Epyllion poems, or little epics, functioned in Renaissance society as provocative, comedic, and deeply intertextual explorations of Elizabethan sexuality and gender. Venus and Adonis (1593) by William Shakespeare and Hero and Leander (1598) by Christopher Marlowe are widely recognized as seminal poems of this erotic genre. Through their engagement and experimentation with the titular characters and narratives from Ovidian classical mythology, both poems seem to present subversive explorations of heterosexual love and desire in the Renaissance. In apparent transgressions and reversals of Petrarchan love conventions, Adonis, the beautiful male youth, is feminine and sexless, while Venus—the love goddess herself—is aggressive and virile; moreover, Marlowe’s Leander is both an object and an agent of the poem’s masculine gaze, and blazoned more extensively than his timid and reluctant lover, Hero. However, in this paper, I argue that Shakespeare and Marlowe evoke a third myth through their alterations to character and story, and this myth serves to challenge and complicate the popular and preliminary analysis outlined above. In both poems, the encounters between Adonis, Leander, and the sexually aggressive, persistent deities that confront them, parallel the myth of Ganymede—the young Trojan prince abducted and subjugated by Jove. Through an analysis of the explicit and implicit ways that this myth manifests in these two poems, conducted in conjunction with a deep investigation into the social and historical context of the period, I demonstrate that rather than present subversive heterosexuality, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander foreground male homoerotic desire—particularly between youths and older men—in a way that ultimately presents such relationships as acceptable, legitimate, and functional features of the Elizabethan sexual landscape.
Karathanassis, Kristiana, "“I am no woman, I”: the Myth of Ganymede in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander" (2017). 2017 Undergraduate Awards. 12.