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Shakespeare, Sidney, and Marlowe: the Metamorphoses of Love

ISSUE:  Summer 1975

LOVE’S metamorphoses imply a subject and an object, a perceiver and a thing perceived. The object, which is always perceived as beautiful, inspires love in the subject, and the subject is transformed, though whether the transformation be for the better or the worse will depend in fact on whether the perceived beauty inspire love or lust. Beauty in itself can do either. The radiant loveliness of Spenser’s Una or Belphoebe can induce respectful devotion in a Satyrane or a Timias, and thoughts of rape in a Sansloy or a Braggadocchio. This suggests what is in fact a commonplace in Renaissance treatments of the subject: that the power of love can either ennoble or degrade. In Sidney’s “Arcadia,” Musidorus instructs his cousin Pyrochles in the subject: “the true love hath that excellent nature in it, that it doth transform the very essence of the lover into the thing loved, uniting, and as it were incorporating it with a secret & inward working.” The problem is that the lowlier forms of love imitate the workings of the higher forms: Musidorus continues, “for as the love of heaven makes one heavenly, the love of vertue, vertuous ; so doth the love of the world make one become worldly, and this effeminate love of a woman, doth so womanish a man, that (if he yeeld to it) it will not onely make him an Amazon; but a launder, a distaff-spinner; or what so ever other vile occupation their idle heads can imagin, & their weake hands performe.”

In the context, the references to Amazon and distaff-spinner have an immediate relevance, for Musidorus has just come upon the astonishing spectacle of his cousin in female disguise, dressed as an Amazonian warrior in a garb that includes “a very riche Jewell: the devise whereof . . . was this: a Hercules made in little fourme, but a distaffe set within his hand as he once was by Omphales commaundement.” Pyrochles’ transformation from prince to Amazon has been occasioned by his love for the Princess Philoclea; she has been taken into exile into the pastoral depths of Arcadia with the rest of the royal family in order to avoid the workings of an obscure but disturbing oracle that has badly shaken her father, the king, and Pyrochles’ female disguise is his means of gaining access to her presence. Musidorus has nothing but scorn for his cousin’s efforts to justify his love, but Musidorus’ own turn is coming; walking out one day, Pyrochles (in his disguise as Zelmane the Amazon) comes upon a shepherd singing a lamentable tune. “The voice made Zelmane hasten her pace to overtake him: which having done, she plainly perceived that it was her deare friend Musidorus, whereat marvailing not a little she demaunded of him, whether the Goddesse of those woods had such a powre to transforme every body.” Pyrochles/Zelmane has his/her moment of gentle revenge: “Why how now deere cousin (said she) you that were last day so hie in Pulpit against lovers, are you now become so meane an auditor? Remember that love is a passion; and that a woorthie mans reason must ever have the masterhood. I recant, I recant (cryed Musidorus), and withall falling downe prostrate, O thou celestial, or infernal spirit of Love, or what other heavenly or hellish title thou list to have (for effects of both I finde in my self) have compassion of me, and let thy glory be as great in pardoning them that be submitted to thee, as in conquering those that were rebellious. No, no saide Zelmane, I see you well enough: you make but an enterlude of my mishaps, and doo but counterfaite thus, to make me see the deformitie of my passions ; but take heed, that this jest do not one day turne to earnest. Now I beseech thee (said Musidorus taking her fast by the hand) even for the truth of our friendship . . . make no jest of that, which hath so earnestly pearced me thorow.” Pyrochles is moved. There is an uneasy moment while he fears that Musidorus may be in love with Philoclea, but when he hears that it is Philoclea’s sister, the Princess Pamela, whom Musidorus loves and for whose sake he has taken on shepherd’s disguise, then all is well between the cousins, and the plot of the “Arcadia” is fully underway.

The “Arcadia” is full of emotional extravagances of one kind and another, and it is a measure of Sidney’s serene artistry that he is capable of finding in these both a source of comic complication and of poignant suffering. The meta-morphoses undergone by Pyrochles and Musidorus are innocent by comparison with the transformations which passion works in the parents of the two princesses, the King Basilius and his Queen Gynecia. The elderly Basilius, taken in by Pyrochles’ Amazonian disguise, is shortly in the grip of a most unseemly passion for the apparent girl ; while Gynecia, on the other hand, endowed with a keener sight than her husband, penetrates Pyrochles’ disguise and finds herself lusting after the young man, to her profound but helpless shame. Pyrochles’ position is rich in comic discomfiture; it does not take him long to make his true identity known to Philoclea, who is relieved to discover that the object of her increasingly ardent affections is in fact a man and not a woman; but he can hardly attend to the daughter, so beset is he with the importunities of the mother and father, each bent on committing adultery with him. In the end, they commit adultery with each other, just as the oracle (as given at the beginning of the “Old Arcadia”) has said that they would; under cover of darkness, each comes to the bed of Pyrochles/Zelmane, summoned thither by Pyrochles himself; they spend the night in each other’s arms, Gynecia knowingly, for she has recognized her husband, but he in the blissful delusion that he embraces Zelmane; Pyrochles/Zelmane, however, is with Philoclea, innocently with her, as it turns out, but when on the morrow he is discovered in her chamber—and is found to be a man—the circumstances are suspicious. The comic finale to the “Old Arcadia” (the only finale there is, since Sidney’s revision never extended so far) is thick with complications which must be resolved. Musidorus and Pamela, who have tried to flee the country together, are brought forcibly back so that their reputations, too, like those of Pyrochles and Philoclea, are under a cloud. Basilius drinks a love potion which Gynecia had intended for Pyrochles and promptly drops dead (as it seems), and the two princes are suspected of conniving with the Queen in his murder. The finale is, in fact, a long scene of discovery and judgment, presided over by a new arrival, the grave and just King Evarchus of Macedon, who condemns Pyrochles and Musidorus to death only to learn that they are, respectively, his son and nephew, whom he has not seen since their childhood. But he is steadfast in his sentence, and the situation is saved only by the sudden resurrection of Basilius, who had succumbed not to a deadly poison but only a sleeping potion.

Whatever the difference in poetic technique or psychological coherence the world of the “Arcadia” is not essentially different from the world of Shakespearean comedy. Young men who become lovers more or less in spite of themselves are regularly encountered in this world, and the two princes of the “Arcadia” are near kin to Berowne and his fellow academics in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” or Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” The confusions to which lovers are prone under cover of darkness are familiar from “A Mid-summer Night’s Dream,” but even closer in tone to the erotic ambiguities of the climax of the “Arcadia” are those equivocal occasions in “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure” when Bertram and Angelo, like Sidney’s Basilius, eagerly present themselves to the bed of a desired mistress only to embrace unwittingly a scorned wife. In romances of this sort, passion can transform modesty to boldness. In Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Olivia austerely rejects the Duke’s ardent overtures, but when she has been smitten with love for the Duke’s messenger Cesario, she pursues him with a frankness that she knows to be unseemly. The “Arcadia” (in its revised form) presents an even more spectacular example of this sort of thing in the person of Helen, Queen of Corinth. She has a faithful suitor in Philoxenus but she cares not for him, and he employs his friend Amphialus to plead his case. What follows is predictable. As Helen recounts the story: “while he pleaded for an other, he wanne me for himself: if at least (with that she sighed) he would account it a winning, for his fame had so framed the way to my mind, that his presence so full of beauty, sweetness, and noble conversation, had entred there before he vouch-safed to call for the keyes. O Lord, how did my soule hang at his lippes while he spake! O when he in feeling maner would describe the love of his friend, how well (thought I) dooth love betweene those lips! when he would with daintiest eloquence stirre pitie in me toward Philoxenus, why sure (said I to my selfe) Helen, be not afraid, this hart cannot want pitie: and when he would extol the deeds of Philoxenus, who indeede had but waited of him therin, alas (thought I) good Philoxenus, how evil doth it become thy name to be subscribed to his letter? What should I say? nay, what should I not say . . . who am not ashamed, nay am delighted, thus to express mine own passions.” Helen’s story has no such satisfactory ending as does Olivia’s; Amphialus repulses her advances for he is indeed a steadfast friend to , Philoxenus ; but Philoxenus finding himself scorned in favor of Amphialus provokes a duel with his erstwhile friend and is killed; whereupon Amphialus overcome with grief and guilt, throws away his armor and withdraws from the world. Helen, heedless of reputation, has taken to the road in search of him. She announces: “For this cause have I left my country, putting in hazard how my people wil in time deale by me, adventuring what perils or dishonors might ensue, only to folow him, who proclaimeth hate against me, and to bring my neck unto him, if that may redeem my trespas & assuage his fury.” Yet the fine extravagance of this does nothing to diminish Helen’s noble stature. Later in the “New Arcadia” she is praised for providing an example “that neither follie is the cause of vehement Love, nor reproch the effect. For never . . . was there any woman, that with more unremovable determination gave her selfe to the councell of Love, after she had once set before her mind the worthines of . . . Amphialus ; & yet is nether her wisedome doubted of nor honour blemished.” And Amphialus, before he makes his exit from the story, will come to know what it is to love and be rejected when, during the captivity episode, he is unavailing suitor to Philoclea.

The “New Arcadia” is replete with stories of love in its more disturbing aspects ; the account of Amphialus is one of the more subtle of these. We see the destructive irrationality of love in the story of Erona, daughter of the King of Lycia, who causes her father to pull down and deface all the images of Cupid, whereupon Cupid has his revenge by causing her to fall irremediably in love with a craven fellow whom she marries, to the ruin of her country. And there is always, as a constant feature of the framing action in the main plot, the ever-increasing nightmare of Gynecia’s insane passion for Pyrochles, with its despairing frustrations, and its insidious power to turn her wifely affection for her husband into contempt, and her motherly love for Philoclea into malicious envy for a rival. Since the “Arcadia” is usually (in its original version at least) termed a tragicomedy, the destructive power of love is never fully explored, but it is hinted at. It remains for Shakespeare, whose comic world inherits so much from Sidney, to examine fully the potential for tragedy that has been present all along in the force of passion. In the early romantic comedies, the metamorphoses of love bring a Berowne or an Orlando or a Benedick or an Orsino into a healthy participation in life; as the atmosphere of Shakespearean comedy darkens, love’s metamorphoses are of a more sinister kind. Troilus’ love for Cressida brings about Troilus’ disintegration ; and when Angelo is confronted with the beauty and the virtue of Isabella, he is transformed not with love but with lust. The most tragic metamorphosis of love that Shakespeare ever produced is of course Othello, himself the product of a double transformation, one that has turned love to hate and turned the lover into a murderer. The most sublime is Antony and Cleopatra, where again the transformation is double : the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool, and the Queen of Egypt who is his ribald nag, both finally made mysterious by their love. And the particular dynamics of metamorphosis continue to fascinate Shakespeare to the end of his career, as witness the transformations of love to jealousy and hate and back to love again in such late plays as “Cymbeline” and “The Winter’s Tale.” For metamorphosis bears witness to the power of change; also to the capacity of humankind to experience change, to feel emotion, to be moved. As such, it is intricately involved with the very dynamics of drama; it is process, as opposed to static being, and it signifies the individual’s participation in the human community for it demonstrates his responsiveness to the life around him ; in a word, it signifies his accessibility to life. Accessibility to life carries risks; it means that one is vulnerable to unpleasant as well as pleasing emotions; and the transformations effected by emotion may either elevate or degrade, as Sidney’s “Arcadia” and Shakespeare’s plays make clear. But the alternative is to seal oneself off from emotion, to make oneself inaccessible to life, to reject any degree of sympathetic participation in the human community; it is to prefer the static fixity of one’s unchanging personality to the transforming, re-creative life of shared experience. To be accessible to life is to be liable to risks, and they are not inconsiderable, as the sufferings of Romeo and Juliet or Troilus or Othello prove. But to be inaccessible to life is also to be liable to risks, and while these will not necessarily be more devastating than the former kind, they tend to be more desolating. Marlowe’s plays provide a harrowing glimpse of them.

So far as metamorphosis through the power of love is concerned in Marlowe, the possibility is quite explicitly dismissed in a key passage in a key play: Tamburlaine’s famous apostrophe to beauty. Though he can acknowledge that “every warriour that is rapt with love / Of fame, of valour, and of victory, / Must needs have beauty beat on his conceites,” he proceeds to a significant assertion: he can both conceivebeauty, and he can also subdue it ; he can give it its due in imagination while preserving himself inviolate against its influence. The force of beauty may have humbled the gods themselves, bringing them down “Even from the fiery spangled vaile of heaven, / To feele the lovely warmth of shepheards flames,” but in this regard as in so many others, Tamburlaine will show himself superior to the gods. Marlowe is fascinated with the image of the gods’ transformation, under duress of passion, into lowlier, more humiliating shapes. “Quam male conveniunt,” says Mortimer senior at the spectacle of Gaveston seated on the throne beside Edward II. He is quoting Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” where Jove’s transformation into a bull to win Europa is being described (the full passage runs: “Majesty and love do not go well together, nor tarry long in the same dwelling-place”). The effeminate Henry III of France would reassure his minions on just this point in “The Massacre at Paris”: “Think they Henry’s heart / Will not both harbour love and majesty?” he asks them rhetorically. He is, of course, doomed. The prototypal Marlovian hero, in fact, is Aeneas, who firmly sacrifices love to majesty. Here he is at his moment of decision as to whether to stay with Dido or follow his destiny to Italy :

I fain would go, yet beauty calls me back.
To leave her so and not once say farewell
Were to transgress against all laws of love;
But if I use such ceremonious thanks
As parting friends accustom on the shore,
Her silver arms will coll me round about
And tears of pearl say “Stay, Aeneas, stay!”
Each word she says will then contain a crown,
And every speech be ended with a kiss.
I may not dure this female drudgery:
To sea, Aeneas, find out Italy !

Marlowe’s protagonists are furiously engaged in the work of making themselves inaccessible to life. In all of them there is the tendency to hold themselves proudly aloof from society as a whole, for which they have nothing but contempt. Total self-sufficiency is the goal for which they strive, but only Tamburlaine can be said to come close to achieving it, and even he may be assumed to find life more agreeable as a consequence of having Zenocrate and his tributary kings on hand to look upon his doings and find them good. It is hard not to be condescending about Marlowe’s achievement in “Tamburlaine”; one looks in vain for ironic perspectives that might suggest the dramatist himself recognizes just how childishly crude the sense of glory on exhibit is, but we find none, and we are left rather bitterly resenting the impression that he expects his audience to be as struck dumb with wonder and admiration at Tamburlaine’s doings as Usumcasane, Theridamas, and Techelles are. We are made to share in the contempt in which the protagonist—and here I suspect the author as well—holds the world. For the world in Marlowe exists to be violated. It would not be true to say that the Marlovian protagonist is an entirely solitary figure; in what must be the earlier plays, Tamburlaine has his Zenocrate, and Barabas his Abigail, but they exist only as extensions of the protagonist’s will from which no deviation can be allowed, for as Barabas says of Abigail in “The Jew of Malta,” “she that varies from me in beleefe / Gives great presumption that she loves me not.” Abigail is calmly sacrificed to Barabas’ revenge, and the marmoreal figure of Zenocrate is—so far as the practical ends of drama are concerned—dead long before the end of the second act of part two of “Tamburlaine,” crushed under the weight of her husband’s glory. In the later plays the protagonist seeks to ally himself with a companion figure, but the companionship only confirms his alienation from the rest of the world; one sees the tendency in Barabas’ grotesque alliance with Ithamore in the last half of “The Jew of Malta,” in Faustus’ association with his sweet Mephistophilis, and in Edward II’s disastrous relationship with Gaveston.

But if the Marlovian protagonist is not an entirely solitary figure, the range of his relationship with the world around him is certainly attenuated. So far as his being affected by the world around him is concerned—which is to say, being changed by it—the question never occurs. The Marlovian protagonist does not change ; Tamburlaine is determined to conquer the world; Barabas, Faustus, and Edward are determined to be at variance with it in the pursuit of their sundry pleasures, and nothing succeeds in diverting any of them from their course. This accounts for the essentially static quality of Marlovian drama. It is full of incidents— often very violent ones—but of meaningful action of the kind that produces change which in turn modifies character, there is none. The textual history of some of the plays explicitly bears this out, where in the case of “Faustus” certainly and “The Jew of Malta” probably, original incidents have been replaced or altered by post-Marlovian adaptors without materially affecting the shape of the protagonist’s career. Fortunes change, but that is not the same thing. Barabas and Edward II have their ups and downs but as characters they are always the same : Barabas scheming, and Edward suffering. Faustus alternates from time to time between the urge to repentance and the tendency to despair, but the issue of his fate is never seriously in question : when the Evil Angel admits that Faustus can always repent if he wants to but that (being of the nature he is) he never will, the Evil Angel shows that he knows his man. The plays admit no possibility of change in the character of their protagonists because they have so rigidly excluded from their worlds any qualities that might have the power to transform. The qualities most commonly accorded the power of meta-morphosis—love and beauty—while they are acknowledged in such a speech as Tamburlaine’s apostrophe to them, are quite explicitly denied the transforming influence with which poetic tradition habitually credits them. Faustus’ famous apostrophe to “the face that Launcht a thousand ships, / And burnt the toplesse Towers of Ilium” is an ironic tribute to a power that has been rigorously banished from the play as a whole, and which visits the scene only in the ghostly shade of a dead woman. When near the end of her sad life Abigail in “The Jew of Malta” says there is no love on earth, she is speaking for all the miserable women in Marlowe. Where signs of the love of man and woman are found in Marlowe, they are soon stamped out; witness the wretched Zabina, the Turkish empress in “Tamburlaine,” Part One; Olympia, wife of the dead Captain who kills her son and brings about her own death to end her thraldom to Theridamas in “Tamburlaine,” Part Two; Abigail whose beloved falls victim to one of Barabas’ murderous schemes; Isabella whose love for Edward II is met with a scorn that virtually drives her into the arms of Mortimer. Characters such as these provide isolated moments of pity in an audience, but it is remarkable how little pity is felt for them in the plays they inhabit. Only in the figure of Edward II does Marlowe create a character with a capacity for feeling; Edward is almost too full of pity for Gaveston and for himself. Elsewhere the protagonists display a disturbing lack of concern with the values of the world around them, except insofar as these can be exploited or mocked or violated.

Shakespearean tragedy moves in a perspective of deep space, where characters have their being in a complex tension of familial and societal influences. The space occupied by Marlowe’s tragedies seems shallow, flat by comparison; within it isolated figures of gigantic egoism move in towering outline—so towering as to dwarf the surrounding scene. The Marlovian protagonist has come from nowhere, he acknowledges no allegiance, and nowhere in sight is there an institution or an individual whose claim on him he is not prepared to ignore. Occasionally, like a wistful memory from a Sidnean or a Shakespearean golden world, there appears the wan hope that someone might come live with him and be his love, but there is nothing in Marlowe’s frozen world to sustain love, so that its potential power of metamorphosis goes unrealized, and the spaces of the plays echo with a peculiar emptiness.


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