(Poetry Criticism)

Hero and Leander Christopher Marlowe

The following entry presents criticism of Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander.

When he was killed in 1593, Marlowe left behind the apparently fragmentary poem Hero and Leander, a retelling of the story of two lovers first told by the Greek poet Musaeus Grammaticus (fl. 500 a.d.). Employing the form of a love epyllion (short epic poem), Marlowe infused Musaeus' tale with wit and sensuality to create an erotic masterpiece that was highly esteemed by his contemporaries and has influenced poets for centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

Initially licensed for publication in 1593, Hero and Leander was not published until 1598, when two versions of the poem appeared. The first was Marlowe's version of 818 iambic pentameter lines, ending after the lovers' first romantic tryst. The second version included Marlowe's poem, divided into two sestiads, together with an additional four sestiads, written by George Chapman, which follow the lovers to their deaths. Marlowe's poem opens with a vivid description of the lovers, the beautiful virgin, Hero, and the alluring, handsome Leander. When Hero, a priestess of Venus, the goddess of love, attends the feast of Adonis in her hometown of Sestos, she catches the eye of every man in the vicinity. When Leander sees her, he immediately falls hopelessly in love. After Cupid pierces her with an arrow, the couple exchanges vows of love, but Hero remains steadfast to her vow of chastity. Leander returns home to the nearby city of Abydoes, across the Hellespont (the Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean), but soon sets off to swim back, to reach her in Sestos and consummate their love. As he swims in the river, he attracts the lust of Neptune, who has mistaken him for Jove's subordinate, Ganymede. After Leander's dangerous swim and arrival in Sestos, he arrives naked at Hero's door. Shocked by his appearance, Hero reminds Leander of her vow of chastity and rejects his sexual advances. Eventually, she is worn down by his wily arguments, professions of love, and physical beauty, and she succumbs to his charms. Marlowe's poem ends as the two lovers consummate their relationship. Critics speculate on whether it was the poet's intention to end the poem there or if his untimely death was the cause of the seemingly abrupt conclusion. In Chapman's continuation, the lovers continue their affair until Leander drowns in the Hellespont on his way to Hero. Heartbroken when she sees her lover's lifeless body washed up on the shore, Hero jumps from her high tower and dies by her lover's side.

Major Themes

Critics trace the tale of Hero and Leander back to a story told by the Alexandrine poet Musaeus in the fifth century a.d. It has also been asserted that Marlowe's version is heavily influenced by the work of the classical poet Ovid, particularly his Amores (which Marlowe translated in his Certaine of Ouides Elegies (1593?). Moreover, in his Heroides, Ovid had included two imaginary letters between Hero and Leander, which expressed their love for one another. The story of Hero and Leander has been retold by many artists in a myriad of different genres throughout the years, and Marlowe's poem is regarded as one of the best-known versions. Some critics have viewed Hero and Leander as a superficial hymn to sensuous beauty and a celebration of youthful passion. Yet others note that Marlowe's juxtaposition of the themes of beauty, innocence, and love against death reveals his central thematic concern—the cruelty of love. Homosexual desire is another thematic thread in Marlowe's poem, illustrated by the poet's lingering descriptions of Leander's beauty and Neptune's aggressive lust for the young man. Feminist critics have detected a chauvinistic treatment of Hero's virginity: Leander is celebrated for his triumph, and Hero is shamed by her submission to him. Recent critics have explored the role of sexual coercion and rape in the poem, as well as the issue of betrayal and shame.

Critical Reception

Marlowe's Hero and Leander was immensely popular during its time, and it remains a frequently quoted and imitated poem. Much of the critical discussion of Hero and Leander contrasts the style and tone of Marlowe's fragment with George Chapman's continuation and investigates the relationship between the two very different sections. Many scholars have tried to isolate Chapman's work on Hero and Leander, while others have urged a reading of the poem as a whole. Some have placed the work into its poetic context, arguing that it is a prime example of the epyllion form and a rejection of the predominant poetic aesthetic of its time, as exemplified in the works of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Commentators have interpreted Marlowe's mythological allusions, particularly his borrowings from Ovid and the ways in which Marlowe's use of myth contrasts with Musaeus'. The influence of Marlowe's poem on other authors has been another frequent topic of critical discussion. Hero and Leander has often been linked with the amatory works of William Shakespeare, particularly his poem “Venus and Adonis” and Romeo and Juliet. Commentators have praised Marlowe's mocking wit as well as his incorporation of fantastical conceits. Some have explored the elements of both comedy and tragedy in the poem. Moreover, critics have commended Marlowe's extraordinary mastery of the narrative decasyllabic couplet, as well as the powerful eroticism of his descriptions. Most critics consider it one of the most beautiful short narrative poems of its age.