The Human Condition: Marlowe’s Relationship with Ovid in “Hero and Leander”
Echoing the opening speech in his translation of Ovid’s Elegies, Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” conveys that the human condition lies not in a rebirth of epic tales of war, but rather in epic tales involving innate human emotion, particularly when dealing with love and sexual desire. Marlowe hristian norms in a distinctly Ovidian way through his representation of Leander. Ovid’s writings are a useful vehicle for exploring this topic in Renaissance literature because his works deal with social constructs that not only pre-date, but are in many ways distinctly at odds with the Christian ideals of sixteenth-century England. By employing Ovidian ideals of sexuality, Marlowe challenges Elizabethan traditions of love and chastity associated with Petrarchan attempts at courtship. He suggests that traditional Elizabethan rituals of courtly love contradict the natural impulses of men. Ultimately, it is innate desire and base sexual instincts that drive the action in “Hero and Leander.” In Ovidian fashion, Marlowe suggests that these feelings cannot be governed by outside forces. This article will explore common themes of love and sexuality, in both the classical verse of Ovid and the Renaissance verse of Marlowe, in order to demonstrate that Marlowe’s undermining of epic poetry in favor of erotic verse raises important questions concerning tradition and the ways that Renaissance men and women felt about the strict moral climate they were living in.
Many of Marlowe’s contemporaries dealt with works from antiquity, although mostly in the form of epic tales of battle and the founding of civilizations belonging to Homer, Virgil, and even Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the opening lines of his translations of Ovid’s Elegies, Marlowe writes, “With muse prepared I meant to sing of Arms,/Choosing a subject fit for fierce alarms./Both verses were alike till love men say,/Began to smile and took one foot away” (Elegia 1, 5-8). This is both a reference to the actual meter of the poem and a nod to the power of poetry dealing with love. Marlowe understands the powerful nature of human desire associated with love that Ovid describes. In Elegia One, Ovid asks,
What helps it me of fierce Achill to sing?/What good to me will either Ajax bring?/Or he who warred and wandered twenty year?/Or woeful Hector, whom wild jades did tear?/But when I praise a pretty wench’s face,/She in requital doth me oft embrace (“All Ovid’s Elegies,” 128, 29-34).
When dealing with poetry of war, politics cannot be ignored. Erotic love poetry does not presume political overtones and therefore allows Marlowe a playground, lacking censorship, to explore the fundamentals of human nature and the opposing demands of social norms. He is simply retelling a story from antiquity. Warren Boutcher explains, “at the core of the story of Hero and Leander, humanists saw a heroic but private act of free or ‘licentious’ speech-the winning over of a traditional enemy in an unlikely foreign place” (“Who Taught Thee Rhetoricke,” 21). Desire for Marlowe is a motivating factor in this condition of the human psyche, and it is best understood through poetry dealing with love.
The games involved in pursuing the lover are comparable to those of war, only much more rewarding for Marlowe and his muse. Ovid explains this understanding of desire in Book Two of the Elegies, “Pardon me Jove, thy weapons aid me nought,/Her shut gates greater lightning than thine brought./Toys and light elegies, my darts, I took,/Quickly soft words hard doors wide open strook”( “All Ovid’s Elegies,” 127, 19-22). Marlowe mirrors this ideal when Leander pursues Hero. The narrator writes, “To give her leave to rise; away she ran,/After went Mercury, who used such cunning,/As she to hear this tale, left off her running./Maids are not won by brutish force and might,/But speeches full of pleasure and delight” (“Hero,” 416-19). In “Who Taught Thee Rhetorick,” Boutcher argues that Ovid’s texts offer erotic stories of women “captured in actual or affective terms by their heroes…allowing intimate access and rhetorical power over a weaker, doubting, more effeminate sensibility.” This concept complements my argument that Marlowe is appealing to the baseness of sexuality in order to connect Leander and Hero and explain human flourishing. Although Boutcher assigns women to this role of weakness when compared to their male counterparts, the same concept could apply to Leander, who is clearly weaker when Neptune pursues him. Marlowe’s poetry reflects the sentiment offered by Ovid; human nature is the reigning force in a society, and an appeal to the baseness of humanity is far more effective in games of capture and submission than the epic battles of Homer and Virgil.
By undermining epic tradition in favor of erotic verse, Marlowe devalues other modes of tradition as well. He channels Ovid’s pre-Christian approach to courtship in favor of a Petrarchan ritual evident in Elizabethan England. Through the voice of Leander, Marlowe challenges the status of chastity that his contemporaries revere. He reduces virginity to nothingness by saying, “This idol which you term virginity/Is neither essence subject to the eye,/No, nor to any one exterior sense,/Nor hath it any place of residence,/Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,/Or capable of any form at all./Of that which hath no being do not boast;/Things that are not at all are never lost” (“Hero,” 269-74). Ovid offers chastity as a sort of nothingness also explaining that, “We break chaste vows when we live loosely ever;/But bound as we are, we live loosely never./Two constant lovers being joined in one,/Yielding to one another, yield to none” (“All Ovid’s Elegies,” 129, 14-17). There is a freedom in sexual submission, that permeates through Ovid’s verse, that one cannot experience in the rigid ideals of courtship in sixteenth-century Elizabethan culture. Leander uses verse as a means of asserting authority over his heroine, and critic Heather James suggests that Leander’s persuasion of Hero “illustrates a contrast to orthodoxy and quiet conformity” (“The Poet’s Toys,” 110). There is an innate desire within Leander, and his sexual pursuits of Hero allow a certain release that cannot otherwise be had. To ignore this licentious nature is to “lapse into silence” or a sort of voluntary slavery. James seems to suggest in her essay concerning the liberties of erotic elegy, that Marlowe understands a society that functions under a system of law and servitude. However, due to innate human impulse man must have a place free of governance, and that place exists in acts of love and eroticism (James, 103-27).
Classical texts serve Renaissance artists well because of the heroic forms of persuasion, and Marlowe is no exception. Leander’s attempt to persuade Hero takes on a distinctly Ovidian theme. In Elegia VIII, Ovid suggests that a woman’s body is most valuable when it is used. He writes, “Brass shines with use; good garments would be worn;/Houses not dwelt in are with filth forlorn./Beauty not exercised with age is spent,/Not one or two men are sufficient” (“All Ovid’s Elegies,” 113, 50-54). Marlowe’s Leander tells Hero, “Like untuned golden strings all women are,/Which, long time lie untouched, will harshly jar./Vessels of brass oft handled brightly shine;/What difference betwixt the richest mine,” and “Ah, simple Hero, learn thyself to cherish;/Lone women, like to empty houses perish” (“Hero,” 229-32, 241-42). Marlowe allows love and erotic desire to motivate the action. He displays Ovid’s overwhelming influence in both essence and verse. Both authors imply that anyone who understands these powerful feelings of base desire can achieve a certain level of authority, overturning traditional and potentially slavish customs. He suggests that the use of reason involved in the more Petrarchan tradition will only take the lover to a certain point. Ultimately human nature prevails over reason, and to deny oneself sexual pleasure is to be enslaved. Scholar Richard Neuse explains that perhaps the narrator of “Hero and Leander” follows “the tradition of the Epicurean naturalists: he shows himself skeptical of human reason and metaphysical pretentions, not to mention social institutions and conventions by which man fetters his own impulse” (“Atheism and Some Functions of Myth,” 427). Neuse suggests that myth in this fashion speaks to our nature as human beings. While I am not suggesting that Marlowe is trying to promote a particular type of behavior, I do suggest that Marlowe is emphasizing an aspect of the human condition that religious institutions of his period treated with contempt, rather than inherent characteristics outside of one’s control, like gender. Sexual ambiguity is not understood by praising particular qualities as either virtuous or not, but rather as seeing a person for whom he or she is, without the pretenses that Judeo-Christian society often demands.
Ultimately, I argue that the poetry of Marlowe and Ovid demonstrates that conventional bonds of servitude associated with religion may be better understood when a deeper understanding of the human condition is realized. In other words, ‘if I don’t understand my own desires and feelings, how am I to understand my relationships with others, in particular God?’ Ovid often plays with themes of human animalism throughout his works, suggesting that a force beyond our control is actively involved in who we are as sexual beings. For example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf, and Actaeon is transformed into a stag, relative to their animal natures. Marlowe does this as well throughout “Hero and Leander,” illustrating the base animal nature of the protagonists. When Leander is in bed with Hero for the first time she feels overcome with shame, “like chaste Diana when Actaeon spied her” (“Hero,” 745). After they consummate their love, Hero attempts to leave the bed when Leander clings to her so that “mermaid-like unto the floor she slid,/And half appeared; the other half was hid” (799-800). Ovid often describes his lover as nourishing, while Marlowe’s Leander is described as “delicious meat is to the taste” (63). For both poets, bold and licentious speech allows a certain outlet to express the base desires of humanity that many Elizabethan authors attempt to stifle. This leads to an understanding of the human condition that is intensely personal because the lover is transformed into more than just a man or woman. He or she is a vessel of nourishment as well as a beast that cannot be fully tamed. These paradoxes contribute to the impossible task of fully understanding human behavior.
There is a privatization of sexuality in Marlowe that is directly influenced by his translations of Ovid’s Elegies. In his introduction to “Hero and Leander,” Stephen Orgel suggests that Marlowe “tempts the Renaissance reader with his deepest desires” (15). In Book One Marlowe writes, “Thy husband to a banquet goes with me,/Pray God it may his latest supper be./Shall I sit gazing as a bashful guest,/While others touch the damsel I love best?” (“All Ovid’s Elegies,” 105,1-4). Ovid consistently takes the reader to a public place where he encounters his lover, yet the tone of the moment feels private. In Hero and Leander’s first encounter the narrator explains, “He started up, she blushed as one ashamed,/Wherewith Leander much more was inflamed./He touched her hand, in touching it she trembled;/Love deeply grounded hardly is dissembled” (“Hero,” 181-4). Although a festival is taking place around them, the encounter feels incredibly intense and personal. To allow the powers that be to govern one’s sexuality is to remove something from the private sphere and make it public. However, because of innate desire and sexual impulse, actual human nature and the condition thereof seems to oppose the ideals set forth by the Judeo-Christian society that Marlowe is navigating. Although those Christian precepts would not have been obstacles for Ovid, attempts to govern morality are familiar concepts that pre-date by far the early modern period. Ovid seems to operate, in his Elegies, in a liberal fashion that presents his poetry from a first-person point of view. He appears unconcerned with convention. Perhaps it is Marlowe’s Leander that is the manifestation of Ovid, rather than the poet himself.
By channeling Ovid’s ethics concerning sexuality, Marlowe effectively illustrates the private and powerful nature of desire, primarily through the character of Leander. The way that Leander is presented is typical of that of a female character in a story. More specifically, Leander’s beauty attracts both male and female attention, and the author spares no opportunity to elevate Leander to a god-like status. He writes, “my rude pen/Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,/Much less of powerful gods. Let it suffice,/That my slack muse sings of Leander’s eyes (“Hero,” 69-72). Marlowe’s narrator also says that “some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,/For in his looks were all that men desire” (83-4). Marlowe’s Leander is reminiscent of an Ovidian Narcissus figure. In Ovid’s tale, Narcissus understands initially that the image is not real, that he should “turn away” from that which he cannot grasp. However, this beauty and connection that he feels toward his image is too powerful for him to resist. Ultimately, he loses the battle. Leander is a version of Narcissus. There is an element to his sexuality that cannot be understood. Chaste nuns, men, and even Gods are susceptible to his charms. Goran V. Stanovukovic suggests that “the Ovidian Golden Age was an age of unrestrained passion,” and men who live in a world without war will find themselves drawn to other men, and it is unsurprising (Early Modern Sexualities, 171). Ovid’s description of Narcissus is powerful and mysterious when he says, “As golden wax melts with gentle heat, as morning frosts are thawed by the warmth of the sun, so he was worn and wasted away with love, and slowly consumed by its hidden fire” (Metamorphoses, 85-7). It is possible that Marlowe’s handling of Leander’s beauty is less about homoeroticism as it is about a specific ideal and more about his attempt at explaining the naturalness of desire toward women and men. Perhaps Marlowe’s channeling of Ovid also stems from a desire to answer questions concerning human behavior in his period. Lynn Enterline and David Hillman suggest, “the Renaissance itself was deeply concerned with these issues of otherness and (in) accessibility” (“Other Selves,” 65). They go on to question the psychoanalytic works of the period. Clearly, early modern subjects had a deep desire to understand human behavior (63-8).
In Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” the poet channels the works and essence of his Muse Ovid. While this is not a revolutionary concept in early modern analyses of Marlowe, his motivation should be approached on a more intimate level. Marlowe is not simply interested in the way that Ovid wrote. He is engaging with the Roman poet in a way that exceeds mere inspiration. Marlowe is interested in the fundamental way that Ovid’s works speak to the nature of the individual. In a pre-Christian world, free from religious restraint and a strict governance of morality, Marlowe is interested in the motivations of man. To understand human flourishing, one must begin at the root of the human psyche. For Marlowe, sexual desire and ideals of love associated with erotic verse allow insight into such a world of understanding. Like his predecessor, Marlowe engages with concepts of epic tradition, animal natures of humans, the slavish bonds of love, and the private nature of desire. He juxtaposes the two worlds of antiquity and early modern to illustrate that certain human sensibilities transcend time, religion, and culture, and by doing so he illustrates that like many other concepts in Judeo-Christian society, to understand the behavior of man and the baseness of the human condition is to not understand at all. There are questions that cannot be answered. By realizing this, man can only hope to utilize reason to temper his brutish nature.
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