exhibited both industry and artistry in the collection of these materials, in the appropriate selection of these materials and in the effective presentation of the drama, out of the loose, disconnected facts of history.
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Marlowe’s chief source is Holinshed’s Chronicles from which he has even made a good many almost textual borrowing. But, unlike Shakespeare, he seems to have been contented not with that very single chronicle only. He is found to have derived further historic materials from other chronicles-from the chronicles of Fabyan and Stowe in particular.
Holinshed’s Chronicle, a memorable work of history in English in the Elizabethan age, contains a continuous narration of English history, particularly the history of English kingship. It stands out, as a rich Storehouse, for literary materials and a good many Shakepearean plays, history plays in particular, have been based on this great chronicle of much significance. The main materials of Marlowe’s plot- the king’s conflict with his lords over his favourite Gaveston, the military operation of Isabella and Mortimer against him, his deposition and murder and Mortimer’s fall and execution have all been taken by the dramatist from Holinshed.
Some other incidents, such as the promotion of Gaveston as Earl of Cornwall, Lord of Man and Lord Chamberlain, the imprisonment of the Bishop of Coventry, Edward’s meeting with Gaveston in the castle of Tynmouth and the sale of his land by Lord Bruse, treated in the play, are all adopted from Holinshed. Again, Mortimer’s escape, Isabella’s return from France, the king’s interview with the Earl of Leicester and the Bishop of Winchester at the Castle of Kenilworth and the dreadful mode of the king’s murder are the details, mentioned in Holinshed and included effectively in Marlowe’s play. Even the threat of the barons to the king that the prince would lose his right to the throne, in case he does not resign, and queen’s deceitful conduct are all mentioned in the great Chronicle of Holinshed. Marlowe, thus, follows, more or less, the general account, given by Holinshed.
But Marlowe’s source, as noted already, is not merely Holinshed. His materials are also taken from the Chronicle of Fabyan, first published in 1516, that enjoyed much popularity among a wide circle of the readers of the age. There are some instances to indicate a close likeness between that chronicle and several passages in the play. But, whereas Marlowe has followed the history of King Edward precisely, Fabyan’s chronicle has not done so. There are many historical incidents, incorporated in the play, which Fabyan has not mentioned at all.
Marlowe has also drawn his materials from the Chronicle of John Stowe, which, first published in 1580, remained quite popular with a large number of readers. But Stowe’s chronicle is rather short in comparison with Holinshed’s and does not contain a good many details which is found inserted in Marlowe’s work. It is, however, certain that the scene, in which Matrevis and Gurney are shown to wash the king and shave his beard away in ditchwater, is taken from Stowe.
It is, of course, nothing surprising, if Marlowe had taken his materials from some other sources. As a scholar, he must have been acquainted with a good many works on the like subject-chronicles. Legends and history plays. He must also have been prone to use his knowledge of different historical affairs to make his play convincing real, and dramatically effective.
This is how Marlowe’s materials are found borrowed. His subject-matter, however, is the personal tragedy of a king, and not the political history of a reign. He has not in the Shakespearean manner, attempted the glorification of the English race and England. His chief objective is the portrayal of the tragedy of an individual ruler. Edward II is the story of a feudal monarch who attempted to govern absolutely and failed miserably. His failure accrued from the deficiency of his own character, from his own infirmity to rule wisely and efficiently.
In Edward II, Marlowe has covered a quite long period of history from the accession of Edward in 1307 to the execution of Mortimer in 1330. The history of those 23 years contains certainly profuse materials. It is definitely no easy task to build up an effective tragic play out of so many divergent and incoherent facts of a particular period.
In fact, in Edward II, Marlowe is found to have superseded the rude chronicle play of his time with an artistic history-tragedy, far in advance of it in restraint and structure. His dramatic effect depends here neither on the unreality of Tamburlaine’s environment nor on the supernatural material of Doctor Faustus. He has brilliantly exhibited here a rare dramatic skill to synthesize historical reality with tragic intensity, the irony of kingship with the sin of arrogant ambition.
Marlowe’s credit lies in his superb treatment of history as the basis of his tragedy. He has, no doubt, remained loyal to the basic events or facts of history. At the same time, he has made certain omissions, condensations, deviations and innovations to meet his dramatic requirements. He is, in fact, found to have boldly undertaken any relevant recourse in his treatment of history to suit his dramatic necessity, and this is found done in a number of original ways.
In the first place, Marlowe has set aside different foreign affairs during the reign of Edward II. The battle of Scotland is almost dropped and only scantily referred to in the report of Elder Mortimer’s arrest. The battle with France is also treated summarily. In fact, Marlowe’s play which is concerned, as noted already with the tragedy of an individual British king, and not the political history of his rule, has hardly any scope for introducing elaborately foreign policies.
In the second place, Marlowe has condensed historical facts to make his dramatic action composite. The lone civil war is condensed into a single Battle of Bannackburn. Gaveston’s recall, banishment and recall again are also condensed into a single incident. Of course, such a sort of condensation has caused some sort of incongruity in historical details and facts. But Marlowe has succeeded in making his play dramatically effective by this measure.
Again, Marlowe has deviated, here and there, from some historical facts. The Battle of Bannackburn was actually fought two years after Gaveston’s death, but in Marlowe, this appears to have taken place before his death. In actual history, Edward II was first opposed by the Duke of Lancaster and later by Younger Mortimer. But in Marlowe’s play, Younger Mortimer’s prominence is shown all through. This is perhaps, a part of Marlowe’s dramatic mechanism and definitely intensifies the conflict of the play and secures the balance of sympathy in favour of the hero.
Lastly, Marlowe has also made certain innovations for his dramatic purposes. The arrest of Elder Mortimer, mentioned in the play, has no historical evidence, but this has served to heighten the tragic note of the play and to reveal the hero’s basic weakness as a king. Indeed, Marlowe’s history play well marks the quality of his dramatic construction. The bare historical materials are well arranged and treated scientifically by him. There is the logical development of the character of the king and his tragic end is also presented from a logical angle. Even the changes in Younger Mortimer and Isabella are not found abrupt in Marlowe. There are sufficient indications of their later changes in the earlier part of the play.
What is more, Marlowe’s dramatic craft has turned some bare historical facts into moving tragic scenes in his play. The Abdication Scene and the Murder Scene may be here specifically mentioned. Such loose historical incidents are thoroughly exploited to enhance the tragic grandeur of the play and establish Edward II as the specimen of a high tragedy.
The tragedy is also a penetrative study of the conflict, checkered enough This conflict mainly centres round a weak character and an ambitious one both these are found drawn with human sympathy and political audacity. Edward’s death is pitiful, but Mortimer’s exit, valiant no doubt.
In conclusion, Marlowe is to be praised for one more reason. His historical play is freed from all comical interludes, so much characteristic of English chronicle plays, including Shakespeare’s. He has not profaned the dignity of the tragedy, based on history, by inventing some silly situations, foolish characters, or farcical conversations