"Outing" Edward, Outfitting Marlowe: Derek Jarman's Film of Edward II

By Cardullo, Bert | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

"Outing" Edward, Outfitting Marlowe: Derek Jarman's Film of Edward II


Cardullo, Bert, Literature/Film Quarterly


The reign of the English king Edward the Second (1307-1327) has long been a subject of study, discussion, and debate for scholars and artists alike. Indeed, there is much in what has become the legend of this sovereign to draw one's attention. Arguably one of the first clear historical cases of a regularly troubled regime, the reign of Edward has become an ideal subject for the exploration of the nature of power by historians and sociologists, as well as by novelists, poets, and dramatists. Their studies, however, have been regularly subject to complications and distractions due to the many potentially prurient aspects of this reign: multiple murders, a grossly unhappy marriage, revolutions, rebellions, and, especially, Edward's engagement in homosexual activity. While the importance of Edward's sexuality is obvious as a means to explore the nature and treatment of sexuality in early English history, it has almost invariably distracted from or colored discussions of the more central, political issues of his rule.

The most significant artistic examination of Edward's reign has been subject to similarly skewed treatment. So resonant is Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II (1592) that it has become a veritable locus for cultural discourse on sexuality. Both in studies of the text and in performances of the play, the emphasis has been on questions of Edward's sexuality, whether through direct address of the subject or a conscious moral choice to avoid it. This is not surprising given that, historically, the drama is a form well suited to reinterpretation inspired by the whims of changing times and changing fashions. Accordingly, the treatment of Edward II throughout its critical and stage histories has almost always been based on prevailing opinions about sex and the dominant view of homosexuality. In fact, ever since the issue of sexuality became truly controversial in the fifteenth century, Edward in general, and Marlowe's play in particular (as well as Bertolt Brecht's adaptation of it, titled The life of Edward the Second of England [1924]), have been subjected to a legacy of misrepresentation.

While it would be impossible, even absurd, to completely avoid the issue of sexuality in any consideration of Edward, a character for whom desire (sexual and otherwise) is an important character trait, most stagings of, and writings about, Edward II make two fundamental errors in their address of his sexual practices. First, the critical and performance histories of the play focus almost solely, even obsessively, on Edward's sexual practices in spite of Marlowe's conscious attempt in his text to suppress discussions or enactments of the King's sexuality. Second, the essays and books and productions have approached the subject of Edward's sexuality in a virtual historical vacuum, yoking the text to a contemporary conception of sexuality that is factually inaccurate and, perhaps more importantly, dramaturgically illegitimate.

Both historically and in Marlowe's original dramatic text, discussion of homosexual relationships as defined in the modern era is nonexistent. Indeed, part of the play's power derives from the fact that the sexuality in it is an accepted condition of human life. And in today's modern political landscape, this simple fact has the potential to be an extremely powerful statement of both individual sexual emancipation and overall sexual harmony, at the same time as it avoids the assumptions and prejudices that characterize modern sexual politics. It should be clear, then, from both the historical and dramaturgical perspectives on Edward II-the evolving view of homosexuality, the evolving view of Edward II as a historical figure, the manner in which his reign and his sexuality have been treated by successive dramatists and directors-that the issue of sexuality in the play is best addressed in relation to its political aspects and ramifications, rather than its moral ones. The 1991 film adaptation of Marlowe's play by the British filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942-1994) does exacdy this-not by accident, avoiding in the process many of the distortions that have characterized previous adaptations or productions of Edward II. …

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