Marlowe found most of his material for this play in the third volume of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). He stayed close to the account, but he embellished history with the character of Lightborn (or Lucifer) as Edward's assassin. The play was first acted in 1592 or 1593 by Pembroke's Men.
Marlowe's play opens at the very outset of the reign, with Edward's exiled favourite, Piers Gaveston, rejoicing at the recent death of Edward I and his own resulting ability to return to England. In the following passage he plans the entertainments with which he will delight the king:
Upon Gaveston’s reentry into the country, Edward gives him titles, access to the royal treasury and the option of having guards protect him. Although Gaveston himself is not of noble birth, he maintains that he is better than common people and craves pleasing shows, Italian masques, music and poetry. However much Gaveston pleases his majesty, however, he finds scant favour from the king's nobles, who are soon clamouring for Gaveston's exile. Edward is forced to agree to this and banishes Gaveston to Ireland, but Isabella of France, the Queen, who still hopes for his favour, persuades Mortimer, who later becomes her lover, to argue for his recall, though only so that he may be more conveniently murdered. The nobles accordingly soon find an excuse to turn on Gaveston again, and eventually capture and execute him. Edward in turn executes two of the nobles who persecuted Gaveston, Warwick and Lancaster.
Edward now seeks comfort in a new favourite, Spencer, and his father, decisively alienating Isabella, who takes Mortimer as her lover and travels to France with her son in search of allies. France however, will not help the queen and refuses to give her any arms, although she does get help from Sir John of Hainault. Edward, both in the play and in history, is nothing like the soldier his father was — it was during his reign that the English army was disastrously defeated at Bannockburn — and is soon outgeneralled. Edward is taking refuge in Neath Abbey, but is betrayed by a mower, who emblematically carries a scythe. Both Spencers are executed, and the king himself is taken first to Kenilworth. His brother Edmund, Earl of Kent, after having initially renouncing his cause, now tries to help him but realizes too late the amount of power the young Mortimer now has. Arrested for approaching the imprisoned Edward, Edmund is taken to court, where Mortimer, Isabella, and Edward III presides. He is executed by Mortimer, who claims he is a threat to the throne, despite the pleading of Edward III.
The prisoner king is then taken to Berkeley Castle, where he meets the luxuriously cruel Lightborn, whose name is an anglicised version of “Lucifer”. Despite knowing that Lightborn is there to kill him, Edward asks him to stay by his side. Lightborn, realizing that the king will not fall for deception, kills him. Maltravers and Gurney witnesses this before Gurney kills Lightborn to keep his silence. Later however Gurney flees, and Mortimer sends Maltravers after him as they fear betrayal. Isabella arrives to warn Mortimer that Edward III, her son with Edward II, has found out about their plot. Before they can plan according, her son arrives with attendants and other lords, accusing Mortimer of murder. Mortimer denies it, but eventually is arrested and taken away. He tells Isabella not to cry for him, and the queen begs her son to show Mortimer mercy, but he refuses. Edward III then orders Mortimer's death and his mother's imprisonment, and the play ends with him taking the throne.
Since the twentieth century, the play has been revived several times, usually in such a way as to make explicit Edward's homosexuality.
Marlowe's play was frequently revived in the 1970s. The Prospect Theatre Company's production of the play, starring Ian McKellen and James Laurenson, caused a sensation when it was broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s. Numerous other productions followed, starring actors such as Simon Russell Beale and Joseph Fiennes. There has even been a ballet created for the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company 2007 staging used mostly fascist-era and jazz age costumes. The production strongly emphasized the gay relationship between Edward II and Gaveston and was one of two Marlowe works inaugurating the company's new Sidney Harman Hall.
The play was adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger in 1923 as The Life of Edward II of England (Leben Eduard des Zweitens von England). The Brecht version, while acknowledging Marlowe's play as its source, uses Brecht's own words, ideas, and structure, and is regarded as a separate work in its own right. The German premiere took place in 1924 under Brecht's direction at the Munich Kammerspiele with Erwin Faber and Hans Schweikart as Edward and Baldock; the New York premiere of Brecht's The Life of Edward II of England took place in 1982, staged by W. Stuart McDowell by the Riverside Shakespeare Company, sponsored by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival at The Shakespeare Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side.