This poem starts with the description of the young lovers: the incomparably lovely virgin, Hero, dedicated to the service of the love goddess – she is "Venus' nun"(line 45) -- and the handsome Leander. Both young people are described as having more than human beauty. Hero is so beautiful that the love-god Cupid mistakes her for that most beautiful of the goddesses, his mother Venus. Leander's description is even more extreme, and perhaps a bit bizarre. He is described as so attractive that even men find him beautiful. Marlowe shows his extreme handsomeness as feminine. "Some swore he was a maid in man's attire" (line 85). Later, Marlowe describes him, however, in great detail, with a muscular, masculine figure. This feminization of Leander's beauty was a Renaissance poetic convention. There was a limited vocabulary, at this time, for male attractiveness, and a feminine description was sometimes deemed necessary even when the subject was, perhaps, not as androgynous as it might seem. However, in this case the homoerotic undertones of Leander's beauty are a foreshadowing of a future event in the poem.
The two lovers live on either side of the Hellespont (the strait which joins the Black Sea and the Aegean.) Hero lives in Sestos, where she is a virgin priestess of the goddess. Her duties are to sacrifice to Venus, and to remain sexually pure. She has aroused, it appears, a dangerous desire for her beauty in her many suitors. "Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain/Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain" (lines 15-16). We see her first, in a sacred grove, sacrificing turtle doves to the goddess.
The long-haired Leander lives across the water in Abydos. During the yearly festival to Adonis (one of Venus' lovers) in Sestos, Leander and Hero first meet. Marlowe described it with a memorable ten lines, which is often extracted from the longer poem as its own, stand-alone love-poem. Note the familiar sentiment about love at first sight; Shakespeare used something similar in Act 3 Scene V of As You Like It:
It lies not win our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots like in each respect.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?
After Leander has seen and fallen in love with Hero, Hero is subsequently shot with an arrow of love by the god Cupid. The two meet and speak of their prodigious attraction, but Hero has made a vow to the goddess Venus, no less, to keep her chastity. Though Leander uses clever-sounding rhetoric to assure Hero that remaining a virgin is no way to serve her goddess (or herself), "Vessels of brass, oft handled, brightly shine" (line 232), Hero demurs and returns to her tower.
Leander is afraid of being missed, and goes home across the water to Abydos. There, his father can tell by his face that he has fallen in love. Leander flees and goes to stand upon the rocks, gazing across the water at Hero's tower. He cannot bear to be parted from Hero any longer, so 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 another famously handsome youth – the king of the gods Zeus's cupbearer Ganymede. Neptune has long coveted this young man, and takes this as an opportunity to steal him from his brother-god. He captures Leander and takes him down to his palace in the deep. Descriptions of sea-nymphs and mermaids, and the wealth under the oceans, ensue. Once Neptune realizes that Leander is almost drowned, and therefore cannot be Ganymede (who was made immortal by Zeus), the god brings Leander back to the surface.
Breathing air again, Leander begins to swim toward Sestos, but Neptune follows underneath him, kissing and caressing him at every stroke. Leander is frightened by this and cries out "O let me visit Hero ere I die!" (line 661) Neptune will not relent, and continues caressing him and talking of love. Once again Leander's sexual ambiguity is brought up – he tells Neptune he is no woman. Neptune at last sees that Leander will not give into him, and sadly lets him go.
Leander reaches Hero's tower, and knocks on her door. Hero is surprised to find Leander 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 engage in amorous embraces, but Hero, mindful of the value of her sacred chastity, attempts to hold Leander off for a time. Eventually they are overcome by their feelings, and, though they are both a little unsure of how to proceed, they consummate their love. The poem ends as morning dawns.
Hero and Leander is a poem – an epyllion, that is, a short epic poem – which Marlowe composed based on work by the sixth-century poet Musaeus. The story, of course, is much older, based on various versions of a Greek myth. The narrative itself is one of iconic separated lovers, a tale full of Roman mythological references which would have been clear and meaningful to most of Marlowe's readers. This poem was written in the last year of Marlowe's life, 1593. It was a plague year, and the London theatres all were closed. Therefore Marlowe could not write for the stage, and poetry was his creative outlet. For a poem written in such a dark time, and about such a tragic subject (although the lovers' end is actually not shown to us by Marlowe), Marlowe's tone is surprisingly light, and the lines are full of a love of humanity and a wonder at the beauty of the world. Particularly the descriptions of Leander and Hero, and the vivid picture of the underwater kingdom of Neptune, are vivid and compelling. The poem has been termed "mock-epic" because it is so full of humor. Hopkins calls it "one of the most deliciously comic poems of Elizabethan literature" (literaryencyclopedia.com).
Marlowe's poem is thought to be unfinished, because the story of Musaeus goes on to tell of the lovers' tragic demise. It is possible that Marlowe meant to continue the story (for he introduces characters who are not mentioned again – such as the "dwarfish beldame" (line 351) and Leander's father), but, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is just as likely that Marlowe meant never to continue this poem any further. Since the poem's tone is so light and full of humor, it is hard to imagine the subject matter changing so drastically from the joy of young lovers to their deaths. However, Marlowe had already proved that he was capable of writing compellingly about the full range of emotions, so he could have intended to finish the story. The poem as it stands, however, can be judged as a complete work of art. George Chapman divided Marlowe's lines, later, in to two sestiads, and composed an additional four to finish the story. Those lines, however, are Chapman's, and differ greatly from Marlowe's original work. They are not considered here.
The insistence of Leander's feminine beauty, not once but twice in this poem, is seen by some critics as evidence of Marlowe's homosexuality. It may well be, but this convention of the allure young men have for other men is evident in the original story, not invented Marlowe. The classical world was much more accustomed to references to homosexuality than the Elizabethan Christian world of Marlowe. He delights in it, however, lingering lovingly on descriptions of Leander (a full forty lines on Leander's description alone, compared with forty-five on Hero, though her description is as much about her dress as her person) and his attractiveness. The importance placed on Leander's attractiveness, however, is more than is usual in poems of this type. It is easy to see how Marlowe may have been putting some of his own feelings into the poem.
On the negative side, the courtship of Leander by Neptune is both explicit and disturbing, because Leander is frightened, does not desire the attention, and doesn't exactly know what is happening. He is nearly drowned, and cannot imagine what this god would want from him. Leander shows his sexual ignorance by insisting that he is not a woman. This is not the only instance of his extreme naiveté; later, Leander he does not understand what it to be done to consummate his relationship with Hero. This extreme sexual innocence is common in classical poems (such as Daphnis and Chloe) and was considered by the Romans especially to be an interesting subject for a love-poem. This is not a common theme in Elizabethan poetry, so Marlowe took this from Musaeus.
The joyous meeting and reunion of the lovers is love-poetry of a particularly effective kind. The emphasis is on the looks in the eyes of the lovers, the words they speak, the embraces they attempt. The realistic touches (such as Leander attempting, by sophistry, to convince Hero to sleep with him) are charming, and remind the reader that these two are not simply iconic lovers from the distant past. Hero and Leander are compelling because their reactions (even the less-than-truthful words of Hero, as she attempts to hold off Leander) are innocent and based on universal human emotions. Marlowe took a story from Greek myths intact, but made the characters believable to an Elizabethan audience.