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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 14. Edward II

The praise of Edward II has probably been extravagant. Because it is the first historical play of the stricter type, and because there is more characterisation and episode in it than in his earlier plays, it is singled out as Marlowe’s best dramatic effort. It is necessary to supplement this half-truth. Such improvement as it shows, in construction and in development of character, is less real than may seem. Every play based on intimate history has an advantage in these respects. The “fine restraint” for which Edward II has been admired is partly due to the fact that, unlike Richard II, with which it is often compared, it chooses a more extended period of action, and is, therefore, compelled to congest or select the episodes. The condensation, which has induced some critics to speak of the simplicity of Marlowe’s treatment, makes against the dramatic interest, and denies the dramatist, often at the most urgent moments, the opportunity of fuller characterisation. Even when we make allowance for the greater number of characters of the first order and for the part of Isabella, it is impossible to separate the play from the earlier Marlowe category: not only because it is a re-expression of the simple problem of the impassioned resolute man, but because it is fundamentally literary in its mood. Such difference as exists is the effect of the medium, and of that only. That the old literary bias is strong hardly requires illustration. The keynote is struck in Gaveston’s opening speeches, especially in that beginning

  • These are not men for me;
  • I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
  • Musicians,
  • in Edward’s talk with his friends in flight, and in the debate on his abdication. We are disappointed of the stricter dramatic requirements, of (in Swinburne’s words) “the exact balance of mutual effect, the final note of scenic harmony between ideal conception and realistic execution.” The characters do not “secure or even excite any finer sympathy or more serious interest than attends on the mere evolution of successive events or the mere display of emotions (except always in the great scene of the deposition), rather animal than spiritual in their expression of rage or tenderness or suffering.” We may go further and say that neither as a pure literary effort nor as a drama does Edward II overtop, at least in its finest single passages, what Marlowe has given us elsewhere. In the gruesome death scene, we hold breath no harder than we do at the critical moment of Faustus’s career. In passion and word music, the play never surpasses the earlier pieces: the shackles of the chronicle keep it, on the one hand, from the imaginative range of Tamburlaine or Faustus, and, on the other, from the reach of great tragedy. Yet, as an effort to interpret history on the stage, it is the first of any account, and hardly inferior to what is reputed best in this genre. Independent of such merit as is individual to it as literature is the credit of having reformed the awkward manners of the “true tragedies” to statelier bearing. Marlowe satisfied the popular craving for the realities, as he had sought to satisfy the vaguer spiritual longings of his ambitious age. In no single case is his achievement final or artistically complete; but the cumulative effect of his insistence on a great idea, his undiminished force of passion and his poetic fulness are his great gift to English tragedy.