Edward II Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 25-page guide for “Edward II” by Christopher Marlowe includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Flattery in Politics and Sexuality and Exhibitionism.
Edward II, a play based on the life of the English king Edward II, was written in 1593 by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and published after Marlowe’s untimely death in a tavern brawl that same year. The play’s material closely follows the account depicted by chronicler Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles, though Marlowe adds his own artistic license and flair for the dramatic. Like most Elizabethan plays, Edward II is written in five acts, which are themselves divided into 4-6 scenes.
In Act I, we are introduced to the principal characters. Edward I, Edward II’s father, has recently died and his son has ascended to the throne. In the first scene, Piers Gaveston, an ambitious nobleman exiled by the late king, who accused him of corrupting Edward, reads a letter from informing him of the old king’s death. Gaveston may return to court and to Edward. The two are very close, and it is implied that they are romantically involved. Upon his return to court, Gaveston overhears two other lords, Mortimer and Lancaster, counseling the king to get rid of Gaveston, which Edward refuses. He grants Gaveston land and titles and banishes those responsible for Gaveston’s prior banishment. Mortimer and Lancaster are joined by a lord named Warwick and the Bishop of Canterbury, who all seek to remove Gaveston from power. They force Edward to banish Gaveston again, though Edward tempers this by making Gaveston the governor of Ireland and accompanies him to Ireland. Queen Isabella, lonely, persuades the lords to recall Gaveston from Ireland so that the king will return, as well. They do so, but only so that they can plot to murder him, finally breaking his spell on Edward.
Act II opens with Edward’s naïve young niece swooning over Gaveston, who she believes loves her. Meanwhile, Edward’s noble subjects are up in arms. Edward has failed to pay ransom for Mortimer’s father, who has been captured by Scots while defending the border. Edward has also allowed the Irish and the Danes to encroach upon England’s safety, and English soldiers are being driven from France. Edward’s disinterest in the military has wreaked havoc on foreign relations. Kent, Edward’s brother, turns against him and joins Warwick and the other conspiring nobles. Edward promises his niece to Gaveston, a match that would further improve Gaveston’s social standing. The rebel nobles attack Gaveston and Edward, who try to flee but are betrayed by Isabella. Gaveston is captured, and Edward begs to see Gaveston one last time.
In Act III, as he waits for the king’s visit, Gaveston is taken away by Warwick and murdered off-stage. Hugh Spencer, a powerful lord, comes to defend Edward with 400 soldiers. Edward bestows a title on Hugh Spencer’s son, also called Hugh Spencer. Isabella enters to informEdward that England has lost Normandy to the French, and Edward sends Isabella and their teenage son, Edward III, to deal with the matter, as he must deal with the rebel noblemen. After learning of Gaveston’s death, he turns his affections to the younger Spencer, whom the nobles also dislike. In Scene ii, Edward’s forces meet with the rebel nobles’ and Edward wins, executing Warwick and Lancaster.
Act IV begins in France, where Isabella and her son are joined by Mortimer and Kent. They ally with a sympathetic French lord to depose Edward. They return to England and attack Edward, who flees for Ireland, hiding in a northern England monastery, where he is eventually found by the rebel nobles. Both Spencers are executed.
In Act V, Edward is deposed as king, but refuses to relinquish his crown. Though his son will wear it, Mortimer will essentially rule England. After some debate, he gives up the crown along with his handkerchief, covered in his tears, for Isabella. Mortimer returns to court, happy to let Edward live out his days imprisoned, but Isabella demands that he be killed. Kent, horrified, attempts to take the young prince away, but is stopped, and so departs on a rescue attempt for the king. Edward is transported to Berkeley Castle, where he is kept in a filthy dungeon. Mortimer hires a man named Lightborn (a direct English translation of Lucifer) to kill Edward. As for Edward’s son, the new king, Mortimer informs the boy that he will not truly rule. Furthermore, he must condemn Kent, his uncle, to death for attempting to rescue Edward. The boy king does so, extremely unhappily.
At Berkeley Castle, Edward meets Lightborn, who lulls him into a sense of calm while the guards prepare a red-hot spit, which Lightborn then uses to impale Edward. Mercifully, this death is also off-stage. The guards kill Lightborn to tie up loose ends. They toss Lightborn in the moat and take Edward’s body to Mortimer. One of the guards flees afterwards, and Mortimer sends the second guard after him. Isabella enters, telling Mortimer that her son has heard of his father’s terrible death and is vowing revenge against Mortimer and Isabella for their treason. The boy arrives with an army of lords and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer denies it but is taken away. Isabella pleads for Mortimer’s life, but her son refuses. He orders Mortimer to be executed and his mother to be imprisoned, and takes the throne as Edward III.
A common motif within Edward II is Fortune’s Wheel, an image that aptly captures the rise and fall of the play’s central characters. Edward, once a king, dies horribly in a filthy cell. Gaveston, born outside the nobility, goes from a disgraced noblemen to the king’s favorite, back to a disgraced nobleman, and then finally to his sudden death within the space of three acts. The young Edward III goes from a sidelined prince to a puppet king and finally takes the throne as a powerful ruler in his own right. Mortimer himself acknowledges that the Wheel would not stop turning simply because he was on top. In Edward II, Marlowe uses historical political machinations and power struggles to illustrate the constant wavering of fortune’s favor and the inevitability of death, even for kings and princes.