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Marlowe, Christopher (1564-1593)  
 
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Christopher Marlowe represents situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

Born in Canterbury in the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe was his most significant predecessor as an English playwright who was also a great poet. The son of a cobbler who earned a scholarship to Cambridge, where he received a B.A. in 1584 and an M.A. in 1587, Marlowe pursued a course of study that was designed to culminate in holy orders, yet the most profound result of his education may have been his love of classical literature, especially Ovid, whom he was to translate and whose comic ironies and worldly sophistication were to influence him greatly.

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A writer deeply immersed in both religion and classics, Marlowe reflects in his work the tension between Christian culture's condemnation and classical culture's acceptance of homoerotics.

He was probably an agent in the Elizabethan spy network run by Sir Francis Walsingham, yet he was frequently in trouble with authorities. In 1593, he was accused by Elizabeth's Privy Council of heresy and blasphemy, but before he could answer the indictment he was murdered in a tavern in Deptford.

Marlowe's Heterodoxy and Iconoclasm

Two documents about Marlowe, both produced shortly after his death, testify to his heterodoxy and iconoclasm, the so-called "Baines libel" and a report by the playwright Thomas Kyd, with whom Marlowe shared lodgings in 1591. These documents were probably devised to exonerate their authors from serious charges by blaming the dramatist, but they nevertheless seem to capture the voice of the poet, and their sentiments are not inconsistent with those expressed or implied in his work.

In both cases, Marlowe is accused of espousing a variety of dangerous beliefs, of which homoerotic sentiments are simply part of a continuum of blasphemous ideas. The notorious statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines libel that "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma" and "That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles" are tellingly interspersed with atheistic and seditious claims.

The outrageousness of the cheeky denunciation of those who are not attracted to boys and tobacco resides less in the notion that they are fools than in the blithe equation of and pipe smoking. Such an equivalence serves to reduce from a grave offense to a merely personal predilection and thereby rebukes the hysteria of the Renaissance's moral and legal discourse on homosexuality.

Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously than any other major writer of his day. His representations range from the lyrical idealization of youthful male beauty in Hero and Leander to the literally sodomitic murder of the king in Edward II.

As Gregory Woods observes, the Marlovian world is one in which most desirers are mature men in the prime of manhood, whereas most of the desired are adolescent boys or very young men, a pattern that suggests the age asymmetrical paederastia of classical homosexuality and that contributes to Marlowe's characteristic association of eroticism and power.

But what is most noteworthy about Marlowe's depiction of same-sex relations is that his posture is consistently oppositional vis-à-vis his culture's official condemnation of homosexuality even as that condemnation inevitably and powerfully shapes his varied representations.

"Come live with me, and be my love"

Marlowe's famous lyric beginning "Come live with me, and be my love" is a brilliant recital of the pastoral delights with which Corydon attempts to woo Alexis in Virgil's homoerotic second eclogue. Marlowe's seductive poem economically imagines an idyllic, self-contained golden age far removed from the demands and constraints of Elizabethan society.

Yet what is most striking about it as an adaptation of the second eclogue is not that it contains homoerotic innuendoes but, quite to the contrary, that it suppresses the unapologetic homoeroticism of its source. By failing to specify the gender of the passionate shepherd's love, Marlowe may hint at the possibility of homosexual bliss, and thereby query the dominant assumptions of his society, but he never makes that teasing hint concrete or explicit.

The poem is not entitled "Corydon to Alexis." In fact, the nonspecificity of its most common title, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," leaves open the door for the explicit heterosexualizing of Ralegh's "Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Marlowe's suppression of the overt homosexuality of Virgil's text testifies to the restraints of Elizabethan society.

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