My first encounter with this play was a movie that I watched once on SBS (the Special Broadcasting Commission for you non-Australians – this television station specialises in foreign and art-house programs, and soccer, however it has earned the moniker of 'Sex before Soccer' because a lot of the foreign movies are quite saucey) and I would have to say that this movie pretty much falls into the category of 'gay cinema'. Now, because I am not homosexual I have never been interested in gay cinema, however this movie intrigued me even more when I discovered that it was written by the one and only Kit Marlowe.
As I read through this play (the second time that is) I came to realise how it does fall into the category of gay literature because it revolves around the love affair between King Edward II of England and his lover Piers Galveston, who happens to be a commoner. In a way this play could easily be about any king of that period who falls in love with a commoner, however the fact that his lover is male no doubt adds insult to injury. Kings would have had their fare share of concubines and prostitutes, and while I thought that the issue that confronted the antagonists of the play was that he was sleeping with a commoner, the more of think about it the more I realise that this probably went on all the time.
The problem was that his lover was a man, and a commoner, and the concern that the antagonists had was that Galveston held power over Edward and as such could use his influence as Edward's lover to better his position, as well as holding the hear of the king. However Galveston is pretty quickly dealt with by the antagonists, much to the king's horror, and we then learn that he finds himself another lover. What is really interesting is that this story is true – according to this play Edward II was a homosexual, and the only reason that he married Queen Isabella was so that he might have legitimate children to inherit the throne.
One could see this as a tale of a jilted lover, that being Isabella, who was effectively sidelined in favour of Galveston, but the truth of the matter is that royalty do not marry for love, they marry for political convenience (or at least they did in those days) so it would not be all that uncommon for royals to only have sex with their partners to produce legitimate offspring. Further, I am not convinced that the problem necessarily lay with the fact that Edward was having an affair with another male because no doubt that was occurring as well, but the problem was the status of his lover. A king could not marry a commoner, but no doubt he could have one as a concubine. However I suspect that it was different when it came to males because what we see here, and it is emphasised throughout the play, is that this was not the Greek or Roman idea of an old man sleeping with a young man, but rather a relationship of love, and a relationship that threatened to upset the social order – he was in love with a commoner and was raising the commoner to the position of a noble, which was something that was not to be done.
However, as the play moves on (and Marlowe has compressed the entire reign of Edward II into the play, as well as the epilogue where Edward III seeks revenge against the antagonists Mortimer and Isabella) it comes to light that Edward is not a strong king, but Mortimer, being Isabella's lover (and there is no criticism of that relationship) has gained such power that he is able to take the position of regent (namely the king that rules in place of a child king) and arranges for Edward's death. Yet Edward was not universally hated, particularly since Edward III after his coronation orders the release of his uncle, and then turns on Mortimer to make sure that his reign does not come to an abrupt end (as generally happened in those times). Mind you, from what I have read of the story of Edward III dealing with Mortimer, it was a lot more bloodier than occurred in this play, however the name of Mortimer has now come down to us as the atypical name of a bad guy.
Such is the power of the literary genius.