Jupiter: King of the Gods, Ruler of Olympus, Master of the Thunderbolt- Pederast.
Maybe a better beginning would be: Christopher Marlowe, brilliant and audacious Elizabethan play-writer, religious iconoclast, and enough of a social provocateur to note the occasional Homoerotic tendencies of the Greek Gods (an inclination sometimes indulged with youth whom we would consider underage) and open his play Dido, Queen of Carthage with the beautiful youth Ganymede sitting in the God-King’s lap.
Dido is probably the first play that Marlowe wrote, basically a dramatization of the sections from Virgil’s Aeneid that deal with the love of Queen Dido for the Trojan hero Aeneas (at times Marlowe’s characters simply quote whole passages from the Latin). Marlowe likely wrote Dido in the early 1580s, while a student at Cambridge (possibly in collaboration with Thomas Nashe, also an undergrad), and I suspect that he intended the play to be an entertainment for his fellow-students. He possibly did not even know at the time that he wanted to be a play-writer, and studied for the ministry at university. The play was performed by the Chapel Children’s company (a kind of precious Elizabethan convention being to have companies of boy-actors perform shows as miniature “adults”), which makes the opening of Dido even more startling, as our first impression (upon the curtains being drawn, according to the stage-notes) is of a child-Jupiter “dandling” an even-younger child-Ganymede on His knee. The scene (Act I, scene 1) is not found in Virgil, and (representing Marlowe’s own invention) must say something about his rebellious sense of humor, as he focuses not only on the Homoerotic nature of Jupiter’s relationship with Ganymede, but plays up its pedophile-like aspects as well.
Jupiter: “Come, gentle Ganymede, and play with me [insert Elizabethan subtext here], I love thee well.” He calls Ganymede “darling of my thoughts” and vows “by Saturn’s soul and this earth-threatening hair that, shaken thrice, makes nature’s buildings quake,” to punish Juno for tormenting Ganymede (as Ganymede complains strenuously that She does).
Ganymede: “Sweet Jupiter, if e’er I pleased thine eye, grace my immortal beauty with this boon and I will spend my time in thy bright arms.” Jupiter promises that he can deny Ganymede’s “youth” nothing, as Ganymede’s face “reflects such pleasure to mine eyes”; he swears to make all the Gods do whatever delights Ganymede (Vulcan shall dance, Jupiter’s “nine daughters”- the Muses- will sing whenever Ganymede is sad). In a kind of alarming display of feminization, He decorates Ganymede with jewels that He has stolen from Juno (worn upon Her “marriage day,” underscoring how much Ganymede has replaced Juno in Jupiter’s affections).
Venus enters, re-emphasizing Ganymede’s feminized/ sexualized nature by chiding Jupiter for “playing with that female wanton boy” while Her son Aeneas is imperiled on the seas, trying to escape fallen Troy. (The boy-actors of the Chapel Children were sometimes described in the same kind of terms; a writer from 1569 railed against theater in general, and boy-acting companies in particular, furious that “pretty upstart youths profane the Lord’s day by the lascivious writhing of their tender limbs in feigning bawdy fables gathered from the idolatrous heathen poets [Roman poets].” ) Jupiter sends Mercury to order Neptune to safeguard Aeneas’ vessel and, the narrative returned to Virgil, Jupiter re-acquires his dignity. In (Act IV, scene ii), Iarbas makes sacrifice: “Eternal Jove, great Master of the clouds, Father of gladness and all frolic thoughts- Hear, hear, O hear Iarbas’ plaining prayers.” Later it is “Immortal Jove’s” strict command (delivered through Mercury) that Aeneas leave Carthage (and Dido) to come to Italy, that leads to tragedy.
Marlowe would spend his short (and abruptly ended) life tweaking the nose of convention; shortly before his very mysterious and violent death in 1593, serious accusations were made against his “damnable judgement of religion and scorn of God’s word,” including saying (among other scandalous things): “that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest”; “that all Protestants are hypocritical asses”; “that Christ knew the women of Samaria dishonestly”; and “that St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” [Please note the ambiguity in pronouns.] This eyebrow-raising statement is followed by the famous line attributed to Marlowe: “They that love not tobacco and boys were fools.”
Adjectives potentially applicable to Marlowe run from “cheeky” to “subversive”; he clearly presents an irreverent attitude towards the Classical Deities in Dido (Juno and Cupid are brought onstage, to join Jupiter, Ganymede, Mercury, and Venus)- as irreverent an attitude as he apparently directs towards the religion of his own time. As Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey remark in their Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Penguin, 2003, p. xiv), this is the Aeneid- but (because of the boy-actors) the Aeneid “in falsetto voices.” Marlowe doesn’t present the Gods onstage so much as send Them up comically. The tone of the play is set when- following up to its logical conclusion, and dramatization, the myth of Ganymede, Cup-Bearer to the Sky-God (pursue that with a Freudian eye)- we discover the “pederastic” Olympian King fondling a boy in His lap, in the “ambivalent posture [to say the least, of], an erotic game with a child.” (Romany and Lindsey also note deliciously that “the Ganymede to whom the god’s bribes are offered is detectably a tarty, petulant Elizabethan page-boy”). “The cumulative effect is to drive the play away from epic and towards comedy.” In fact, in Dido we see Marlowe come astonishingly close to demonstrating the modern comedic sensibility that we call “camp” today.