Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of time,
Why are not all the Gods at thy command,
And heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine Daughters sing when thou art sad,
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face,
And Venus’ Swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw 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 deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art @ British Museum

‘To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty and a bearer of meaning.’

When the people in front of me opened the big swing doors into the first room of this exhibition, I couldn’t help exclaiming ‘Wow!’ Four stunning life-size Greek statues, dramatically spotlit in a darkened room, appear as if in a temple, a cave, a magician’s treasury. (They are Lely’s Venus crouching; the river god Ilissos, by the greatest ancient Greek sculptor, Phidias; the Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of the lost original by Myron; and Georg Römer’s reconstruction of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos.)

This is a wonderfully uplifting and insightful show, full of objects which can make you marvel at human creativity.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition’s approach

Greek art and its importance in the tradition of Western Art is a vast, a never-ending and potentially exhausting subject, so this exhibition comes as a relief in several ways: it is not chronological (there are a few handy maps but no chronology) and it does not set out to be exhaustive (two sides of the same approach). (Not being chronological it admittedly doesn’t have the drama, the excitement, of following the evolution of statuary (and what painting survives) through the ancient Egyptians, the other empires of the East, via the primitive art of the Cyclades, and into the sudden efflorescence of the Body Beautiful in 5th century Athens.)

Instead, the show is a) based on themes and b) very selective, showcasing a relatively small number of perfect works, each chosen to demonstrate aspects of the themes, surrounded by a number of lesser pieces designed to give context.

The exhibition doesn’t in fact define beauty: it quotes some of the many Greek thinkers’ words about beauty, and invokes various ideas in the wall signs and the audio-commentary. But these are all fragments, angles, approaches. Helpful, but not definitive. You are left to ponder.

The human body as embodiment of social values

For me the biggest new thing I learned was the notion that the Greeks used the human body to make sense of the world. The human form embodied their values, and the quest for the Perfect and perfectly balanced, rational, harmonious human body, embodied the search for those moral, political and philosophical values.

The human body as embodiment of the universe

I sort of knew the above, but I had never explicitly encountered the related idea, that the human form embodies the Greeks’ sense of destiny and fate and of the forces of the universe.

It is through the human body that we understand the major events in human life (there is a gallery devoted to rites of passage, depictions of birth, marriage and death as, obviously enough, depicted by the body because these are obviously bodily events) but also the forces external to us, the forces of nature, the fierceness of the sun, the fury of storms, and so on.

It was through the human body that they thought about not only human perfection, but human destinies, and the impersonal forces which act on all of us. The body was like a tool for thinking about the world with.

So, for example, the basic human urge to anthropomorphise everything around us (to lend them human attributes, to assign motive and agency to a tree, a key, a car, the kettle, particularly to anything which resists or obstructs us) results, for the Greeks, in myths and legends where human bodies epitomise those forces – where human bodies change shape into animals and other elements of nature.

At a stroke this attitude – the human body as a vehicle for explaining of the world – made sense of all those many Greek stories of metamorphosis, where a young man or woman turns into a reed or a flower or a bull or a tree.

Perfection and power

There is a hierarchy of the universe with humans near its peak and the gods-who-take-human-shape at its apex. But these gods aren’t invisible and unknowable like the Jewish god, or crude warriors as in Near Eastern religion, they are people like you and me except of perfect power; and this power is expressed in their perfect bodies. The two are inextricably blended. Bodily perfection is a kind of power.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The commentary dwelt on the fact that these images of Aphrodite are extraordinary for the ancient world. No other culture showed its women naked and, of course, real Greek women were kept covered in swathes of cloth and locked up at home. But such was their love of the Perfect Body that depictions of the goddesses breached all social etiquette and showed them stark naked but powerful. Mortals (men, generally) who offended against the purity of their nudity always died harrowing deaths. We should be frightened of their perfection.

Why here?

In all the other cultures anywhere in the world at the time (5th, 4th, 3rd centuries BC) various types of limited and stylised images of the human body sufficed for their purposes (religion, political power). Of all the cultures of the world, it was only the ancient Greeks who invented a naturalistic account of the human body, depicting it as it actually appears (albeit in an idealised and perfect form). Why? Ancient Greece was the only culture in the ancient world to depict its gods nude and the only culture to depict full nudity at all. Why? Why this extraordinary achievement?

The Ideal

Greek philosophy is awash with the notion of the Ideal. Plato’s writings about Socrates show him developing the idea that behind this fallen world lies a world of Perfect Forms, created by a Perfect Being. The entire practice of Greek art didn’t stem from his philosophy, the reverse: his philosophy derived from a culture seeking perfection of mind and body. A culture which sought the Ideal, perfection, in all areas of life – in politics, in philosophy, in morality, in warfare, in everyday behaviour.

Contrapposto to display harmony

Balance. Pythagoras and his school expounded the importance of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation. This idea is embodied in the pose which Italian critics 1,500 years later named Contrapposto – a pose where all the weight of a body is placed on one foot and leg, thus allowing the other leg and hip and the torso to be turned, to appear to be moving, yet poised. The contrapposto position is a vast distance in sophistication and technical achievement from the fixed, hieratical posture of Egyptian statuary. The commentary suggested it is the embodiment of the rational self-contained man, moving through three dimensions yet self-knowing, controlled, ideal.

The old saying goes that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato; this exhibition suggests that all Western art – and maybe our entire attitude to the human body – is footnotes to the Greek achievement.

The ideal man – a young warrior

Though we like to think of them as the fons et origo of Reason, the ancient Greeks were in fact in a state of almost continual warfare: hence the cultural fascination with the ideal young male body, the body of the athlete and warrior. (Note the contrapposto pose.)

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Though Greeks wore clothes in everyday life, their athletes trained naked, demonstrating to themselves, their instructors and onlookers their fitness. But not only physical fitness; that fitness was achieved to support an ideal, to be a warrior for the city. Physical fitness – outward physical perfection – reflected internal moral virtue.

I went to the gym the evening before visiting the exhibition and had in my mind the men in the weights room working out for themselves, for the cameraderie of the activity and continually checking how they look – I’ve always thought the most important piece of equipment in a gym is the mirror. There is a tremendous self-consciousness in the Greek cultivation of the Body in art and life which is echoed today.

Arete was the ancient Greek word for youthful excellence, and kouros the name for the perfect young man. God, there were some beautiful, gorgeous male bodies on display, illustrating the ideals of balance and proportion. And I realised they were making me aspire. I know I can’t look like them but I wanted to reach out and touch these perfect images, to stroke the cold stone. Was that a permissible feeling in Greek times? Or would it have been blasphemy punished by madness and death, as in so many of the myths?

Physical challenge

The audio-commentary featured a (woman) journalist from the magazine Men’s Health who brought up the importance of challenge to men, to young men, of physical challenge, activity which tests us: from army training to triathlons. This (presumably deep biological urge) is strongly present in Greek art, and there is a section dedicated to a selection of Greek vases illustrating its embodiment in the legend of the Twelve Labours of Herakles.

Statues of the ancestors

Statuary had a strong moral and social meaning: the halls of Roman houses contained rows of statues of the family ancestors looking down and judging and guarding. I had the same sensation walking past a bust of Herakles positioned on a column a few feet above head level, staring out and down with an eerily imperious blankness. Watching. Judging from his position of youthful physical perfection, the shabby elderly crowd shuffling past his gaze.

Colour

Always comes as a shock to the unwary that the statues were vividly painted. One room is devoted to the different ways they were decorated, copper or bronze statues obviously having the colour of their material but often with different metal inserts to create contrast. The marble statues we see in their cool white perfection, were in fact always colourfully painted and sometimes draped in lifelike fabrics.

A vivid example is given of the Lycian archer – for centuries thought to be a wonderful example of plain white marble statuary and only in recent times conclusively shown to have been highly decorated in a harlequin-like design of blue, red and green lozenges on his arms, legs and quiver.

The threat of chaos

If the Ideal was one of Balance and Reason, then that Ideal is continually threatened in real life by the Irrational, the Violent, the Anarchic. And since the Greeks translated meaning into bodies, morality into human shape – the Greeks embodied the irrational and anarchic as satyrs and maenads, centaurs, and innumerable monsters, the Minotaur or Cyclops or Harpies. Because this exhibition partly exists to highlight items from the British Museum’s collection, it was an opportunity to demonstrate this with the metopes decorating the south wall of the Parthenon, part of the collection notoriously known as the Elgin Marbles. These metopes, the panels lining the greatest architectural achievement of their civilisation, depict in great detail an embodiment of just this struggle – the legendary battle between the Lapiths (a human tribe) and the centaurs (half man, half horse), after the drinking at a wedding party got disastrously out of hand. An embodiment of the forces of Unreason and Anarchy which are always lurking in the universe and in human society.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Small penises

I’ve always wondered about the relatively small penises of so many of the classic statues, odd in artefacts devoted to Perfection. This exhibition explained what I should have known years ago, that the genitals are small to downplay the (disruptive) erotic power of the image and to promote the moral aspect of having a fine body. Same goes for the women’s breasts, which are notably different from the plump peardrop shape we are fed by modern media in countless newspapers, magazines and movies, and are smaller and more like symmetrical and perfectly round hillocks.

Oversexed

Talking of sex, there was a conversation on the audio-commentary where the main narrator mentioned the genitals bulging out from the loose folds of a man being hacked down in a frieze selected to demonstrate the importance of clothes and nudity in depictions of battle. Interestingly, the expert he was interviewing gently suggested that the comment was a mite ‘oversexed’. As I found at the Goya exhibition, it is all too easy to make sexual interpretations of images from the past, living as we do in a sex-obsessed, 50 Shades of Grey society, and therefore often failing to take account of the relative unimportance of sex for other and earlier cultures, and the far more dominating ethics of religious belief, social conformity, ancestral values, folk practice and contemporary (and now largely vanished) references.

Blank faces to the invention of ‘character’

The pursuit of the Ideal meant blank faces. It is striking how many statues have coldly perfect, impassive features. The interest in character, at first shown through the development of stock ‘types’, is a later development, only really flourishing in Roman statuary from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Thus, this characterful statue of Socrates, is late, Hellenistic (ie from the broadly-based Greek culture which spread around the Mediterranean basin after the death of Alexander 323 BC.)

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Alexander understood the power of the image, had busts of himself done all over his Empire, a strategy copied by the Roman emperors and pretty much every Western ruler ever since, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle.

The legacy

Most ancient Greek statues of the human body were destroyed – most of our knowledge about them comes from numerous Roman copies. These were discovered, rescued and preserved during the Renaissance, which enshrined the Greek idea of the perfect body at the heart of Western art and culture.

The exhibition ends with two of the greatest hits from the Greek tradition which have had a seismic affect on Western Art: the Belvedere Torso and Dionysos from the Parthenon. These enormous fragments of superhumanly muscled men were described and praised by Michelangelo, widely seen as the peak and acme of the Renaissance, who thought the torso the finest fragment of classical sculpture that could be seen in his day. It’s certainly the most Michelangelesque.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

The semi-ruined nature of these big blocks of stone has two results:

  • It makes them more abstract – 100 years after the birth of Modernism we can see the lines of the breasts, the mid line between the ribs, the crease along the top of the diaphragm as almost cubist explorations of planes and forms, abstract squares and rectangles, allowing us to see the abstract buried in the flesh.
  • Their ruined state allows us in – encourages the viewer to complete the image, to remake it ourselves and this enables us to inhabit the work of art, to identify with it. There is no doubt these fragments, although intimidatingly large, are not intimidatingly perfect. They don’t have the icy perfection of the Aphrodites form earlier in the show. They will not kill us with a glance.

By not taking the chronological and didactic route, this exhibition successfully sheds light on and opens up new ideas about the great artists who shaped the way we think about what it is to be human, what it is to inhabit a body, to this day. It doesn’t really explain what beauty is – I suspect that is a vast and impossible task. Many details of what is ‘beautiful’ have changed over the centuries and our ideal body shapes today are not quite the same as these, as noted above.

What it does do is explain the power and importance of the notion of the Beautiful Body, the reason why we find the perfect form so haunting, so dominating in our thinking about ourselves.

For the first time I really understand what it means to say these statues give form to thought. They are not just bodies. They are ideas. The most perfect, balanced and rational ideas humanity has ever had. And that is why the importance of body shapes endures: it is central to our civilisation and impossible to escape.

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