In this essay, I will be discussing gender and sexuality, using queer and gender theory, in the poems Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander. I will be mainly focusing on the characters Adonis, Leander and Venus – the topic of femininity and masculinity and how both of these terms blend together in these works. I will also be focusing on the sexuality of these characters. Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem written by William Shakespeare and published in 1593. Hero and Leander is a poem that was published in 1598. This work was originally written by Christopher Marlowe and finished by George Chapman after his death.
First, I will focus on how gender is depicted in Hero and Leander and Venus and Adonis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines gender as ‘The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex.’ (“Gender”, n.d., para. 2b.) From this definition we can clearly assume that both Shakespeare and Marlowe are breaking the social norms with the characters Adonis and Leander by presenting them in a manner that society considers feminized.
Since both men are the heroes of the early modern poems, we assume that the description of the women’s beauty would take a more substantial portion of the poem than the description of men. However, both poems focus more on the physical description of the heroes rather than the heroines. Leander is described as ‘maide in mans attire, for in his lookes were all that men desire’. (Marlowe, 1598, 89 – 90) The fact that he is compared to a woman and lusted after by men is ‘sexually titillating, opening out erotic possibilities by appearing to both masculine and feminine at the same time.’ (Yearling, 2013, p. 62) The narrator also describes him as beautiful, which is usually said about women.
Although Leander is feminized in Hero and Leander, he is still the one that is pursuing Hero. He is still more dominant than her and is trying to seduce her in the poem. Adonis, on the other hand, is more submissive than Venus, since she’s more assertive and the one that is trying to seduce him through the entire poem. She talks about him and treats him the way a man would usually treat a woman in early modern poetry. Venus even describes him as ‘Staine to all Nimphs, more louely than a man.’ (Shakespeare, 1593, 9) She’s describing him as more beautiful and lovely than a woman and from this description, it is possible that she does not see him as a man at all, but instead, she sees him as a woman. She is also physically much larger in size than he is, as portrayed in the sixth stanza of the poem:
‘Oller one arme the lustie coursers raine,
Vnder her other was the tender boy,
Who blusht, and powted in a dull disdaine,
With leaden appetite, vnapt to toy,
She red, and hot, as coles of glowing fier,
He red for shame, but frostie in desier.’(Shakespeare, 1593, 31 – 36)
She is clearly much stronger and bigger than him, since she puts him under her arm. This demonstrates the inconsistency of gender in relation to gender theory. This doesn’t reinforce the standard gender norms. It shows that what is given to her through biology, like her being woman, does not mean that it will line up with her psychology, sexuality or with what society expects – for her to be a submissive woman. (Ryan, 2017, p. 174) It is interesting to point out the language that is used in the sixth stanza. The word ‘boy’ is rhymed with ‘toy’ as to undermine Adonis’ power in this relationship even more and establish the hold she has over him and that he’s hers to play with. (Billing, 2017, p. 131, 132) It’s possible that she’s viewing Adonis as an object, since a lot of the description she uses is a very superficial description of beauty. Even though Adonis is not hers, she speaks as if she owns him. It is also possible that she did not love him, considering the way she treated him, but only wanted to own him. She completely disregarded his feelings and at the end, when Adonis dies and a beautiful flower grows out on the spot where he died, she tears it from the ground and keeps it. She could not own him when he was alive, but she can have him now after his death.
Now I will focus more on sexuality in Hero and Leander and Venus and Adonis and how it relates to queer theory. The definition of sexuality according to OED is: ‘Sexual nature, instinct, or feelings; the possession or expression of these.’ (“Sexuality”, n.d., para. 2a.)What is interesting that the term ‘queer theory’ resists definition and that’s what it is about in its core. ‘Queer theory is about resisting categorization, for itself and for its subjects.’ (Leckey and Brooks, 2010, p. 1, 2) It has been further described by Edelman as ‘a zone of possibilities in which the embodiment of the subject might be experienced otherwise.‘ (1994, p. 114) If we apply Edelman’s definition to both Hero and Leander and Venus and Adonis, we can see how femininity and masculinity blend together in these poems. Leander and Adonis are the male protagonists, the embodiment of heroes, however, because of the way they are portrayed and feminized, readers may experience it differently due to social norms they are used to. The way they are both feminized makes the readers and the authors focus more on admiring the beauty of Leander and Adonis than on their actions. In Hero and Leander, the narrator even makes the readers aware of his presence, which momentarily takes the reader out of the story, and teases us with ‘I could tell you – but I won’t’, by which he invites us to share the pleasure of eyeing Leander. (Yearling, 2013, p. 61) The way the narrator talks about Leander’s body is almost like he had sexual relations with him himself. He talks about the smoothness of his breasts and the colour of his belly in great detail and if pronouns were left out of this passage, we would most certainly assume that the narrator is describing a woman’s body.
‘I could tell ye,
How smooth his brest was, and how white his bellie,
And whose immortall fingers did imprint,
That heauenly path, with many a curious dint,
That runs along his backe, but my rude pen,
Can hardly blazon forth the loues of men.
Much lesse of powerfull gods.‘(Marlowe, 1598, 71 – 77)
When it comes to portrayal of sexuality, there is a difference between the two poems. Homosexuality in Hero and Leander is acknowledged, however, when Neptune confesses his love to Leander, Leander turns down his advances with ‘You are decau’d, I am no woman I,’ (Marlowe, 1598, 200) stating that he cannot gain from a homosexual relationship. However, there is a clear representation of homoeroticism in the poem with Neptune, unlike Venus and Adonis. The poem Venus and Adonis is much more complicated. As I stated earlier, Venus is the more dominant figure in this work. Throughout the poem, Adonis constantly refuses to engage in a sexual activity with Venus and refuses to succumb to her, he even tries to ignore her. He also much more prefers the company of his male friends. This may be depicted as a hint of possible homosexuality; however, the average reader assumes that the relationship with his male friends is restricted to hunting. Nothing is ever implied other than his eagerness to get away from Venus and go hunting. Unlike the poem Hero and Leander, in which Hero eventually succumbs to Leander, Venus and Adonis leaves us with the unanswered question – Would Adonis permanently reject Venus, or would he eventually succumb to her like Hero did with Leander? Because of his premature death, he will never experience heterosexual or homosexual love. (Yearling, 2013, p. 63) Although more homoeroticism occurs in Hero and Leander, it has only been one sided and not from the point of the main character. I would argue that that Venus and Adonis would have more potential to be homoerotic, since it ends with unanswered questions. Hero and Leander is a story where homosexuality was rejected by Leander and heterosexuality fulfilled. This does not imply that homosexuality would not be impossible to potentially occur in the future if Leander wouldn’t die, but it would be less likely. Although Venus and Adonis end with bigger premise of homosexuality, although there is not a mention of it in the poem.
In conclusion, it was quite interesting to look into how masculinity and femininity are portrayed in both Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander. It was especially interesting to read Venus and Adonis, because of the swich of power between genders. I think that both Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote very interesting poems in which the main male characters aren’t defined by their masculinity, but more by their femininity. Both poems are very distinctive from early modern poetry of that time. It is very clear that both Marlowe and Shakespeare challenged the idea of gender and sexuality in a time it was very much needed.
Billing, V. (2017). The Queer Erotics of Size in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Shakespeare Studies
Edelman, L. (1994). Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory , New York: Routledge.
Gender. (n.d.). In Oxford English dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77468?rskey=aRHNRy&result=1#eid
Leckey, R., & Brooks, Kim. (2010). Queer theory law, culture empire. New York: Routledge.
Marlowe, C. & Chapman, G. (1598)., Hero and Leander (1st ed.).London.
Ryan, M. (2017). Literary theory : A practical introduction (Third ed., How to study literature (Malden, Mass.)).
Sexuality. (n.d.). In Oxford English dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/177087?redirectedFrom=sexuality#eid
Shakespeare, W., Wells, Stanley, & Taylor, Gary. (1986). William Shakespeare, the complete works (Original-spelling ed.). Oxford [Oxfordshire] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press.
Yearling, R. (2013). Homoerotic Desire and Renaissance Lyric Verse. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 53(1), 53-71. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41818883