“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is a love poem that contains six quatrains of rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. In marked contrast to Christopher Marlowe’s plays about heroes and kings, this lyric poem purports to be the words of a shepherd speaking to his beloved. Its simple, musical language and fanciful imagery create an idyll of innocent love. The version of the poem that was printed in 1599 contained four stanzas attributed to William Shakespeare; the poem was printed again in 1600, in Englands Helicon, with only the six stanzas attributed to Marlowe.
In this poem, the shepherd persona speaks to his beloved, evoking “all the pleasures” of a peaceful springtime nature. He promises her the delights of nature and his courtly attention. The first quatrain is the invitation to “Come live with me and be my love.” Next, the speaker describes the pleasant natural setting in which he plans that they will live. Their life will be one of leisure; they will “sit upon the rocks,” watch the shepherds, and listen to the birds.
The shepherd does not refer to the cold winter, when herding sheep becomes difficult. He does not suggest that his work requires effort or that he may need to go off into the hills away from his beloved to herd his flock. Instead, he imagines their life together as a game enjoyed in an eternal spring. He promises to make clothes and furnishings for his beloved from nature’s abundant harvest: wool gowns from the sheep, beds and caps of flowers, dresses embroidered with leaves. Even the other shepherds seem to be there only to entertain the beloved, to “dance and sing/ for thy delight.” The poem ends by summing up the “delights” of the pastoral idyll and repeating the opening invitation.
Young Women’s Lives in Sixteenth-Century England
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” presents an image of courtship that does not have much grounding in reality, but like most poetic works, it reflects some of the issues of the period in which it was created. Young women in Elizabethan England were taught they must obey their parents without question, and when they married, they were expected to obey their husbands absolutely. They were also taught that a good marriage, a well-maintained house, and the raising of children were their primary roles in life. The daughters of aristocrats were educated in how to manage a household, in gardening and needlework, and in religion. Few women were formally educated, but all young women were familiar with their role as obedient daughters or wives. The clergy used Sunday sermons to reiterate the obligation of every girl and woman to be obedient to father and husband.
There were no schools for women, who, if they were educated at all, were taught at home either by the clergy or by a tutor hired by the family. For the daughters of the wealthy, marriages were often arranged by their parents, while the lower classes sometimes could marry for love. Very often, however, young women were married for property or for political reasons. Frequently, it was a young girl’s father, or if he was deceased, her brother or uncle, who determined the choice of bridegroom, and a girl’s family was expected to pay a dowry. The more money or land that was available for a dowry was far more important than her appearance or her demeanor in determining how marriageable she might prove to be.
There was no minimum age at which a young girl might marry, and in the middle of the sixteenth century, girls as young as fourteen were...
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often married. By the end of the century, however, the average age for a bride was twenty-three. Marriage agreements were sealed with a contract, not a wedding ceremony, and brides were considered married after the couple consummated the agreement (made love). Young women were expected to be chaste before marriage, so with regard to Marlowe’s poem, few women would have been so impractical as to heed the shepherd’s pleas.
Elizabethan Women’s Apparel
Marlowe’s shepherd devotes significant description to how he might dress his love if she agrees to be his mistress. Although the shepherd would dress her in a cap of flowers, a kirtle embroidered with myrtle, a gown of finest wool, and slippers with gold buckles, dressing the Elizabethan woman was a bit more complicated than the shepherd suggests. Women in sixteenth-century England dressed in a variety of styles, just as twenty-first-century women do. A woman’s choice in clothing might depend on her social status, her age, where she lived, the weather, the activity planned for any given day, and her personal preference.
Most Elizabethan women wore several layers of clothing. The first garment was a simple shift, which served as an undergarment. A woman would also wear socks, although the shepherd does not plan to clothe his mistress in socks. An Elizabethan woman might wear wool socks, although, if she had the money to spend, she could choose to wear silk stockings. Her socks would rise to just above her knees. The shepherd’s mistress would also need a corset, since the fashion of the day called for a flat bodice. A corset was worn over a woman’s shift and was designed to suppress and support her breasts.
The Elizabethan woman also wore a hoop skirt, called a farthingale, when she dressed more formally. Since the shepherd plans on outdoor activities, the woman would also need to put on a wool petticoat under her farthingale or she would be cold. If she really wants her skirt to stick out at the hips, she could add extra padding at the waist, called a bumroll. Finally the sought-after-mistress could put on the kirtle the shepherd offers her. A kirtle is the outermost garment an Elizabethan woman would wear; it was a sleeveless bodice with eyelets for ribbon that laced up the front. It would have been worn over a shirt or blouse, or even a dress, and it would have had a skirt attached to it. The kirtle would have been the dressiest part of the woman’s garment, and so the shepherd’s plan to decorate the woman’s kirtle would have been in keeping with Elizabethan custom, since the kirtle would have customarily been adorned with some embellishment.
The woman’s final layer would be a gown that goes on top of all these other layered garments. She might choose to add ruffs for her neck and wrists, jewelry, and probably some makeup. Since many Elizabethan women also wore elaborate wigs, some time would have to be allowed for dressing and placement of the wig, after which elaborate netting might be added to the wig as decoration. If it were raining, as it often was in May, the shepherd’s love might also wear a cloak to protect her.
The shepherd apparently fails to realize that the average Elizabethan woman would need help putting on all this complicated apparel each day. The length of time spent dressing and undressing would perhaps cool the shepherd’s passion.
Marlowe was a university-educated dramatist who might have rivaled William Shakespeare had he lived longer. His plays probed the tangled passions of heroism, ambition, and power. He led an active theatrical life and frequented taverns: Indeed, he met his death at the age of twenty-nine in a tavern brawl. Yet he chose to write this poem in a shepherd’s voice, using a pastoral convention that was frequently employed by Elizabethan poets. The pastoral tradition of courtly love poetry idealized the beloved and ennobled the lovers, using idyllic country settings and featuring shepherds as models of natural, unspoiled virtue.
The poem’s images are all drawn from the kind springtime nature of the pastoral tradition and from music. This imagery creates a gentle fantasy of eternal spring. The poem appeals to almost all the senses—sight, sound, smell, and touch—as the speaker tells his love that they will watch “shepherds feed their flocks” and listen to birds singing madrigals (polyphonic melodies). He promises to make beds of roses, and clothing of flowers and wool for his beloved. Images of “shallow rivers,” “melodious birds,” “roses,” “pretty lambs,” and “ivy buds” evoke a nature that is pure, simple, blooming, and kind to innocent creatures.
To complement the pastoral imagery, the poem blends alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, and other sound patterns to create a songlike lyric. The labial l sound is repeated in words such as “live,” “love,” “all,” “hills,” “shallow,” “flocks,” “falls,” and “myrtle.” The sibilant s recurs in “Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,” in “shallow rivers,” “roses,” “sing,” and “swains.” The m sound appears in “mountain,” “melodious,” “madrigals,” “myrtle,” “lambs,” and “amber.” This combination of sounds creates a soft, harmonious, gentle tone.
The poem is written in regular four-line stanzas with rhyming couplets. Most of the rhyming words are words of one syllable, and most of the lines are end-stopped, thus emphasizing the rhyming words and the rhythm of the poem. The rhymes include such appealing words as “love” (repeated three times), “roses,” “flocks,” “fields,” “sing,” and “morning.” There are frequent internal rhymes and partial rhymes in words such as lambs/amber, may/swains, seeing/feed, and finest/lined. The meter is iambic tetrameter with little variation. All these factors—short, regular lines, repeated simple rhymes, frequent internal rhymes and partial rhymes, and alliterative patterns—turn the poem into a song, with a melodious appeal that echoes the music of nature that it describes; the poem has been set to music by several different composers.
The argument in any work of literature is the author’s principle idea. The shepherd’s argument in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” reveals the efforts of the shepherd to convince the unseen woman that she should become his mistress. The shepherd submits a number of arguments designed to be convincing, but the central argument is that all pleasure will be theirs for the taking.
Couplets and Rhyme
Couplets are two consecutive lines of poetry with the same end-rhyme. Traditionally, the couplet was a two-line stanza expressing a self-contained thought, but the form has evolved. It is no longer strictly defined as iambic pentameter, as it once was, and the lines need not be identical in stressed and unstressed syllables. Many of the individual lines in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” are eight syllables, but several others are not, and so Marlowe is moving away from traditional poetic structure, even as he deviates from other formulas that guide content, such as those discussed in the pastoral poetry section below.
In “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” Marlowe uses a simple rhyme scheme of couplets. Each pair is a different rhyme, except for lines 19 and 20 and lines 23 and 24, which repeat the rhyme of the opening lines. One problem with using couplets is that the ongoing alternating rhyme can become tiresome for the listener, especially in a lengthy poem.
Imagery refers to the “mental pictures” created by the text. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem, and with imagery, the poet uses language and devices such as metaphor, allusion, and even alliteration to create meaning and texture. For instance, the line “I will make thee beds of rose” suggests a romantic image that is not in keeping with the reality of roses with thorns. Because the image is so strong and because most readers would associate roses with an image of love, readers probably never stop to consider how unromantic a bed made out of thorny roses would be. Effective imagery in poetry allows the reader to enter into the poem and experience it with all their senses.
The Greek poet Theocritus first created the pastoral poem when he wrote poems representing the life of a Sicilian shepherd. Theocritus produced a picture of quiet peace and harmony among shepherds who lived in an idealized natural setting. His shepherds were characterized by a state of contentment and friendly competition among friends. Love for these shepherds was a romantic longing and not sexual in any way. Theocritus was then copied by the Roman poet, Virgil, whose elegies had a strong influence on early English Renaissance poets. Virgil added some darker elements, including the grief the shepherd feels at the death of another shepherd. Virgil also included suggestions of contemporary problems and created a stronger contrast between the rustic country life and the dangers of city life.
Marlowe probably studied the pastoral poets during his classical education at Cambridge, but he was not the first English poet to adopt the pastoral tradition. Edmund Spenser initiated the Elizabethan trend in 1579 with The Shepheardes Calender, and was quickly joined by Sir Philip Sidney and Robert Greene, who created their own pastoral works. Marlowe, however, made the pastoral his own poetic form by inserting sexuality and by exaggerating the images. Before Marlowe, the shepherd engaged in romantic, though innocent, love affairs and the pastoral was conventional, with artificial language and shepherds who spoke the courtly language of an aristocrat. Marlowe bent the rules by introducing sexuality, creating his own pastoral tradition. The tone of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” suggests a parody of the pastoral tradition. Marlowe’s shepherd asks the woman to imagine an idyllic life that not only is impossible but even ridiculous in many ways. In exaggerating and creating these absurd images, Marlowe suggests that the pastoral tradition should not be taken too seriously.
1500s: In 1582, the Gregorian calendar is introduced in Catholic countries. This calendar is designed to replace the Julian calendar, which contains a ten-day discrepancy. The new calendar provides a more consistent and unified way to manage days, weeks, months, and the passing of years, since it is based on a close approximation of the actual length of time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun.
Today: Although many countries continue to maintain different religious and cultural calendars, the Gregorian calendar has become the universal tool by which all countries note the cycle of the seasons.
1500s: The Spanish king, Phillip II, attempts to invade England in 1587, after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. The conflict between England and Spain is largely due to the animosity of the Catholic Spanish for the Protestant English. However, the Invincible Armada, as the king named his fleet of ships sent to attack England, was defeated by the English in 1588. More than half of the ships in the armada were lost at sea, either in battle or due to storms.
Today: Although religious differences continue to be an excuse for war in many locations, except for intermittent strife in Ireland, Catholics and Protestants coexist in peace throughout Europe.
1500s: In 1549, the Book of Common Prayer becomes the centerpiece of uniform Protestant services in England. Queen Mary I returns England to the Roman Catholic religion in 1555 and many Protestants are persecuted, including more than 300 who were burned at the stake. After Mary I dies in 1558, her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, returns the country to the Protestant faith and officially sanctions the end of religious persecution. However, it is not until 1563 that the official Anglican Church is established.
Today: Even during the twenty-first century, some early restrictions that were placed on Roman Catholics are still maintained in England. For instance, no Catholic can be crowned queen or king of England.
1500s: In 1552, church parishes are required to register the poor so that official records can be maintained. This regulation is followed by a compulsory poor tax designed to make providing for the poor a local responsibility.
Today: In 1997, the Labour Party government commissions a study on child poverty in Great Britain. A six-year study completed in 2003 finds that 45 percent of British children are living in poverty and that government intervention has in fact increased the poverty rate for children. While the government expresses concern about this widespread poverty, they have not yet determined how best to solve the problem.
1500s: In 1580, the English manage to repress a Spanish-supported rebellion of the Irish. The rebellion ends when the rebels are starved to death.
Today: Starving opponents during a rebellion is considered barbaric by most standards. When the Irish Republican Army (the IRA) stages attacks in the late 1990s, the British government passes restrictive anti-terrorist legislation. The new laws, combined with a series of arrests of IRA leaders and recent elections in Ireland, have helped to control the rebellion.
1500s: Along with Marlowe, the other notable poets of the period are Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne, each of whom will emerge as significant literary figures during England’s golden age of literary creativity, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Today: More than 400 years after Marlowe’s death, his poetry and that of many other Elizabethan poets remains pivotal to the study of British literature. Some of the best-known British poets of the twentieth century include W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, A. E. Housman, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney.
A recitation of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is included in the 1995 film Richard III, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellen and Annette Bening. In an early sequence of the film, Marlowe’s poem is set to music and sung in a 1930s big-band rendition. Since so many early Elizabethan lyrical poems were meant to be sung, setting Marlowe’s poem to music is in keeping with its poetic origin. The film is available in VHS or DVD format.
Bell, Ilona, “Elizabethan Poetics of Courtship,” in Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 15–32.
Donne, John, “The Bait,” in John Donne’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, edited by A. L. Clements, Norton Critical ed., Norton, 1966, pp. 22–27.
Ferguson, Mary Anne, “Introduction to the First Edition,” in Images of Women in Literature, 2d ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 13.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2d ed., Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 281–89.
Raleigh, Sir Walter, “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” in Selected Writings, edited by Gerald Hammond, Fyfield Books, 1984, pp. 31–32.
Shakespeare, William, Richard III, Arden Third Series ed., edited by Antony Hammond, Routledge, 1994.
Sidney, Sir Philip, The Defense of Poesy, Ginn, 1898, pp. 49–52.
Woolf, Virginia, “A Room of One’s Own,” in A Room of One’s Own and Other Essays, Folio Society, 2000, pp. 51–56.
Cheney, Patrick, The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
This book contains essays by sixteen different scholars who comment on Marlowe’s life and his texts, as well as his influence on later writers.
Clay, Christopher, Rural Society: Landowners, Peasants, and Labourers, 1500–1750, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
This book details the social and economic history of rural England during the period from 1500 to 1750. There is information about wages and profits associated with estate management, as well as details about the lives and status of laborers.
Cole, Douglas, Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy, Praeger, 1995.
Cole examines the major literary traditions of Marlowe’s era and how he transformed them into themes fitting his own purpose.
Kuriyama, Constance Brown, Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life, Cornell University Press, 2002.
This biography of Marlowe examines Marlowe’s life by placing him in a cultural context. Rather than just focus on dates and facts, the author examines the English education system and the politics and society in which Marlowe lived.
O’Hara, Diana, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England, Manchester University Press, 2002.
This text provides a study of courtship in sixteenth-century England. Much of O’Hara’s source material is taken from church records and from legal documents and wills. The book is an interesting source of information about social customs and the economics of courtship.
Picard, Liza, Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
This text provides a picture of London life at the time when Marlowe walked the streets. There are descriptions of the buildings and gardens, the shops and palaces, the theatres and streets of the city. Picard also includes details about domestic life, the city’s water supply, and diseases common to Londoners.
Riggs, David, The World of Christopher Marlowe, Henry Holt, 2005.
In a book that the publisher describes as a “definitive biography,” Riggs examines Marlowe’s life, the period in which he lived, and the mystery of how and why he was killed.
Stretton, Tim, et al, eds., Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This text examines how women were involved in lawsuits in Elizabethan England. There is a history of women’s legal rights, including information on how marriage or widowhood affected women’s legal rights.