Normally I like to give a flavour of what I am reading by excerpting the second paragraph of the third chapter, or for a play the second speech of the third scene. However the third scene of Edward II consists of only a single speech. I am therefore giving you Gaveston’s opening speech to get in the mood:
“Enter GAVESTON, reading a letter.
Gav. My father is deceas’d. Come, Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.
Ah, words that make me surfeit with delight!
What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston
Than live and be the favourite of a king!
Sweet prince, I come! these, thy amorous lines
Might have enforc’d me to have swum “from France,
And, like Leander, gasp’d upon the sand,
So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms.
The sight of London to my exil’d eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul:
Not that I love the city or the men,
But that it harbours him I hold so dear,—
The king, upon whose bosom let me lie,
And with the world be still at enmity.
What need the arctic people love star-light,
To whom the sun shines both by day and night?
Farewell base stooping to the lordly peers!
My knee shall bow to none but to the king.
As for the multitude, that are but sparks,
Rak’d up in embers of their poverty,—
Tanti,—I’ll fawn first on the wind,
That glanceth at my lips, and flieth away.
I’m often a bit suspicious of today’s commentators trying to project their own interests onto past writers, often scrabbling in desperation from scraps of other evidence. I don’t think Marlowe was an atheist, though I do think he interrogates the role of religion in society more than some did; I don’t think Faustus is a coded commentary on Calvinism, though Marlowe presumably had his views.
But I do think that Edward II is consciously intended and written as an anti-homophobic text. There is zero room for ambiguity about the nature of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston (and later between Edward and the younger Spencer). Edward and Gaveston confess their love for each other to anyone who is listening (and many who are not). The opposition of the nobles to Gaveston’s presence in the court is entirely about style rather than substance; in other words, it’s purely that they object to the King having a male lover, rather than any policy decisions made by the King or influenced by Gaveston (or Spencer).
King Edward, of course, is not perfect – he is besotted to distraction with Gaveston; he is clearly being used by the Spencers in the middle section of the play; the immediate cause of his downfall is carelessness and hubris. But he gets some tremendous closing speeches as he awaits death in Berkeley Castle, and the message is very clearly that he is a martyr, who did not deserve what he got for being who he was. When I explained to young F that Marlowe is unusual in his portrayal of same-sex romance for his homophobic time, F replied with a pertinent question: “Why didn’t he get killed, then?”
“He did,” I replied.