Yesterday, I came upon a filmed version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. It was made way back in 1992, which surprised me. Marlowe’s works are rarely even performed on stages and almost never filmed. But it makes sense. Edward II has a clear five-act structure that lends itself well to screen. What’s more, all of the implicit homosexuality can now be laid bare.
In this adaptation, Derek Jarman lays it very bare. This is not only the case in explicit homoerotic scenes but in Edward’s repeated spurning of advances by the beautiful Tilda Swinton as Queen Isabella. In fact, the film, like the play is quite interested in all kinds of sex, as Isabella pairs up with one of the few straight men in her circle, Lord Mortimer.
The film looks really good. And it does it with the cheapest of sets. I think this comes from Jarman and his crew and their background in the theater. The film is almost a master class in how to take a couple of props and create an interesting set. But it’s more than that. The framing and lighting of shots adds an equal amount to the effect, thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer Ian Wilson.
But lest you get the idea that Jarman and co-writer Ken Butler had removed all of Marlowe, there is still much of the play on screen. It is fascinating how Marlowe’s dialog compares to Shakespeare’s better known plays. There is no doubt that as time went on, iambic pentameter became less structured. Shakespeare’s verse sounds more like everyday speech than Marlowe’s, just as Beaumont & Fletcher’s sounds more normal than Shakespeare’s. Listening to the characters speak Marlowe’s dialog, I hear the poetry. That is rarely the case with Shakespeare. With his dialog, it just sounds odd. Really, I often have a hard time deconstructing Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Too much of it uses 11 syllables and the accents seem almost random. Thus I am left wondering why Shakespeare’s verse is held so highly: it is too structured to sound normal but not structured enough to sound poetic. In Edward II, I really enjoyed listening to the dialog in a way I rarely do with Shakespeare.
I highly recommend this film. I think Christopher Marlowe would have been delighted. It brings his play to life in a way that is rare for any writer other than Shakespeare. There is a filmed version of The Jew of Malta coming out in February. I hope it is anything close to as good.
The story of Edward II is pretty much the same as in this skit from That Mitchell and Web Look, except, of course, that in Edward II, everyone ends up dead: