Christopher Marlowe was a drunk, an atheist, a spy, and a poetic genius inside a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.
Bold statements, we know, but they boil down to two things:
So let's dig in. "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is a pastoral poem, meaning it is set in an idealized version of the countryside, where life is good and the air is sweet. Plot-wise, the poem basically comes down one lover saying to another lover: "move to the country with me and once you're there we can play by the river, listen to the birds sing, and I'll even make you some bohemian chic clothing to boot."
The poem was first published—or at least part of it was—in 1599 in a hodgepodge poetry collection called The Passionate Pilgrim, but people who have spent decades in libraries studying Marlowe think that it was likely written in the mid- to late 1580s, a few years before his death. This places the composition of the poem somewhere near the beginning of Marlowe's career, and definitely before he became a bigshot in the Renaissance theater world.
Now Marlowe wasn't exactly people's first choice for moral compass of the century; he was busted counterfeiting money, he was convicted for crimes worthy of execution several times but somehow mysteriously never went to trial, he talked trash about God and the Anglican church, and he was a drunk with a bad temper.
The apparent simplicity and innocence of "The Passionate Shepherd" seems to contradict this image of a vice-ridden Marlowe, but the lyric actually packs a lot of punch once you look at it a little deeper: gender issues, social criticism, classical allusions, sexuality, and manipulation are all in there, too, just waiting to be unearthed.
Sound more like the scandalous Marlowe you know and love? We thought so.
We want this to be a love poem. Like, really, really, really badly because it's just so pretty. But it's a little too easy to read an undertone of "hey, let's get a little lovin' goin' on the side" and think "hey, shepherd, maybe you should take things a little more slowly before asking people to move in with you," for that to be 100% the case.
But the reality is that relationships were tricky business back in Marlowe's day, and they haven't become any simpler here in the 21st century. There's a fine line between lust and love, and Marlowe does a great job in this poem of showing his readers just how tricky it can be to tell the difference.
Take the first line: "Come live with me, and be my love." It sounds nice, but is it really? Is it a request? Is it straight from the lips of a Stage 5 Clinger? Or is it something more restricting? A demand, perhaps, or even a little bit of a threat, as in "Come live with me, and be my love (or else)"?
Marlowe doesn't tell us. And scholars, poetry lovers, and students alike have interpreted the first line in every way mentioned above, and then some. It's one of the most frustrating things about this poem—we want an answer—but also one of the most beautiful. If love were always obvious and lust never misleading, love wouldn't be nearly as special when people finally find it.
Marlowe's life and death are surrounded by mystery and controversy. It's easy to buy into the literary rumor mill, but Encyclopedia Britannica will set you straight on the facts.
Always a safe bet for scoop on Renaissance writers, Luminarium just so happens to have the goods on our man Marlowe.
For more about how Marlowe didn't actually die in 1593 but went on to write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare, check out the website of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.
Leap and Frolic, Leap and Frolic
We imagine all sheep in the passionate shepherd's world acted something like this.
Sing It, Ladies
The biggest choir ever sings the poem in all its glorious harmonies. You'll get chills. Shmoop did.
A Voice from the Past
Okay maybe it's from 1984 and not 1590, but this audio version of the poem is still worth a listen. And at least he's got the right accent.
The Easily-Amused Shepherd to his Flavor of the Week
This painting by William Holman Hunt post-dates Marlowe by a couple centuries, but we think the shepherd blowing off his flock to flirt with a country lass is basically what Marlowe had in mind when he was writing.
Much Ado about Something
For all you conspiracy theorists out there, here's an interview with Michael Rubbo, a leading proponent of the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory and the brains behind the 2001 documentary exploring the same question.
Movin' to the Country…
… Gonna eat a lot of peaches. If you dig the pastoral vibes in "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love", this book by Paul Alpers goes into more details about the genre than you could ever possibly dream of.
CSI: Elizabethan England
Everybody loves a mystery, especially one that ends in murder. Check out this book for more on Marlowe's untimely demise.
The Devil's in the Details
David Riggs is one of the big names in the world of people who study Christopher Marlowe's life. Check out his book, The World of Christopher Marlowe, if you want to learn more about the author's life and career.
Obligatory Nod to Dr. Faustus
For a well received but admittedly very free adaptation of Marlowe's famous play Doctor Faustus, check out this film directed by Jan Svankmajer. And then check out Shmoop's learning guide on the play.