Marlowe's Edward II and the Medieval Passion Play


Patrick Ryan


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is distinguished by a grim naturalism extraordinary among Elizabethan chronicle plays. To dramatize the collapse of Edward's monarchy, Marlowe opens the historical drama with frank depiction of the young king's passionate love for his favorite, Piers Gaveston. After Edward makes Gaveston "Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall, King and Lord of Man," jealous lords, pre-empted by the "base-born" royal minion, defy Edward in a series of outbursts and petty quarrels, which culminate in armed revolt, the murder of Gaveston, civil war, and decimation of the nobility before rebel barons defeat the royal army and capture Edward. Climaxing in the torture and covert assassination of the king, Edward II traces the disintegration of civil order in entirely natural causes-human weakness, cruelty, and lust for power. Marlowe's noble and royal characters, embroiled in their bloody contest of will, make no creditable appeals to divine providence. Further, the play lacks any type of supernatural manifestation characteristic of contemporaneous historical dramas such as Shakespeare's plays of Henry VI, which stage witches, devils, and cosmological portents. Accordingly, literary historians conclude that Marlowe, in his naturalistic chronicle play, emphasizes the individual will to power as the primary cause of historical process in a world without divine providence and supernatural influence. Such readings characterize Edward II as a secular history play without significant religious dimension.1 However, with this characterization of the drama, critics overlook the complex panoply of Christian images that Marlowe deploys during the climactic scenes of the tragedy. As I show in this article, to dramatize the arrest, imprisonment, degradation, torture, and murder of King Edward, Marlowe embellishes these dramatic actions with verbal and visual images derived from conventional medieval and early Renaissance descriptions of Christ's Passion. Marlowe's suffering king-like Christ, according to medieval exegesis largely suppressed by the Reformation-is covered with excrement, forced to drink from a channel, shaved, enclosed in a cesspool, and trodden underfoot.

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