Bright Lights Film Journal

Between Artless Passions and Anal Hells: On the Edinburgh Festival’s Production of Marlowe’s Edward II

“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.

Marlowe lived in a bygone era when commercialism and verbal density were not antipodes. The Edinburgh production of Edward II — recreated by BBC television and finally released to DVD in 2009 — generally benefits from director Toby Robertson’s bare-bones staging, which allows viewers to focus undistractedly on the concentrated language (despite threadbare costuming and amateurish scoring1). Proving prescient Aristotle’s moldy theories of dramatic unity, Marlowe violently compresses Edward’s torment: there are no wasted words, no superfluous gestures — nor any Shakespearean superhumanity. Today, we still take for granted the drama given to us by Marlowe, the “father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse,”2 as Swinburne argued, the man who rescued English theater from the likes of Norton and Sackville’s “unreadable” Gorbuduc (1561), which merely “strung together with the loosest possible thread of interest a series of historical scenes.”3 Marlowe’s Edward is an unusually flawed tragic hero, one not cursed by fate or meddling gods; his hubris is not an affront to humanity but is symbolic of it, for his crimes are indivisible from his love. Edward II‘s uncensored and unaffected “humanness” was indeed revolutionary in its day, partly because, as the 19th-century scholar A. W. Verity suggests, Marlowe was the first to master the “difficulty of writing lines that should have all the naturalness of conversation without ceasing to be poetical … especially … when the resources of blank verse remained comparatively undeveloped.”4 (As many scholars have noted, Marlowe deliberately punctuates his blank verse with awkward, imperfect beats to indicate human frailty — an innovation in its time.) Impassioning the revenger’s narrative of Kyd’s A Spanish Tragedy (usually dated 1589) and humanizing the violence of his own Jew of Malta (1589-90), Marlowe created in Edward II English drama’s first fast-paced tragedy of blood, one whose headlong rashness blurs not only the distinction between exposition and rising action but that between rising and falling actions.

Nineteen sixty-nine — the year of Stonewall, Midnight Cowboy, Fellini: Satyricon, The Damned, Funeral Parade of Roses, and Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden — was a propitious moment to return Marlowe’s unapologetic queer romance to the English stage.The Edinburgh production uses a single set, painted with cosmic, concentric spirals that at once suggest the heliocentric centeredness of would-be sun gods who command the stage and the impossibility of maintaining perfectly centralized control in a chaotic universe slipping into politico-sexual eccentricity. Unable to employ the overt sexuality and rampant nudity of Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), this production instead equips Edward’s friends and advocates with ostentatious metal codpieces, a directorial choice that comes frighteningly close to camp. When Ian McKellen’s Edward enters, he too sports the iron cup, though its priapism apparently connotes not homosexuality per se but all young manhood allied with Edward. Though a ludicrous theatrical device, the stiff codpiece was probably as provocative as a mainstream production of the play could have been in 1969. As Claude J. Summers has noted,5 even post-Stonewall studies of Marlowe, such as Masinton’s Christopher Marlowe’s Tragic Vision (1973) and Cole’s Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe (1972), treated the reputed homosexuality of Marlowe and the blatant homosexuality of Edward II with an academic mix of embarrassment and contempt. That the play is still seldom performed probably speaks mainly to an ongoing obliviousness to Marlowe, as most audiences now welcome the intense focus on the play’s homosexuality, especially after John Housman’s 1975 staging for New York City’s Acting Company, which saw Edward’s homosexuality as the “key” to the drama (even if some critics complained that this Edward seemed more a “drag queen” than a respectable king).6 Nevertheless, when Edward II rather than, say, the wearisome Julius Caesar is taught in American high schools, we may discern some measure of cultural “progress.”

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

Though allusions to Ganymede are frequent in Elizabethan literature — most famously in As You Like It — the trope is mainly employed for farce or burlesque, doubled by the meta-gendered implications of the era’s conventional transvestite performance. With the exception of Marlowe’s own Dido, Queen of Carthage, whose stage directions open with “Jupiter dandling Ganymede upon his knee,” Edward II remains unique in Elizabethan literature for its unabashed homosexuality. For the Elizabethans, same-sex love was viewed as primarily a foreign, especially Italian vice, the crime for which Da Vinci was arrested and that earned the 16th-century Roman painter Bazzi the nickname “Sodoma,” a moniker given and received with good humor. Such humor was, to say the least, improbable in illiberal England, which in 1533 prescribed a death sentence for sodomites — a sentence from which nobility was not exempt. In 1631, the Earl Mervyn Tuchet was decapitated for his wanton sodomies; he was followed in 1640 by Bishop Atherton, hanged for buggery. Two years later, the Puritans would close the theaters, finally realizing that banning women from the stage would yield unavoidably queer results that hanging could not cure.

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.”

The production history of Edward II over the centuries has thus been spotty at best. As Alan Stewart notes, early twentieth-century scholars had uncomfortably rationalized the play’s homosexuality, from a 1910 “article [in] The American Journal of Insanity [entitled] ‘Was King Edward II a Degenerate?'” to the thesis of one Lauren J. Mills, who in 1934 argued that Edward II was “a friendship play” that drew upon Roman traditions of amicitia, or intense Platonic bonding.10 Notably, in a dissertation comparatively analyzing five twentieth-century productions of the play, Dawn Michelle Scovell identifies nothing less than the 1953 arrest of John Gielgud as marking a turning point in the British acceptance of homosexuality, both on and off the stage. Accused of propositioning a young man in a lavatory (to which he eventually pleaded guilty), Gielgud found himself the center of media attention. As a result, the scandal-hungry press obligingly publicized the taboo, but, as Scovell says, Gielgud “did not withdraw in humiliation from the theatre … Unlike Oscar Wilde, who was deserted by many of his friends and colleagues, Gielgud was not abandoned by the acting community and the audiences, who gave him a warm reception.11

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.

In the play’s first scene, Edward’s favorite, the “base and obscure Gaveston,” returns from the exile forced upon him by the Bishop of Coventry and Edward’s recently deceased father. In the power vacuum created by Edward I’s demise, assorted royals are fearful that Gaveston’s upward mobility will upset class hierarchies. Not of noble birth,12 Gaveston’s ascension clearly violates the Renaissance belief in the Chain of Being, which, as famously described by Tillyard, posits that all life forms — and minerals as well — find a preordained place in the cosmic hierarchy (an idea obviously rooted in Genesis). Addressing the camera directly in the BBC production, Gaveston (James Laurenson) decries his exilic wants in the beginning of Act I, making no secret of his new goals and passions. Though in love with Edward, he admits to longed-for promiscuities that will surely transpire when the King travels abroad:

… 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.

Edward and Gaveston’s first order of business is to abuse the archbishop (an eccentric performance by Robert Eddison), throwing off his mantle, taking his rings for themselves, and banishing him to the tower. In Jarman’s film, this is an act of brutish political defiance; as Ellis observes, Jarman himself wanted “Gaveston in particular [to look] like ‘a vicious, Kray-like gangster in the beating up of the archbishop,'”14 an allusion to Peter Medak’s cold-blooded gangster melodrama The Krays (1990). In the Edinburgh production, Edward and Gaveston dismantle the bishop with a nearly childlike glee, rendering it perhaps more subversive. That the sacrilege is not described in Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which Marlowe, like Shakespeare, freely borrowed) suggests the sincerity of Marlowe’s own atheism, and Marlowe goes to lengths to make the bishop an old, unsympathetic prick. Outrageous in its time, Edward’s anticlerical rant in Act I certainly remains enjoyable in an America largely unperturbed by the rowdy march of theocracy:

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.

McKellen and Laurenson greatly delight in the play’s first act and are doubtless fully conscious of the momentousness of portraying (temporarily) triumphant gay love — indeed, at the time, no film in British cinema had portrayed gayness so openly (even without the male nudity of the same year’s Women in Love). The forces assembled against the pair are led by contentious royals, the Younger and Elder Mortimer, Earls who historically opposed Edward’s reign. Notably, Marlowe’s own presumable defense of Gaveston is mouthed by the Elder Mortimer, who, in the play’s most oft-quoted speech, entreats his nephew to nonviolence by enumerating classical examples of favoritism:

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.

For the ambitious younger Mortimer, however, it is not sexuality but political favoritism that is the cause for objection:

“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. For example, Edward refers to Isabella as “that unnatural queen” because of her political treachery; Edward’s guilty brother Kent characterizes his betrayal of Edward as “an Unnatural revolt,” a treason of blood; and when Kent earlier cries, “Unnatural king! to slaughter noblemen/And cherish flatterers … ,” the curse only rails against Edward’s violation of class hierarchies.

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.

Surely, the Edinburgh production realizes the transcendence of Aristotelian fear and pity that Lamb saw in Edward’s death, regardless of whether one wishes to view the transcendence as beatific or simply poetic. This lengthy sequence — the production’s high point — lingers long in the memory, and even if one rejects the unsavory Christian allusions, McKellen here achieves a concentrated intensity unseen in his cinematic performances. Unsurprisingly, Jarman heavily cuts Edward’s death-by-infernal-sodomy, not only to reduce any perceived homophobia but to mitigate Edward’s passivity and any possibly attendant masochism. Jarman’s film proposes other horrors, of course, not least in its minimalistic sets, whose slotted lighting and angular shadows evoke a compulsorily heterosexual prison, much as the “anal” set Jarman created for The Devils (1971) imagines church architecture as a giant, white-tiled public toilet. If 1991’s political exigencies led Jarman into forgivable tendentiousness, the same could also be said for a number of AIDS-era works of desperation, such as John Corigliano’s mad, apocalyptic First Symphony (also 1991), dedicated to victims of the epidemic.

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 be the only other professionally made Marlowe film in memory.21 The film well deserves its long neglect and probably did more damage to Marlowe’s reputation than any other single production: the supporting cast of Oxford students is uniformly horrible; Mephistopheles, played by a bald young man in a monk’s cloak, is unaccountably stoic; and in an attempt to render Marlowe “cinematic,” Burton (also directing) shoots the supernatural scenes with garish green and red filters, resulting in something between Hammer horror and Gilbert and Sullivan. (I will not elaborate on Elizabeth Taylor’s chiffon-clad Helen of Troy, who steps from a rear-projected starry heaven.) Our unitary and unselfconscious fetish for Shakespeare will likely continue to obscure the importance — and the humanity — of his contemporaries, and yet Shakespearean adaptations seem to worsen every year, with Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010) only one among many commercialized ordeals in which we must suffer some young actors faking their way through the old verse. Though the Shakespeare moratorium that Ezra Pound once demanded will never come to pass, we can hope that our stagings of Shakespeare will become more and more inept and ultimately meaningless — then, perhaps, we can cling to other texts, publicizing again the real, once private intercourse of history.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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 []
  3. Verity, ibid. See footnote 2. []
  4. Verity, ibid. []
  5. 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. []
  6. 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. []
  7. Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, 20. []
  8. Summers, Claude J. “Christopher Marlowe.” Glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/marlowe_c.html []
  9. Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd edition, 1996, 13. []
  10. Stewart, ibid., 84. []
  11. 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. []
  12. The historical Piers Gaveston was the son of a knight who served a French viscount — a position sufficiently outside English royalty. []
  13. 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. []
  14. Ellis, Jim. Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 202. []
  15. 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. []
  16. 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.” []
  17. 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. []
  18. Lamb, Charles. Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare. London: E. Moxon, 1849, 26. []
  19. Ellis, ibid., 211. []
  20. 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. []
  21. I have not seen Douglas Morse’s low-budget, shot-on-video production of The Jew of Malta (2012). []