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literature

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Marlowe, Christopher (1564-1593)  
 
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Hero and Leander

In Hero and Leander, his version of the classical story of star-crossed heterosexual passion, Marlowe presents both an extraordinary homoerotic description of Leander and an extended homoerotic encounter between the youth and a love-smitten Neptune. These comic scenes derive their power to shock and titillate from the satiric view of homosexuality that they delightfully flout.

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For example, the enthusiastic celebration of Leander's beauty, figured forth in a proliferation of classical myths, itself constitutes a challenge to the Christian strictures against homoeroticism.

In describing "Amorous Leander, beautifull and yoong," whose "bodie was as straight as Circes wand, / Jove might have sipt out Nectar from his hand," Marlowe not only compares Leander with Ganymede (who in the Renaissance was the most pervasive symbol of homosexuality) but also calls particular attention to "That heavenly path, with many a curious dint, / That runs along his backe" (1.51, 61-62, 68-69), only to confess the inability of his "rude pen" to do justice to the shapeliness of the youth's buttocks.

Clearly, this homoerotic blazon that culminates in the very site of sodomy is exuberantly defiant. Moreover, Marlowe's assumption of a universal homoerotic impulse in Hero and Leander contradicts his age's assumption of an exclusively heterosexual desire. Leander's beauty is "all that men desire" (1.84); it moves alike both the "rudest paisant" and the "barbarous Thratian soldier" (1.79, 81). The very playfulness of Marlowe's subversiveness here and throughout the epyllion destabilizes the seriousness of dominant constructions of gender and sexuality.

Resistance to the massive condemnation of homosexuality in Renaissance England is also at the heart of Marlowe's Ovidian account of Neptune's infatuation with Leander. When the "saphir visag'd god" spies Leander in the sea, Neptune concludes that he must be Ganymede. He pulls the youth down to the splendors of the pearl-strewn, gold-heaped sea-bottom. In this spectacular setting, "The lustie god imbrast him, cald him love, / And swore he never should returne to Jove" (2.167-168).

Only when the mortal youth is almost drowned does Neptune realize that he is not Jove's cupbearer. He releases Leander and gives him safe passage through the sea, but not before caressing and attempting to seduce him:

He clapt his plumpe cheekes, with his tresses playd,
And smiling wantonly, his love bewrayd.
He watcht his armes, and as they opend wide,
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steale a kisse, and then run out and daunce,
And as he turnd, cast many a lustfull glaunce,--
And threw him gawdie toies to please his eie,--
And dive into the water, and there prie
Upon his brest, his thighs, and everie lim,
And up againe, and close beside him swim,
And talke of love. (2.181-191)

When the shocked Leander protests in exasperation, "You are deceav'd, I am no woman I" (2.192), Neptune merely smiles and begins to tell him a homoerotic tale of shepherds and satyrs, evocative of Theocritus's Idylls.

Marlowe's joke in this farcical episode is not only on the passionate god, who mistakes a beautiful mortal for Ganymede, but also--and more trenchantly--on the naive youth, who can imagine only heterosexual desire. As Gregory Bredbeck points out, the tale that Neptune begins reciting is designed to suggest "an alternative world existing beyond the limits of Leander's narrow perspective."

Significantly, the point of the episode--quite apart from its considerable titillation value and its foregrounding of the awkward heterosexual lovemaking of Hero and Leander--is the essential likeness of same-sex and other-sex attraction.

Neptune, realizing that Leander is also smitten by love, generously returns to the rich ocean bed for gifts for the youth to bring to Hero; reconciled, the deity and the mortal are united in their common emotional state despite their difference in sexual object choices.

As the narrator concludes, "In gentle brests, / Relenting thoughts, remorse and pittie rests. / And who have hard hearts, and obdurat minds, / But vicious, harebraind, and illit'rat hinds?" (2.215-218). Surely, the hardhearted hinds indicted here include those censorious souls in Marlowe's society who were unable to conceive of homoeroticism as other than shameful.

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