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Hero And Leander

As you might know, English Literature is a passion of mine and you can imagine how happy I am every time I find a crossover between my two biggest loves (the other being, of course, Greek and Roman mythology). Hero and Leander is probably one of the first examples that come to my mind.


painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson
“Hero and Leander” by Jean-Joseph Taillasson

One of the reasons why I love Marlowe and this poem in particular, is definitely Marlowe himself. As opposed to Shakespeare, Marlowe was a radical and used his art to express his ideas which were otherwise condemned in his time. Unfortunately, he couldn’t finish Hero and Leander. He was killed in a fight, some say because he was a spy at the service of the crown. Later, George Chapman completed the poem, and I can’t help but wonder what Marlowe would have written.


Let’s talk about the story.


For those of you who are not familiar with the myth, Hero was a virgin priestess of Aphrodite who, during a festival, fell in love with Leander. Of course, the fact that she should stay a virgin wasn’t the only obstacle in their love! The two young lovers lived on the opposite sides of the Hellespont. Leander crossed the sea every night, guided by a light Hero would put up in her tower. Unfortunately, one night, a storm broke off but the young man couldn’t give up the idea of seeing his beloved so decided to swim there anyway! The strong wind extinguished the light in the tower and Leander lost his way in the storm. You can imagine Hero’s reaction the morning after when the body of her lover washed ashore.


The story of Hero and Leander is known because of its tragic end. However, Marlowe’s version concludes at the end of the two lovers’ first night together. This particular retelling is all about forbidden love and the game of seduction. For example, Leander makes the very convincing case that Hero is a priestess of the goddess of love and there is only one way to workship her properly. Marlowe was a radical, so it’s not a surprise that this poem gives a good (and tempting) representation of rule-breaking. The essence of the story stays the same. But what makes it a good retelling is how well it fits Marlowe’s agenda and how it adds something more to the well-known story.

"The last watch of Hero" by Frederoc Leighton
“The last watch of Hero” by Frederoc Leighton

Published inBlog: retelling and reimagening

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