My Marxist critical inclinations – that a text can’t be read in isolation from the contextual crucible that created it – get pretty much free reign when it comes to teaching Edward II. For the OCR A Level course, my students need to compare Marlowe’s drama to Tennyson‘s monodrama, ‘Maud‘ and, get this, 50% of the mark is context (that’s AO3, troops).
What, exactly, is context? I’d suggest that for both texts, maybe all texts, context is usually a mix of two things:
1. the author’s biography (and note, troops, that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both these texts are pretty autobiographical, no matter how much Tennyson might deny it were he here) – let’s call this PERSONAL context; and
2. events and prevalent attitudes in society, which could be customs, laws, etc – we’ll label that SOCIALcontext. This is one of the reasons I am often reluctant to label a writer as racist, misogynist, etc, if they are simply a product and reflection of their times
Edward II has an additional dimension because it’s based, however loosely, on an identifiable historical figure. Contextually, we have historical records of the life and death of that person: a history play is a dramatised biography, so let’s call it BIOGRAPHICAL context. On that basis, I think we need to find out about the subject, as best we can – the play is never completely true to the historical record, and the decisions the writer made, be they omissions, exaggerations, alterations to chronology or something else. At least, and certainly with Edward II, we want to be able to consider whether Marlowe’s writing is historically accurate or ‘ahistorical’.
If it’s the latter, the more successful type of student might ask ‘why?’ Sometimes, it is simply to reduce a lifespan to the two hours traffic of our stage. Often, it’s for some other contextual reason …
So, a ‘starter for ten’, especially for my new starters. Here’s some biographical detail about Edward that we might compare to Marlowe’s interpretation:
This Edward [II] was a handsome man of great strength, but unconventional in his behaviour. For, shunning the company of the nobility, he preferred that of jesters, singers, actors, carters, diggers, oarsmen, sailors and other mechanics. He drank too much, betrayed confidences too easily, struck out without provocation at those standing around him and followed the counsel of others rather than his own. He was extravagant and splendid in his lifestyle, voluble, inconstant, unlucky against his opponents, and treated members of his household savagely. However, he was passionately attached to one person above all, whom he cherished, exalted, honoured and showered with gifts. The result of such infatuation was that both the lover and the loved were held in odium, the people scandalised and the kingdom brought to ruin. [a]
It gives, at least, my troops something to bite into as they begin to read Marlowe’s play …
[a] Ranulphi Higden*, in Christopher Given-Wilson, Edward: The Terrors of Kingship (Penguin Monarchs), (Allen Lane: London, 2016)
* Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon, 1527