- History, Tragedy, and Truth in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II
Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is typically applauded as an aesthetic achievement, a history play that brings form and meaning to the incoherent material of its chronicle source by retelling the king’s slightly dull, twenty-year reign as the fierce and deadly struggle of a few willful personalities. Within the development of Elizabethan drama, Edward II is granted a crucial role in bringing to the English “chronicle play”—including Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III—the unity and purpose of the mature “history” play, epitomized by Shakespeare’s later, more aesthetically sophisticated tetralogy. In this narrative of literary development, the episodic chronicle play fails to show the disparate events of the past contributing to a single action—fails, like the chronicle, to comprehend the past—while the history play successfully makes sense of those events. Considered in context of the Marlovian oeuvre, Edward II again demonstrates the triumph of art and order over inchoate historical material: it is Marlowe’s “most perfect achievement in dramatic structure” and the “most finished and satisfactory of Marlowe’s plays, evidently carefully written, with the refractory chronicle material skillfully handled.” 1
These readings of Edward II, however, have relied upon too superficial an understanding of the chronicle tradition, and they have kept the play’s formal success separate from the Elizabethan debates about historiography within which both play and source participated. The social and political stakes of Marlowe’s historiographical practice emerge when we reread Edward II against a conception of the chronicle not as mere “material” but as a coherent and influential projection of national identity and historical process. Such a comparative reading shows us not merely that Marlowe’s play is more aesthetically satisfying, but also that it significantly [End Page 275] redefines the nation and the forces of historical change. In particular, Marlowe delineates and focuses on a private realm, which he sets up in opposition to the public as a volatile source of decisions affecting the state. In addition, reading Marlowe’s play with a new understanding of the chronicle foregrounds the metadiscursive elements in Edward II that, referring back to the source accounts, help to illuminate Marlowe’s sense of his own artistic refashioning. The chronicle form, as Marlowe’s principal source and one with considerable cultural authority, challenged him to set up his drama as a more “true” history and to defend his very different understanding of both political process and history writing.
The assessments of Edward II that began this article define the play against the chronicle, which is in turn characterized as “material,” an apparently amorphous grouping of value-free facts for the artist to choose or reject. For the modern reader, accustomed to finding meaning in tales of causality, the disparate events recorded by the chroniclers—events only related to each other by their shared chronological structure—seem to lack meaning and purpose. But we can no longer read these important histories so carelessly. In her recent analysis of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle, Annabel Patterson has shown that the chronicle’s form and content actually worked to address the concerns and convey the values of the citizen and artisan Londoners who were its principal readers and producers. 2 Maintaining that the Chronicle reveals not its authors’ “incompetence” but their “different set of historiographical principles,” Patterson argues that the Chronicle’s perplexing inclusivity—the quality that brought John Donne’s scathing dismissal of chronicle content as “triviall houshold trash”—in effect creates a national history that will encompass not just king and court but also citizens and even the artisanal and laboring classes. 3 Patterson also traces, in passages throughout the Chronicle, the authors’ recurrent, approving attention to rights theory, to the “ancient constitution,” and to the value of Parliament in limiting the monarch’s power. She persuasively demonstrates that they make a strong case for certain liberties of the individual and the laws that protect them.
Patterson also steps back from her identification of the Chronicle’s pervasive themes in order to suggest the work’s importance as a compilation of public records and diverse opinions—its creation of...