Essay/Close Reading on Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, lines 103-130

While Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander has often been read as an epyllion of love and desire, Marlowe’s poem depicts a relationship that is based on objectification of its female protagonist.[1] Hero becomes a symbol of the female ideal. Yet, while Hero is left totally objectified by the power of the male gaze, Marlowe presents the paradox of male patriarchy: while it is men who hold power over women, the emasculation the male ‘standers-by’ (l. 106) suffer as a result of Hero’s rejection of them, serves as a reminder that in the Renaissance era, as Philippa Berry argues, ‘masculine subjectivity was dependent upon an image of womanhood’.[2] Thus, ‘gaze’ becomes central to the poem, and its implications upon Hero’s identity mean that she becomes a figure of objectification, yet paradoxically one of power. By making the comparison between Hero’s objectification by the male gaze to the objectification inflicted upon subjects in nude paintings in the Renaissance, I will argue that the extent of Hero’s objectification in the extract means that she becomes stripped of her identity.

John Berger in Ways of Seeing challenges ordinary modes of perception.[3] In it, he depicts the ‘revival’ of the nude painting in the Renaissance.[4] He argues that the subjects in such paintings are controlled entirely by the male gaze: ‘the picture is made to appeal to male sexuality’.[5] Hence, I would like to propose the idea that Hero’s objectification by the male gaze renders her in the same position as the subjects of nude paintings. ‘To be naked’, Berger argues, ‘is to be oneself. To be nude, is to be seen naked by others, yet not recognised for oneself’.[6]  Like the nude, Hero is not recognised as ‘oneself’, but for the ‘nymph’ (l. 105) like mythical beauty that she represents.

Hero, like the nude, becomes objectified to the extent that she becomes static: she becomes a frozen image that is not allowed to breathe or grow, and she is an image for men to control. Conversely, Marlowe juxtaposes Hero’s static nature with male autonomy within the extract. While Hero ‘sits’ (l. 111), ‘so ran the forth the people to gaze upon her’ (my italics, l. 117) and her male gazers are forced into a ‘fury of dreadful flight’ (again, my italics, l. 119). Verbs ‘ran’ and ‘flight’ both conjure up images of movement and desperation. Marlowe’s comparison of Hero to the ‘night wandering, pale, and watery star’ (the moon) that ‘over-rules the flood’ (l. 111 and l. 117) thus becomes interesting when looked at in this manner. This astrological and mythical imagery thereby not only elevates Hero to a beyond-earthly status, but also stresses this idea of her being paralysed as a result of the male gaze: it is ‘the flood’ (the sea) that moves towards the moon, not the other way around. In fact, the moon moves away from the ocean. It is an image of perusal, and Hero is presented as having a magnetism which she is blamed for. The poem’s enjambment also helps to create a sense of movement, yet this movement is something only available to the male figures. In rhyming ‘her’ with ‘her’ in lines 117 and 118, Hero is portrayed as being trapped; she is unable to progress forward. The rhyme thus symbolises her trapped position as a woman in the 16th century: she lacks autonomy of her own, and is something to be possessed by others. While these men are ‘racing’ (l. 114) to ‘gaze upon her’, we can both see and hear how Hero is trapped: she is unable to move out of, or even move within this male gaze.

Women are thus an object to be won. In comparing Hero’s admirers to ‘wretched Ixion’ and his ‘shaggy-footed race’ (l. 114), Hero is presented as a prize. However, the prize to be won at the end of this ‘race’, is not just Hero herself, but their own masculinity. Philippa Berry argues that, in the Renaissance, ‘masculine subjectivity was dependent upon the image of [a] woman’. She argues that the Petrarchan tradition and Neoplatonic philosophy of the time meant that the female object of desire was ‘usually little more than an instrument in an elaborate game masculine ‘speculation’’, and, indeed, Hero becomes an object in which her male suitors use to assert – or, more correctly – fail to assert their masculinity. In describing how men ‘await the sentence of her scornful eyes; / he whom she favours lives; the other dies’ (ll. 123-124), we are given an insight into the complex power relations of patriarchy in the 16th century. While patriarchy dictates that men are above women, masculine power – as Berry suggests – is dependent on the female object. The caesura and semi colon separating ‘he whom she favours live; the others die’ represents the ‘wait’ that these male pursuers had to face; this pause becomes a physical representation of the suspense that these characters are waiting in in order to discover the fate of their masculinity and, thereby, identity. This antithesis in ‘lives’ and ‘dies’ serves to show the extent of the violent nature of masculinity: the male figure must be seen to have total power over their subject, or else their masculinity is undermined. In keeping us suspended, Marlowe elevates the importance of Hero’s decision, and thus reveals the importance of the the power that the female object of desire held over their pursuers, especially within the Petrarchan tradition.

By creating a semantic field of violence throughout the latter half of the extract, Marlowe reveals the extent that men were emasculated in the 16th century if seen to be rejected by a mere woman. The line ‘and as in a fury of dreadful flight’ (l. 119) acts as a turn in the extract, with the first half being filled with mythological imagery associated with Hero and her virginity (the imagery of the ‘pale’ circular moon compared to ‘the flood’ can be seen as a metaphor for Hero’s virginity compared to the male sexual ravishment and violence), while the second half juxtaposes this feminine innocence to the violence of masculinity.

Men’s passions are hyperbolically and metaphorically presented as ‘violent passions’ (l. 126) which brings in war-like imagery into the extract, thus continuing this theme this idea of masculinity as a competition. Berry argues that ‘Renaissance Neoplatonism used women as a ‘speculum’ or mirror for masculine narcissism’, and thus we see the extent to which Hero becomes an object to assert male masculinity.[7] The concluding couplet of ‘and many, seeing great princes were denied, / pin’d as they went, and thinking on her, died’ (ll. 129-130) shows how, to be turned down by a woman – to be rejected by a subject who was meant to be controlled rather than controlling – was emasculating enough to result in death. The frequent use of caesura in the couplet slows the pace of the lines, as if this journey to Hero’s heart is one of toilsome pain; this end stop following ‘death’ is a literal representation of the end men will inevitable face when trying to seduce her. The auxesis in ‘denied’, ‘pin’d’ and ‘died’ represents the journey of failure, while the rhyme between the words perhaps symbolising a sense of inevitability of these outcomes. Marlowe metaphorically describes her pursuers as ‘poor soldiers’ (l. 121), and thus we see how ‘love’, from the male gaze, was something ‘violent’ and merely a continuation of their attempts to assert their ‘narcissist’ masculinity, rather than something of true ‘faithful passion’ (l. 127).

However, this semantic field of violent language serves to have another use. Not only does it emphasise the violent nature of masculinity, but it shows the violent nature of masculinity upon the female subject. Indeed, Hero becomes stripped of her identity as a result of the very narrative itself, as the narrator conforms entirely to the male gaze of Hero’s pursuers. The fact that Hero is described as actively ‘stealing away the enchanted gazer’s mind’ (my italics, l. 104) and in comparing her to the moon having force over the ocean (‘night-wandering, pale, and watery star […] [that] over-rules the flood’, l. 107 and l. 111), Hero is blamed for her suitors’ actions: she is the active subject within the lines. The voice of the narrator becomes so lost in this bias of the male gaze, that Hero’s true identity becomes lost in this representation: she is subject to not only the gaze of her pursuers, but that of the narrator and thereby the reader, too.

Hero’s identity is not only lost, but it is stolen from her as result of this gaze. If Miller argues that Hero’s ‘heart has been raped by Cupid’, then we can equally argue that Hero’s identity is, in a sense, also raped by the power of this destructive male gaze.[8] Indeed, the word rape descends from the Latin ‘repee’, which translates as theft and, in the Renaissance, ‘rape had three basic meanings: robbery, abduction, and sexual rape’.[9] Throughout the extract this semantic field of violent language brutally impairs Hero’s sense of self: her identity is stolen from her, as this semantic field of violent language implies that Hero is left damaged as a result of this male ‘rage’ (l. 125). The poem is told entirely from the male perspective, meaning that Hero’s voice becomes stolen from her. The repetition of the word ‘gaze’ in the poem (l. 104 and l. 117) and the stress on visual perception (‘see’ and ‘seeing’, l. 125 and l. 129) shows how the poem is as much to do with the ‘way’ in which we see the world as much as it is about the world.

Ultimately, the power of the male gaze means that Hero is stripped of her identity, and is made into an ideal, rather than treated as a person. To return back to Berger’s idea of the nude, Hero becomes the subject of a gaze that scrutinizes her every move, thus rendering her incapable of growth or movement. She becomes frozen and her body becomes surface symbol with no greater depth; she is merely an image to be looked upon and, thus, controlled. Yet this male gaze is something that entraps the male figures in the extract with as much force: while the male figures have the autonomy to ‘chase’ their desires, Marlowe’s presentation of these figures as being in constant competition with one another means that they are trapped in their own masculinity. The extract, therefore, deals with the power of perception to trap us within our own gaze, as much as it is about the world and all its figures.

Word Count: 1,867

Mark: 75

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