The Interplay of Reason and Passion in “Hero and Leander”

February 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The dominant mode of ethical thinking in the Renaissance argued that the passions should be governed by reason to ensure good order in society.”

A paradox exists in Renaissance ethics: passions – by definition, ‘barely controllable’ – should be controlled, and the success of a stable public sphere pivots on the control of one’s private desires. This juxtaposition is seen in Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’. The male protagonist uses the oratory to seduce Hero, which was seen as the proper manner in which to court a lady. Despite his outward actions, his motive is lust. This presents an imbalance between the outer, what is presented to society, and the inner, the true nature and desire of Leander as the pursuer. To those witnessing this display, Leander is seemingly fulfilling his role as Renaissance man, controlling his emotions. Yet, consummation does occur and Venus no longer fulfills her role as a chaste priestess. Marlowe arguably presents an ambiguous view of the opening statement; the courting couple conform to the outward ideals of governed passions yet still act upon this lust for each other.

The opening statement specifies that passions should be governed by ‘reason’ and not ‘passions’. Marlowe arguably presents their relationship as including both. Before their union, Leander performs an eloquent argument, designed to persuade Hero to take him as her lover. The fundamental flaw in Leander’s oral reasoning is his goal: to obtain Hero as a lover, as if she were an object. His speech therefore begins as reason, yet descends in to an inability in controlling his passions as his persuasion persists:

Honour is purchac’d by the deedes wee do.

Beleeve me, Hero, honour is not wone.

It is important for the reader to consider at this point that Hero is alone and without any male relatives that would usually advise her. Therefore, Leander’s authoritative tone that urges her to ‘Beleeve [him]’ is perhaps the only advice she will receive and can follow. Marlowe’s use of language mirrors Leander’s intent: to persuade Hero that remaining a virgin for Venus’ sacrifice is pointless. The values that Hero have lived her life by, honour and chastity, are cheapened through the verb ‘purchased’, suggesting Hero is an object to be bought by Leander’s words. There is also undeniable irony within this statement. The protagonist claims that honour is achieved through the ‘deeds we do’, which Hero has adhered to also in the deeds she has not yet done. Yet, he recognises the power of his words and achieves his goal through a persuasive rhetoric, a wholly dishonourable act. This deception outlines the need to conform to society’s ideals of suppressed passion and restraining passions simply to words. In reality, Hero undermines this ethical thinking by taking Hero’s virginity. It is also interesting to consider that, whilst this verbal argument is convincing to Hero, it’s effects do not work on Neptune, as his ‘deep perswading Oratorie failes’ (Marlowe, line 710). This bears underlying connotations of gender politics; Hero submits to Leander because she is the weaker sex, whereas Neptune is wise to the deception of men. A further element in Leander’s oratory that suggest his desire if the structure. The rise and fall intonation of the iambic pentameter suggests a ‘give and take’ motion, which bears sexual connotations. This subtly in his desire seems almost threatening, as the reader is aware yet must watch Hero succumb to his persuasion.

Thus far, the use of words as representing ‘reason’ has been examined in Marlowe’s poem. Yet, he also suggests that some passions are simply ungovernable, rejecting this Renaissance mode of ethical thinking. When the two lovers first see each other, there is a significant lack of speech: ‘Thus while dum signs their yeelding harts entangled’ (Marlowe, line 187). This ‘dumb’ element implies that love at first sight simply occurs and doesn’t allow for any opportunity for order to be established. This unpredictability could be seen as a threat to society as it encourages uncontrollable passions between people who have only just met. C.S Lewis comments that: ‘…we see not lust but what lust thinks it sees’. This perhaps suggests a disingenuous aspect to their love; it could simply be lust, but recognised as love through this clouded judgement of desire. Whether it is lust or love, their instant union is illustrated through the transition of pronouns. In the previous lines, the two lovers are referred to separately as ‘he’ and ‘she’, whereas they are now automatically referred to as a ‘they’. Marlowe therefore seemingly rejects the opening statement and supports relationships led by passion, not reason. However, it is obvious that Renaissance society could easily condemn their ‘yielding hearts’. This language bears connotations that they are openly willing to fall in love, but also suggests their eagerness to engage in sexual activity before marriage. This lack of control is further emphasised in the verb ‘entangled’, that suggests the two lovers are connected eternally in a disarray of emotion. Traditionally, Renaissance epics end in death. However, Marlowe constructs a mock-epic with this poem, and the resolution is not death. Yet, there is still punishment for this ‘entanglement’ as Hero is ‘danged down to hell’ (lines 818). It is perhaps representative of the gender politics of the sixteenth century that both parties were involved in the relationship, yet it is Hero who is punished for sacrificing her virginity to Leander, not Venus. This suggests that whilst characters may not remain uphold these reasonable ethics of society, there will be consequences. However, Marlowe does not end the poem in outright death, suggesting that the opening statement leaves much left to be explored.

Throughout the poem, Leander is considered so beautiful that he if often mistaken for a woman. Therefore the ‘passions’ that should be governed perhaps refer to the homo-, as well as heterosexual, relationships. Rebecca Yearling comments: ‘they are relationships that are homoerotic, or even homosexual, without being sodomitical’.[1] This is a seemingly paradoxical statement, especially considering homosexuality was considered a crime against nature. However, Marlowe presents this controversial attraction between Neptune and Leander in the experimental environment of a poem. Leander is confused by the homosexual advances of the Sea God, as typically a male in the sixteenth century would have been expected to be. Therefore, the subject is homoerotic, but the ambiguity means that the text is not ‘sodomitical’; the text as an object in society seems to bear no threat. This feminine vocabulary to describe Leander is used as Neptune preys ‘[upon] his brest, his thighs and everie lim’ (Marlowe, line 673). The named body parts are traditionally female, and suggests a vulnerability and naivety in the young Thracian soldier, highlighting that he does not yet bear the wisdom that comes with age. Additionally, this concept of ‘every limb’ suggests an overpowering aspect that focuses on Leander’s body and not his emotions, implying again an aesthetic aspect to their love. It is also perhaps interesting to consider the social position of Neptune as a God. If he is be above human form, and therefore above the expectations of society, his passions may not have to be governed by reason. Therefore, Marlowe also suggests that much more context is needed for the opening statement; whether they must control their passions or not is perhaps dependent on who their relationship is with, and their social status.

At first reading, it seems Marlow advocates a typical Renaissance view that desire should be governed by reason, however he also seems to question this throughout his poem as he attempts to ‘understand the conditions of his own culture’ (Cheney, p.47). Marlowe does this through looking at relationships that are perhaps outside the boundaries of typical ethics, for example Hero and Leander who are under the influence of Gods. It is perhaps this fictional setting that means social rules do not apply, and Marlowe focuses almost wholly on the emotions of the two lovers. This suggests that approval from society is initially not needed for two people to fall in love, but that there will later be harsh consequences.


Cheney, P. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Lewis, C.S. ‘Hero and Leander’ in Critics on Marlowe (Great Britain: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1969)

Marlowe, C. ‘Hero and Leander’ in Renaissance Literature An Anthology of Poetry and Prose ed. by John C. Hunter (Wiley Blackwell, 2010)

Yearling, R. ‘Homoerotic Desire and Renaissance Lyric Verse’ in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 53 (2013) 53-71

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