‘Le petit mort’ is the most beautiful thing for lovers when jointly experienced. Still, it is a long way before their physical union is possible. Both men and women like to be desired, loved and seduced before having sex together. Whereas we know what it is like to be seduced today we can only guess it for the Renaissance period as all evidence is hidden away in between verses and lines in poetry and dramatic plays.
On the one hand, Renaissance love poetry is modelled on the Petrachan sonnet cycle and the neoplatonic ideals of the unattainable, chaste lady. The male protagonist praises the woman with conveyed rhetorical devices such as the blazon, tries to seduce her and make her inclined towards his love. He ponders on each of her body’s parts like her face or her breast with great eloquence. She is described as the most beautiful thing he has ever encountered. Although the man tries hard to achieve his aim, he mostly does not get even a response. Love in these poems is never actually fulfilled or satisfying.
On the other hand, Elizabethan poets also turned to ancient narratives, most notably to Ovid and his oeuvre. They found in his Metamorphoses stories about love and seduction, which can be both animalistic and emotionally beautiful. Images of homoeroticism, frustrated libido and incestuous relationships are depicted as well. Desire in this kind of poetry is mostly disturbing in one way, but owing to the ability of Ovid and his Elizabethan poetic successors attempts to seduction can also be comic and even satiric. These narratives convey an image of the contradictions and excitements one can discover in the process of falling in love, of seduction and lovemaking.
Nevertheless, the Renaissance poets did not simply imitate these models. New elements were introduced to make the myths more familiar to the readers. Although these were most exclusively learned, and hence able to read these authors in their original versions, they also enjoyed thinking of the mythological figures seducing each other in landscapes similar to England.
William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote their poems Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander following loosely the respective Latin and Greek sources: Marlowe took from Musaeus but also from Ovid’s Heroides, Shakespeare from the Metamorphoses. Just like these poets they present the erotic experiences and anxieties of the characters from both perspectives, from both seducer and seduced.
However, they formed these relationships like they wanted to. In both poems, the traditional roles are disturbed through something. In Shakespeare’s narrative it is the fact that the seducer is female and a goddess, in Marlowe’s poem it is Leander’s obvious ignorance of the sexual organs (l. 537-556). He himself has never before experienced sex and only when Hero presses herself to his body during their second encounter the secret is revealed.
Both poets include small interludes in their poetry which deal also with love and seduction. Marlowe’s narrator reminds one of the love-fight between Mercury and the Destinies (l. 375/85-484); Venus in Shakespeare’s poem uses her experience with Mars to prove to Adonis how desirable she is (l. 97-114). But there are also other reports of seduction which represent matching parts to the overall theme. When Leander dives into the sea he is spied by Neptune and almost killed in the god’s attempts to seduce him (l. 631-714). After Venus has plucked Adonis from his stallion, the animal notices a mare and tries to impress her with its strength and finally seduces the female horse (l. 269-324). Venus uses this opportunity to rebuke Adonis for his ever-lasting resistance to love (l. 379-408).
 Cp. Bradbrook (1965), p. 62.