Abdication Scene (Act V, scene i) in Edward II
The play Edward II reaches its emotional climax in scene i, Act V. It is in this scene that the king’s image as an irresponsible and weak person undergoes a total transformation, and he emerges before the audience as a tragic figure in his understanding of the worthlessness of a king stripped of power just like the King in King Lear. Historically Edward II might not have shown this kind of tragic understanding of life. It is here that one has to look for the poet in the dramatist who expressed the renaissance anxiety for the helplessness of the human beings before Time. In the context of the drama, however, the understanding of the futility of human endeavour is related to another personal fact of the king; in fact, he lost the desire to live after Gaveston’s death, who was half his self. In other words, the king is under the control of death-instinct. With this he has also lost the desire for pomp and pleasure, and what he cares for now are his sense of honour, betrayal, conspiracy and anxiety for the future of his son. His refusal to surrender the crown to the Bishop of Winchester is a symbolic overture to defy Mortimer’s authority. And this is necessary for the dramatist also in reversing the sway of sympathy of the audience in the king’s favour.
At the opening of the scene, Marlowe presents Edward II in a very pathetic condition. This is evident in Leicester’s words when tries to console the king:
“Be patient, good my lord, cease to lament
Imagine Killingworth castle were your court...”
Here he treats the king almost as an innocent child. The king, however, rises above the ordinary level when he expresses his understanding of the tragic situation of a king remaining in imprisonment in his own kingdom and still remaining the titular head of the kingdom. This kind of situation forces him to understand the tragedy of power or the irony of kingship:
“I wear the crown, but am controlled by them
By Mortimer, and my unconstant queen...”
Though it is rather ironical that he expects constancy from the queen whom he disregarded as long as he had Gaveston by his side, the audience ten to forget that and sympathise with him in his plight. They may fall under the influence of the king’s emotional condemnation of the queen, who “spot my nuptial bed with infamy.” In the next moment, however, he breaks in cold sarcasm when he asks the Bishop of Winchester whether he must resign to “make usurping Mortimer a king”. It is clear now that his mind is being frequented by a variety of moods.
For the king the situation is more pathetic as he cares now for his son, who, according to him, is “a lamb encompassed by wolves”. In utter helplessness and frustration he bursts out in cursing Mortimer. But soon recovers sanity and comments on the tragedy of his situation:
“...weigh how hardy I can brook
To lose my crown and kingdom without a cause...”
Then again he breaks out in grim sarcasm while taking off his crown: “...take my crown—the life of Edward too”. At the next moment, however, he places himself on the flowing stream of time and expresses the Marlovian dilemma in his understanding of the impersonal operation of time:
“Continue ever, thou celestial sun
That Edward may be still fair England’s king””.
These lines are highly reminiscent of those of Doctor Faustus at the final catastrophic moment:
“Stand still you may ever moving spheres of heaven
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Make perpetual day...”
The temporary bliss of wearing the crown makes him refuse to surrender it and he again breaks in hysterical anger, which is now impotent. When Leicester reminds him of the fact that if he refuses to put down the crown, the prince may lose his right, he immediate surrenders his crown. After that he finds it useless to remain alive and comes fully under the operation of death instinct. In a final gesture of his love for the queen, he sends a handkerchief to her. But this does not sound as tragic as his last words to his son:
“Commend me to my son, and bid him rule better than I...”
Edward now understands that whatever happens from now onwards, will take him closer to death. That is why he takes the replacement of Leicester in cold ironic manner. Even, as Berkley tries to console him, he resolutely affirms:
“...of this am I assured
That death ends all, and I can die but once.”
These words prepare the audience for the catastrophe the king is awaiting, but nobody perhaps, unless one is familiar with the historical account, can anticipate the gruesome, inhuman and shocking death Edward is going to face.