Write about the function of wit and humour in Hero and Leander.

"The tone of Hero and Leander encompasses many extremes: tenderness and ruthlessness, romantic luxuriance and a clipped, ironic detachment."[1] Throughout it all there is a sense that Marlowe mockingly regards humankind and its pitiful struggles, but ultimately that his humour may be directed as much toward himself as others. This is the conclusion I shall be seeking to prove in my analysis of Marlowe's poem; that its rich contents of wit and humour may have their roots in the author's own endeavours to come to terms with the world around him, and that they are decisively wielded instruments directed towards a definite purpose. Humour in Hero and Leander both inclusive and exclusive of those it touches: the fierce wit degrades and humiliates its subject, but is excusable (even worthy) because this is the way that all are viewed and judged. It confirms the old adage that the author is not prejudiced, in that he holds the same contempt for everyone in equal measure.

In order to assess the function of wit and humour in this poem, I shall be investigating the authorial intentions of this "restless, conflicting, unstable spirit"[2]. With proper objectivity in mind, all that we can properly say is that Hero and Leander diverges creatively from its sources to a great extent. The humorous and sexually charged approach of Leander by Neptune is not present in the text by Musaeus[3], nor is a great deal of the characteristic angst which Marlowe attaches to the two main protagonists. Extrapolated from this is the possibility that the author is intent upon presenting the reluctant couple with more obstacles than they had already. These serve multiple purposes: they are sources from which humour is derived, but also represent very human interaction, and both purposes are in a sense comedy.

The figure of Marlowe represents an exceedingly interesting subject in the literary canon, and any essay addressing his work would be remiss in omitting mention of the popularly demonised myth of their author, for instance his views that:

Religion served its purpose amongst primitive peoples ('the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe'), but now it was a laughable institution (the Sacrament 'would have bin much better being administered in a Tobacco pipe'); it was moreover based on a badly written book. He himself could devise a much better religion if he tried, and in the meantime 'all they that love not tobacco and Boyes were fooles'.[4]

Springing from the infamous 'Baines Note,' these words attributed to Marlowe (discussed by Steane) cannot be verified, but are a compelling part of the myth of their supposed utterer as a dangerous rebel and freethinker. These lines also focus on two of the topics I wish to examine for their function in Hero and Leander's rich humour: religion and homosexuality.

If these opinions are to be borne out, we would expect Marlowe to present religion jocularly or in a negative manner to us through his work, and there is evidence to support this: "often in the mediaeval, and often in the mediaeval plays (as often in Doctor Faustus) the devils provide the fun."[5] This theme can be seen continued in Hero and Leander, in which the interference of supernatural agencies provides humour for the audience, whilst causing the main mortal characters to suffer. Thus, there is a strong undercurrent of what might be best termed Schadenfreude[6] running through Hero and Leander, as in other texts of Marlowe's.

There is also evidence of Marlowe's ongoing disregard of religion in Leander's speech praising Hero ("...you exceed her farre / To whom you offer ... Why should you worship her, her you surpasse"[7]), which evokes good humour, but also contains a subtle implicit disrespect of Venus, a goddess. However, writing off Hero and Leander as simply a jocular attack on Christianity and religion in general would be a simplistic and limiting reading, and an obstacle to the purpose of examining authorial intent. Similarly, early critical readings seem to have focused on the texture of the language and gone little further than labelling the poem as an enjoyable diversion legitimised by its heathen setting:

In contrast to [the possible view of Hero and Leander as a series of 'careless raptures' and a 'pagan romp[8]'] the poem has also afforded appreciation of a more austere kind. Sophistication, wit, irony and detachment have been diagnosed, and these too have appeared to be the 'essential' Hero and Leander. What every [earlier critic] seems to agree about is that it should not be taken too seriously.[9]

Steane takes the view that to dismiss the humour inherent in Hero and Leander as mere whimsy is a 'belittling misrepresentation', as do I. A close reading of the text suggests that, given the knowing tone of the author, it would be short-sighted not to assume direction of the humour working both within and outside the scope of the narrative.

Certainly, a fair amount of the humour present relies upon the listener having received a classical education, and is suggested rather than explicitly stated. For example, the subtle early reference to Narcissus' "[dying] ere he could enjoy the loue of any" evokes rueful humour without requiring the tale's retelling there. More strikingly, the fact that Neptune offers Leander a bracelet of water-breathing said to be Helle's is preposterous, since the classical Helle fell off a flying ram and drowned.[10] What Marlowe's audience made of this interchange would depend on which versions of the myth they had been exposed to: the abduction of Ganymede grows more twisted a tale in retellings and reinterpretations.[11] Homer (in the Iliad) states that, as the "loveliest of mortal men", he was carried off by the Gods; later (by the time of Hymn 5, to Aphrodite) specifically that it was Zeus. It is left to Pindar to explain that Zeus "stole Ganymede because he was in love with him", but this sexual slant was picked up by subsequent authors as a source of amusement before Marlowe happened upon it: The Lucian version of Ganymede is a simple farm-hand, who plays a role "of exaggerated (but sincere) innocence by which Lucian mocks Zeus' sexual interest". Marlowe picks up on this already established thread for humorous exploitation in Hero and Leander, but his humour relies to a greater extent upon a process of humiliation, the target not simply lusty old Neptune, but his hapless would-be suitor. It is a carefully rehearsed set-piece of humour, the foundations of which are built early in the poem ("Jove might have sipt out Nectar from his hand"[12]), and serves to illustrate how finely Marlowe interweaves his analytical wit with the plot, and emphasise the breadth of his scope and control.

Underpinning the text as a whole is an almost tangible sense of irony, present in situations such as chaste Hero honouring Venus underneath a tableau of the gods indulgently "committing headdie ryots, incest, rapes"[13]. In Hero's confrontation with her suitor, "He started up, she blusht as one asham'd / Wherewith Leander much more was inflam'd"[14] the irony here being that the more the female struggles to remain chaste and virtuous, the more attractive she is to the pursuing male; posing simultaneously a greater challenge and a greater perceived reward.

A large number of dynamic posturings, such as Neptune's offer of Helle's bracelet, are skilfully revealed by Marlowe to be farcically empty. Leander's aurguments, "Virginitie, albeit some highly praise it / Compar'd with marriage, had you tried them both / Differs as much, as wine and water doth"[15] and that "Honour is purchas'd by the deedes wee do"[16] and is not inherent, are ridiculous because Leander lacks the worldly experience to make them; when the lovers are together, we are treated to a humorous letdown, when, "as a brother with his sister [he] toyed / Supposing nothing else was to be done"[17]. They are also for another reason ironically unnecessarily fervent arguments, since Hero has already fallen for him, and is prepared, though unhappy about it, to fall further.

Leander's "Rhethoricke to deceive a maid"[18] is Marlowe's construction and not that of Musaeus, and his created 'angst of love' is a particularly rich source of affective humour. When Hero with "everie part / Strove to resist the motions of her hart."[19], the following passage of tales of gods meddling in the affairs of mortals serves to illustrate how capricious is love, and how complications and anguish are universally shared problems. In stark contrast, Marlowe's humour can be at times surprisingly petty:

"the last item listed among Hero's personal effects—the quaint device of water-filled sparrows who cheruped around the knees 'as she went'—carries the pretty femininity of the picture to a point where it is likely to stimulate masculine laughter at its expense."[20]

Whilst I feel that this is perhaps a little uncharitable a final judgement, I would agree that this, and Marlowe's use of the oxymoronic phrase "Venus nun" in this description (suggesting the purposefully teasing dual aspect of female nature), is likely posited with the intention of raising a wryful smile from his male contemporaries. There is too perhaps enough anger in this use of contradictory terminology that could point to Marlowe's personal knowledge of the subject... however, this is purely my own wild conjecture.

On the theme of the author's presence in the text, in his critical analysis Pendry argues that:

Marlowe's art greatly depends on bad taste, on the practical joke. The practical joke is a form of humiliation which is properly comic when it cuts down false pretensions, such as ... Leander in sexual adventure ... But the humiliation is commonly physical, even violent, and may be inflicted on true pretensions as well as false... in that case the vindictiveness behind it may be traced back to the deeply-felt personal inadequacy of the practical joker[21]

"Incest, pederasty, bestiality are recognised for what they are, but with a remorseless flippancy."[22] There is a very real sense that Marlowe is actively seeking to strain at the limits of his audience's tolerance, their laughter very probably an embarrassed nervous reaction as much as from any genuine appreciation of the humour. It is possible to draw the conclusion that Marlowe behaves very much like a child trying out a new curse word before its parents; Pendry also believes that "in humiliating his characters [Marlowe] is trying to free himself personally from fierce, immature emotions which are nevertheless still evident."[23] I am not so sure that Marlowe is trying to 'free' himself from anything. A more modern readership might suggest that the breaking of taboos is a worthy task if it brings into the open sensitive issues that could not otherwise be addressed, and that humour is a great destroyer of barriers. Even Pendry acknowledges that: "it is largely because he is not deterred by [violence, suffering and death] that one hesitates to write off his humour as merely smart, the bitter knowingness a callow boy has wished himself into"[24]. In this lack of respect for taboos of religion, sexuality and human relations, Marlowe sets himself up into a position in which we believe that he has no fear of speaking his mind. Therefore, we respect it more when he does show sympathetic feelings toward his characters: when Hero is"afrayd / In offring parlie, to be counted light"[25] his sympathy for the human condition, and in particular, a regard for the concerns of the female emerges. This is rarely (if ever) the case when a blazoned beauty[26] of the Petrarchan variety is present, they usually remain without voice, and that Marlowe chooses to develop both his male and female lead so significantly beyond the original source, and with such compassion, is I think important. When Hero "oft look't out, and mus'd [Leander] did not come"[27], the internal struggle with herself is not represented in a way that judges her behaviour negatively; it is, rather, startlingly vivid and true to life. Good humour is present in this poem not simply in comedy and situations liable to provoke laughter, but in Marlowe's commiseration with his characters. This good humour benefits from the sarcasm and the irony present elsewhere and is better seen in the light of contrast.

Marlowe as the narrating voice directly states of Neptune's infatuation with Leander "(Love is too full of faith, too credulous / With follie and false hope deluding us)"[28]. Homosexual appetite is, then, treated with acceptance by Marlowe through Leander (who "rewd / The greefe which Neptune felt"[29]), allowing him to simultaneously extract humour from the situation and present a view of sexuality which is sympathetic in a time that was decidedly to the contrary, with the excuse of what Steane calls 'pantomime'[30]. What we learn from Marlowe's depiction of farcical love is what Leander comes to understand in Neptune's attempted seduction of him: that he can understand the tragic comedy of being in love, being so himself. We also learn that gods (as people) never seem to learn.... Neptune is duly encouraged by Leander's face, and goes off to fetch further gifts. Indeed, in the Homeric tradition Marlowe generally seems to follow, the gods seem to differ largely from humankind only in their immortality, and not in their actions.[31] This is further evidence for the concept that Marlowe uses humour as a universal leveller.

In his conclusion[32], Steane urges caution in reading Marlowe's characters as being too representative of their author, or the opposite; as totally detached. I hope that I have managed to present here neither side of that argument in isolation. My considered personal opinion is that a less controversial person could never have conceived of such radical ideas, much less created such a precisely crafted and targeted work. Nor, I believe, would a less rebellious mind have embraced the entire sphere of human endeavour with such carefree disregard for laws and 'proper behaviour' and have succeeded in creating something so healthily comedic and understanding. Though I disagree with him on other things, I choose to read this comedy of blundering first steps in love as does Pendry in that Marlowe's dark and brilliantly executed humour is "a contempt for the absurd strivings and conclusions of human beings"[33]. If the poet were the character history paints him to be, I believe he would feel vindicated.


Pendry and Maxwell (ed.), Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, (1976, Aldine Press)

J. B. Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study, (1964, Cambridge University Press)

Michael Simpson (trans. & ed.) Gods & Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, (1976, University of Massachusetts Press)

D. C. Feeney, The Gods In Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition, (1991, Oxford University Press)

All poem line references are taken from this publishing of Hero and Leander:

Norbrook and Woudhuysen (ed.), The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659, (1993, Penguin)

[1] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p311

[2] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p24

[3] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, p399

[4] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p9

[5] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p14

[6] "malicious pleasure in the misfortunes of others"—Mewnes German Dictionary, 1992

[7] Hero and Leander, 211-213

[8] Involving, amongst other things, the wanton play of mermaids (Hero and Leander, line 646)

[9] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p302

[10] Gods & Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, p37

[11] Gods & Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, p191

[12] Hero and Leander, line 63

[13] Hero and Leander, 144

[14] Hero and Leander, 180

[15] Hero and Leander, 263

[16] Hero and Leander, 280

[17] Hero and Leander, 536-537

[18] Hero and Leander, 338

[19] Hero and Leander, 363

[20] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p307

[21] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, xiii

[22] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, xiv

[23] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, xiii

[24] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, xiii

[25] Hero and Leander, 492

[26] Hero and Leander, lines 5-36

[27] Hero and Leander, 506

[28] Hero and Leander, line 705

[29] Hero and Leander, line 698

[30] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p326

[31] The Gods In Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition, p48

[32] Marlowe: A Critical Study, p340

[33] Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems, xii