Hero and Leander is a poem – an epyllion, that is, a short epic poem – which Marlowe composed based on work by the sixth-century poet Musaeus. The story, of course, is much older, based on various versions of a Greek myth. The narrative itself is one of iconic separated lovers, a tale full of Roman mythological references which would have been clear and meaningful to most of Marlowe's readers. This poem was written in the last year of Marlowe's life, 1593. It was a plague year, and the London theatres all were closed. Therefore Marlowe could not write for the stage, and poetry was his creative outlet. For a poem written in such a dark time, and about such a tragic subject (although the lovers' end is actually not shown to us by Marlowe), Marlowe's tone is surprisingly light, and the lines are full of a love of humanity and a wonder at the beauty of the world. Particularly the descriptions of Leander and Hero, and the vivid picture of the underwater kingdom of Neptune, are vivid and compelling. The poem has been termed "mock-epic" because it is so full of humor. Hopkins calls it "one of the most deliciously comic poems of Elizabethan literature"
Marlowe's poem is thought to be unfinished, because the story of Musaeus goes on to tell of the lovers' tragic demise. It is possible that Marlowe meant to continue the story (for he introduces characters who are not mentioned again – such as the "dwarfish beldame" (line 351) and Leander's father), but, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is just as likely that Marlowe meant never to continue this poem any further. Since the poem's tone is so light and full of humor, it is hard to imagine the subject matter changing so drastically from the joy of young lovers to their deaths. However, Marlowe had already proved that he was capable of writing compellingly about the full range of emotions, so he could have intended to finish the story. The poem as it stands, however, can be judged as a complete work of art. George Chapman divided Marlowe's lines, later, in to two sestiads, and composed an additional four to finish the story. Those lines, however, are Chapman's, and differ greatly from Marlowe's original work. They are not considered here.
The insistence of Leander's feminine beauty, not once but twice in this poem, is seen by some critics as evidence of Marlowe's homosexuality. It may well be, but this convention of the allure young men have for other men is evident in the original story, not invented Marlowe. The classical world was much more accustomed to references to homosexuality than the Elizabethan Christian world of Marlowe. He delights in it, however, lingering lovingly on descriptions of Leander (a full forty lines on Leander's description alone, compared with forty-five on Hero, though her description is as much about her dress as her person) and his attractiveness. The importance placed on Leander's attractiveness, however, is more than is usual in poems of this type. It is easy to see how Marlowe may have been putting some of his own feelings into the poem.