Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Perform to Power: Isabella's Performative Self-Creation in Edward II

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Perform to Power: Isabella's Performative Self-Creation in Edward II

Article excerpt

She-Wolf of France, with unrelenting fangs,

That tear'st the bowels of thy mangled Mate1

With this voracious image, the poet Thomas Grey cemented the infamy of Edward II's Queen Isabella in the popular imagination. Known to posterity as the vindictive wife who plotted treason against her husband and lived in open adultery, such a view of the medieval queen is conspicuously at odds with contemporary sources, which present continuous sympathy for a remarkable woman whose deft political maneuvering accomplished a bloodless invasion and the deposition of an anointed king while still managing to represent popular justice. These same sources studiously ignore the salacious details of the queen's life as ephemeral to their focus on the grand narrative of history, so Isabella's renown as scheming adulteress finds its spark in her powerful, dramatic representation in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.2 Long-standing critical assessments have dismissed characterization of the queen as crude, simplistic, and unsubtle, and even recent criticism sees Isabella as a mere ratification for the more important relationship of Edward and Gaveston.* * 3 While these views have been challenged by scholars such as Tom Rutter, who observe Isabella's skill in using "the roles others create for her-French strumpet, injured saint-as a means of levering herself into a position of influence," most critics ultimately echo Sara Munson Deats's conclusion that despite her complex, credible personality, the queen's function is merely that of a "rhetorical construct."4 While I do not propose retitling the play "Isabella," I do offer a corrective to extant critical discourse through a sustained consideration of the queen as a formidable, powerful, even heroic figure in her own right. I concur that Isabella's successive self-casting is a potent dramatic means within which to ensure her political survival. But I particularize this observation along lines suggested by Judith Butler, asserting that Isabella's powerful self-presentation represents "dramatic and contingent construction of meaning ... through a stylized repetition of acts."5 I demonstrate that Isabella's self-assertions, particularly as a rejected, loyal wife and the mother to the future king of England, connect her with Marlowe's famous machiavels in their shared dedication to the pursuit of power. With respect to Isabella's presenting of herself as a humble semidivine warrior fighting for the common good, I link scholarship on the theatricality of war in contemporary soldiering with intersections between gendered behavior and performative self-construction. From the patient Griselda figure she adopts in the opening scenes through the stylized images as warrior queen and mother to the future of the nation, Isabella's pursuit of power is facilitated by the underlying mechanism of her performatively crafted agency. Yes, her performance is ruthless, but not as a rapacious she-wolf, rather as a performative Renaissance prince.

Isabella's first appearance on stage clearly signals the deliberate self-consciousness that will become the hallmark of her performance throughout the action. While her self-casting changes dramatically over the course of the play, the volte-face from loyal wife to vengeful adulteress critics often decry as implausible actually serves to heighten the dramatic peripeteia as the queen's performative agency is revealed incrementally.6 Upon meeting with the nobles apparently by accident, she replies directly to Mortimer's concern by claiming she is headed to the forest, "To live in grief and baleful discontent."7 This thoroughly melodramatic statement is prompted, she claims, by Edward's forsaking her for his lover, Gaveston. However, Mortimer's expressed question, "Madam, whither walks your majesty so fast?" (E 2, 2.46, emphasis mine) suggests that her purpose is quite opposite to her purported claim. Isabella's speedy and determined locomotion across the stage, perhaps with a wrist pressed to her forehead in a gesture of hyperbolic distress, suggests a very clear intention: to intercept the nobles so that they might witness her discontent in medias res. …

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