Homophobia in Marlowe’s Edward II
Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II has been seen as a remarkable play for its frank depiction of a homosexual relationship. Furthermore, many critics tend to view the playwright’s presentation of the love between Edward and Gaveston as a positive portrayal. Such an interpretation has been further reinforced by the speculations about the playwright’s own sexuality, speculations that gained considerable ground ever since Marlowe’s mysterious death. Most critics however, as Viviana Comensoli points out in her enlightening work, Homophobia and the Regulation of Desire: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Marlowe’s Edward II, tend to assume that “while Marlowe may be sympathetic to the love relationship between Edward and Gaveston, the issue of homosexuality is isolated from the sociopolitical context of the tragedy…that the spectator must reject Edward not for his possibly abnormal sexuality but for his neglect of political duties.
”(176) Referring to Hollinshed, which was undoubtedly Marlowe’s major historical source, they draw the conclusion that the King’s tragic predicament is more directly related to his ignoring the Royal responsibilities than his sexual orientation.
Such an interpretation of the text seem to consider the homoerotic content of the play as merely incidental to the main theme which is Edward’s fall, merely serving to add yet another dimension to the King’s moral depravity.
However, the wisdom of such interpretations depending more on extra textual evidence than anything else can be questioned. For instance, it might be asked that, given Marlowe’s major source to be Hollinshed, what was the rationale behind the playwright’s deviations from the source. A purely textual analysis of the play seems to point to the fact that the King’s ‘unholy alliance’ with Gaveston is the most direct cause of his downfall. An analysis of the deviations from the historical source also points in the same direction. This paper attempts to argue that “the deep rooted homophobia” of the early modern English society is not only a major concern but also the central theme of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.
Marlowe opens Edward II not with a prologue, but with a soliloquy by Gaveston that establishes beyond any possible doubt the theme of homoeroticism. Gaveston hints at his unnatural ties with the King by calling himself ‘the favourite of a king’ (1.1.5) and sighing, ‘Sweet prince I come’ (1.1.6). The salacious note that underlies their relationship is aptly suggested by the image of sexual love Gaveston indulges in the following lines:
…these, these thy amorous lines,
Might have enfrost me to have swum from France.
And like Leander graspt upon the sande,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy armes: (1.1.6-9)
The Ovidian parallel in these lines explicitly likening Gaveston to Leander, and by implication, the King to Hero (a woman) doubtless serves the purpose of introducing the erotic atmosphere. Besides, Gaveston’s second soliloquy in the scene (1.1.51-71) in which he spells out his elaborate plans to allure the ‘pliant King’ and distract him from his kingly duties through diverse sensuous devices, bespeaks an over-indulgence in unsanctioned delights much of which is built on Marlowe’s Ovidian fancy. Among the sensuous and erotic entertainments that Gaveston imagines for the gratification of the King’s pleasure-loving nature is an outdoor drama representing the mythical story of Actaeon and Diana. In his emphasis on the sexual appeal of the gorgeous young boy whom he imagines to be playing the part of Diana, Gaveston raises homosexual passion to a height perhaps equaled only by Shakespeare in his early sonnets. Significantly, the slightly salacious version of the myth here referred to, has an overtone of thematic relevance if one considers the homosexuality of Edward as the direct cause of his fall. The punishment meted out to Actaeon for gazing on Diana bathing – a sight forbidden to mortals, foreshadows Edward’s own punishment for his extravagant passion. Through the strategic use of the myth, the playwright seems to suggest that Edward’s obsession with the world of illusions and his willful pursuit of wanton delights have tragic implications for himself and also for the whole of England. His indulgence in sensual pleasures and his imagination fired by music and masques make him turn his back upon the realities which, as King, he should face: so like Actaeon’s insolent passion Edward’s passion becomes the cause of his ruin.
Such an interpretation of the play also fit in perfectly with the Elizabethan attitude to homosexuality. To understand the workings of ‘Homophobia’ in Marlowe’s play, an understanding of the attitude towards homosexuality in early modern England is necessary. The differences in belief, customs etc. that is noticed when looking at the Elizabethan culture is simply and external manifestation of a more deep-rooted difference in attitude and understanding. In recent years, a number of critics have devoted a great deal of attention to the issue of homosexuality in early modern England and one might safely assert that the kind of identity, we now categorize as homosexual was non-existent in the sixteenth century. In fact, there was no specific class or category as ‘homosexuals’. This is not to say that homoerotic behavior were unknown in the times. On the contrary, it was widely prevalent in life as well as in art. The theme of homoeroticism, shorn off its debasing character, is present even in Marlowe’s other works. Jove and Ganymede in Dido, Henry III and his ‘minions’ in The Massacre at Paris, Neptune and Leander in Hero and Leander are all examples of homosexual attachments drawn from and valorized by classical literature. It is now generally accepted that Shakespeare’s famous sonnet cycle express the poet’s love for another man. However, nowhere is the playwright’s fascination for the homoerotic theme so loud as in Edward II. Unlike Hollinshed who is rather brief in his presentation of the theme of the King’s amours with Gaveston, Marlowe embellishes it with the graces of his Ovidian lore and makes it central to the play.
The word ‘sodomy’ (used for referring to homoerotic practices) had a wide range of connotations in early modern times, embracing not only homosexuality, but also all kinds of sexual ‘deviancy’ as well as drunkenness, gluttony, witchcraft etc. Thus we see, for Marlowe’s Elizabethan audience, homosexuality was not simply about ones sexual inclination but closely bound up with political and spiritual transgressions. The association of sodomy and the Devil is clear in Edward II, where the nobles understand Edward as one ‘bewitched’ by Gaveston (1.2.55). When Edward grieves at Gaveston’s enforced departure Lancaster exclaims, ‘Diablo, what passions call you these?’ (1.4.318; ‘diablo’, the Spanish word for ‘devil’, makes a similar association. Even Marlowe himself was accused of homosexuality and heresy in the same breath, and the official punishment for the ‘crime’ of sodomy during Elizabethan times was death. Thus considering the socio-historical context of Edward II, it might be safely argued that Edward’s love for Gaveston was not seen as simply a sexual transgression, but a political, social and spiritual transgression as well. Moreover, the Barons’ attempts to separate Gaveston from Edward through various pretext is not simply an attempt to restore normalcy in the King’s sexual life, but by extension an attempt to restore normalcy in the political and social order of the country. In other words, it is an expression of the Elizabethan ‘homophobia’.
This view of Edward’s tragic fall as a function of the ‘homophobia’ in early modern times is further strengthened by the analysis of the confrontations of the King with his nobles as well as Marlowe’s choice of imagery while describing the King’s fatal passion. In the scene where the Barons force the King to sign an order of banishment for Gaveston, Mortimer refers to Gaveston as Edward’s ‘minion’(1.4.87), a familiar epithet that translates from the French as ‘darling boy’, and so has remarkable homoerotic overtones. Mortimer asks, seemingly unable to comprehend why Edward is so fixated on Gaveston, ‘Why should you love him whom the world hates so?’(1.4.76) When Edward finally signs the document Mortimer mocks him: ‘The King is lovesick for his minion’ (1.4.86-7). Again, Isabella, weary and desperate with the King’s refusal of her love utters the despairing cry, “And all in vain, for when I speak him fair/ He turns away and smiles upon his minion (2.4.28-29).
Upon Gaveston’s arrival at court the passionate King hugs him rapturously to his bosom. He goes on to establish his oneness with him and reaffirms his attachment in terms of a mythological parallel:
Why shouldst thou kneele, knowest thou not who I am?
Thy friend, thy selfe, another Gaveston.
Not Hylas was more mourned of Hercules,
Than thou has beene of me since thy exile. (1.1.142-145)
Incidentally, the association of Gaveston with Hylas portends the imminent fall of the former while the image suggests that the Naiads overcome by Hylas’s beauty drew him down into the water and he was never seen again. That Marlowe modeled the Edward-Gaveston relationship on the Ovidian episode of Jupiter’s amours with Ganymede may further be traced to the following words of Warwick, who resents Gaveston as the living symbol of the King’s corruption:
Thus leaning on the shoulders of the King,
He nods, and scornes, and smiles at those that passé. (1.2.23-24)
In the same scene, the grieving Isabella describes the King’s unnatural love for Gaveston:
He claps his cheeks, and hangs about his neck,
Smiles in his face and whispers in his eares, (1.2.51-52)
The above quoted lines reminds one of Jupiter’s homoerotic passion for Ganymede in the opening scene of Dido, a conduct strongly resented by Juno. But while the hostile reaction to unnatural passion is restricted to the queen of heaven in Ovid, here, it gathers strength with more and more barons resenting it and combining with one another to make a common cause against the King.
In this context, it is important to note Marlowe’s transmutation of history so far as Edward’s character is concerned. Hollinshed has portrayed the King as essentially a weak ruler whose weakness for his minion is one of the contributory causes for his ruin. Marlowe, on the other hand, lays emphasis on the King’s homoeroticism and enlarges it till it becomes the dominant motif of the Barons’ opposition to him. The King’s excesses to his favorite, his neglect of the queen – all acquire deep political overtones in the play. These evidences seem to clearly point to the fact that the ‘homophobia’ of the age takes monstrous proportions in Edward II to conspire against the King and bring about his fall. To conclude with the statement of Viviana Comensoli, “whereas in the chronicles Edward’s and Gaveston’s punishments amount to a providential cleansing of the state, in Edward II they are heinous acts rooted in “the paranoid instabilities” at the core of early modern culture” (200).
Comensoli, Viviana. “Homophobia and the Regulation of Desire: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Marlowe’s Edward II,” JHSex 4, 2 (October 1993): 175-200.
Marlowe, Christopher. Edward II. Delhi: Oxford, 1993.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. London: Oxford, 1955.
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Homophobia in Marlowe’s Edward II. (2016, Aug 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/homophobia-in-marlowes-edward-ii/