Hero and Leander is a short, amorous epic written in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. It is divided into cantos called “sestiads,” after a verse form which gains its name from the isle of Sestos, where the action takes place. Apparently, Christopher Marlowe wrote the entire first two sestiads of 484 and 334 lines. Some believe these two chapters were meant in themselves to be a complete poem; others believe that Marlowe did not live to finish his work. In any case, George Chapman, the famous translator of Homer, took up the work and completed it by adding four more sestiads. Although appreciated, the Chapman augmentation is not cherished, venerated, or studied with the same interest as the Marlowe chapters, which are considered the best poetic work in that genre during the Elizabethan period.
Hero and Leander could be called an “amorous epic” to distinguish it from the longer Homeric epics which are on heroic subjects. It lacks the sober dignity and solemn tragedy of classical Greek tragedy and epic. Some critics have suggested calling it an epyllion, which carries the sense of a shorter and less serious narrative work. The classical models for these works, so popular in the sixteenth century, were the long, sensuous, and humorous poems of Ovid, particularly the Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.), the Heroides (before 8 c.e.), and the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.). Ovid was popular in the Middle Ages, providing the literary material for a cult of love which expressed itself in verse romances and the poetry of the troubadours, though the explicit sections of his works were treated as allegory.
The English Renaissance—gay, vigorous, delighting in the senses and a newly discovered sense of personal freedom—disrobed classical love literature of its embarrassed indirection, and sensual, worldly, playful poetry abounded. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander was one of the most popular and influential works following this tendency. It describes the brief and illicit courtship of Hero, a young priestess of the temple of Venus on Sestos, and Leander, a handsome young man of the city of Abydos. The two are separated by the rough seas of the Hellespont, and Leander braves the waters in order to spend evenings with Hero.
The complete legend involves the tragic death of the lovers. Neptune, the god of the sea, becomes enamored of Leander as he swims across the Hellespont. Leander rejects Neptune’s love, and the god drowns Hero in anger. This tragic tale was told by the Greek fifth century poet Musaeus, and it is the Greek or a Latin translation of this poem which is the textual basis for Marlowe’s work. Marlowe, however, barely foreshadows the lovers’ unhappy fate in his two sestiads; this grave duty has been left by history to Chapman. It is possible to read Marlowe alone, therefore, and see nothing but a bright, humorous, sexy poem about two young lovers enjoying their first carnal knowledge, as well as Leander dealing embarrassedly with the homosexual love interest of Neptune, who, showering Leander with jewels and lasciviously fondling him as he swims, seems the picture of an aroused, wealthy, older bon vivant.
The poem begins with a straightforward exposition and then veers instantly into a florid description, full of classical allusions, of Hero’s beauty. Marlowe fills the text with such allusions, an ostentatious display of knowledge of antiquity that is part of the genre. Hero’s beauty is so great that the god Apollo once offered her his throne. Her sleeves are decorated with a representation of naked Venus chasing her beloved Adonis; the figured border of Hero’s dress is stained with the blood of desperate lovers who killed themselves because she rejected them. In a spirit of humorous exaggeration, Marlowe describes her breath as so sweet-smelling that bystanders praise it and honeybees swarm about her mouth. Marlowe calls her “Venus’ nun,” which means literally that she is a virgin serving the cult of Venus in the temple at Sestos. Yet,...
(The entire section is 1,746 words.)