The Metamorphoses of Ovid Metamorphoses, Ovid - Essay



(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Metamorphoses Ovid

Latin poem, 8 a.d.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is regarded as a masterpiece among the great classical Latin poems. Unlike Virgil's Aeneid, which preceded it by twenty-one years, it is elusive and ironic, mythic rather than historical, and, as its name suggests, continually shifting its shape. Rather than chronicling and celebrating the monumentality of Rome and the grandeur of its emperor, Ovid here examines and reflects upon the passions and inner strengths and weaknesses of individuals. The Metamorphoses is a collection of tales rather than one complex story or set of adventures. Many scholars argue that it is unified by the recurring themes which weave in and out of the individual tales, by the presence of the poet narrator who speaks throughout the poem in a voice which is humane and compassionate—but also elegant, witty, and ironic—and by the physical transformations which mark the climax of each story.

The Metamorphoses is acclaimed not only for its narrative wit and grace and for Ovid's genius in composing elegiac verse that shaped and enriched the Latin language, but also for its enormous contribution to the development of Western literature. Ovid is credited with creating characters who have become symbols embodying psychological states and ethical or philosophical problems. The stories in the Metamorphoses have served as the basic components for works of literature and art since they were composed, and the list of writers, painters, sculptors, and philosophers who are indebted to the poem is formidable. It includes Chretien de Troyes, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sandro Botticelli, Ludovico Ariosto, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Titian, Edmund Spenser, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Alan Jay Lerner, and Julia Kristeva.

Textual History

Ovid completed the Metamorphoses in 8 a.d., the same year that Augustus Caesar banished him from Rome to Tomis, a city on the Black Sea coast of Rumania. The reasons for his exile are not entirely clear. Ovid himself characterized his faults as “a poem,” (probably Ars Amatoria) and “an indiscretion.” The “indiscretion” has not been identified, but scholars believe it was related to his friendship with Augustus's daughter and granddaughter, both named Julia, who openly defied the emperor's policy of austere sexual morality. In the Tristia, a collection of poems he wrote in exile, Ovid reports that his despair was so great that he threw the manuscript of the Metamorphoses into the fire upon learning of his punishment. It was not the only copy of the poem, however, as the Metamorphoses was well known throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, the fourteenth century has been called the “age of Ovid” because of the widespread inclusion of his work in school curricula, and because of the familiarity with his works shown in the poetry of John Gower, Dante, and Chaucer. Ernst Robert Curtius has argued in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages that the Metamorphoses permeated Medieval culture and literature. Often, as in the French Ovid Moralisé, the tales were allegorized and sanitized with appended moral tags, making erotically exciting myths appear to be cautionary tales along the lines of Aesop's fables. William Caxton, the printer, first translated parts of the Metamorphoses into English in 1480. In 1567, Arthur Golding issued the first complete English version. The poem was immensely popular and went through six printings during Shakespeare's lifetime. The Neoclassical eighteenth century poets valued the Metamorphoses for its metric skill and for its analysis of passion. An eighteenth-century English translation was by “several hands,” including John Dryden's. During the nineteenth century in England, the Metamorphoses was, as Horace Gregory, a twentieth-century translator of the poem, notes, relegated to a high shelf, its content too risqué for a period so obsessed with propriety. In the twentieth century what Victorians saw as Ovid's immorality did not shock, and interest in the Metamorphoses revived, with several new translations. Popularity of the text continues into the twenty-first century, with several more editions produced in recent years.

Plot and Major Characters

Lacking one overarching and unifying plot, except for the fact that the separate stories can be interpreted as allusively relating to each other, the Metamorphoses is a compendium of tales whose plots and characters are familiar even to people who have never read the fifteen-book poem. They include the story of Narcissus, the youth who scorned the Nymph Echo, but fell in love with his own reflection; Pygmalion, the sculptor who was rewarded by Venus for his devotion to her when the statue he fashioned and desired became flesh; Daphne, the nymph who fled Apollo and was saved from his rapacity by being transformed into a laurel tree; Midas whose touch turned everything to gold; Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and tumbled to earth when the heat melted the wax which cemented his wings; Pyramus and Thisbe, who became the mock Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Arachne, who beat Athena at a weaving contest and was turned into a spider by the angered goddess; and also Medea, Orpheus, Achilles, Hercules—characters who populate the Metamorphoses.

Major Themes

While each story contained in the Metamorphoses is different, the whole is unified and made coherent by the theme of transformation as the defining element of creation. The poem begins with an account of the creation of the world, expressing the idea that the story of the world, in Horace Gregory's translation, is “a shifting story,” that “new being” comes “out of old.” It ends with a vision of the apotheosis of the Emperor Augustus. Ovid's idea of transformation ought not to be mistaken, however, for continuous mutation. Rather, the Metamorphoses demonstrates that things seem to go from transience to immutability, that characteristic tendencies can harden into reality. The poem's final transformation, in the Epilogue, is of the poet Ovid himself—becoming his poem, and so, immortal.

Critical Reception

Since the Metamorphoses lacks both the forthright implication of purpose of the Aeneid, which converts history into prophecy in order to trumpet the predestined sovereignty of Rome and the glory of Augustus, and since it is composed of a disparate collection of sometimes intertwined stories, scholars and critics have historically grappled with the poem, with the aim of determining not only its unity but also of finding a single point of view. Implicit in most considerations of the Metamorphoses is the critical question of whether it is a sincere work. Does it point to Augustan Rome as the terminus to which all transformation was tending, or is the poem actually an ironic commentary about Augustan values, subversive not only of Roman glory but also of divine benevolence? Frances Norwood regards the very variety of the poem as the source of its unity because of the rhythm created by thematic variations running through the tales. The critic also accepts Ovid's glorification of Augustus as a culminating transformation. Charles Segal discerns a unifying factor in Ovid's narrative ability to depict the humanity of his characters even though the situations in which they are presented are strange and fantastic. Robert Coleman interprets the poem as a mock epic in which the context of the tales often subverts their heroic content, and in which Ovid repeals the homage to Augustus even as it is bestowed. Garth Tissol regards the very idea of metamorphosis as a subversive principle, with the decay of Rome implicit in its grandeur. Patricia Johnson contends that the role Venus plays in the rape of Proserpina foreshadows condemnation of Augustan political imperialism. And Richard J. Du Rocher argues that “Ovid's prologue depicts a speaker who is critical of higher powers,” for “the Olympian gods, especially Jupiter and Apollo, are responsible for a series of rapes, exploitations, and devastations of human beings throughout the poem.” Though they may disagree on issues surrounding unity or point of view, many critics agree with Ezra Pound's testimony “that a great treasure of verity exists for mankind in Ovid and in the subject of Ovid's long poem.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Metamorphoses (translated by William Caxton) 1480

The Flores of Ovide de Arte Amandi with Theyr Englisshe afore Them (anonymous translation) 1513

The XV Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphoses (translated by Arthur Golding) 1567

The Heroycall Epistles of Publius Ovidius Naso (translated by George Turbervile) 1567

The Thre First Bookes of Ovids De Tristibus (translated by Thomas Churchyard) 1572

All Ovids Elegies: 3 Bookes (translated by Christopher Marlowe) 1597

Publii Ovidii Nasonis de Arte Amandi, or The Art of Love (translated by Thomas Heywood) 1598

Remedium Amoris [The Cures for Love] (translated by Thomas Heywood) 1598

Ouids Metamorphoses (translated by John Brinsley) 1618

The First and Second Part of the Remedy of Love (translated by Thomas Overbury) 1620

Ovid's Metamorphoses Englished, Mythologized and Represented in Figures (translated by George Sandys) 1626

Ovids Tristia (translated by Wye Saltonstall) 1633

Ovids De Ponto (translated by Wye Saltonstall) 1639

Ovids Heroicall Epistles (translated by Wye Saltonstall) 1639

Ovids Festivalls, or Romane Calender (translated by John...

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Frances Norwood (essay date 1963)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Norwood, Frances. “Unity in Ovid's Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal 59, no. 1 (October 1963): 170-74.

[In the following essay, Norwood highlights the unifying elements of the Metamorphoses.]

Ask me to state in one word what I consider the outstanding characteristic of Ovid's Metamorphoses and I answer without pausing for breath, “variety.” A catalogue of some 250 transformations, from chaos to Caesar, could be dreary: Ovid escapes monotony with a skill which leaves us gasping. How does he do it? “Had I a hundred tongues I could not list all the forms,” as the Sibyl said to Aeneas,1 but I can at any rate list his...

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Robert E. Colton (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Colton, Robert E. “Philemon and Baucis in Ovid and La Fontaine.” The Classical Journal 63, no. 1 (October 1967): 166-76.

[In the following essay, Colton offers a close textual comparison of the Baucis and Philemon story as it is narrated in the Metamorphoses and in La Fontaine's adaptation.]

One of the most charming passages in Ovid's Metamorphoses (8.618-724) is the story of Philemon and Baucis narrated by Lelex at the banquet given by the river-god Acheloüs in honor of the hero Theseus. The story may be briefly summarized. The gods Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as mortals, travel through Phrygia. No one extends them hospitality. At length...

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Charles Segal (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Segal, Charles. “Narrative Art in the Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal 66, no. 1 (October-November 1970): 331-37.

[In the following essay, Segal demonstrates Ovid's narrative technique of presenting typically real human responses inside the context of the artificiality of his stories as evidenced in the Metamorphoses.]

What makes Ovid such a successful teller of tales? One essential quality will concern us here. Ovid is able to cast his mythical material, no matter how remote or fantastic, into clearly framed, vivid human situations. Ovid has a fine sense for the characteristic responses to be expected in the basic situations of life. By...

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Robert Coleman (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Coleman, Robert. “Structure and Intention in the Metamorphoses.” The Classical Quarterly 21, no. 2 (November 1971): 461-77.

[In the following essay, Coleman argues that the placement of the stories in the Metamorphoses creates structural unity in the poem and establishes an anti-heroic, anti-Augustan theme.]

Ovid's great poem has held its place in the European artistic and literary tradition primarily as a collection of superbly told individual stories, in which successive generations have found inspiration and pleasure. But the poet himself clearly thought of it as something more than a series of detached narratives. In fact he describes it...

(The entire section is 10625 words.)

Frances Teague (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Teague, Frances. “Milton and the Pygmies.” Milton Quarterly 20, no. 1 (March 1986): 31-32.

[In the following essay, Teague traces Milton's comparison of Satan and his army to pygmies in Paradise Lost to several passages in the Metamorphoses.]

In Book 1 of Paradise Lost, Milton twice mentions Pygmy warriors. Describing the army of fallen angels, he writes:

… For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam'd with these
Could merit more than that small infantry
Warr'd on by Cranes …


In other words, the fallen angels are so grotesquely enormous that in comparison to...

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Robert McMahon (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: McMahon, Robert. “‘Some There Be that Shadows Kiss’: A Note on The Merchant of Venice, II.ix.65.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 371-73.

[In the following essay, McMahon argues that Aragon, one of Portia's suitors in The Merchant of Venice is a reconfiguration of Ovid's Narcissus.]

When Arragon opens the silver casket in The Merchant of Venice, he discovers a fool's head and a “schedule” (l. 54) that includes this couplet:

Some there be that shadows kiss;
Such have but a shadow's bliss.


These lines deserve more annotation than they have...

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Michael Atkinson (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Atkinson, Michael. “Richard Wright's ‘Big Boy Leaves Home’ and a Tale from Ovid: A Metamorphosis Transformed.” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 3, (summer 1987): 251-61.

[In the following essay, Atkinson draws parallels between the stories of Actaeon in the Metamorphoses, and Big Boy in Richard Wright's “Big Boy Leaves Home.”]

There is an ache in reading Richard Wright's fiction, and we feel it from first to last. It is the ache of difference, of distance between what might and should be possible for the human, and what fate and circumstance impose when that human is an outsider, is black. It is paradigmatically present in one of Wright's...

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Sylvia Huot (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Huot, Sylvia. “The Medusa Interpolation in the Romance of the Rose: Mythographic Program and Ovidian Intertext.” Speculum 62, no. 4 (October 1987): 865-77.

[In the following essay, Huot compares sections of the Metamorphoses and the Romance of the Rose, arguing there is an inter-textual relationship between the two works.]

In a fifty-two-line interpolation appearing towards the end of many Romance of the Rose manuscripts, the narrator compares the female image over the entry to the tower of Jealousy—the one at which Venus fires her burning arrow—to the head of Medusa.1 This passage entered the Rose...

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Warren Ginsberg (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Ginsberg, Warren. “Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Interpretation.” The Classical Journal 84, no. 3 (April 1998): 222-31.

[In the following essay, Ginsberg argues that the metaphors Ovid uses in the Metamorphoses create ambiguities, allowing for flexible and even contradictory interpretations of the poem.]

Ovid's lack of high seriousness has always more successfully interpreted his readers than they have it. In the Middle Ages, for instance, commentators kindly furnished Ovid a moral dignity I am sure would have delighted him. As a repository of natural science, the Metamorphoses always commanded respect.1 But Ovid's...

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Garth Tissol (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Tissol, Garth. “Ovid's Little Aeneid and the Thematic Integrity of the Metamorphosis.” Helios 20, no.1 (spring 1993): 69-79.

[In the following essay, Tissol compares Ovid's story of Aeneas in the Metamorphoses to Virgil's Aeneid.]

ταράσσει τοὐς ἀνθρώπους οὔ τἀ πράγματα, ἀλλἀ τἀ περì τω̑ν πραγμάτων δόγματα.

“Things do not give people trouble, but ideas about things.”

(Epictetus, Enchiridion 5)

In all his works, and especially...

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Caron Ann Cioffi (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Cioffi, Caron Ann. “The Anxieties of Ovidian Influence: Theft in Inferno XXIV and XXV.” Dante Studies 112 (1994): 77-100.

[In the following essay, Cioffi analyzes Ovid's influence on Dante, focusing on Dante's adaptation of images of transformation from the Metamorphoses in two cantos of The Divine Comedy.]

Ogne primaio aspetto ivi era casso:
due e nessun l'imagine perversa
parea; e tal sen gio con lento passo.

(Inferno xxv, 76-78)

“… somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs. …”


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Stephen M. Wheeler (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Wheeler, Stephen M. “Ovid's Use of Lucretius in Metamorphoses 1.67-8.” Classical Quarterly 45 (n.s.) (1995): 200-03.

[In the following essay, Wheeler argues that Ovid's description of the winds in the Metamorphoses as ungoverned by a controlling power is drawn from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, and is in opposition to Vergil's view in the Aeneid that Jupiter controls elemental forces.]

haec super inposuit liquidum et gravitate carentem
aethera nec quicquam terrenae faecis habentem.

(Ovid, Met. 1.67-8)

Here Ovid treats the demiurge's disposition of weightless aether over the other...

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John Heath (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Heath, John. “The Stupor of Orpheus: Ovid's Metamorphosis 10.64-71.” The Classical Journal 91, no. 4 (April-May 1996): 353-70.

[In the following essay, Heath argues that in the Metamorphoses Ovid sees Orpheus' failure to recover Euridyce from death as an indication of the inadequacy of art given human weakness.]

Charles Segal has written recently that “the line between the cynical, parodistic Ovid and the humanely sensitive Ovid will probably never be definitively drawn because both Ovids exist in the Metamorphoses.1 As he notes, this is particularly the case with the Orpheus episode (Met. 10.1-11.66), for the...

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Patricia J. Johnson (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Patricia J. “Constructions of Venus in Ovid's Metamorphosis V.” Arethusa 29, no. 1 (winter 1996): 125-49.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines the significance of Venus' role in the rape of Prosperine as it is related in the Metamorphoses.]

The fifth book, and with it the first third, of Ovid's Metamorphoses ends with a friendly visit of the goddess Minerva to Mt. Helicon, in the course of which one of the Muses recounts the events of a poetic contest which had recently taken place between her learned sisters and a group of nine mortal challengers called the Emathides. The Muse narrator briefly summarizes the song of these...

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Garth Tissol (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Tissol, Garth. “Glittering Trifles: True Imitation: Ceyx, Alcyone, and Morpheus.” In The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid's Metamorphoses, pp. 72-84. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Tissol offers a close textual explication of the Ceyx and Alcyone episode in the Metamorphoses.]


The cave of Sleep, along with its inhabitants, occupies our attention for many lines in the midst of the vast tale of Ceyx and Alcyone (Met. 11.592-649). These are perhaps the richest of Ovid's personifications. Here again, Ovid's critics...

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Paul Barolsky (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Barolsky, Paul. “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art.” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 2, (summer 1998): 451-74.

[In the following essay, Barolsky explores the relationship between the content of the Metamorphoses and the aesthetic of transformation in visual arts during the Renaissance.]

The story of Italian Renaissance art abounds in images inspired by the fables of Ovid's Metamorphoses, pictorial “poems” by Pollaiuolo, Botticelli, Correggio, and Titian, among others. More profoundly, the very theory of Renaissance art, grounded in the concept of imitation, was often seen or described in terms of a central Ovidian fable, specifically the...

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Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gildenhard, Ingo and Andrew Zissos. “Inspirational Fictions: Autobiography and Generic Reflexivity in Ovid's Proems.” Greece and Rome 47, Second Series (April 2000): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Gildenhard and Zissos examine the relation between the elegiac mode, metrics, and the influence of Cupid in Ovid's poetry.]

When the first edition of the Metamorphoses appeared in the bookshops of Rome, Ovid had already made a name for himself in the literary circles of the city. His literary début, the Amores, immediately established his reputation as a poetic Lothario, as it lured his tickled readers into a typically Ovidian world of...

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Kathryn L. McKinley (essay date 2001)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: McKinley, Kathryn L. “Ovid's Heroines and Feminine Discourse: Metamorphoses 7 and 10.” In Reading the Ovidian Heroine: ”Metamorphoses” Commentaries 1100-1618, pp. 17-42. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, McKinley examines how Ovid uses female characters' monologues, and mythological allusions to amplify the ways male character and psychology can be represented in literature.]

The voice of the distraught heroine, such as Myrrha or Atalanta, surfaces repeatedly in the Metamorphoses' middle books. Ovid indulges the neoteric taste in the representation of the woman in emotional turmoil and explores her situation in...

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A. M. Keith (essay date 2001)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Keith, A. M. “Etymological Wordplay in Ovid's ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ (Met. 4.55-166).” Classical Quarterly 51, New Series, no. 1 (2001): 309-12.

[In the following essay, Keith gives examples of how Ovid uses wordplay to reinforce narrative relationships.]

A wide range of readers and artists has enjoyed Ovid's ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’,1 but the tale has provoked critical attention on two counts: Ovid's source(s) cannot be identified2 and the simile applied to Pyramus' death agonies ruptures the sentimental tone of the narrative (4.121-4).3 In classical Greek literature, Pyramus is the name of a Cilician river...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Baruzzo, Barbara. “‘Ten Little Fabulae’: Ovidian Tales of Love and Metamorphosis in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Cahiers Élisabéthains 45 (April 1994): 21-31.

Argues that Shakespeare assimilated ten tales from the Metamorphoses, weaving them implicitly or through verbal reference into A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Brunner, Theodore F. “The Function of the Simile in Ovid's Metamorphoses.” The Classical Journal 61, no. 1 (October 1965): 354-63.

Examines the kinds of similes Ovid uses with particular emphasis on his use of epic similes in the Metamorphoses....

(The entire section is 569 words.)