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Christopher Marlowe's Edward II: Summary & Concept

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Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

Christopher Marlowe's 'Edward II' is a history play based on Britain's King Edward II. Learn the history of Edward II and then explore a summary of the play and its main concepts. Updated: 09/15/2021

History of Edward II

Edward II is considered one of the earliest history plays. A history play is a play based on a historical event or on historical people. It condenses the entire problematic reign of Edward II into a single narrative and focuses primarily on his relationship with Piers Gaveston—a confidant and favorite of Edward II considered by many academics, such as Frederick Boas, to have been the king's lover—and how the relationship affected the politics of the era.

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  • 0:01 History of ''Edward II''
  • 0:31 Summary of ''Edward II''
  • 4:26 Concept of ''Edward II''
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Summary of Edward II

The play opens with Gaveston, who had been exiled by Edward II's father, Edward I, reading a letter from Edward II. Edward I had exiled Gaveston because Edward II had become extremely close to Gaveston, to the point where the prince ignored his duties and angered the nobles by lavishing Gaveston with gifts and attention. Edward I has died, the letter says, and Gaveston's exile is no more. Gaveston rejoices, soliloquizing about the Bacchanalian celebration he will bring to Edward II upon his return.

Immediately upon their reunion, Edward begins giving Gaveston titles, the keys to the royal treasury, and tells all who will listen that Gaveston (despite his very not-noble birth) is better than the common person and deserves all of this attention. The nobles (particularly Lancaster, Warwick, and Roger Mortimer, who confusingly shares the same name with his nephew and shall hereafter be referred to as Mortimer Senior), as well as Queen Isabella of France, Edward II's much-ignored wife, are furious. They call for Gaveston to be exiled again.

The nobles corner Edward and Gaveston and present Edward with a written demand for the exile. They rail against his neglect of the kingdom, his poorly performing military (especially against Robert the Bruce in Scotland), and how he keeps the coffers nearly empty in order to shower Gaveston with gifts and titles. Edward is forced to agree to the exile and, after a highly emotional farewell with Gaveston (during which Isabella accuses Gaveston of alienating her husband's affections, and Gaveston calls her out for her affair with Mortimer Senior), Edward and Gaveston depart so that Gaveston can begin his exile in Ireland.

Soon afterward, Isabella has an apparent change of heart and suggests to the nobles they ask for Gaveston's exile to be lifted once more. They protest, but she insists. She pulls Mortimer Senior aside to tell him it would be easier to ensure Gaveston would no longer be a problem if they kept him in court. There he could be killed and removed from the king's life entirely. She hopes Edward will pay her attention once more (which must have surely been awkward for her paramour to consider).

Edward rejoices at this change of heart and doesn't really stop to question why the nobles, who had pushed so hard for the exile, are suddenly suggesting Gaveston's return. He plans all manner of tournaments and fetes to celebrate, even arranging for Gaveston's marriage to the king's cousin Margaret. The nobles waste no time in killing Gaveston after his return, devastating Edward. Edward has Warwick and Lancaster, the two nobles who he felt persecuted Gaveston the most, to be executed, and he seeks comfort in the counsel of Spencer, a court favorite who had served Gaveston. Isabella is enraged by the king's lack of attention and takes her son, Edward III, to France where her brother is king and seeks aid against Edward there.

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