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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

Marlowe left Hero and Leander unfinished at his death. It was completed by dramatist George Chapman in very different style and published by him the following year. (This analysis deals only with the part of the poem that Marlowe wrote, the first two sestiads.)

Hero and Leander is the most famous example of a favorite Elizabethan genre, the brief epic. It circulated in manuscript for some years before publication. During this time, it was certainly read by William Shakespeare, whose poem of the same genre Venus and Adonis (1593) was influenced by it, and whose plays contain strong echoes of its lines. The brief epic was a poem on an erotic and mythological subject, often drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.). Hero and Leander is Ovidian in character, though the story actually comes from a later version of the myth by Musaeus. Most adaptors of Ovidian subjects indulged in a high degree of moralizing, a factor dispensed with by Marlowe.

Hero and Leander is an exuberantly sensuous poem enlivened by an irrepressible comic spirit. Having fallen in love with the beautiful Hero, Leander wastes no time in attempting to bed her. He uses the commonplace arguments of Renaissance naturalism: Since virginity has no material reality and is imperceptible to the senses, it is no thing—and therefore nothing to preserve or anything of which to be proud. Such specious logic is meant to be enjoyed as flights of wit and audacity, and would only be taken at face value by someone of Hero’s naïveté. Leander’s devious sophistry is pointed out in lines whose rhymes anticipate Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824, 1826): “At last, like to a bold sharp sophister,/ With cheerful hope he thus accosted her.” Also enlisted into the argument is a theme shared by Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and his sonnets, the sterility and waste of youth and beauty’s keeping its gifts to itself in the virginal state.

In spite of Leander’s sophistication in the art of persuasion, in the art of love he is an innocent. In a passage of comic understatement, he toys with Hero “as a brother with his sister,” “Supposing nothing else was to be done”—“yet he suspected/ Some amorous rites or other were neglected.” Hero is able to deflect Leander’s inept advances and greets the morning still intact. Leander returns home, and the narrator’s ironic comment on his encounter with his father sustains the comic detachment: “His secret flame apparently was seen,/ Leander’s father knew where he had been.” Mock-heroic images also contribute to the poem’s comic tone, as in the passage in sestiad 2 likening Leander’s attempt to touch the reluctant Hero’s breast—exaggeratedly described as a globe “By which love sails to regions full of bliss”—to a siege. She “did as a soldier stout/ Defend the fort, and keep the foeman out.”

Another comic episode shows Leander, determined to see his love, swimming the Hellespont to reach her home. He is nearly frustrated in his aim by the sea god Neptune’s taking a fancy to him. Neptune mistakes Leander for Jove’s page Ganymede and, in a scene of intense homoeroticism as funny as it is sensuous, tries to seduce the unwitting young man. Leander, at cross-purposes with Neptune, protests that he is no woman. The worldly-wise Neptune smiles at his innocence. It is not the first homoerotic element in the poem: Leander’s feminine beauty is described in unusually intimate detail, from the point of view of the male narrator and of other male admirers.

The imagery of the poem creates a world of intoxicating sensuality. Leander’s beauty exceeds that of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Hero worships Venus at a temple sumptuously described; about her neck, she wears chains of pebble-stones that shine like diamonds.

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