The Passionate Shepherd to His Love Analysis
by Christopher Marlowe

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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 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

(The entire section is 3,439 words.)