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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

63. Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991)

Edward II is a little-known tragedy by Shakespeare, obscure probably because Christopher Marlowe wrote it, if you want to be technical.

Derek Jarman’s film of Edward II is dazzlingly stylish, refreshingly direct, and deliciously playful.

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This visionary film is set as a postmodern anachronism. Nearly all of England is imagined as a mostly whitewashed dungeon, making the activities of state seem ancient and secretive, if a bit classically untouched. The clothing—especially Sandy Powell’s costume designs for Tilda Swinton as Queen Isabella—is poshly mid-twentieth century, though the fashion sense is enduring. There will be a few dips into more contemporary politics. And Annie Lennox sings Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”!

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Jarman’s treatment of gay culture in this adaptation is remarkably direct.

The play is a bit like Richard II, in that the English monarch comes into conflict with his nobles due to his disrespectful conduct towards the nobility of his upper class subjects. Edward II causes a mutiny in the royal court when he (1) brings his male lover Gaveston back after his father had exiled him, (2) bestowing a title upon Gaveston, (3) insisting that the other nobles respect Gaveston according to that title, and (4) scorning his queen, Isabella, both privately, and publically.

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Shakespeare would toy with same-sex dalliances in some of his comedies like Twelfth Night, or deal explicitly and quite satirically with it in Troilus and Cressida. (The sonnets are, obviously, a much different story.) Marlowe’s treatment of queer desire is much more nuanced, allowing the authenticity of the desire to find a real place in the drama.  Edward II was first performed in 1592. Three hundred ninety-nine years later, Derek Jarman would make us not just see gay desire as genuinely human, but also make us see it.

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At the beginning of the film, Gaveston delivers exposition about Edward calling him back to England to a companion while two other men are engrossed in amorous activities in the same bed. For Marlowe’s text and Elizabethan audience, the reveal that Gaveston is gay will arrive later; for Jarman, the context is clear from the outset. Keep in mind, I am not being a liberal cheerleader here–what I am cheering is a presentation of same sex desire in a way that is not elliptical in order to align with straight mores, which fucking bore me, gentle readers.

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When England breaks out in civil war over the king’s defiance of the demands of the court, Jarman will make Edward out to be making the issue one of civil rights in a move that is brazenly appropriate, even if Edward does happen to be tragically narcissistic.Edward II 11

Edward is played by Steven Waddington with a muscular vulnerability. This was his first film role (and his next was as Major Duncan Heyward in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans). Andrew Tiernan manages to make Gaveston seem both unbearably conniving and winningly coy. As Edward’s lover, I love him. As a ne’er-do-well, I despise him. For example, he feels compelled not only to privately replace Edward’s wife, the queen Isabella, but to taunt her by teasing with her unmet desires.

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One can easily imagine his desire to be revenged for being scorned and exiled, but his hubris and cruelty are deeper flaws than Edward’s.

Tilda Swinton, as Isabella, is incredibly reserved, like a model,  like someone who is tamping down her soul at almost all times.

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Marlowe did not have Shakespeare’s great poetic gifts, but with Edward II he does demonstrate a masterful sense of dramaturgy. Edward II is more likable than Richard II or Macbeth. His legendary manner of execution is inordinate to any offense he may have given. I wonder if Jarman pulled his punches in depicting it out of sensitivity for his viewers, or if it is meant to leave Edward some dignity.

As for the playfulness of Edward II, the acting, costume design, and presentation of prince Edward makes this dark narrative hopeful and wild and fun.

The great Nigel Terry plays Mortimer, which has some fun moments, too.

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Track down this film and watch it.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.