Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I thought I'd put this up here. It's my response to a comment sent to me (the first paragraph), written by a contributor/reviewer to the New York Times. He's suggesting a variation a fairly common analysis* of Edward II -- "No, seriously, it's /not/ about him being gay. It's about him being a bad king" -- that I tend to think is bunk, as I explain, since I don't think his sexual identity can be separated out from his political actions. Not that I'm suggesting he doesn't make political mistakes, mind.

But then again, I'm not sure using the term "downfall" for the action of a tragedy in general is appropriate, and more certainly questionable for /this/ tragedy, so maybe I'm completely talking out of my arse. It is a rough draft, so please ignore the coarser stylistic elements, and I expect its tone will soften a little ere it gets sent. As for the foot-notes, this is Bray; this is Smith.

*It is a rather dated response. I've heard it argued that it rose as response to the sort of de facto censoring the play garnered pre-1968, justifying the fact that politics was able to get more explicit play than sex in performance. Nowadays, I can't help but see the casual split between the personal and the political as an off-hand way to sweep the whole gay issue under the table.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Edward II” for us moderns is that Edward’s homosexuality is blatant but it isn’t the main reason for his downfall. He’s destroyed because of his indifference to the class anxieties of the nobles, who object to Gaveston’s common ancestry much more than to his queerness. The really interesting subject has to do with the political machinations and motivations in the play in general, of which homosexuality forms just one part."

I have, of course, seen this argument – that the play is about a weak king whose homosexuality is to a greater or lesser degree unimportant – before, but I've never felt it to be very compelling. Personally, I find it a little disingenuous and counterintuitive and I think there are significant arguments to be made against it.

Marlowe's choice in taking the life of Edward II as subject matter is among the first: I'd suggest that there must be something uniquely compelling about Edward's life for Marlowe to pick him. If Marlowe's subject was merely that of a weak king politicking with a rebellious aristocracy and external threats, he had many candidates to choose from. Even restricting Marlowe to sources we know he used, Holinshed, Fabyan and Stow, he still could have chosen Stephen of Blois, perhaps, or (as Shakespeare would take up) John, Richard II or Henry VI. But he didn't. It may be impossible to say to exactly what degree Edward's sexual identity influenced Marlowe's decision, but it does strike me as disingenuous to suggest it was “just one part” but instead a significant part of the determination.

I would also suggest that the “class anxieties of the nobles” that Gaveston engenders comes specifically from the sexual relationship he had with Edward. They are inextricably bound up with each other and cannot be teased into parts. If the struggles the nobles initiate with Edward were just – or even mostly – about anxieties over class difference1, their struggle would be over if not at the death of Gaveston, then when Edward takes up with the (English) younger de Spenser. But it isn't.

And while the nobles frequently do make reference to class division the very way they do it (they most commonly refer to Gaveston as “boy” and “whore”2) are specific sexual terms. Not even the persons of the drama are separating out sexuality and politics when it comes to the shortcomings of the king.

In fact, as the drama progresses, Edward becomes a “better” king within some of the terms laid out by the nobles. Mortimer Junior at several points early on questions or insults Edward's martial abilities as a soldier and warrior. But Edward personally leads his forces back into battle in Scene 12 and wins the battle in Scene 16 through superior force. It takes the duplicity of Isabella and Mortimore's secret return with hired soldiers from Flanders to defeat the King.

Admittedly, this loss and his subsequent capture in Wales stem ultimately from Edward's inability to deal with Isabella, but this is again at least as much a personal failing as a political one. It is because of his love for Gaveston that he ignores Isabel, and her gradual personal hurt becomes the impetus for her maneuvering of Mortimer, and in the end their desire for political power becomes indistinguishable from their personal relationship, so this sort of seamless blend of politics and the personal is not something featuring in Edward alone; it is a distinguishing characteristic of the play.

Which is not surprising. The play Edward II is of its time. For the Elizabethans – subject of a queen who most famously adapted her sexuality identity into a keen political tool – there was no sort of dichotomy between the personal and the political, or any way for them to pick apart the concepts enough to say “this is a major constituent of a series or action” and “this is a minor one.” It is a modern, artificial construct placed onto the text, arguably against authorial intent and historical context, and one that fundamentally changes the meaning and interpretation of the work. You can't trivialize or underplay Edward's sexual identity in this play, or suggest in any interpretation or critical analysis that it is not the most significant factor. Edward may well have political failing, but each of them, adduced to its source, is rooted in his homosexuality.

1Or even differences in nationality, since almost as much attention is paid to Gaveston's French nationality than to his class. Yet even nationality is intimately bound up with sexual identity in this period. (I refer you to pg. 73-5 of Bray.)

2I refer to Smith, Chap. 9 for his specific discussion of using the term “boy”, but I do point out its use within Dido, Queen of Carthage to refer to Ganymede and his specifically sexual relationship with Jupiter.

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