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Marlowe's Edward II and the Medieval Passion Play Patrick Ryan Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is distinguished by a grim naturalism extraordinary among Elizabethan chronicle plays. To dramatize the collapse ofEdward's monarchy, Marlowe opens the historical drama with frank depiction ofthe young king's passionate love for his favorite, Piers Gaveston. After Edward makes Gaveston "Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall, King and Lord ofMan," jealous lords, pre-empted by the "base-born" royal minion, defy Edward in a series of outbursts and petty quarrels, which culminate in armed revolt, the murder of Gaveston, civil war, and decimation of the nobility before rebel barons defeat the royal army and capture Edward. Climaxing in the torture and covert assassination of the king, Edward II traces the disintegration of civil order in entirely natural causes—human weakness, cruelty , and lust for power. Marlowe's noble and royal characters, embroiled in their bloody contest of will, make no creditable appeals to divine providence. Further, the play lacks any type of supernatural manifestation characteristic ofcontemporaneous historical dramas such as Shakespeare's plays oí Henry VI, which stage witches, devils, and cosmological portents. Accordingly, literary historians conclude that Marlowe, in his naturalistic chronicle play, emphasizes the individual will to power as the primary cause of historical process in a world without divine providence and supernatural influence. Such readings characterize Edward II as a secular history play without significant religious dimension.1 However, with this characterization ofthe drama, critics overlook the complex panoply of Christian images that Marlowe deploys during the climactic scenes of the tragedy. As I show in this article , to dramatize the arrest, imprisonment, degradation, torture, and murder ofKing Edward, Marlowe embellishes these dramatic actions with verbal and visual images derived from conventional medieval and early Renaissance descriptions of Christ's Passion. Marlowe's suffering king—like Christ, according to medieval 465 466Comparative Drama exegesis largely suppressed by the Reformation—is covered with excrement, forced to drink from a channel, shaved, enclosed in a cesspool, and trodden underfoot. Many of the torments and degradations staged in Edward II are not part ofthe historical record, but Elizabethan chronicles do imply that King Edward's keepers subjected him to such abuses derived from Passion lore. The chroniclers give only brief report of Edward's sufferings in captivity, of his humiliations, torments, and agonizing death on the point of a red-hot spit; however, in his Chronicles of England the Elizabethan John Stowe, one of Marlowe's principal sources, translates excerpts from a medieval biography of Edward that describes his afflictions like those that Jesus suffered. As I show, Marlowe recognizes, in Stowe's and Raphael Holinshed's accounts of Edward's mistreatment, signal torments drawn from Passion narrative.2 In climactic scenes of Edward II, the playwright elaborates the chroniclers' cryptic accounts by adding physical and psychological assaults modeled on some that Jesus supposedly endured. Specifically, Marlowe rehearses symbolic degradations adapted from traditional lore of Christ's "secret Passion," a series of bizarre torments not recorded in the Gospels but which Jesus suffered after his arrest, according to medieval and Tudor exegesis of Hebrew prophecy.3 Throughout the climax of his tragedy, Marlowe deploys Christological imagery so deftly as to heighten and consummate the powerful naturalism that animates his earlier scenes. Indeed, in staging the torture and death of Edward, Marlowe probes aesthetic limits of emergent early modern drama with a theatrical style rooted in a late medieval realism developed by dramatists who historicized Christ's Passion and reenacted it in excruciating detail. In this article, I show how Marlowe, dramatizing the sufferings of Edward, forges a powerful theatrical naturalism from interrelated conventions of Tudor piety and religious drama.4 I After the tragic peripety, Edward's defeat and deposition, the focus of Marlowe's historical drama shifts from the king's struggles with his rebellious lords to his sufferings in captivity. During a transitional scene, Marlowe introduces Christian imagery with an emblematic stage picture.5 Hiding from victorious rebels, Edward and his loyal favorites, Spencer and Baldock, seek refuge from the monks of Neath Abbey. "Have you no doubt, my lord, have you no fear," the Abbot reassures Edward with a promise...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 465-495
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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