Christopher Marlowes Poems
Central Themes of The Passionate Shepherd to his Love and The Nymph’s Reply
The poems “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir William Raleigh, and “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe have the same central theme, that love and nature are beautiful but don’t last forever. Both authors use literary elements to support this central idea.
In “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”, Raleigh uses imagery and conflict to convey his central idea of love and nature are beautiful, but don’t last forever. In line 6 of the poem, the Nymph replies “When rivers rage and rocks grow cold”. This is an example of imagery and conflict at the same time. The nature won’t stay appealing forever. The leaves will wither away with winter, the rocks will be unused and covered in snow, and the river will rush by, moving too fast to be beautiful. The nymph could also be referencing the shepherd’s heart as the rocks, and the river as him, moving past her too fast, leaving her behind. This is an example of a metaphor, because it doesn’t use like or as in the phrase. His heart is the rock, because it grows cold and hard as time passes, and he is the river, getting over her and what drew him to her in the first place: beauty. Also, in lines 9 through 12, the nymph says, “The flowers do fade, and wanton fields, to wayward winter reckoning yields, a honey tongue, a heart of gall, It’s fancy’s spring, but sorrows fall”. This is an example of imagery and connects to the central idea. It connects to the central idea that love and nature are beautiful, but don’t last forever because just like the few lines above, nature’s beauty will fade, leaving the dark and cold of winter. In the 16th century, shepherds were known to lie to the nymphs to get female company on their journeys so they weren’t lonely. The “heart of gall” is referring to the shepherd and how his heart will turn bitter in time. The honey tongue is the sweet talking of the shepherd, trying to woo her to come with him. This is an example of conflict because the nymph knows what the shepherd is trying to do, and she’s rejecting him. Another example of imagery is in line 5: “Time drives the flock from field to fold”. The nymph knows that the sheep will move away from their field they reside in, and following the shepherd away from the view, so the couple can’t see them anymore. The nature isn’t beautiful anymore, and the love will eventually fade away.
In the poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” the central theme of nature and love as beautiful but ephemeral is connected to the poem by literary elements such as imagery and conflict. For example, “And we will sit upon the rocks and watch the shepherds feed their flocks,” (Marlowe, Lines 5-6) ties into the central theme because the scene won’t last long. The sheep move on, and the rocks get covered in snow, now unusable. This beautiful scene, just like the shepherd’s love for the nymph won’t last long. The seasons will change, and just like nature, their love will move on. An example of imagery is in lines 9 through 10. “And I will make thee beds of roses and a thousand fragrant posies”. This is an example of imagery and ties to the central idea because the bed of roses is what the shepherd sleeps on, so he will give all he has to the girl to make her happy. Sooner or later though, the roses will fade and turn brown, looking displeasing to the girl, just like the shepherd’s love for her. The love will disappear and turn non-existent. Lastly, another example of conflict is in line 15: “Fair lined slippers for the cold.” The shepherd is trying to woo the nymph with material goods, not telling her that he would keep her for the year, not letting her go for the winter. The shepherd would make beautiful and warm slippers hinting that he would keep her. He loves her, but mainly only for the company. He wouldn’t love her with all his heart, he just wants female compan
The theme of nature and love being beautiful but ephemeral is conveyed effectively by both Raleigh and Marlowe in these poems via common, important literary devices.
An Explication of Lord Byron’s She Walks in Beauty and Christopher Marlowe’s The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships
On the afternoon of June 11, 1814, at the home of Lady Sitwell, George Gordon, Lord Byron, upon seeing his cousin Lady Anne Wilmot Horton in “a mourning dress of spangled black” (Leung 312), was so moved that by the next day he had written “She Walks in Beauty,” first published in Hebrew Melodies in 1815. Similarly, more than two centuries earlier, a young, radical poet from Canterbury named Christopher Marlowe published The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus which contains a poem inspired by “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships,” namely Helen of Troy. As “idealized” women, Byron’s cousin Anne and Marlowe’s Helen stand as icons of love that reflect “days spent pondering the intricacies of adoration for hearts whose love is innocent” (Martin 25) through the use of symbols, both natural and subjective.In “She Walks in Beauty,” Byron utilizes numerous metaphors to describe the beauty of his cousin, a rather “prim and pretty” girl that “after a tumbler of brandy and a consequently bad night,” (Longford 71), Byron celebrated in two of his most entrancing lines–“She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” In essence, Byron is comparing her with the beauties of the natural world, for her loveliness is “cloudless” like the dark and starry night and her “aspect” or physicality is imbued with “all that’s best of dark and bright” which symbolizes her dual nature as a woman of varying temperaments. Yet Byron’s main focus in this poem is upon the woman’s head and face, where “the nameless grace. . . waves in every raven tress, being her black hair (a symbol of darkness) and the light softens her face amid “thoughts serenely sweet. . . ” (a symbol of brightness). Her face is also the “dwelling place” of pureness with “the soft cheeks (and) the winning smile which express not only her beauty but also her mortality” (McConnell 146). But the most telling aspect of “She Walks in Beauty” concerns the idealized woman’s soul which is “at peace with all below” (a symbol for darkness) and her heart which is “innocent,” a trait very important to Byron which he equates as a necessary component for true love and adoration.In “The Face of Helen” (“The face that launched a thousand ships”) as featured in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, scene V.i, Marlowe “transcends sensual delight and Helen becomes the symbol of . . . pleasure. . . the acme of physical delight” (Wright xxii). With “the face that launched a thousand ships,” a reference to the Greek invasion of Troy, and the one that “burnt the topless towers of Ilium” or the high fortified walls of the city, Marlowe, like Lord Byron, uses numerous metaphors to describe Helen’s beauty via natural symbols and with a focus on her face. Her lips are most important to him, for “heaven is in these lips” and “all is dross that is not Helena” which infers that compared to Helen all else is meaningless. Marlowe then declares that for Helen’s love he will sack Wittenberg “instead of Troy” and struggle “with weak Menelaus,” Helen’s Greek husband, and then “wound Achilles in the heel,” a reference to the Greek hero’s only vulnerable spot on his body, much like Marlowe’s heart that is smitten with his love for Helen.Marlowe also describes Helen’s beauty as “fairer than the evening air” and “clad in the beauty of a thousand stars” which like Byron’s cousin Lady Anne symbolizes her dual nature as one who reflects darkness and brightness. The poet also states that Helen’s beauty is brighter “than flaming Jupiter,” a reference to “the God of Heaven who loved Semele and consumed her with thunder and lightning” (Barnet 93). Since Helen is also “more lovely than the monarch of the sky,” a possible metaphor for Phoebus, the sun god, the poet wishes to be in the “azure” arms of Arethusa, a nymph “greatly loved by Jupiter for her beauty as reflected in the blue waters of the Hellespont” ( Harmon 258). Finally, the poet declares that “none but (Helen) shalt be my paramour!” or a greatly loved and adored woman who is far above all else on Earth and in the Heavens.In his epic poem “Hero and Leander,” Christopher Marlowe puts forth a vital question to his readers–“Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?” (Marlowe’s Poems 254), a declaration that surely reflects Marlowe’s adoration for his Helen of Troy and also Lord Byron’s “first sight” of his cousin Lady Anne in her mourning dress. Thus, “She Walks in Beauty” and “The Face of Helen” are more than mere love poems, for they express internal and external forces related to the physical beauty of the women as well as their interior strengths via symbols that elevate their idealized states.SOURCES CITEDBarnet, Sylvan, ed. & intro. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. New York: Penquin Classics, 1969.Harmon, William, ed. The Classic Hundred Poems. 2nd. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.Leung, Mathew. The Poetry of Byron. (Preface). New York: Macmillan, 1881.Longford, Elizabeth. The Life of Byron. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976.Martin, L. C. Byron’s Lyrics. Great Britain: University of Nottingham, 1948. —. ed. Marlowe’s Poems. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.McConnell, Frank D., ed. Byron’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Letters and Journals. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.Wright, Louis B., ed. et al. The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. New York: Washington Square Press, 1975.
The Poet and the Narrator in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander
In Christopher Marlowe’s narrative poem Hero and Leander, a major obstacle confronts the reader in the form of attempting to separate the narrative voice of the poet Marlowe from that which W.L. Godshalk calls “the sensibility of a dramatized narrator. . . who stands between us and the lovers” (307). David Farkas, in his “Problems of Interpretation in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander,” points out that he hears “two voices in the narrative: the genuine Marlovian voice and the hidden narrator’s (Knoll 129). In light of these observations, the question arises as to the means of distinguishing between the dual voices present in the poem. Godshalk asks “Is it Marlowe or the narrator who is so taken with Leander’s physical beauty and with Hero’s pretended innocence even as she coquettishly leads him on?” (308). Thus, Hero and Leander, in regards to the poet/narrator question, “builds its own mysteries and demands a variety of responses” which are “compounded by the fact that we see (the characters) through the eyes of Marlowe, the poet, and through those of an intrusive narrator” (Levin 140).Before we proceed on the discussion of the dual voices in Hero and Leander, it would be to our advantage to examine the perspectives of various critics who have contributed their views on the nature of this poem since the mid 1960’s. As Robert A. Logan maintains, “Marlowe’s poem was (initially) viewed as strongly romantic, as if the poem engaged our senses and emotions but seldom spoke to our reason and judgment” (279). Robert E. Knoll sees Hero and Leander as a pure Elizabethan poem, for “there is not an obscene word or degenerate suggestion” within it (128). U.M. Ellis-Fermor notes that the poem “draws its inspiration from the senses (and) expresses itself naturally in concrete images and in descriptions full of color and harmony of form and sound” (123).Thus, it could be said that Hero and Leander represents “erotic passion, libertine naturalism, and the most shameless celebration of sensuality… we can find in English literature” (Logan 279). However, since the mid 1960’s, these perspectives have altered drastically and have created an agreement between the critics that the poem “through comedy and narrative aloofness, is a masterpiece that assumes an ironic, anti-romantic posture” (Godshalk 307).Christopher Marlowe, as the poet and as the “intrusive narrator” of Hero and Leander, utilized numerous narrative devices to achieve a distancing from his characters and their actions, or as Godshalk maintains, “through a portrayal of the effects of eroticism rather than the causes” via “intellectualized mythological details and imagery” (280). J.B. Steane builds upon these devices by adding that “through comedy, generalizations, abstractions. . . and a shifting mercurial narrative perspective,” Marlowe the poet succeeds beautifully in separating himself from the text and from the tale of his two tragic lovers (304).There also exists an element of detachment in Hero and Leander which is “an essential component of the poem, based on sophistication, wit and irony” (Steane 302). This detachment allows the reader to explore the perimeters of power via Marlowe’s tenacity of mind which consolidates that power. From Marlowe’s point of view, detachment not only allows control over the text but also the responses of the reader. M.C. Bradbrook supports this view with the observation that Hero and Leander “varies from one level of detachment to another, giving the poem an extraordinary air of maturity and poise” (Knoll 128).In regards to the literary content of Hero and Leander, we find a cosmology of fierce energy and violence compounded by the restraints of society on sexual drive and sensuality. This informs the reader that “we are powerless to control the irrational desires we feel for another person” (Steane 305), especially in the nature of the characters presented in the poem.The opening lines of Hero and Leander presents a counterplay of tones in the narrative voice, or as Maclure understands it “the tone. . . is amusing and grave, for Marlowe alone, of all the poets working in this genre, is interested in his characters as human beings” (xxvii), with the exception of course being William Shakespeare, Marlowe’s contemporary:On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,In view and opposite two cities stood,Sea-boarderers, disjoin’d by Neptune’s might:The one Abydos, the other Sestos hight.At Sestos, Hero dwelt; Hero the fair,Whom young Apollo courted for her hair,And offer’d as a dower his burning throne,Where she would sit for men to gaze upon. (I, lines 1-8).The first and third lines appear to be heroic and ominous while the second is geographically factual. In these first lines, the reader hears the epic poet relate a story which prophesizes doom. The fifth line introduces us to the female character of Hero and the sixth line tells of how Apollo had courted Hero for her hair which is “Marlowe’s own mythological invention, possibly suggested by the glorious locks attributed to Apollo” (Maclure 5).The narrator then describes the exterior attributes of Hero in a rather parodic style:The outside of her garments were of lawn,The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,Where Venus in her naked glory stroveTo please the careless and disdainful eyesOf proud Adonis that before her lies.Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,From whence her veil reach’d to the ground beneath.Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves,Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives. (I, lines 9-20).This description of Hero’s clothing informs the reader that her white dress has green sleeves lined with purple silk and golden stars and is embroidered with mythological scenes; her blue skirt is spotted with red and all is covered with a veil interlaced with fashioned flowers and leaves. This is a prime example of the poet/narrator’s voyeurism as if he was viewing Hero from the vantage point of Apollo’s “burning throne” where she sits while mankind gazes at her unattainable beauty.In particular passages of Hero and Leander, Marlowe bypasses many of the romantic ideals in pastoral literature which reflects his concern with power and its physical limitations. Logan states that this poetic detour “enables the reader to understand and appreciate the full artistic achievement of the poem and the freedom and power of the speaker” (284). This occurs in the following passage where Marlowe describes the physical attributes of Leander:. . . I could tell yeHow smooth his breast was, and how white his belly,And whose immortal fingers did imprintThat heavenly path with many a curious dint,That runs along his back, but my rude penCan hardly blazon forth the loves of men,Much less of powerful gods: let it sufficeThat my slack muse sings of Leander’s eyes,Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding hisThat leapt into the water for a kissOf his own shadow, and despising many,Died ere he could enjoy the love of any. (I, lines 65-76).Steane refers to this description as “an epigrammatic reference to the Narcissus myth, a flippancy in a conducted tour of the glories that were Greece” (309). Yet who exactly is the teller of this passage? The narrator speaks several times in the first person which shows the “I” in the line “I could tell ye” which clearly is the conventional poet with the action reported from his point of view.As to the myth of Narcissus, the next passage seems to reflect the wonders of the poem with poetic qualities such as irony and metaphor:For every street like to a firmamentGlister’d with breathing stars, who where they wentFrighted the melancholy earth, which deem’dEternal heaven to burn, for so it seem’d,As if another Phaeton had gotThe guidance of the sun’s rich chariot.But far above the loveliest Hero shin’d,And stole away th’ enchanted gazer’s mind. (I, lines 97-104).A final example of Marlowe’s poetic/narrator voice occurs at the end of the discussion of Mercury, where “the narrator glances with apparent irrelevance at the plight of scholars” (Godshalk 311), through a closing prophecy:That Midas’ brood shall sit in Honour’s chair,To which the Muses’ sons are only heir:And fruitful wits that inaspiring areShall discontent run into regions far.And few great lords in virtuous deed shall joy,But be surpris’d with every garish toy,And still enrich the loftly servile clown,Who with encroaching guile keeps learning down. (I, lines 475-82).In this passage, the poet/narrator expresses his melancholy over the fact that individual power depends upon wealth instead of merit. Thus, “Marlowe… is more interested in… why scholars are poor, rejected, and unhonored” (Godshalk 308) than he is with explaining why Mercury is an allegory for learning.For the reader of Hero and Leander, another dilemma with the narrator and Marlowe the poet arises when we ask the reason for Marlowe’s desire to tell his tale through the eyes and voice of an unidentified narrator apart from himself. The initial reaction of an observant reader would be that the narrator is quite inappropriate for this poem. He seems to be a comic and his ineptitudes tend to distance us further from the action. As Maclure so elegantly notes, “the primary function of the narrator. . . is to give Marlowe a comic-like, burlesque handle on the story” (xxvi). It is also feasible that the function of this ineptitude is to hold a mirror up to our eyes and see the disfunctionality of the two lovers. Hero and Leander then represents Marlowe’s ultimate attempt at human comedy via a speaker who represents the poet’s own image of human nature.Sources CitedEllis-Fermor, U.M. Christopher Marlowe. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967.Godshalk, W.L. “Hero and Leander: The Sense of an Ending.” A Poet and a Filthy Play-maker: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Kenneth Friedenreich, et al. NY: AMS Press, 1988.Knoll, Robert E. Christopher Marlowe. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1969.Levin, Harry. The Overreacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1952.Logan, Robert A. “Perspective in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: Engaging Our Detachment.” A Poet and a Filthy Play-Maker: New Essays on Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Kenneth Friedenreich, et al. NY: AMS Press, 1988.Maclure, Millar, Ed. The Poems of Christopher Marlowe. London: Methuen, 1968.Steane, J.B. Marlowe: A Critical Study. Cambridge UP, 1964.
The Interplay of Reason and Passion in “Hero and Leander”
“The dominant mode of ethical thinking in the Renaissance argued that the passions should be governed by reason to ensure good order in society.”
A paradox exists in Renaissance ethics: passions – by definition, ‘barely controllable’ – should be controlled, and the success of a stable public sphere pivots on the control of one’s private desires. This juxtaposition is seen in Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’. The male protagonist uses the oratory to seduce Hero, which was seen as the proper manner in which to court a lady. Despite his outward actions, his motive is lust. This presents an imbalance between the outer, what is presented to society, and the inner, the true nature and desire of Leander as the pursuer. To those witnessing this display, Leander is seemingly fulfilling his role as Renaissance man, controlling his emotions. Yet, consummation does occur and Venus no longer fulfills her role as a chaste priestess. Marlowe arguably presents an ambiguous view of the opening statement; the courting couple conform to the outward ideals of governed passions yet still act upon this lust for each other.
The opening statement specifies that passions should be governed by ‘reason’ and not ‘passions’. Marlowe arguably presents their relationship as including both. Before their union, Leander performs an eloquent argument, designed to persuade Hero to take him as her lover. The fundamental flaw in Leander’s oral reasoning is his goal: to obtain Hero as a lover, as if she were an object. His speech therefore begins as reason, yet descends in to an inability in controlling his passions as his persuasion persists:
Honour is purchac’d by the deedes wee do.
Beleeve me, Hero, honour is not wone.
It is important for the reader to consider at this point that Hero is alone and without any male relatives that would usually advise her. Therefore, Leander’s authoritative tone that urges her to ‘Beleeve [him]’ is perhaps the only advice she will receive and can follow. Marlowe’s use of language mirrors Leander’s intent: to persuade Hero that remaining a virgin for Venus’ sacrifice is pointless. The values that Hero have lived her life by, honour and chastity, are cheapened through the verb ‘purchased’, suggesting Hero is an object to be bought by Leander’s words. There is also undeniable irony within this statement. The protagonist claims that honour is achieved through the ‘deeds we do’, which Hero has adhered to also in the deeds she has not yet done. Yet, he recognises the power of his words and achieves his goal through a persuasive rhetoric, a wholly dishonourable act. This deception outlines the need to conform to society’s ideals of suppressed passion and restraining passions simply to words. In reality, Hero undermines this ethical thinking by taking Hero’s virginity. It is also interesting to consider that, whilst this verbal argument is convincing to Hero, it’s effects do not work on Neptune, as his ‘deep perswading Oratorie failes’ (Marlowe, line 710). This bears underlying connotations of gender politics; Hero submits to Leander because she is the weaker sex, whereas Neptune is wise to the deception of men. A further element in Leander’s oratory that suggest his desire if the structure. The rise and fall intonation of the iambic pentameter suggests a ‘give and take’ motion, which bears sexual connotations. This subtly in his desire seems almost threatening, as the reader is aware yet must watch Hero succumb to his persuasion.
Thus far, the use of words as representing ‘reason’ has been examined in Marlowe’s poem. Yet, he also suggests that some passions are simply ungovernable, rejecting this Renaissance mode of ethical thinking. When the two lovers first see each other, there is a significant lack of speech: ‘Thus while dum signs their yeelding harts entangled’ (Marlowe, line 187). This ‘dumb’ element implies that love at first sight simply occurs and doesn’t allow for any opportunity for order to be established. This unpredictability could be seen as a threat to society as it encourages uncontrollable passions between people who have only just met. C.S Lewis comments that: ‘…we see not lust but what lust thinks it sees’. This perhaps suggests a disingenuous aspect to their love; it could simply be lust, but recognised as love through this clouded judgement of desire. Whether it is lust or love, their instant union is illustrated through the transition of pronouns. In the previous lines, the two lovers are referred to separately as ‘he’ and ‘she’, whereas they are now automatically referred to as a ‘they’. Marlowe therefore seemingly rejects the opening statement and supports relationships led by passion, not reason. However, it is obvious that Renaissance society could easily condemn their ‘yielding hearts’. This language bears connotations that they are openly willing to fall in love, but also suggests their eagerness to engage in sexual activity before marriage. This lack of control is further emphasised in the verb ‘entangled’, that suggests the two lovers are connected eternally in a disarray of emotion. Traditionally, Renaissance epics end in death. However, Marlowe constructs a mock-epic with this poem, and the resolution is not death. Yet, there is still punishment for this ‘entanglement’ as Hero is ‘danged down to hell’ (lines 818). It is perhaps representative of the gender politics of the sixteenth century that both parties were involved in the relationship, yet it is Hero who is punished for sacrificing her virginity to Leander, not Venus. This suggests that whilst characters may not remain uphold these reasonable ethics of society, there will be consequences. However, Marlowe does not end the poem in outright death, suggesting that the opening statement leaves much left to be explored.
Throughout the poem, Leander is considered so beautiful that he if often mistaken for a woman. Therefore the ‘passions’ that should be governed perhaps refer to the homo-, as well as heterosexual, relationships. Rebecca Yearling comments: ‘they are relationships that are homoerotic, or even homosexual, without being sodomitical’. This is a seemingly paradoxical statement, especially considering homosexuality was considered a crime against nature. However, Marlowe presents this controversial attraction between Neptune and Leander in the experimental environment of a poem. Leander is confused by the homosexual advances of the Sea God, as typically a male in the sixteenth century would have been expected to be. Therefore, the subject is homoerotic, but the ambiguity means that the text is not ‘sodomitical’; the text as an object in society seems to bear no threat. This feminine vocabulary to describe Leander is used as Neptune preys ‘[upon] his brest, his thighs and everie lim’ (Marlowe, line 673). The named body parts are traditionally female, and suggests a vulnerability and naivety in the young Thracian soldier, highlighting that he does not yet bear the wisdom that comes with age. Additionally, this concept of ‘every limb’ suggests an overpowering aspect that focuses on Leander’s body and not his emotions, implying again an aesthetic aspect to their love. It is also perhaps interesting to consider the social position of Neptune as a God. If he is be above human form, and therefore above the expectations of society, his passions may not have to be governed by reason. Therefore, Marlowe also suggests that much more context is needed for the opening statement; whether they must control their passions or not is perhaps dependent on who their relationship is with, and their social status.
At first reading, it seems Marlow advocates a typical Renaissance view that desire should be governed by reason, however he also seems to question this throughout his poem as he attempts to ‘understand the conditions of his own culture’ (Cheney, p.47). Marlowe does this through looking at relationships that are perhaps outside the boundaries of typical ethics, for example Hero and Leander who are under the influence of Gods. It is perhaps this fictional setting that means social rules do not apply, and Marlowe focuses almost wholly on the emotions of the two lovers. This suggests that approval from society is initially not needed for two people to fall in love, but that there will later be harsh consequences.
Cheney, P. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Lewis, C.S. ‘Hero and Leander’ in Critics on Marlowe (Great Britain: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1969)
Marlowe, C. ‘Hero and Leander’ in Renaissance Literature An Anthology of Poetry and Prose ed. by John C. Hunter (Wiley Blackwell, 2010)
Yearling, R. ‘Homoerotic Desire and Renaissance Lyric Verse’ in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 53 (2013) 53-71
Queerness as Otherness
The gods as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander are beings that exist outside of the realm of morality, living near humans but bound by separate rules and ideas. This is especially true in relation to sexuality, and the senses of morality that humans cloak such in. In Marlowe’s poem, Neptune is the only character who attempts to actively participate in homosexuality, and though Leander resists his advances, he does so without condemnation. As discussed in Andrew Bennett and Christopher Royle’s chapter on queer theory, the term “queer” evolved from senses of morality, senses that are not applicable to or by the gods in the poem. By discussing how the term queer has evolved throughout time and relating it to Neptune’s advances toward Leander, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander is not queer because it exists in a context where queerness as homosexuality does not equate to something marginal and abnormal.
As Bennett and Royle outline, “queer” is a word rooted in divisiveness, rooted in creating and maintaining a sense of otherness. They write that the definition of the word queer is one which “includes three apparently unrelated senses for the ‘same’ word – clustering around ideas of strangeness, sickness, and homosexuality” (Bennett and Royle 216). Human notions of morality in regard to sexuality revolve around ideas of what is and is not normal, and therefore what is and is not desirable, something to be either encouraged or discouraged. While it is ironic and disheartening that labeling in order to separate and alienate is widely considered a moral act, it is not a view shared by the gods, as portrayed in Marlowe’s poem. The gods are described as beings that exist without abiding by any moral code, and are shown as doing horrible things; they commit rape, incest, adultery, murder, and they just generally cause harm, with the floor of Venus’s temple depicting these things.
Regardless of what actions they commit however, they are still the gods, they are still the almighty, all-powerful beings who delineate what is and is not acceptable. Neptune is an example of this. His advances towards Leander are aggressive and unwanted, and nearly result in Leander’s drowning. His actions, though Leander finds them frightening, are not inconsistent with the attitudes of the gods, namely, that they can and will do whatever pleases them, on any given whim. Morality can have no part in this, because it is uniquely human; no other species are subjected to it, including the gods. Just as it is unlikely that Venus takes right and wrong into account when she sleeps with a married man, or god, Neptune does not stop to consider that intimacy with Leander, as a fellow male, could be construed by human subjects as immoral. It is simply a context that does not exist in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and therefore labeling the poem “queer” would be inaccurate, because regardless of the perceptions of audiences, and the personal biases they bring with them, queerness as otherness, as something “‘odd’ or ‘singular’” is not present in the poem (216). Though Leander resists Neptune’s advances, he does so without expressing judgment. He is frightened not because of the obvious homosexual nature of the encounter, but because Neptune’s enthusiasm nearly drowns him, before he reaches Hero’s tower. When Leander is trying to escape the amorous clutches of the god, he cries out “O let me visit Hero ere I die” (Line 662). He speaks not in anger or disgust, as would be expected and appropriate if he were morally aghast at Neptune’s homosexual advances, but in desperation, because he does not want to die, especially before visiting Hero. When Neptune goes on to kiss and touch and lustfully gaze upon Leander, speaking of love, Leander replies “you are deceived; I am no woman, I” (676). While this line is often read as dubious, because instead of claiming his love for Hero to fend off Neptune, he says that he is not a woman, and Neptune must be confused. While this is seemingly indicative of Leander’s revealing of ill judgment towards “queerness”, and that Leander believes heterosexuality to be superior, or more moral and normal, than homosexuality, it seems more likely that it is simply rather just a sign of Leander’s sexual innocence.
The poem has already made clear that Leander is a virgin with no sexual experience, despite all the lustful appreciation directed towards him. Leander does not fully understand what it means to be with a woman, as is shown at the end of the poem, when he does not understand the mechanics of consummation – it stands to reason that Leander would not have much insight towards being with a man. As such, it seems much more probable that rather than decrying Neptune for for wanting to have sex with him (sex being something Leander only really understands, at this moment, as strong urges and desire, as opposed to understanding the act itself), Leander is genuinely unaware of what is going on. Leander is not denouncing Neptune for being “queer” but instead expressing his sincere confusion, and when Neptune’s hand is injured Leander is sorrowful; if Leander were in moral outrage at Neptune’s “queerness”, he would not pity the god, but rather feel that his wound is justified and deserved. He does not marginalize the god, or regard him with any of the negatives Bennett and Royle outline as being the foundations of the evolution of the word “queer”, because the context necessary for those notions of queer is not existent in the poem.
In his essay “Hero and Leander: The Sense of an Ending” W. L. Godshalk says that the characters of Hero and Leander are each deeply grounded in their individual senses of morality. He says that this is in contrast to the obvious indifference of the gods towards notions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, writing that: “The gods are totally uninhibited; they have no conscience, no sense of sexual taboo. Hero and Leander just as surely do… [they are] moral creatures who are not in tune with the amoral universe in which they exist” (Godshalk 303). As evidence of Leander’s sense of morality, Godshalk discusses the interaction between him and Neptune and Leander’s reaction to the god’s sexual advances, saying that when he cries out “you are deceived; I am no woman, I” he is revealing his homophobia (676). Godshalk arrives at this reading because Leander states his status as a male rather than his status as being in love with Hero, saying Leander “rejects Neptune’s advances in terms of taboo against homosexuality” (306). Essentially, Godshalk is saying that Leander prescribes to the definition of queer as outlined by Bennett and Royle, where queerness equates to otherness, abnormality, and defectiveness. Again, however, it seems more likely that Leander genuinely does not understand Neptune’s intentions, and even if he did, his lack of reciprocation would amount to the very human inability to comprehend the feelings and desires of others when he himself does not hold them. Additionally, throughout the poem Leander exhibits no other signs of a sense of morality – Godshalk himself admits that it is curious and ironic that Leander is “not at all morally troubled by his seduction of a young virgin” (306). This indifference towards his taking of the chastity that Hero has so carefully cultivated and preserved, however ironically given that she is a priestess of Venus, again speaks to Leander’s overall sense of sexual ignorance, ignorance which encompasses any potential negative understandings of “queerness.”
To conclude, “queer” is a term identified by Bennett and Royle as being a word whose evolution is derived from something inherently negative, rooted in divisiveness, to deliberately separate people whose sexual habits are perceived as normal, and those who are perceived as abnormal. “Queer” is an intentionally adversarial term. While homosexuality and homosociality are present in the poem, they are not shown in a way that any characters find unacceptable or repulsive or immoral, instead only being portrayed as misunderstood. Leander is clearly outlined as being sexually inexperienced, so it stands to reason that he would not fully comprehend Neptune’s amorous advances. The gods are understood to be amoral and androgynous, characteristics they are not condemned for in the poem; rather, the only sexual condemnation in the poem is Hero’s towards herself and her heterosexual longings, which speaks only to the sexual taboos forced upon women, instead of upon male-on-male relations. Due to the lack of marginality and otherness that is required in order to constitute “queerness” as Bennett and Royle define it, Marlowe’s poem is not “queer” because the necessary context for such is absent.
Bennett, Andrew, and Royle, Nicholas. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th ed,. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2009.
Godshalk, W.L. “Hero and Leander: The Sense of an Ending.” A Poet and a filthy Play-maker, New Essays on Christopher Marlowe, edited by Kenneth Friedenreich, Roma Gill, and Constance B. Kuriyama, AMS Press, Inc, 1988, pp. 293-314.
Marlowe, Christopher. Hero and Leander. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., edited by Stephen Greenblatt, et al., Norton, 2012, pp. 510-30.
Contradiction, Comedy, and Sympathy in Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’
Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander challenges 16th century Christian teaching. Christian teaching on desire stems from Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law which is a set of moral laws intended to identify God’s purpose for human life. One of the five primary precepts states that the main purpose of sex is to procreate. Therefore, according to Natural Law, Hero and Leander’s sexual relationship contradicts God’s intention for humanity. Through exploring the immaturity of the characters’ relationship, the poem dissuades the reader from condemning the protagonists’ actions by inviting sympathy for them through comedy. The protagonists are presented as young people with a limited view of desire rather than sinners who deliberately contradict God’s word.
The only expressions of desire that Hero is aware of are extremes, either lust or coyness. This is immediately obvious when she is described as ‘Venus’ nun’ (45). The contradiction here is clear. As the Goddess of love, Venus embodies desire, fertility and sex whereas the nun embodies purity and chastity. Kocher notes that ‘Venus’ nun’ was Elizabethan slang for prostitute which further enhances the extremes Hero represents, her existence is a contradiction because she is both nun and prostitute (p295). This is key in evoking sympathy for Hero as it shows that her understanding of desire is limited. She is not a sinner for desiring Leander, as traditional Christian teaching would suggest. Indeed she is confused by Leander’s interest, usually disapproving of the men who fall at her feet, waiting the judgement ‘of her scornful eyes’. When Leander openly asks her to bed, saying ‘we human creatures should enjoy that bliss’ (254) she bursts into tears, ‘a stream of liquid pearl’ (297) falls down her face . She is caught between what she knows of chastity as a nun and the physical attraction she naturally feels for Leander. Leander’s view of love and women is limited. He is aware of his feelings for Hero but sees women as objects; ‘strings to be tuned’ and ‘vessels to be kept shiny’. He speaks boldly of sex and virginity, asking Hero ‘Wilt thou live single still? One shalt thou be, Though never-singling Hymen couple thee’ (257-258) but has no idea how to consummate. This lack of information means he cannot realise his sexual desire in a meaningful way either. Douglas Bush criticizes the poem for its general lack of depth and purity in its depiction of love (p130-137). Although this may seem to be the case, this lack of depth is clearly a deliberate act. Hero and Leander have a view of desire that leaves them unable to confront their sexual urges in a meaningful way and so by extension their sexual relationship will lack depth. The lovers are unable to have a productive sexual relationship because they have such a limited understanding of sexuality. By highlighting this Marlowe encourages sympathy for the lovers rather than condemnation.
The comedic nature of the poem encourages us to laugh at the lovers and sympathise with them. Walsh notes that ‘although aware of the lover’s shortcomings we are both amused and sympathetic’ (p42). An example of this comedy can be seen in Neptune’s pursuit of Leander. We are told that ‘the lusty God embraced him, called him love and swore he never should return to Jove’ (167-168) and Leander replies ‘I am no women, I’ (192). The comedy comes from Neptune’s mistake over Leander’s gender and shows the reader that the piece is intended to be humorous. The consummation between the protagonists is also comic. Leander is said to cling to her ‘so about that mermaid like onto the floor she slid’ (314-315). The image of a mermaid is incongruous with romance and far from the impressive rhetoric Leander uses to convince Hero to have sex with him. This adds to the humour of the scene and also shows that their act of passion is not full of lust but youthful and fumbling. The comedy humanizes the lovers and evokes the reader’s sympathy for them. As Walsh notes, ‘Marlowe enjoys their fumbling pursuit of sex’ (p50) and indeed the humour encourages the reader to see their sex as a youthful expression of desire, undeserving of punishment.
Marlowe’s version of the poem does not end in death, unlike Museaus’ original. Omitting the known ending serves a dual purpose. It avoids casting a moral judgement on the behaviour of the protagonists but it also symbolises the lack of information the lovers have on sexual desire from the prevailing Christian narrative and because they are so young. The ending of Museus’ poem would have been known by all so the decision to end with ‘desunt nonnulla’ is poignant as it is not simply changing a narrative, but changing a narrative that would have been ubiquitous. This reflects the challenge the poem poses to the pervasive nature of Christianity and its condemnation of the lover’s desire. The ending of the poem is unlike the digressive story of Mercury (386-484) which operates conventionally according to cause and effect and includes the conventional ending (Haber, P378). This is interesting as it demonstrates that passion should not necessarily result in death as Christianity would suggest. Haber points out that ‘the stability of the desired end is further undermined in Leander’s homoerotic encounter with Neptune (p380). In this encounter we are shown an alternate depiction of desire that is clearly condemned in Christian teaching, Leviticus states that ‘man shall not lie with man as he does with woman’ (Leviticus 18.22). Although homosexual desire is not explicitly endorsed in the poem, Neptune’s attraction to Leander is successful in showing that alternate forms of desire exist which are not socially conventional or encouraged. The subversions of expected endings are crucial in the poem’s attempt to undermine traditional narratives on desire and promote sympathy for the protagonists.
It is clear that traditional understanding of desire as either being lustful and sinful, or chaste (unless within marriage), as suggested by Christian teaching, leaves the lovers confused and uneducated in desire. Through the use of comedy, Marlowe evokes sympathy for the lovers and avoids passing moral judgement on their actions by omitting the known ending. While the poem does not explicitly endorse extra-marital relations, it does suggest that the protagonists have a limited understanding of desire and should not be condemned to die for their acts.
Bush, Douglas. Mythology And The Renaissance Tradition In English Poetry. W.W. Norton, 1963, pp. 130-137.
Haber, Judith. “‘True-Loves Blood’: Narrative and Desire in ‘Hero and Leander.’” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 28, no. 3, 1998, pp. 372–386. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43447769.
Kocher, Paul Harold, and Christopher Marlowe. Christopher Marlow, Individualist. (Reprinted From The University Of Toronto Quarterly.). 1948.
Marlowe, Christopher, and Stephen Orgel. The Complete Poems And Translations [Of] Christopher Marlowe. Penguin, 1979, pp. 3-27.
The King James Study Bible. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008.
Walsh, William P. “Sexual Discovery and Renaissance Morality in Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 12, no. 1, 1972, pp. 33–54. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/449972.