The phrase the face that launched a thousand ships and variants such as a face to launch a thousand ships denote an extremely beautiful woman.
For example, the following is from a film review by Douglas Phillips, published in the Western Mail (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Monday 26th January 1959:
Kim Novak, in Bell, Book and Candle (Columbia), is a bewitching witch who, tired of casting spells, wants nothing so much as to be, as she poutingly says, “humdrum.”
Miss Novak, whose face would launch a thousand ships and whose lack of acting ability would sink them equally quickly, runs a chi-chi little Manhattan shop which is really a front for a witch’s coven.
The English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) makes Faust ask Mephistopheles to summon up the beauteous Helen [note 1] in the following dialogue from The Tragicall History of D. Faustus. As it hath bene Acted by the Right Honorable the Earle of Nottingham his seruants. Written by Ch. Marl. (London: Printed by V. S. for Thomas Bushell. 1604)—here, topless means not topped, i.e. not surpassed in height, by any others:
– Fau: One thing, good seruant, let me craue of thée
To glut the longing of my hearts desire,
That I might haue vnto my paramour,
That heauenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose swéete imbracings may extinguish cleane
These thoughts that do disswade me from my vow,
And kéepe mine oath I made to Lucifer.
– Me. Faustus, this, or what else thou shalt desire,
Shalbe performde in twinckling of an eie. enter Helen.
– Fau: Was this the face that lancht a thousand shippes?
And burnt the toplesse Towres of Ilium?
Swéete Helen, make me immortall with a kisse:
Her lips suckes forth my soule, see where it flies.
The phrase has often been used as an epithet for Helen of Troy—as in the review of the Drury Lane pantomime Aladdin, published in the Naval & Military Gazette and East India and Colonial Chronicle (London, England) of Wednesday 30th December 1885:
The chief feature in the programme, “A Dream of Fair Women,” is singularly beautiful. A representative selection of those women by whose beauty the world has been led into mischief through recorded history, following Eve, the mother of them all and the fairest, and headed by Venus, begins with Semiramis and Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and ends with Josephine and the last Duchess of Devonshire.
In The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Friday 31st December 1886, the reviewer of Syrian Stone Lore: Or the Monumental History of Palestine, by Claude Reignier Conder, uses Helen of Troy’s characterisation from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as a metaphor for Greece and Asia Minor as fields of historical research:
Greece and Asia Minor have been favourite fields for antiquarian research, but although there is a fascinating charm in following in the wake of “the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium,” it must be owned that there is a greater, or at all events a wider, interest in whatever throws light on scenes and events in the Holy Land.
In the following humorous dialogue between two characters named Helen and Adrian, from the first volume of Like and Unlike: A Novel (London: Spencer Blackett, 1887), by the English novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), Helen’s reaction to the quotation from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus reveals the cultural gap between the two characters:
“Put on your warmest wraps, love. It is very cold out of doors.”
“I am not going to be called ‘love,’ or ‘darling,’ or any of those sickly sweet appellations. You are to call me Helen, and I shall call you Adrian. There is a world more meaning in our own two names, which belong to us individually, than in any barley-sugar epithets that all the world uses.”
“Then you shall be Helen, my Helen, I ask for no sweeter name. Helen, the destroyer of ships and of men:
‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’”
“Is that some of Tennyson’s nonsense?” [note 2]
“No, it is Marlowe’s nonsense.”
“Marlowe? A new poet, I suppose.”
There have been countless adaptations of the phrase. In fact, the earliest occurs in The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida (London: Imprinted by G. Eld for R. Bonian and H. Walley, 1609), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—Troilus describes Helen of Troy:
Shee is a pearle,
Whose price hath lansh’t aboue a thousand ships:
And turn’d crown’d Kings to Marchants.
The following from Literary Notes, published in The Bath Chronicle (Bath, Somerset, England) of Thursday 20th April 1905, is interesting because the adaptation of the phrase puns on two meanings of the noun galley, a ship and a printer’s proof:
Is there any limit to the number of books that can written about Mary Queen of Scots? Only the other day, as it seems, we have had Mr. Maurice Hewlett, with a fictitious, and Mr. Andrew Lang, with a strictly critical, treatment of the Stuart heroine. Now, Mr. William Brown, of Edinburgh, announces that he will shortly publish a volume by Mr. A. H. Millar, of Dundee, entitled “Mary Queen of Scots: her Life Story.” The author has sought to present in concise and popular form the romantic career of the ill-fated Queen, at the same time touching upon the results of recent criticism and research. “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” One familiar with the language of the printing office might affirm that Mary’s face has launched many more than a thousand “galleys.”
The following from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 10th February 1969 is also interesting because, unusually, the woman to whom the adaptation of the phrase refers to is explicitly described as being—in the author’s opinion—no beauty:
In the adaptation of the phrase used in the introduction to the article that Nicholas Pinnock wrote about the English actor and singer Arthur Mullard (1910-95), published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 17th October 1975, ships is replaced by the rhyming monosyllabic noun quips:
The career of Arthur Mullard, the Cockney comic actor, is taking a new turn, as Nicholas Pinnock found when he talked to the former straight-man with the face that launched a thousand quips.
The adaptation that appears in the following from The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 3rd February 1932 reflects the critic’s enthusiasm for the English actress Evelyn Laye (1900-96):
A lovely study of Miss Evelyn Laye as Helen of Troy.
Miss Evelyn Laye’s fair beauty makes her admirably well suited to play the part of Helen of Troy, perhaps the most famous “lovely” in the history of the world, and she has some wonderful dresses to wear in “Helen,” the Charles B. Cochran and A. P. Herbert version of Offenbach’s well-known opéra bouffe, “La Belle Hélène,” which had its first night at the Adelphi on Saturday last, January 30. Helen of Troy, as everyone knows, had a “face that launched a thousand ships,” and London is probably well agreed that in Miss Evelyn Laye’s case the line will soon be amended to the “face that launched a thousand performances.”
1 In the Iliad, a Greek epic poem traditionally ascribed to Homer, Helen is the outstandingly beautiful wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Her abduction by the Trojan prince Paris—to whom she has been promised by Aphrodite—leads to the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks.
2 Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) was an English poet.
3 Hilda Gadea Acosta (1925-74) was a Peruvian economist, Communist leader and author.
4 Che Guevara (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna – 1928-67) was an Argentinian revolutionary and guerrilla leader. He played a significant part in the Cuban revolution (1956-9) and became a government minister under Fidel Castro.