Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

During the Renaissance, respect for classical antiquity, for Greek and Roman culture, expressed the idea that mortal man with his abilities and limitations should be at the center of human perspective, that is, should be the measure of human values. This view contrasted with medieval thought, in which the Christian god and theological absolutes were the measure of all things. Hero and Leander is an expression of the Renaissance “humanistic” perspective, for the work takes human physical love as its subject and gives the reader a psychological portrait of the development of passion and romance in callow youth. The classical references and constant evocation of antique mythology underscore the humanistic point by posing a nonmetaphysical, nontheological cosmology instead of the allegorical Catholic Christian worldview.

Recent criticism has improved scholars’ understanding of the humanity of this approach by pointing out the complexity and ambivalence of Marlowe’s acceptance of classical models. He does not receive the violent and irascible sexual life of the Greek gods as a model of authenticity or self-liberation; he regards it with a critical eye. Expressing Renaissance enthusiasm, he rejoices in the richness of the story materials, the colorful tales of the loves of the gods. Yet there is also irony and parody, subtle shifts of perspective and changes of voice, which indicate that his moral perspective is complex.

Hero, for example, is beautiful but disingenuous. Her defense of her virginity is half-hearted. She spurns Leander but drops her sixteenth century fan so that he will follow. Leander’s behavior reflects no moral position but rather pure concupiscence. Hence Marlowe’s harsh aphorism: “Love is not full of pity (as men say)/ But deaf and cruel where he means to prey.” Moreover, Leander may be beautiful and winsome, but he is also embarassingly naïve. He does not know even the basic facts about human intercourse. He fails to recognize Neptune’s homosexual love for what it is and ignorantly says, “You are deceiv’d, I am no woman, I.”