Role and Character of Isabella in Marlowe’s play Edward II

Role and Character of Isabella in Marlowe’s play Edward II 

Though drawn more elaborately than any of Marlowe’s other women, yet Isabella fails to enlist our sympathy. An insipid foil that she is, the playwright has enlarged her share in the politics of the region beyond the degree indicated in Holinshed and has made her amour with Mortimer, the pivot on which the tragedy runs. But even so, she does not rank as one of the great lovers in literature. The king’s heartless rudeness to her is almost too heavily underlined and she is so nearly thrust into the arms of Mortimer by the wrongs done to her. Hence, a fascinating study of her character lies in her passage from a pathetic queen to a detestable partner in crime. She becomes, in the words of R.G. Lunt,” a figure rather of intrigue than of romance.

Isabella in general assumes greater significance in Edward II than she does in Holinshed‘s historical record. (The playwright, once again considering the action to achieve a tighter and more powerful dramatic structure, provides a simple and clear chain of cause and effect. Isabella is rejected by her husband, who favors his male lovers, Gaveston and Spenser, and almost as a direct consequence, she becomes Mortimer’s lover. Some critics have looked closely at Isabella’s choice of words as she exits at the end of Act-1, Sc-II, and concluded that Marlowe plants them as an early sign of intimacy between the queen and Mortimer. She does call him “sweet Mortimer”. As early as Act-I Sc-IV, when he is forced to go to exile. Gaveston implies that she has already been unfaithful to Edward

Edw: Fawn not on me, French strumpet! Get thee gone!/Isab: On whom but on my husband should I fawn?/ Gav: On Mortimer! With whom, ungentle queen–/I say no more–judge you the rest, my lord.

 The exchange not only develops the audience’s understanding of Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer, it also provides an illuminating manifestation of the sexual jealousy that is sparked from the triangular set of relationships. Banished from court until she can persuade the barons to allow Gaveston to return from exile, she seems to focus her persuasive powers on Mortimer; and succeeds in having the banishment against Gaveston withdrawn by the barons.

Holinshed chooses to highlight the political rather than the personal nature of the spilt between Isabella and Edward. Furthermore, Isabella is also given more of the initiative, both in her role and importance, making her out as a strong, willful, independent, aggressive force in the play, certainly quite different from the rather ineffectual figure. She cuts a sorry figure when she first appears on the stage hurrying “Unto the forest….To live in quiet and baleful discontent,” in despair at Edward’s rejection of her now that Gaveston has returned. She confirms to the stereotype of the scorned female lovers elsewhere.

Isabella is in despair, and it is not until Act- II Sc- IV that she begins to emerge from her role as victim. It is interesting to note that this scene contains both her most moving expression of love for Edward and the seeds of her betrayal. The development of her relationship With Mortimer is open to wide interpretation both in the study of the text and in performance. Certainly, there is scope to portray; Isabella is a woman who uses sexuality to her own advantage, and it is clear that the weak queen of Act-1 1s So unlike the scheming and play-acting power broker of Act-V. What is open to wide interpretation is her trajectory from beginning to the end of the play. Attempts to explain the transformation in psychological terms are motivated by an understanding both of drama and, even more importantly, of the human psyche. By the second half of Act- IV Isabella has been transformed into a deceitful adulteress, conspiring with Mortimer against the throne.

By the time we reach Act-V Sc-II, Isabella and her paramour Mortimer are clearly acting as partners in crime. Here, again, we clearly witness her hypocrisy. On the one hand, she is instigated Mortimer to do away with the king, on the other hand, she has sent a message to the king that she is working for his release from the prison. Accused of conspiracy to murder Edward, she is, at last, sentenced to the Tower to await trial.

Isabella has been regarded as combing in herself two different kinds of females: the patient and faithful wife, and treacherous and unfaithful wife. So whatever the final verdict, it must be admitted that she is a ’round’ character, showing a radical change in course of her action all through the play and may recall Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon.



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