Whilst undeniablyHero and Leander is transgressive in its treatment of male sexuality throughthe description of Leander’s body, I will instead focus primarily on therepresentation of Hero’s body and Marlowe’s figuring of female sexualitythrough it. By exploring the use of Hero’s physical body, it becomes clear thatthe poem combines the political with the erotic. I posit that Marlowe usesHero’s body to suggest a conflict between the interior and the exterior, and adisjuncture between sexual desires that ultimately leads to Hero’s subjugation.
With a particular focus on virginity, Marlowe uses the body of Hero toinvestigate the limits of female sexuality in Early Modern England. Whilstmany critics argue that the poem presents a liberation of sexuality for bothprotagonists and a kind of sexual spectrum of desire, I would suggest that Heroand Leander are instead a dichotomous couple in terms of sexuality. The poemimportantly transgresses the boundaries of sexuality in its latenthomoeroticism, yet a preoccupation with male sexual desire, figured throughLeander’s body, results in a lack of consideration for female sexuality.
ThroughLeander’s conquering of Hero’s body, she is ultimately muted and humiliated bythe end of the poem. Marlowe clearlydoes explore aspects of female sexuality but he explores it in relation to malesexuality: how Hero’s reluctance becomes Leander’s desire: “the more shestrived / The more a gentle pleasing heat revived” (1.67-8). Leander therefore uses sexuality as a weaponagainst Hero and does not allow her to express her own desires. Marlowe can beseen as using Hero’s physical body to represent repressed female sexualitywhether intentionally or not, in contrast with Early Modern moral ideassurrounding chastity and virginity. Hero’sbody can be viewed as a ground for figuring two conflicting representations ofthe interior and the exterior and how this transforms into ideas about femininedesire. From the outset, Hero is assigned the role of a woman looked upon bythe male gaze: “she should sit for men to gaze upon” (1.
8), “all that viewedher were enamored on her” (1.118). However, the description of “Hero the fair” (1.
5)actually includes little about her physical body, rather, Marlowe satirizes thePetrarchan poetic convention of the blazon through an extensive description ofher veil and elaborate clothing, Hero’s body is hidden behind a mask ofartifice: “Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves, / Whose workmanship bothman and beast deceives.” (1.19-20). Through this image of deception, Marloweintroduces ideas about conflicting desires and how a falsified exteriorappearance deceives men. The narrator can be seen as setting the reader up tobelieve that her later resistance and feminine coyness is also artificial.
Sherepresents a displacement of the active living woman for that of the femaleobject. Leander’s lust for Hero provokes a conflict between her importantsocietal status and her growing desire for Leander. She is given a duality of attitude initially represented byher role as “Venus’s nun” (1.45). She both fears yet desires sexual intimacywhich creates an interior conflict. Rather than being fleetingand unreliable, this can be seen as a reason forher dismissive and ambiguous actions in response to Leander’s relentlesscourting. Her feminine identity is fundamentally split as though herbody and mind are separate entities, on the outside she is chaste but inside”Treason was in her thought” (2.
293). She is duplicitousin her speech and actions: “Hero’s ruddy cheek Hero betrayed” (2.323), “her tongue tripped, / For unawares “Comethither” from her slipped” (1.357-8), “Hero’s looked yielded but her words madewar” (1.331).
The distorted notions of physicallove prevalent in Early Modern society doom her to alternating between the twooppositions of coyness and lust. Marion Campbell asserts that “Marlowe’spoem is concerned with the immediacy of desire, with love freed from allexternal constraints.” (253). However, I would argue that through the analysisof Hero’s body, many external constraints can be seen as actively workingagainst their supposed love and desire. This presentation of Hero as she”strove to resist the motions of her heart” (1.364) reaffirms the socialcontext of their love as part of a cultural framework. The narrator seems to mockfeminine coyness and the idea of the coquetry, through her eventualacquiescence, in order to justify the abandoning of “fruitless cold virginity”(1.
317). But, I would argue that it is less of a premeditated act and rather a genuineinternal conflict caused by contemporary societal values, figured by Marlowethrough Hero and her body. Furthermore,by analyzing the presentation of Hero’s body in the consummation scene we cansee these ideas expressed more clearly. The image of the body is emphasized asthe poem both starts and ends with a gaze.
Gordon Braden suggests that Hero”draws herself up to the full dignity of her erotic presence” (150). I woulddisagree with this sentiment as she is likened to “heaps of gold” (2.326) gazedupon by Leander, exposed and vulnerable.
Marlowe constructs the sexualencounter as a struggle, Leander’spursuit is animalistic and the narrator likens Hero’s body to a struggling bird”at his mercy” (2.286), emphasizing his role as predator. She is confined by male lust through her physical restraintby Leander and she is stripped of the liberation of sexualitythat is granted to her sexual partner, as the poem concludes with the “allnaked” (2.324), blushing Hero. Perhaps Marlowe is suggesting that excessiveheterosexual desire, as displayed by Leander, is a danger to Hero’s sexualliberation. Hero’s body is therefore used to demonstrate the perils of unwantedadvances by men: “Love is not full of pity … But deaf and cruel where he meansto prey” (2.287-8). Perhaps shecan be seen as being “o’ercome with anguish, shame and rage” (2.
333) just likenight at the end of the poem. Therefore,whether purposely or not, Marlowe presents a female body confined by the rulesof feminine propriety. Through Hero’s physical body, Marlowe figures abstractstates of indetermination in regard to female sexual liberty and the fragmentation of feminine self-consciousness, due to a conflict between shame and desire, in order to show that thesexual system restricts women more than men. He explores marginal sexualitiesand female erotic desire in the body of the poem but ultimately conforms at thepoem’s conclusion as Hero becomes entrapped by her materiality yet Leander canroam free.
Leander’s sexuality is liberated whilst Hero’s is confined. Ultimately, Hero’sexposed body becomes a metaphor for the vulnerability of female self-expressionand the complexities of feminine sexuality.