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Breeching the boy in Marlowe's Edward II.

(essay)(Critical essay)

Though Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (c. 1592) has long received copious, imag
inative, critical attention, the significance of one aspect of the play has been
quite neglected. As if he had been sent to stand in an obscure corner, the boy
Prince Edward is rarely mentioned, let alone featured, in Marlovian criticism. (
1) This paper argues that understanding the boy's role in Edward II is integral
to understanding the most troubling features of the play as a whole. Taking part
in a recent critical conversation about the sodomitical nature of Edward II, I
describe how Marlowe deftly draws the prince, perhaps to our surprise, into the
homoerotic and sodomitical dynamics of the play. Prince Edward becomes associate
d with the role of the minion, becomes the object of the same narcissistic rheto
ric that describes his father's lover, and is threatened with sodomitical violen
ce. Let me emphasize that there is an important difference between seeing Prince
Edward as sexualized (as he certainly is when the play makes the boy part of it
s homoerotic discourse) and seeing him as a sexual object (which I do not believ
e he is). This emphasis should prevent my argument from appearing to follow too
closely the critical path most prominently marked by the work of Stephen Orgel,
who reminds us that boys on the Renaissance stage very often were there to be de
sired sexually by the play's characters and audience members alike. (2) Displayi
ng a boy on stage to be desired is an end in and of itself. Sexualizing Prince E
dward is a means to an end. Essential to understanding Marlowe's end will be und
erstanding both why this child promises to resolve a political crisis excited by
the homoerotic and rocked by the sodomitical and why he cannot help but suggest
the failure of his promise. (3)
Prince Edward becomes associated with minions Piers Gaveston and Hugh Spencer Jr
. in certain ways; the boy judges his father's love for him in comparison with t
hese rivals for his father's affection and seems to capture the king's caring in
terest most when the role of the minion has been vacated by Gaveston's and Spenc
er Jr.'s deaths. The Renaissance meaning of the word "minion" gestures beyond it
s use in Edward II to signify "lover" or "king's favorite," as when Mortimer Jr.
sneers, "The King is lovesick for his minion" (I.iv.87). "Minion" also could be
used to describe a beloved child. The OED offers as evidence for this meaning a
passage from George Pettie's translation of Stefano Guazzo's Civile Conversatio
n (1581): "I cannot abide the folly of some fathers who make some one of their c
hildren their darling and minion." (4) This particular example stresses an impor
tant component to the idea of what "minion" means: a minion is some one, and it
is his tenure of a singular position that, by its very singular nature, makes hi
m a favorite. The role of a favorite cannot remain such if it is shared. I want
to be faithful to the sense of the unique that "minion" conveys as I treat Gaves
ton, Spencer Jr., and Prince Edward. Though I call the three characters "minions
," one meaning of the word--lover, political favorite, child--must be stressed w
hen considering each character. And while Spencer Jr. and Prince Edward are neve
r called "minions" explicitly by the text, each of the three characters can be s
een as occupying the position of minion according to one of the early modern mea
nings of the word. The single term "minion" will be a useful one to indicate a s
tructural analogy of role as Gaveston, Spencer Jr., and Prince Edward occupy in
succession, but do not share, the role of the beloved. (5)
The three characters can be seen as representing a different, though related thr
ough the concept of affection, definition of "minion" as they each fill that rol
e. Gaveston, for whom Edward claims he would surrender his kingdom in order to k
eep but a "nook or corner" in which the two could "frolic," is clearly a minion
as lover and as king's favorite (I.iv.72-3). Spencer Jr. is often called "sweet"
by the king: "Spencer, sweet Spencer, I adopt thee here"; "Spencer, ah, sweet S
pencer, thus then must we part?"; "Part we must, / Sweet Spencer" (III.i.144, IV
.vii.72, IV.vii.94-5). His assumption of Gaveston's place and the clear tenderne
ss Edward bears Spencer Jr. indicate that the young man may be called a minion a
t least in the sense of king's favorite. That Spencer Jr. is a minion as lover i
s not clearly substantiated by the text. (6) Several critics have noticed that S
pencer Jr., in replacing Gaveston, does not quite fill the earlier minion's shoe
s, or, at least, something is missing from Edward and Spencer Jr.'s relationship
that existed in the king and Gaveston's. (7) Emily C. Bartels notices that, tho
ugh Spencer Jr. is not depicted as Edward's lover, the rebels' antagonism toward
the new minion is consistent with their animosity toward the old, and that it "
remains as 'anti-gay' as it was before, even though its target is not 'gay.'" (8
) She finds the difference to be crucial, even as (and because) it is ignored by
the rebels: "That Spenser is made to replace Gaveston does not merely underline
the political edge of the revolt; it also underlines the simultaneous extension
and erasure of sodomy itself, as it becomes at once much more than it is politi
cally and much less than it is sexually." (9) For Bartels and other critics, "so
domy" at once describes the sexual act and presents a metaphor that indicates su
bversion, in this case political subversion. (10) Marlowe erases sodomy in one s
ense as he recasts the initially sexual relationship of king and minion as nonse
xual in the replacement of Gaveston by Spencer Jr. In another sense, sodomy is e
xtended as the rebels, in their attitude toward the new minion, assign Spencer J
r. the exact role previously occupied by Gaveston and as the rebels led by Morti
mer Jr. increasingly menace the political order with sodomitical sedition. Inter
preting Prince Edward as yet one more minion for the king and as a replacement f
or Spencer Jr. could be seen as extending still farther the erasure of sodomy Ba
rtels compellingly argues occurs in the transition from Gaveston to Spencer Jr.
(who, if not Edward's lover, still evokes shadows of the homoerotic as he wins e
ndearments from the king). It is also true that Prince Edward, though his occupa
tion of the role of the minion is indicated by the king's paternal affection tow
ard his heir, cannot quite escape being defined and even defining himself by the
category of the minion and all of the problematic sexuality the play associates
with it.
Prince Edward's potential to be loved by his father is eclipsed during the first
several acts by the play's focus on Gaveston and Spencer Jr. Edward calls the f
ormer "Good Piers of Gaveston, my sweet favorite" and indeed favors Gaveston to
the extent that the king denies any distinction between him and his lover (III.i
ii.8). To "manifest [his] love," Edward offers Spencer Jr. a largess of crowns a
nd promises, "daily [we] will enrich thee with our favor, / That, as the sunshin
e, shall reflect o'er thee" (III.i.52, 50-1). Until the prince's first entrance
in act III, scene i--an entrance that hovers near the center of the play, as if
the boy represents the heart of it--there is only one, rather colorless, mention
of his existence. The Queen says,

If [King Edward] be strange and not regard my words,


My son and I will over into France,
And to the King, my brother, there complain.
(II.iv.64-6)
When Prince Edward physically appears on the stage in act III, scene i, Gaveston
has been killed and Spencer Jr. is well on his way to replacing him, though wit
hout evoking the marked eroticism that characterized Edward and Gaveston's king-
minion relationship.
In court with the king, it is Spencer Jr. who speaks before the prince's first e
ntrance, announcing only the approach of the queen who enters with him. Marlowe'
s Prince Edward seems portrayed as much younger than the true-to-life Prince Edw
ard in Raphael Holinshed's account of Edward II's fall and Edward III's coronati
on at fourteen years old: like early modern boys before the age of seven who had
not yet been "breeched," Prince Edward remains almost entirely at his mother's
side for the duration of the play until he denounces her as his father's murdere
ss. (11) In France, before this point of disillusionment, Prince Edward claims,