Analysis of Christopher Marlowe’s Poems

Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-1593) lyric poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is known in several versions of varying length. C. F. Tucker Brooke’s 1962 reprint of his 1910edition of Marlowe’s works cites the six-stanza version of England’s Helicon, with variant readings provided in the notes. Frederick S. Boas, in Christopher Marlowe:  A Biographical and Critical Study, puts the case for holding that only the first four stanzas are certainly Marlowe’s. Fredson Bowers, in the second volume of his monumental The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe (1973), offers a “reconstructed” four-stanza version of the original poem printed alongside the six-stanza version of England’s Helicon. All versions provide a delightful and innocuous exercise in the pastoral tradition of happy innocent shepherds sporting in a bucolic setting. Simply put, a lover outlines for his sweetheart the beauties and pleasures she can expect if she will live with him and be his love. Nature and the rejoicing shepherds will provide the pair with entertainment, clothing, shelter, and all things fitting to an amorous paradise.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

The stanza is a simple quatrain rhyming in couplets. While it is a fine example of Elizabethan taste for decoration and is very pleasing to the ear, it presents nothing especially clever in its prosody. A few of the couplets are fresh enough in their rhymes, such as  “falls/ madrigalls,”  “kirtle/ Mirtle,” and  “buds/  studs,”  but  the  rest are  common enough. The alliteration falls short of being heavy-handed, and it achieves neither clearness nor subtlety. The poem’s appeal, then, seems to lie mostly in its evocation of young love playing against an idealized background, its simple language and prosody forming part of its overt innocence.

Sir Walter Ralegh’s famous response, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” also published in England’s Helicon, sets all the cynicism associated with the carpe diem poetry of a John Donne or an Andrew Marvell against Marlowe’s pose of innocence. Ralegh’s shepherdess argues that the world and love are too old to allow her to be seduced by “pretty pleasures.” She speaks of aging, of the cold of winter, of the sweet appearance that hides bitterness and approaching death. She scorns his offers of beauty, shelter, and love as things that decay and rot. Were youth, love, and joy eternal, and old-age well provided for, then she might love. Both poems are set-pieces and imply nothing except that both poets were makers working within established traditions. The innocence of Marlowe’s poem argues nothing about his own personality and much about his ability to project himself imaginatively into a character and a situation. In doing this, he produced a gem, and that is enough.

Hero and Leander

In contrast to the simple, single-leveled  “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” Hero and Leander is a more complex, more sophisticated poem. Whatever ultimate plans Marlowe may have had for the completed poem, the two completed sestiads are in the comic mode as they portray the fumbling yearnings and actions of two adolescents faced with passions with which they are totally unprepared to deal. The story of young love, then, is constantly undercut with one sort of comedy or another.

Perhaps the easiest clues to Marlowe’s comic intention lie in his choice of epic style and heroic couplets, both of which lend themselves to witty parody because they are traditionally used seriously. The epic tradition allows Marlowe to pay his lovers elaborate, and obviously exaggerated, compliments through the use of epic similes and through comparison with the classical tales of gods and heroes. The heroic couplet allows him to emphasize  the  fun  with  variations  of  the  meter  and  with  comic  rhymes,  generally feminine ones.

The  retelling  of  the  famous  tale  of  two  ill-fated  lovers—whose  trysts  require Leander  to  swim  across  the Hellespont  to  visit Hero  in  her  tower—begins  soberly enough, as a mock-epic should. By the ninth line, however, Marlowe begins a description of Hero’s garments that is wildly ornate and exaggerated in style. Her dress, for example, is lined with purple and studded with golden stars;  the sleeves are green and are embroidered with a scene of Venus, naked, viewing the slain and bloody Adonis;  her veil reaches to the ground and is so realistically decorated with artificial vegetation that men mistake her breath for the odor of flowers and bees search it for honey. The picture, thus far, could pass as an example of Elizabethan taste for the gaudy, and becomes clearly comic only in retrospect.


The twenty-fifth line, however, presents a figure that sets the anticlimactic tone in-forming the whole piece. Hero’s necklace is described as a chain of ordinary pebbles that the beauty of her neck makes shine as diamonds. Later on, her naked beauty causes an artificial dawn in her bedchamber, to Leander’s delight. The improbabilities are piled on thickly:  Her hands are not subject to burning because sun and wind alike delight in them as playthings;  sparrows perch in her shell buskins;  Cupid could not help mistaking her for his mother, Venus;  and Nature itself resented having been plundered of its rightful beauty by this slip of a girl. Marlowe points up the comedy of the Cupid passage with a feminine rhyme:  “But this is true, so like was one the other,/ As he imagined Hero was his mother.” He signs the comic intent of the Nature passage with an outrageous conceit and compliment:  “Therefore in sign of her treasure suffered wrack,/ Since Hero’s time, hath half the world been black.” Throughout the two sestiads, similar tactics are employed, including much additional use of comic feminine rhyme (Morpheus/ visit us, cunning/ running, furious/ Prometheus, kist him/ mist him, and yv’ry skin/ lively in) and mocking versions of the epic simile.

The compelling argument for Marlowe’s comedic intent, however, lies in this treatment of situation, theme, and character. Boas reflects a view commonly held by critics at the turn of the twentieth century when he argues that Marlowe’s purpose was to tell the stories of the lovers, working in as much mythology as possible. He does not see the comedy as anything but incidental, and congratulates Marlowe on rescuing the grossness of Ovidian comedy with “delicate humor.” Brooke, also an early twentieth century Marlovian, regards Hero and Leander as an essentially original work to be judged independently of George Chapman’s continuation of the poem. Brooke treats the poem as an extended example of masterful heroic verse with no hint that such verse could be used here as an adjunct of comedy.

The French critic Michel Poirier comes nearer to Marlowe’s comedic intent in his biography Christopher Marlowe (1951, 1968), in which he describes the poem as belonging to the genre of Renaissance hedonism. He sees the poem as a “hymn to sensuality, tastefully done.” He too sees the poem as erotic, but argues that it avoids equally ancient crudeness and the rough humor of the medieval fabliaux. Philip Henderson’s essay “Christopher Marlowe” (1966) points up the by-then-dominant view by observing that Hero and Leander is not only a parody but also a very mischievous one, written by a poet who is so disengaged from his poem that he is able to treat it wittily and with a certain cynicism. John Ingram in Christopher Marlowe and His Associates (1970) harks back to an earlier view in claiming that no other Elizabethan poem equals it for purity and beauty. He notes nothing of the ironist at work.

A. L. Rowse, an ingenious if not always convincing literary historian and critic, sees Hero and Leander, in Christopher Marlowe:  His Life and Work (1964), as a sort of rival piece to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. He goes so far as to suggest that Marlowe and Shakespeare read their poems to each other in a sort of combat of wit. However that maybe, Rowse is probably right in seeing the poem as being carefully controlled, in contrast to the view, well-represented by Boas, that the poem is structurally a mere jumble. Rowse sees the poem as organically unified by the careful playing off of this mode and that technique against a variety of others.

In his essay “Marlowe’s Humor,” included in his most useful book Marlowe:  A Collection of Critical Essays (1964), Clifford Leech rejects earlier criticism holding that the comic passages were the work of other writers and pits C. S. Lewis’s denial, in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954), that Hero and Leander contains any humor at all against T. S. Eliot’s assertion in Selected Essays (1950-1972) that Marlowe was at his best when writing “savage comic humor.” Leech’s position is that the poem is dominated by a humor at once gentle and delighting, not to say sly. He supports his position with a shrewd analysis of the subtle effects of tone and verse form. Louis L. Martz, in Hero and Leander:  A Fascimile of the First Edition, London, 1598 (1972), also sees Marlowe’s tone as comic and as conveyed through the couplet, and he characterizes the poem as being carefully structured as a triptych, with the Mercury fable, usually viewed as a digression, as the central picture, flanked by tales depicting mortal love. He sees Marlowe’s  digression  as  intentional  and  Ovidian.  Martz,  as  a  whole,  comes  down firmly on the side of those who see the poem as a thoroughgoing comedy.

Philip Henderson keeps to the comedic interpretation but also brings boldly to the fore a factor in the story long recognized but generally treated as minor, incidental, and otherwise unaccountable—that of homosexuality as a theme. In Christopher Marlowe (second edition, 1974), he argues that the passage describing Leander’s body is “rapturous,” but that the element is reduced to farce by Leander’s encounter with Neptune as he swims the Hellespont. At the same time, Henderson firmly denies that Rowse’s description of Marlowe as clearly homosexual has any basis in fact. On balance, Henderson concludes that the critics’ urge to find irony and sensational undertones obscures recognition of the beauty properly belonging to Hero and Leander, and he notes further that the insistence upon seeing comedy throughout Marlowe’s work is a modern one. William Keach, tracing Marlowe’s intentions in “Marlowe’s Hero as ‘Venus’ Nun” (English Literary Renaissance, Winter, 1972), argues that Marlowe is largely indebted for the “subtleties and complexities” of his poem to hints from his fifth century Greek source, Musaeus. Keach sees both poets as ironists and argues that Hero’s activities as a priestess of love who is puritanically virginal are essentially silly.

John Mills, in his study “The Courtship Ritual of Hero and Leander” (English Literary Renaissance, Winter, 1972), sees Hero at the opening as a compound of innocence and sexuality, with all the confusions that such a compound can make, both in her own mind and in those of men who observe her. Mills’s interest lies, however, not so much in this condition itself as in the web of classical elements and allusions in which it is contained. He argues, in effect, that the poem depends upon an overblown, stereotypical, and mannered attitude toward romantic sex that he compares to Vladimir Nabokov’s theory of “poshlust.” Mills concludes that Marlowe’s “poshlustian comedy” arises out of the actions being played out in a physical and material world of sexuality in such terms that Hero and Leander, and innocent readers, are persuaded that their activities are really spiritual.  In  another  essay,  “Sexual  Discovery  and  Renaissance  Morality  in Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’” (Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, XII, 1972), published immediately after that of Mills, William P. Walsh argues that Marlowe is ironic in basing the story on love at first sight and making his characters slaves of their irrational passion. His notion is that the lovers themselves, not sexuality, are the objects of humorous comment with which they are not entirely out of sympathy. His development of the theme is detailed and astute, and he points out, in discussing the invented myth of the Destinies’ love affair with Mercury, the generally overlooked argument that Marlowe makes for reproduction as the true object of sex, as against pleasure for its own sake. Walsh suggests that the inability of Hero and Leander to see beyond their dream of a sexual paradise at once positions them for the eventual tragic ending traditional to their story, yet keeps them reduced to comic stature in Marlowe’s portion of the poem.

In writing Hero and Leander, then, Marlowe displayed ingenuity and erudition by telling an ironically comic tale of the mutual wooing and seduction of a pair of inexperienced but lusty young lovers. The telling is intricately and objectively organized and de-scribes a rite of passage that is neither sentimentalized nor especially brutalized. The result is a highly skilled tour de force in the tradition of the Elizabethan maker, cynical enough, perhaps, but confessional or autobiographical only tangentially, if at all. Coupled  with  “The  Passionate  Shepherd  to  His  Love,” Hero  and  Leander establishes Marlowe’s claim to a high place in the select company of those British poets who have produced a slender but superior body of lyric poetry.

Major Works
Plays:  Dido, Queen of Carthage, pr. c. 1586-1587 (with Thomas Nashe); Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, pr. c. 1587 (commonly known as Tamburlaine); Tamburlaine the Great, Part II, pr. 1587; Doctor Faustus, pr. c. 1588; The Jew of Malta, pr. c. 1589; Edward II, pr. c. 1592; The Massacre at Paris, pr. 1593; Complete Plays, pb. 1963.translations: Elegies,  1595-1600  (of  Ovid’s Amores); Pharsalia,  1600  (of Lucan’s Bellum civile).
Miscellaneous: The Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1910, 1962 (C. F. Tucker Brooke, editor); The Works and Life of Christopher Marlowe, 1930-1933, 1966 (R. H.Case, editor); The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1973 (Fredson Bowers,editor).

Bloom, Harold, ed.Christopher Marlowe:  Modern Critical Views. New York:  Chelsea House, 1986.
Blumenfeld, Samuel L.The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection:  A New Study of the Authorship  Question.  Jefferson,  N.C.:   McFarland,  2008.
Downie, J. A., and J. T. Parnell.Constructing Christopher Marlowe. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Grantley, Darryll, and Peter Roberts, eds.Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture. Aldershot, Hants, England:  Ashgate, 1999.
Hopkins, Lisa. Christopher Marlowe:  A Literary Life. New York:  Palgrave, 2000.
Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning:  The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992.
Riggs, David.The World of Christopher Marlowe. New York:  Henry Holt, 2005.
Simkin, Stevie. A Preface to Marlowe. New York:  Longman, 2000.
Trow, M. J., and Taliesin Trow.Who Killed Kit Marlowe? A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan  England.  Stroud,  England:   Sutton,  2001.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literature

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