Moreover, Marlowe makes a step in the direction of the Shakespearian type of history plays, altogether remarkable for its economy and dramatic tension and skilful use of its source-for here he is handling social groups and is not concerned so much with one dominating individual. For example the first few scenes show clearly the contrast of society on which the play is based. In Act one, scene one the nobles enter in their formal attire to show their sense of importance and position in the social hierarchy of the time.
Their clothing would distinctly contrast with that of Gaveston who is at a lower social class than them. This is typical of the society on which Marlowe wanted his play to structure upon. Everyone wanted a frivolous lifestyle and the higher they were on the social scale the easier this was to achieve. In Jarman’s version of ‘Edward II’ he shows the distinguishable classes of society. He has the nobles and Queen Isabel dressed in royal colours such as red and purple to reflect their important state whilst Gaveston wears a ripped black shirt and trousers, reflecting his unimportance in society.
A particularly large range of characters, part of whose dramatic function is to display the rich variety of social classes whose lives are affected by Edward’s behaviour and bad government, populates the geographical space. The middle classes appear in the persons of the Mayor of Bristol and Trussel, while the presence of Rhys ap Howell displays Wales as part of the realm. All levels of priests make an appearance, from the Bishop of Canterbury down to simple monks. Meanwhile, Edward’s court contains gentleman, both upper such as Spencer and lower such as Baldock, civil officials and servants.
Anonymous ordinary people have significant roles: the Three Poor Men and the Mower. In Act one, scene one, Marlowe includes three poor men to support Gaveston’s ambitious state, Gaveston speaks to them as if they were not worth anything: ‘Why, there are hospitals for such as you; I have no war, and therefore, sir, be gone. ‘ The three characters represent the poor English peasantry part of the stations of English life at the time Marlowe was writing the play. They introduce the theme of class relations and of the duties one class of society owes to another, which reappears throughout the play.
Numerous other unnamed figures such as guards and soldiers keep the structures of the world running, and we sense that we are seeing as complete a picture of society as possible. Marlowe selects, condenses and adapts history to produce his interpretation of ‘Edward II’. I believe he has shaped out of the chronicle history of a disagreeable reign a historical tragedy. The speed of Marlowe’s version makes Edward’s fall seem inevitable, and runs rapidly over the more successful aspects of the historical reign.
The balance of one character or motive with another is here essential, for this is his one play in which his purpose is to illuminate weakness, not strength. Weakness does not act but is acted upon, or if it acts its actions are frustrated and ineffective. We see in Act four, scene six Edward contemplating his fall from wealth and grandeur into his present condition: ‘Whilom I was powerful and full of pomp; But what is he, whom rule and empery Have not in life or death made miserable. ‘
Edward therefore here achieves some tragic status as he realises he has fallen from a height, Marlowe is able to exhibit not only the central figure of Edward on whom the play’s intention is chiefly expressed but also the agents of power and corruption who act upon this figure. Therefore on the most obvious level ‘Edward II’ is a history play but it attains tragic status since it is concerned with the limits of suffering an individual can endure. Also, in Act four, scene five, we see the king and his party as they panic and flee.
Edward is at first opposed to the dishonour of flight, claiming a sense of unified, permanent identity connected to his station in life: ‘What was I born to fly and run away, And leave the Mortimer’s conquerors behind? Edward knows that if he leaves he has failed as a King but he is still easily persuaded by the nobles to leave. Edward is alienated from his kingly self as he makes the instant decision, of lowly flight across the changeable sea instead of honourable death on horseback on the battlefield.
Edward therefore chooses without knowing it the ignominious course of events that will follow. Edward is seen as ‘unnatural’, because he does not follow the kind of kingship defined by the example of his dominant and successful father, Edward I. The sixteenth century read the word ‘natural’ as a reference to heredity: behaving according to nature meant following one’s parent’s example. It is within a structure supported by ‘nature’ that feudal duty has its place.
This is why the Lords can feel that they no longer owe Edward the duty of allegiance, once they see him as unnaturally neglecting them. This can be seen in Act 4, scene 5 as Mortimer Junior says: ‘Madam, have done with care and sad complaint; Your King hath wronged your country and himself. ‘ Therefore Marlowe in using the twin concepts of what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’- recurring themes of the play allows us to understand the duties of a King at this time, which therefore makes Edwards’s failure so much more apparent.
One of Marlowe’s narrative techniques is to foreshadow events through curses or promises. For example Mortimer’s prophetic curse in Act four, scene five asking that Edward’s voyage to Ireland should be turned back by storms, comes uncannily true: ‘Some whirlwind fetch them back or sink them all! They shall be started thence, I doubt it not. ‘ This also serves the banal narrative function of preparing the audience to comprehend the situation when precisely this has happened in Act four, scene six.
Curses that come true give a play a sense of inevitability, and in a way this is so, since the audience knows that certain historical events happened, and the play must work with those. Thus, the sense of premonition is entirely appropriate to a history play. Marlowe therefore uses a variety of fascinating techniques when presenting history in ‘Edward II’. Whether looked at as a history play with a political focus or a tragedy with a personal focus it is definitely an exhilarating, unique piece of work.