Monday, October 6, 2008

Marlowe's Edward II and Historical Tragedy

Here at MSC, we're huge fans of Elizabethan scholar Irving Ribner, and we highly recommend his exceptional “Marlowe's Edward II and the Tudor History Play” (ELH, Vol. 22, No. 4; Dec., 1955). Written in his hallmark lucid and economical style, Professor Ribner explains how Edward II, composed in 1591-1592, "is our first important tragedy based upon the [English] chronicles" which "heralded . . . a new type of historical tragedy." With this play, Ribner argues, "we have, perhaps for the first time in Elizabethan drama, a mature tragedy of character in which a potentially good man comes to destruction because of inherent weaknesses which make him incapable of coping with a crisis which he himself has helped to create." We see in Edward II Marlowe's movement towards "characters who change and develop under the pressure of events," unlike the "classical substantialism" evident in his Tamburlaine. Ribner superbly demonstrates Marlowe's moving away from the Machiavellian-humanistic superman found in Tamburlaine "where there are no limits" to "a more tragic view of life" in Edward II where men "are molded themselves" by the stress which encroaches upon them (see 7/2 Machiavelli post). Also, with Edward II we have the divided-kingdom motif found in Shakespeare's Henry IV and King Lear plus the abandonment of rule, "mak[ing] Edward guilty of two of the greatest sins in the Renaissance catalogue of political crimes." Edward's character further reminds us, writes Ribner, that an absolute monarch must recognize justice and be cognizant of his subjects if he wishes to hold onto absolute rule. The 10-page article, likewise, nicely catalogues Marlowe's deft manipulation of the vast material available on Edward II from English historians Holinshed, et al.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2008

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