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HERO AND LEANDER Christopher Marlowe (1598) Hero and Leander is English literature's finest epyllion, or minor epic, a genre that became popular in the 1590s. Most scholars date its composition to 1593, the year of Christopher Marlowe's death, though it was not published until 1598, when two editions appeared. The first edition, published by Edward Blount, described Hero and Leander as an "unfinished tragedy" and printed it with no subdivisions. In the second edition, George Chapman divided Marlowe's poem into two parts, which he called Sestiads (from the poem's setting in Sestos), and added "arguments" (introductory summaries) to each. Chapman then added an additional four Sestiads of his own, which completed the traditional story of Hero and Leander. Both early editions thus indicate that Marlowe's poem was unfinished, though this view has been recently disputed.

Marlowe's poem is based on Musaeus's Hero and Leander (fifth century), although Marlowe has expanded greatly on his source. Marlowe also used the versions of the story in Ovid's Heroides and the reference to it in Ovid's Amores, which he had translated. The meter of Hero and Leander is the heroic couplet that Marlowe had pioneered for All Ovid's Elegies.

The plot of Hero and Leander is simple. Hero is an extremely beautiful priestess who attracts many admirers. However, because of her vow of chastity, she has spurned all lovers. The equally beautiful Leander, who lives across the Hellespont in Abydos, is a young man who has not yet known love. When he attends a religious festival in Sestos, it is love at first sight for both of them. He speaks to her, declaring both his love and the foolishness of her preservation of her virginity. Due to her modesty and her religious vows, Hero is extremely confused; nonetheless, she invites Leander to her dwelling, a small tower by the sea. The action is interrupted at this point by a lengthy digression: Cupid's desire that the couple's love be blessed by the fates leads into an elaborate "myth" of Marlowe's own making, which begins with Mercury's love for a country maiden and ends with an explanation of scholarly poverty.

Following Hero's invitation, the lovers exchange letters, and Leander then visits Hero at her tower and stays the night. However, because of Leander's inexperience and Hero's concern for her chastity, their love play does not extend beyond kissing. Leander leaves in the morning, but his wearing of myrtle together with Hero's ribbon and ring makes their love apparent throughout Sestos and Abydos. His father tries to discourage their love, which only makes Leander more determined. Spying Hero's tower from across the Hellespont, he resolves to swim to her. As he swims, he encounters Neptune, who is attracted to him. The naïve Leander assumes that Neptune has mistaken him for a woman, until the god attempts seduction by relating the tale of a shepherd who loved a boy. impatient to see Hero, Leander abruptly leaves, which angers the god into throwing his mace at Leander, which he regrets and calls back.

Leander arrives cold and naked at Hero's door, where he begs to rest upon her bed and bosom. When he lies down, she is embarrassed and hides beneath the covers. However, Leander's hands ensnare her. He speaks beguilingly to her, and then becomes more forceful. Still conflicted, she resists, but with only half her strength. Afterward she is ashamed and wants to leave Leander in the bed alone, but he grabs her and triumphantly admires her naked body while her blushing cheeks light up the room. Morning is now coming, and the poem (or fragment) ends with an elaborate mythological allusion in which night is mocked by the light of day and retreats to hell filled with anguish, shame, and rage, the emotions that Hero is feeling.

The magic of Hero and Leander lies not in its plot but in its tone and wit. It is at once comic and erotic, ironic and tender, satirical and sad. It recalls the classical tradition but also includes "myths" of Marlowe's own creation. Events happen quickly, but Marlowe lingers over detailed descriptions and digressions. The focus is on sex and the tension between desire and innocence. For instance, Leander first seems to be an experienced and sophisticated seducer: "Who taught thee rhetoric to deceive a maid?" asks Hero (l. 338). Nonetheless, at other times he seems inexperienced and ignorant: He fails to recognize flirtatious overtures such as Hero's dropped fan, and when he and Hero are first together, he has no idea of what "else was to be done" beyond hugging and kissing (l. 536). Moreover, he is completely confounded by Neptune's attempt at seduction, despite the god's obvious intent.

The poem displays intriguing perspectives on human sexuality. The narrator has a number of stereotypical and even cynical comments on female sexuality: "All women are ambitious naturally" (l. 428) and "In such wars women use but half their strength" (l. 780). other aspects of the poem reverse gendered conventions. Critics often comment about the mock blazon, which creates an image of Hero's beauty and erotic appeal through a description of her clothing rather than her body. Leander's beauty, however, is evoked through the traditional blazon, typically reserved for women. The poem lingers on his neck, shoulder, breast, belly, back, and eyes, ending with the assertion that it is men who are moved by such beauty: "For in his looks were all that men desire" (l. 84) explains Neptune's homoerotic attentions. other scholars have noted the disparity between Hero's profession—priestess of venus, goddess of love—and her apparent chastity. Feminist critics have also explored the violence of Hero and Leander's sexual encounter, particularly as a misogynist comment.

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