One could argue that the theme of Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander is more oriented towards traditional notions of lust than about love, per se. The two protagonists do fall instantly in love, but the tone of Marlowe’s poem, particularly with respect to Leander’s primal obsession with the beautiful and virtuous young woman, are more consistent with depictions of straightforward lust than the kind of deeply felt sensations of love such as Shakespeare portrayed in Romeo and Juliet. That said, we’ll accept, for the purposes of discussion, that the poem was intended to depict “love” in the conventional sense of the term.
Marlowe describes at the outset of his unfinished poem (unfinished by him, anyway) a mythological creature so perfect in her appearance and so inviting in her demeanor that her vow of chastity (Marlowe refers to has “Venus’ nun”) has to be viewed as a challenge to the multitudes of suitors who dare approach. As the author wrote in the opening lines:
“At Sestos Hero dwelt; Hero the fair, Whom young Apollo courted for her hair, And offered as a dower his burning throne, Where she should sit for men to gaze upon. The outside of her garments were of lawn, The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn; Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove, Where Venus in her naked glory strove To please the careless and disdainful eyes Of proud Adonis, that before her lies.”
Into the picture comes “[a]morous Leander, beautiful and young,” a playboy of some repute about whom others wonder when his amorous ways will give way to deeper, more meaningful expressions of love. That development occurs when Leander spies Hero. At the great festival, all male eyes remain fixated on Hero: “But far above the loveliest Hero shined And stole away th' enchanted gazer's mind, For like sea nymphs' enveigling Harmony, So was her beauty to the standers by.” None, though, stand a chance. Hero holds a special place for the gods and goddesses, and the army of potential suitors are all turned away. Hero’s practiced nonchalance, however, gives way to the physical beauty of Leander, with whom she is instantly smitten:
“And in the midst a silver altar stood. There Hero, sacrificing turtle's blood, Vailed to the ground, vailing her eyelids close, And modestly they opened as she rose. Thence flew Love's arrow with the golden head, And thus Leander was enamoured. Stone still he stood, and evermore he gazed Till with the fire that from his countenance blazed Relenting Hero's gentle heart was strook. Such force and virtue hath an amorous look.”
The mythological god of love, Cupid – incidentally, the son of Venus, the patron of Hero, and foil of Apollo, the god of light or the Sun, healing, the plague, among other things -- has shot his arrows and Leander and Hero are in love, with only the sea and certain moral and practical strictures separating them. Such is Leander’s obsession with Hero that he initiates a routine of swimming daily across the sea to be with her, arriving naked before the virginal object of his affection. That these two are seriously in love, however, is not really in doubt, irrespective of definitional confusions regarding the meaning of “love” and “lust.” Textual evidence illuminating the depth of their passion abounds, as in the following passage:
“He touched her hand; in touching it she trembled. Love deeply grounded, hardly is dissembled. These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands; True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.”
And, in the "Second Sestiad," Marlowe includes the following:
"By this, sad Hero, with love unacquainted, Viewing Leander's face, fell down and fainted. He kissed her and breathed life into her lips' . . .;
"At last he came. O who can tell the greeting These greedy lovers had at their first meeting. He asked, she gave, and nothing was denied."
The theme of love is represented throughout Marlowe’s poem by such expressions and by Leander’s commitment to swim across the large body of water separating their homes so that they may be together. Leander prevails in his quest at consummating their relationship, and Hero is a virgin no more. Fate, however, is not kind to Hero and Leander. Strong winds extinguish the light that she uses nightly to guide her lover across the water, and Leander dies trying to find his way to her. Distraught by Leander's death, Hero commits suicide -- the ultimate act of love. In this final denouement, the total measure of their mutual devotion is laid bare.