Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe


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.

Principal Works

Hero and Leander 1593? [published 1598]

Certaine of Ouides Elegies, in Epigrammes and Elegies [translator; with John Davies] 1593? [published c. 1595]; enlarged as All Ouids Elegies, c. 1602]

Lucans First Booke Translated Line for Line [translator] 1593? [published 1600]

*“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” 1593?

The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage (play) 1586? [published 1594]

Tamburlaine the Great: Divided into Two Tragicall Discourses (plays) 1587, 1588 [published 1590]

The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta (play) 1590? [published 1633]

The Massacre at Paris: with the Death of the Duke of Guise (play) 1590? [published 1594?]

The Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England (play) 1592-93 [published 1594]

The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (play) 1593? [published 1604, 1616]

*This poem first appeared in 1599 in the anthology The Passionate Pilgrim; a slightly different version appeared the following year in the anthology England's Helicon.


Paul D. Miller (essay date April 1953)

SOURCE: Miller, Paul D. “A Function of Myth in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.Studies in Philology 50, no. 2 (April 1953): 158-67.

[In the following essay, Miller considers the relevance of the mythological elements in Hero and Leander.]

Christopher Marlowe's poetic fragment, Hero and Leander, has received high praise from the time of its composition to the present. Douglas Bush passes judgment on the poem and summarizes its history in this fashion:

All the best qualities of the Italianate Ovidian tradition are embodied, and transcended, in Hero and Leander It is equally true that the poem exhibits in high relief all the vices of the tradition. Yet it remains for us the most beautiful short narrative poem of its age, and for Marlowe's contemporaries and followers the causes of our partial dissatisfaction did not exist. It was immensely admired before and after its formal publication, and was enthusiastically quoted and plagiarized for two generations.1

Una Ellis-Fermor accords the poem equally high praise:

[Almost all] that is beautiful in the imagery of the early plays returns in Hero and Leander with an added gravity of form, a firmness and maturity of moulding, that render it the highest work of his invention, and make the aspirations of Tamburlaine appear frenzied and forlorn.2

Yet despite their high praise of the poem, Marlowe's critics have usually regarded Hero and Leander merely as an unreflective hymn to sensuous beauty, as a poem of escape that implicitly denies the unpleasant realities of life by ignoring them.3 Bush remarks in this regard,

… Hero and Leander are not star-crossed lovers; the poem in its total effect is an unclouded celebration of youthful passion and fullness of physical life.4

Ellis-Fermor echoes Bush's belief that the poem is unblushingly optimistic,

… the poet of Hero and Leander does not “look before and after,” much less does he “pine for what is not.” There are no tears in his joy and his song is sweet without the aid of hinted sadness. Beauty is enough, and the love of beauty is neither an instinct in conflict with moral preoccupations and dark, obscure fears, nor a poignant devotion to a threatened and possibly doomed cause … the sunlight is unbroken; no northern twilight of the gods casts its shadow over the warm serenity of this mood.5

It may at once be granted that love and beauty are major issues in the poem. But it must further be insisted—what Bush and Ellis-Fermor deny—that the twin jewels of love and beauty shine with such breath-taking beauty chiefly because they are consistently set against the darkly contrasting foil of fate. Throughout the poem, Fate whispers persistently of Hero and Leander's doom. And it is Fate's “winged chariot” that makes their flight of love as briefly and intensely brilliant as a sparrow's passage through a brightly lighted mead hall into the darkness beyond.

In cherishing beauty and love apart from Fate, their proper foil in Hero and Leander, critics have lost sight of the poem's underlying unity. Consequently they have found only irrelevancy in the poem's abundant mythological content, particularly in its long account (I, ll. 385-484)6 of Mercury's intrigue with a country maid.7 Frederick S. Boas, for example, writes of this passage:

Influenced in part by Ovid, Marlowe crowds his canvas with such elaborate extraneous detail from the classical Pantheon that his hero and heroine become often obscured. This is flagrantly so in the last hundred lines of Sestiad I where quite irrelevantly Marlowe turns aside to tell a tale of Mercury, Jove, Cupid, and the Destinies. …8

The sense of Bush's comment on this passage is almost identical with that of Boas:

A hundred lines are occupied with a somewhat incoherent tale of Mercury, Cupid, and the Destinies; it is quite irrelevant, but furnishes occasion for more sensuousness.9

Yet does it not appear odd that Marlowe, who reveals such a rigid pattern elsewhere in the fragment, should in one section break away from his plan to invent an irrelevant myth one hundred lines in length?10 Surely there is evidence in his description of the lovers, for example, that Marlowe was following a strict plan of composition in Hero and Leander. To establish a clear structural parallel, he successively describes the hair, celestial paramours, outward appearance and surpassing beauty, first of Hero, then of Leander. He reveals parallel structure in details as well as in outline. Cupid, Marlowe observes, is reported to have fallen in love with Hero; in a parallel passage, Leander, it is revealed, wins the barbarous Thracian soldier's love. Marlowe shows sound judgment and a sense of proportion in these descriptions. Because she reflects the perfect beauty of Venus, the poet fittingly describes Hero's appearance more completely than Leander's. Small wonder Ellis-Fermor is impressed by the poem's “gravity of form,” its “firmness and maturity of moulding.”11 It is of course conceivable, but is it probable that a poet who reveals such strict adherence to plan elsewhere in his poem would fall into a hundred-line irrelevancy merely because he loves Ovid to excess or because he revels in sensuousness?

Continuing to ponder the judgment of Boas and Bush, one may also be puzzled that this incident in the lives of the gods should be included irrelevantly, when in his other writings Marlowe introduces the gods purposefully. In The Tragedy of Dido, Hermes has the function of foreshadowing the fates of men (V, I, 1459-62).12 In the same drama Cupid represents the inexplicable but irresistible force of love:

Now Cupid cause the Carthaginian Queene,
To be inamourd of thy brothers lookes …

(III, I, 635-36)

And as Ellis-Fermor points out regarding Tamburlaine:

‘Jove,’ ‘Jupiter,’ ‘the gods,’ ‘heaven,’ appear alternately as mild euphemisms for the ideas the modern world conveys—equally evasively—under terms like Providence.13

If Marlowe's general practice makes it doubtful that he would sacrifice relevance to his sensuous love of myth, or functional to purely ornamental deities, then it may be well to look deeper for the purpose of the passage in question.

It may, in fact, be argued that the Mercury incident, whether or not it has a clear function in the poem, has some relevance to Marlowe's fragment. Mercury's courtship of a country maid, with its unhappy consequences, is significantly similar to Leander's courtship of Hero. Both pairs of lovers are alike in their personal characteristics. Both courtships are perilous affairs, and both, as it appears, end unhappily.

The two sets of lovers have similar talents and attributes. Both Mercury, the god of eloquence, and Leander, a sophister of no mean skill, irresistibly court their ladies with “speeches full of pleasure and delight.”14 Both Mercury's country maid and Hero are noted for innocence, but innocence undivorced from pride in their seductive charm. Marlowe has mixed reactions to the country maid:

Her mind pure, and her tongue untaught to gloze;
Yet proud she was, for lofty pride that dwells
In towered courts is oft in shepherds' cells …

(I, ll. 392-94)

He praises her innocence, yet censures her pride. Hero's innocence extends to her finger-tips. She has hands

… so pure, so innocent, nay such
As might have made heaven stoop to have a touch …

(I, ll. 365-66)

Her scorn, a mark of pride similar to the country maid's, is kindled by a host of lovers' fires (I, ll. 122-23).

Both maidens make their lovers undergo fearful tests of love. Just as Mercury gets stiff resistance from the country maid on their first encounter in the grass, so Leander finds that Hero...

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Martin T. Williams (essay date September 1955)

SOURCE: Williams, Martin T. “The Temptations in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.Modern Language Quarterly 16, no. 3 (September 1955): 226-31.

[In the following essay, Williams interprets the Neptune passage of Hero and Leander.]

One episode in Marlowe's partial redaction of Hero and Leander has perplexed, distressed, and offended readers and scholars. Their reactions seem justified. It is the incident, roughly covering lines 159 through 226 of the second sestiad, wherein Neptune issues his salacious and bewildering invitation for dalliance to Leander. Marlowe, it seems, was having a capricious and smutty jest, which is quite uncalled for and, what is...

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Russell A. Fraser (essay date October 1958)

SOURCE: Fraser, Russell A. “The Art of Hero and Leander.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 57, no. 4 (October 1958): 743-54.

[In the following essay, Fraser finds fantastical conceits and traces of humor in Hero and Leander.]

No one has ever challenged Marlowe's greatness as a maker, his mastery of the couplet, the proud full sail of his verse. Few critics, however, have been willing to allow him a sense of humor. “He lacked alike humor and native tenderness,” writes one student of his art. He is unlike Shakespeare, according to another, in that, “with all his brilliance and his power over words, [he] has one fatal lack: his sense of...

(The entire section is 4927 words.)

Eugene B. Cantelupe (essay date January 1963)

SOURCE: Cantelupe, Eugene B. “Hero and Leander: Marlowe's Tragicomedy of Love.” College English 24, no. 4 (January 1963): 295-98.

[In the following essay, Cantelupe discusses Hero and Leander as a tragicomedy.]

The seriocomic “Court of Love,” the anonymous erotic allegory written in the early part of the sixteenth century, foretells certain Ovidian poems that appear at the end of the century. English poets of the Ovidian school, like the humanists of Northern Europe, show a divided loyalty to paganism and to Christian morality.1 In the sixties and seventies, such poets as Churchyard, Gascoigne, and Turberville sought refuge in Golding's...

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Erich Segal (essay date fall 1963)

SOURCE: Segal, Erich. “Hero and Leander: Góngora and Marlowe.” Comparative Literature 15, no. 4 (fall 1963): 338-56.

[In the following essay, Segal contrasts Marlowe's and Luis de Góngora y Argote's versions of the Hero and Leander story.]

That contemporaries like Góngora and Marlowe should have chosen the same classical myth is hardly a remarkable literary phenomenon.1 What is interesting about their versions of the Hero and Leander story is that, while their approaches are similar, they stand diametrically opposed to all previous treatments of the legend. Both poets have made mock heroic a tale hitherto treated only with high seriousness, casting an...

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Brian Morris (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Morris, Brian. “Comic Method in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.” In Christopher Marlowe, edited by Brian Morris, pp. 115-31. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1968.

[In the following essay, Morris analyzes Marlowe's comic manner in Hero and Leander.]

Marlowe's Hero and Leander is a great comic fragment. Professor Leech has analysed some parts of it and claimed it as a ‘major comic poem’.1 ‘Fragment’ seems to me more appropriate than ‘poem’, but I agree with Leech's verdict, and welcome its implications. It supposes a comprehensive comic vision on Marlowe's part, which he did not (perhaps could not) impose on the whole story; it...

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S. Ann Collins (essay date fall 1970)

SOURCE: Collins, S. Ann. “Sundrie Shapes, Committing Headdie Ryots, Incest, Rapes: Functions of Myth in Determining Narrative and Tone in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.Mosaic IV, no. 1 (fall 1970): 107-22.

[In the following essay, Collins maintains that the mythological episodes of Hero and Leander function “both as indicators of the poem's tone and as emblematic parallels of segments of the narrative.”]

Hero and Leander, the unfinished epic which was almost solely responsible for Christopher Marlowe's reputation as a poet among his contemporaries, has frequently proved at worst blinding and at best enigmatic to modern critics. Like Hero,...

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Louis L. Martz (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Martz, Louis L. Introduction to Hero and Leander, by Christopher Marlowe, pp. 1-14. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1972.

[In the following essay, Martz differentiates Marlowe's Hero and Leander from George Chapman's continuation of the poem.]

This publication provides an occasion for attempting to persuade all admirers of this poem to avoid speaking of Marlowe's “fragment” and Chapman's “continuation,” or of a poem “Begun by Christopher Marloe; and finished by George Chapman,” as on the title page of the first combined edition of 1598. I would even avoid speaking of Marlowe's “part” and Chapman's “part,” as though each in some...

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Elizabeth Bieman (essay date winter 1979)

SOURCE: Bieman, Elizabeth. “Comic Rhyme in Marlowe's Hero and Leander.English Literary Renaissance 9, no. 1 (winter 1979): 69-77.

[In the following essay, Bieman argues that Hero and Leander “offers many hilarious moments through incongruities of situation and language.”]

For all its heroics in celebration of the glory and pathos of young love, Marlowe's Hero and Leander offers many hilarious moments through incongruities of situation and language. When noticed at all, at a more solemn time in literary study, these could be chidden lightly and absolved indulgently on the grounds of the poet's untimely death.1 Now we need no...

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Marion Campbell (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Campbell, Marion. “‘Desunt Nonulla’: The Construction of Marlowe's Hero and Leander as an Unfinished Poem.” ELH 51, no. 2 (summer 1984): 241-68.

[In the following essay, Campbell argues that to read Marlowe and Chapman's sections of Hero and Leander “as parts of a single whole is to obscure the shape and significance of Marlowe's poem.”]

Hero and Leander is conventionally regarded as a fragmented poem, begun by Marlowe and completed by Chapman. Critical interest has centered, therefore, on defining the nature of the two parts and their relationship to one another; but I believe that there is a prior question to be answered, or...

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Joanne Altieri (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Altieri, Joanne. “Hero and Leander: Sensible Myth and Lyric Subjectivity.” John Donne Journal 8, nos. 1-2 (1989): 151-66.

[In the following essay, Altieri assesses Marlowe's achievements with Hero and Leander and considers Chapman's continuation of the poem.]

If we take seriously recent work with Hero and Leander, we can recognize in the poem far broader implications for Marlowe and for the poetry of the 1590s than those pursued by the original scholars, who were interested in discrediting Chapman's claims on the poem. Both Roma Gill and Marion Campbell, following Louis Martz,1 have put before us a poem that is unique, having...

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M. Morgan Holmes (essay date June 1995)

SOURCE: Holmes, M. Morgan. “Identity and the Dissidence It Makes: Homoerotic Nonsense in Kit Marlowe's Hero and Leander.English Studies in Canada 21, no. 2 (June 1995): 151-69.

[In the following essay, Holmes examines Marlowe's portrayal of homosexual desire in Hero and Leander.]


Generations of audiences, readers, and critics have proved that few species of literary dissidence can rival the unsettling force of Marlovian homoerotic desire.1 Christopher Marlowe's homoerotic dissidence ranges from a rather mild, titillating naughtiness—as in “The passionate Sheepheard to his love”—to an outright thwarting of...

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Judith Haber (essay date autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Haber, Judith. “‘True-loves Blood’: Narrative and Desire in Hero and Leander.English Literary Renaissance 28, no. 3 (autumn 1998): 372-86.

[In the following essay, Haber offers a stylistic analysis of Marlowe's treatment of desire in Hero and Leander, contending that the poem “refuses the comforts of a conventional, mastering narrative.”]

Most critics would agree that throughout Christopher Marlowe's corpus there exists a tension between orthodox and heterodox modes of thought, between containment and resistance. This tension is frequently figured within the texts themselves as a dialectic between the assertion of a phallic...

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Georgia E. Brown (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Brown, Georgia E. “Breaking the Canon: Marlowe's Challenge to the Literary Status Quo in Hero and Leander.” In Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, edited by Paul Whitfield White, pp. 59-75. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998.

[In the following essay, Brown delineates the central thematic concerns of Hero and Leander and assesses its influence on the literary culture of the 1590s.]

Why did Marlowe write Hero and Leander? Most critics have attempted to answer this question by approaching the poem as an essay on love. William Keach, for example, maintains that Marlowe's poem is about “the risks,...

(The entire section is 6561 words.)

John Leonard (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Leonard, John. “Marlowe's Doric Music: Lust and Aggression in Hero and Leander.English Literary Renaissance 30, no. 1 (winter 2000): 55-76.

[In the following essay, Leonard underscores Leander's sexual coercion of Hero in Hero and Leander.]

Writing in 1948, Tucker Brooke saw Hero and Leander as a celebration of young love: “… there is not an obscene word or a degenerate suggestion. Everywhere we have simply the marriage of true minds; the perfect purity of ocean-dewy limbs and child-like souls.”1 That opinion now seems dated, but it still exerts an influence, for (as we shall see) Brooke revised the lines describing the...

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Claude Summers (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Summers, Claude. “Hero and Leander: The Arbitrariness of Desire.” In Constructing Christopher Marlowe, edited by J. A. Downie and J. T. Parnell, pp. 133-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Summers identifies the central theme of Hero and Leander as “the utter arbitrariness of desire, a perspective that is pointedly at variance with the conventional morality of Marlowe's society and its dominant constructions of sexuality and that has tragic as well as comic potential.”]

Hero and Leander is a remarkable achievement, principally because of its curious tone, an unusual blend of apparently...

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Further Reading


Baldwin, T. W. “Marlow's Musaeus.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 54, no. 4 (October 1955): 478-85.

Investigates the influence of Musaeus's version of the Hero and Leander story on Marlowe's poem.

Braunmuller, A. R. “Marlowe's Amorous Fates in Hero and Leander.The Review of English Studies 29, no. 113 (February 1978): 56-61.

Interprets Marlowe's use of the word “engines” in Hero and Leander.

Brown, Georgia E. “Gender and Voice in Hero and Leander.” In Constructing Christopher Marlowe, edited by J. A. Downie and J. T. Parnell, pp....

(The entire section is 557 words.)