Happily ever after: narrative closure and affective relations
To many readers of Renaissance texts, Christopher Marlowe's name serves as a by-word for dissident sexuality in the period. Yet, as Stephen Orgel has recently suggested, though work on Marlowe has made sexual dissidence in the Renaissance visible for modern readers, the assumption that Marlowe himself was a sexual rebel rests on the testimony of his enemies and on a conflation of the author with his characters. A narrow pursuit of the biographical relevance of his texts obscures questions about how those texts are situated within his culture; furthermore, such a dualistic view – either he (or his text) is or is not queer – effaces the complexities of both Marlowe's writing and Renaissance attitudes toward sexuality. Though the intimate sphere was coalescing around long-term monogamy in the period, the modern outcome of this process was by no means inevitable, and neither marginality nor outsider status was a prerequisite for contesting it. Marlowe's Hero and Leander, in its representation of short-term, situational intimacy, challenges the centrality of the long-term monogamous couple in terms that were also widely available to his culture and accessible to his readers.
Historical research into intimate life reveals that while texts from the period touted long-term coupledom, practices differed markedly from this ideal because of low life expectancies, the late age of marriage, and the frequency of remarriage in the period. Lawrence Stone argues that “the incessant preaching on the imminence of death must have been a constant reminder of the essential transience of all human relationships. In practice, the probability of a durable marriage was low, since it was likely to be broken before very long by the death of the husband or the wife.” According to Stone, the average early modern English first marriage lasted about seventeen years and almost a quarter of all marriages performed during the period were remarriages. While seventeen years is not short-term, it stands to reason that individuals entertained the possibility that for at least one partner, a marital relationship might be temporary and succeeded by another. Stone, controversially, has concluded from this high mortality rate that closeness, between parents and children and between husband and wife, must have been unlikely and imprudent. In contrast, Alan Macfarlane advises caution in deducing from these figures early modern attitudes toward marriage: “If marriages were relatively vulnerable and partners often replaced, does this tell us anything of the depth of the emotion involved? The problem is a complex one, for swift remarriage can be interpreted in two ways: as evidence of lack of affection – or as the opposite.” The “opposite” situation, according to Macfarlane, is one wherein a widow or widower finds affection in marriage so plentiful and pleasurable in spite of the possibility of losing a partner, that one is willing to risk marriage again. Macfarlane exposes the equation of longevity and intimacy that operates in Stone's interpretation of these data, and he suggests that relations in the Renaissance, including marriage itself, may not all have been evaluated based on their longevity. Only when marriage attempts to assert itself over the entire relational field does it elevate longevity as a signifier of pleasure and value and, in turn, advance itself, somewhat fantastically and fictitiously, as the definitive long-term relation. One has to remain open to the possible significance of short-term relations in texts from the Renaissance, when this transition had not been fully achieved.