Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Marlowe's Minions: Sodomitical Politics in Edward II and the Massacre at Paris

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Marlowe's Minions: Sodomitical Politics in Edward II and the Massacre at Paris

Article excerpt

Christopher Marlowe's minions are complex, ambiguous figures that warrant scrutiny because they demonstrate something particular about the intersection between politics and same-sex desire in his plays. Although his historical tragedies engage early modern politics in a meaningful way, he does not elaborate or propagate his culture's normative connection between homo- sexuality, immorality, and political disorder.1 Therefore, his kings who enjoy relationships with their male favorites in Edward II and The Massacre at Pans are not weak and unworthy of kingship. Instead, Edward's lover Gaveston and Henry's infamous "lovely minions" (MP, 17.11) emerge as vital players in a tragic world where politics trumps eros as a means of explaining the relation- ship of the past to the present.2 Even though Gaveston and Henry's cadre of handsome male followers, les mignons, contribute to the downfall of the monarchs they serve, Marlowe consistently defends homosexual desire, despite its problematic status in West- ern European Renaissance politics.

The dialogue in these two plays sometimes seems ironic when it quotes or echoes early modern conversations about homosexuality and its dispersed, multivalent, and contradictory meanings. Whereas Massacre is direct in its use of the minion trope, depicting Henry as politically corrupt and immoral, Edward is less explicit in this way, because it purports to show England as it was in its medieval past. Yet audiences must have recognized that the play mirrored con- temporary stories and personages from the chaotic affairs that plagued the neighboring nations of Scotland and France.3 Thus, Edward-the more studied of these two works because of the textual problems of Massacre-also participated in highly charged public discourses pertaining to sodomy and the associated perils of favoritism at the royal courts of foreign but familiar lands.4 For this reason, Marlowe's return to the minion and his immersion in contemporary French controversies in Massacre is an undervalued resource in analyzing the superior Edward.

Marlowe's representation of the Edward-Gaveston relationship resonates with sodomitical discourses in late sixteenth-century France.5 This homosexual love affair would have reminded con- temporary audiences not only of the reportedly sexual relationship between the Scottish King James-a leading contender to succeed Elizabeth in the early 1590s-and his own French favorite and cousin, Esmé Stuart, seigneur d'Aubigny, but also that between King Henri III and the Duke of Épernon.6 Their perceived role in the atrocities of the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacres (1572), the backbone of the plot for the first half of Massacre, serves as the point of origin in a narrative about the evolution of the preferred French courtier into the politically threatening minion of the play.

Though Marlowe's Edward is distinctly colored by contemporary politics, his medieval England demonstrates differing perspectives about homoeroticism, manifest in the multiple points of view he dramatizes about his king's desires. The contrast between young and old, Mortimer Senior and Junior, presents us with opposing approaches to the minion problem. One accommodates Edward's passions, even if it is only in the name of an outdated humanist exceptionalism, while the other attempts, all too cynically, to con- vert it into political capital. Which Mortimer speaks for Marlowe?

The play frequently gives voice to a homophobic mentality, and only once does the term "minion" seem positive or even ambiva- lent. The French Gaveston is subjected to a steady stream of slander by his enemies, especially the spurned Queen Isabella and the hotheaded Mortimer Junior. The killers of the man they describe as a "base minion" (E2,1.132) will toss his head into a pool of blood after chopping it off; the leader of the rebel faction, Mortimer Junior, sarcastically declares that Edward "is love-sick for his minion" (4.87); Isabella notes with disdain "hark, how he harps on his minion" (4. …

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