Cymbeline Ovid, Pettie, and the Mythic Foundation of Cymbeline
by William Shakespeare

Cymbeline book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Cymbeline Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Ovid, Pettie, and the Mythic Foundation of Cymbeline

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Carmine Di Biase, Jacksonville State University

I

When Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline he drew from a large, incongruous group of relatively modern sources, ranging from Boccaccio to Holinshed.1 The works of Ovid, however, continued to exert a powerful, though perhaps less obvious, shaping force on the poetic vision of the later Shakespeare. Jonathan Bate's comprehensive new study, which very likely will be definitive, confirms what previous studies have suggested: namely, that Shakespeare's handling of myth, which is "highly self-conscious" in the early poems, becomes, in the later plays, more subtle and more evocative.2 In his discussions of the late romances, Bate stresses The Winter's Tale and The Tempest; Cymbeline is discussed only briefly, perhaps because so much has been said already about the mythic qualities of this play (pp. 215-70). Its unusual "fecundity of classical, and especially mythological, reference" was noted long ago by G. Wilson Knight.3 More recently, David Armitage and Joan Carr have shown how the myth of Orpheus informs some of the play's major movements; and Ann Thompson, in a similar vein, has treated the thematic importance of the story of Tereus and Procne, Imogen's bedtime reading.4 What all of these studies show, however, is that when Shakespeare evokes a myth in the romances, he is not merely displaying his learning or adorning his plot. Rather, at this mature stage the "decorative spangling" of the early poems, as Armitage puts it, has developed into "concealed fertile allusion," for myth is now "more integral to the poetic fiber of the plays" (p. 125).

Indeed, so integral is myth to the poetic fiber of Cymbeline that, as I hope to show, its very plot may be a deeply concealed Ovidian allusion. My purpose in the following study, then, is threefold: first, to show that when Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline he intended to evoke Ovid's story of Cephalus and Procris; second, to suggest that he used not only the version in the Metamorphoses5 but also the one in George Pettie's Petite Pallace (1576);6 and third, to explain why the Shakespeare of Cymbeline might have been drawn to this most tragic Ovidian story. For the pursuit of sources, as Bullough says, "should be the first stage in an investigation of Shakespeare's methods of composition" (p. 342).

II

Let us examine first the similarities between Ovid's story and Cymbeline.7 In both works we have a chaste young wife whose husband subjects her to a test of loyalty that involves a bribe. Peculiar to these two works is that the tempter is nearly thwarted by the first sight of the unsuspecting young wife. Here is Cephalus describing the moment:

A thousand meanes wherewith
To come to Procris speach had I devisde: and
  scarce at last
Obteinde I it. Assoone as I mine eie upon hir
  cast,
My wits were ravisht in such wise that nigh I
 had forgot
The purposde triall of hir troth. Right much a
  doe God wot
I had to holde mine owne, that I the truth
  bewrayed not.
                                     (VII.937-42)

In Cymbeline, according to the terms of the wager, it is not Posthumus but Iachimo who will administer the test; but the effect that the first sight of Imogen has on her tempter is the same, as he reveals in the following aside:

All of her that is out of door most rich!
If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare,
She is above th' Arabian bird, and I
Have lost the wager. Boldness be my friend;
Arm me audacity from head to foot,
Or like the Parthian I shall flying fight—
Rather, directly fly.
                                        (I.vi.15-21)

Both Iachimo and Cephalus must brace themselves in order to go through with their plans, and both achieve dubious successes. Cephalus succeeds in tempting Procris only after exaggerating the bribe to an absurd degree: At last by profering endlesse welth, and heaping gifts on gifts, / In overlading her with wordes I drove hir to hir shifts (VII.957-8). Similarly, Iachimo, who soon...

(The entire section is 6,017 words.)