Role and Character of Isabella in Marlowe’s play Edward II

A general charge against Marlowe’s dramatic artistry is that his women are not dramatically living. In fact, his earlier plays are rather deprived of substantial feminine characters. But, in his last play Edward II, he has presented a female character as an important link in the whole action. This is Isabella, the queen, who is much instrumental to the tragic fall of the weak king. In this respect alone, Edward-II can be safely deemed as superior to his previous plays.

Isabella, as presented by Marlowe, has a change in her character with the advancement of the play. She changes, in course of time, into a hypocritical, vengeful, ambitious and even cruel woman.

Isabella, in the earlier scenes of the play, is rather an object of pity. She is the queen, but neither has she had the queen like personality nor does she enjoy the honour of a queen, her husband is rather cold and cruel to her. His slights her and exploits her only to serve his own base passion for his Gaveston. The King’s favourite proud Gavestone even insults her openly. She is, in fact, subjected to much torment and insult because of her unnatural husband. The queen nevertheless, remains extremely submissive and loyal and is ready to do anything to get the favour of her hard husband. She prefers to bear her own sorrow silently to spare him for troubles and worries.

“…-for rather than my lord be
Oppressed wish evil mutinies
I will endure a melancholy life
And let him traffic with his minion.”

The queen of the later scene is, however, a different woman. Her husband’s folly and frivolity drive her to desperation. She grows into a strong, determinate, and shrewd and corrupt woman. She comes forward
with the French army to avenges the wrong done to her by her husband. She conspires with Mortimer and other lords against her own husband and brings about his fall. She becomes a party to Mortimer’s cruel dealing with the King. She is in adultery with Mortimer and does all that she can to faster her secret love for him. In fact, she turns into a power-loving, unscrupulous and immortal woman from a timid, submissive woman of the earlier scenes.

But what is worse in Isabella, in the latter portion of the play, is her hypocrisy. She poses to be an innocent and loving wife to the king. She pretends her virtue and loyalty to her husband although she has become a thoroughly faithless and immoral woman. Her pretension and illicit concern for Mortimer are particularly noted in the latter part of the play. The innocent lady of the first half fully degenerates into a corrupt, power
mongering woman.

Of course, a word of praise must be said in favour of Isabella, she loves her son sincerely and wishes him to be the safe king of England. Her words to Young Mortimer about her love for her son testing to her motherly affection

“And therefore, so prince my son be safe,
Whom I esteem as dear as these mine eyes.”

The mother in her is true and strong, though the wife in her is wicked and wrong.

Isabella’s punishment, however, comes from the son for whom she has tried too much. Her punishment, of course, is the just retribution for the sin she has committed as a faithless wife and hypocritical queen. There is hardly any pity for her, as her son commits her to the Tower of London as a prisoner. She must reap the better harvest for what evil she has sown.

The change in Isabella’s character is, however, neither sudden nor abrupt. Marlowe has delineated this change from a psychological standpoint. The queen’s best efforts to win the love of her husband and free him from his passion for his base minions are genuine, but all this goes in vain. The frustrated queen grows thoroughly disgusted, and much dismayed and angry with her husband. Her profound frustration breeds hatred and she becomes violent and vengeful. The drastic change in her attitude and behaviour is nothing inconsistent. She has been much wronged. And the fury of a wronged woman is definitely terrible as evident is modern of Euripides.

Isabella has a distinctive role in the action of the play. Of course, in the first half of the play, her role has little significance. She is simply a helpless weak woman, desperately seeking her husband’s love. Of course, she has one important function. This is to induce the barons to recall Gaveston. It is, however, this return of Gaveston that foments the civil war. In the rising of the lords against the king, Isabella has a very important role. Along with Mortimer, she plays a vital part in the pitiful fall of Edward II. She gives the royal leadership that is so much needed for the defeat and captivity of the king.

The character of Isabella also serves to heighten the tragic grandeur of Marlow’s hero. She lights up, in the earlier scenes, the king’s failing as a husband. Again, in the later scenes, her conduct- her hypocrisy and conspiracy with Mortimer against the king-derives sympathy for the king and raises him to the dignity of a tragic interesting character, with a distinct role in the action of the play.