Forensic Friday (#09): Edward II (iv.400-407)

Without any protection from his class background, Gaveston’s fall was always going to be fatal.

BH alex honnold
Alex Honnold – image: Jimmy Chin

Meet Alex Honnold:

‘history’s greatest ever climber in the free solo style, meaning he ascends without a rope or protective equipment of any kind.'[a]

Just researching a picture for this post made me feel a little nauseous …

Early Modern tragedy is full of over-reachers, the Honnolds of their age, climbing without any protective equipment at all, knowing that a fall inevitably meant death:  the Macbeths, Dr Faustus, and of course Piers Gaveston.

To reduce Edward II to a play ‘about homosexuality’ is to do it a disservice.  It’s definitely good that we can openly talk about it in these terms in our slightly more liberated times, and I like Derek Jarman‘s 1991 film version very much, but to quote Simon Russell Beale

‘what’s extraordinary is that it’s not principally about a homosexual relationship […] Edward’s greatest relationship is with his crown.’ [b]

It’s far too easy to casually hijack the play for the purposes of identity politics, when homophobia is not the driving force of Edward’s tragedy, but class, coupled with his inability to privilege the needs of the nation (as it’s monarch) over his own personal desires.  And yes, I would say that, with my Marxist critical hat and comedy beard, but there is a strong evidential basis for my viewpoint in the text.

The following passage, subject of this week’s Forensic Friday is an extract one of those key class-based exchanges … for those who don’t know the play, immediately preceding this little snippet, Mortimer Senior – on his way to Scotland – advises his nephew to cool it, because ‘the mightiest kings have had their minions’ …

FF 09 EII sc iv.001

How does Christopher Marlowe use language for dramatic effect in this extract? (click here for the rules of the game)

In this private conversation, the two Mortimers’ leave-taking, Marlowe uses the intimacy of their relationship to reveal the essential objection to Gaveston: not his homosexuality, but his relatively humble origins.

Naming Socrates, Senior ends a typically rhetorical list of examples of ‘mighty’ kings and other great men who have ‘had their minions’.  The philosopher might have been chosen to prefigure Edward’s fall and execution.  However, rather than ascribe any ‘might’ to Edward, Senior infantilises him with a semantic field of childishness, including ‘youth’, ‘toys’, and ‘wean’. Marlowe positions the uncle as the wise voice of experience through this and the way in which he reduces the personal animosity by using their opponents’ titles as pronouns rather than mention their names.  Mortimer Senior’s long-term, strategic thinking is reinforced by the future connotations of ‘promiseth’ and ‘riper years’.  His pace, metre and punctuation is measured and calm; this seems to have the desired effect on his usually hotheaded nephew.

Marlowe signifies Junior’s calm by beginning his response with the respectful familial epithet, and is likewise measure.  His language is unadorned by any rhetorical flourishes, and he unequivocally states that his objection to Gaveston is founded on the latter’s class.  Marlowe’s use of iambic pentameter allows the actor to stress ‘this’ (line 406), followed by the plosive alliteration of ‘basely born’. It allows Junior to be venomous without destroying the civility of the exchange.    Finally, we might consider ‘scorn’ and ‘born’ as an internal rhyme for greater emphasis of the issue.

[250 words]


[a] JB Mackinnon, ‘The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber’, in Nautilus Magazine, 11 August, 2016 (accessed here)

[b] ‘Introduction’, in Christopher Marlowe, Edward II (‘New Mermaids’, second edition, eds. Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey), (A C Black:  London, 1997)


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

One thought on “Forensic Friday (#09): Edward II (iv.400-407)”

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