Ponderous / Illuminating: Two New Editions of Marlowe's Edward II

First published in Marlowe Society of America Book Reviews 15.2 (Winter 1996): 1-2.


Review of Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second, ed. Charles R. Forker (The Revels Plays; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), and of The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Volume III: Edward II, ed. Richard Rowland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)



It is not just because of their intrinsic value that the concurrent publication of two major editions of Edward II is a welcome event: this conjunction also provides us with an occasion for reflection upon the range of purposes served by contemporary textual scholarship.

The text of Edward II is unproblematic. The earliest surviving edition, that of 1594, which appears also to have been the first, now exists in a single copy (another copy that disappeared at the end of World War II contained trifling differences on the outer forme of a single sheet). There is thus only one substantive text. However, this play's interpretation is another matter. Recent analyses of the need for historical contextualization, of the cultural constitution of gender, and of the striking differences between early modern and contemporary discourses on gender and sexuality, together with the social impact of the gay pride movement, have profoundly altered the canons of judgment that critics bring to a performance or to their reading of Marlowe's Edward II.

However uncomplicated the textual situation may be, Richard Rowland and Charles Forker have had to make significant decisions about format and apparatus. Thus Rowland, recognizing that the sparse pointing of the 1594 text calls for emendation, sensibly gives preference in his old-spelling edition to the punctuation variants of the other early quartos, and provides a list of emendations to accidentals. (More dubiously, he offers scene numbers while eschewing act divisions. Why not give both? Neither kind of division appears in pre-nineteenth-century editions of the play—although as Forker remarks, Edward II does have a clearly defined five-act structure.)

Forker's modernized edition may be, as the Revels editors tell us, “the most complete and detailed edition of Edward II ever published,” but the results are not uniformly happy. Forker's work in collating forty-six editions of the play is Herculean, but do we really need, above and beyond a listing of substantive variants and a due acknowledgment of the sources of all emendations accepted (or seriously considered) by the editor, the more than five pages of additional collations of the 1818 editions of Broughton and Oxberry that Forker provides? (Most of these are “corrections” of metrical irregularities, “improvements” of diction and sense of the kind that pre-critical editors regarded as their prerogative, or, like Oxberry's substitution of “head” for “ghost” and “ghost” for “head” at V. vi. 98-99, mere carelessness.)

Forker's 136-page introduction begins with an excellent bibliographical and textual analysis. The ensuing sections on the date of the play, and on the complex web of mutual indebtedness that linked Marlowe and Shakespeare in the years surrounding the composition of Edward II, are also remarkable. The exhaustively researched study of the play's stage history with which Forker's introduction concludes will prove indispensable to the growing numbers of scholars interested in performance issues.

Nevertheless, this introduction may be more magisterial in scale than in achievement, as a comparison of the ways in which Charles Forker and Richard Rowland contextualize the play can show. Forker limits his gaze almost exclusively to two categories of writing: the printed chronicle histories which Marlowe can be shown to have used, and plays and poems from which he borrowed or which borrowed from him. Rowland is aware of much wider contexts in social and political history. The result, in much briefer context, is a continuously illuminating exploration of Marlowe's play.

In an analysis of Marlowe's use of chronicle sources that is longer than Rowland's entire introduction, Forker details such matters as Marlowe's deliberate debasing of the social rank of Gaveston and the Spencers. Rowland goes at once beyond this level, showing what makes Marlowe's dramatization of an “exhilarating and nightmarish” (xxiv) world in which traditional power structures are threatened with dissolution by the upward social mobility of royal minions not just formally intriguing but also topically relevant. As he observes, the 1587 expansion of Holinshed's Chronicles was contentious, to the point of “attract[ing] the hostile scrutiny of the Privy Council,” because it concluded with English events as recent as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots—and, in the Historie of Scotland, with reports on the manner in which the “roiall qualities” of her son, James VI, were being “obscured by the craft & subtiltie of some lewd and wicked persons ... for the most part of base linage,” who “keepe his maiestie thrall to authorise by his roiall power their abhominable and execrable facts” (xix-xx). An elegant analysis of the extensive parallels between Edward II and James VI (which includes a reminder of Thomas Kyd's accusation that Marlowe himself—perhaps like one of Gaveston's “wanton Poets”—intended to seek a place in the court of Elizabeth's probable heir) leads to the conclusion that Marlowe's main deviations from his sources serve to enhance the resonances of his play with this contemporary context, and at the same time to destabilize “the polarizations which the chroniclers were at pains to clarify and sustain” (xxiv).

The same sureness of touch and scholarly and critical acuity are evident throughout Rowland's introduction and his textual commentary. But when the Revels format obliges Forker to give an account of the play's critical receptions, he paints himself into a corner. His own commitments are made clear when, having devoted a full page (including two paragraphs of quotation) to Douglas Cole's 1962 book, he relegates the contemporary materialist work of Simon Shepherd, Jennifer Brady, Thomas Cartelli and Gregory Bredbeck to a single unfriendly footnote. Fair enough: they have at least been mentioned. But it will not do to counter Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England by an allusion to unnamed “recent psycho-biological researches, which suggest that sexual orientation, at least in part, may be genetically determined and therefore transhistorical” (94). As Stephen Jay Gould has argued, the belief that partial genetic determination permits an escape from history is a non sequitur. And are literary scholars really too lazy to want information about these vigorously contested researches?