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Marlowe, Christopher (1564-1593)  
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Homoeroticism in Marlowe's Plays

The depictions of homoeroticism in Marlowe's plays include Henry III's obsession with his minions in The Massacre at Paris and the startling scene that opens Dido, Queen of Carthage, in which Jupiter is discovered "dandling Ganimed upon his knee" (s.d.), as well as other less clear-cut scenes and characterizations in the Tamburlaine plays and Doctor Faustus, and most prominently, the full exploration of homosexual love in Edward II.

What these dramatic depictions share are Marlowe's characteristic association of eroticism with issues of power and his equally characteristic resistance to his society's attitudes toward homoerotics.

Dido, Queen of Carthage

The comic scene that opens Dido, for example, appears at first glance to confirm the satirical view of homosexuality in its depiction of a lecherous old man besotted with a "female wanton boy" (l.51) who barters his embraces for feathers and gems. But, as Bruce Smith observes, "With the actual Ganymede of Dido, as with all the figurative 'Ganymedes' of his later plays and poems, we can never quite tell whether Marlowe is playing the satirist or taunting the satirists."

The ambiguity that informs this opening scene of Dido is, in fact, paradigmatic of the work as a whole. In contrasting the amorous dalliance of Ovidian comedy in the first scene with the momentous events of Virgilian seriousness that constitute the main plot of the play, Marlowe creates a vantage point from which all the principals in the drama are viewed and tested, but it is by no means clear that Jupiter's amorous toying with Ganymede is to be judged more harshly than the steadfast indifference of Aeneas to the love of Dido.

Indeed, the very frivolity of the opening scene signals Marlowe's intention to reinterpret his Virgilian source from a perspective that values destiny less than love. Presenting pederasty as the sport of gods, Dido subverts received ideas about homosexuality as well as about Virgilian destiny.

Edward II

The conflict of love and duty is also at issue in Edward II, Marlowe's great tragedy of a man torn between his hereditary role as king and his personal proclivities as expressed most fully in his love for another man. The play is the Renaissance's greatest dramatization of homoerotic love, a love centered in the complete identification of Edward and Gaveston, despite their crucial differences of rank and class.

Locating in homosexual love the world well lost, the play pivots on Edward's choice of love "Despite of time, despite of enemies" (l.1456) and on Gaveston's matching declaration of love for "The king, upon whose bosome let me die, / And with the world be still at enmitie" (ll.14-15).

In Edward II, Marlowe depicts homoeroticism in casual, occasionally elevated, frequently moving, and always human terms; and in appending the names of Edward and Gaveston to a roll-call of famous homosexual lovers--Alexander and Hephaestion, Hercules and Hylas, Patroclus and Achilles, Cicero and Octavius, Socrates and Alcibiades, Jove and Ganymede--the play counters its Christian context with a classical locus in which homosexuality is a mark of distinction, associated with mighty kings and great philosophers.

By humanizing homosexuality, Marlowe implicitly attacks the prevalent religious, legal, and popular attitudes of his day. Indeed, the hypocrisy of morality-mongering of all kinds is systematically exposed and unmercifully parodied in the play. In its refusal to moralize either sex or politics, Edward II is seditious and radical.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Edward II in the history of literary depictions of homosexuality, yet it is equally important not to regard the play as simply a liberal defense of sexual freedom. Although Marlowe refuses to condemn homosexuality, he complicates the relationships of Edward and his lovers, presenting them ambiguously rather than merely sympathetically; they are tainted with the self-seeking that characterizes everyone in the play, including the reactionary, class-conscious barons.

The king's willful attachment to his lovers clearly accounts for his failure as a monarch and culminates in his gruesome murder, making him finally a martyr to his passion. Ultimately, Edward II is a tragedy of existential loneliness, in which the protagonist's conflicting identities are reconciled only in his brutal death.

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