Hero and Leander

Christopher Marlowe wrote 764 lines of Hero and Leander prior to his death in 1593. It is an adaptation of Musaeus Grammaticus’s rendition of the blossoming of the love affair in the Greek legend of Hero and Leander. Marlowe’s poem closes well before the tragic ending of the story. C. S. Lewis considered Hero and Leander “Marlowe’s greatest poetical achievement… This is a more perfect work than any of plays, not because their poetry is always inferior to it but because in it poetry and the theme are at one.” Written in Ovidian couplets, the poem is a sensuous and imaginatively descriptive exploration of desire. It must have circulated before publication and served as an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) and Michael Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe (1595). George Chapman was motivated to finish the story of Hero and Leander, adding four sestiads to that which Marlowe wrote, which Chapman divided into two sestiads.

“Faire” Hero, a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and “beautiful and young” Leander, living across the Hellespont from Hero, meet at an annual feast honoring Adonis. We learn about Hero that “Vpon her head a myrtle wreath, / From whence her vaile was artificiall flowers and leues, / Whose workmanship both man and beast deceiues.” As for Leander, “Some swore he was a mayd in mans attire, / For in his lookes were all that men desire, / A pleasant smiling cheeke, a speaking eye, / A brow for Loue to banquet royally, And as knew he was a man would say, / Leander, thou are made for amorous play.” The two innocents are overcome with desire, with Leander pleading “Yet for her sake whom you haue vow’d to serue, / Abandon fruiteless cold Virginitie / The gentle Queene of Loues sole enemie, / Then shall you most resemble Venus Nunne, / When Venus sweet rites are perform’d and done.” The second sestiad ends with consummation of their love.

The sensuous start of the poem continues with Chapman’s rendering of the consequences and tragic conclusion. C. S. Lewis observed that “it so happens that the very nature of the story utilizes the differing excellences of its two narrators and gets told between them better than either could have told it alone.” Other criticisms are more reserved. 

Hero and Leander was first published in 1598 in two editions (one without Chapman’s completion), of which a total of four copies survive. The present copy is an example of the ninth of many subsequent editions—all rare. It is a damaged copy with repairs and four facsimile leaves.

Chrzanowski 1629m *

STC 17421

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675