“Headdie Ryots” as Reformations: Marlowe’s Libertine Poetics

Helga Duncan
Stonehill College

Duncan, Helga. “'Headdie Ryots' as Reformations: Marlowe’s Libertine Poetics". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 2.1-38 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-2/duncmarl.htm>.


 A libertine, fantastically I sing.

Michael Drayton, Idea (1599)

The single function on which Venus frowned
Was birth: and, maybe, life has proved her right.

             Daryl Hine, “Under the Hill” (1960)

Introduction: Poetry and Heresy      
  1. Religion in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, defined by sexual dissidence, is unstable, even anarchic. The temple at Sestos where Leander first sees Hero, Venus’ “nun,” prominently displays an image of Proteus the shape-shifting god of the sea on its walls, while the mirrored floor of the sanctuary features, “the gods in sundry shapes, / Committing headdie ryots, incest, rapes” (143-44). Those images which adorn the “church” of Venus present a theology of malleability and libertine indulgence. Juno, whom Edmund Spenser invokes as the goddess of lawful marriages and childbirth in his Epithalamion, appears here as Jove’s incestuous “sister” from whose bed the god “slylie steal[s]” in order to “dallie with Idalian Ganymede” (147-48). Marlowe’s temple images portray the gods’ incestuous affairs and homoerotic pleasures, mocking protestant hostility toward visual adornment and undercutting the doctrinal centerpiece of predestination theology: the narrative of salvation. The poem, in short, presents a “church” of unpredictable desires that challenge the hardening of doctrine in England’s late-sixteenth-century turn toward Calvinism.  

  2. The iconography of the Sestian temple defies the Reformation ideal of an austere and spare visuality and contests Christian conceptions of divinity. Portrayals of Jove’s more infamous sexual escapades appear next to representations of “Love kindling fire, to burn such towns as Troy” (153); what is more, divinity becomes the antithesis of morality as rampant sexual desire topples civilizations. There is no attempt in the poem to amend Sestos’ anarchic religion so that it may fit a redemptive Christian matrix, nor is there a concern with idealizing or regulating the destructive force of physical desire. It is not uncommon for scholars to read Marlowe’s poem as “comically defy[ing] Christian standards of sexual morality” (White 84); typically, however, Hero and Leander and the newly popular genre of the epyllion to which it belongs are considered in terms of a classical and secular eroticism.1 Yet in late Elizabethan England, when Marlowe wrote his poem, the Protestantization process was entering a crucial phase with a new generation of university-trained clergy ready to disseminate the tenets of Calvinist theology and a new discipline of salvation.2 It is therefore important to take another look at the properties and scope of what has been called a “Protestant poetics” and to realign the aesthetic and ideological parameters within which the interchange of religion and poetry took place at a moment of profound cultural change.3 In its engagement with a “pagan” eroticism Marlowe’s poem explores the possibilities and costs of spiritual freedom and provides a fascinating glimpse into some heated Elizabethan theological debates.  

  3. As notions of an English national character defined by religious belief began to coalesce in the later sixteenth century, writers turned to an eclectic mix of literary models of classical, continental, and English provenance to articulate their culture’s spiritual ideals. Like the uneven Reformation process, the literary trials through which poets sought to fashion an English religious identity were complex and hotly contested. I suggest that Marlowe’s experiment in the fashionable new genre of the epyllion does not firmly belong to the classical, secular domain but is perhaps better understood in the context of protestant debates about scope and nature of the Reformation in England. Moreover, I contend, that it is especially the poem’s audacious exploitation of a “pagan” eroticism which signals its participation in the religious discourses of the day, in debates conducted at a time when the boundaries between Protestantism and Catholicism, between radicalism and orthodoxy, were under intense negotiation.

  4. At an important moment in the Protestantization process in England, in a culture that merged religious and sexual discourses, erotic poetry became an important medium for debating religious questions – not surprisingly, for the language of eros had a long tradition in the expression of spiritual passion. As the Reformation and Counter-Reformation sought to control sexual activity through new institutions and social mechanisms, procreative marriage became the sole environment within which sexual relations were condoned and encouraged. The consolidation of the power of patriarchy in general, and of fathers in particular, through the policing of sexed bodies and their conduct was instrumental in defining theological doctrines and denominational boundaries.4 When magisterial reformers like John Calvin condemned heterodoxy they would routinely turn to the rhetoric of sexual dissipation.  In a treatise cited by Elizabethan theologians and clerics, entitled Against the Libertines (1545), Calvin presents doctrinal opposition in terms of sexual anarchy and supplies English divines with an effective idiom for theological disputation. Calvin’s treatise attacks a group of Continental dissenters whose teachings exalt spiritual liberty and devalue the material world exemplified by the well-ordered household. The tenor of Calvin’s central argument on libertine religious subversion and sexual dissidence indicates a shift in the religious and social landscape of early modern Europe, a shift whose mercantilist drift became particularly palpable in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England where it grew into the ideology of the refined “economy of the Christian household.” Formulated by the English Calvinist divine William Perkins, this ideology found expression in a consciousness-forming market of tables and prints for homes that produced “the picture of the ‘good householder’” and his industrious domestic milieu (Watt 225). Particularly important in these writings is a preoccupation with marriage, with what Calvin terms “the holiest covenant and the one which ought to be the most faithfully kept” (280), and its theologically, socially, and culturally regenerative mechanisms.

  5. Calvin’s treatise argues that the Libertines promote a helter-skelter spirituality in which desiring bodies are constantly out of place, and sexual recklessness interferes with the ordered establishment of a visible, reformed church. From their teachings, Calvin writes,
    the most villainous debauchery which anyone has ever heard mentioned in the world has gone out. For they permit a man and a woman to unite with each other in whatever form seems good to them. They call it a ‘spiritual marriage’ when anyone is content with the other. Hence if a man takes no pleasure in his wife, in their view he may provide for himself elsewhere to solve his problem. At the same time, lest the woman remain destitute, they also grant her permission to meet her need and to accept it wherever it is offered to her. If anyone asks, ‘What, then, will become of    marriages that are held indissoluble, if it is lawful to retract them at will?’ They reply that a marriage that has been contracted and solemnized before men is carnal, unless it contains a spirit of mutual compatibility. For that reason the Christian man is not bound by it unless both are content with each other. (279)
    What finally makes Libertine spiritual theology so problematic is its refusal to anchor the gendered body in the corporeal order of a domestic economy – an order exemplified nowhere more surely than in the newly sanctified institution of marriage and its patterns of material regeneration in household and family. For Calvin grounding male/female relations in an ambiguous spiritual like-mindedness threatens the regulation of sexed bodies and their rules of intercourse, in socio-cultural as much as in theological contexts, and makes the institution of a visible reformed church impossible. The Libertines’ unrestrained choice or substitution of partners, as well as their rejection of long-term procreative physical relationships, therefore signifies religious as much as political anarchy.

  6. Association by “spirit” or ambiguous desire means for Calvin that Libertines engage in a morally problematic and socially precarious cultural practice – prostitution:
    But even at that, this union is no permanent. For if, the day after tomorrow, a bawd should become angry with her pimp, she can make an exchange, provided he can offer her someone new who pleases her better. Similarly, a philander can flirt about in order to acquire new ‘spiritual wives’ and take them as he finds them. And they are so impudent as to cover such a villainy under the pretext of ‘calling,’ since they interpret it, as I have said as following the inclinations of the heart (279-80).5
    While the Libertine “philander” is free to indulge his sexual appetites, women in particular stand to benefit from the Libertines’ ambiguous notion of the spiritual “calling.” The freedom of the “calling” lets them change their partners at will and evade marital and procreative responsibilities. Calvin uses the milieu of the brothel – the material antithesis to a well-governed domestic economy – to underscore the dangers of spiritual marriage. His language of exchange and accumulation exploits notions of a community of prostitutes who presumably live under their own direction, in an unorthodox society apart where they engage in a parody of women’s re/productive labor. They take their customers’ money but give nothing more tangible than erotic pleasure, rather than offspring, in return.6 Not surprisingly, the Libertines “approve” of all “vocations” – whether bricklayer or burglar, priest, pimp, or prostitute (277). They condone the “mingling of men and women … according to their lusts” (282); and, just as indiscriminately, “they pile all their goods in one pile” (290). Bad theology irrevocably leads to sexual anarchy and socio-economic chaos. Men and women are disturbingly equal, especially in their desires, for “every inclination in man” and woman can be interpreted as “a calling of God” (279). Such attitudes lead to the Libertines’ disregard for marriage and its contractual obligation of household economy and procreation. “Bodies” do not “matter” in libertine theology and are not defined by conventional markers of gender, economy, or the labor of procreation.7 In fact, the Libertines discount bodies altogether when they argue that only those who “judg[e] according to the flesh,” who overrate bodily signs, are sinning (Calvin 309). Calvin thus interprets their spiritualizing as theological as well as physical degeneracy because Libertines disregard material re/production.

  7. Against the Libertines presents in condensed form Calvin’s key arguments against doctrinal challengers – arguments that also appear in various places in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1539) and other writings. The tract recuperates and rewrites a language of sexual and gender anarchy made powerful by the work of early Church Fathers and heresiologists and adapts it to the milieu of religious and social reformation in early modern Europe. Calvin invokes but also reworks a discourse that would have been known to Marlowe and his English contemporaries from patristic sources. The antagonists identified by Church Fathers and recovered by Calvin in his treatise are the “Gnostics.” As Calvin places those he identifies as “Libertines” within a context of ancient “Gnostic” heterodoxy – a strain of religious and sexual dissidence presumably reaching back to the first and second centuries CE – he calls on the authority of patristic discourse and places himself within an established tradition of heresiology. In the Institutes and in tracts such as Against the Libertines Calvin draws an explicit connection between ancient “Gnostics” and what he calls la secte phantastique et furieuse des Libertins que se nomment Spirituelz (“the fantastic and zealous sect of the Libertines who call themselves spirituals”). He contends that “the core of their doctrine, its origin, dates from the time of the apostles” and that their teaching is “similar to that of the Valentinians, Cerdonites, and Manichees, who troubled the church over fourteen hundred years ago” (190). At the same time the ancient “Gnostics who … attributed to themselves a superior understanding” become the spiritual forerunners of the Libertines as Calvin recuperates terminology from the formative centuries of Christianity (196).8   

  8. A. D. Nuttall suggests in his reading of Doctor Faustus that Marlowe engages with Gnostic ideas, and thus with what Nuttall terms a “haeresis perennis, a perennial heresy” whose “tradition is like an underground river, which we can trace back and back, perhaps to the time of Christ and beyond” (2). But he turns to Marlowe’s drama rather than his erotic poetry to discuss the poet’s engagement with the religious questions of his day, emphasizing the scene of masculine theological strife in Doctor Faustus’ patently homosocial plot and arguing that the play puts forth a Gnostic view of “the Trinity” according to which “the Father hates the Son” (48).9 Yet an engagement with Gnostic ideas in the period also extended to larger questions involving sexual and gendered conduct in early modern England. At Cambridge, as Lisa Hopkins reminds us, “Marlowe’s primary area of study was theology” (37). No subject in Marlowe scholarship is more overdetermined than that of religion. Marlowe’s impudent representation of the gods in Hero and Leander certainly raises the specter of his legendary “atheism” which haunted Marlowe ever since Robert Greene denounced him as a purveyor of “impious poetry” in the preface to Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588), and as one who would “dare God out of heaven with that Atheist Tamburlaine” (Maclure 29-30).10 Critics such as David Riggs and Nicholas Davidson who have recently attended to the question of Marlowe and religious dissent usually concur that the poet wrote in an intellectual climate in which traditional beliefs could be and were indeed questioned. Early modern debates about “Gnosticism,” as A. D. Nuttall shows, provide us with a better understanding of Elizabethan “irreligion,” i.e., of dissent, atheism, and religious libertinism, especially in relation to Marlowe’s writings.

  9. Nuttall relies on Hans Jonas’ formulations of the “Gnostic myth” about the malevolent demiurge – or jealous God the Father – from whose physical grasp Gnosis releases its initiates. Jonas assumes that an established, cohesive movement called Gnosticism challenged Christian teaching. However, recent work by historians of religion, invoking postmodern theories of discourse and relying in no small measure on feminist theory to address questions about “Gnostic” thought, re-conceptualizes “Gnosticism” not as a cohesive intellectual tradition in perennial conflict with Christianity, or as a byword for an unchanging heresy in perpetual opposition to orthodox faith, but in terms of a complex interrelation between different modes of belief, in which neither category is a static entity but determined by shifting historical forces.11 Scholarship on the subject of Gnosticism has shown the importance of questions of gender and desire in the formation of theological doctrine. If we want to examine Marlowe’s engagement with “Gnostic” thought, we also have to reconsider his erotic poetry and its relationship to early modern religious discourse.  The obsession with dissident sexual attitudes which animates many attacks on and refutations of “Gnosticism” can help us map the historically and culturally specific deployment of the term “Gnostic,” especially as the label is conceptually recuperated at a time of profound religious reformation in Western Europe. In her recent translation of and commentary on The Gospel of Mary Karen King points out that refutations of some early Christian writings that have been labeled “Gnostic” center on “the rejection of new teachings based on prophecy or private revelation,” for one, and on “gender,” for another (89). King observes that “Mary’s gender” is central to the controversies attending the formulation of early Christian theologies, “especially the teaching about the body and salvation,” for “bodily distinctions are irrelevant to spiritual character since the body is not the true self … [and] God is non-gendered, immaterial, and transcendent”; moreover, those opposing this theology cannot “see past the distinctions of the flesh to the spiritual qualities necessary for leadership” (89). King goes on to suggest that the Gospel may have been written by early Christians who advocated a genderless ideal of divinity:
    God is not conceived as a wrathful ruler or judge, but is simply called the Good. Nor is God called Father, for gender, sexuality, and the social roles ascribed to them are part of the lower material realm. Even the true spiritual nature of human beings is non-gendered, so that people are truly neither male nor female, but simply Human in accordance with the divine Image of the transcendent Good. (37-38)
    The Gospel of Mary and other writings from the early centuries of Christianity show, in King’s words, the “remarkable plurality of approaches and positions” available for the “interpretation of Scripture” (Gnosticism 44). But such diversity of beliefs also led to intense debates over spiritual meaning and social order.    

  10. In the writings of those who became known as “Church Fathers” the idiom of sex and gender disorder thus proved a most powerful weapon against doctrinal opponents.12 Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, had made “Gnosticism” synonymous with sexual anarchy as he told of the roving preacher Marcus whose teachings encouraged women to abandon their traditional procreative duties as wives and mothers:
    Flatteringly he says to them … receive Grace from me and through me. Adorn yourself as a bride …. Put the ‘seed’ of light in your bridal chamber. Take from me the bridegroom. Receive him in yourself … Open your mouth and prophesy … Thereupon she becomes puffed up and elated by those words, her soul becomes aroused at the prospect of prophesying, her heart beats faster than usual. She dares  idly and boldly to say nonsensical things and whatever happens to come to mind, since she has been heated by an empty wind … She tries to reward him not only by the gift of her possessions – in that manner he has amassed a fortune –  but by sharing her body. (56-7)
    These spiritual-sexual encounters interfere with patrilineal kinship structures, with the distribution of economic resources, in short, with men’s established patterns of exchange in which women are circulated to cement social bonds. Into the place of a procreative sexual commerce moves an unpredictable spiritual eroticism that wreaks havoc with a regenerative social order. But Irenaeus also objects to a sexualization of the divine. The passage puts before the reader a grotesque scene of subverted insemination. Not seed but wind enters the women; instead of growing new life in their womb, their minds are inflated by dangerous new ideas and desires. Marcus dazzles the women with promises of erotic celestial favor. If pagan gods had accosted women in a variety of physical shapes – if they had meddled with women’s consciousness to achieve a rape or a seduction – Marcus acts in a similar fashion. He alters women’s mental perceptions of morality and renders them tractable to his physical advances – as Jove may have made Danae amenable to his approach as a golden shower. The passage fuses the language of an erotic license embodied by the pagan gods whom Irenaeus seeks to discredit with the figure of the Christian itinerant proselytizer; the result is a new moral idiom that makes theology and sexuality permanently interdependent.

  11. “Gnostic sects,” according to their detractors, offered more freedoms to women, as “teachers, prophetesses, missionaries” and allowed them to “play a leading role in cultic ceremonies … and magical practices” (Rudolph 211). Tertullian denounces “heretical women” as “barefaced,” claiming that “they make bold to teach, to dispute, to perform exorcisms, to promise cures, perhaps also to baptize,” and he implies that the women’s shamelessness extends to sexual conduct (qtd. in Rudolph 216). When Irenaeus anxiously describes the theology of the Marcosites as sexually dissident, he also formulates the rhetoric of “spiritual marriage” – of a union that fills women with spiritual passion and encourages a female prophetic voice, thereby removing women from a traditional marital and reproductive economy. In this “bridal chamber” the word is “seed,” and women give birth to prophetic ideas, a practice that obscures the boundary between preacher and disciple, between male and female, even between human and divine. Women’s speech, moreover, produces orgiastic sexual pleasure, but as women talk themselves into an erotic frenzy, they receive “wind” in return. Irenaeus’s metaphor seeks to empty women’s prophetic expression of meaning and recover a gendered discursive hierarchy by linking the women’s effusions to physical functions of the lower bodily stratum. At the same time his argument draws attention to the women’s rejection of that stratum and to their attempts to exempt themselves from procreative duties. Two centuries after Irenaeus, Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, develops a more extreme variant of the rhetoric with his sensationalist claims that the Gnostic “Borborians” and “Barbelites…pray with their whole bodies naked” (qtd. in Rudolph 214). Finally he asserts that their agape or love ritual displaces fruitful coitus: “When they have had intercourse out of the passion of fornication, then, holding up their own blasphemy before heaven, the woman and the man take the man’s emission in their own hands, and stand there looking up towards heaven” (qtd. in Foerster 319). When Epiphanius ends by describing the ingestion of male seed by the “Gnostics,” he accuses them of destabilizing the Church’s key symbolism: the rite of the Last Supper, meant to sustain a unified Christian community and its regenerative faith. Nothing makes the “Gnostics” appear more dangerous and seditious than their sexual parody of that ritual.

  12. If we turn to Gnosticism in a discussion of religion in Marlowe’s writings, we must take into account the ancient sex/gender dimensions of the debate. Limiting the scope to Marlovian drama – that is to the playwright’s male “overreacher” figures, Faustus and Tamburlaine – attends only partially to what is at stake in the Protestantization process in England. We need to consider Marlowe’s erotic poetry – in particular Hero and Leander – if we want to situate the poet’s work within sixteenth-century disputes about religious heterodoxy, especially as they pertain to spiritual theologies that magisterial reformers discredited as revivals of “Gnostic” beliefs. What makes Musaeus’ Hero and Leander an intriguing choice on Marlowe’s part, is its association with the discourse of “Gnostic” heresy. Hero and Leander, as model spiritual lovers, are mentioned, along with other mythological figures, in texts associated with the Peratae, a group labeled as “Gnostics” in The Refutation of all Heresies (c. 222 CE), attributed to Irenaeus’ ideological heir, the heresiologist Hippolytus of Rome (Rudolph 13, 86, 115 and Gelzer, “Introduction” 317-18). The pair’s appearance in this “Gnostic” context is significant when we consider that Musaeus’ poem has been labeled a work of Christian Neoplatonism, in the intellectual and theological tradition of Clement of Alexandria and Origen – a work, in other words, in ideological contest with “Gnostic” thought (Gelzer, “Introduction” 318-322). Whether Marlowe was familiar with the theological and philosophical ambiguity of Hero and Leander, the selection of this material places the poem into a complex intertextual relationship with discourses on “Gnostic” heresy.     

  13. If Calvin looked to Church Fathers and ancient heresiologists for the concept of “spiritual marriage” and then formulated his model of libertine license, English divines and ideologues, in turn, employed similar arguments or made direct use of Calvin’s formulations. John Knox associated the “monstrous regiment of women” with a revived interest in the teachings of the “Gnostic” Marcion (19). But it is the attack launched on the Family of Love – a group associated with spiritual libertinism in early modern England – that demonstrates the importance of Calvin’s rhetoric to the ideological stakes in the English Protestantization process. In his Confutation of the Family the Cambridge divine William Wilkinson explicitly refers to Calvin’s argument and terminology, claiming that for Familists and Libertines “God is their bellie” and “following of the fleshly lusts” becomes a principal goal (67). The cleric John Rogers asserts in the introduction to his tract The Displaying of an horrible secte that the Familist leader “Henrie Nicholas” had lived with “three women, which went all alike in their apparel: the one he affirmed to be his wife, the other his sister, and the thirde his cousin”; the “cousin” finally confesses, when she is seriously ill, “that Henrie Nicholas had abused her body, and made her beleave that she should never die” (sig. Bv V).13 As this discourse of spiritual marriage and socio-sexual libertinism was circulating widely in England, Marlowe, I suggest, engaged with its rhetoric and ideology. In Hero and Leander he undertakes a critique of the religious landscape in late Elizabethan England in the new genre of the erotic narrative and in the language of a volatile Ovidian eroticism. This critique takes up widely circulating notions of spiritual-libertine or “Gnostic” alternatives to confessionalization and an increasingly exacting protestant doctrine which “made a science out of being saved, with the Bible as not so much a collection of salvation stories as a technical handbook to be interpreted with the aid of the schematic tools provided by the French logician Peter Ramus” (Collinson, Reformation 211). Lori Anne Ferrell has shown that besides Ramism, with its diagrams and charts, there were home-grown English products whose aesthetic matrix, exemplified by the “praxis-oriented pastoral textbooks … equipped with such innovative and attractive pedagogical aids as pull-out charts, color-coded tables, and handy indexes,” helps us understand the rising appeal of sixteenth-century English Calvinism (165). While A. D. Nuttall reads Marlovian “Gnosticism” in terms of a homosocial struggle between father and son, in terms of the formulation of an “alternate trinity” in a proto-Freudian matrix of masculine identity, my reading of Marlowe attends to the crucial and problematic sex/gender rhetoric that profoundly shaped early modern religious debates and reified the procreative ideal of the protestant household economy. Furthermore, I suggest that Marlowe finds in an unstable, iconic Ovidian eroticism, expressed by the avant-garde poetic form of the epyllion, a medium through which to explore alternative modes of belief at a moment when “Calvin’s ideas and Perkins’ pedagogy intersected with Renaissance learning to create a new protestant aesthetics” (Ferrell 177). This aesthetics was, above all, based on the regenerative labor of the good householder whose “[d]omestic catechizing” (Watt 232), accomplished with the help of broadsides and xylographic wall-hangings, recuperated salvational principles and formed protestant subjects.  

    Cults, Castration, Procreation: Marlowe and Religious Skepticism

  14. Religious allusions figure prominently in the opening of Hero and Leander as we have already seen – from its blason that identifies Hero as “Venus’ nun” to the insistently iconoclastic images of the temple at Sestos, with its visual display of divine adultery. As Nicholas Davidson points out, “pagan writings from the ancient world provided [Marlowe with] powerful arguments against orthodox Christian teaching” (134); but his turn to pre-Christian erotic poetry also allowed him to exploit an effective idiom with which to challenge religious orthodoxy.

  15. Desunt nonnulla – “Some things are lacking” – is the line appended to Marlowe’s poem by the printer Edward Blount in the poem’s 1598 edition. Later that same year Paul Linley printed George Chapman’s significantly enlarged version of Hero and Leander. Chapman turned the short epyllion into a full-fledged epic, with careful divisions into exacting “sestiads,” each complete with a high-minded argument to drive home the morally regenerative purpose of the amended work. Where the Blount edition contains Marlowe’s 818 lines, Chapman’s additions swell the poem by an additional 800 lines and shape the brief carnal attraction of Hero and Leander into a structured, productive courtship, despite, or rather because of, the death of the protagonists. Marlowe’s ending seems deliberately non-cathartic: a smiling Leander enjoys the spectacle of the blushing, naked Hero as night, and with it death and dishonor, vanish in ominous Stygian depths. Chapman’s conclusion, by contrast, generates unmistakable moral meaning through the lovers’ rebirth into “two sweet birds surnam’d th’ Acanthides, / Which we call Thistle-warps” (276-77, emphasis in the text). Following Musaeus, who made the marital union of the lovers central to the poem, Chapman also inserts a substantial epithalamium that transforms the ephemeral, indecent dalliance of the protagonists into a respectable social bond, charting a narrative of recovery and imprinting the potentially heterodox Marlovian poem with a Spenserian protestant style.  

  16. In the midst of the epyllion trend of the 1590s, prompted in no small measure by Hero and Leander, Spenser had produced his Epithalamion, a brilliant and definitive example of the wedding lyric that counters the frivolous artifice of erotic narrative with the bountiful measure of the wedding poem.14 In its final stanzas, the poet refashions the pagan gods as guarantors of reproductive Christian redemption, as the speaker invokes the services of the moon goddess “Cinthia” to underwrite the procreative objective of his sexual and marital union:
    Therefore to us be favorable now;
    And sith of wemens labours thou hast charge,
    Encline thy will t’effect our wishfull vow,
    And the chast wombe informe with timely seed. (382-87)
    The wedding song ends with the invocation of Cinthia and Juno, classical goddesses of women and childbirth, to plead for “fruitfull progeny” (403). Most importantly, Spenser modifies the female deities to give voice to a theology of Christian regeneration in which human reproduction becomes the symbolic nucleus of spiritual salvation. With the aid of these reconfigured divinities the speaker and his bride hope to “raise a large posterity” (417) which finally means that men will “inherit” those “heavenly tabernacles” (422). It is the reproductive blessing bestowed by recuperated pagan gods that serves as a foundation for physical and spiritual Christian transcendence. In Hero and Leander, by contrast, there is no intention to revise a “pagan” pantheon so that it may fit reformed Christian doctrine; in Marlowe the physical world carries no redemptive moral value based in a reproductive economy. As Spenser directs the reader’s gaze to the solemn bridal chamber, his epithalamium interprets sexual relations in terms of a procreative rationale, in contrast to the moral and physical ambiguity of Hero and Leander, a poem which places its lovers against the backdrop of the Adonia at Sestos, a city that celebrates a sexually excessive festival in honor of Venus and the ambiguously gendered, reproductively immature Adonis.

  17. Marlowe’s Adonia may vaguely recall Hans Jonas’ argument about elaborately fashioned “Gnostic” narratives that articulate a syncretistic mythology which parodies and subverts moral conventions. But Marlowe’s eclectic poetics is not simply part of a transhistorical “Gnostic” discourse; its heterodoxy shows signs of a shifting perception of gendered embodiment. In Marlowe’s poem we may perhaps be witnessing the first steps in a process that ends with what Marcel Hénaff has termed the “overthrow” of the “amorous, classical body” and its charm, gestures, nuances, signs, and innuendos (17-54). Marlowe’s tampering with the classical, amorous body is iconoclastic: the inverted gender markers of Hero and Leander, together with their ambiguous, abortive sexual encounter, constitute a complex critique of a lyrically embodied, procreative subjectivity that also puts into question the vigorous search for salvation that lay at the heart of Calvinist theology in the closing decades of the sixteenth century.15

  18. Hero and Leander is set during the festival of Venus and Adonis at Sestos on the Hellespont, a locale associated with ancient “Eastern” cults viewed with apprehension by Greek and early Christian societies alike.16 Marlowe’s poem plays on the iconography of the festival of Adonis, otherwise known as the Adonia – a festival of women with a peculiar emphasis on barrenness and procreative failure. The Adonia, a midsummer celebration by Greek women, involved placing “Gardens of Adonis,” small vessels or baskets filled with seeds of barley, wheat, fennel, or lettuce, in dark rooms and letting them sprout only long enough until tender green shoots appeared; the Gardens would then be taken into the hot sun on the rooftops of houses to parch. Finally, the desiccated shoots were flung into springs or the sea in a bogus funeral ceremony. At some point during or after the sprouting of the Gardens women met to indulge in some boisterous fun – they told bawdy jokes, circulated obscene objects (usually phallic statuary and cookies shaped like male or female genitalia), and perhaps engaged in extramarital sex (implied in only a few sources).17

  19. Representations of the Adonia in writings by men, unsurprisingly, range from mildly apprehensive to wildly abusive. Setting the tone, Plato’s account of the Adonia in the Phaedrus displays little more than contempt for the women’s festival:
    Now tell me this. Would a sensible farmer who had some seeds he cared about and  who wanted to produce a crop plant them with serious intent in the heat of summer   in gardens for Adonis and enjoy seeing them bloom beautifully in eight days … In      those cases where he was serious, wouldn’t he use the farmer’s art and plant in suitable ground and prefer having what he has sown reach maturity in the eight  month? (276B)
    The gardens with their ambiguous miniaturization of the professional, eight-month agricultural cycle present, at best, an idle, pointless “amusement” – typical of a women’s culture too trifling to be taken seriously – at worst, they signify a problematic rejection of procreative social values. His assault on the Adonia inaugurated a series of literary invectives. Attic comedies, for instance, contain various fretful references to the unruliness of the Adonia; Plutarch in the Life of Alcibiades speaks disparagingly of the transience of the Gardens as a symbol of feminine futility; Epictetus talks about the long process of agricultural maturation and contrasts it with the ineffectiveness of the Gardens. Sixteenth-century commentators such as Erasmus were equally critical; in The Praise of Folly Erasmus considers the gardens as a symbol of short-lived, trivial pleasures (Neuse 8-9). By making the Adonia an important part of his narrative Marlowe settles on a clearly iconoclastic context for his poem.

  20. Marlowe would have been familiar with the most extended poetic treatment of the Adonia by the Greek pastoral poet Theocritus who was himself associated with the “subversion of epic themes” (Halperin 232-33). In Idyll 15, “The Women at the Festival,” the two protagonists, Gorgo and Praxinoa, complain that Alexandria is filled with “a huge crowd, racing chariots everywhere, and the Military all over the place, with their great boots and cloaks” (4-5). In contrast, Arsinoa’s palace provides them with the enjoyment of Adonis’ boyish attractiveness; a song in his honor, which takes up more than half the poem, describes Adonis as “eighteen or nineteen; his kisses do not prick [Aphrodite], / For his lip is covered with nothing but reddish down” (129-30). The sexual double entendre of “prick” is obvious: Adonis lacks not only a masculine beard but also, more importantly, a man’s aggressive, impregnating, penis. It is his lack that appeals to the women and ensures their erotic enjoyment without physical consequences. Marlowe’s blason of Leander which appears just before the narrator describes the Adonis festival reiterates the topos of unmanly attractiveness. Leander’s “dangling tresses that were never shorn” and his “orient cheeks and lips” (73) lead to the observation that “some swore he was a maid in man’s attire” (83). Like Adonis, Leander lacks masculine bodily markers and easily migrates across gender boundaries. Like the Adonis of classical culture, Marlowe’s Leander is striking in his “otherness” from ordinary, adult men, perhaps best expressed by the term “orient.” Tales of Adonis’ emphasized that he “was born … in some eastern locale,” that he was evidently “not Greek or Roman”; as a lover that made him “foreign and therefore placed him outside the cultural expectations of the women’s own society” (LiDonnici 96).18

  21. In Theocritus, the celebration of the Adonia ends with a reminder that the women attending the festival still have “real” men with “real” appetites to contend with at home: “But it’s time to go – Diocleidas / Has not had his lunch … Be happy, beloved Adonis, / And may you find us happy when you come back here again” (148-51, emphasis in the text). The women have managed only the brief enjoyment of an erotic fantasy. When Marlowe rewrites the Adonia in Hero and Leander he iconoclastically merges different discourses and cultural paradigms to shape a different idiom of religion in relation to eros. He presents the festival not as a brief interlude made poignant and meaningful by the awareness of the lovers’ deadly fate, but as an unbounded celebration of religious and socio-sexual nonconformity. In Sestos, there are no worries about moral recuperation or physical regeneration. If his readers are familiar with the story of Hero and Leander, expect the lovers’ death, and want to savor the fleeting moments of passion all the more, Marlowe does not oblige. In Theocritus the languid sensuality of the Adonia contrasts sharply with the liveliness of the women who contend with Alexandria’s larger marital exigencies. Marlowe, by contrast, unmakes the world of a particularized economy where soldiers patrol the streets and women have demanding husbands and turns it into collective extravagance, into an erotic utopia of sorts, a place that erases the boundaries created by labor and moral compulsion.  

  22. Leander, who has neither business nor masculine profession, is on a kind of holiday visiting utopian Sestos with its promise of unrestrained erotic indulgence:

    The men of wealthy Sestos, every year,
    (For his sake whom their goddess held so dear,
    Rose-cheeked Adonis) kept a solemn feast,
    Thither resorted many a wandering guest,
    To meet their loves; such as had none at all,
    Came lovers home, from this great festival.
    For every street like to a Firmament
    Glistered with breathing stars, who where they went,
    Frightened the melancholy earth … (92-100)

    Sestos emerges as a space of liberal eroticism and opulent display, unmade for the fulfillment of fantasies, without reference to a specific economic “reality” outside of it. In Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt Dominic Montserrat provides a view of ancient sexuality in a sacral context. Writing of the town of Canopus he observes that

    [t]he ‘Canopic life’ was proverbial in antiquity for being consumption run amok; it was thought to be a delirious orgy of drinking, dancing, music and sex indulged in by wealthy Alexandrians against the spectacular lush landscape of the Nile Delta…[Yet] the participants are festival-goers making a religious observance; the acts take place in a town dominated by one of the holiest and most numinous religious buildings in Egypt. (163)

    Just as Marlowe would have been familiar with accounts of the Adonia, he would have known about the ‘Canopic life’ from the writings of Statius, Ovid, and Juvenal, among others.  

  23. The poet’s Sestos may well incorporate the iconoclasm of the Adonia and the unorthodoxy of Canopian spiritual-sexual ritual. Sestos, moreover, not only happens to host a popular event in honor of Adonis each year, it is also a site permanently dedicated to the service of Venus, which means it is not a city of industry (like Theocritus’s Alexandria, the metropolis of men, with its racing chariots and marching soldiers) but a place of Venus and sacred eros (which can also mean “unmanly” erotic indulgence). The Adonia is put on and financed by the unrestricted spending of resources that have no origin, no purpose even, beyond expenditure itself. What is more, the key spiritual service undertaken in the city is unapologetically sexual, and the public visual gratifications provided by Sestos have no instructional value – they exhaust themselves in startling lighting displays. The influential Calvinist divine William Perkins had argued in his Christian Economy that the first duty of the “Paterfamilias” was the material ordering of the household and the administering of domestic and familial pastoral guidance: “To beare the chiefe stroke, and to be the principal agent, directer and furtherer of the worship of God within his family” (164). The festival at Sestos is about public license, and the men of the city are not concerned, as the patriarch of Christian Economy would be, with monitoring family members so that they may “religiously behave themselves” in “Church” or in the “Congregation” (Perkins 165).     

  24. Marlowe takes the religious celebrations of the Adonia further still: what is most freely expended in Sestos, as the temple images confirm, are bodies. The “solemn feast” takes seriously only the city’s visual spectacle and its erotic entertainments. If Theocritus’ Alexandria featured a carefully demarcated Adonia, confined to the precinct of Arsinoa’s palace, Marlowe’s Sestos turns into one giant erotic space, a space that makes all kinds of sexual assignations possible and obfuscates the boundaries between the behavior of gods and men, between licit and illicit encounters, between domestic and public sites, and, finally, between men and women. Travelers in the city, Leander included, are not interested in finding a spouse, establishing a family or carrying on a lineage; sexual passion in Sestos is as protean as its religion; and the city turns out lovers rather than spouses.

  25. Above all, erotic passion in the licentious atmosphere of Sestos constitutes a refutation of the procreative matrix, the establishment of a family, the continuation of a kin-group or lineage, and the siring of offspring that extend the process into the future in the same way in which the planning and maintenance of a family in the present is an extension of the past. Marlowe does not place Hero and Leander within such an economy, as members of a household or procreative entity. The narrative provides one brief mention of paternal relations when Leander, “fearing to be missed” (575), leaves Hero’s bed and heads home to Abydos. But even then we get only a couple of lines about Leander’s father who “knew where [Leander] had been, / And for the same mildly rebuked his son, / Thinking to quench the sparkles new begun” (620-22). Patriarchal disapproval indicates that sex at the festival does not lead to a suitable marriage or the generation of offspring; and that Hero as “Venus’ Nun” (45) is a woman outside the sanctioned reproductive economy. Yet any objection to Leander’s pursuit of erotic pleasure is so faint that the world outside the festival (the world of kinship practices in which women are a precious resource that circulates among men) vanishes before it ever really appears. The poem neither pays attention to the perpetuation of family and kinship structures, nor to a world of work, accumulation, and lineage.

  26. Hero, not surprisingly, lacks family or kin. When Leander approaches her with seduction on his mind, she tells him she lives “[u]pon a rocke, and underneath a hill, / Far from town” (345-46). If Leander’s father is not a traditional patriarch, Hero’s roommate is certainly no mother-figure:
    A dwarfish beldame bears me company,
    That hops about the chamber where I lie,
    And spends the night (that might be better spent)
    In vain discourse, and apish merriment. (353-56)
    The “beldame” is not family but a grotesque figure whose nocturnal activities seem eccentric at best. How Hero might spend her nights were it not for her companion’s antics is left to the imagination. The poem makes the older woman seem uncanny, a strange sort of bawd or perhaps a witch. Marlowe’s source Musaeus, by contrast, handles Hero’s genealogy and familial status quite differently: “Hero the beautiful, heiress of Zeus-engendered blood, / … Dwelt by the neighbouring sea in an ancestral tower” (30-32, emphasis mine). Hero lives in chaste and solitary seclusion until a proper mate can be located for her, and for good reason: she possesses an exceptional pedigree of which the patrimony of her tower is the visible sign. Access to her is therefore scrupulously regulated, and she is confined to a phallic enclosure. Marlowe’s Hero could be a nun, a priestess, or a prostitute (Keach 90); in any case, she belongs to a world that is communal rather than individuating. Her gestures of resistance to Leander’s sexual advances are always ambiguous, and, significantly, she leaves the door to her sturdy tower wide open. In short, as a priestess of Venus at Sestos Hero lives outside the moral and physical obligations conventionally applied to women.19   

  27. When Marlowe introduces Hero, she stands alone at Venus’ temple, watched by the festival crowds of Sestos, her clothing a symbol of the infertile eroticism of the Adonia:
    The outside of her garments were of lawne,
    The lining purple silk, with guilt starres drawne,
    Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
    Where Venus in her naked glory strove,
    To please the careless and disdainful eies,
    Of proud Adonis that before her lies.
    Her kirtle blew, whereon was many a staine,
    Made with the blood of wretched Lovers slaine.
    Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,
    From whence her vaile reacht to the ground beneath.
    Drawing attention to her status as a celebrant of Venus, Hero’s extravagant outer garments and their dazzling embroidery also hint at Sestos as sexual utopia, where female deities love mortal boys, and women imagine sex without physical consequences. Marlowe’s speaker signals at this early moment in the poem that the religious landscape of Sestos does not adhere to conventional norms. The protagonists, in the semiotics of their bodies and dress, come to represent this different cultural logic. Hero’s blason is violently incongruous; the blood she sports on her garment, like a soldier returning from battle, and her ritualistic killing of the turtledoves, the icons of faithful love, belie the spiritual and sexual morality signaled by her bridal veil. Conversely, Leander, whose blason follows, appears unmanly in his fecund beauty – his body is sustenance, “delicious…to the tast” (63), and the visual focus is on his “smooth…brest” and “white bellie” (66), the symbols of reproductive potential; unsurprisingly, men mistake him for a girl.

  28. At the same time, Hero emerges as a monstrous figure in her bloodstained “kirtle” or undergarment that hints at her powers of castration, a power which especially excites Leander’s interest. Hero exhibits herself in a temple filled with images of sexual license and demonstrates her erotic power by shedding blood; it is the spectacle of Hero taking life rather than giving it that arouses Leander. The speaker of the poem notes with some amusement that at the precise moment when she slays the turtledoves, Leander becomes “enamored” (162). The violent rites of Hero call up a different matrix of religious belief, centered on a simultaneous licensing and negation of the body, and expressed, for instance, in the self-mutilation of Attis, priest of Cybele. In Ovid’s Fasti the speaker asserts that Attis, by maiming himself, “removed the burden of his groin” and now provides a model for the other “soft acolytes [to] toss / their hair and cut off their worthless organs” (241-244).20 If such a pre-Christian ritual offers an ideological reference point in the representation of Hero’s priesthood, it also becomes Marlowe’s vehicle for fashioning a different religious universe in Sestos, one closely linked to the alternative socio-sexual society of the city. The speaker insolently plays with the erotic ambiguity of the mutilated masculine subject and with the “perverse” reactions of a susceptible, untutored youth like Leander to religious rites that could not be further from a Christian and protestant context, but which prove extraordinarily compelling because of their otherness.  

  29. Hero’s clothing not only hints at rituals of maiming; her bridal veil is paradoxically held in place by a wreath of myrtle, the sacred plant of Venus, famous and prized for its fragrant leaves and flowers but equally well-known as an anti-fertility drug (Riddle, Contraception 30, 47, 161). What is more, the “myrtle wreath” evokes the aromatic myrrh and thus Myrrha, Adonis’ incestuous mother. This adornment establishes Hero not as blushing and fruitful bride but as a figure of barren, un-affined seductiveness, and it reinforces the connection between Adonis and Leander as the signifiers of an erotic passion that eschews a bodily salvation narrative. Adonis is the product of a sexual encounter between Myrrha and her father Cinyras. In Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses Cinyras fathers Adonis while his wife Cenchreis attends the Thesmophoria, the ritual that reaffirms women’s procreative energy:
    It was the time when married women were celebrating that annual festival of Ceres at which snowy bodies closely robed they bring garlands of wheaten ears as the first offerings of their fruits, and for nine nights they count love and the touch of a man among things forbidden. In that throng was Cenchreis, wife of the king, in constant attendance on the secret rites. (X.431-36).
    While the mother is away, engaged in a culturally sanctioned fertility rite, the daughter, with the help of her old nurse (a counterfeit mother figure/bawd that recalls Hero’s “dwarfish beldame”) devises a bedtrick which counteracts cultural directives of erotic and lawfully reproductive behavior. Finally, Myrrha, whose plant name indicates the heady scent and intoxicating pleasures of non-procreative sex, produces a son who becomes the symbol of unmanliness: he fails as a hunter (the boar he pursues kills or castrates him) and never becomes a father himself. King Cinyras’ lineage ends aptly with Myrrha/Myrrh, the tree that yields both contraceptive drugs and abortifacients (Riddle, Contraception 47-8). Adonis’ “unmanliness,” in a vocational and procreative sense, also informs Marlowe’s portrait of Leander, the youth who savors the pleasures of the Adonia and of Hero in a poem that indulges erotic passion while questioning the body’s ethical meaning.

  30. Just as the representation of Hero within the non-reproductive context of the Adonia works against facile reading and rigid models of moral recuperation, the presentation of Leander’s desire in the poem is digressive and fragmented and its physical gratification invariably delayed. That is not to say, however, that the poem does not provide more elusive intellectual satisfaction. As Marlowe’s endstopped couplets are “exhausting their point in the witty final rhyme” (Campbell 265), his plot consists of profligate episodic disbursements, brief and disparate that eschew a narrative climax or a catharsis. In an infamous digression that has long preoccupied readers, Marlowe’s speaker carelessly disrupts Leander’s wooing and consummation narrative by interjecting a tale about the god Mercury and the return of a golden age of liberty. When the speaker finally returns to Leander’s seduction of Hero, he does not bring about the physical consummation that has been in the offing for a few hundred lines. Instead, Leander lingers endlessly as Marlowe’s poetics of degeneration works against procreative sense-making:
    Like Æsops cocke, this jewell [Hero] he enjoyed,
    And as a brother with his sister toyed,
    Supposing nothing else was to be done
    Albeit Leander rude in love, and raw,
    Long dallying with Hero, nothing saw
    That might delight him more, yet he suspected
    Some amorous rites or other were neglected. (535-37, 545-48)         
    Marlowe’s representation of Leander’s “fraternal” relationship with Hero disregards the sexual rules governing kinship. What is more, the speaker takes pleasure in the endless deferral of physical gratification. These lines do not so much “effeminize” Leander and the poem’s “author” because they deal with the feminine topoi of desire and emotion, in the more intimate, small-scale framework of the epyllion (Brown, “Gender” 149), as they negate a positive economy of reproduction in which the male body is defined by its sexual prowess and its seed or fecund “matter.”

  31. Marlowe seems more interested in dismantling this type of masculine body and thus a positivist theology that seeks to fashion a linear narrative of salvation through procreative potency. Such a narrative is questioned when Leander approaches Hero, and she becomes “[l]ike chaste Diana, when Acteon spied her” (745); when he “greedily assay[s]” her and Hero “play[s]” the Harpy (754); and finally, when his labor is likened to that of Sisyphus, with its pointless, sterile outflow of energy. In all of these cases, the references underscore the mutilation or depletion of the male body, the waste and loss that is irrevocably the result of its most active desires – and the moral ambiguity of a human body for which gratification and transcendent meaning seem impossible. Marlowe does not stop at comparing Leander to essentially powerless, impotent mythological figures; he conceives of the wooing scenario in inverted gender terms where Hero emerges as a warrior of sorts – a rather remarkable departure from the usual masculine terminology of sexual aggression. Hero guards “every lim … as a soldier stout” and is set to “[d]efend the fort, and keep the foe-man out” (755-56). The point in Marlowe’s poem, then, is not that the lovers' desires are perpetually at odds – one seeks gratification while the other retreats – but that its speaker takes considerable pleasure in staging narrative digression as a sign of physical impotence. 

  32. The poem’s most famous poetic deviation, in which Marlowe amends an epic as well as a biblical miracle narrative, portrays Leander’s encounter with Neptune and turns on two issues: on the rejection of a paradigm of calculable, physically regenerative labor, for one, and on the difficulty of apprehending and interpreting divinity, for another. Unlike Odysseus who swims for his life in Homer, Musaeus’ great epic model, Marlowe rewrites his source: Leander cheekily attempts to part the waters like Moses and then splashes across the Hellespont. He first “pray’d the narrow toyling Hellespont, / To part in twaine, that hee might come and go, / But still the rising billowes answered no” (634-36); then he “stript” to his “yvrie skin / And crying, Love I come, leapt lively in” (637-38). Where a “giant wave” threatens to annihilate Odysseus, the gracefully billowing swells of the Hellespont gently lap at Leander’s body. The lines distort the narrative of heroic labor, exemplified in the Odyssey with its formidable test of the hero’s masculine strength, and they parody the divine spectacle of Exodus.

  33. In Leander’s encounter with Neptune we also witness the impossibility, even absurdity, of the enterprise to read and interact with the divine in human terms. What human theology posits as suitably godly clashes sharply with the experience of divinity. Neptune ranks Leander with Ganymede, another alluring, pubescent youth who became a devoted servant of Zeus, and pursues him, but Leander profoundly misinterprets divine will:
    [Neptune] smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed.
    He watched his arms, and as they opened wide,
    At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
    And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
    And as he turned, cast many a lustful glance,
    And threw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
    And dive into the water, and there pry
    Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
    And up again, and close beside him swim.
    And talk of love: Leander made reply,
    You are deceived, I am no woman I. (666-76) 
    Neptune’s homoerotic gestures point up Leander’s inability to decipher divine intentions. Leander applies a hetero-erotic matrix of sexual congress to his encounter with the god and carelessly disregards different registers of religious meaning. The significance of Neptune’s gestures, their physical and metaphysical messages (divine favor and grace, exemplified by bodily caress and material gifts) elude Leander. No intimacy with the deity is possible for Leander who reaches his spiritual and exegetical limits in this scene. It is important to note here that the Neptune episode is Marlowe’s invention and a peculiar addition to the narrative. Through it he undermines the epic rationale of accumulative exegetical labor, complicates the linear trajectory of desire, and delivers an ironic comment on the human inability to understand divine love as displayed by Neptune. The capricious, erotic acts of the pagan deity mock a culture of chartable religion and chaste domestic economy. This god is no patriarchal master but a lover, and his actions run counter to what eventually becomes the first rule of socio-religious order in Perkins’ Christian Economy: the “distinction of the sexes, which is either male, or female … By this distinction is condemned the unnatural and monstrous sin of uncleanness betweene parties of the same sexe, commonly termed Sodomie” (26).   

  34. The god’s digressive tale, his self-inflicted wound, and his compassion constitute another challenge to Leander, and by extension, to an increasingly positivist business of salvation:
    Thereat smiled Neptune, and then told a tale,
    How that a shepherd sitting in a vale,
    Played with a boy so faire and kind,
    As for his love, both earth and heaven pined
     … Ere half this tale was done,
    Aye me, Leander cried …
    Neptune was angry that he gave no ear,
    He flung at him his mace, but as it went,
    He called it in, for love made him repent.
    The mace returning back, his own hand hit,
    As meaning to be venged for darting it. (677-80, 685-86, 693-96)
    Neptune’s narrative about divine inclination toward humanity remains unheard by Leander, for the youth cannot decipher its paradigm of love which opposes conventional morality. If Leander’s ignorance and Neptune’s anger as well as his compassion are any indication, the poem further caricatures a protestant culture of “precision” and of biblical interpretation that makes claims for the rigorous recuperation of divine meaning as expressed in Scripture. Yet it is important to note, that even if Leander bumbles and commits a considerable exegetical and spiritual error, it does not disqualify him from divine approbation, from a kind of election.    

    “Dang’d down to hell”? – Leander as Libertine       

  35. The (missing) ending of Hero and Leander has preoccupied readers and critics ever since the printer Edward Blount appended the words Desunt nonnulla to the 1598 edition which ends right after Hero and Leander’s night of consummation. William Keach puts it best when he writes:
    It is hard to imagine how [Marlowe] would have made good on his muted but   unmistakable forebodings of tragedy had he wanted to and had he lived to be able to. The irony with which he explores both the comic and the serious imperfections in the love of Hero and Leander would have made the tragedy of their deaths very difficult to realize artistically, if not emotionally and intellectually. (150)
    Musaeus recounts the story of Leander’s ill-fated passion: he drowns in the Hellespont, and a distraught Hero falls from her tower after the dead Leander washes ashore. In Marlowe the death of the lovers as a morally regenerative gesture does not occur. What would seem to make the poem a fragment for many readers, the omission of the tragic ending, is, to use Marion Campbell’s words, “the result of a construction placed upon the poem by a certain type of reader or rewriter” (266). In other words, Marlowe’s deflation of epic moral recuperation has made the ‘fragment’ theory necessary.

  36. The ending with a lustful Leander, a bashful Hero, and the perplexing descent of “ugly night down to hell” (818) unnerves and disappoints both moralistic and idealistic reader expectations. Marlowe’s open-ended final lines undercut productive exegesis, and the expendable quality of Marlowe’s epyllion becomes evident in the various hybrid endings grafted onto it by other poets. Hero and Leander ends as “Ugly night…overcome with anguish, shame, and rage” (817) drags her coach down to the underworld. Marlowe’s lines gesture toward the punishment of Faustus and anticipate the fate of a defiant Don Juan – a figure of spiritual and sexual rebellion – being pulled into the depths of hell by the mysteriously animated statue of a man he had killed. In Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville (written between 1616 and 1630), Don Juan claims that he “fear[s] nothing”; but when he feels the flaming hand of damnation pulling him down, he flinches: “Your hand burns! Let me go!” (3.958-59). Tirso’s message is unequivocal; even a contemplated seduction is enough to condemn the libertine. Don Juan’s last-minute explanation – “Your daughter…I did not / seduce her…She saw the trick in time!“ – is rejected by the statue: “Nothing excuses your intention. / Her seduction was firmly in your mind” (3.965-66). Leander, however, does not stand doomed before a patriarchal accuser at the end of the poem, and Marlowe does not stage Leander’s death in the waters of the Hellespont. Is there a moral in the image of Night as she “dang’d down to hell her loathsome carriage” (818) just as Leander’s eyes light on the naked Hero? If so the poem resists a rigidly moral reading, just as Marlowe’s ending in Doctor Faustus may well be challenging Calvinist predestination theory by presenting, as A. D. Nuttall suggests, a jealous divinity that unreasonably demands the damnation of Faustus.

  37. Marlowe’s questioning of a newly powerful protestant theology and his unconventional aesthetics of religion can perhaps be understood in terms of Georges Bataille’s theory of the “positing of objects” which impedes a spiritual intimacy with the divine. In the context of Marlowe and Elizabethan Calvinism this may refer to objectified hierarchies of exegesis, and especially to a printed apparatus of salvation, and it may eventually be counteracted by attempts at recovering a lost intimate connection with the divine sphere through what appear to be intemperate rites and outlandish sacrifices (Theory 27-33). If the religious culture in late-Elizabethan England was moving toward a Calvinist-inspired “science” of salvation for good householders, facilitated by a multitude of manuals, instruction books, xylographic wallpapers, and other material articles that tried to manage scriptural meaning and analyze biblical narratives of divine intent, Marlowe’s poem explores a context in which the positive economy of salvational labor is superseded by a spiritual milieu in which neither regulation nor maintenance is possible or desired. Marlowe’s poem demonstrates what Bataille notes in The Accursed Share: that no fixed and precisely assessable system of accumulation can be sustained in the search for spiritual “truth.” The positive economy of value and utility and a theological system that seeks to predict a course of election and predestined divine recuperation can only be opposed in terms of an ecstatic loss of salvational meaning and in the loss of a reclaimable self. Sestos allows for what Bataille terms “the limited solution of the festival” and its “spectacular letting loose” (Accursed 53). In Leander it produces “the intense heat of human life” (Accursed 54) that consumes him precisely at the moment that Hero performs her sacrifice, eventually burning her as well: “with the fire that from his count’nance blazed, / Relenting Heroes gentle heart was strooke” (164-65). Bataille’s notion of a “general economy” comprises the homogeneous sphere of whatever is controllable, re/productive, and functional, as well as the heterogeneous sphere of excess, eroticism, death, drunkenness, and the dissolution of knowledge that goes well beyond language. The excess of signification in Hero and Leander – represented by the “degenerate” subject matter and the fractured, incomplete “body” of the poem – works against determinable exegetical origins and destinations, against chartable sequences and predictable narrative trajectories, and, not least of all, against limited concepts of pro/creative labor. This excess of signification is also – as Paul Hegarty reminds us – what Derrida (influenced by Bataille’s theory of a “general economy”) calls écriture. The Ramian logic of tables of salvation, the English Calvinist clergy’s pastoral striving for elucidatory precision, has no place in Marlowe’s Sestos where the most important religious gesture is a strange sacrifice at the protean temple of Venus, and the key discursive mode is digression. What is more, in the world of Marlowe’s poem excess as a means to spirituality itself is not created by what Bataille calls a “voluntary process” but finally remains an “uncontrollable element” (Accursed 41-2).

  38. Spiritual libertines, as we have seen in the definition of Calvin, engage in the repudiation of moral meanings by rejecting the economy of the Christian household and its pastoral discursive patterning. In Marlowe, the poetics of libertine expression becomes what Bataille labels “unproductive expenditures” and more specifically defines as “luxury … war, cults … games, spectacles, arts, [and] perverse sexual activity [i.e., deflected from genital finality]” (“Expenditure” 116). Marlowe’s turn to the avant-garde form of the epyllion can also be seen as a challenge to hegemonic literary representation, for short forms and minor genres eventually become associated with a libertine aesthetic, with lives lived “moment by moment … [with] the miniaturization of time … [with the] impermanence of feelings [that] leads to superficial contacts, casual love-making, constant change of partners, and betrayal by mutual consent” (Gerould 10). The aesthetic ambiguity and erotic volatility of Marlowe’s religious poetics, its expression of “polymorphous perversity” (Summers 137), point toward an alternative world of belief. As the poet articulates, whether consciously or not, a Reformation reworking of “Gnostic” heterodoxy, he pits his gods’ “headdie ryots” against a theology of salvational precision and against doctrinal oppression.



1  Patrick Cheney, for instance, contrasts Marlowe’s “Ovidian-based, materialistic poetics” with “Spenser’s Calvinist-based [idealist] Christian poetics” (250). Claude J. Summers considers Hero and Leander “a pivotal work in the literary representation of sex” (133); and Georgia E. Brown terms Marlowe’s poem an avant-garde poetic experiment with eroticism (“Breaking the Canon” 62). L. E. Semler provides an intriguing analysis of Marlowe’s engagement with classical philosophy and situates the poem in classical philosophical theories about the interrelatedness of love and strife and the generative impulse that is its key outcome. My own reading also focuses on the function of ideas concerning generation or procreation in the poem. Because of my interest in Marlowe’s handling of such questions in light of early modern theological debates, however, I reach a different conclusion than Semler who argues for Marlowe’s “erotopoesis” or erotic versifying as the pro/creative act of the detached “wise man,” the “ideal figure in Stoic and Epicurean texts” with whom the poet engages and who helps him overcome an aggressive Ovidian desire (186). My emphasis, by contrast, is on Marlowe’s poetics of “de-generation,” on his writing against an increasingly narrow scriptural interpretation of election and resurrection.      

2 Revisionist historians such as Christopher Haigh, Eamon Duffy, and J. J. Scarisbrick have made a convincing case for the slow spread of protestant beliefs in England. The work of Patrick Collinson and Diarmaid MacCulloch in particular focuses on the final two decades of Elizabeth’s reign as the years critical to the formulation of an English protestant identity; this also means that the “golden age” of Elizabethan literature coincided with core decades in the Protestantization process.

3 Barbara Kiefer Lewalski’s influential Protestant Poetics attends to the expressly religious poetry of the seventeenth century while the work of John N. King focuses on the early decades of the Reformation or on specifically “English” genres that informed religious representations in the closing decades of the sixteenth century.

4 See especially Merry Wiesner-Hanks’ Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World and Patricia Crawford’s Women and Religion in Early Modern England. Lyndal Roper writes in The Holy Household that “[t]he sexual discipline which the whole citizenry was to adopt was both more all-embracing and less well defined than it had been before the Reformation. Now any sexual relationship outside marriage was counted sinful, and any occasion on which the sexes mingled, such as dances, might lead to sin” (112).  

5 Milton debates the issue of spiritual marriage a century later in “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” (1643), yet he is careful not to appear as though he advocates “whoredoms and adulteries” (699). Milton’s ambiguous terms for what it is that draws partners to each other, “cheerful conversation” (703) or “a meet and happy conversation” (707), make one thing clear: the traditional reason for marriage, the generation of offspring, has become – at least in theory – irrelevant to arguments about marital satisfaction. Condemning doctrinal logic on the subject of divorce, he writes: “How vain … it is, and how preposterous in the canon law, to have made such careful provision against the impediment of carnal performance, and to have had no care about the uncoversing inability of mind” (707-8).

6 Merry Wiesner-Hanks discusses the question of prostitution in Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford observe that the “whore represented unbridled sexuality. Prostitution was thus constructed as sexual disorder, a form of deviance, rather than as work” (Women in Early Modern England 71). The problem of the prostitute’s position in early modern European society has been the subject of debate with some scholars suggesting that prostitutes were a tolerated part of society, performing a (much needed) service in exchange for appropriate remuneration, while others argue that they “were marginal others along with criminals and beggars” (Bell 41).    

7 I borrow this phrase from Judith Butler’s important book Bodies That Matter. Her argument about the discursive construction of bodies and gender identities is particularly interesting in connection with the polemic against radical theologies which were thought to promote the breakdown of tangible physical categories in favor of a dangerously equalizing spiritual worldview. Such a worldview, in turn, allowed for the indulgence of bodily appetites precisely because bodies had ceased to be theologically important while gender roles were fluid and performative.

8 A year before Against the Libertines appeared in print Calvin published the treatise Against the Anabaptists (1544). “Anabaptist” was an equally popular catch-all term throughout the sixteenth century for those groups that embarked upon alternative paths of reformation. The Libertines were a rather amorphous group of radical spiritualists who, according to Calvin, had espoused perfectionist teachings and sought antinomian freedom from human-instituted law. Calvin’s label was freely used in England where it denoted both religious and sexual rebellion. [Note on capitalization: I use capital letters when the term “Libertine” refers specifically to the group of which Calvin writes.]

9 The presence and persistence of “Gnostic” ideas in English theological thought is also the subject of Neil Forsyth’s The Satanic Epic. Forsyth observes that Milton was aware – as generations of scholars had been before him – of various heretical teachings labeled, more or less indiscriminately, “Gnostic” by Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and St. Augustine. “Gnostics” for Milton undertook “rival readings of Scriptures” that challenged simplistic orthodoxies (311-312). Forsyth’s work, while confirming the intellectual and theological significance of “Gnostic” ideas to the construction of orthodoxy, is not concerned with questions about Gnosticism in relation to the sex/gender system. 

10 This is the first in a series of attacks on the poet and his allegedly unorthodox views. So familiar are they that I refrain from reiterating them in detail. Most famous are the indictments by Thomas Kyd and the elusive Richard Baines, who attributed to Marlowe a variety of maverick opinions, “irreligion” chief among them. Marlowe’s “Epicureanism” and “Atheism” continued to be debated after the poet’s death, in Thomas Beard’s The Theatre of God's Judgments (1597) and Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598).

11 Michael Allen Williams has argued that “Gnosticism” has outlived its usefulness as a label for spiritual and theological dissent because it imprecisely lumps together too many distinctive philosophies and fundamentally different forms of religious belief. For other recent critiques and examinations of the label “Gnostic” see also Karen King’s What is Gnosticism?, Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief, and Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities

12 Works by Justin (Compendium Against the Heretics, c. 150-155), Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, (Against the Heresies, c.180-185), Tertullian (Against the Valentinians and Against Marcion, 200-207), Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (Medicine Chest, 374-377), and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (The City of God and Against Faustus, 378-421) formulated an effective rhetoric that elaborated on the relationship between socio-sexual misconduct and certain religious beliefs.

13 Wilkinson’s Confutation also supplies a convenient quick reference guide to “Gnostic,” libertine, and Familist attitudes by reiterating Calvin’s main points. The terms Libertines and Familists are used interchangeably by Wilkinson and others to designate sectarian theological and socio-sexual deviancy. Other tracts that make use of the same type of rhetoric include “A Present Preservative against the pleasant, but yet most pernicious pestilent poison, of the privy libertines, or carnal gospellers” (1585); a treatise entitled “The old faith” by the influential reformer Heinrich Bullinger (translated into English by Miles Coverdale) uses the same terminology; he inveighs “against all atheists, papists, loose libertines, and carnal gospellers” (London, 1547, 1581, and 1624). Alastair Hamilton and Christopher Marsh have written comprehensive histories of Familism in relation to libertine-spiritual theologies in England.

14 Colin Burrow argues that the rise of the epyllion demonstrates the “almost unhealthy vigor of generic development and transformation in the period” (24). Burrow’s appraisal of the epyllion as “almost unhealthy” points up the ideological wedge between Marlowe’s unorthodoxy and Spenser’s carefully ordered marital principle.

15 While I am not suggesting that Marlowe plays a part in the “invention” of the libertine body that Marcel Hénaff describes as abstract, soulless, divided, ordered, segmented in his reading of Sade, I suggest that Hero and Leander undertakes a poetic dismantling process of procreative embodiment that challenges early modern sexual morality. In Bartholomew Fair Ben Jonson presents his own (mocking) version of Hero and Leander’s de-gendered embodiment. The puppets in Jonson’s play lift up their clothes to show that they lack physical gender markers. In a comedy staging the vigorous fecundity of the female body – Win Littlewit, the wife of the puppet-play’s author, is conspicuously pregnant and makes her family’s visit to the invigorating space of the fair possible – Hero and Leander exemplify a de-gendered barrenness.     

16 In The Other God, Yuri Stoyanov discusses Anatolia and the religious syncretism of mystery cults associated with it (65-67 and 77-78). Stoyanov’s work and Walter Burkert’s Ancient Mystery Cults cite various primary sources that kept knowledge of the Adonia alive over many centuries, such as Theocritus’ Idyll 15, “The Women at the Festival,” with its account of the festivities in Alexandria, and Plato’s Phaedrus. Plutarch mentions its rites in De Iside et Osiride, as well as in the Life of Alcibiades and the Life of Alexander. Ovid comments on the Adonia in the Fasti as well as in his Epistulae ex Ponto (written during his exile on the Black Sea – in a region known for its mystery cults). Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies represents the most important Patristic source of which Erasmus put together the first printed edition in Basel (1526), with numerous reprints throughout the sixteenth century in various European editions.  Sixteenth-century mythographical dictionaries by Giraldi, Cartari, and Conti also provide information about the Adonis cult and its practice in Macedonia, Assyria, Cyprus, and Syria; they are included in modern compendia of classical religion and myth by Starnes and Talbert as well as Seznec.

17 J. G. Frazer’s famous interpretation of Adonis, Attis, and Osiris in The Golden Bough made them out as “Oriental vegetation gods” who represent cyclical death and resurrection and symbolize the masculine powers of reproduction. Among literary critics Frazer’s theory proved very influential. Douglas Bush, for instance, refers to The Golden Bough as the “great modern bible of myth” (65). However, revisionist work by scholars such as Marcel Detienne and John Winkler has presented very different views of the meaning and reception of the Adonia in the culture and literature of antiquity. The key question of the debate is whether the Adonia should be considered a celebration or mockery of fertility. Detienne views the Adonia as part of a raucous culture of prostitution while Winkler sees the Adonia as an expression of women’s management of reproductive processes in antiquity, in spite of considerable cultural constraints. Frazer’s preoccupation with masculine potency unduly constricts our understanding of ancient rituals, their literary representation, socio-cultural meaning, and reception through the ages. Early modern readers and poets were undoubtedly sensitive to the multiple subtexts of the Adonia and the narrative of Adonis. Marlowe certainly gives us a view of the Adonia that goes far beyond that of a male-centered fertility rite.        

18 Interestingly enough, Adonis also serves as an important figure of poetic and ideological contestation in Shakespeare’s epyllion, Venus and Adonis. An examination of Shakespeare’s use of the Adonis material goes beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that Shakespeare, unlike Marlowe, seems not concerned with the larger spiritual-theological significance of the Adonis cult but is responding to complex, more or less “secular” questions of embodiment and gendered desire raised by the myth.

19 Helen Morales presents an intriguing historicized reading of marriage and social identity in Muaeus’ poem, arguing that Hero emerges as a figure of male fantasy: virgin and priestess of love, and that the poem finally explores the dire consequences of ignoring the key civic institution of marriage.

20 The priests of Cybele were known also known as “Galli.” Some, such as the poet Catullus for instance, considered the priests of Cybele emasculated – “Am I now to be called a servant-girl of the gods, a slave-girl to Cybele? Shall I be a Maenad, a part of myself, a sterile man?” (qtd. in Williams 128). However, in Ovid’s account phallic masculinity is a liability that the fortunate Galli have cast off.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).