Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Patricia Vineski

Patricia has an MFA in Writing, an MS in Teaching and English Language Arts, and a BA in English.

In this lesson, you will learn who Hero and Leander are and what their roles are in Marlowe's epic poem of the same name. Take a look at the summary and analysis and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Summary

hero greeting leander

Marlowe's poem starts with the description of the young lovers: the incomparably lovely virgin, Hero, dedicated to the service of the love goddess Venus, and the astonishingly handsome Leander. The two lovers live on either side of the Hellespont (the strait which joins the Black Sea and the Aegean). Hero lives in Sesto, and Leander lives across the water in Abydos. During the yearly festival to Adonis (one of Venus' lovers) in Sestos, Leander and Hero first meet. Leander falls in love with Hero, and Hero, shot with an arrow of love by the god Cupid, falls in love with Leander. But, even though Leander uses all his charm, wit, and good looks to convince Hero that her vow to Venus to remain a virgin is no way to serve her goddess (or herself), Hero puts off his advances and returns to her tower.

Leander goes home across the water to Abydos. There, his father sees in his face that he has fallen in love, and forbids him to act upon it. Leander flees from his father's command, and goes to stand upon the rocks, gazing across the water at Hero's tower. When he cannot bear to be parted from Hero any longer, he takes off his clothes and dives into the water to swim back to her.

While Leander is swimming, the sea-god Neptune sees him and mistakes him for Ganymede, cupbearer to Zeus, and one he has long yearned for. Neptune takes this as an opportunity to steal Ganymede from Zeus, and, in his mistaken longing, captures Leander, and takes him down to his palace in the deep. But when Leander is almost drowned, Neptune realizes that he cannot be Ganymede, who was made immortal by Zeus, and brings Leander back to the surface.

Breathing air again, Leander begins to swim toward Sestos, but Neptune follows underneath him, kissing and caressing him. Leander is frightened by Neptune's unrelenting caresses and talk of love. Until Neptune at last sees that Leander will not give in to his desires, and angrily lets him go.

Leander makes it to Hero's tower and knocks on her door. Hero is surprised to find him standing there, dripping wet and naked. She brings him inside, and, since he is cold, she lets him lie next to her in bed. They embrace and kiss repeatedly, but Hero, mindful of the value of her sacred virginity, tries to hold Leander off for a time. Eventually, though, they are overcome by their desires, and consummate their love. The poem ends as morning dawns, with the long return journey across the Hellespont still to come, and an angry Neptune lying in wait.

Analysis

'Hero and Leander' is an epyllion, a short epic poem in which Hero and Leander are lovers separated by the Hellespont, a narrow strip of water between Sestos and Abydos, the towns in which Hero and Leander live. Hero is described as so beautiful that the love-god Cupid mistakes her for that most beautiful of the goddesses, his mother Venus. Leander is described as so attractive that even men find him beautiful, a description which foreshadows his encounter with the sea god, Neptune, later in the poem.

The lovers first meet at the yearly festival of Adonis (one of Venus' lovers) in Sestos, Hero's hometown, and fall in love. But Hero is bound by her vow of chastity to Venus, and it is her ambivalence toward her vow and her budding sexual desire that drive both the poem and Leander's pursuit of her. Hero is invested in remaining sexually pure and, although his actions could be perceived as romantic or admirable, Leander is, ultimately, invested in conquering her sexual purity.

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