“Headdie Ryots” as Reformations: Marlowe’s Libertine Poetics
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
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.
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).5While 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.
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.
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.
Therefore to us be favorable now;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.
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)
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.
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
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)
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.
[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)
A dwarfish beldame bears me company,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
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 outside of her garments were of lawne,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.
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.
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.
Like Æsops cocke, this jewell [Hero] he enjoyed,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.”
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)
[Neptune] smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed.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).
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)
Thereat smiled Neptune, and then told a tale,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.
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)
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.
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.
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).