Christopher Marlowe’s plays are single starred, but in Edward II there is an exception. Along with the hero Edward, he has presented here some well-drawn characters, dramatically impressive with an effective role in the action of the tragedy.
Gaveston is the French favourite of King Edward II. In the first half of the play, he stands in the centre of the conflict between the king and his barons and is the cause of the latter’s annoyance. In the pitful tragedy of the thoughtless, weak-willed monarch, he has an implied but effective race. Of course, he is not allotted much action in the play. He appears only in five scenes, and before the play reaches Act III, his function to an end with his cruel execution by Warwick. Nevertheless, Marlowe has portrayed his character with much insight and skill, and Gaveston, as a result, during his brief stay on the stage, leaves a deep impression on the audience by certain distinct traits of his character.
Gaveston is a Frenchman. He has a Frenchman’s dislikes for London and the English people. He openly admits this in his very first soliloquy.
Not that I love the city, or the men.
His foreign fashions and airs irritate the English nobles whom he hates from the very care of his heart. Gaveston has no sympathy for the English masses also. He has a very low opinion about them and speaks contemptuously of their nature.
Gaveston is an extremely selfish, egotistic and ambitions atheist, who has no concern for or interest in the fate of other people. A sort of Machiavellian outlook dominates his conduct, like his creators and makes him utterly cold and callous to others. When three poor men wish to enter his service, he naughtily rejects them, but, remembering that “it is no pain to speak men fair”, makes promises which he does not mean to keep at all. His second soliloquy well illustrates this aspect of his character.
These are not men for me…….
Gaveston has an intense love for a voluptuous and pompous mode of living. He lives in luxury and splendour and wears very expensive garments and jewellery. Younger Mortimer rightly expresses his resentment at this way of life of Gaveston at the expense of public exchequer :
I have not seen a dapper Jack so brisk
to an end with his cruel execution by Warwick. Nevertheless,
Loaded with pearl, and, in his Tuscan cap,
A jewel of mare value than the crown.
Gaveston is the king’s favourite and commands a great influence on him. The King’s passion of love for him makes him blind and insensible, and the crafty favourite well exploits his love to serve his own purpose. He cleverly strengthens his hold on the king by catering to his musical and artistic tastes and arranging congenial entrainment for him. His devices prove extremely successful, and the long far his sake makes grass lapses in his duty as a ruler and ever forgets his function to his wife. Edward pines only for him and even wishes to have some nook and corner to frolic with his dearest Gaveston.
What, however, constitutes the most remarkable feature in Gaveston’s nature is his naughtiness. He is thoroughly insolent and ridicules equally the nobles, the clergy and the commons. He insults, mal-treats and sends to prison the Bishop of Coventry in a highly impudent manner. He even does not hesitate to make a serious insinuation against the queen in the king’s very presence.
“On Mortimer ; with whom ungentle queen
I say no more judge you rest my lord.”
With all his faults, Gaveston is both intelligent and bold. He has intelligence enough to know how he can best retain his away over the king. He is also sufficiently intelligent to detect the queen’s weakness for Mortimer, but what is more, is that he is not in the least afraid of the powerful English lords. He is no coward and faces boldly his mighty rivals, he is also quite outspoken in his defiance of their power and authority. After his fall, when he is captured and sentenced to death, he starts even in this extremity with his characteristic defiance that marks his boldness.
I thank you all, my lords ; then I perceive
And death is all.
Despite his egotism and selfishness his love for the King is genuine. Even when the king is not present, Gaveston pines for him with a note of earnestness
Renewed Edward, how thy name
Revives poor Gaveston!
Again Gaveston, like his patron Edward, possess the spark of poetry. Of course, he is not presented as an exquisite poet like the king. Nevertheless, Marlowe’s golden tongue is not denied to this French minion. Gaveston’s speeches are rich in imagination and sensuousness and bear out the poetic temper of this man of fashion and ambition.
Though Marlowe’s secondary figures in his other plays, as noted already are colourless and insignificant, in Edward II, this is not so. His lesser characters are here more adequately delineated of these characters. Galveston is perhaps most distinctly drawn, and the French favourite never ceases to command the attention of the audience by his behaviour outlook and expression.
The character of Gaveston belongs to history. But in the delineation of his character, Marlowe has not followed history scrupulously. In history, he is presented as a base favourite a caterpillar of the kingdom. But, in Marlowe, Gaveston is not a villain. He is shown as an ambitious careerist of the middle class, like his creator. He is stunted and tried to be suppressed neither and thither by the mighty nobles who claim to rule the realm by their hereditary dignity.
Gaveston’s role in the tragedy of Edward II, as already asserted, is also quite significant. In the first half of the play, he stands in the centre of the conflict between the king and the nobles and the church, of course, he has not much action in the play and appears, as noted, only in five scenes. He dies before the play has reached half its course. Nevertheless, he serves to foment the tragic forces which ultimately consumes the king, of course primarily for his own default-for his own flows and follies.