The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships

Origin of the Expression

The Rape of Helen, Mid of 17th cen.. Found in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Rape of Helen, Mid of 17th c, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

"The face that launched a thousand ships" is a well-known figure of speech and a snippet of 17th-century poetry that refers to Helen of Troy.

The poetry of Shakespeare's contemporary English playwright Christopher Marlowe is responsible for what is among the most lovely and famous lines in English literature.

  • Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
  • And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
  • Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss...

    The line comes from Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, published in 1604. In the play, Faustus is an ambitious man, who has decided that necromancy--speaking to the dead--is the only path to the power he seeks. The risk of communing with dead spirits, however, is that raising them can make you their master, or their slave. Faustus, conjuring on his own, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles, and one of the spirits Faustus raises is Helen of Troy. Because he cannot resist her, he makes her his paramour and is damned forever.

    Helen in the Iliad

    According to Homer's The Iliad, Helen was the wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus. She was so beautiful that Greek men went to Troy and fought the Trojan War to win her back from her lover Paris. The "thousand ships" in Marlowe's play refer to the Greek army who set sail from Aulis to war with the Trojans and burn down Troy (Greek name=Illium).

    But the immortality requested results in the curse of Mephistopheles and the damnation of Faustus.

    Helen had been abducted before she married Menelaus, so Menelaus knew it could happen again. Before Helen of Sparta married Menelaus, all the Greek suitors, and she had had quite a few, swore an oath to aid Menelaus should he ever need their help retrieving his wife.

    Those suitors or their sons brought their own troops and ships to Troy.

    The Trojan War may have actually happened. The stories about it, best known from the author known as Homer, say it lasted 10 years. At the end of the Trojan War, the belly of the Trojan Horse (from which we get the expression "beware of Greeks bearing gifts") sneakily transported Greeks into Troy where they set fire to the city, killed the Trojan men, and took many of the Trojan women as concubines. Helen of Troy returned to her original husband, Menelaus.

    Helen as an Icon; Marlowe's Play on Words

    Marlowe's phrase is not to be taken literally, of course, it's an example of what English scholars call metalepsis, a stylistic flourish that skips from X to Z, bypassing Y: of course, Helen's face didn't launch any ships, Marlowe is saying she caused the Trojan War. Today the phrase is most commonly used as a metaphor for beauty and its seductive and destructive force. There have been several books exploring the feminist considerations of Helen and her treacherous beauty, including the well-received one from historian Bettany Hughes (Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, 2009, Knopf Doubleday).

    The phrase has also been used to describe women from the first lady of the Phillippines Imelda Marcos ("the face that launched a thousand votes") to consumer spokesperson Betty Furness ("the face that launched a thousand refrigerators"). You're starting to think Marlowe's quote is not entirely friendly, aren't you? And you'd be right.

    Fun with Helen

    Communications scholars such as J.A. DeVito have long used Marlowe's phrase to illustrate how the use of stress on a single word of a sentence can change the meaning. Practice the following, stressing the italicized word and you'll see what we mean.

    • Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
    • Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
    • Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
    • Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
    • Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

      Finally, says mathematician Ed Barbeau: If a face could launch a thousand ships, what would it take to launch five? Of course, the answer is 0.0005 face.

      Sources

      Updated by K. Kris Hirst

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      Gill, N.S. "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships." ThoughtCo, Jun. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/face-that-launched-a-thousand-ships-121367. Gill, N.S. (2017, June 4). The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/face-that-launched-a-thousand-ships-121367 Gill, N.S. "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/face-that-launched-a-thousand-ships-121367 (accessed January 19, 2018).