CLASSROOM BASED ASSESSMENT: In Edward II, love is invariably possessive. Discuss.
Weightings: AO1 (25%); AO3 (50%); AO5 (25%)
God, I hate this question.
One of the things that I got from my teacher training, back in the day, was that if you asked a poor/stupid/inaccessible question, you only had yourself to blame for crap answers. This is an OCR question – at least the students get a choice of six to answer for their final exams. But for reasons beyond my ken, or immediate power to change, it is our first CBA on Edward II. It also comes too early in the course for people who were in school uniform less than 6 months ago to be asked to deal with AO5, if you ask me. They were being constantly drilled in AO2, and for this essay, it’s not required …
But enough whinging. In the spirit of never asking people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, here’s a model answer for my class to play with. I tried to do this in the same conditions they were asked to do it in, without any ‘cheating’ on my part.
IF THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU’VE HAD A LOOK AT ONE OF MY ESSAYS, PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW.
From a 21st century perspective, possessive love seems unhealthy, even bordering on the illegal. Applying contextual knowledge to Edward II helps redefine our understanding of ‘possessive’, and Marxist / Feminist interpretations of the work might create unexpected sympathy, and understanding (if not actual empathy) for the characters by reframing the moral dilemmas that they face. Possessive love was, arguably, essential in Marlowe’s age because there were so many competitors, male and female, for the monarch’s ‘love’. Anything other than modern ‘exclusivity’ could mean demotion and starvation at best, or – more likely – imprisonment, exile, or execution.
Our ideas about male relationships in Edward II are enriched by adopting a Marxist critical viewpoint. For example, Gaveston’s actions are better understood if we consider the extent to which class affects his life. The historical record tells us that the social superstructure beneath Edward comprised a tiny elite of just ten earls and their families who, through heredity, expected to be the king’s closest advisors, and beneficiaries of his generosity. Inevitably, their loyalty – their ‘love’ – must be possessive, to the exclusion of ambitious members of the lower classes who might reduce their influence.
Gaveston and Spenser were ambitious, as well as intelligent, educated, resourceful, even aesthetically attractive (as Christopher Given-Wilson tells us), but thwarted because they came from relatively ‘base’ stock: the word is repeatedly used, epithetically, in the play. To survive in this hostile environment they must be possessive of the King, to the exclusion of others. Gaveston’s promotion:
‘Chief Secretary to the state and me’ (i.154)
assumes greater importance. Edmund (Kent) demurs because this post almost defines ‘possession’: the holder can control physical access to the King. In our Marxist analysis, we might applaud Gaveston (and Spenser) in their attempts at social mobility. Further, we could suggest that their story is also Marlowe’s, as he increasingly found, and railed against, the realisation that his scholarship-based education could only advance him so far.
We also need to consider that the Elizabethan audience understood that patronage was essential for the ambitious man, and that being unlucky in your choice of patron might be fatal. With Elizabeth I childless at 59 when the play was first performed, the ambitious had to choose their ‘patron’ carefully. Like many plays of that era, the narrative discusses (in metaphorical terms, because of the Treasons Acts of 1571 and 1581), the options and risks involved: Baldock and Spenser Junior’s dialogue in scene 5, perhaps, is an analogy for minor nobles and scholars choosing between the two main candidates to succeed Elizabeth, the Scottish, Protestant James VI (later James I), and the Spanish, Catholic, Philip of Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh exemplifies those who chose unfortunately: sidelined, isolated and ultimately executed by James I. In choosing Gaveston after the death of Gloucester, Spenser Junior advises Baldock, almost aphoristically:
‘learn this of me: a factious lord
Shall hardly do himself good, much less us’ (v. 6-7)
In this advice he embodies the – perhaps necessary – self-serving spirit of the age.
History tells us that women fared little better. Henry VIII’s record as a husband (and we must remember that he was Elizabeth’s father) showed us that losing exclusive possession of the King’s affections was similarly dangerous for a wife – regardless of whether the rival was another woman (such as Anne Boleyn) or a man. There are several contextual aspects to Isabella’s situation which might prompt a modern, more Feminist audience to pity rather than revile her. Betrothed to Edward at an early age for ‘kinship‘ rather than ‘companionate‘ purposes, she had no agency or choice in being sent to England, probably with a tiny retinue, to strengthen her brother’s political hand. Her first speech epitomises her plight and lack of choice in this patriarchal society:
‘I will endure a melancholy life
And let him frolic with his minion’ (ii. 66-67)
Indeed, as Christopher Given-Wilson reports, Gaveston was already installed in Edward’s affections and played a remarkable part in the wedding ceremony, marching before the bride and groom dressed in Royal scarlet. Possession of the royal person is essential to fostering a romantic relationship with Edward: when Gaveston is present she effectively ceases to exist in her husband’s eyes.
A Feminist analysis might therefore highlight Isabella’s lack of agency and interpret the earlier parts of text as exposing the contextual plight of women, even the highest-born (Isabella being a princess), although this would be unsatisfactory in considering her later actions with Mortimer. This might be where she lost the sympathy of a Renaissance audience, rebelling against her King and husband. Revisiting the overwhelmingly Catholic aspects of her marriage and the date of these historical events, she would have been expected to ‘turn the other cheek’ and practise ‘Patience’ in the expectation of a reward in the afterlife. Modern feminists might instead applaud her later decision to take control of her destiny (once possession of Edward was obviously unachievable), even if the cost of doing so proved heavy.
Overall, applying Marxist critical principles gives us a fresh perspective on the struggles between men in Edward II: even today, ’aristocracies‘ and a talented bourgeoisie still fight each other across a range of microcosmic situations for exclusive, possessive, access to their patron’s love or favour. Significantly, women have been allowed to join that struggle, but whilst the reasons for their possessive love have changed, their struggle remains. Isabella’s situation highlights how patriarchal control effectively dehumanised women. Her possessive love is more the crie de couer of an individual who can aspire not to promotion or power, but simply to companionship, complicating any assessment of her simply as the ‘She-Wolf of France’ who helped destroy an English King. Arguably, all the characters were possessive of Edward, because the alternative was unthinkable. Gaveston, Spenser and Isabella become rebels – warriors in separate struggles for equality between classes and genders.