To Sodomize a Nation: Edward II, Ireland, and the Threat of Penetration

Marcie Bianco
Rutgers University

Marcie Bianco."To Sodomize a Nation: Edward II, Ireland, and the Threat of Penetration". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (October, 2007) 11.1-21<URL:>. 

  1.  Title pages can be revealing. If a work has had the good fortune of being reprinted, then seemingly insignificant alterations, whether textual or formal, can present limitless space for exploration and analysis. While looking over the title pages of the four quartos of Marlowe's Edward II, I noticed that Edward's lover, Gaveston, makes his first appearance on the title page of the second quarto. There is no mention of him on the title page of the first quarto. Printed in 1594, the title of the first quarto reads: "The troublesome raigne and lamentable death of Edward the Second, King of England: with the tragicall fall of proud Mortimer." However, for its reprinting in 1598 the spatial layout of the title page is reformatted to fit the addendum to the title. Added after "with the tragicall fall of proud Mortimer," situated prominently in the center of the page, and printed in larger font are the lines: "And also the life and death of Peirs Gaveston, the great Earl of Cornwall, and mighty fauorite of king Edward the Second." This difference—the belated inclusion of Gaveston's name on the title page of the second quarto (which appears on the remaining extant quartos Q3 (1612) and Q4 (1622))—is symbolic of what I believe to be Gaveston's significance in the play. Of course, Gaveston, as the play's resident sodomite, has been analysed and documented in the majority of readings on Edward II. My interest in Gaveston, however, lies in his role as the metonymic embodiment of Ireland, which is very much related to his position as sodomite. Indeed, Gaveston, as I will argue, comes to figure as the nodal point where Ireland and sodomy intersect in Edward II

  2. Critical studies on Marlowe's Edward II have generated little discussion of the play's resonances with contemporary Anglo-Irish relations of the late Elizabethan era.  Except for the rare occasion,[1] commentary about Ireland has been relegated to the footnotes, usually in regard to two particular lines of the play that seemingly point to the infamous Irish rebel Hugh O'Neill and recent troubles in Ireland: "The wild O'Neil, with swarms of Irish kerns, / Lives uncontrolled within the English pale" (2.2.163-164).[2] In fact, editors tend to highlight the fact that Marlowe's fast and loose playing with history results in the suppression or avoidance of Anglo-Irish events that are well documented in the play's primary historical source, Holinshed's Chronicles. As W. D. Briggs remarks in the introduction to his 1914 edition, "Marlowe omitted…everything connected with the Irish wars, except the allusions in ll. 419 ['Be governor of Ireland in my stead'] [and ll.] 960 ['The wild O'Neil, with swarms of Irish kerns…']".[3] Briggs' comments are representative of the sentiments of most of the play's editors, many of whom conclude that Marlowe's conflation of historical events effectively renders Ireland invisible.[4] It is thus not surprising that Edward II has been overlooked by critics who study representations of Ireland in early modern drama.

  3. Instead, critics routinely turn to Shakespeare to investigate Ireland's readability. Here criticism abound in readings of, invariably, 2 Henry VI, Richard II, and Henry V. Literary scholars, historians, and literary-historians alike have provided an assortment of insightful readings that consider how Ireland functions in early modern drama. Whether articulated in terms of a play's "topicality" or its Jamesian "subtext", or conveyed as a "proximity" or its "point of reference"—whether figured explicitly in characters like MacMorris in Henry V or implicitly as a type of subtext, as in Othello, King Lear, and Cymbeline—critics are unanimous in their assertion of Ireland's readability in early modern drama.[5] Or, rather, thanks to the efforts of these scholars among others, Ireland is clearly visible in Shakespearean drama. Outside the Shakespearean canon, however, as critics such as Michael Neill have observed, there is a puzzling lack of reference to Ireland in early modern drama in relation to the prominence of Ireland in contemporaneous state affairs: "[g]iven the amount of political, military, and intellectual energy it absorbed, and the moneys it consumed, Ireland can seem to constitute…one of the great and unexplained lacunae in the drama of the period."[6]

  4. Nevertheless, I would like to argue that Edward II does have an integral place in the critical tradition that has analysed early modern literary representations of Ireland. The play has been overlooked by critics, I believe, because Ireland is mentioned only at moments that seem to be of little consequence to the plot. Yet, Ireland's presence in the play extends beyond these categorical references, and it is in Ireland's simultaneous elusiveness and ubiquity that it manifests itself as a powerful force in Edward II. Ireland's significance lies in the interpretive effects it generates as a trope of unknowable potentiality—depending on the perspective, Ireland represents a potential danger to some, while it functions as a potential solace for others. This potentiality is actualised through metonymy and synecdoche: Ireland materialises in the figure of Gaveston, who, as governor of Ireland, comes to embody the dangerousness that Ireland poses to the sanctity of the English nation and to the purity of English national identity.

  5. Relations between England and Ireland have always been problematic primarily due to the fact that the relationship itself is premised upon colonialism. From 1169, when a small band of Henry II's barons landed in Wexford, until the late 13th century, the English, or, more specifically, the Anglo-Normans, were successful in their acquisition of various Irish provinces; "by 1250 only remote parts of Ulster and Connaught remained free from Anglo-Norman control."[7] From the time of Henry II's reign through the reign of King of Henry VIII, the king of England was granted the title of lord or governor of Ireland. Then, in 1541, both the English and Irish parliaments passed the Act of Kingship. This act declared that "the King of England, His Heirs and Successors, be Kings of Ireland at the humble pursuit, petition, and request of the lords spiritual and temporal, and other the King's loving, faithful, and obedient subjects of this his land of Ireland, and by their full assents, be it enacted, ordained and established by authority of this present Parliament, that the King's Highness, his heirs and successors, Kings of England, be always Kings of this land of Ireland…"[8] Historian Nicholas Canny explains the significance of this change in title in his essay "Identity Formation in Ireland: The Emergence of the Anglo-Irish":

    Previously, when the monarch was referred to as lord of Ireland, the implication was that only those living within the part of the country described as the lordship of Ireland were subjects of the crown and that all living outside that jurisdiction were not provided with the protection of the crown and might therefore be attacked with impunity. In 1541, however, it had been made clear that all inhabitants of the country who acknowledged the English monarch as their sovereign were entitled to the protection of the law. What was decided in 1541 was therefore that those Gaelic elements of the Irish population who previously had been designated 'Irish enemies' [or those living outside of the English Pale] were being provided with the opportunity to become subjects to the crown.[9]

    The "opportunity" presented to the Irish natives "to become subjects to the crown" had two obvious repercussions that erupted in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The first repercussion of this "opportunity" arose as the symptomatic undecidability of the status of Irish people—as either English subjects or colonised Irish others. Some argued that the Irish should be treated as English subjects that must be tamed to abide by the crown. Others believed that the Irish were abject others that should remain colonised for England's profit.

  6. The second repercussion correlative to the first was the heightened level of Irish resistance; the climax of which being the Anglo-Irish War in the 1590s. The intensification of relations between England and Ireland was complicated by England's relations with Spain, especially post-Armada. The Irish threat therefore registered as the fear of a "poisonous 'Popish' incursion" and the spread of Catholicism.[10] England's fears about collaborative efforts between Ireland and Spain were not unfounded. Throughout the 1590s the leaders of the Irish rebellion solicited the help of Spain on numerous occasions, failing on all attempts but one in 1601 when they were finally sent an army of approximately 3,400 soldiers to fight against the English.[11] This is what critics have referred to as Ireland's role in the "back door theory" of England's invasion: Ireland functions as a "potential conduit for papal subversion."[12] Ireland is a "conduit," a passageway that provides for easy, furtive penetration of the English realm from behind, where England is most vulnerable. Jonathan Gil Harris elucidates the implications of this form of invasion in Edward II: "[i]ncursion through the anus was frequently employed as a figure for an illicit 'back door' entrance to the body politic. In Marlowe's Edward II, sodomy corporeally maps—at least for the envious Mortimer and his faction—the intolerable infiltration of a French 'base mushrump' into the English bodies of the king and country."[13] Gaveston, the "base mushrump" and the phallickly-empowered  "vile torpedo" (1.4.223),[14] who is interpellated as both sodomite and Ireland, is this convergence point where the idea of sodomy is posited as the penetration and infection not only of the temporal body of the king but also of the eternal body politic.

  7. The cultural transmission of these fears of Popish incursion, invasion, and the consequent infection of the English nation and of English national identity are evident in the numerous literary representations of Ireland in late Elizabethan England. It was at this time, Alan Shepard notes in his Marlowe's Soldiers, that England's national security became fodder for public entertainment: during a "period of near-constant anxiety about yet another Spanish invasion of England and Ireland…England's state security had become a topic fit or intellectual engagement and the bemused wonderment of ordinary people."[15] Hypersexualised serpent metaphors and imagery are pervasive throughout contemporary works that describe Ireland's dangerousness, from Spenser's allegories in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) and John Derricke's opinion that "Irish karne [are] more hurtfull then Serpentes,"[16] to Mortimer's complaint that Gaveston is "swol'n with venom of ambitious pride" (1.2.31). Ireland—its culture, its people—was construed as a poison to England, thereby infecting England with its base otherness. The desire for a stable, impermeable English nation and national identity thus hinged on the stability and impermeability of boundaries that separated inside from outside, English from non-English. Boundaries as proscribed constructs, however, undermine the notion of purity and perfect enclosure. David Hillman attests to this idea in his essay on identity formation and its contingency on the division between inside and outside. He writes:
    ideas about the separateness of the individual, the impermeability of the body, or the fixedness of the nation were yet as emergent [in early modern England], less well established than they may appear today, and hence a source of high anxiety in the period. But this stridency also bears witness to the instabilities that lie at the heart of all attempts to distinguish inner from outer. For one thing, the very act, the process, of distinguishing between two undermines its own declared goal, for while processes of incorporation and expulsion may ultimately be aimed at creating a perfect, closed interior, how can the body (of the individual, of the land, of the nation) help but be seen as endlessly permeable, if it at the same time allows—needs, in fact—so much taking in and letting out.[17]
  8. Ireland, I would contend, is the ultimate example of the dangerous blurring of inside and outside. While not discounting the various external threats posed by Scotland, France, and the Netherlands in Edward II, the threat Ireland poses to England is vastly different from and more significant than these other threats because of its association with the already subversive figure of Gaveston. The play's two predominant discourses—on sodomy and on the nation-state—converge in the figure of Gaveston. The juxtaposition and interplay of these two discourses in Edward II correspond with the problematic dichotomies of public and private, temporal and eternal, that constitute the notion of the king's two bodies, which is so brilliantly analysed by Gregory Bredbeck in his analysis of Edward II in Sodomy and Interpretation.[18] Consequently, as Gaveston is the metonymic embodiment of Ireland, Ireland becomes saturated with the discourse of sodomy. These two discourses become inextricable from one another to the extent that Ireland becomes an overdetermined sexualised space of power. Ireland has the potential to sodomise England, rendering it submissive and effeminate, just as Edward has already been "made…weak" by Gaveston (2.2.158). The conflation of these two discourses reveals and crystallises the significance of Ireland in Edward II as paradoxically both a catalysing and paralysing force. On the one hand, the threat of Ireland impels the nobles to take action against Gaveston by recalling him back to England in order to kill him. On the other hand, Ireland problematises the framework of containment that the nobles construct through the discourse of sodomy in order to contain Gaveston.  In effect, Ireland threatens the imaginary impermeability of England and the purity of English national identity—a threat that was profoundly resonant with the contemporary political climate of the late sixteenth century in England.

  9. As noted above, Edward, and England, face many threats throughout the play. As Lancaster notes, when speaking to Edward about England's increasing vulnerability in wars abroad:
    Thy garrisons are beaten out of France,
    And, lame and poor, lie groaning at the gates;
    The wild O'Neil, with swarms of Irish kerns,
    Lives uncontrolled within the English pale;
    Unto the walls of York the Scots made road
    And unresisted drave away rich spoils. (2.2.161-165)
    Mortimer Jr., to emphasise the point, chimes in with "The haughty Danes command the narrow seas, / While in the harbour ride thy ships unrigged" (166-167). From all sides of "this sceptred isle"—from Scotland and Ireland to the north and northwest, to France and the Netherlands from the south and southeast—England is being both encroached upon and invaded by outsiders. In addition to these threats that impinge upon England from the outside, there are internal conflicts: the nobles revolt against the king; Mortimer Junior and Queen Isabella, sailing from Flanders, lay siege to England in an attempt to usurp Edward's throne.  External threats and internal threats are implicated in one another—and what constitutes an external threat as opposed to an internal one is a division not easily demarcated, specifically because England is not a perfectly enclosed, defined nation.  (In other words, since the English Pale is a geographical space located within Ireland, are the Irish kerns who invade a section of their now colonised land considered an internal threat or an external threat?) Imperialism renders impossible the desire for definitive geopolitical boundaries and a clear-cut distinction between "inside" and "outside."  This idea is similar to what Stephen O'Neill, borrowing from Mary Louise Pratt's concept of "contact zones," has described as England's "spatial anxieties" about Ireland. He uses the term in relation to Edward II to convey moments when "English hegemony proves vulnerable…, when references to Irish space crystallises contemporary English fears about Gaelic Irish society and, more fundamentally, corresponding insecurities about English identity."[19]

  10.  The rhetoric of Edward II is immersed in the discourse of sodomy, and Gaveston's role as Edward's "minion" and resident sodomite implicates him as a dangerous figure from the very start of the play. His sexual proclivities only abet the nobles' case against him as an unruly "base and obscure" "upstart" (1.1.100, 1.4.41). These appellations the nobles use to describe Gaveston's transgressiveness indicate that he is threatening for reasons other than, but not excluding, his sexual inclinations. The word "base" certainly carries with it sexual connotations,[20] and when supplemented with words like "obscure" and "upstart"—which suggest a kind of social transgression on the level of class or status—Gaveston comes to epitomise the multivalent dangerousness of "the sodomite." In early modern England, "sodomite" was an attribution, as Mario DiGangi explains, that "could be deployed to stigmatise anyone who was perceived to threaten dominant conceptions not only of sexuality, but of gender, class, religion, or race."[21] Many scholars who have offered readings of the play's sodomitical undercurrent have commented on how Gaveston's sexual deviancy is supplemented by his transgression of class boundaries, and that it is the combination of the two that provokes the nobles' actions against him.[22]

  11. The nobles' hatred of Gaveston stems from the fact that his recall directly opposes Edward I's decree that Gaveston "should ne'er return into the realm" (1.1.83). Their duplicitous use of sodomitically-inflected language, which saturates the dialogue of Act 1, reveals their strategy to undercut Edward's authority.  Their continuous references to Gaveston as the king's "minion" (on five occasion, all of which occur in act one: 1.1.132, 1.2.67, 1.4.87, 1.4.198, and 1.4.390), and allusions to Gaveston's socially and sexually depraved "baseness" ("that base and obscure Gaveston" [1.1.100], "base minion" [1.1.132], "base peasant" [1.4.7]), demonstrate their conscious effort to contain him—and, by association, the king—by fashioning a specific discourse in which to interpellate him as a sodomitical subject. The idea that the nobles fashion Gaveston as a sodomitical subject through a particular discourse as a means to wield power against the king is consonant with Bredbeck's assertion that "the opening of the play…presents the actions of Edward's peers as they strike a decision to obfuscate motives of political ambition with a rhetoric of temporal sexuality."[23]  Edward is interpellated into this discourse of containment via his sexual association with Gaveston, which is one way to interpret DiGangi's comment that "sodomy is a matter of degree."[24] Thus, Bredbeck notes, "the king's homoeroticism does not just provide a means of maintaining political order but also marks the point at which political order and the power it seeks to contain meet and may be negotiated."[25]

  12. Act 1 scene 4 marks the turning point in Edward II. It is in this scene, when Edward makes Gaveston governor of Ireland, that the discourse of sodomy is supplemented by the second discourse of the nation-state. It is in this scene where the dramatic action of the play hinges and where the significance of Ireland is revealed. Until this point the nobles, while irritated, simply try to contain Gaveston so that he cannot accumulate more political power at the cost of their own. They are content with exiling him from the realm—only later do they realise the implications of banishing Gaveston from their sight which reflects his awareness of the subversiveness of his actions, though, perhaps not to the full extent.

  13. Edward, resigned after submitting to the nobles' request to banish Gaveston, comforts Gaveston by telling him that he can live wherever he chooses, saying: "I'll send thee gold enough. / And long thou shalt not stay; or if thou doest, / I'll come to thee" (1.4.113-115). Immediately after his offer, however, Edward directs him to Ireland, where he insists that Gaveston remain in exile and "[b]e governor of Ireland in [his] stead, / And there abide till fortune call [him] home" (125-126). After Gaveston is banished, Edward, in turn, banishes Isabella and predicates her own repeal on her ability to persuade the nobles to recall Gaveston. Isabella confers first with Mortimer Jr., who then urges the nobles to consent to her request:

    Mortimer Jr.    My lords, that I abhor base Gaveston
                                        I hope your honours make no question;
                                        And therefore, though I plead for his repeal,
                                        'Tis not for his sake, but for our avail—
                                        Nay, for the realm's behoof and for the king's.
                                        This which I urge is of a burning zeal 
    To mend the kind and do our country good.
                                        Know you not Gaveston hath store of gold,
                                        Which may in Ireland purchase him such friends
                                        As he will front the mightiest of us all?
                                        And whereas he shall live and be beloved,
                                        'Tis hard for us to work his overthrow.  (1.4.239-262)

    The nobles' desire for Gaveston's death is implicit from the beginning of the play when Lancaster warns Edward that if he retracts his father's decision to forbid Gaveston from entering the realm then he risks the chance of having the "glozing head of thy base minion thrown" at the foot of his throne (1.1.132). The nobles do not explain their request that Gaveston remain in exile at that time. However, in Act 1 scene 4, Mortimer Jr. offers an explanation: Gaveston must be recalled because he "hath a store of gold, / Which may in Ireland purchase him such friends / As he will front the mightiest of us all."  Gaveston poses a potential threat, not only to the nobles but to the English realm. The "burning zeal" with which Mortimer conveys his thoughts to his peers indicates that he recognises the power that has been conferred to Gaveston as governor of Ireland.  Gaveston, in short, symbolically embodies the power of the king, which translates into real, material power (his "store of gold" which will purchase him "friends"—perhaps the same rebellious Irish kerns mentioned later by Lancaster who are invading the Pale). The irony is that Gaveston has succeeded in penetrating and possessing the king's other body, the eternal body politic, which invests him with the political power that the nobles feared he would obtain through his relationship with the king.

  14. Mortimer's speech also illustrates the slippage that occurs between the two discourses of sodomy and of the nation-state. This slippage is explicit in the syntactical expression of his thoughts, and in his use of pronouns, which signify the implicit distinction he creates between the king's power and welfare and their own. It also intimates that, of the two sides, it is the nobles who speak for England. Mortimer enumerates a kind of hierarchy in this speech: he stresses the nobles' welfare above the realm's, which is followed lastly by the king's. The enjambed line  "'Tis not for his sake, but for our avail— / Nay, for the realm's behoof and for the king's" is indicative both of the tenuous relationship between the king and the nobles and of the symbolic victory the nobles hope to attain over the king by purging the nation of his beloved minion. And while Mortimer inadvertently differentiates between the types of threat Gaveston represents, he collapses them into one: as Ireland Gaveston threatens the welfare of the realm, as sodomite Gaveston threatens the welfare of king.

  15. This slippage is also evident a few lines later in the same speech, when Mortimer urges his peers "[t]o mend the king and do [their] country good" in order to prevent the possibility of Gaveston "front[ing] the mightiest of [them] all."  Lewdly interpreted, Mortimer's speech does indeed insinuate that the rectum is the grave—for the king, for the nobles, and for the English nation. Mortimer, in his desire to "mend the king and do [their] country good," employs a reparative rhetoric that effectively addresses both discourses. Edward has been sodomised and needs to be mended. England faces the possibility of being sodomised by Gaveston, just as Edward has been, so it is in their best interest to recall (and kill) Gaveston.

  16. Ireland's function in Edward II depends upon with the specific discourse in which it operates. Within the discourse of the nation-state, Ireland has a catalysing effect on the play's dramatic action. It is the fact that Gaveston is in Ireland—the unknown space, which teems with unknown potential—that motivates the nobles to instantly recall him.  Ireland represents a threat—now a real, material threat embodied by Gaveston—to the idealised impermeability and wholeness of England. This particular discourse supplants the preexisting discourse of sodomy while also appropriating its loaded rhetoric, as illustrated by Mortimer's plea.

  17. Yet it is precisely because Ireland represents an unknown space located offstage and outside of the nobles' discursive framework that Gaveston is able to evade their efforts to contain him. Outside this framework, Gaveston's material body in all of its sodomitical excess cannot be contained. Consequently, the nobles' power, which is partially dependent upon their ability to fashion Gaveston as a sodomitical scapegoat, diminishes as a result of his absence or invisibility.  Ireland, in short, shatters this discursive method of containment by rendering it ineffective. The level of invisibility conferred to Gaveston is what makes Ireland particularly dangerous. In his reading of Edward II, Mark Thornton Burnett observes that "Ireland is imagined as a haven for Edward's minions, but at the same time it is feared as a nursery for conspiracy…."[26] As evident by his speech, Mortimer discerns Ireland's dual faculty as well—as does Edward himself. Burnett's suggestive "nursery" bespeaks the capacity Ireland has to become a breeding ground for rebellion, which Mortimer intuits and interprets, in economic language connoting a different kind of "breeding," as Gaveston's ability to "purchase him such friends" with his "store of gold." Edward recognises the significance of Ireland when he directs Gaveston there, undercutting the nobles' power by instilling Gaveston as governor. He prefaces his order to Gaveston with the line "I will be revenged of them" (1.4.111), which indicates that he recognises the subversiveness of his action, though, perhaps not to its full extent.

  18. Ireland is not only imagined to be a safe haven for Edward's minions, but also for Edward himself. He attempts, but fails, to flee England for Ireland when pursued by Mortimer and Isabella: "Fly, fly, my lord; the queen is over-strong…. / Shape we our course to Ireland, there to breathe" (4.5.1-3). Holinshed notes that the historical Edward actually departs for Wales, in hopes of raising an army of Welshman against the queen. "[I]f there were no remedie, he might easlie escape over into Ireland, and get into some mounteine-countrie, marish-ground, or other streict, where his enemies should not come at him."[27] Marlowe condenses this series of events, foregoing Wales and instead sending the king directly to Ireland. Briggs quickly dismisses this condensation as an effort to "simplif[y] the action,"[28] but the implications of this emendation should not be disregarded. There is something profoundly symbolic about Edward's flight to Ireland to hide from the queen. It is even more symbolic that Ireland refuses him entrance. The "awkward winds and sore tempests driven" (4.7.34) that deny him passage can also be construed as a message to England: Ireland will not be penetrated.

  19. The portrayal of Ireland in Edward II—more than in any other early modern play where it figures as an explicit "point of reference"—epitomises how it was perceived by England as something slippery and unstable, present but also absent. In Neill's words: " if Ireland figures in the staging of English history as marginal but insistent, just out of sight but rarely out of mind, always present but never quite apprehensible, this is perhaps not merely because Irish policy was regarded as a dangerously contentious matter, for it corresponds as well to an obsessive preoccupation with the 'crafty…shifts' and elusiveness of the Irish—their frustrating ability to evade the controlling optic of English law and military power."[29] Sodomy operates on the same register; it is not explicitly readable or perceivable. However, in Edward II, sodomy becomes readable on the body of Gaveston through the nobles' efforts to contain him. As Emily Bartels perceptively observes, "[i]n Marlowe sodomy is finally neither unseeable nor unspeakable. Rather it is exposed as a subject obscured and displayed as beyond display by those who would maintain a hegemonic hold over 'what the matter meant.'" The effect of rendering sodomy so visible is that it overlays the visibility of and the palpable threat posed by Ireland.[30]  The play oscillates between moments of visibility of sodomy and of Ireland, which come together in the figure of Gaveston.  Ireland remains on the periphery of the play until it is embodied by Gaveston, who functions solely as the nobles' sodomitical scapegoat until that moment in 1.4 when Edward declares him governor of Ireland.  The discursive constructions of both tropes, sodomy and Ireland, especially when they intersect in the figure of Gaveston, demonstrate that both operate similarly within the same epistemological field that circulates around the axis of visibility and power. The less visible the entity, the more powerful it is—or vice versa, which is the logic underlying the nobles' efforts to contain Gaveston through the discourse of sodomy. It is also why they recall him from Ireland, because in Ireland he successfully thwarts their strategy of visibility through containment.

  20. In addition, the portrayal of Ireland in Edward II, especially as embodied by Gaveston, is particularly fascinating because of how it departs from historical record. As documented in both Holinshed and Stowe, Gaveston was first banished to Ireland, repealed, and then exiled a second time—to Flanders. Few editors of the play have noted this switch of Ireland from the first location of Gaveston's exile to his second,[31] and, beside Stephen O'Neill in his newly published Staging Ireland, not a single critic has discussed this switch or its significance in regard to Anglo-Irish relations.[32]  The effect of having Gaveston exiled to Ireland as it is expressed in Mortimer's speech to his peers in 1.4 is that Ireland is made the catalyst of the play's dramatic action. It is specifically because Gaveston is in Ireland—that dangerous, offstage, unseen space—that motivates the nobles to action. They immediately recall Gaveston from Ireland, and it is not at all surprising that Mortimer—who just moments earlier wonders what would happen if Gaveston was greeted by "some base slave…with a poniard" (1.4.264-265)—greets Gaveston with a poniard. (The fact that Mortimer appropriates the role of "some base slave" fits well with DiGangi's assertion that Mortimer is actually the play's true sodomite.)  The desire to kill Gaveston seemingly conflicts with the nobles' earlier desire to fashion him as their sodomitical scapegoat as leverage against the king's power. Yet this discrepancy illustrates how the two discourses of sodomy and of the nation-state converge in the figure of Gaveston, and how nobles' concern over the latter ultimately supplants the necessity to maintain Gaveston as their political weapon in the interminable battle for control of the realm. It also illustrates the volatility of discourse in general: discourses can be temporarily harnessed but never permanently controlled. These two discourses may align at one moment, then cross each other at the next. In other words, as sodomite, the nobles want to keep Gaveston visible under their panoptic control as their weapon against the king. As Ireland, however, they want to eliminate the potential threat that he poses to the realm.

  21. It is possible that critics have (un-intentionally) avoided engagement with Edward II because the play complicates their assumptions about the parallelism between representations of Ireland onstage and the historical events of the 1590s.  Edward II effectively works to contradict notions that one can be mapped onto the other. Critics like Andrew Hadfield and Andrew Murphy suggest the reason why Ireland functions differently in 2 Henry VI (1591) than in Richard II (1595) is that of increasing hostilities between England and Ireland at that time. Murphy contends that "[b]etween the 1591 play and the its 1595 successor…we get a shift in the way in which Ireland is presented on the Shakespearean stage. In the first instance, Ireland is a territory to be deployed as an English source of strength; in the second, it is associated with a catastrophic draining away of that strength, leading to Richard's loss of power, and ultimately to his death."[33]  Marlowe bucks this desire for the creation of a coherent historical narrative in Edward II because Ireland does not fit neatly into the simple binary of conferring power and draining power. Historical anxieties are pervasive but not legibly specific. Ireland does not function as a stable referent but rather as a multifarious entity that complicates the characters' actions and the plot in general. Maley asserts that new historicists' desire "to pin the plays down to specific contemporary concerns" results in very limited readings of both drama and their historical contexts.[34] The polysemous nature of Ireland in Edward II further confounds this desire. Marlowe's play does not prescribe to the overarching trajectory identified by critics as the theatre's symptomatic expression of contemporary Anglo-Irish relations, which they have derived from analyses of Shakespeare's early histories. Edward II figures Ireland differently—from the margins, and from the behind. 


[1] Stephen O'Neill's Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama is the only full length text to analyse representations of Ireland on the English stage (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007).  Otherwise, I have found three critics who point to Edward II's marked allusions to the contemporary historical and political context involving Ireland. A.D. Wraight suggests that the play's "references to Ireland would immediately have awoken a response in [Marlowe's] Elizabethan audiences for there Raleigh and Gray had fought the wild Irish kerns, and there was an unceasing resurgence of rebellion; while the threat of invasion, not by the Danes, but by Spaniards, created dramatic tension by the reawakening of recent memories in the hearts of Londoners when the Armada threatened" (Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn (London: Adam Hart Publishers Ltd, 1993), 127). Willy Maley uses Edward II as a counter example to the "historicist desire to pin the play's Irish allusions to a particular context, rather than to see them as part of a larger and more enduring structure," which he finds fault with in studies of Irish references in Shakespeare's plays ("The Irish Text and Subtext of Shakespeare's English Histories," in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Vol. II: The Histories, eds. Richard Dutton and Jean Howard (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 98). Mark Thornton Burnett hints at the implications of Gaveston's exile to Ireland: "Ireland is imagined as a haven for Edward's minions, but at the same time it is feared as a nursery for conspiracy…" ("Edward II and Elizabethan Politics," Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Paul Whitfield White (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998), 103).

[2] Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second (1594), ed. Charles R. Forker (New York: Manchester UP, 1994), 166. All internal citations refer to this edition.

[3] William Dinsmore Briggs, Marlowe's Edward II (London: David Nutt, 1914), cii. In regard to this particular line and the reference to O'Neill, Briggs observes that "[n]either Holinshed, Fabyan, nor Stowe mentions an O'Neill as leading the Irish rebels who aided Edward Bruce in his endeavours to wrest Ireland from the English. It so happens that there was an O'Neill who was of more or less importance in this struggle, but it is probably that Marlowe had never heard of him. Marlowe had rather in mind some one of the O'Neill's who played so important a part in resisting the subjugation of Ireland by the English in the sixteenth century, perhaps Turlough O'Neill (d. 1595), who gave a great deal of trouble…" (141-2).  Forker also makes this observation, as does Richard Rowland who writes in his edition that "[t]he printed sources make no mention of the O'Neill who was actually involved in the Irish hostilities of 1315-1318; but two 'wild' O'Neills, Turlough Luineach and Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, were persistently troubling the 'Pale'…throughout the 1580s and 1590s" (Edward II, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Vol. III, ed. Richard Rowland Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, 104).

[4] There are four editions in particular that contain detailed footnotes on the discrepancies between Marlowe's play and his historical sources. See Briggs, Charlton and R. D. Waller (1933), Rowland, and Forker (1994). Only the Charlton and Waller and the Forker editions note the collapsing of Gaveston's two exiles into one.

[5] Two essays—Joel b. Altman's "'Vile Participation': The Amplificiation of Violence in Theater in Henry V" (in SQ 42.1; Spring, 1991) and Michael Neill's "Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories" (in SQ 45.1; Spring, 1994)—opened avenues of inquiry into representations of Ireland in early modern drama, which was then followed by Mark Thornton Burnett's and Ramona Wray's volume Shakespeare and Ireland New York: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997. Since this last publication, three scholars in particular—Willy Maley, Andrew Hadfield, and Andrew Murphy—have provided the most-definitive analyses of Ireland in early modern England and English literature. Maley, in "British Ill Done?: Recent Work on Shakespeare and British, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Identities," in Literature Compass 3 (2006), assesses "the critical preoccupation with the ways in which Shakespeare's drama responds to the circumstances of its own time," which he refers to as the plays' "topicality" (1). Earlier, in his essay "The Irish Text and Subtext of Shakespeare's English Histories," he invokes Jameson's notion of "subtext" in order to suggest that critical preoccupation with Ireland in early modern drama is no more than a projection of critics' desire, which, in turn, corresponds with the desire of the text to create an idea of Ireland: "'the "subtext" is not immediately present as such, not some common-sense external reality, not even the conventional narratives of history manuals, but rather must itself always be (re)constructed after the fact….' Subtextually speaking, do Shakespeareans bring into being the colonialism they claim to be reacting against?" (96-97). The term "proximity" is taken from Murphy's important study on the politico-cultural relations between England and Ireland, in which he challenges the stability of various binary structures that have been employed to describe the relationship between England and Ireland, claiming that "Ireland's colonial positioning…is shaped by the extended relation of 'proximity' between the two islands of Britain and Ireland…. The value of the term 'proximate'…is that it indicates, as well as a relationship of closeness, a certain kind of 'approximateness'—the Irish are, in some respects, very like the English, but they are also distinctly different from them…" (But the Irish Sea Betwixt Us: Ireland, Colonialism, and Renaissance Literature Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1999), 6). Michael Neill, in "Broken English and Broken Irish," interprets relations between England and Ireland in a similar vein, whereby he asserts that "in Shakespeare's history plays, Ireland functions as a recurrent point of reference—the crucial implied term in an unstable dialectic of national self-definition" (11). These critics have worked to show that binaries premised on the general idea of self/other (English/Irish, and so forth) are culturally constructed through a necessity—although impossible to achieve—to fashion an idea of a coherent, temporally and spatially bounded idea of the self (nation).

[6] Neill, "Broken English and Broken Irish," 11.

[7] James P. Myers, Jr., "Introduction," Elizabethan Ireland: A Selection of Writings by Elizabethan Writers on Ireland, ed. James P. Myers, Jr. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1983, 3.

[8]  Irish Statutes (1786), I. 176, cited in Constantia Maxwell, Irish History From Contemporary Sources (1509-1610) (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1923), 101.

[9] Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 New York: Oxford UP, 2001), 161.)

[10] I am quoting from Jonathan Gil Harris's Foreign bodies and the body politic: Discourses of social pathology in early modern England New York: Cambridge U P, 1998, 45.

[11] King Philip II agreed to 6,000 soldiers, but approximately 3,400 arrived safely on Irish shores nine months later. See Steven G. Ellis's Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule New York: Longman, 1998, 349-350.

[12] Maley, in his essay "The Irish Text and Subtext," explains that "[t]hroughout the histories, Ireland is invoked as part of a back door theory (conduit for French or Spanish invasion); domino theory (if it goes, Wales and Scotland will follow, Kent and Cornwall too); and conspiracy theory (English rebels use it as a launch pad), and sometimes all three together" (102). Neill similarly describes Ireland's sodomitical function in England's demise: "if the Irish were essential to the formation of English identity, they also threatened it. For in the English mind, Ireland constituted not merely a defining limit but a dangerously porous boundary, a potential conduit of papal subversion…" (3).

[13] Gil Harris, 87.

[14] See also, as Ron Levao pointed out to me, Forker's note on page 173 about the mushroom that "springs up overnight."

[15] Alan Shepard, Marlowe's Soldiers: Rhetorics of Masculinity in the Age of the Armada Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002, 1-2.

[16] Derricke, Image of Ireland (1581), cited in Willy Maley, Nation, State, and Empire in English Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare to Milton New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 56.

[17] David Hillman, "The Inside Story," in Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture, eds. Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor New York: Routledge, 2000, 310.

[18] Gregory Bredbeck, "Writing Edward II," in Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), 48-77

[19] O'Neill, Staging Ireland, 68.

[20] The origin of this association is biblical, as David Stymeist succinctly writes: "perhaps the most virulent attack against sodomy [in Edward II] is the inclusion of Old Testament language concerning its 'unnatural' and 'base' nature" ("Status, Sodomy, and Theater in Marlowe's Edward II," SEL 44.2 (2004): 42). The OED includes the term's etymological origins in the 16th century as pertaining to someone or something "low on the moral scale."

[21] Mario DiGangi, "Marlowe, Queer Studies, and Renaissance Homoeroticism," in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Paul Whitfield White New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998, 197.

[22] Any strong piece of criticism within the past two decades that focuses on the play's homoeroticism has observed this fact. Gaveston as sodomite is the scapegoat for broader political and social concerns pertaining to the maintenance of the ideological state. See in particular Gregory Bredbeck's "Writing Edward II" in Sodomy and Interpretation; Emily C. Bartels's "the Show of Sodomy: Minions and Dominions in Edward II," Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1993), 143-172; DiGangi's piece, op. cite; and most recently David Stymeist's "Status, Sodomy, and Theater in Marlowe's Edward II.

[23] Bredbeck, 61.

[24] DiGangi, 208.

[25] Bredbeck, 71.

[26] Burnett, 103.

[27] Holinshed, 338-339, cited in Briggs, 173.

[28] Briggs, 173 n. ll. 1751.

[29] Neill, 24.

[30] Bartels, 145.

[31] In the extant editions of the play, there are only two mentions of this condensation, or switch:  Charlton and Waller note that Gaveston was exiled twice after Edward II came to the throne, and that "Marlowe runs the two occasions together" (39). Forker also highlights this fact in a footnote to his edition (189).

[32] O'Neill's book offers a comparative reading of Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI and Richard II with Marlowe's play. He argues that "in contrast to [Shakespeare's plays], where Ireland's offstage status confers a significant distance on it, in Marlowe's play it is a proximate space by virtue of its association with Gaveston" (97).

[33] Andrew Murphy, "Ireland as foreign and familiar in Shakespeare's histories," Shakespeare's History Plays: Performance, Translation, and Adaptation in Britain and Abroad, ed. Ton Hoenselaars New York: Cambridge UP, 2004), 45.

[34] He writes: "Contextualization can lead to closure and containment. To see Shakespeare's preoccupation with Ireland stemming from the outbreak of the Nine Years War in 1594 and ending either with Essex's unsuccessful campaign or O'Neill's submission to Mountjoy in 1603 is narrow" ("The Irish Text and Subtext of Shakespeare's English Histories," 98).

Works Cited

  • Altman, Joel B. "'Vile Participation': The Amplification of Violence in Theater in Henry V." SQ 42.1. Spring, 1991. 1-32.

  • Bartels, Emily C. Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe. Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia P, 1993.
  • Bredbeck, Gregory. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP,1991.
  • Briggs, William Dinsmore. Marlowe's Edward II. London: David Nutt, 1914.
  • Burnett, Mark Thornton. "Edward II and Elizabethan Politics," in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Paul Whitfield White. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998. 91-108.
  • Burnett, Mark Thornton and Ramona Wray, eds. Shakespeare and Ireland. New York: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997.
  • Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British, 1580-1650. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
  • DiGangi, Mario. "Marlowe, Queer Studies, and Renaissance Homoeroticism," in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Paul Whitfield White. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998. 195-212.

  • Ellis, Steven G. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule. New York: Longman, 1998.
  • Forker, Charles R., ed. Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second (1594). York: Manchester UP, 1994.
  • Harris, Jonathan Gil. Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of social pathology in early modern England. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.

  • Hillman, David. "The Inside Story," in Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture. Eds. Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor. New York: Routledge, 2000. 299-324.

  • Maley, Willy. "British Ill Done?: Recent Work on Shakespeare and British, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Identities." Literature Compass 3. 2006.  487-512.

  • ----------------.  "The Irish Text and Subtext of Shakespeare's English Histories," in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Vol. II: The Histories. Eds. Richard Dutton and Jean Howard. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 94-124.

  • ----------------. Nation, State, and Empire in English Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare to Milton. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Maxwell, Constantia. Irish History From Contemporary Sources (1509-1610). London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1923.

  • Murphy, Andrew. But the Irish Sea Betwixt Us: Ireland, Colonialism, and Renaissance Literature. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1999.

  • ----------------------.  "Ireland as foreign and familiar in Shakespeare's histories," in Shakespeare's History Plays: Performance, Translation, and Adaptation inBritain and Abroad. Ed. Ton Hoenselaars. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. 42- 59.

  • Myers, James P. Jr., ed. Elizabethan Ireland: A Selection of Writings by Elizabethan Writers on Ireland. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1983.

  • Neill, Michael. "Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories." SQ 45.1. Spring, 1994.1-32.

  • O'Neill, Stephen. Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. 

  • Rowland, Richard, ed. Edward II, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. Vol. III. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

  • Shepard, Alan. Marlowe's Soldiers: Rhetorics of Masculinity in the Age of the Armada. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.

  • Stymeist, David. "Status, Sodomy, and Theater in Marlowe's Edward II." SEL 44.2. 2004. 233-253.

  • Wraight, A.D. Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn. London: Adam Hart Publishers Ltd, 1993.
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