24 pages 48 minutes read

Christopher Marlowe

Edward II

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1593

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Summary and Study Guide


Christopher Marlowe published the Elizabethan play Edward II in 1593, basing it on the life of the English king of the same name. The play, for the most part, is an accurate depiction of Edward II’s tragic reign and demise. It is highly stylized, however, according to the theatrical traditions of the time. Edward II is notable for its clever treatment of the homosexual relationship between the king and Gaveston, his consort. Over five acts, the physical nature of their relationship is never overtly mentioned, but the allusions to their romance are constant and subtle.


Act 1 lays the foundation for treachery to come as it introduces the characters. Gaveston is returning to England from exile, a fact that only the king sees as positive. The lords under his rule immediately began plotting Gaveston’s next expulsion, worrying that his presence might erode the king’s commitment to his country. Gaveston is soon banished again. Queen Isabella, Edward’s wife, pleads with the lords to allow his return; however, this is only so that they can eliminate him by secret means, while gaining the king’s favor by ending Gaveston’s exile.


In Act 2, Edward’s stubbornness, naiveté, and aggressive actions lead to an overt offensive by rebel forces. Isabella grows more treacherous and betrays her husband, leading to Gaveston’s capture. Edward’s brother Kent also turns against him.


Act 3 is quickly set into motion with Gaveston’s murder. As a result of Gaveston’s death, Edward pushes back against the rebels and secures a victory.


In Act 4, Isabella and her son have gone to France, where she hopes to secure aid for her cause. Her brother is the king of France, but is one of the few who recognize the need for diplomacy. However, Isabella and her son form an alliance with a French lord who agrees to provide them with troops. When the army gets to England, Edward sees that he is overmatched and escapes to Ireland. While in hiding, he is betrayed and captured.


As Act 5 begins, Edward is reluctant to give up his crown. He knows that even though the throne would pass to his son, Prince Edward, Mortimer would be the ruler. His son is too young and inexperienced, and also shows little passion for politics. But the king is deposed and imprisoned by Mortimer. Isabella, however, thinks that Edward must be killed to right the wrongs he has done to her and the country. Mortimer hires an assassin named Lightborn to kill Edward. As the play concludes, Prince Edward has unhappily become Edward III. He learns that Mortimer was behind his father’s death and has him executed immediately. He also suspects that Isabella was complicit in the crime, but her fate is left uncertain as the new king mourns his father. 


Ultimately, Edward II is a play about the drastic transitions that can occur in all human lives, and the tenuous, treacherous nature of power. Characters swing from the depths of squalor to the heights of luxury and power, then back again. Kings fall. Queens betray. Sons left behind find themselves rulers before their time. Ambition and lust make liars and fools out of nearly every character in the work. Marlowe was a critically acclaimed contemporary of Shakespeare, and Edward II was, and remains, a monumental success.