“Why should you love him who the world hates so?”
Revisiting the Edinburgh Festival’s 1969 production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (usually dated 1593), one cannot help but compare the play’s dramatic concision to Hollywood’s rhetoric of visual bloat and narrative inefficiency. Marlowe’s fiery resuscitation of Senecan tragedy and rapid-fire blank verse are poles apart from commercial cinema’s illiterate routine of establishing shots, transitional shots, angle-reverse angles, slow motion, and other signifiers of what must be called an overriding “montage of distension.” What the underwritten rhetoric of film — or especially serial television — accomplishes in thirty minutes, Marlowe’s verse achieves in three, and his rare linguistic action compels far more than cinema’s prosaic visual action. Surprisingly, the narrative formulae of dilatory Hollywood epics and underwritten television series contradict the usual assumptions about the virtual epoch’s enforced concisions. Rather than compressing or crystallizing narratives, the Hollywood recipe regresses to the 19th-century rhythm of the romantic opera, which distends about forty minutes of plot into three hours of choruses, balletic interludes, tautological declamations, and useless spectacle. Ironically, contemporary audiences shun opera as ludicrous, not realizing that post-Korngoldian cinema is entirely predicated on it.
As is now well known, Marlowe in his own time was infamously heretical and stood accused of the tethered “crimes” of atheism and sodomy. Harry Levin notes that “according to the testimony of Kyd, Marlowe dared to suspect “‘an extraordinary loue [sic] between St. John and Jesus'” and half-jokingly implied they enjoyed catamitic ecstasies.7 Of this “so-called Baines libel,” Summers remarks, “Marlowe [was] accused of espousing a variety of dangerous beliefs, of which homoerotic sentiments are simply part of a continuum of blasphemous ideas. The notorious statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines libel that ‘St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and ‘leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma’ and ‘That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles’ are tellingly interspersed with atheistic and seditious claims.”8
By the standards of the Italians, the Elizabethan understanding of same-sex love was embarrassingly parochial. Sexual intercourse between men (lesbianism was inconceivable) was reduced to the unromantic act of sodomy, which was not the vicious orientation of any particular group but a devilish, heretical temptation that stood equally before all men. Exaggerating the dangers of sexual deviancy, Renaissance scholars — many of them Neo-Platonists who presumably knew nothing about Plato — deliberately mistranslated history to fit their own ideological ends. As Alan Bray has noted, Renaissance scholars assigned to create the 1611 King James Bible encountered two Greek terms which “could” be “associated with homosexuality” [my emphasis]. The first was rendered as “effeminate” and the second awkwardly translated as “abusers of themselves with mankind”9 — a vague stretch of euphemism that presumably had currency two-and-a-half centuries before Kertbeny popularized the term “homosexual” and Havelock Ellis spoke of “inversion.” Meanwhile, the first (1767) English translation of Plato’s Symposium was heavily bowdlerized, erasing any mention of hermaphroditism or aberrant sexuality. Translations of Plato were regularly censored through the early 20th century, even when same-sex love was (at times) privately tolerated by the Edwardians, allowing E. M. Forster the satirical moment in Maurice when an embarrassed Cambridge tutor skips over that “unmentionable vice of the Greeks.”
Undoubtedly the warm reception mainly reflected the slowly changing attitudes of the lettered class. Nonetheless, it is England’s neurotic history of sexual repression, from Atherton to Gielgud, that lurks behind the thrusting and “empowered” steel codpieces of the Edinburgh Edward II.
… I’ll have Italian masks by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,|
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay;
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see …
Not only evincing his hedonism, Gaveston’s soliloquy also reveals his obliviousness to politics, as he grossly underestimates how his very presence rankles jealous royals. (This opening declaration of homosexual desire also parallels the first image of Marlowe’s above-mentioned Dido, which envisions Jupiter and Ganymede in traditionally catamitic embrace.) Thereupon Gaveston is joined by Edward, played with unrestrained intensity by Ian McKellen, who, long before his uncloseting, nearly chews the role to death. Doubtless McKellen’s performance is a fascinating historical document of 1969. Straddling pathos and outright hysteria, he projects pronounced effeminacy as Gaveston’s lover and then unrestrained fury as his avenger13 — a far cry from Steven Waddington’s cool Edward in Jarman’s film version. Certainly, McKellen’s emotional register is partly incited by Marlowe’s own text. Whereas the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies — Hamlet, Richard III, King Lear — commence with solemnity and inexorably build to violence or madness, here Marlowe begins with a passion so impulsive that Edward’s calamity, even for godless Marlowe, is a fait accompli.
Why should a king be subject to a priest?
Proud Rome, that hatchest such imperial grooms,
With these thy superstitious taper-lights,
Wherewith thy antichristian churches blaze,
I’ll fire thy crazed buildings, and enforce
The papal towers to kiss the lowly ground,
With slaughter’d priests make Tiber’s channel swell,
And banks rais’d higher with their sepulchres!
As for the peers, that back the clergy thus,
If I be king, not one of them shall live.
The final, lethal lines nearly match the anti-Christian venom spewed by Barabas, the mass-murdering antihero of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, while the allusions to Rome obviously privilege pre-Christian sexuality. Nevertheless, anti-Christian Edward seems to be unaware of any internal irony, for he himself acts with seeming imperviousness only because he, as king, claims divine authority. Were he, like Barabas, a true outsider, he’d be better positioned to enact a revenge as wild (or, as T. S. claimed, farcically extreme) as the Jew’s. “I am my own best friend,” says Barabas, and with the license of Machiavelli’s ghost (who appears in the play’s Prologue), he not only is exempt from decent statecraft but embodies the spirit of annihilation like no other figure in Western literature (except, of course, for Yahweh). Barabas’ power is his alien-ness, his inheritance of Italian vice; Edward, far less cunning, should have been a Jew, but he must suffer as a mere king.
Let him without controlment have his will.
The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander lov’d Hephæstion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept,
And for Patroclus stern Achilles droop’d
And not kings only, but the wisest men;
The Roman Tully lov’d Octavius,
Grave Socrates wild Alcibiades.
Then let his grace, whose youth is flexible,
And promiseth as much as we can wish,
Freely enjoy that vain light-headed earl;
For riper years will wean him from such toys. (II., i.)
Though Mortimer’s Hellenisms mirror Edward’s own appeals to antiquity, he does not fully endorse Edward’s dalliances and suggests that his love for Gaveston is a whim of youth:
Then let his grace, whose youth is flexible,
And promiseth as much as we can wish,
Freely enjoy that vain light-headed earl;
For riper years will wean him from such toys.
“Uncle, his wanton humor grieves not me;
But this I scorn, that one so basely-born
Should by his sovereign’s favor grow so pert,
And riot it with the treasure of the realm … “
The vacillation between violations of sexual norms and political ones has traditionally framed almost all criticism of Edward II, with scholars alternately emphasizing or diminishing the import of (homo)sexual transgression within an already incestuous and decadent aristocracy long preoccupied with internal power struggles. Obviously, post-Stonewall productions regularly embrace Edward’s contest for power as an existential struggle in which his agency and sexuality are one and the same. If we are to take the younger Mortimer at face value, however, Marlowe seems to be explicating Edward’s homosexuality only to downplay it — Marlowe imagines a fantastic 14th century (or 17th century) in which the world’s militant Mortimers were so enlightened that they murdered only out of Machiavellianism, not moralism. Nevertheless, Edward remains more or less alone in his sexual difference after the villains perfidiously arrange Gaveston’s exile, capture, and beheading in the play’s central climax. It was likely Edward’s sexual alienation that prompted Brecht to adapt the play in the 1920s — much as Brecht’s Galileo singularly sees the heliocentric truths unknown to his theistic persecutors, so must the Brechtian Edward have known erotic enlightenment unknown to repressed Englishmen of 1969.
Regardless, Marlowe denies Edward the role of a spotless hero victimized by forces beyond his control. As most historians suggest, the official titles Edward lavished upon Gaveston were indeed unwarranted (he was made Earl of Cornwall), even if Gaveston was a moderately competent officer in battle. Marlowe even paints sympathetically Edward’s wife Isabella (here, Diane Fletcher). The BBC production retains most of her scenes, such that her eventual liaison and conspiracy with Elder Mortimer is less cutthroat and more logically developed. Jarman’s film, through which most audiences know the play, deliberately cuts Isabella’s role down to bare bones to better paint her as a ruthless Thatcherite bitch. Though one of the most sensuous films in all of cinema, Jarman’s Edward II sacrifices much of Marlowe’s text to AIDS-era agitation, oversimplifying Marlowe’s verse to fit his aesthetic of ultracool, painterly tableaux. I don’t believe Jarman’s version is openly misogynistic, as some critics claimed shortly after the film’s release. Not only did Jarman anticipate such reductive accusations in his own published diaries, but, as Niall Richardson has suggested,15 the casting of Tilda Swinton as Isabella already invests the role with the queer, gender-shifting discourse she had intertextually accrued from appearances in Jarman’s earlier films, beginning with Caravaggio (1986).16 Nevertheless, Jarman eliminates many scenes that reveal Isabella’s lonely pain and reluctance to betray Edward (before eventually plotting to kill Gaveston), such as this soliloquy retained in the BBC version:
“From my embracements thus he breaks away.
O, that mine arms could close this isle about,
That I might pull him to me where I would!
Or that these tears, that drizzle from mine eyes,
Had power to mollify his stony heart,
That, when I had him, we might never part!” (II., iv.)
Marlowe views as base Queen Isabella’s heterosexual affair with usurping Mortimer not because it is an act of disloyalty — Edward is disloyal with Gaveston — but because she denies and dissembles the fact, and therein lies the immorality. Jarman, of course, renders their heterosexual and political perfidies indistinguishable, painting Nigel Terry’s bereted, militaristic Mortimer as an archetypally English hypocrite, an uptight moralist who shares his bed with bisexual whores.17 Importantly, Marlowe’s allusions to “unnaturalness” throughout the play signify traitorous dissembling and are never Christian code for Edward’s sexuality.
If Marlowe inverts convention by portraying the “normative” social world as dissembling, avaricious, and self-centered and transgressors as artless and unwitting, Edward’s passivity throughout the first part of the play nevertheless reveals him as not only politically inept but existentially clueless. Eventually Edward takes his revenge, but only after the Elder Mortimer pushes him to extremes, much as Fortinbras’ war-making forces Hamlet from his solipsism and into political revenges that he, a student of philosophy, would rather shirk. Like Hamlet, Edward requires the murder of a loved one to rouse him from the depths of self-involvement. Though Edward, like Hamlet, has little use for royalism and resents his continual surveillance, Edward’s passivity stems from naiveté, not from the attempted (and failed) transcendence of history undertaken by Hamlet. On the surface, Edward’s alienating sexuality may be analogous to Hamlet’s alienating intellectuality. Yet the contents of their alienations are qualitatively different. Edward’s admitted self-indulgence — I am sure some obsolete Freudian reading faulted Edward for infantilism — renders him incapable of matching wits with the political dissemblers surrounding him. His moral ingenuousness inhibits any Hamletesque staging or self-staging — he cannot lie, let alone construct a devious mousetrap. Edward’s passions are naked and deeply unphilosophical, and when McKellen’s king finally swears vengeance, he is neither a Jacobean revenger nor a master strategist, but a childlike mess, at once tearfully resolute and deliriously injured:
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colors may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursed traitorous progeny,
You villains that have slain my Gaveston! (III, ii.)
Here McKellen is at his most unbridled, his exalted pathos poles apart from the neurotic Hamlets of the 1960s, from David Warner’s angry young man to Nicol Williamson’s Oedipal wreck. When McKellen’s Edward tears at Mortimer’s degree with his teeth (Marlowe’s text indicates “tear,” not “eat”), no trendy psychoanalysis is warranted; he is merely transparent, mad only from the perspective that sees repression and class-based stoicism as noble attributes.
Edward II is not bereft of psychologizing, however, and while Bloom has reserved literature’s great psychological turn for Hamlet, perhaps only King Lear‘s mad scenes match Edward’s death throes for pathetic affect. In his Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets (1849), Charles Lamb claimed that “Shakespeare scarce improved in his Richard the Second” on Edward’s death scene, which “moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted.”18 Whereas Jarman’s film greatly abridges Edward’s death, showing his fatal sodomy with a hot poker as a brief, implicit horror, the BBC production openly eroticizes the scene, milking every ounce of masochistic agony. Captured by Mortimer and cast into a filthy dungeon reeking of anality, Edward awaits his executioner, the literally Luciferian Lightborn, sporting arched eyebrows, diabolic beard, and a lovely sadism. The BBC production cleverly has the same actor who portrays the archbishop, Robert Eddison, also play Lightborn, uniting in the same body the wellspring of homophobia and its unintended effect, the sadistic annihilator.
Edward here emerges from a sewer-like grate in his cell — an excremental opening — with his half-naked body blackened by untold sewage. Eddison’s Lightborn takes clear satisfaction in the prelude to the murder, swabbing the dejected king’s body and slapping him awake, sadistically alternating amorousness and violence. Edward is humiliatingly shaved, much as the bishop in Act I is stripped — his tonsure ironically suggests that Edward, genuinely persecuted, undergoes an authentic transcendence unknown to bishops and other pretenders. Lightborn kisses Edward before the iron poker is thrust, and Edward’s last act is to clutch at the picture of Gaveston hanging around his neck. The scene’s Luciferian imagery, not to mention its possible equation of damnation and anality, has prompted some critics to suggest Marlowe’s atheism was not entirely unshakeable. It is nevertheless possible that the “irreligious” Marlowe merely exploited Christian allegory as a de rigueur literary device, much as he freely borrowed plot devices from Homer and Ovid without attribution in his Tamburlaine.
As Ellis observes, “one of the most pertinent slogans in [Jarman’s] published script is ‘Intercourse has never occurred in private.'”19 If the personal is political, the political cannot be a mere allegory — thus does Jarman necessarily (not pretentiously) engage in his trademark anachronisms, as leather-jacketed anti-Thatcherite protestors gather before the final credits. Yet a different kind of privacy persists when Marlowe’s intercourse becomes rarefied, mystified, culturally ignored, and banished to the page or graduate school seminar. Edward II should not forever bear Jarman’s stamp, though obviously no American (gay) directors are committed enough to cultural literacy to resurrect it.20 Sadly, Richard Burton’s vulgar, campy Dr. Faustus (1967) may
- Admittedly, the production’s inept incidental fanfares — music that is indicated in Marlowe’s stage directions — would disgrace the most slipshod episodes of Dr. Who. [↩]
- Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Contemporaries of Shakespeare. London: William Heinemann, 1919, 8. Many critics, of course, parted company with Swinburne’s opinion, notably T. S. Eliot, who believed Kyd could rightly hold the title of “father of English drama.” Schlegel’s analysis, meanwhile, betrays one of literary criticism’s greatest moments of understatement: “[Marlowe] handled the tragedy of Edward the Second with very little art” but “with a certain truth and simplicity, so that in many scenes he does not fail to achieve a pathetic effect.” See Verity, A. W. The Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakespeare’s Earlier Style, Cambridge, MacMillan and Bowes, 1886, online version here [↩]
- Verity, ibid. See footnote 2. [↩]
- Verity, ibid. [↩]
- Summers, Claude J. “Sex, Politics, and Self-Realization in Edward II.” A Poet and a Filthy Play-maker: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, and Constance B. Kuriyama, eds. New York: AMS, 1988. 221-240. [↩]
- Stewart, Alan. “Edward II and Male Same-Sex Desire.” Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion. Eds., Sullivan, Garrett A., Cheney, Patrick, and Hadfield, Andrew. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 85. [↩]
- Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, 20. [↩]
- Summers, Claude J. “Christopher Marlowe.” Glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/marlowe_c.html [↩]
- Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd edition, 1996, 13. [↩]
- Stewart, ibid., 84. [↩]
- Scovell, Dawn Michelle. “A Performance History of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II on the British Stage and Screen from 1903–1991.” Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, University of Toronto, 1999. [↩]
- The historical Piers Gaveston was the son of a knight who served a French viscount — a position sufficiently outside English royalty. [↩]
- By the time of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), McKellen was openly delighting in the sexual deviance suggested by his own queer advocacy; in particular, McKellen’s fascistic Richard clearly derives decadent-erotic satisfaction from his murder of the two little princes. [↩]
- Ellis, Jim. Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 202. [↩]
- Richardson, Niall. “The Queer Performance of Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s Edward II: Gay Male Misogyny Reconsidered.” Sexualities: Studies in Culture and Society 6. London: Sage Journals, 2003. [↩]
- It is nevertheless true that in one post-release interview, Swinton admitted that she felt out of place in what was “a boy’s film.” [↩]
- Some critics have attempted to rationalize Jarman’s heterophobia in Edward II (particularly in regard to the portrayal of Mortimer) as an ironic social construction, as a (roundabout) way of reminding audiences that all views are merely biased constructions. The apologia seems overly academic; it seems more honest to simply admit to Jarman’s adamant political incorrectness. [↩]
- Lamb, Charles. Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare. London: E. Moxon, 1849, 26. [↩]
- Ellis, ibid., 211. [↩]
- It is worth mentioning British composer John McCabe’s 1995 two-hour ballet of Edward II, which follows Marlowe’s narrative fairly closely. Though McCabe unabashedly engages the source’s homosexuality, his score is sometimes bombastic and (like much of his work) melodically uninspired. [↩]
- I have not seen Douglas Morse’s low-budget, shot-on-video production of The Jew of Malta (2012). [↩]