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Modern criticism views Shakespeare as a consummate and innovative interpreter of classic literature who availed himself of the vast lexicon of symbols, characters, themes, and subjects from the Greek and Roman mythological traditions for his dramas and poetry. Shakespeare's innumerable references, whether implied or explicit, to the figures of classical mythology have prompted numerous studies, with contemporary critical consensus acknowledging that the principal source of Shakespeare's mythic allusions is the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso's Metamorphoses—a work that details in fifteen volumes the most well-known mythological stories associated with the theme of transformation. Other works by Ovid, including his Fasti, are also considered significant sources, as is Lucius Apuleius's Golden Ass. Because Elizabethan audiences would have immediately recognized references to mythical characters, and since this is no longer necessarily the case among contemporary viewers and readers, modern Shakespearean myth criticism has traditionally centered on the explication of allusions to mythic figures and their possible symbolic or thematic significance. More recently, a number of scholars have discerned in the plays not only a variety of allusion, but also evidence that Shakespeare may have adapted myths retold by Ovid and other classical writers as structural components for his dramas. Likewise, contemporary critics have suggested that extensive mythic patterns inform the major characters and situations of the tragedies, and to varying degrees, the late romances.

Ovid's Metamorphoses has long been considered the single-most influential work upon the Shakespearean canon. The early poem Venus and Adonis is said to follow Ovid stylistically, although Shakespeare generally manipulated his sources in the work, as João Froes (see Further Reading) notes. Other contemporary critics have continued the tradition of illuminating the impact of Ovid's poetry on Shakespeare's writing. Barbara Roche Rico (1985) proposes that Shakespeare reworked the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion in a number of his plays. D. J. Palmer (1979) and A. B. Taylor (1997) comment on the significance of Ovid's version of the Echo and Narcissus myth to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Motifs of narcissism and unrequited love figure prominently in their analyses of the play's principal characters Orsino, Viola, and Olivia. Considering Ovid's influence on the same drama, M. E. Lamb (1980) claims that metamorphosis is a guiding metaphor in the work. Lamb additionally sees Shakespeare's language in Twelfth Night, with its verbal contortions and rhetorical poses, as indicative of an Ovidian mode. Barbara A. Mowat (1981) examines the presence of characters and themes from the Metamorphoses in Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice. In the former, Mowat observes that explicit reference is made to Ovid's Philomela, who is raped and mutilated in a manner similar to Shakespeare's Lavinia. In the latter, the critic contends that the mythological story of Jason and Medea provides a structural parallel to the tale of Bassanio and Portia.

The significance of myth to the dramatic tone and substance of Shakespearean tragedy is a subject of particular interest to late twentieth-century critics, who find implicit mythic patterns reenacted in the stories of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists. O. B. Hardison, Jr. (1975) suggests that the philosophical framework for King Lear derives from the myth of Ixion, an ungracious king later punished in the afterworld by being strapped to a ceaselessly moving wheel. Concentrating on the tragedy Coriolanus, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1985) studies parallels between the pugnacious Coriolanus and his domineering mother Volumnia, and the Roman mother-goddess Juno and her son Mars, the god of war. Elizabeth Truax (1989-90) observes affinities between Shakespeare's “bewitched” killer Macbeth and the murderous Hercules of the Senecan tragedy Hercules Furens. André Lorant (1982) perceives in Hamlet the animating feature of a “cosmogonic myth.” According to Lorant, Shakespeare's drama presents a tragic universe declining toward decadence, corruption, and chaos—a universe in desperate need of a hero to restore order. Antony and Cleopatra is of particular interest to myth critics as its somewhat broader scheme of allusion draws from both Roman and Egyptian sources. Harold Fisch (1970) studies archetypal patterns in the work, including the love/war dichotomy represented by the Roman gods Venus and Mars, and the death and fertility motifs associated with the Egyptian ruler of the underworld Osiris. Clayton G. MacKenzie (1990) presents a complimentary study of Antony and Cleopatra. After enumerating Roman mythological allusions and discussing their martial significance, MacKenzie argues that Shakespeare abandoned the military ideals of Rome by the close of the play in favor of a new myth that explores the transcendent possibilities of love.

Although allusions to classical mythology are present throughout Shakespeare's dramatic works, such references are thought by some scholars to provide a level of structural unity and thematic integrity to a few of the comedies, and especially to the late romances. René Girard (1980) studies this process by attempting to reconstruct Shakespeare's theory of mythology. Girard emphasizes Shakespeare's use of myth in dramatizing a crisis of mimetic desire—a crisis that upsets the prevailing cultural pattern until a new mythology can be generated to replace the old, thus resolving the initial disturbance to the symbolic order. Considering the somewhat disjointed romance Cymbeline, Marjorie Garber (1977) asserts that Shakespeare's references to classical mythology and mythic symbolism provide an aesthetic unity for this “experimental” play. A number of recent critics have also investigated mythological counterparts to the female characters in the comedies and romances, and have examined the associated issue of gender relations. Discussing Cymbeline, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (see Further Reading) tracks Ovidian allusions in the romance, and proposes that the story of Cupid and Psyche, likely known to Shakespeare via Apuleius, offers a mythic substructure to the drama in terms of its thematic and psychological affinity to Imogen's quest for her husband. Janet S. Wolf (1994) concentrates on the female characters in The Winter's Tale, arguing that Perdita, Hermione, and Paulina bear comparison to the triad of feminine goddesses Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate, and to the three stages of a woman's life that they represent. Finally, Douglas Freake (1998) carries on a venerable tradition in Shakespearean myth criticism by interpreting mythological elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Centered on the figure of Theseus, Freake's analysis highlights gender dynamics related to this classical hero, who in the Renaissance was particularly noted for his abandonment of the maiden Ariadne.

Nicholas Brooke (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “Myth and Naturalism: Merchant to Macbeth,” in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, edited by David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, Associated University Presses, 1978, pp. 136-42.

[In the following essay, Brooke analyzes the juxtaposition of naturalism and myth in All's Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, and several other Shakespearean dramas.]

It seems that it is myth and archetype that have replaced religion for the twentieth century, not poetry. Poems and plays are often regarded as little more than media for the transmission of myth; and myth is therefore thought of as more permanent than the forms in which it is transmitted. So the problems of art are sometimes seen as the adjusting of universal myths to contemporary realities. I doubt that; I believe rather that the interaction of myth and realism is mutually modifying, producing a mythology as contemporary, and therefore as temporary, as the realism. But that proposes, at least, the central importance of both to any understanding of art.

In Shakespeare's early work, especially the comedies, the potential conflict is glossed over in the fanciful forms of Mannerism in which myth is hardly serious and reality is freely distorted. The last acts of Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream do indeed confront the problem sharply if briefly, but in The Merchant of Venice the conflict becomes an essential part of the structure. The play alternates between a freshly realistic presentation of the mercantile world of Venice (with a newly elaborate realism of character in Shylock) and a more conventionally romance (fairy-tale) world of Belmont. They incorporate, of course, opposed value systems, which confront one another in Act 4. The myths of romance and of Christianity are conflated; they do not go unquestioned, and it is the play's salvation that Shylock can protest so disturbingly—there is always an appeal from art to nature. But an over-neat pattern is still worked out in the last act's triumph of Belmont, a moonlight myth not far enough from the moonshine that Gratiano returns to the dawn of common day.

This conflict is patent in Troilus and Cressida, though the Greek mythology is not Christian, and only remotely romance. All three recur, however surprisingly, in All's Well. Shakespeare changed the heroine's name to Helena, and the Fool, Lavatch, makes the Greek allusion explicit in his bawdy song about the rarity of virginity. Military prowess hardly dominates, it is so muted; but it is there in Bertram's image that excites Diana (another carefully chosen name) and her mother; and a military world is there too in the practical joking that so savagely exposes Parolles. Exposure, in fact, is the play's strongest dramatic mode. The Countess has to force out of Helena, in Act 1, her confession of ambitious love for Bertram; and she does it by trapping her with the steward's eavesdropping. Helena confesses only what she has to as each drop is squeezed out of her, and the last is still kept back, the intent to marry him. Bertram is trapped by Diana into surrendering his ring—no actual whore could do it more neatly, nor be better briefed for the job. And just afterwards Parolles's exposure is complete enough to bring him to the apt comment.

Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?


The play's brilliant last scene, the trial of Bertram (and Diana) by the King, is entirely a matter of exposure by traps, until Bertram's arrogant blustering is finally penetrated to confession after confession, and so to confrontation with Helena:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.


The least romantic of romantic affirmations.

It is usually said of All's Well that it lacks any consistent language or dramatic mode. I think that is a mistake. Its characteristic mode is exposure by traps; and what is exposed is the reticence with which men and women guard their egotism. Throughout the play there are only two soliloquies that offer any insight into a person: one is Parolles's after his exposure:

                                                  Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.


The other is Helena's at the end of 1.1:

                              I think not on my father …
                              What was he like?
I have forgot him … there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away.


The language is distinctive—and to my mind singularly impressive—in its very bareness. All's Well lacks imagery because it eliminates it, except for one that is sharply definitive, Helena's comment on Parolles's entry:

                                        these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak i' th' cold wind …


The clarity is of the same order as Lavatch's “I am driven on by the flesh,” and it leads through Helena's distrait bawdry with Parolles about virginity, to her conclusion:

The court's a learning place, and he is one—
Par. What one, i 'faith?
Hel. That I wish well. 'Tis
Par. What's pity?
Hel. That wishing well had not a
body in't
Which might be felt …


The reticence that struggles to just so much declaration is painful, and it is striking. It is of a piece with Parolles's “Simply the thing I am [a braggart and a fool]. / Shall make me live,” or with the King's retort to a courtier's flattery:

I fill a place, I know't.


This bare language I have claimed as the play's unique achievement. It is, strikingly, naturalistic in impulse, and it is of a piece with the private domestic pitch the play so largely sustains in handling its aristocrats, courts, armies, and evocative cities (Paris and Florence). It is characteristic that Helena's cure for the King is possibly her father's drugs; possibly fairytale magic potion; possibly divine intervention; very possibly her sexual power, which revives his lust and overcomes his depressive fear of old age and impotence. The King is a sick man who has lost confidence in his doctors. The Countess is a motherly soul, partly sentimental and partly sharp. The Florentine ladies are more calculating than virtuous about Bertram's pursuit of Diana.

It is a mistake, however, to think the play merely naturalistic, inappropriate to its romance plot, as it is a mistake to think Caravaggio's religious paintings merely essays in social realism, related to religious myth only by the need for ecclesiastical patrons. Such critical errors are common about both painter and dramatist, who were contemporaries. Actors and directors have a harder task than critics: they cannot be so selective. All's Well does have a romance theme in its romance plot, and it enacts that at length: Helena's cure for the King might indeed be a stranger magic than sex (if such exists); her pursuit of Bertram is all conducted in couplets without a hint of irony, and ends with a pretense of death to trigger its final success. In this naturalistic context the mock death is hard to take in, which is sharply different from The Winter's Tale. What is more, Helena can be seen with romantic eyes: Coleridge fell in love with her, and he was not alone.

But the couplets that utter this other dimension are themselves unusual: they only rarely assert the full chime of completed form; usually the rhymes are unstressed and the sentence structure set against the verse rhythm; and they never have a sustained rhythmic continuity. They approximate to the broken movement of the blank verse, and they function, not as eloquent affirmation, but rather as reticent mask. After Act 1 what Helena thinks or feels is undeclared: unknown and unknowable. The myth is enacted, but it is not celebrated. Its celebration would violate the naturalism to which it is—so improbably but so brilliantly—related.

In other words, All's Well is misunderstood as showing a naturalism constricted by a traditional romance plot. It is an extraordinary experiment in relating naturalism to myth. It is brilliant, but limited by its own brilliance—limited, in fact, by the reticence that forbids any affirmatory eloquence. We know the myth rather by allusion than by exposition. Measure for Measure has often been seen in similar terms, though always more doubtfully. It too confronts myth with naturalism and penetrates false masks by confrontation and exposure. But in Measure for Measure the striking reticence of All's Well is exchanged for a variety of contrasting, indeed clashing, eloquences: Isabella's “man, proud man, / Dress'd in a little brief authority,” the Duke's “Be absolute for death,” Claudio's

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot …

(2.2.118-19; 3.1.5, 117-18)

in All's Well egotisms are exposed; in Measure for Measure they are given superb and conflicting utterances. And romance itself has its striking, though very brief, expression in Mariana's first appearance and the boy's song. It is a context in which romance themes—like those of The Merchant, related to Christianity—can more plausibly be given a voice, though (such is the achieved realism) with great difficulty, indeed awkwardness. The transition from Claudio and Isabella's confrontation to the Duke's banal plotting is the most awkward in Shakespeare, for it abandons both ends of the equation, myth and naturalism alike. His prose is as much a mask as Helena's couplets, and we can never know how to respond to him. But the equation becomes the dramatic center of the play and emerges in the final procession of couples: the Duke with Isabella, who has made no response to his declaration of marriage; Mariana with Angelo, who would prefer death to marriage; Lucio with the whore of whom he has said “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, / Whipping, and hanging”; and Barnardine as obstinately solitary as ever, brought back on stage only, it would seem, to be part of this procession. The mythological conclusion is presented with all the counterforce of realism in a single, extraordinary, visual emblem.

The mode is very different from All's Well, but the problem of relating myth to naturalism is evidently the same. The last plays solve it by inverting that presentation. Overtly, they are mythological—indeed, they project their myths where the early plays had glossed over theirs, or All's Well had masked its. Their naturalism—and it is pervasive—is in the detail, the local handling. Superficially their achievement seems to be an alien aesthetic; actually, I suggest it springs from the same problems I have discussed in earlier plays, turned upside down. All Shakespeare's comedies—all his plays—are concerned with myth (in this sense, romance and Christianity are equally mythic) and with its relation to realism. His last solution to their cohabitation is to flaunt the myth, and to let that flaunting declare the potency and the irony at once. The continuity is precisely that from Caravaggio's naturalism to Rubens's overt mythic exuberance linked with explicit naturalism of flesh and warts—and Rubens was Caravaggio's greatest admirer (and buyer).

I cannot now develop that suggestion, and would rather end with the play that most fully deploys both ends of the equation, and makes most explicit the necessity, and the problems, of relating them: Macbeth. It has been the center of two radically opposed traditions of criticism. On the one hand, Bradley's nineteenth-century realism focused on the exceptionally naturalistic presentation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and especially on their relationship to each other. On the other hand are L. C. Knights, Wilson Knight, and Cleanth Brooks, who understood the play almost exclusively in terms of its imagery. To both traditions the play appeared to be typical. In fact, it appears to me to be not so much typical as in both respects extreme.

The Macbeths are Shakespeare's only extended portrayal of marital intimacy. They know each other's thought when it has barely been hinted; they both echo and complement each other's strengths and weaknesses, and interchange sexual roles to do it. In 3.2 they exchange back again, as Lady Macbeth retreats into regret and Macbeth looks forward to peace by murder:

Lady M. What's to be
Macb. Be innocent of the knowledge,
dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.


Despite her resumption of supportive rigor in the banquet, they never regain intimacy.

That is a brilliant demonstration of psychological perception—the ultimate, perhaps, in Shakespeare's concentration on character, and its presence here suggests a function of that concentration: the creation of a stage image of nature, the mirror of ourselves. But it does not, any more than in All's Well, exist alone. The play can seem to be explicable in naturalistic terms alone, but it has also that extraordinary display of imagery, no less complete, and only tangentially related to psychological revelation. The most extraordinary of all the play's image sequences, Macbeth's

And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's Cherubins, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air …


emerges from an acute psychological speech, but transposes into a mode that cannot be accounted for in psychological terms. Their intimate exchange of thoughts is used to project language and imagery whose likeness is hardly a matter of their thoughts, but a continuity in the play that offers the audience a dimension totally outside naturalism. The actors' problem with these speeches is that they move from personal “thinking aloud” into a level of purely imagistic language that is strictly impersonal, making the speakers rather mediums than individual psyches (through medium is far too explicit a word for a phenomenon that is strictly theatrical). The demand is unusually strong for visualizing (of a strange kind); but the visualizing demanded seems to be primarily ours; it is theirs only in the generalized sense of their tending to “see things”—“No more sights.”

In that, it mediates between psychological naturalism and the play's other dimension, the supernatural (or mythic). The play shows not only a great many supernatural phenomena, but a remarkable range of them. The weird sisters appear to Banquo, Macbeth, and the audience; the dagger to no one but Macbeth, and even he knows it is an illusion; Banquo's ghost is seen by the audience and by Macbeth, but by nobody else on the stage; Duncan's horses eating each other are words only, but words affirming fact, like Lady Macbeth's “I have given suck”; the horses of heaven's cherubim are words as well, not facts at all. The play is an exploration of the degrees and forms of illusion, and its study of illusion mediates between natural and supernatural, between (in the ill-defined terms I have been using) naturalism and myth. It distinguishes sharply between them—which is why it could be so complete to such alien critical traditions—and entirely interfuses them as well: “Nothing is, but what is not.” It is part of the process that illusion is finally dispelled in rationally explicable phenomena: sleep-walking, the movement of Birnam Wood, and Macduff's unnatural birth, which lead to a very actual head bleeding on the end of a pike (a purely theatrical illusion of horrid naturalism). Illusion is systematically dispelled as much here as it is in the end of The Tempest, although there the process is carried to its logical conclusion as the actor steps out of his role to deliver the epilogue.

In all these plays the two dimensions of myth and naturalism are sharply opposed and contrasted, but the concern, always, is with their mutual dependence. And that is finally interpreted through an understanding of illusion—a direct calling attention to illusion—which mediates between the rationalism and the imaginative extravagance of the seventeenth century: the aesthetic of baroque art. The fanciful dissolution of the facts of nature that distinguishes mannerism, as it distinguishes much of Shakespeare's early work, is subjected to a discipline of naturalism that obscures but never supersedes imaginative concern with myth; and that in turn yields the problem of how to articulate myth without violating naturalism. The exploration generates, in a remarkably short space of time, the development of an entirely original form of dramatic art through a series of apparently contradictory experiments. They are, I believe, part of a single coherent development, one that closely parallels the exactly contemporary development of baroque art through Caravaggio and Carracci to Rubens and Bernini. Shakespeare was not a belated Renaissance figure—he was the first of the great baroque artists.

René Girard (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Theory of Mythology,” in Classical Mythology in Twentieth-Century Thought and Literature, edited by Wendell M. Aycock and Theodore M. Klein, Texas Tech Press, 1980, pp. 107-24.

[In the following essay, Girard endeavors to reconstruct Shakespeare's view of mythology, and claims that Shakespeare employed myth to dramatize an essential “mimetic crisis” in human culture.]

Lévi-Strauss primarily operates with one principle, his principle of binary differentiation. There is a great deal of material, however, that will not respond to the binary differentiation treatment. Unlike many of his followers, Lévi-Strauss realizes this failure. In the last chapter of L'Homme nu, he implicitly acknowledges it, but in the case of ritual only. Instead of differentiating properly, as it should, ritual tries, he claims, to retrieve an “undifferentiated immediacy.”

The notion of “undifferentiated” certainly describes part of what goes on in rituals all over the world—promiscuous sexual encounters, for instance, the overturning of hierarchies, the supposed metamorphosis of the participants into monstrous beings, etc. One cannot agree, however, that what is “undifferentiated” is perceived as some false ideal, to which ritual would absolutely commit itself. The “undifferentiated” is more in the nature of a passage or ordeal, and all great traditional interpretations, notably the Hindu and the Chinese, ascribe to this experience the end which Lévi-Strauss would reserve for myth: differentiation, the acquisition of a higher and more stable status.

If ritual is no less committed to differentiation than myth, the converse is true; myth is no less involved with undifferentiation than ritual. This involvement occurs in the same manner and probably for the same reasons. The undifferentiated presents itself as preliminary to (re)differentiation. The original chaos of the Greeks is an example; Noah's flood is another. Monsters, too, are a kind of “undifferentiation.”

Lévi-Strauss projects the deficiencies of his own method onto ritual. There are no ethnological reasons to cast ritual as the villain and myth as the hero in a drama of human intelligence. In myth, as well as in ritual, undifferentiation is the prelude, the means and the sine qua non of re-differentiation. This profile is standard for both ritual and myth, and it has been identified and described since time immemorial—a structural fact of life against which Lévi-Strauss rebels in vain.

I do not want to give the impression that I dismiss the principles of structural analysis. I think that the categories of difference and undifferentiation are very fruitful, but they must not be manipulated in order to fit a preconceived formula. Within a purely structuralist and linguistic framework, the concept of “undifferentiation” literally does not “make sense.” I would like to show that one can make sense out of it by turning to the most unlikely sources, the kind of sources social scientists usually distrust the most, literary sources. I do not mean all literary sources will do, of course, or even any literary source as such. I am thinking of a very small, and, in my view, quite privileged group of writers, the tragedians of ancient Greece, and better still, Shakespeare. My remarks here will be limited to Shakespeare, but, in my opinion, some of what I will say does apply, indirectly at least, to Greek tragedy.

One great text immediately strikes the eye—the speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, the famous speech on Degree. I have already analyzed that text, and, with apologies to my audience, of course, I will refer to that analysis because it is the most complete and explicit formulation of what I take to be not a commonplace of the time, but an enormously powerful analysis of certain “psycho-social-historical” processes that underlie mythology as well as the literary genres of tragedy and comedy.1

Even if the speech is couched, up to a point, in the rhetoric of its period, the habitual reading that identifies Degree with the “great chain of being” seems incorrect to me. In the “great chain of being,” natural and cultural entities are subordinated to each other in a manner which is not subject to change or a fortiori to collapse. It is that illusion of immutable stability which Shakespeare destroys. The distinctions and hierarchies of culture are perishable. A cultural crisis is described, and Shakespeare presents it as if the Heavens themselves were falling apart. He knows fully well that it is not so, but there is a truth in that language of cosmic crisis, and this truth is the subjective experience of the individuals and communities caught in it; they feel the entire world is coming to an end, probably because until then they have believed in a great chain of being. The collapse appears cosmic because they believe in the unity of the natural and the cultural order. In all cultures, indeed, from the totemic to the medieval, natural and cultural distinctions dovetail in such a way that any threat to the latter is perceived as a disruption of the former.

The proof that the great chain of being is only negatively relevant lies in the disintegration of all specificities and identities. As in modern structuralism, separate identities depend on the differential principle, on the network of degrees which we call structure and which Shakespeare calls degree in the singular. All social ranks, all cultural actions and objects signify each other and acquire meaning through each other. All aspects of culture and of meaning itself stand together or collapse together. The great chain melts away because it is a chain of degrees, or differences, and not of beings. Meaning is positional rather than substantial.

          Oh, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?(2)

The definition of culture as an “enterprise” is incompatible, really, with the “essentialist” vision of the great chain of being and its belief in immutable and substantial analogies.

What can it mean for Degree to be shaken? How can an organizing principle be threatened by the components of the organization? Shakespeare makes it clear that the loss of Degree is one with the internal conflicts of the affected society. These conflicts are presented sometimes as a cause and sometimes as a consequence, but the process must be viewed as a circular one.

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
in mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be the lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

[I, iii, 109-118]

The collapse of degree is really the triumph of violence and revenge. It is true of the Histories, and of the Tragedies, and even of the Comedies as well as of this text. It is true of the Shakespearean corpus in toto. Social and cultural differences disintegrate, and we are left with characters deprived of true identity—or difference, because they keep stupidly repeating the same violent deeds. Tragic opposition is not supremely meaningful as we want to believe, but meaningless: “Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy.” The executioners of revenge are not different from their victims since they, too, will become victims in their turn. The difference which they all perceive between themselves is an illusion. They all think the same thoughts, resort to the same tactics, perform the same actions. When revenge prevails, everyone becomes a perfect copy and mirror image of everyone else. That is what the “undifferentiated” is about. When a community falls into a pattern of retaliation, the binary differences of Lévi-Strauss give way to the symmetries of revenge. The cultural order is flattened out.

Shakespeare has a “structural” view of culture, not very different from modern structuralism, but it is only one part of his vision, and the part that interests him least. If Degree, at least in certain of its manifestations, is arbitrary, as both structuralism and Shakespeare realize, any cultural order, unlike the great chain of being, must be perishable. Far from being a celebration of this great chain, the speech on Degree shows the destruction of an order which is destructible because it is arbitrary, at least in part. And this destruction of the cultural order is a conflictual one; it is the battle of all against all inside the community.

The shaking of Degree is one with revenge and it is one with the tragic or the comic relationship which is the nonsensical clash of mere “things,” deprived of their former specificity. Every play of Shakespeare, from A Comedy of Errors to Hamlet and from Hamlet to The Tempest is a “shaking of Degree,” a process of mimetic crisis which leaves the characters without a real identity—or difference. As they seek to restore this identity through mimetic violence and revenge, they destroy more and more the system of arbitrary but socially real differences they formerly inhabited. Thus, excessive ambition, similar to an escalator engaged by the wrong end,

by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
it has to climb.

[I, iii, 128-29]

This is the tragic and comic paradox.

This relationship is one of doubles, but not in the romantic sense or in the sense of modern psychiatry for which the doubles are pure phantoms, or unsubstantial images, mere copies of some true original. In Shakespeare, as in all great tragic writers, the doubles are real antagonists. That is why his problem is not primarily one of representation—except, perhaps, at the beginning of a play, as in the case of Hamlet when the question seems to be whether the “ghost” does or does not speak the truth. The problem involves a life-and-death struggle between real antagonists, perfectly identical antagonists between which everything, being a weapon, is interchangeable—the swords of Hamlet and Laertes!

As they reduce everything and themselves to reciprocal revenge, the doubles become undifferentiated in a sense that structuralist and even post-structuralist thought, until now, has not acknowledged.

Tragic heroes do not kill each other because they have “their differences” but because they do not have them any more. This is shocking to us, even scandalous, because we see the resolution of conflicts in the removal of differences, social, intellectual, etc.

This view is a key, in my opinion the only real key, to primitive religion, to the mysterious presence of that undifferentiation which irritates Lévi-Strauss so much, not in ritual alone but in both mythology and ritual.

“Classical” writers always borrow their subjects from their predecessors who, themselves, borrowed them from mythology and ritual. The tragic and comic relationship is the writer's interpretation of legendary and mythical heroes, who also happen, more often than not, to be divine doubles, like Amphytrion and Jupiter, or identical twins, like Eteocles and Polynices, or Romulus and Remus, or Jacob and Esau, etc.

I see myth and ritual as the product of an earlier cultural crisis, a more primitive shaking of Degree which is represented in the myth, but from the perspective of Degree restored, from a re-differentiated standpoint which necessarily betrays and distorts certain aspects of conflictual undifferentiation, not only because Degree's vulnerability should not be revealed, but also because, up to a point, undifferentiation, as Lévi-Strauss points out, is the one thing human language, being purely differential, is unable to describe, incompetent to deal with. That is why the conflict of the doubles, in mythology, is often reduced to a mischievous trick of some god, as in the case of Amphytrion, or mistakenly imputed to a natural phenomenon such as the birth of identical twins.

In support of the tragic view, it must be noted that primitive cultures, all societies deprived of judicial sanction, are really obsessed with revenge and with the problem of avoiding its propagation. If revenge is mimetic, it must spread mimetically and the fear of mimesis, imitation and mimicry is a great obsession of primitive culture. Such notions as pollution and contamination are not rooted in epidemic disease only, but also and primarily in the fear of a violence that is treated exactly like physical contagion because it really does spread in the same manner. For the mimicry of rivalry and revenge, Shakespeare resorts to a rich vocabulary of pathological infection and contagious disease.

Is revenge a real social threat? Can it really become predominant? What view of man must be held in order for the menace to be real? If we take Shakespeare seriously, we will realize that he himself asks the question and he provides his answer. Troilus and Cressida is a long and ironic meditation on revenge, rivalry, and human desire generally—human desire in its apparently most noble or innocent manifestations.

Why do the Greeks want Helen back? Because the Trojans have taken her away. Why do the Trojans want to keep Helen? Because The Greeks want her back. The woman has no intrinsic value. She is little more than a whore, already on the way down. The illusion of value is created by the intense rivalries of “lechery and war”.

Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.

[I, i, 93-94]

Behind that sinister and memorable description we can almost perceive the gory masks and sacrificial poles that may well lie behind the Homeric myths. Primitive idols are really painted with the blood of the faithful. What is Helen, if not an idol?

Hector: Brother, she is not worth what she does cost
The holding.
Troilus: What is aught, but as ’tis valued?
Hector: But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer: ’tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god;
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of the affected merit.

[II, ii, 51-60]

Hector speaks the truth, but to no avail, and he is the first to forget his own wisdom as soon as fame, the other whore of the play, beckons.

Rivalry, the source of value, is a form of mimicry. Rivals model themselves on each other, surrender their individual judgments to each other. We are explicitly told, in the play, that only an enemy can confer his highest significance upon glorious deeds.

What is true of Helen is also true of Achilles, who is defined as a human distillation of the Greek appetite for military fame. It is also true of Cressida, who is a perfect replica of Helen, just a little more obvious. As she plays “hard to get” in order to catch her man, we realize that everything in the play is just such as Thersites claims, nothing but “lechery and war,” the one being really the same as the other since both operate in the same fashion, both obey the same laws.

The laws are those of imitation. The imitative nature of rivalry and revenge is rooted in a very simple fact which escapes all modern theoreticians of imitation but which does not escape Shakespeare. When one passionately imitates someone, that person becomes his model and he patterns everything after that person, not only his clothes, his mannerisms, his habits of speech, even his ideas and his taste, but also his ambitions and desires, his “affections of delight,” as Shakespeare would say. He strives for the same position, he loves the same woman; the best of friends cannot fail to lapse into rivalries the intensity of which depends on the influence they have on each other, on the very depth of their “friendship.” This most simple, basic, and yet formidable mechanism of rivalry is always at work in Shakespeare, between Coriolanus and Aufidius, for instance, or between Leontes and Polixenes. And yet Freud had no awareness of it when he elaborated his theory of identification. Psychoanalytical critics are always looking for “fathers” in Shakespearean rivalries without even suspecting that Shakespeare has his own view of the matter which involves no fathers, only mimetic “brothers” and friends.

The descriptions of imitative snobbery in Shakespeare should be read closely. Even when they appear inconsequential, like the portrait of a fashionable lord in II Henry IV, they rarely fail to include, hidden among the flowers, so to speak, the secret spring of tragedy, those “affections of delights” which modern psychologists and social scientists, always more romantic than they think, refuse to recognize as imitative:

                                                  He was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves:
He had no legs that practised not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those that could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse,
To seem like him: so that in speech, in gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashion'd others.

[II, iii, 21-32]

In Troilus and Cressida, there is no imitation that is not conducive to rivalry, no rivalry that is not conducive to imitation. As Achilles stays idle in his tent, Patroclus amuses him by staging parodies of Agamemnon and the other leaders:

And with ridiculous and awkward action,
Which, slanderer, he imitation calls,
He pageants us. Sometimes, great Agamemnon,
Thy topless deputation he puts on,
And, like a strutting player,
.....He acts thy greatness in
.....                                                  At this fusty stuff
The large Achilles, on his press'd bed lolling,
From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause;
Cries, “Excellent” ’tis Agamemnon just.
Now play me Nestor. …

[I, iii, 149-165]

The collapse of degree among the Greeks who besiege Troy is a matter of mimetic emulation reaching down from the top to the lower ranks:

                                                  The general's disdain'd
By him one step below, he by the next,
The next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation.

[I, iii, 129-134]

Anthropologists would never dream of taking someone like Shakespeare seriously, and yet they might be well advised if they did, because his views on mimetic desire, rivalry, and revenge make it possible to understand something which has never been understood—the real raison d'être of religious prohibitions and taboos in primitive societies.

Even a cursory examination will reveal that prohibitions fall into two great categories, the category of prohibited actions and the category of prohibited objects. Among the actions which are invariably prohibited within any given group we find revenge and all forms of violence; we also find, in many societies, some, or all, openly mimetic actions. One must not make portraits of other people, sometimes images of any kind. One must not mimic or parody fellow members of the community. In many communities, one must not even utter the proper name of someone else. The name is perceived as a double of the person named. These prohibitions have been ascribed to the fear of what is often called imitative magic. This view is not inaccurate but the perspective is too narrow. Black magic is an effort to trigger bad mimetic effects against an enemy, effects of violence and revenge.

The real purpose of all prohibitions is to prevent a mimetic crisis, a “shaking of degree.” Thus the objects prohibited by a culture, whether they are sex objects or some kinds of food, are never objects that are uncommon and hard to get but the objects accessible to all, the most likely objects of mimetic rivalry between the members of a community.

In the present reading, many mysterious customs and taboos—like the fear caused by the birth of twins, the notion that one of the twins, or both should be eliminated—become intelligible for the first time. Twins are perceived as the undifferentiated product of mimetic rivalry, and their presence anywhere is a harbinger of the mimetic crisis, a threat to the whole community.

Also explained by the mimetic nature of rivalries is Plato's fear of mimesis. If we look at the expressions of that fear, in The Republic, for instance, or in The Laws, we will find that cultural differences are threatened, and the threat is not purely intellectual; it is the Shakespearean “shaking of Degree,” it is the conflictual collapse of the community.

Plato does not condemn mimesis for the sake of art, as all his commentators would have us believe; he condemns art as a modality of mimesis. The real problem is mimesis rather than art, but Plato never explains the mechanism of rivalry in uncontrolled mimesis. The fear remains “primitive” and finds no really rational explication, as it does, I believe, in Shakespeare.

The raison d'être of cultural differentiation cannot be solely “intellectual” as Lévi-Strauss claims; it is, first of all, pragmatic and self-protective; cultural prohibitions are barriers to mimetic rivalries; they orient individual objectives and desires away from each other, sometimes in entirely predetermined directions that prevent all forms of competition.


A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most significant plays in regard to Shakespeare's anthropology. The mixed-up relationship of the four lovers is a mimetic tangle, a frenzy of mimetic rivalry in which, at any given moment, all of their desires tend to converge on the same object. As violence increases, the four characters become indistinguishable. Individual features disappear, and they cling to purely accidental and insignificant differences, like Helena tall and Hermia short. Each accuses all the others of being untrue to their real selves, of being moved by forces they do not control, but no one escapes this strange alienation that involves overtones of madness. The time comes when they literally no longer know who they are: “Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?”

The undifferentiation and depersonalization of the four lovers is paralleled by the undifferentiation of the craftsmen of Athens, once more under the effects of the mimetic crisis which is triggered this time by a common passion for the theater, the most mimetic of all passions, of course. Bottom becomes the paramount victim of that crisis when Puck thrusts the ass-head upon his head and transforms him into a mythological monster.

Just as in the speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, the mimetic crisis is given natural and even cosmic repercussions. This natural crisis is still one of differences. Natural distinctions themselves are erased.

                                                  The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

[II, i, 111-114]

Immediately after she speaks these lines, Titania makes it clear that the real problem has nothing to do with nature; it is rooted in the rivalry between herself, the queen of the fairies, and Oberon, their king. The quarrel occurs because of an insignificant pretext, of course. It is one more example of pure prestige rivalry, of mimetic desire, in other words:

                    And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debates, from our dissensions;
We are their parents and originals.

[II, i, 115-117]

The lovers bring this undifferentiation about through their passion for absolute difference (which Shakespeare, of course, calls will). Far from being aware of what they are doing to themselves and each other, they think they are generating more and more differentiation between themselves, and their subjective experience is one of extreme difference, indeed, but less and less stable. This illusory difference looms so large that only metaphors of master versus slave, and god versus beast appear adequate to it. As the mimetic model turns into an obstacle and a rival, he becomes more and more fascinating and many psychiatric and psychoanalytical symptoms such as “masochism,” “morbid jealousy,” “latent homosexuality,” etc., are generated. This metamorphosis of the model into a ferocious god, and of the self into a beast, also works along the lines of Pascal's famous aphorism: “Qui fait l'ange fait la bête.” The ethical implications should not be overlooked.

Here is Helena who fait la bête with Demetrius.

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.

[II, i, 203-207]

One of the girls is chasing one of the boys through the woods, and she reverses the Daphne story in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Run when you will, the story shall be changed:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger.

[II, i, 230-233]

These reversals are related to the instability of the lovers' relationships, to the sudden polarizations of mimetic desire on this or that object. As a result, the former animal becomes a god and the former god turns animal. As the tempo of the crisis accelerates, these reversals become more precipitous; individual perception loses its sharpness; dizziness and hallucinations occur, of a type which results logically from the process just described, and which also corresponds to the mythological monster, half-jokingly represented here by the strange conjunction of the ass-headed Bottom and Titania, the queen of the fairies.

As the speed of the crisis increases, the formerly separate polarities will impinge on each other and become superimposed in a kind of cinematic effect. Composite pictures must emerge which will include fragments of all previous images, in a disorderly mosaic. Instead of a god and a beast facing each other as two opposite entities, we will not have a harmonious synthesis, of course, but a mixture, a confusion of god-beast and beast-god. Objectively, the four-way relationship is one of perfect doubles, the symmetry and identity of pure revenge; subjectively, however, the experience is a mad oscillation which interferes with normal perception and which must produce the illusion of fantastic beings, in the form or rather the formlessness of “some monstrous shape.”

The animal images come from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a mistake to view them as if they were unrelated to the other themes, suspended in mid-air between the erotic interplay of the lovers on the one hand and gratuitously fantastic interludes on the other. They are the connecting link between the two. The lovers themselves generate the fairies, through their mimetic crisis.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a collage of heterogeneous elements, as the superficial reader or spectator believes; it is a continuous development, a series of logically related steps that begin with mimetic desire and that will account for the monsters and fairies in their midst if enough trust is placed in the consistency of the author's thought. C. L. Barber, in his book on Shakespeare's Festive Comedies,3 has decisively broken with the psychological tradition and shown the importance of the English folklore which provides the context in these comedies. Behind the seasonal festivals of May Day and Midsummer Night there are old ritual forms which Shakespeare interprets as the reenactment of a mimetic crisis. The mythological elements also originate in that mimetic crisis.

A Midsummer Night's Dream can be read at the level of the fairies and other mythical exteriorizations of the mimetic stumbling block, like the father and the duke. The superficial reading is the one endorsed by Theseus in his famous speech on imagination.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

[V, i, 6-7]

Such a reading is rejected, however, by Hippolita who says that there is more to Midsummer Night than gratuitous imagination and who points to the systematic interplay of the four characters in that invention of mythology.

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

[V, i, 23-27]

These five lines were not written offhandedly. They confirm that A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's own genetic theory of mythology.

The mimetic crisis amounts to what communication theorists call a runaway; it is a self-reinforcing process that disrupts the system and in the end would destroy it entirely. We therefore return to the paradox which revolts Lévi-Strauss so much that he refuses to face it. If human communities the world over transgress their own prohibitions in ritual and solemnly reenact, on certain occasions, the menace which they dread so much the rest of the time, there must be some good reason. It must be true, somehow, that order is reborn of excessive disorder. Somewhere and somehow the runaway is interrupted and reversed so that extreme undifferentiation generates or regenerates the differences of the cultural order.

At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, order is reborn and Degree is restored. Is it a mere trick? Is it a last illusion? Is it a conventional happy ending? Has Shakespeare anything significant to say on this crucial question? I think he has, but in order to understand his message, we must see that Troilus and Cressida or A Midsummer Night's Dream are no longer sufficient. We must turn to the tragic ending as such and to the playwright's overall treatment of that ending.

The resolution and reordering of the community, outside the play as well as inside is brought about by the death of a hero, or of a villain, or of some other victim that is part hero and part villain, in conformity with the Aristotelian definition of the tragic hero. The conjunction of good and bad features in a hero is most likely, Aristoteles dixit, to provide the spectators with that mysterious experience that he labels katharsis in The Poetics.

Katharsis is defined as purgation and purification, originally sacrificial. Most commentators and explicators insist that katharsis has nothing to do with the death of sacrificial victims.

But how can this explanation be true? The place is the same, the victim is really the same and the word used to describe the beneficial effects is the same: it is katharsis in both cases. Just as the death of the hero, in tragedy, brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, in ritual the death of the sacrificial victim is supposed to restore the cultural order.

The sacrificial death of the hero brings the mimetic crisis to an end. The tragic hero, in Shakespeare, is always a kind of scapegoat who seems to polarize the mimetic violence of the other characters and of an entire community. The fate of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice must be viewed in this light. In that play we have both a conscious exploitation of the cultural themes made possible by the scapegoating of the Jews in Christian society and a subtle undermining of these same themes which is also an undermining of the theater and of its conventions obviously destined to supply the crowd with cultural scapegoats.

Kenneth Burke has shown,4 in his article on Coriolanus, that everything in that play is calculated to provide a scapegoating effect which he assumes, properly in my opinion, to be the same as katharsis. Burke is right but he underestimates, I believe, Shakespeare's consciously ironic manipulation of the whole process. Shakespeare says that his only choice as a poet is to provide the crowd with victims or to become a victim himself, to be radically misunderstood and expelled from his own theater. This is what we witness, of course, in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the play within the play, in the fifth act, the ridiculous Pyramus and Thisbe, is a parodic repetition of the Midsummer Night mythically transfigured not only by the protagonists but by theatergoers everywhere. The standard reading of the play verifies Shakespeare's prophetic insight.

More important than the scapegoat effect, in my view and from a mythological viewpoint, is Shakespeare's interest in the violent forms of collective victimizing. The death of Julius Caesar is one example. Later, in the same play, a poet is lynched by a crowd of enraged Romans simply because his name happens to be Cinna, which is also the name of a conspirator. Coriolanus, too, dies mobbed by a crowd of former admirers.

An examination of both myth and ritual will reveal that, at the moment of the sacrificial resolution, the various oppositions of doubles give way to an all-against-one pattern which recurs too frequently not to have structural significance.

If we assume that violence is really mimetic and self-reinforcing, we must also assume that the objects that originally caused the rivalries must gradually take second place to the rivals themselves. Everything is rivalry for the sake of rivalry. If the mimetic impulse remains paramount, the moment will come when this impulse must turn away from the henceforth irrelevant objects to focus entirely on the rivals.

Unlike the mimesis of appropriation which is inevitably conflictual and divisive, a mimesis of the rival will tend to unite several antagonists against a single antagonist. If we further assume, as we must, that mimetic effects are formidably multiplied with the number of people they involve, sooner or later the community will become reunited against one of its members; it does not matter which one. The death of this victim will satisfy the appetite for violence and mimetically reconcile all the other members just as before it had mimetically divided them.

When the mimetic crisis has literally homogenized the community, the mimetic mechanism of scapegoating takes over and unity is restored. Ritual is the reenactment of the whole mimetic crisis, not for its own sake but for the sake of its mimetic resolution.

The collective mechanism behind primitive religion must be much more powerful than anything we can observe today but nevertheless analogous to the pacifying effect which the spontaneous mobbing of a victim can produce on an enraged crowd. The arbitrariness of the violence will always escape, up to a point, those who commit the deed. In the case of primitive religion, the victim of that violence appears responsible not only for the violence of the crisis but for the peace that its death restores. To the transference of fear and hatred is added, in other words, a transference of reconciliation, and the victim, in consequence, must be viewed as the all-powerful instigator of order as well as disorder within the community. Both ritual, which reenacts the death of that victim, and prohibitions, against the objects and actions connected with the crisis, will be referred to the victim and may be interpreted as its heritage and its teaching. Ultimately that victim will acquire all the features of mythical mediators of culture, founding ancestors or divinities. The victim is the transcendental signifier of all relationships between the members of the community, especially the best and the worst. The genesis, structure and dynamics of religious behavior have become intelligible.

In order to summarize my observation I might say that, unlike the structural interpreter who discards or treats as ordinary diacritical pairs those plagues, floods, monsters, and, above all, collective murders that abound in mythology, Shakespeare shrewdly recognizes distorted traces of the psycho-social disturbances—the mimetic “crisis of degree”—that have been expelled and reversed by a successful scapegoat operation. He is never so successful, however, that he leaves no traces at all for us to decipher, traces of the violent destructuration and restructuration that constitute the diachronic process of mythical de- and re-generation.

The reason for such an enormous and still misunderstood prodigy lies, of course, in the whole “personality” of Shakespeare as a man as well as a writer. He is no mere bureaucrat of intertextuality, and his insight into the traces of mythical genesis cannot be separated from his acute sensitivity to the critical nature of the universe in which he lives. Hence the incredible richness of correspondences between the apparently most remote mythological themes and the concrete observation of everyday relationships between the most humble beings. This treatment is the very opposite of the purely rhetorical use of mythology that we find later, in a good deal of eighteenth-century poetry, especially in France.

I have tried to show that answers to certain problems of mythology can be extracted from the works of Shakespeare and that they are surprisingly coherent answers. My own ambition has nothing to do with the task of the critic, as it is usually conceived. My purpose is to retrieve Shakespeare's own perspective, to give him his own theoretical voice, so to speak, on questions we think he has no right to ask, even less to answer because we want these questions to be reserved for ourselves.

This restitution of his own voice to Shakespeare may prove more difficult than it appears. We must cleanse him of the nineteenth-century critical postulates that still cling to him, but we must also beware of recent methodologies which usually try to prove their own relevance by proving the irrelevance of those texts to which they are applied.

There can be no structuralist reading of Shakespeare, but there can be a Shakespearean reading of structuralism. There is a structural moment in Shakespeare, and a “post-structuralist” moment, but these are only two moments in a complex dynamics that also include violent destructuration through mimetic desire and the shaking of Degree. There is also restructuration through collective victimizing.

This last point, of course, is crucial. In the views I have summarized, which I believe to be Shakespeare's even if I happen to share them, collective victimizing, real and symbolic, is fundamental to human culture. The secret of what we call Shakespeare's “genius” may well be inseparable from his mastery of that awesome truth. Shakespeare can always provide his audience with the victims it demands while, on a more subtle plane, he ironically points to the injustice and arbitrariness of this victimizing. He can fulfill the most diverse expectations. He can nourish the appetite for scapegoats as well as provide a genuine revulsion to all forms of victimizing. The great dramatist brings us more than “beauty”; he is a source of knowledge, and he is an enigmatic presence among us; his questions, more than ever, are our questions. They are essential not only to a deeper understanding of man and his works, but also to the establishment of a genuinely human community, the first human community that would not be founded on victimizing.


  1. Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 50-51.

  2. “Troilus and Cressida,” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, eds. Hardin Craig and David Bevington, rev. ed. (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973), I, iii, 101-108. Subsequent references to Shakespeare's works are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959).

  4. Kenneth Burke, “Coriolanus—and the Delights of Faction,” Hudson Review, 19 (1966), 185-202, rpt. from Arts in Society, 2, No. 3 (1963), 190-193.

Harold Fisch (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5463

SOURCE: “Antony and Cleopatra: The Limits of Mythology,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 23, 1970, pp. 59-67.

[In the following essay, Fisch considers archetypal patterns of love/war and fertility/death associated with Roman and Egyptian mythological allusions in Antony and Cleopatra. The critic concludes by explaining the ways in which these mythological patterns are transcended at the close of the drama.]


When critics speak of myth and ritual in Shakespeare they have in mind chiefly the symbolic structure of the plays. Thus The Winter's Tale which begins in winter (‘a sad tale's best for winter’, I, i, 25) and ends in high summer (‘not yet on summer's death nor on the birth of trembling winter’, IV, iv, 80) perfectly corresponds to the fertility rhythm. The accent on fertility in the sheep-shearing in Act IV gives to the structural form its emotional and spiritual content, whilst the symbolic revival of Hermione at the end rounds off the pattern of death and resurrection so basic to ‘the myth of the eternal return’. Such an archetypal structure is older than Christianity (in spite of the Christian colouring) and perhaps older than the conscious memory of man.

In King Lear the symbolic structure of the play viewed as myth-ritual is defined by the image of the wheel. Lear speaks of himself as being bound on a wheel of fire (IV, vii, 47); Kent bids Fortune turn her wheel (II, ii, 173); the Fool speaking of the fate of his master bids himself ‘let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill’ (II, iv, 71); whilst Edmund acknowledges at his death that ‘the wheel is come full circle’ (V, iii, 174). The circular movement thus intimated has behind it a sense of a cyclical order, the rise and fall of kings ordained as a means of guaranteeing the fertility of the land and the orderly sequence of the seasons. Such imagery, more than it is a statement about Lear as a Nature-god (though he is that too), is a statement about his predetermined fate, and about the structure of the play in which that fate is projected.

In Antony and Cleopatra the myth-ritual pattern is undoubtedly central. But one should add that it is not so much a structural principle (as in King Lear) as the actual subject of the play. Shakespeare is dealing directly in this play with a pair of characters who lay claim to mythological status and who at every turn adopt the posture of figures in a fertility ritual. The first such myth pattern is that connected with the names of Mars and Venus.1 From the first scene the personalities of Antony and Cleopatra are mythologically inflated and presented in terms of the conjunction of the god of war and the goddess of love. Philo in the opening speech of the first scene declares that Antony's eyes ‘have glow'd like plated Mars’, and Antony's first speeches to Cleopatra introduce an allusion to the goddess Venus:

Now for the love of Love, and her soft hours

(I, i, 44)

—the reference being of course to the ‘hours’ and ‘graces’ which wait on the queen of love. It is because they are enacting the archetypal union of the god of war and the goddess of love that they may properly claim:

Eternity was in our lips, and eyes,
Bliss in our brows' bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven.

(I, iii, 35-7)

The full miming of this myth-pattern is achieved in Cleopatra's sailing on the Cydnus as described by Enobarbus: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, / Burn'd on the water’ (II, ii, 199-200). The text continues with an explicit reference to Venus:

                                                  For her own person
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O'er picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

(lines 205-9)

Plutarch, from whom this detail (like so much else in this speech) is derived, develops the link even further and remarks that Cleopatra's ladies were apparelled ‘like the nymphes Nereides … and like the Graces’; and he continues that on her arrival ‘there went a rumor in the peoples mouthes, that the goddesse Venus was come to play with the god Bacchus, for the generall good of all Asia’.2 Antony thus combines in himself aspects of both Mars and Bacchus, the god of war as well as the god of wine, Venus having been at various times the consort of both. The whole scene on the Cydnus naturally recalls the most famous scene associated in mythology with the goddess Venus, viz., her riding on a sea-shell wafted by Zephyrs to the foot of mount Cythera. On that occasion she was accompanied by Nereids, Cupids, and Graces. Since she is traditionally produced by the foam of the sea, it is natural that she should thus first appear before Antony. Enobarbus' conclusion confirms once again the supernal, absolute character of her charms. She is not a lovely woman, simply, but the principle of love itself, love, so to speak, carried to the infinite degree. Hence in sober truth it may be stated that

Age cannot wither her, nor custome stale
Her infinite variety.

(lines 243-4)

Her changeless, timeless character is also clearly marked in her own speech where she asserts her antiquity, her immortal, fixed and absolute quality:

                                                  Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black,
And wrinkled deep in time.

(I, V, 27-9)

Clearly she is not simply ‘Miss Egypt’, but the eternal feminine, Tiamat, Venus, Aphrodite. She is as old as the race of man, the source of passion, reproduction, and death.

Now whilst Shakespeare very clearly presents his two main characters in this inflated way, and has them claim all the divine honours, the transcendent status which belongs to them in their mythological capacities, he does so not without considerable irony. We may note here the same dialectical syntax as in Homer or as in Troilus and Cressida where the legendary theme of Helen and Paris becomes a subject for barrack-room jokes (‘all the argument is a cuckold and a whore’). In the conversation of Agrippa and Enobarbus following the Cydnus passage we have the same deflating tendency. ‘Royal wench’ Agrippa calls her, whilst Enobarbus with as little sense of awe before the power of the queen of love describes how the once saw her ‘hop forty paces through the public street’. Cleopatra's own servants also tend to burlesque the mythological theme:

Cleopatra. Hast thou affections?
Mardian. Yes, gracious madam.
Cleopatra. Indeed?
Mardian. Not in deed, madam, for
I can do nothing
But what indeed is honest to be done:
Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.

(I, V, 12-18)

To think of the eunuch aping in his imagination the deeds of Mars and Venus produces the inevitable comic reaction at the expense of the whole mythological construction on which the personalities of the main characters are based.

The Mars-Venus theme is, however, not carried through to the end, and instead, the two main characters merge into another mythological grouping of much greater significance for Shakespeare's purpose, namely the Isis-Osiris-Set triangle with Cleopatra functioning as Isis, goddess of nature and fertility, and Antony as Osiris, the dying Sun-god who is resurrected in eternity.3 Octavius Caesar seems in some sense to function as Set (or Typhon) the brother of Osiris who seeks to replace him with Isis, only to be thwarted by Isis who gathers the mangled remains of Osiris together and thus guarantees that he becomes immortal and reigns as king of the underworld. The blending of the two groups together—Venus-Mars-Bacchus and Isis-Osiris-Set is no accident, since Osiris has a close connection with Dionysus (Bacchus) being also the god of wine, and Isis is the ultimate goddess from whom all the lesser deities including Aphrodite (Venus) are derived. Typhon again is a war-god like Ares (Mars). Shakespeare could have gathered his knowledge of the myth from a number of sources. It seems natural to suppose that he drew on Plutarch's Of Isis and Osiris (still to this day the chief source of our information on the subject) since he had made use of Plutarch's Lives as the chief source for the play as a whole, and Philemon Holland had translated a version of this in 1603. He could also have read an account of the appearance of Isis and Osiris in Spenser. But a particularly tempting possibility is that he had read all about the goddess Isis in Apuleius' The Golden Ass which had reached four editions in the English translation of Adlington by the end of the sixteenth century. It is perhaps worth quoting the epiphany of the goddess as experienced by Lucius in his dream at the end of the book. Since Isis is the moon- and sea-goddess—just as Osiris is the Sun4—it is natural that she should reveal herself to Lucius as he lies on the beach in the light of the full moon, and that her garment should be stuck with fiery stars, with—in the middle—a full moon. It should also be noted that on the boat-like vessel which she holds in her hand ‘an asp lifted up his head with a wide-swelling throat’. The association with Cleopatra is arresting. But the account of the goddess's claims are more to our present purpose:

Behold, Lucius, I am come; thy weeping and prayer hath moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of the powers divine, queen of all that are in hell, the principal of them that dwell in heaven, manifested alone and under one form of all the gods and goddesses. At my will the planets of the sky, the wholesome winds of the seas, and the lamentable silences of hell be disposed … For the Phrygians that are the first of all men call me the Mother of the gods of Pessinus; the Athenians, which are sprung from their own soil, Cecropian Minerva; the Cyprians, which are girt about by the sea, Paphian Venus; the Cretans, which bear arrows, Dictynnian Diana; the Sicilians, which speak three tongues, infernal Proserpine … and the Egyptians … do call me by my true name, Queen Isis.5

Isis is no ordinary goddess. She is in fact the ultimate matrix of nature. She represents what Leslie Fiedler has called ‘the huge, warm, enveloping darkness of unconscious life’.6 But as well as her universal aspect she also has a distinct local connection with the Nile waters, the slimy, fertile ooze which through the annual rise and fall of the Nile guarantees life and sustenance to man and beast.

Shakespeare shows himself profoundly conscious of the full implications of the Isis-Osiris myth, and modern students of mythology could, if they were wise, learn of it in both depth and detail from this play. In Act III, scene vi, we are told that in the division of the middle east between their progeny, Cleopatra and Antony had been enthroned in chairs of gold, she enacting the part of the goddess Isis:

In the habiliments of the goddess Isis
That day appeared.

(lines 16-18)

Cleopatra's monument in which the latter part of the play takes place was (according to Plutarch) ‘set up by the temple of Isis’, and Shakespeare shows himself aware of the ritual framework. Antony's ritual death has all the slow elaborate ceremonial we would expect. His connection with the Sun is made clear. As he arrives in the monument, Cleopatra declares

                                                                                                    O sun,
Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in, darkling stand
The varying shore o' the world.

(IV, xiii, 9-11)

And again:

His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted
The little O, the earth.

(V, ii, 79-81)

Mythological enlargement could not be more emphatic. She herself speaks of her own connection with the moon:

Now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.

(V ii, 239-40)

And Antony had spoken earlier of her unflatteringly as ‘our terrene moon’ (III, xi, 153).

But all this is of minor interest compared with the vividness of Shakespeare's evocation of the principles of death and fertility as personified by Cleopatra, a conjunction closely tied in with the image of the Nile waters. She is the ‘serpent of old Nile’ (I, v, 25), and she swears by ‘the fire / That quickens Nilus' slime’ (I, iii, 68-9), the verb suggesting fertile life but also a swarming and insalubrious abundance, breeding produced by putrefaction. A later speech imaginatively stresses the link between death, putrefaction and fertility:

                                                                                          Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me, rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring.

(V, ii, 57-60)

The vivid sexuality of the image (‘lay me stark nak'd’) binds together its various components. Cleopatra joins in mythic union the principle of love and death: she represents the Liebestod, the downward drag of nature into unconsciousness and death. And this is entirely in keeping with her archetypal character: Enobarbus humorously remarks at the beginning of the play:

I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying

(I, ii, 152-4)

—whilst she herself testifies at the end to the same phenomenon:

The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts and is desir'd.

(V, ii, 297-8)

We recall that among the other personae of Isis (according to Apuleius) is the goddess Proserpine, and she is the bride of death ruling with him in the underworld. For Antony too death is ‘a lover's bed’ (IV, xii, 101). Modern psychologists would have no difficulty in identifying here the archetypal link between the libido and the death-wish which is so central for Shakespearian tragedy as a whole.

But death is only one side of the coin: the other and sunnier side is immortality. For it is the peculiar achievement of the ancient Egyptians that they managed to swallow death in immortality. Osiris is a dying god who dies into eternity. And here at the climax of the play Shakespeare celebrates not so much the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra as their translation into immortal life. Antony himself declares:

I come my queen … stay for me,
Where souls do couch on flowers.

(IV, xii, 50-1)

At the very heart of the Osiris legend is this notion of immortality, the mummified remains of the dead man living on eternally in ‘the field of peace’. Shakespeare had somehow penetrated into this region of ancient belief; creating for us in the last act of the play a dramatic realization of the active attainment of immortality. It is achieved especially in the speeches of Cleopatra as she mourns over the mutilated Antony-Osiris, in this re-enacting perfectly the classic pose of Isis whose long lament over the dead Osiris is recorded by Plutarch. Behind all this we hear the echo of the lament for all the dead and rising gods, Adonis, Tammuz, and the rest. But here the accent is more especially on the revival of the dead hero. Shakespeare presents in the fifth act a ritual of apotheosis in which Antony and Cleopatra in the most ceremonial fashion put off mortality and announce their union as god and goddess eternally united in the field of peace. She performs a ritual marriage between herself and the dead Antony which is going to be consummated in the afterworld:

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me …
                                                                                                    Husband I come:
Now to that name, my courage prove my title!
I am fire, and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

(V, ii, 281-3; 289-92)

It is an amazing piece of virtuosity, this latter-day dramatization of the most primitive and powerful of fertility myths; the one which holds within itself the key to the entire system of nature religion, linking the inner drives of flesh with the varying seasons of the world, and seeking by ritual and by magic ceremonies to overcome the most dreadful of all terrors—death itself, and convert it into love and sweetness, uniting the most disgusting of its aspects with the most alluring dream of which man is capable, viz., the dream of eternal life.

But Shakespeare is no innocent and ingenuous worshipper of nature and fertility. He holds the entire archetypal pattern in his hand; he displays it to us; he penetrates to its inner heart, but there is no final identification either between us and the displayed forms, or between the author and his characters in their mythic personalities. There is a tonal distance. It is enough to quote Frazer's account of the manner in which the ancient Egyptians received the death of Osiris to realize how far away from such simple beliefs the play of Shakespeare takes us:

In pity for her [Isis'] sorrow the sun-god Rasent down from heaven the jackal-headed god Anubis, who, with the aid of Isis and Nephthys, of Thoth and Horus, pieced together the broken body of the murdered god, swathed it in linen bandages, and observed all the other rites which the Egyptians were wont to perform over the bodies of the departed. Then Isis fanned the cold clay with her wings: Osiris revived, and thenceforth reigned as king over the dead in the other world. There he bore the titles of Lord of the Underworld, Lord of Eternity, Ruler of the Dead.7

Shakespeare by contrast presents the whole apotheosis of Antony and Cleopatra within a framework of irony.


The entry of the Clown with his basket of figs in Act V, ii and the subsequent conversation in vulgar realistic prose between him and Cleopatra represents more than a comic deflation of the whole mythic hyperbole on which much of the play is based: it brings a Biblical realism vigorously to bear on the dream-world of Paganism. The Clown functions like Edgar the bedlam-beggar in King Lear, or like the Porter in Macbeth, or like the Gravediggers in Hamlet. And like the Gravediggers he makes death real, showing it to us in a handful of dust. His opening words parody the Egyptian myth of immortality in the fields of peace—that Shangri-la escape from the absoluteness of human responsibility—which forms the very essence of the Isis-Osiris legend:

Cleopatra. Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, That kills and pains not?

Clown. Truly I have him: but I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal: those that do die of it, do seldom or never recover.

The finality of death as in the Old Testament (‘shall the dust praise thee?’) is here given a comic form—‘those that do die of it do seldom or never recover’; and in the phrase ‘his biting is immortal’ the whole notion of immortality is beheld in the perspective of irony. It is the death-bringing worm which becomes immortal. We are reminded of Isaiah 66:

And they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die.8

But this is not the only Biblical locus which the Clown's immortal worm recalls to us. It is also the serpent of Eve in the garden of Eden: he tells us that he knew of an honest woman ‘but something given to lie … how she died of the biting of it, what pain she felt’. And he goes on—

truly she makes a very good report o' the worm: but he that will believe all that they say, shall never be saved by half that they do: but this is most falliable, the worm's an odd worm.

The man who believed what the woman said of the serpent (worm) but could not be saved by what she had done is of course Adam; just as Cleopatra is Eve, no longer the eternal feminine principle of fertility, goddess of love and nature, but the erring female who leads man into sin and consequently forfeits the gift of immortality. Even the fig-leaves fit into place in the new pattern. There is a reversal of values, a sudden refocusing of the whole dream within an archetypal frame entirely different from that which the Isis-Osiris-Set legend had provided. Here man is tested and found wanting within the limits of his brief span of three-score years and ten. Those who die of the worm—that is to say, the whole race of man—do seldom or never recover. A cold, sharp, but morally bracing wind of realism blows through this dialogue. At the end we have Cleopatra reduced to size; she is indeed ‘no more but e'en a woman’ (IV, xiii, 73)—a woman who might have been ‘a dish for the gods’ but who has been unfortunately marred by the devil. Here the worm (the serpent of Eve) has been—as in the standard Christian exegesis—enlarged into the devil. He has become the undying worm who preys on mortal man and woman. The whole ritual of apotheosis on which the latter part of the play is based is hereby exploded, and the hero and heroine become, for the moment, actors in the Judeo-Christian drama of salvation and damnation.


But the dialectical syntax is not provided just by this intrusion of Christian terminology in the speech of the Clown: it is there throughout in the juxtaposition of the Roman and Egyptian worlds. Both sides of the plot are Pagan: both the Egyptians and the Romans pursue a mythical grandeur, a cosmic delusion. In the one it is the delusion of an immortal feast of love, in the other, of an immortal feast of power. But there is a sharp distinction in ethical and dramatic content. The one world is timeless, the other is governed by the inexorabilities of time—it is time-ridden. In Egypt, Antony's honour's ‘prorogued … Even till a Lethe'd dulness’ (II, i, 26-7). Cleopatra seeks escape from time; she proposes to ‘sleep out this great gap of time / My Antony is away’ (I, v, 5-6). Here time is biological; it is the time of Nature; birth, copulation, and death. There is no advance. Lepidus, by contrast, expresses the urgency which characterizes the Roman sense of existence in his words on the forthcoming confrontation with Pompey:

                                                                                Time calls upon's.
Of us must Pompey presently be sought,
Or else he seeks out us.

(II, ii, 164-6)

And in the race for Mount Misenum between Lepidus and Maecenas there is the careful synchronization of watches that we associate with Roman life. (We recall that Shakespeare's feeling for the Roman obsession with time had led him to his famous anachronism in Julius Caesar II, ii.) After peace is made between Pompey and the triumvirate, Menas makes his infamous proposition: he offers to kill Pompey's enemies now that they are in his power. Pompey's reply is that he is already too late:

Ah this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoken on't.

(II, vii, 80-1)

Caesar has the same sense of opportunity; he too like Pompey has his finger on the trigger. At Actium he declares that ‘our fortune lies / Upon this jump’ (III, viii, 5-6). Against the indolence, the drunkenness, and the sleepiness of the Egyptian world (shared paradoxically by the Romans in their Bacchanalian revels on Pompey's barge) there is the pressure set up by the need to act in the heat, the sense of a world in constant motion. It was a Roman poet who wrote ‘Carpe diem’, a love ditty composed by a man with one eye on the clock.

And behind this sense of the passage of time, its inexorability and quality of challenge, there is an awareness of the vaster historical process by which human life is governed. Caesar urging his active star at Misenum, at Actium, and in Egypt, is obeying a force mightier than himself: thus he knows no rest:

                                                                                Caesar through Syria
Intends his journey, and within three days
You with your children will he send before:
Make your best use of this.

(V, ii, 199-202)

Against this plan of world-conquest, the life and death of Cleopatra becomes almost an incident, sad, diverting, and remarkable, but hardly more than an incident. The world moves on, as it must, towards the ‘time of universal peace’ of which Octavius speaks in Act IV, vi, recalling to us Vergil's vision of the ages of the world in the fourth Eclogue. The drama of universal history sets up its rhythm in the play, and the ritual enactments of Isis and Osiris in their temporary incarnations as Cleopatra and Antony are accordingly diminished in size and significance. Their own tragedy observes the mythic unity of place; it is confined to one corner of Egypt: but the play as a whole, as is notorious, bursts the last fetters of classical restraint. The structure of the play does not mirror the ‘myth of the eternal return’. In fact it is its opposite. The play lacks the rounded form, the satisfying, self-completed, cyclical rhythm of ancient tragedy which we still respond to in King Lear with its controlling image of the wheel of Fortune. Here in Antony and Cleopatra time and place extend so as to enclose the theme of universal history as it unfolds itself in power upon the vast amphitheatre of the world. The closed myth-world of tragedy is exploded, for the theme of world history has taken its place. And in this new epic context the mimic apotheosis of the two lovers shrinks to a little measure.


This is the phenomenological paradox of the play, and on the whole Shakespeare is content to leave us (as he does in the other Roman plays) with the paradoxes unresolved, and with a sense of mutually contradictory value-systems.9 And yet there is in the final act of Antony and Cleopatra a hint of resolution. As Cleopatra takes the centre of the stage for her final exit she is not only herself rehabilitated in a characteristically Shakespearian fashion, but the world of mythology is rehabilitated too. And this is achieved paradoxically through an injection of Roman ‘virtue’. She chooses to die ‘after the high Roman fashion’; and she chooses to conceive of her relationship to Antony under the Roman figure of marriage. The marriage between Antony and Octavia in Act II had been a marriage of convenience, another example of the Romans knowing how to seize opportunities and bend them to their will. Yet it had been weighted with moral responsibility, with a sense of the need to further the ends of an historical programme. This had charged it with an almost religious character: it had become an ‘act of grace’.

                                                                                Let me have thy hand.
Further this act of grace: and from this hour,
The heart of brothers govern in our loves,
And sway our great designs.

(II, ii, 152-5)

But the words sound hollowly. The great designs are convincing, impressive, and real, but the brotherly love is not. The Romans lacked the affective content. They had discovered history, but they had failed to discover the individual spiritual force, the quality of human participation, which should give it meaning. They had no notion of dialogue. Cleopatra on the other hand knows what it is to love and be loved: in her relationship with Antony, and especially towards the close of the play, she glimpses a reality which raises man beyond the ‘dull world’:

                                                  Noblest of men, woo't die?
Hast thou no care of me, shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty?

(IV, xiii, 59-62)

These words would not have fallen from Roman lips, not even from Antony's. They point to love as a transcendent reality discovered within human relationships. Such love transcends the value-system of Romanism, but it equally transcends the Egyptian myth-world; for within the Isis-Osiris pattern proper there is no room for the marriage of true minds, but only for fertility and death. And yet it is in the notion of a marriage that this new-found transcendence finds its place in the last speech of Cleopatra:

                                                  Husband I come:
Now to that name, my courage prove my title.

(V, ii, 289-90)

Mr John Holloway points out that the two lovers in this play always seem to require an audience: when declaring their love to one another they desire to be the cynosure of all eyes.10 This I would suggest is closely bound up with the ritual character of those appearances: they function in a fertility ceremony in which all are vitally concerned. But here at the end, it is surely the private character of the relationship which is uppermost. Cleopatra is withdrawing into that private mysterious world where only the still small voice of true love will be heard. She will deny Octavius his triumph: and she wishes for no more public appearances either of love or state in this ‘vile world’.

Cleopatra's death is in one sense a ritual apotheosis: in another sense, it is a deserved punishment for a sinful life (this is the motif stressed in the conversation with the Clown): and in a third sense it is a marriage ceremony, in which Cleopatra rises above her conquerors showing them in the ceremony of love the true human dimension that they had missed. The final words of Caesar underline the religious solemnity of Cleopatra's death:

                                                  but she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.

(V, ii, 347-9)

The word ‘grace’ has now a multiplicity of meaning: it suggests the irresistible beauty of Cleopatra, as goddess of love; but it also carries a suggestion of a heavenly and transcendent virtue.11

At this level we may look upon the deaths of the two chief characters not as an event which climaxes a fertility ritual, but as an event which brings the whole orgiastic world of Paganism to an end. It also brings to an end the sterile, world-conquering inhuman conception of time and history which the Romans had achieved, a history which had no room for salvation. If the Romans understood that history drives us on, if they felt its inexorable stress, its purposive direction, they had no means of discovering what that purpose was, to what end the labouring soul of man was striving. The final speeches of Cleopatra suggest not the meeting of Mars and Venus nor of Isis and Osiris, but rather of Cupid and Psyche—‘latest born and loveliest vision far / Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy’. And at this point where the soul is born and its grace is discovered, Paganism transcends itself and glimpses those permanent and fundamental relations of love which give meaning not only to all human marriages but to the vast and seemingly impersonal march of history itself.


  1. On this aspect, see Raymond B. Waddington, ‘Antony and Cleopatra: What Venus did with Mars’, Shakespeare Studies, II (1966), 210-27, who also points out the link between Antony and his ancestor, Hercules (p. 216).

  2. G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V (London, 1964), p. 274.

  3. The link with Isis as a more than casual feature of Cleopatra's personality was proposed by the eighteenth-century editors Capell and Warburton. (See M. R. Ridley (ed.), Antony and Cleopatra (London, 1954), notes to III, xiii, 153 and V, ii, 239.) It is surprising that present-day scholars have not shown more interest in this suggestion. But see M. Lloyd, ‘Cleopatra as Isis’, Shakespeare Survey 12 (Cambridge, 1959), pp. 88-94.

  4. Cf. Spenser's description of the priests of Isis, Faerie Queene, V, vii:

    They wore rich Mitres shaped like the Moone,
    To shew that Isis doth the Moone
    Like as Osyris signifies the Sunne.

    Antony is also connected in the play with the sun-god Phoebus-Apollo. Cf. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), p. 127: ‘“Deep in time” gives her an infinite age: it does not suggest an old woman, but an immortal … she is an immortal lover of the sun-god, of Phoebus-Apollo’.

  5. The Golden Ass, trans. W. Adlington, with an essay by Charles Whibley (1927), p. 251.

  6. Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1960), p. 13.

  7. J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, ed. 1914), VI, 12-13.

  8. And see also Mark ix. 44 f.

  9. Cf. J. F. Danby, ‘The Shakespearean Dialectic: an Aspect of Antony and Cleopatra’, Scrutiny, XVI (1949), 196-213, and comments thereon by L. C. Knights, ibid., pp. 318-23.

  10. The Story of the Night (London, 1961), p. 102.

  11. Cf. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, p. 131. On the multiple meanings of grace (though without reference to this particular passage), see also M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1965), pp. 150-3, 161.

O. B. Hardison, Jr. (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8046

SOURCE: “Myth and History in King Lear,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 227-42.

[In the following essay, Hardison traces parallels between King Lear and the story of the mythological king Ixion.]

Ever since A. W. Ward's History of English Drama (1899) scholars have recognized that the plot of Gorboduc is a compound of two heterogeneous elements. First, there is the pseudo-history derived ultimately from Geoffrey of Monmouth. In its original form, this material lacks shape. A second element, a framework, is needed within which it can be articulated. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton might simply have “invented” such a framework, but instead, following the habit of the age they drew on a classical myth previously used by Seneca. Ward and later scholars agree that this myth is “the ancient Theban story of the sons of Oedipus and Iocasta and their fatal strife.”1 I do not wish to pursue the influence of the Theban material on Gorboduc but merely to call attention to the fact. It is, in its way, a remarkable fact. It leads to the conclusion that the first regular English tragedy was a self-conscious fusion of history and myth, with the history supplying the local habitation and the name, and the myth, the pattern which makes these elements coherent drama.

Forty-five years after Gorboduc was produced at Whitehall for Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare's King Lear was produced “before the Kinges maiestie at Whitehall.” The similarity of the two dramas has often been remarked. Most obviously, both dramas deal with the motif of the division of the kingdom. However, another similarity has gone unnoticed. There is evidence that, like Sackville and Norton, Shakespeare drew upon classical mythology to articulate his historical materials. There is no need to argue that he learned the technique from Gorboduc. However, such a venerable precedent makes his use of it less surprising than it might otherwise be.

The myth which Shakespeare used is the myth of Ixion. The fact that he was thinking of this myth while writing King Lear is established by two references in Act IV, both of which are noted by Starnes and Talbert in Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries.2 Lear's statement to Cordelia, “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire” (IV. vii. 46-47), is an allusion to the punishment of Ixion. Since Lear compares his suffering to that of Ixion, it is natural to wonder whether the actions which cause his punishment are in any way analogous to those of Ixion. An earlier reference in Act IV helps to answer the question. In a moment of uncontrolled rage, Lear refers to his daughters as centaurs (IV. vi. 126). On the surface the allusion is confusing, since centaurs were usually considered male. However, it becomes intelligible when related to the Ixion-Lear parallel. According to classical mythology the centaurs were the children of Ixion. Starnes and Talbert justly remark, “the story of Ixion and his adulterous offspring was in Shakespeare's mind through a good part of Act IV.”

But is the influence confined to Act IV? When it is recalled that during the Renaissance the Ixion myth was interpreted as an allegory of irresponsible rule and that familial ingratitude is an important part of the myth, the desirability of further analysis is apparent.

The present essay is divided into two major sections. The first is a recapitulation of the details and interpretation of the Ixion myth offered by mythographers who influenced sixteenth-century thought. The second is a comparison of various aspects of the mythographic tradition with King Lear. This comparison leads to the conclusion that the Ixion myth had a general influence on the play, extending from the first scene to the last. Unlike Sackville and Norton, Shakespeare did not use myth for plot organization. His major source was already in dramatic form, and he could readily have supplied any dramatic deficiencies without recourse to mythology. The most striking fact about the parallels noted is that they are ideological. The myth of Ixion supplied Shakespeare with the philosophical issues in terms of which the action of the play is developed.


During the Renaissance Ixion and the centaurs were popular figures, familiar to anyone who had studied Ovid and Virgil in grammar school. Michelangelo planned an Ixion as part of a four-part design showing the four great classical sinners—Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus, and Ixion.3 Centaurs were popular decorative motifs and appear frequently in pastoral landscapes. Versions of the battle of the centaurs and Lapithae (after Ovid, Met., XII) were painted by Rosso Fiorentino and Piero di Cosimo,4 while centaurs figure prominently in such semi-allegorical paintings as Mantegna's “Minerva Expelling Vices from the Grove of Virtue”5 and the “Hercules and the Centaur” in the Farnesina Palace in Rome.6 Shakespeare never mentions Ixion by name but refers twice to the centaurs before Lear, both times in connection with the battle of the centaurs (Tit., V. ii. 204; MND, V. i. 44). Other English writers, including Spenser, Jonson, Bacon, and Milton, refer to the Ixion myth frequently and with easy familiarity.

Like most classical myths, the Ixion myth was a composite assembled by mythographers from scattered references and commentaries. The first synthesis to survive is the version in the sixth-century Mythology of Fabius Planciadis Fulgentius.7 Most later versions draw on Fulgentius, who, in turn, attributes his information to “Dromocritus in theogonia,” which is, perhaps, a garbled reference to Hesiod. According to Fulgentius, the myth of Ixion has two parts. The first is the literal history of Ixion the ruler, who was “the first Greek to affect pomp in rule” (“in Graeca primum regni gloriam adfectasse. …”). As part of his program he retained one hundred knights who were called centaurs. He was soon overthrown, and his fall is symbolized by a wheel “because the turn of a wheel soon casts down whatever it holds high” (“quod omnis rotae vertigo quae superiora habet modo deiciat”). The second part of the myth, the tale of Ixion's attempted seduction of Juno, is not a new story but an allegorical version of history recounted in the first part:

Who seeks to be more than is proper, will be less than he is. Thus when Ixion would have seduced Juno, she made a cloud in her shape, and when Ixion coupled with it, he begot centaurs. … Now Ixion was pronounced Axion, and dignity is called axioma in Greek. Moreover, Juno is the goddess of rule, as we noted earlier [supra, p. 38]. Thus the man who affects pomp of rule gains a cloud; that is, the appearance of rule. [True] rule is that which will last indefinitely. But whoever fleeting time, swift in its winged thefts, envies, is shown images of momentary happiness rather than truth and gains a hollow, windy fantasy.

(Qui plus quaerit esse quam licet, minus erit quam est. Ixion igitur coniungium Iunonis adfectatus, illa nubem ornavit in speciem suam, cum qua Ixion coiens Centauros genuit. … Denique Ixionem dici voluerunt quasi Axionem; axioma enim Grece dignitas dicitur, Dea vero regnorum Iuno est, ut pridem diximus; ergo dignitas regnum adfectans nubem meretur, id est similitudinem regni; regnum enim illud est quod perenniter duraturum est. At vero cui temporis fugitiva vis invidet pinnatisque celerrima raptibus, momentaneae felicitatis figuras potius quam veritatem ostendenti, ventositatis inanem speciem praesumit.)

By Boccaccio's time the myth had grown considerably, partly as a result of humanistic interest in the classics. In the Genealogy of the Gods,8 Boccaccio refers admiringly to Fulgentius, but he has also drawn on Macrobius and shows debts to Servius and Lactantius as well.9 Ixion is localized as a king in Thessaly and lord of the Lapithae. He is described as “avid for power” and “tyrannical,” and the cloud-woman is made a metaphor for false rule, as in Fulgentius. Boccaccio embellishes his comment with a vivid description of the cloud, contrasting its obscure, fiery, and rain-bringing properties with the clear, shining air of true rule. It should be noted that as early as the Genealogy the authentic detail of the cloud-woman has been replaced by something close to a literal storm symbolizing improper rule.

Boccaccio agrees with Fulgentius that the fable suggests foolish desire for pomp, but he prefers to see Ixion as the first usurper and tyrant rather than as the first vain king. To the account in Fulgentius he adds the tale, derived from Lactantius, that Ixion returned to earth after his attempted seduction, boasted of it, and was hurled down to hell by a Jovian thunderbolt. The thunderbolt symbolizes the shock of disillusionment which comes when the would-be king realizes the difficulty of his situation. The wheel symbolizes the ceaseless round of cares which torment him.

It is characteristic of Renaissance mythographers to offer more than one interpretation of a myth. Usually the interpretations are not contradictory, and often they are mutually reinforcing. This is the case with the Ixion myth, which seems to have gathered richer connotations with each new interpretation. Boccaccio gives four corollary interpretations, of which only two need concern us here. First, there is the interpretation of the myth as an allegory of hope which feeds on illusion but ends in disillusionment (the thunderbolt). Second, following Macrobius, Boccaccio suggests that the wheel is the wheel of fortune on which those men are bound who allow passion to govern reason (“qui nichil consilio previdentes, nichil moderantes, nichil virtutibus explicantes, seque et omnes actus suos fortune committentes, casibus fortuitis semper rotantur”).

In the de Laboribus Herculis, Salutati makes the slaying of the centaurs one of Hercules' early labors.10 This occasions a résumé of the Ixion myth based on Fulgentius and Boccaccio. Salutati adds to this material an account of the genealogy of Ixion (in part from the Genealogy) and of the symbolism of the centaurs. Ixion's father was Flegias, son of Mars. Since flegias (i.e., Gr. φλέγμα) is flama in Latin, the genealogy suggests the “fiery humour” which leads men to violence. Men first congregated in towns and elected magistrates to protect themselves from violence: “civitates et oppida struere, et magistratum inducere dignitatem, qui cunctis iusticiam ministrarent.” Ixion is a type of the magistrate who becomes enamored of the dignitas of office while neglecting the iusticia. The centaurs are violent desires for rule, and their battle with the Lapithae is an allegory of the attempt to usurp power.

A few details are added by commentators of the high Renaissance, such as Comes, Stephanus, and Alexander Ross.11 Comes adds the story of Ixion's murder of his father-in-law Eioneus (or Deinoeus), for which he wandered the earth unforgiven until Jove had pity on him and raised him to heaven. A striking feature of his account, duplicated by most of his successors, is the tendency to read the entire myth as history with an allegorical level of interpretation, whereas earlier writers had divided the myth into two parts, the first historical and the second an allegorical restatement of the history.

Comes offers two important interpretations of the myth. First, it is a warning against the desire for glory rather than virtue, an echo of Fulgentius: “Those men who seek glory rather than virtue in any affair, or embrace false wisdom rather than the truth, will do many improper things, wherefore monster-like centaurs are born from a cloud” (“Illi enim qui pro virtute gloriam ex quibusvis rebus consectantur, aut qui pro vera sapentia falsam amplectuntur, multa indecora faciant oportet: quare monstro similes Centauri ex nubi nascuntur”). The second interpretation is closer to the spirit of the tale as modified by the introduction of Ixion's murder of his father-in-law. It stems directly from the sixteenth-century revival of interest in Greek, for it is derived from the second Pithian Ode of Pindar. There, Pindar recounts the details mentioned by Comes, and interprets the whole myth as a warning against ingratitude: “Ixion, as he whirleth round and round on his winged wheel, by the behests of the gods, teacheth this lesson: men should requite the benefactor with fresh tokens of gratitude.”12 Comes followed Pindar closely:

This more than all other [myths] of the ancients makes plain what princes have often learned who uncover plots against them laid by those whom they cherished before all others and advanced to great wealth and highest honor: Through it the ancients showed that forgetfulness of benefits is the most hateful vice of all to the immortal gods; and it was all the more hateful when a man not only forgets benefits, but even repays them with injuries.

(Hoc tamen veterum caeterorum omnium fere maxime patet, quod non semel experti sunt principes plurique, qui sibi ab illis parari insidias senserunt, quos ante omnes charos habebunt, ad maximes opes, supremosve honores provexerant: per hanc significarent antiqui maxime omnium vitiorum invisam esse Deis immortalibus acceptorum beneficiorum oblivionem: atque id etiam multo magis, cum quis non modo obliviscatus, sed etiam inurias referet pro beneficiis.)

The mythological dictionaries are relatively compressed and avoid the finer points of interpretation. However, Stephanus finds time to note that the Ixion myth is an emblem of “tyrants, ambitious and intemperate men in the state, and heretics and sophists in the church.”13 Alexander Ross adds a rather surprising Christian interpretation. For him it is a fable of religious ingratitude. It shadows forth the Christian doctrine of man redeemed from original sin (Ixion's murder, Jove's pardon) only to plunge into post-baptismal sins which eventually lead to damnation.14 Yet the Fulgentius influence remains strong. The cloud is hollow pomp, the wheel is fickle fortune, and the centaurs are symbols of violence.

To complete a survey of the Ixion myth we must recall that two of its component elements—Juno and the centaurs—have specialized symbolic meanings which are used extensively by the mythographers. In the historical part of the Ixion myth the centaurs are identified with Ixion's guard of one hundred unruly horsemen.15 In the allegorical part of the myth they are Ixion's children. They symbolize proneness to violent passion, and in particular to the passion of lust. Dante made them guardians of the seventh circle of hell (the abode of the violent, Inf., XII). The Fulgentius Metaforalis of John Ridewall describes them as “half-men and half-horses, denoting men made bestial by their carnal appetite. …” (“semihomines et semiequi, denotant homines carnali concupiscentia facti ut bestie. …”).16 The association was sufficiently commonplace for Ben Jonson to name one of the over-sexed ladies in Epicoene “Centaure”; and Alexander Ross insists, “they were said to be halfe horses, imitative of their insatiable lust, and proneness to Venerie.”17

The part played by Juno in the Ixion myth greatly reinforced its political application. Jupiter and Juno were considered the twin patrons of government. Roughly speaking, Jupiter was associated with the object of government, which is justice, while Juno was associated with the means of government, which are power and wealth. Among her attributes, mythographers stress her ornate clothing, symbolizing wealth, and her peacock, symbolic both of wealth and of the fickle fortune which attends the wealthy, since the bird is beautiful from the front but “ugly and nude in the rear, just as the desire for riches briefly elevates, but eventually denudes.”18 Being patroness of wealth, she was also patroness of marriage, for, as Ross explains, “it is wealth that can bring in … a wedding girdle; and without that [a maid] may be long enough without home, ointment, or husband. …”19 A final attribute, which was naturally stressed in connection with Ixion's cloud-woman, is Juno's patronage of the weather. She was often shown accompanied by Iris (the rainbow); and the fourteen nymphs who attend her (Aeneid, I, 71) are interpreted regularly as various aspects of the weather—“showres, dewes, serenetie, force of winds, clouds, tempest, snow, haile, lightning, thunder” are mentioned by Jonson in his comment on Hymenaei.20

To summarize, the Ixion myth was conventionally interpreted in two ways: as a political allegory showing the disastrous result of irresponsible rule, and as an allegory of ingratitude, both familial and religious. These two interpretations, while seemingly disparate, were often fused. Coupled with them were several corollary motifs such as the idea of providential punishment (Jove's thunderbolt), the idea of lust (the centaurs), emphasis on wealth as a source of power (Juno symbolism), and others. Having briefly examined these ideas, we may turn to King Lear.


Irresponsibility: the Desire for “Dignitas.” The earliest and most persistent interpretation of the Ixion myth is that it symbolizes the desire for pomp (dignitas) without responsibilities. As Salutati expresses it, “affecting rule, he gets a cloud; that is, he gains the appearance of rule, not its reality” (“regnum affectans, nubem mereatur, id est similitudinem regni suscipere, non regnum”).21 The tragic conclusion of the myth teaches the stern moral, “Who strives to be more than is proper, will be less than he is.”

Desire for dignitas without responsibility is precisely the motive which causes Lear to abdicate in the first scene of King Lear. As soon as the courtiers are assembled, Lear announces,

                              … 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburden'd crawl toward death.

(I. i. 39-42)

At first we may be reminded of Shakespeare's dramatic source The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, and his Three Daughters, in which the King abdicates for motives of religious piety: “… I would fayne resigne these earthly cares, / And think upon the welfare of my soule.”22 However, Shakespeare's King is only wearied by his duties. He intends to retain all of the trappings of the royal office:

                              … we shall retain
The name, and all th'addition to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours. …

(I. i. 137-40)

In effect, Lear has separated the dignitas of rule from its practical cares. As the drama unfolds we find that to retain his dignitas Lear must be surrounded by one hundred knights accountable only to him and must continue to be addressed by the formal title King. When his daughters suggest reducing the number of retainers, and when Oswald addresses him as “my lady's father” (I. iv. 87), he flies into an ungovernable rage. But ceremonies are the shadow, not the substance of rule. Just as Ixion gained “a hollow, windy fantasy” which soon collapsed, Lear is soon informed that he is “an O without a figure … thou art nothing” (I. iv. 211-13).

Wealth and Force: the Real Bases of Power. Complementing Ixion's infatuation with dignitas is his failure to gain real power, symbolized by Juno. His disastrous infatuation with the cloud-woman was interpreted as an allegorical lesson that authority must be based on the physical realities of money and force. Alexander Ross, commenting on Juno's patronage of money and power, declared that “wealth is every thing; it is both meat, drink, clothes, armour, it is that which doth command all things.”23

Lear misinterprets the nature of power in the same way as Ixion. He explicitly gives up “sway,” “revenue,” and “execution,” yet wishes to retain authority. His error is neatly defined by the references to Jupiter and Juno in the scene where he finds Kent in the stocks. He is incredulous; he refuses to believe that his authority has been so far flouted. He exclaims, “By Jupiter [that is, by the god of justice, of what is right], I swear, no.” To this / the realistic Kent replies, “By Juno [goddess of Realpolitik], I swear, ay” (II. iv. 21-22).

The same point is made constantly by the Fool. Since the importance of wealth as a source of power is always emphasized in discussions of the significance of Juno in the Ixion myth,24 it is significant that the Fool also emphasizes wealth:

Fool. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
Lear. Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.
Fool. [To Kent] Prithee, tell him so much the rent of his land comes

(I. iv. 143-47)


“Fathers that wear rags
                              Do make their children blind;
But fathers that bear bags
                              Shall see their children kind.”

(II. iv. 48-51)


“That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
                              And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
                              And leave thee in the storm.”

(II. iv. 79-82)

Later, when Lear is at the nadir of his despair, he comes to realize the part which wealth plays in rule. At this point he has moved from an infatuation with outward show to an equally irrational cynicism—we might say that he honors Juno now but has forgotten Jupiter—and his comment recalls the comparison made by Alexander Ross between wealth and armor:

Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.

(IV. vi. 168-71)

Although dowries do not enter the Ixion myth per se, Juno was, as has been noted, the patroness of dowries as well as wealth in general. She was “much adored and called upon by maids that were to marry … for it is wealth that can bring in, and bring home, anoint, and gird the maid with a wedding girdle; and without that she may be long enough without a home … or husband.”25 This is exactly what Cordelia learns from Burgundy. Despite the assurance of France that “She is herself a dowry,” Burgundy asks Lear for “that portion which yourself propos'd”; and when Lear refuses, he dryly remarks to Cordelia, “I am sorry, then, you have so lost a father / That you must lose a husband” (I. i. 244-50).

The reference to Jupiter and Juno, the Fool's allusions to wealth, and the dowry ritual all turn on the truth which mythographers found in the Ixion myth: authority cannot exist unless backed by money and power. As Regan reminds the hysterical Lear: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (II. iv. 204).

The Storm: Nature and Providence. From Lactantius, later mythographers learned of the thunderbolt which cast Ixion into hell. This thunderbolt was sent by Jove and was interpreted both as a symbol of sudden disillusionment and as providential justice. Both interpretations apply to the storm in Lear. The storm follows directly on Lear's final disillusionment with his daughters. At the very moment when he vows, “I have full cause of weeping; but this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws, / Or ere I'll weep.” (II. iv. 287-89), the stage directions call for “storm and tempest” and Cornwall remarks, “’twill be a storm.” Lear's disillusionment is complete, and his next act is to rush out into the storm.

Just as the thunderbolt of the Ixion myth is associated with Jove, so the thunder during the storm scene in Lear is Jovian. Even before the storm Lear calls Jove the “thunder-bearer” (II. iv. 230) and invokes him as “high-judging Jove,” the agent of providential justice. During the storm he refers to the thunderbolts as “oak-cleaving” (III. ii. 5), an allusion which recalls that the oak was sacred to Jove, and bids the “all-shaking thunder” to restore justice by destroying “ingrateful man.” The association of the storm with providential justice is made explicit as Lear exclaims,

                    Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of justice.

(III. ii. 49-53)

The parallel to the Ixion myth is strengthened by the fact that, like Ixion, Lear is the victim of this justice. Usually the True Chronicle Historie is cited as Shakespeare's precedent for the storm. It is true that thunder sounds twice in the old play, but in both cases it is a warning which deters the “Messenger” from murdering Leir and his companion Perillus. It is thus the act of a benevolent providence and is directly opposite in significance to the storm in Lear. It is Lear who suffers the “impetuous blasts” and “oak-cleaving thunderbolts,” while Goneril and Regan remain safe in Gloucester's castle. Lear vaguely recognizes this as he recalls the time “When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding …” (IV. vi. 102-4); and Cordelia asks,

                                                  Was this a face
To be oppos'd against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?
In the most terrible and nimble stroke
Of quick, cross lightning?

(IV. vii. 31-35)

The storm gains additional significance when we recall that Juno was patroness of weather and that, as early as Boccaccio, mythographers used this fact to explain the symbolism of Ixion's cloud-woman.26 Good weather, bringing fertility, was interpreted as an accord between Jupiter and Juno, a tradition preserved in Milton's lovely image, “as Jupiter / On Juno smiles, when he impregns the Clouds / That shed May flowers.” Conversely, a destructive storm was interpreted as discord between the two: “The discord between Juno and Jove is nothing else than the distemper of the elements from which comes destruction. … Thus if Juno, that is, humid and windy nature, attacks Jove, that is, the hot and dry force, the rains will be so great that they will overflow the earth …” (“La discordia nata fra Giunone, e Giove altro non è, che lo stemperamento de gli elementi, dal quale viene la distruttione delle cose … Se Giunone adunque, cioè la natura humida, & ventosa, attacca a Giove, che è la virtù calda, & secca, & lo sprezza, tante saranno le pioggie, che allagaranno la terra. …”).27 Drawing on this tradition, mythographers tended to interpret the cloud-woman as a storm symbolizing the disastrous results of Ixion's rule. The storm in Lear has a similar meaning. It is not only a tempest where Jovian thunderbolts punish the rash King; it is also a reflection in Nature of the chaos which is engulfing the kingdom as a result of Lear's separation of authority (the Jovian element of rule) from power (under the aegis of Juno). Lear's reference to rain, wind, thunder, and fire as “servile ministers” (III. ii. 21) recalls the relationship of these “elements” to Juno. His reference to “the great gods / That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads” (III. ii. 49-50) echoes the idea of storm as discord among the gods. Finally, the destructive nature of such discord is emphasized in both the first and second scenes of Act IV. Cartari's “distruttione delle cose” and “allagaranno la terra” are paralleled in Lear's command that “the wind blow the earth into the sea, / Or swell the curled waters 'bove the main, / That things might change or cease …” (III. i. 5-7).

Punishment: the Wheel. The punishment for Ixion's sin is the torture of being bound on a wheel and rolled eternally through hell. Lear explicitly compares his experience with that of Ixion when he exclaims, “I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead” (IV. vii. 46-48). The statement is in the nature of a confession. It is Lear's first admission that he is being punished for some sin. As his senses return he kneels before Cordelia to ask forgiveness. For a moment the wheel ceases to turn, for he has come to terms with what he has made himself: “Pray you now, forget and forgive; I am old and foolish” (IV. vii. 84). However, like Ixion, he must suffer further. In the next act the wheel resumes its inexorable motion.

Further significance is added to the wheel image when we recall that Ixion's wheel was interpreted as the wheel of fortune on which man is bound when he allows violent passion to override reason. It is Lear's “hideous rashness” (I. i. 153) which begins the action of the play, and this rashness recurs in his violent curses of Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan. The association of the wheel image in Lear with fortune is made explicit in two references. First, there is Kent's “Fortune, good-night! Smile once more; turn thy wheel!” (II. ii. 180). Second, there is Edmund's dying exclamation, “The wheel is come full circle; I am here” (V. iii. 174).

Lust: the Centaurs. Lear's description of his daughters as centaurs (IV. vi. 126) is an allusion to the Ixion myth, since the centaurs were the offspring of Ixion, begotten by him on the cloud-woman. Shakespeare associated the offspring of Lear with the offspring of Ixion. Traditionally, the centaurs were considered emblems of masculine lust, “carnal men made bestial by lust.”28 Although Shakespeare changes the sex of the centaurs, the emphasis on the idea of lust is preserved:

Behold yond simp' ring dame …
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above. …

(IV. vi. 120-27)

The association between the centaurs and lust helps to explain the ramifications of this theme in the play. It is not intrinsic to the plot, since Lear's tragic flaw has nothing to do with lust, and the evil children are motivated primarily by the desire for power rather than sexual passion. Yet Shakespeare emphasizes lust in connection with Gloucester, Edmund, Regan, Goneril, and Lear's retainers.

Lear's Retainers: Further Centaur Symbolism. Ixion's band of retainers is prominent in the “history” of Ixion's activities while king of Thessaly. Seeking a rational explanation of the centaur image, mythographers regularly explained that the retainers were the original centaurs, either because they were the first mounted troops or from the false etymology, centum armati. They are unanimous in agreeing that there were one hundred retainers, and that the retainers were violent, unruly, and lustful.

The same points are made in connection with Lear's retainers. In the first place, it is stressed repeatedly that there are one hundred of them. The fact becomes significant when it is recalled that only one of the sources of the King Lear story which may have been consulted by Shakespeare is specific about the number of retainers. This is the Gesta Romanorum, in which the number is given as forty. Goneril's description of the retainers calls attention to their unruliness and particularly their lust:

Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires
Men so disorder'd, so debosh'd and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac'd palace.

(I. iv. 262-67)

Perhaps the most interesting feature of centaur symbolism is that suggested by the human torso coupled to the horse's body. Mythographers considered the image an emblem of the warring forces of passion and reason or nature and spirit which strive for dominion over man. Often the centaur was compared to other half-human monsters from classical mythology such as the sirens or the satyrs.29

We can observe the creative use of this tradition during the sixteenth century in the painting “The Battle of the Centaurs” by Piero di Cosimo. This painting forms part of a series discussed by Erwin Panofsky and again by R. L. Douglas in his book on Piero.30 The series includes the “Hunting Scene,” “Return from the Hunt,” “A Forest Fire,” and “The Battle of the Centaurs.” In each painting a higher stage of human evolution, conceived in the Lucretian sense as an ascent from savagery, is depicted. In the first, man is a brute, copulating with beasts and producing half-human offspring. In the second there is less brutality and some suggestion of cooperation among men, but the half-human monsters, including a centaur, are still evident. “A Forest Fire” shows cultivated land and records the discovery of fire as described in an often-illustrated passage from Vitruvius. The fourth painting is the climax of the series. It represents the moment at which man recognizes his difference from the brute world of nature and rejects it. The moment is symbolized by the battle of the centaurs with the Lapithae. Henceforth the separation between man and the lower forms of life will be absolute.

While Piero used centaur symbolism to illuminate a theory of evolution, elsewhere it is used to illustrate human psychology. Salutati associates the centaurs of the Ixion myth with man's stubborn hostility toward government by law.31 Speaking more generally, he teaches that the centaur is an emblem of the dual nature of man, half under the aegis of Nature and half under the aegis of spirit. In the seventeenth century Alexander Ross gave the image a Christian twist by observing that “every regenerate man is a centaur.”32

There is no need to recapitulate the extensive and illuminating scholarship on the imagery of Lear to support the contention that the strife between the natural and spiritual in man is a basic theme of the play. Edmund is the spokesman for naturalism. To him, man is an animal, and force, the brute right of the fittest to survive, is the supreme law. Moral and legal principles, expressions of man's higher nature, are “the curiosity of nations”; that is, superstitions and customs to be set aside when they interfere with expediency. Cordelia embodies the opposite principle of allegiance to moral duty even at the cost of personal hardship. In fact, she is so scrupulous that she refuses to depart one jot from her “duty” even to humor her father's whims:

                                                  I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.


                                                  Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit. …


                                                  Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

(I. i. 94-104)

Evidently, Edmund and Cordelia define the two extremes of human nature.

As for Lear, although he utterly disregards his own higher duties, he insists that others be dutiful and reveals an almost superstitious belief in the gods. Each time he curses his daughters he appeals to Nature as the agent of providence to right his wrongs. His first oath is the self-confident, “by the sacred radiance of the sun …” (I. i. 111). Next comes the petition, “Hear, Nature! hear, dear goddess, hear!” (I. iv. 297). Later there is the hysterical command, “Strike her young bones, / You taking airs …” (II. iv. 165-66). Finally, there is the insane order that the storm destroy the whole world: “Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world! / Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man! (III. ii. 6-9).

When Lear's belief in supernatural powers proves empty, he does not modify it rationally. Instead, he espouses an extreme naturalistic view of man which is similar to Edmund's but couched in terms expressing the blackest despair. In Act II he still has faith in human dignity: “Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life is cheap as beast's” (II. iv. 269-70). However, by the middle of Act III he thinks of man as “… no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (III. iv. 111-14). Having begun with a sentimental view of Nature as an agent of providence, he later describes the storm as “pitiless” (III. iv. 29), and man's lower anatomy, symbolic of natural instinct, as “hell … darkness … the sulphurous pit, / Burning, scalding, stench, consumption …” (IV. vi. 130-31). Finally, his image of human society is the dog who is obeyed in office (IV. vi. 163). The beadle lusts after the whore as he lashes her; the usurer hangs the cozener; and the rich man flaunts justice with impunity while the beggar is punished for the most trivial offense.

Neither of Lear's views is valid. Man exists in a middle state between nature and the world of spirit. He is a composite of these elements, and each has legitimate claims which he ignores at his peril. Although the centaur was usually an emblem of man dominated by his lower passions, Salutati reminds us that Chiron, the good centaur, symbolizes a proper balance of man's higher and lower natures: “When reason, which we have in common with the angels, rules our appetites, which we have in common with the beasts, a virtuous life results for a man.33 Shakespeare's treatment of the nature-spirit dichotomy in Lear teaches the same lesson. Nature and the power derived from Nature are impersonal—to a certain degree, amoral. They cannot, however, be idealistically ignored. They must be controlled by responsible agents dedicated to the end of justice. When Jupiter and Juno are in accord—when justice and power are harmonized—men experience the fine weather of proper rule. When they quarrel, the kingdom suffers the destructive storms of civil war and anarchy. According to Alexander Ross, “… where things are not ruled by lawes and order, and civility, but are carried headlong with violence and force, we may say that there is a Commonwealth of Centaurs.”34

Ingratitude. Following Pindar, Comes interpreted the Ixion myth as a fable of ingratitude which “makes plain what princes have often learned who uncover plots against them laid by those whom they cherished before all others and advanced to great wealth and highest honor.” As the fourth in the tetrad of great classical sinners, Ixion was often considered a type of ingratitude, since he repaid Jove's favors by attempting to seduce Juno.

In Lear the theme of ingratitude is exploited throughout the play. Most obviously, Lear cherishes Goneril and Regan and advances them to great wealth and honor, only to discover the plots which they have laid against him. Indeed, the word “ingratitude” is repeated thematically (e.g., I. iv. 281; II. iv. 182; III. ii. 9 and iv. 14).

It is obvious that King Lear experiences ingratitude. It is equally important to recognize that, like Ixion, he practices it. His rejection of Cordelia and Kent could be considered acts of ingratitude, but his most serious ingratitude is religious. The majority of Shakespeare's audience would have judged Lear's actions in terms of the Tudor theory of monarchy. Madeleine Doran has rightly stressed the similarity between Lear and Sidney's lesson in the Arcadia that abdication is close to a literal crime.35 To this lesson should be added the lesson of Gorboduc and 1 Henry IV that the division of a kingdom is an equal, if not a greater, evil. In the carefully pagan atmosphere of Lear, the King rules under the patronage of “high-judging Jove” (II. iv. 231). It is Jove whom Lear offends by his “forgetfulness of benefits,” and his punishment is, like Ixion's, the wheel of fire.

Redemption: Chiron. Chiron was considered the one good centaur. Alexander Ross observed that he illustrates the existence of good even in the worst of societies.36 Since Lear compares his evil daughters to centaurs, one may ask whether the one good daughter resembles the one good centaur. The question cannot be answered definitely. There are, however, attributes which Chiron and Cordelia share.

In mythology Chiron was renowned for three characteristics: (1) He was an emblem of self-discipline and a paragon of justice: “Chiron non modo Centauros ceteros, sed homines quoque iustitia superavit. …”37 Cordelia also combines supreme self-discipline and justice. She is “queen / Over her passion, who, most rebel-like, / Sought to be king o'er her” (IV. iii. 15-17). Her justice is illustrated in the first scene in her refusal to compromise and in Kent's remark that she “justly [thinks] and hast most rightly said!” (I. i. 186). Later we learn that she “redeems Nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to” (IV. vi. 210-11). Finally, her pardon of Lear (IV. vii) is an act of justice tempered by mercy. (2) Chiron was renowned for two skills, music and the medicinal use of herbs. Cordelia is neither a physician nor a musician, but Lear's cure takes place under her sponsorship and involves both herbs (“All blest secrets, / All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth, / Spring with my tears” [IV. iv. 15-17]), and music (IV. vii. 25). (3) Chiron was also a symbol of innocent suffering. He was wounded accidentally by the poisoned arrow of Hercules, died, and was translated by Jove into the constellation of Sagittarius.38 Ross says, “Just as Chiron was wounded by Hercules but was afterward placed among the Starrs; so, although might doth oftentimes overcome right here, yet the end of justice and mercy shall be the glory at last.”39 As she is being led to prison, Cordelia observes that might often overcomes right: “We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurr'd the worst” (V. iii. 3-4).


Although some of the parallels which I have cited are suggestive rather than conclusive, the number of parallels, together with Shakespeare's explicit references to centaurs, the wheel of fire, Jupiter and Juno, the thunderbolt, and the like, fully justifies Talbert and Starnes' conclusion that the Ixion myth was much on Shakespeare's mind as he wrote King Lear.

Shakespeare could have learned of the Ixion myth from a variety of sources, including mythological dictionaries, commentaries on Ovid and Virgil, works on mythography such as those by Comes and Cartari, emblem books, and the like. The precedent of Gorboduc makes it clear that the use of myth to articulate historical materials was by no means an innovation. In addition, when Lear was written, interest in the symbolic and dramatic possibilities of classical mythology had been stimulated by the court masque.

Whatever Shakespeare's reason for becoming interested in the Ixion myth, his use of it conforms to a widely accepted Renaissance critical theory. According to this theory, poetry occupies a position in the scheme of knowledge half-way between philosophy and history. Philosophy is an essential discipline, the source of the general ideas which enable man to understand his experience. However, in itself, it is complex and abstract. History is equally important, being man's source of specific information. But it, too, is deficient. It tends to become a list of events with no higher significance. Poetry alone combines the virtues of philosophy and history. The poet draws on the generalizations of philosophy to shape the events of history in a meaningful pattern. In the Apologie for Poetrie Sidney explains:

The Philosopher therefore and the Historian, are they which would win the gole: the one by precept, the other by example. But both not having both, doe both halte. For the Philosopher, setting downe with thorny argument the bare rule, is so hard of utterance, and so mistie to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him, shall wade in him till hee be olde, before he shall find sifficient cause to be honest: for his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and generall, that happie is that man who may understande him, and more happie, that can applye what hee doth understand.

On the other side, the Historian wanting the precept, is so tyed, not to what shoulde bee, but to what is, to the particuler truth of things, and not to the general reason of things, that hys example draweth no necessary consequence and therefore a lesse fruitfull doctrine.

Now dooth the peerelesse Poet perforem both: for whatsoever the Philosopher sayth should be doone, hee giveth a perfect picture of it in some one, by whom he presupposeth it was done. So as hee coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example.40

The historical details of King Lear are assembled from a variety of sources. Holinshed's Chronicle. The Mirror for Magistrates, The Faerie Queene, and The True Chronicle Historie are those most frequently mentioned. The details, however, lack genuine coherence. They are “the particular truth of things,” but they have no “general reason.” We may conjecture that Shakespeare was aware of this fact. He therefore supplemented history with myth, choosing Ixion, the type of the irresponsible king, the ruler who confused pomp and circumstance with power, and the father of the lustful centaurs, as his model. The mythographic tradition gave him the “general reasons” which he needed to change a mass of “particular truths” into a unified drama. Since these “general reasons” were central issues of contemporary political and moral philosophy, they also helped him create his most profound study of the crisis of his age.


  1. A. W. Ward, A History of English Dramatic Literature (London: Macmillan, 1899), I, 200. Cf. C. F. Tucker Brooke, The Tudor Drama (London: Constable, 1912), p. 192.

  2. D. T. Starnes and E. W. Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1955), p. 116. All quotations from King Lear are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1942).

  3. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 216 n.

  4. Paola Barocchi, Il Rosso Fiorentino (Rome: Gismondi, 1950), pls. 112, 113, 114; R. L. Douglas, Piero di Cosimo (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1946), pl. 17.

  5. Paul Kristeller, Andrea Mantegna (London: Longmans, Green, 1901), pl. 23 and comment, pp. 55-56.

  6. Paolo d'Ancona, The Farnesina Frescoes (Milan: Ed. del Milione, 1956), p. 25 and pl. 14.

  7. Mitologiarum Libri Tres, in Opera, ed. R. Helm (Leipzig, 1898), pp. 55-56.

  8. Genealogiae Deorum Gentilium Libri, ed. Vincenzo Romano (Bari: G. Laterza, 1951), II, 468-72 (IX, xxvii).

  9. The standard version of the tale is briefly told by Servius in his commentary on Aeneid, VI, 286 and 601, and Georgics, III, 38 and 115; IV, 484. Lactantius tells the story of the Jovian thunderbolt in his commentary on Thebiad, IV, 539. Macrobius interprets Ixion's wheel as the wheel of fortune in In Somnuim Scioponis, X, 14-15.

  10. de Laboribus Herculis, ed. B. L. Ullman (Zurich, 1951), I, 217-28.

  11. Natalis Comitis Mythologiae, sive Explicationes Fabularum Libri Decem (Lyons, 1602), pp. 613-17 (V, xvi), and—for centaurs—pp. 709-13 (VII, iv); G. Stephanus, Dictionarium Historicum, Geographicum, Poeticum (Cologne, 1618), ss. vv. Ixion and centaur; Alexander Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus, or The Muses Interpreter (London, 1648), pp. 55-57 and 223-26.

  12. Works, tr. Sir John Sandys (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1924), second Pythian Ode, ll. 21 ff.

  13. Dictionarium, s.v. Ixion.

  14. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 224.

  15. See Fulgentius, Mitologiarum, II, xiv; Boccaccio, Genealogiae, IX, xxviii; Comes, Mythologiae, pp. 615-16.

  16. Fulgentius Metaforalis, in Studien der Bibliotek Warburg, IV, 124. Compare Physiologus Latinus, ed. Carmody (Paris, 1939), p. 26, which relates the image of the centaur to that of the siren.

  17. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 225.

  18. Mitologiarum, p. 38. For a more detailed discussion see Vincenzio Cartari, Imagini de i Dei degli Antichi (Padua, 1602), pp. 160-78.

  19. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 215.

  20. Works, ed. C. H. Hereford and Percy Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), VII, 217.

  21. de Laboribus Herculis, I, 219.

  22. Quoted from the reprint of the play in Shakespeare's Library (London, 1875), vi, 308. In the versions in Holinshed's Chronicles, The Mirror for Magistrates, and the Gesta Romanorum, Lear arranges to have his daughters inherit the throne after his death but is overthrown by rebellion; in the anonymous ballad version and in The True Chronicle Historie, Lear surrenders the throne, but for laudable motives.

  23. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 225.

  24. E.g., Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 215. The tradition is as old as Fulgentius; cf. Mitologiarum, p. 38: “[Juno] … regnis praeesse dicitur, quod haec vita divitiis tandum studeat; ideo etiam cum sceptro pingitur, quod divitiae regnis sint proximae. …”

  25. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 215.

  26. Boccaccio, Genealogiae, II, 469.

  27. V. Cartari, Imagini, p. 174.

  28. Fulgentius Metaforalis, IV, 121.

  29. The comparison is found, for example, in Physiologus Latinus, p. 26; and Andrea Alciati, Emblemata (Padua, 1621), p. 489. Ben Jonson, Works, vii, 343, wrote: “Among the ancients the kind, both of the Centaures and Satyres, is confounded; and common with eyther. …” Claudius Minois, the principal commentator in the 1621 edition of Alciati, compares centaurs and sirens in respect to lust, but also interprets the sirens as symbols of flattery. The latter interpretation obviously applies to Lear's daughters and may explain the apparent fusion of the centaur image with that of the siren in IV. vi. 120 ff.

  30. Erwin Panofsky, “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo,” Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institutes, 1 (1937-38), 12-30; R. L. Douglas, Piero di Cosimo (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1946), p. 33.

  31. de Laboribus Herculis, I, 223.

  32. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 56.

  33. de Laboribus Herculis, I, 217.

  34. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 56.

  35. Madeleine Doran, “Elements in the Composition of King Lear,SP, 30 (1935), 46.

  36. Mystagogus Poeticus, p. 56. This was sometimes explained by the idea that Chiron was not a child of Ixion like the other centaurs, but of Saturn. See Salutati, de Laboribus Herculis, III, xi.

  37. de Laboribus Herculis, I, 207.

  38. Cf. however, Hyginus, Astronomica, II, 27 and 38.

  39. Mytagogus Poeticus, p. 56.

  40. Apologie for Poetrie, in James H. Smith and Edd W. Parks, The Great Critics (New York: Norton, 1939), pp. 200-1. The critical tradition behind this passage has long been recognized by scholars. See especially Giovanni Giovannini, “Historical Realism and the Tragic Emotions in Renaissance Criticism,” PQ, 23 (1953), 304-20, and “Agnolo Segni and a Renaissance Definition of Poetry,” MLQ, 6 (1945), 167-73.

André Lorant (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9935

SOURCE: “Hamlet and Mythical Thought,” in Diogenes, Vol. 118, Summer, 1982, pp. 49-76.

[In the following essay, Lorant offers a mythical reading of Hamlet by viewing the tragedy's representation of a corrupted world degrading toward chaos and in need of a redeeming hero.]

“The myth is linked to the first knowledge which man acquires of himself and his environment; moreover it is the structure of his consciousness; primitive man does not have two images of the world, one ‘objective’ ‘real’ and the other ‘mythical’, but a unique understanding of the landscape.”


The survival of some masterpieces of literature across the ages is still an unexplained mystery. Deeply rooted in their time, they reflect the preoccupations of a given historical period and have an impact, by means of their testimony, on future generations. They bring into play images, drives and phantoms which have remained unchanged from prehistoric time to our day. The perfection of their form has remained unequaled; their examples incite us to meditation and creativity.

While studying the impact of these works, full of spiritual energies, one is aware that they reproduce in an original way ‘some basic human conditions’ (Schadewaldt) which are directly related to mythical thought. From this point of view, archaeologists' discoveries about prehistoric man or ancient civilisation, along with the reports of ethnologists, folklorists and anthropologists on the survival of a magical understanding of the world, are especially valuable to the historian of literature. The discoveries and reports reveal the ‘fundamental situations’ which characterise human life and of which characteristic variations can be found in every era: “It is not the narration of any old events whatsoever which is surviving but only of those which express a general human idea, which is being eternally and continually rejuvenated”, writes C. Jung.2

Mythical thought is anthropocentric; it is based mainly on the conviction that there is a close correspondence between man and nature, the microcosm and the macrocosm. The primitive man whose existence is constantly threatened thinks that he can influence the external world because this world is interiorized within him. In his private world, the laws of nature sanction the moral code. “This kind of disease is caused by adultery, that by incest; this meteorological disaster is the effect of political disloyalty, that the effect of impiety” (Mary Douglas).3 This vision of the world is thus essentially religious in that it attributes a sacred character to the seasons, to lunar rhythm, to organic life (sexuality and nutrition) and to social life. Human life is a continual participation in this sacredness which “in a real sense founds the world” (Eliade) and which, by its cohesive power, protects the individual and the group against forces of dissolution.

We find certain elements of mythical thought in the philosophy of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The Elizabethans inherited from the Middle Ages the image of a well-ordered universe arranged in a fixed system of hierarchies, in which Angels and Aether, the Stars and Fortune, the Elements, Man, Animals, Plants and Metals form the Great Chain of Being. In this universal order, the position of man is of paramount importance. “Homo est utriusque naturae vinculum”. His “microcosmic” world is in close relation with the “political body” and the “macrocosm”. However, Shakespeare's contemporaries are obsessed by the fear of chaos, of cosmic anarchy before Creation and by changing factors threatening the regular course of natural laws. They fear the evil influence of the planets on man's destiny which, in their eyes, is the inevitable result of the fall of man. It is the sin of Adam which has corrupted the perfect nature of the world. Evil prevails in the Great Chain of Being, and astrology helps to forecast the calamities. But to a certain extent, the Elizabethan remains under the influence of mythical thought. He has the impression that his own actions can influence or disturb the cosmic mechanism. Shakespeare makes use of this feeling of conflict in his plays following the tradition of Greek tragedians.4

In Hamlet we find many traces of mythical thought. The king himself is at the centre of the tragedy. The murder of the king and the incestuous marriage provoke an upheaval of cosmic character, upsetting the organisation of space and the cycle of time. Moral contamination is incarnated in a physical way, decaying healthy bodies, corrupting the blood and striking the inhabitants of Elsinore with sterility. Shakespeare chooses some typical scenes to illustrate this universal decadence, such as Scene II of Act I which opens with the usurper's speech, occurring after the wedding and the coronation. There is an inevitable degradation of the tragic universe towards chaos. However, this return to a primaeval time, that time before Creation, permits the recovery of the spiritual energies which can regenerate the Cosmos. This “cosmogonic myth” animates the tragedy and makes the final disappearance of the redeeming hero especially pathetic.


In primitive societies, in the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Syria and Canea, the king is a sacred being. The kings are revered as “real gods able to bestow on their subjects and worshippers those blessings which are commonly supposed to be beyond the reach of mortals and are sought through prayer and sacrifice” (Frazer).5 Their power seems not only collective but unlimited. Endowed with spiritual and temporal powers, the kings are responsible for the regularity of the seasons, the fertility of the earth and animals and the health of the community. The pharaohs are called “masters of heaven, masters of the earth, creators of the harvest, pillars of the sky”; they are responsible for the “harmony between human life and the supernatural order.” (H. Frankfort)6

The tradition of kings as miracle-workers perpetuates in the Western world the mythical belief in a “marvellous and sacred kingship.”7 The rite of “touching the scrofula”, a reflection of ancient beliefs, “bears the trace of primitive thought, altogether rooted in the irrational world.” But whereas in primitive times the king could exercise his power for collective purposes, the Lord's anointed king no longer possesses cosmic power but instead heals individual sickness. Henry II healed the scrofulous; Edward the Confessor cured “the strangely visited people, all swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,”8 according to the statement of Malcolm in Macbeth. Throughout the Middle Ages however, the pagan belief in “royal magic” is deeply rooted in the minds of people, despite the Christian doctrine which denies the influence of the great cosmic phenomena to the king.

Shakespeare recognises the king as the representative of God. The Bishop of Carlisle refuses to judge Richard II because the latter is “the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect / Anointed, crowned, planted many years”.9 He predicts a national cataclysm if Richard were to lose the throne: “Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny / Shall here inhabit, and this land shall be call'd / The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.”10 Richard himself believes in the correspondence which exists, according to tradition, between the political world and nature. In Scene II of Act III of Richard II he talks to the Earth: “Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth, / Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense; / But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom, / And heavy-gaited toads, lie in their way, / Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet, / Which with usurping steps do trample thee.”11 Nevertheless, it is characteristic of the ideological crisis of the period, reflected by the royal tragedies of Shakespeare, that the conception of kingship should be developed in a tragedy devoted to depriving a legitimate king of all his power.12 In Shakespeare's theatre, the idea of kingship remains abstract and pure, as it is not necessarily incarnated in an individual worthy of the function. Richmond declares on the eve of the decisive battle with Richard III: “A bloody tyrant and a homicide; / One rais'd in blood, and one in blood establish'd; / One that made means to come by what he hath / And slaughtered those that were the means to help him; / A base foul stone, made precious by the foil / Of England's chair, where he is falsely set.”13

While examining this theme of usurpation in Hamlet, we cannot ignore the complex attitude which Shakespeare adopts towards kingship; it is in the presence of Claudius, the murderer who has become king, that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz praise the idea of kingship: [“The cess of majesty / Dies not alone; but like a gulf doth draw / What's near it with it. O,'tis a massy wheel / Fixed on the summit of the highest mount, / To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things / Are mortised and adjoined.”]14 And it is the “vile king” Claudius who declares “There's such a divinity doth hedge a king.”15

The regicide transgresses the sacred barrier and threatens the life of an individual who, because of his being, has become a taboo. (Eliade). According to Northcote W. Thomas … “Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact and may be liberated with destructive effect, if the organisms which provoke its discharge are too weak to resist it.”16 The sacrilegious man releases dangerous fluids and sets off forces which he can no longer keep under control. The wounds inflicted on the king seem “like a breach in nature, for ruin's wasteful entrance.” (Macbeth)17

In fact, the foundations of life are shaken at Elsinore: the sacrilegious attack against the king murdered in the “blossom” of his “sin”, has transformed the latter into a wandering spirit, who appears on the walls of the fortress as well as in the private apartments of the Queen. The murdered king has become, dare we say it at last, a walking corpse. The “fair and warlike form” hides a body, horribly disfigured and covered with a “vile and loathsome crust.”18

Shakespeare gets his inspiration from an ancestral fear which is provoked by sickness, death and corpses, Death is felt as a contagion in mythical thought. According to Levy-Bruhl, in certain Indian tribes of Eastern Bolivia “when the relatives think that a disease is fatal, they try to close as hermetically as possible the nose, the mouth and the eyes of the sick person so that death will not contaminate other bodies.” Primitive man feels in his entire being the solidarity of the social group towards the danger that death represents: “The person who has just died can communicate death […] to one or several of those who belong to his group.”19 As a result, the funeral rites and the commemoration of the dead take on a major importance. Under the influence of this ambivalent emotional attitude, analysed by Freud and Otto Rank, primitive man wants to protect himself from the dead and earn their goodwill.20

In imagining the circumstances of the murder of King Hamlet, Shakespeare uses various symbols in connection with the primitive mentality, which illustrate the idea of the mystical union between the dead person and society. According to Mary Douglas: “Even more direct than animal symbolism is the symbolism used with the human body. The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious.”21 Consequently, we understand the symbolical importance of the orifices in mythical consciousness. Thus, Old Hamlet is poisoned by the ear: “And in the porches of my ears did pour / The leperous distilment.”22 The poison quickly penetrates the blood, as if it were dropped in a mucous orifice.

Shakespeare obviously attaches great importance to the image of poisoning by the ear. From the first to the fourth act, the word “ear” is used nine times with an emotional connotation of violence. Bernardo would like to “assail” the ears of Horatio with the story of what the guards have seen.23 Hamlet afterwards refuses that Horatio should do his ear “that violence to make it truster of [his] own report against [himself].”24 In the soliloquy “For Hecuba”, talking about the Player moved by the tragic history of the Queen of Troy, Hamlet exclaims: “He would drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech.”25 Hamlet forbids the Players to “split the ears of the groundlings.”26

Unconsciously, both Queen Gertrude and Claudius, the usurper, refer to the violence suffered by King Hamlet. Affected by her son's remarks, Gertrude exclaims: “O speak to me no more / These words like daggers enter in mine ears / No more, sweet Hamlet.”27 Likewise, Claudius fears that “pestilent speeches” might infect Laertes' ear on his return to Denmark after his father's death.28

Royal blood is sacred; Richard II emphasizes this idea when he speaks to the Duke of Norfolk: “such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood …” The Duchess of Gloucester compares the seven children of Edward to seven vials of his sacred blood.29 In Hamlet, the poison of Claudius corrupts, infects and curdles the sacred blood of the King: “And with a sudden vigour, it doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk / the thin and wholesome blood.”30 Before meeting his father's ghost, Hamlet uses a metaphor which seems to announce the sudden effect of the poison described by the ghost. “The dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt, / To his own scandal.” The poisoned blood of the King seems to have a corrupting effect on the vital fluids of the other characters. Fever and uncontrolled passion ravage their blood. Laertes warns his sister Ophelia against Hamlet's sensual caprices: “For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour, / Hold it a fashion, and a toy in blood.”31 This is a very strong expression because it is used with reference to animals in rut. Apparently, in Gertrude's case, “the hey-day in the blood” is not controlled by reason.32 The King's blood is marvellously distempered with “choler”.33 Claudius orders the King of England to kill Hamlet, as “like the hectic in my blood he rages / And thou must cure me”34 said he.

The infected blood transforms the smooth skin of the poisoned King. His body is covered with a “vile and loathsome crust.” And his decomposed blood generates ulcerous images. After the ghost's apparition in the bedchamber of the Queen, Hamlet speaks to his mother in these terms: “Mother, for love of grace / Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, / That not your trespass but my madness speaks, / It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption mining all within / Infects unseen.”35 All of these images set up a sort of intuitive communication among the protagonists which is independent of their consciousness.36

The corrupted blood of the King seems to act in a magical way on the physical and mental integrity of the individuals. In assuming his “antic disposition”, Hamlet tries to pacify the threatening forces of madness which the revelations of the ghost are likely to provoke in him. The ghost seems to foresee the physical effects of his revelations. “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres / Thy knotted and combined locks to part.”37 Afterwards, one can measure through the descriptions of Hamlet by Polonius and Ophelia the threatening evil which seems to “shatter all his bulk.”38

When we study this system of images, we realize that in his play Shakespeare brings to light one of the most ancient and profound beliefs of humanity, the one which is linked to the corporal ghost. Violent death changes the deceased into a wanderer, throwing him into a supernatural and demoniacal world. He threatens to drag the living with him, as long as the family vendetta, the rites and the ceremonies performed by the members of the group do not re-establish the social and cosmic balance. In his work on The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion Frazer quotes Saxo Grammaticus to illustrate the ambivalent attitude of primitive man towards the dead: “When a pestilence was raging, the misfortune was attributed to the angry ghost of a man who had been killed in an uprising shortly before. To remedy this evil they dug up his body, cut off the head and ran a sharp stake through the breast of the corpse.”39 The setting-up of funeral stones on the tomb is in keeping with the emotional ambivalence. The sacred stones protect the living from the dead and imprison the ancestors so that they will be forced to act beneficially.40

Attacked by a murderer, violated in his physical integrity, disfigured by a “loathsome crust,” King Hamlet cannot attain this “Second death” in which primitive man believed. His body cannot decompose, his soul cannot reach the community of the peaceful dead. He “unshrouds” his corpse and forces “the marble jaw” (symbol of the “mouth of hell” which devours man, according to Otto Rank)41 to cast him up again. No solemn mourning, worthy of his royal person, has pacified this wrathful soul, because the funeral has been followed by the “o'erhasty marriage” of the Queen. While referring to pagan myths, Shakespeare makes allusion as well to Christian beliefs. The ghost is a soul from purgatory … “cut off even in the blossom of my sins / unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled”42. Hamlet himself thinks of his father's sins when he finds himself sword in hand standing behind his uncle in prayer: “A' took my father grossly, full of bread / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May …”43

A sinner in the Christian sense of the term, King Hamlet is at the same time a weakened man. He sleeps in his orchard every afternoon; he obviously does not succeed in satisfying the sexual passion of his wife, because she is rapidly won by the “shameful lust” of Claudius.44 King Hamlet looks like one of those old men with grey beard and wrinkled face who has “most weak hams” to which Hamlet refers when he speaks to Polonius.45 This weariness constitutes as well the main theme of the conversation between the player King and the player Queen. The Queen “trembles” for the King who is “so sick of late, / So far from cheer and from [his] former state.”46 He seems to feel that his death is not far off. “My operant powers their function leave to do,” he says to his wife—and adds: “Sweet, leave me here awhile, / my spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile / The tedious day with sleep.”47

The mythical conscience is very much preoccupied by this enfeeblement of the powers of the King. Primitive man believes that the duty of the King, successor to the creator, is to maintain the harmony of society and nature.

“Now primitive peoples, as we have seen, sometimes believe that their safety and even that of the world is bound up with the life of one of these god-men or human incarnations of divinity. Naturally, therefore, they take the utmost care of his life, out of a regard for their own. But no amount of care and precaution will prevent the man-god from growing old and feeble and at last dying. His worshippers have to take account of this sad necessity and to meet it as best they can. The danger is a formidable one; for if the course of nature is dependent on the man-god's life, what catastrophes may not be expected as a result of the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death? There is only one way of averting these dangers. The man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay.”48

Old King Hamlet sleeping in his garden, or his double in the dumbshow, the player King, reclining on a bank of flowers, remind us of this “weakened spirit of vegetation” which at the winter solstice can no longer use its generative power to fertilize the crops.

Frazer refers to these popular peasant jousts during which “a representative of the summer clad in ivy combats a representative of the winter clad in straw or moss and finally gains a victory over him.”49 But in Hamlet, this representative of the spring is a vile murderer, traitorous and sacrilegious. The fundamental ambiguity of the tragedy is linked in part to this initial situation.


We can guess the period at which the action begins, thanks to one of the guards, Marcellus, who is very preoccupied by the ghost's apparition. “It faded on the crowing of the cock. / Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated / This bird of dawning singeth all night long, / And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed, and so gracious is that time.”50 A number of critics have recognised the importance of these lines for the spiritual viewpoint with which the whole tragedy is imbued. “The intense and solemn beauty of these verses lifts us, and was designed to lift us, high above the level of Horatio's conjectures. The night wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated is holy and pure beyond all others; therefore these nights which the ghost makes hideous by rising so incredibly from the grave, are impure beyond most. Unless Greek tragedy has bemused me”—writes H. D. F. Kitto in Form and Meaning in Drama “this passage does more than ‘give a religious background to the supernatural happenings of the scene’ (Dover Wilson); it provides the ‘background’, that is, the logical and dynamic centre of the play.”51 Critics seem to have missed the interest of the precise period when this “dread sight”52 appeared before the guards.

The meaning of Marcellus' speech is clear: the ghost has disappeared because it has heard the shrill voice of “the cock that is the trumpet to the morn.”53 However, this temporal circumstance is of minor importance as Marcellus thinks that the main reason for the disappearance of the spirit is the coming of Christmas,—the period of festivity “when the birth of Christ is celebrated.” If, for the Christian, “this period is sacred” then, for the primitive, it is charged with sacred, dangerous but beneficial forces.

The feast of the winter solstice is related to the instinctive fears provoked by the weakening strength of the sun. At this period of the year, when the sun obviously lacks its full duration and intensity, the primitive man thinks that it is important to renew nature's energy which, to him, is gradually weakening. He turns to “sympathetic magic” so that the vital and sacred fluids might circulate and so that the cosmic crisis might be warded off. Writing about the annual observance of a licentious period, Frazer notes in the Golden Bough that “such outbursts of the pent-up forces of human nature, too often degenerating into wild orgies of lust and crime, occur most commonly at the end of the year and are frequently associated with one or other of the agricultural seasons.”54 There is a need to stimulate the productivity of the harvest by an outburst of forces felt to be chaotic. The regression into the “universal coalescence,” (Mircea Eliade) of the unformed world, where limits and norms are abolished, enables the very source of the cosmological world to be dipped into.

The souls of the dead are attracted by the overflow of life and the re-actualization of the “mythical chaos before the universe” resulting from the festivals; these souls are then associated with the renewal of the forces of vegetation. Seasonal fertility rites and death cults are closely linked in agricultural societies. “Among Nordic peoples, Christmas (Yule) was both the feast of the dead and an honouring of fertility and life. At Christmas there were huge banquets; often it was the time for weddings, and also for the caretaking of tombs.” (Mircea Eliade)55

The return of the dead during this “suspension of recorded time” (Caillois)56 and their collaboration in the stimulation of the fecundity of the earth are considered as eminent facts in the social life of the primitive. “During the annual feast of milamala”—writes Malinowski, who studies Melanesian culture—“the spirits return from Tuma to their villages. A special platform is erected for them to sit upon, from which they can look down upon the doings and amusements of their brethren. Food is displayed in large quantities to gladden their hearts, as well as those of the living citizens of the community.”57

In the Western world, there is a deeply-rooted belief in the generative power of deceased kings. A legend recorded in the thirteenth century collection Heimskringla relates that Halfdan the Black, king of Norway, had been “of all kings the one who had brought most success to the harvests. When he died, instead of burying his entire corpse in a single place, his subjects cut it in four pieces and buried each portion under a mound in each of the four principal districts of the country, for the ‘possession of the body’—or of one of its members—seemed, to those who obtained it, to give hope of further good harvests.”58

In Hamlet, the apparition of the Ghost requiring vengeance occurs at the precise period when men believe in the community of the dead and the living collaborating in the regeneration of the universal forces. The Ghost “usurps / this time of night / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march.”59 His armed presence, moving along the ramparts of the fortress, renders the guards ineffective. To Hamlet's eyes, he makes the “night hideous,” annihilates the laws of nature and “shakes / our disposition / With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.”60 This erring spirit aggravates the sexual nausea of the prince and incites him to carry out a murderous vendetta. It is not working with the powerful and motivating forces of the Cosmos: it is a dangerous incarnation of the principle of confusion. Far from stimulating the crops, it seems to destroy their productivity. Does it not refer to “that fat weed / That rots itself in ease on Lethe's wharf?”61

The “heavy-headed revel” presided over by the usurper Claudius, which takes place during the meeting of Hamlet and his father, is characteristic of the period of intermission which is situated around the winter solstice. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia from the 17th to the 23rd of December. According to the testimony of poets and historians, “the distinction between the free and the servant classes was temporarily abolished. The slave might rail at his master, intoxicate himself like his betters, sit down at table with them, and not even a word of reproof would be administered to him for conduct which at any other season might have been punished with beating, imprisonment or death / … / . This inversion of ranks was carried so far that each household became for a time a parody of a republic in which the high offices of state were discharged by the slaves, who gave their orders and laid down the law as if they were indeed invested with all dignity of the consulship, the praetorship and the bench.”62 A mock king who personified the god of sowing (satus) and viniculture was chosen. When the revels were over, he killed himself or was publicly executed. Carnival perpetuates this tradition. The burlesque figure publicly burnt is no other than “a direct successor of the old king of the Saturnalia,” according to Frazer. In the popular mind the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany are still conceived as exceptional. These twelve days are the difference between the lunar year (354 days) and the solar year (365 days). They form an interregnum during which “the customary restraints of law and morality are suspended and the ordinary rulers abdicate their authority in favour of a temporary regent, a sort of puppet king, who bears a more or less indefinite, capricious, and precarious sway over a community given over for a time to riot, turbulence and disorder.”63

In Shakespeare's tragedy, it is Claudius who personifies this “mock king”. At the end of the play within the play, when he has shown that the king is guilty, Hamlet, carried away by his success as the director of the play, rejoices, saying “For thou dost know, O Damon dear, / This realm dismantled was / of Jove himself, and now reigns here / A very, very—peacock.” Let us note that according to Dover Wilson, “peacock” symbolically typifies for the popular imagination lechery and vanity.64 In the bedchamber of the Queen, Hamlet describes Claudius as a depraved being, “A murderer, and a villain / A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe / Of your precedent Lord, a vice of kings, / A cutpurse of the empire and the rule, / That from a shelf the precious diadem stole / and put it in his pocket.”65 It is Hamlet's duty to put an end to the reign of this “mock king” not by blindly executing the order of the dreaded father but by following his own personal decision. He says to Horatio: “Does it not seem that a duty is imposed on me? / He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother / Popped in between th'election and my hopes, / Thrown out his angle for my proper life, / And with such cozenage—is't not perfect conscience / To quit him with this arm?”66 The usurper's revels begun in the first act end with Act V. At the beginning of the play, Claudius “takes his rouse” and “as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down / The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out / The triumph of his pledge.”67 At the end of the tragedy, Hamlet forces him to drink from the poisoned cup. “Drink off this potion,” he says.68

The word drink has a sinister connotation in this tragedy “Now I could drink hot blood,” declares Hamlet as he makes his way towards the Queen's bedchamber.69 Passing behind the King in prayer, he sheathes his sword: “Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent, / when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, / or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed.”70 It is Ophelia's garments, heavy with their drink, that pull her to “muddy death.”71 And the Queen, poisoned by the drink prepared for Hamlet, cries: “No, no, the drink, the drink—O dear Hamlet—The drink, the drink! I am poisoned!”72

If the first apparitions of the Spectre occur before Christmas, the coronation and the royal wedding are probably celebrated around the New Year. Both of these events have a clearly sacrilegious character.

In the mythical consciousness, the New Year represents the setting up of a “new period,” the regeneration of the universe, the re-creation of the Cosmos and the repetition of the cosmogonic act. In Mesopotamia, the King plays a central role in the New Year's celebration, as he is responsible for the universal harmony, the regular sequence of the seasons, the fertility of the earth and the reproduction of animals and the human race.73 Mircea Eliade reminds us that the Fijians called the ceremony of inaugurating a new chieftain—“the creation of the world.

By his accession to the throne, Claudius acts against the laws of nature. The new King of Denmark, consecrated by the coronation, is but a vile murderer. The wedding of Claudius and of Gertrude is closely linked to the coronation, because this union legitimates the assumption of power by the usurper. “Therefore our sometime sister, now our Queen / Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state. / … / Have we taken to wife” says the King in his coronation speech.74 The sacred character of the wedding rite is tarnished by Claudius and Gertrude; the cosmogonical aspect of this rite reminds us of those rites which celebrate the New Year. Mircea Eliade is again the one who draws our attention to the German term “Hochzeit” (marriage) derived from “Hochgezit”—feast of the New Year. According to this author, in mythical thought marriage regenerates the year and consequently confers fecundity, wealth and happiness,75 but the royal wedding of Claudius and Gertrude is a sexual crime which pollutes the earth and, by a magical effect, disturbs the cyclic order of life. It is a caricature of the archetypal and sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth, a blasphemy and a violation of the natural order. Hamlet is disgusted with this: “We will have no more marriage.”76


The incestuous adultery; the murder of the King; the marriage which goes against nature; and the usurpation of the throne unleash a cosmic catastrophe. In referring to the ghost's apparition, Horatio speaks of cosmic phenomena which announced the assassination of Julius Caesar. “In the most high and palmy state of Rome, / A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, / The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets, / And even the like precurse of fierce event, / As harbingers preceding still the fates / And prologue to the omen coming on, / Have heaven and earth together demonstrated / Unto our climatures and countrymen. / As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, / Disasters in the sun; and the moist star, / Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands, / Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.”77 This theme of an upset universal order in Shakespeare's tragedy is associated with the anxieties of the mythical consciousness. For primitive man the course of the sun, the cycle of the seasons and the functioning of the astronomical cosmos are not set once and for all but remain under the influence of human and demoniacal forces: “Who ever knew the heavens menace so?” asks Casca in Julius Caesar. Cassius answers him, “Those that have known the earth full of faults.”78

The cosmic catastrophe seems inevitable because the sun, above all the symbol of royal power in Shakespeare's theatre, is degraded and corrupted.

In the hierarchy of the universal order “the glorious planet Sol / In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd / Amidst the other whose med'cinable eye / Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil, / And posts, like the commandment of a King, / Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets / In evil mixture to disorder wander, / What plagues and what portents, what mutiny …” says Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida. The weakened sun is unable to oppose its radiant power against the influence of the “bad revolting stars” which cause, according to Bedford in Henry VI, Part 1, the death of kings and the fall of empires.79

In the works which precede Hamlet, in particular Richard III and Julius Caesar, these cosmic signs are the forerunners of the death or the fall of kings.80 From this point of view, Horatio's declarations in Hamlet have a particular importance since they refer directly to Julius Caesar. In this tragedy, Casca, Cassius and Calpurnia tell of monstrous events forecasting great upheavals: “But you ask / Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts, / Why birds and beasts, from quality and kind; / Why old men, fools, and children calculate; / Why all these things change from their ordinance, / Their natures and preformed faculties / To monstrous quality …” exclaims Cassius.81 He characterizes these events as “strange eruptions.” Horatio uses a similar expression with reference to the erring spirit of the King “… This bodes some strange eruption to our state.”82 Horatio also speaks of the “dews of blood” which fall on Danish soil. In Julius Caesar, Calpurnia seems to reveal the origin of this strange phenomenon … “Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds, / In ranks and squadrons and right form of war / Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol …” She says to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen: / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”83

In Hamlet, the “Disasters in the sun”84 metaphorically reflect the past—the death of Old Hamlet, murdered in his sleep. They are the image of the present and at the same time announce the future—punishment of the usurper.

The sun, “god of day,” is the subject of a riddle from the very beginning of the play, as seen in the second reply of Hamlet to Claudius. King: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet: “Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun.”85 What is the sense of this play on words? According to Dover Wilson, the enigma refers to the proverbial expression “in the sun” which means “out of house and home, outlawed, disinherited.”86 However, the French translators, André Gide and Yves Bonnefoy, are not wrong in making Hamlet utter these words: “Je suis si près du soleil” (“I am so close to the Sun”). The Sun can refer to the old King: it is the memory of his father which animates Hamlet. Or it can refer to the usurper himself: this degraded “sun” cannot chase away the clouds which “overshadow” Hamlet.

It is once again the image of the corrupted sun which is found in the remarks Hamlet addresses to Polonius “For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion … have you a daughter? / … / Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to't.”87 Here the sun's action is associated with decomposition and debased sexuality. It seems probable that Hamlet wishes to protect Ophelia from the unhealthy influence that the usurping King may exercise on her. This warning prepares, in a way, the violent outburst of Hamlet: “Get thee to a nunnery, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners.”88

The moon's eclipse, “The moist star, / Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands,” is connected with the disturbance of the life cycle in Hamlet. We know the role attributed by mythical thought to the moon, star of bio-cosmic rhythms. According to Pliny the Elder the moon may be considered as the planet which gives the breath of life “because it saturates the earth and by its approach fills bodies, while by its departure it empties them. Hence it is that shell-fish increase with the increase of the moon and that bloodless creatures especially feel breath at that time; even the blood of men grows and diminishes with the light of the moon, and leaves and herbage also feel the same influence, since the lunar energy penetrates all things.”90 The “Lunar” symbolism links together heterogeneous realities, “sea water, rain, the fertility of women and animals, plant life, man's destiny after death and ceremonies of initiation.”91 In Hamlet “the heated visage” of the moon is connected with the incestuous marriage of Queen Gertrude: “O such a deed / As from the body of contraction plucks / The very soul, and sweet religion makes / A rhapsody of words; heaven's face does glow, / And this solidity and compound mass / With heated visage, as against the doom, / Is thought-sick at the act.”92 Actually, the universal order is reversed if the moon does not reflect the Sun's light. Cfr. Thersites: “the sun borrows of the moon / When Diomed keeps his word” (Troilus and Cressida).93 This abnormal aspect of the moon seems to account for Hamlet's melancholia. Polonius and the King talk about “The very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.”—“turbulent and dangerous lunacy.” This diagnosis conforms with the beliefs concerning the wandering of the mind provoked by this heavenly body which is found at the meeting of two worlds: Aether and Air, the universe of the gods and that of the demons, the sphere of necessity and the sphere of contingency.94


The unsettled course of the planets provokes confusion in the intuition of time and space. Hamlet's exclamation “The time is out of joint” gives a metaphoric proof of this profound disturbance. “One and the same concrete intuition—that of the interchange of light and darkness, day and night—underlies both the primary intuition of space and the primary articulation of time. And this same scheme of orientation, the same intuitively-felt distinction between the quarters of the heavens and the points of the compass, governs the division of both space and time into clear-cut sections. We have seen that the simplest spatial relations, such as left and right and forward and backward, are differentiated by a line drawn from east to west, following the course of the sun, and bisected by a perpendicular line running from north to south, and all intuition of temporal intervals goes back to these intersecting lines,” writes Cassirer in Mythical Consciousness, Volume II of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.95 These considerations are directly relevant to Hamlet, because in the imaginary world of the tragedy the normal boundary between night and day has disappeared. “What might be toward that this sweaty haste / Doth make the night joint labourer with the day, / Who is 't that can inform me?” asks Marcellus in the first scene of Act 1.96

In the plays created before Hamlet, as in Richard II or Macbeth, the night, that breeds “vile contagions,” (see Henry VI, 2) is allowed to invade the day by the interruption of the cosmic rhythm. “By th'clock 'tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp. / Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame, / That darkness does the face of the earth entomb, / When living light should kiss it” asks Ross, after the murders committed by Macbeth.97 “Who saw the sun to-day?” asks Richard III at dawn, the day when he confronts Richmond.98

In Hamlet, the interruption of the alternation between night and day augurs a grave disturbance in the royal succession. Polonius is not rambling on when he says to Claudius and Gertrude “My liege and madam, to expostulate / What majesty should be, what duty is / Why day is day, night night, and time is time, / Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.”99 In fact, the legitimacy of the throne rests on the principle of succession which governs the universal order. The reproaches made by York to Richard II emphasize this political, juridical and moral aspect of the universal law: “Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time / His charters and his customary rights; / Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day; / Be not thyself for how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession?”100 These remarks establish a relationship between “the universal temporal order” and “the eternal order of justice”—the same link, between “the astronomical and ethical cosmos” which is found, according to Cassirer, in most religions.101

The disappearance of the natural frontier between night and day reflects the transgression of the law by Gertrude and Claudius: they have undertaken an incestuous marriage. From this point of view, Claudius' declaration concerning his marriage with Gertrude, “Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen / Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state” reminds us of Marcellus' astonished “make the night joint-labourer with the day.”102

The principle of confusion is incarnated by the Ghost itself who has “a fair and warlike form” of the buried king and who behaves like a “guilty thing.” This confusion is characteristic of the feelings and thoughts of Claudius. He feels “mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage,” as he weighs “delight and dole” in equal scale.103 The cosmic disturbance upsets the moral order: “reason panders will” and “virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.”104 Hamlet is aware of the cosmic dimension of his duty, to be the “scourge” and the “minister” of Heaven. This incites him to curse his fate which requires the setting right of a time “out of joint.”105


“The development of the mythical feeling of space always starts from the opposition of day and night, light and darkness,” writes Cassirer.106 It is not surprising that, as a result of the serious disturbance in cosmic rhythm, the organization of space and spatial intuition are deeply disturbed in Hamlet. The ramparts of Elsinore are shown to be useless in protecting the royal court against the sudden invasion of the Ghost. Let us note what Mircea Eliade says to this effect: “the fortifications of towns and cities” were probably “magical defenses; these fortifications—moats, labyrinths, walls, etc.—were constructed to prevent the invasion of demons and souls of the dead more than to prevent human attack / … / Furthermore, mythical thought finds no difficulty in assimilating the human enemy to demons and death. In the end, the result of the attacks whether demoniac or military in origin is always the same: destruction, disintegration and death.”107 The Ghost makes a breach in the walls of Elsinore and thus establishes a connection between the “chaotic” exterior space, lacking articulate form, and the organized interior space, focused on the royal throne. In Shakespeare's plays, and in particular in Richard II, the royal throne is associated with the “scept'red isle,” with a “fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war.”108 In Hamlet, the usurper Claudius occupies the royal throne; he has caused the start of a universal disaster by the sacrilegious murder of the legitimate king and by his incestuous marriage with the widow of his own brother. The Ghost who haunts the ramparts of the fortress establishes a relationship between the polluted earth of Elsinore, the celestial region and the underworld. He creates an Axis Mundi and places Hamlet at the conjunction of the Heavens, Earth and Hell. Hamlet has an intuition of the cosmic dimension of the apparition. Before the Ghost has even spoken his first word Hamlet exclaims: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us! / Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned, / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell.”109 Immediately after the Ghost's disappearance, trying to recover his senses, he associates hell with heaven and earth. “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell? O fie! / Hold, hold my heart …”110 From this moment on, space seems to dissolve in Hamlet's mind / Denmark is a prison for him. “… A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons.”111 To his eyes, external reality disintegrates in a “foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,” as if his wish, expressed at the beginning of the play, had been fulfilled: “O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself unto a dew.” In this soliloquy, he compares the world to “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.”112 We understand the concrete political meaning of this “universal disgust” on Hamlet's part, when we re-read these lines in the light of the remarks made by the gardener in Richard II: “Why should we, in the compass of a pale, / Keep law and form and due proportion, / Showing, as in a model, our firm estate, / When our sea-walled garden, the whole land, / Is full of weeds; her fairest flowers chok'd up, / Her fruit trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd, / Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs / Swarming with caterpillars?”113

In Hamlet, “Time is out of joint,” and space disintegrates. The forces of external darkness besiege Elsinore. But this regression towards an inarticulated, chaotic, unformed world allows the recovery of the forces present at the Creation which will be able to renew the debased world.


The kingdom of Denmark is literally in decomposition because of the king's murder and Claudius' incestuous marriage. The theme of the humiliation of the father's role in Hamlet throws light on the progressive decadence of political authority.

Old Hamlet, the glorious soldier, is in reality a decadent, weak king with a troubled conscience. At the beginning of the play, he appears dressed in his armour; however, he removes this armour at the end of Act III and appears in his night-shirt in the queen's bedchamber. Norway, his contemporary, resembles King Hamlet: he is an old, impotent and bed-ridden sovereign,114 who is made fun of by his nephew Fortinbras. These fathers have, as does Polonius, “a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams.”115 This weakness is characteristic of old Priam, whose assassination is related by the First Player: “with the whiff and wind of his fell sword / Th'unnerved father falls.”116 These fathers, dethroned kings, do not seem to deserve any particular respect on Hamlet's part: “your worm is your only emperor for diet, we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table—that's the end …”117 To Hamlet, “the king is a thing / … / a thing of nothing.”118 In an enigmatic way, he says about Polonius' corpse, “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body.”119 Dover Wilson thinks that by this strange declaration Hamlet means: “the body, that is, Polonius, is in the King's my father's company in another world, but the other king, my uncle, has not joined them yet.”120 But is it not just as possible that when Hamlet thinks of his own father: “the body is with the king” he means that old Hamlet is buried; but that “the king is not with the body,” his spirit, the best part of his being, wanders and is unable to find peace?

In the same way, Claudius, the virile and powerful usurper, gradually loses his power as the play progresses. At the beginning of the play, he is a king sure of himself, a clever diplomat, who does not react to the insults of his nephew.

As early as the 2nd scene of Act II, he seems to be deeply worried by the strange mood of Hamlet. He cannot hide his worries from Polonius, who wants to reveal the reason for Hamlet's change: “O speak of that that do I long to hear.”121 During the play within the play, he realises that Hamlet knows the secret of his crime. He sinks down on his prayer-stool, and Hamlet finds him in this position. Feeling more and more threatened, Claudius redoubles his murderous plotting. Like Egisthus, Claudius' whole life depends on his wife Gertrude, and this is one of the main reasons why he does not ask Hamlet to publicly account for Polonius' murder: “The queen his mother / Lives only by his looks, and for myself, / My virtue or my plague, be it either which, / She is so conjunctive to my life and soul, / That as the star moves not but in his sphere / I could not but by her” he confides to Laertes. From a political point of view, he feels that his power has been decreased by Hamlet's popularity, by “the great love the general gender bear him.”122 This murderer identifies himself in a way with his elder brother. As Old Hamlet, Claudius gambles his life, his throne and the queen: “Go but apart, / Make choice of whom your wisest friend you will, / And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me. / If by direct or by the collateral hand / They find us touched, we will our kingdom give, / Our crown, our life, and all that we call ours, / To you in satisfaction” he proposes to the young Laertes, who has accused him of the death of Polonius.123 Claudius unconsciously imitates his predecessor who, provoked by old Fortinbras, accepted to “forfeit (with his life) all those his hands / Which he stood seized of”124 that is, the kingdom of Denmark. In the past these two fathers had made a “sealed compact / well ratified by law and heraldry”;125 in the present, it is King Claudius, “father” of the kingdom, who finds himself forced to propose an identical arrangement to his subject, his “son”, who rebels against his authority.

It is incontestable that the return of the excitable Laertes to Denmark constitutes a turning point in the play. “Keep calm, my lord! / The ocean, overpeering of his list, / Eats not the flats with more impiteous haste / Than young Laertes in a riotous head / O'erbears your officers: the rabble call him lord, / And as the world were now but to begin, / Antiquity forgot, custom not known, / The ratifiers and props of every word / They cry ‘Choose we, Laertes shall be king’” says the officer to the king.126 These lines remind us of those spoken by Sir Stephen Scroop concerning Bolingbroke's revolt: “like an unseasonable stormy day / Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores / As if the world were all dissolv'd to tears, / So high above his limits swells the rage / Of Bolingbroke, covering your fearful land / With hard bright steel and hearts harder than steel.”127 The theme of the disintegration of the universe and the return of primaeval time links Hamlet and Richard II. The irruption of Laertes in the royal court and the aggressive way in which he addresses the king emphasize the emergence of a new personality—the Son—in the tragedy. “That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot / Even here, between the chaste unsmirched brows / of my true mother,” declares Laertes, in addressing the king, whom he qualifies as “vile king.”128 We understand how Gerhardt Hauptmann, in his version of the tragedy, could have made Hamlet say these words.

“As if the world had just begun …” Hamlet disembarks naked on Danish soil. Following the tradition of young legendary conquerors who have been strengthened in their adventures abroad, he returns to claim his succession. This heir is in possession of his father's “signet” ring, which is “the model of that Danish seal.”129 To Horatio, who fears that the usurper may have been informed about the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet answers: “It will be short, the interim is mine.”130 Hamlet maintains that, until the arrival of the English ambassadors to Denmark, he remains the master of the game. In addition, he feels that he himself will exercise this “interim,” that he will fulfill the royal function for at least a short time, after having punished Claudius and having given his “dying voice”131 to Fortinbras. While the “arrows” of the usurper “to slightly timbered for so loud a wind” fall back on his “bow,” those of Hamlet undoubtedly misaimed, mount quickly in the air: “Free me so far in your most generous thoughts, / That I have shot my arrow o'er the house, / And hurt my brother” says he to Laertes.132

In the last scene of Act V, Hamlet assumes in full his function as legitimate heir to the throne. He punishes the usurper by death. Fortinbras, who succeeds him, appreciates Hamlet's aptitude to rule. “For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal.” While the “fathers” in this tragedy are hurriedly buried “with no trophy, sword, or hatchment / nor any noble rite,” Hamlet's funeral is celebrated according to the “rite of war.”133


There is a marked connection between the mythical, cosmic and religious character of Hamlet and the very structure of the Globe, Shakespeare's theatre. In his book “Theatre of the World” (1969), Francis A. Yates traces the role played by John Dee in England in the propagation of Vitruvius' theories on Hellenistic architecture. He links the movement of theatre construction, inaugurated by Burbage at Shoreditch in London, to the rediscovery of Hellenistic theatre. The plan of the Vitruvian theatre is based on “the triangulations within the zodiac circle” with its twelve signs joined by four triangles, or polygons. This symmetry and these proportions also characterize the human body, and they emphasize the analogy existing between the macrocosm and the microcosm. From the point of view of theatrical technique, this “cosmic” plan allows the creation of a musical harmony of the actors' voices on the stage, with the “musica convenientia astrorum”. From the point of view of spirituality, the cosmic plan lets the audience fit its imagination to the fictitious action in the “theatre of the world,” theatrum mundi. This theatrical structure is particularly apt in reflecting the cosmic and religious allusions of mythical thought as well as in emphasizing the scenes and the situations which convey the elements of this thought.


  1. G. Gusdorf, Mythe et Métaphysique, Flammarion, 1953, p. 12.

  2. C. G. Jung, Métamorphose de l'âme et ses symboles, Geneva, Georg et Cie., 1973, p. 84.

  3. Mary Douglas, De la souillure, Maspero, 1971, p. 25.

  4. See E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan Picture, Penguin Books, 1974; and C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974.

  5. J. G. Frazer, Le Rameau d'Or. Etude sur la magie et la religion, Schleicher Frères et Cie, 1903, Vol. I, p. 3.

  6. H. Frankfort, La royauté et les dieux, Payot, 1951, p. 36; and Frazer, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 165-166.

  7. Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges, Publications of the Faculty of Letters of the University of Strasbourg, No. 19, p. 50 et seq.

  8. PA, II, 4.3, 1020.

  9. PA, I, 4.1, 470.

  10. PA, I, 4.1, 470.

  11. PA, 3.2, 462.

  12. See Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King, Yale Studies in English, No. 180, 1973.

  13. PA, 5.3, 744-45.

  14. DW, 3.3, 79.

  15. DW, 4.5, 102.

  16. Quoted by Freud in Totem et Tabou, Petite Bibl. Payot, No. 77, p. 31.

  17. PA, 2.3, 1009.

  18. DW, 1.1, 5 and 1.5, 29.

  19. L. Lévy-Bruhl, L'âme primitive, Félix Alcan, 1927, pp. 275 and 280.

  20. See Freud, op. cit.; and Otto Rank, Don Juan et le double, Petite Bibl. Payot, No. 211, especially Ch. 4 and 5 of the study on Don Juan.

  21. Mary Douglas, op. cit., p. 131.

  22. DW, 1.5, 28.

  23. DW, 1.1, 4.

  24. DW, 1.2, 15.

  25. DW, 2.2, 56.

  26. DW, 3.2, 65.

  27. DW, 3.4, 86.

  28. DW, 4.5, 101.

  29. PA, 1.2, 448. On the theme of royal blood, in Richard II, see Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, Methuen, 1973, p. 113 et seq.

  30. DW, 1.5, 28-9.

  31. DW, 1.4, 24 and DW, 1.3, 18.

  32. DW, 3.4, 85.

  33. DW, 3.2, 75.

  34. DW, 4.3, 95.

  35. DW, 3.4, 87.

  36. DW, 4.7, 111.

  37. DW, 1.5, 27.

  38. DW, 2.1, 37.

  39. Frazer, La crainte des morts dans la religion primitive, Emile Noury, 1935, pp. 68-69.

  40. Mircea Eliade, Traité d'histoire de religions, Payot, 1970-1974, p. 190.

  41. DW, 1.4, 24. See also Otto Rank, op. cit., p. 147.

  42. DW, 1.5, 29.

  43. DW, 3.3, 81.

  44. DW, 1.5, 28.

  45. DW, 2.2, 45.

  46. DW, 3.2, 71.

  47. Ibid. and DW, 3.3, 73.

  48. Frazer, Le Rameau d'Or, Vol. III: Les cultes agraires et silvestres, Libr. Schleicher Frères, 1911, pp. 86-87.

  49. Ibid., p. 123.

  50. DW, 1.1, 8-9.

  51. Hamlet, p. 255.

  52. DW, 1.1, 4.

  53. DW, 1.1, 8.

  54. Frazer, Le Rameau d'Or: Le bouc émissaire, Ch. V, p. 273.

  55. Mircea Eliade, op. cit., p. 296.

  56. Roger Caillois, L'homme et le sacré, Coll. Idées, Gallimard, p. 140 et seq.

  57. B. Malinowski, Trois essais sur la vie sociale des primitifs, Petite Bibl. Payot, No. 109, p. 140.

  58. Bloch, op. cit., p. 57.

  59. DW, 1.1, 5.

  60. DW, 1.4, 25.

  61. DW, 1.5, 27 and DW, 1.3, 23.

  62. Frazer, op. cit., Vol. III, p. 387.

  63. Ibid., p. 292.

  64. DW, 3.2, 75. See also the note to line 284, pp. 205-206.

  65. DW, 3.4, 86.

  66. DW, 5.2, 125.

  67. DW, 1.3, 23.

  68. DW, 5.2, 135.

  69. DW, 3.2, 78.

  70. DW, 3.3, 82.

  71. DW, 4.7, 113.

  72. DW, 5.2, 134.

  73. Mircea Eliade, op. cit., p. 539.

  74. DW, 1.2, 10.

  75. Mircea Eliade, Le mythe de l'eternel retour, Coll. Idées, No. 191, Gallimard, 1969, p. 39.

  76. DW, 3.1, 63.

  77. DW, 1.1, 7.

  78. PA, 1.3, 974.

  79. PA, 1.3, 793 and PA, 1.1, 589.

  80. PA, 2.4, 461.

  81. PA, 1.3, 974.

  82. PA, 1.3, 974; and DW, 1.1, 6.

  83. DW, 1.1, 7 and PA, 2.2, 980.

  84. DW, 1.1, 7.

  85. DW, 1.2, 11-12.

  86. DW, 150. See the note to line 67.

  87. DW, 2.2, 44.

  88. DW, 3.1, 62.

  89. DW, 1.1, 7.

  90. Frazer, Le Rameau d'Or, Vol. III, p. 191.

  91. Mircea Eliade, op. cit., p. 140.

  92. DW, 3.4, 84.

  93. PA, 5.1, 819.

  94. DW, 2.2, 39. See on this subject C. S. Lewis, op. cit.; and Lawrence Babb, Elizabethan Malady, Michigan State University Press, 1951 (repr. 1965).

  95. Ed. de Minuit, 1972, p. 135.

  96. DW, 1.1, 6.

  97. PA, 2.2, 978 and PA, 2.3, 1009.

  98. PA, 5.3, 745.

  99. DW, 2.2, 41.

  100. PA, 2.1, 456.

  101. Cassirer, La pensée mythique, p. 143.

  102. DW, 1.2, 10; and DW, 1.1, 6. The sacrilegious aspect of the two feasts of which Hamlet speaks materializes, in a way, the violation committed against the right and morality. See DW, 1.2, 15.

  103. DW, 1.1, 5; DW, 1.1, 8 and DW, 1.2, 10.

  104. DW, 3.4, 85 and 86.

  105. DW, 3.3, 88 and DW, 1.5, 32.

  106. Cassirer, op. cit., p. 123.

  107. Mircea Eliade, Le Sacré et le Profane, Coll. Idées, No. 76, Gallimard, 1965, p. 45.

  108. PA, 2.1, 454.

  109. DW, 1.4, 24.

  110. DW, 1.5, 29.

  111. DW, 2.2, 46.

  112. DW, 1.2, 14.

  113. PA, 4.1, 468.

  114. DW, 1.2, 10.

  115. DW, 2.2, 45.

  116. DW, 2.2, 53.

  117. DW, 4.3, 93-94.

  118. DW, 4.2, 92.

  119. Ibid.

  120. See the note to lines 26-27 of Scene 2, Act IV (DW, 219).

  121. DW, 2.2, 39.

  122. DW, 4.7, 107.

  123. DW, 4.5, 105.

  124. DW, 1.1, 6.

  125. DW, 1.1, 6.

  126. DW, 4.5, 101.

  127. PA, 3.2, 463.

  128. DW, 4.5, 102.

  129. DW, 5.2, 125.

  130. Ibid.

  131. DW, 5.2, 136.

  132. DW, 5.2, 131.

  133. DW, 4.5, 105 and DW, 5.2, 138.

Signs and References: PA (Shakespeare, the Complete Works, ed. by Peter Alexander, London and Glasgow, Collins, 1975).

DW (The Works of Shakespeare, ed. by John Dover Wilson, Hamlet, Cambridge, 1969).

The author regrets that, for technical reasons, it has not been possible to cite the original texts by certain authors. In these cases reference is made to selected French translations.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8669

SOURCE: “Coriolanus and the Myth of Juno and Mars,” in Mosaic, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 33-50.

[In the following essay, Simonds describes the figures of Coriolanus and Volumnia in Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus as personifications of the Roman gods Mars and Juno, respectively.]

Shakespeare's Coriolanus has usually been studied as a socio-political statement by the dramatist, as a psychological case history of a hero dominated by his mother, or as evidence of the playwright's attitudes toward Roman history, a subject of great general interest during the Renaissance. Although all these aspects of the tragedy are clearly important, I believe they mainly provide rich surface textures which mask an essential and thus far overlooked mythical substructure of the play. Recently John W. Velz has advanced what seems to be a mythological interpretation in an article attempting to demonstrate similarities between the character of Coriolanus and that of Virgil's warlike Turnus, a primitive type who must be overcome by Aeneas in order for Roman destiny to reach fulfillment.1 However, Velz makes no effort to explain the equally primitive personality of Volumnia and her strange relationship with her son, an element of the Coriolanus story which does not have a counterpart in the Aeneid. In any case, the majority of scholars agree that Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's “Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus” is the major source of Shakespeare's tragedy, although the playwright's knowledge of Virgil—and indeed of Ovid, Apuleius and Livy as well—may also have influenced his composition of this Roman play.

Predominantly a moralist in the Lives, Plutarch used the legend of Coriolanus to prove that young Roman warriors need the discipline of a strong father in order to fulfill their true potential, a subject of no interest whatsoever to the Renaissance playwright. In his dramatic version of the myth, Shakespeare seems to have discovered and deliberately emphasized the archetypal elements which underlie Plutarch's exemplum. He thereby transfigures and universalizes this tragic story of a superb military leader who could not learn the civilized art of politics, was later exiled from the city he had served so well in wartime, and was ultimately abandoned by both his mother and Rome to a sacrificial death in the rival city of Corioles. I would emphasize, however, that when I speak of “archetypal elements,” I do not mean to suggest a Jungian theory of “collective unconscious” influences at work in the playwright, which would indicate a basically anti-historical point of view. The archetypes I want to examine are the classical models—gods and heroes—which were in the forefront of the consciousness of any schoolboy in Shakespeare's time.

Northrop Frye has argued that in the literary use of mythological subjects, “The allegorist [such as Plutarch] tends to try to drop the divine personality and concentrate on the event: the poet tends to see the event only as symbolic of the activity of the personality.”2 Thus, by concentrating on the personalities in his staging of the Coriolanus story, Shakespeare reveals once more the true underlying deities and, as I will show, he refocuses our attention on the lasting significance of the ancient myth that concerns them. I believe that he is primarily concerned here with the uses which the Feminine Principle—as mother, city and Civitas—deliberately makes of masculine aggressiveness, which she herself arouses. He expresses this interest by portraying the leading characters, Volumnia and her son Coriolanus, not as ordinary human personalities in the manner of Plutarch, but as divine forces larger than life who tower over the remainder of the cast. Deities, however, are very difficult for actors trained in the techniques of realism to embody on the modern stage

British actor Alan Howard, who played Coriolanus in the remarkable Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1977-78, states the main problem of theatrical interpretation as follows: “I think the mother relationship is very mysterious. Is Shakespeare being absolutely realistic, or is he using some other method here? It is most peculiar that there is no reference at all in the play … to the fact that there was a father. You read bits of things about Vestal Virgins and the gods. I won't say that those are directly related, but they are suggestive.”3 Rightly suspicious of Shakespeare's surface realism and perceiving a divine origin for the character, Howard played Coriolanus quite frankly as Mars incarnate, a divinity who has always been uncomfortably both heroic and absurd. It worked very well indeed.

But an entirely successful production of Coriolanus must also indicate with equal clarity that Volumnia is a divinity as well, a deity even more powerful than Mars himself. After playing the role of Volumnia's son, Howard also observed that, “Volumnia is to all intents and purposes father and mother. She really carries out that role. She never has another child. She keeps saying things like if I had eleven more children, but there's nothing whatever in the text about it. She talks of Coriolanus as her first-born, which is very odd: you'd normally say that only if there were more. There's something peculiar here!” (p. 327). Indeed there is, and the answer to the problem may lie in classical mythology. I will propose in this paper that the myth of Coriolanus originally concerned the relationship between two major Roman deities: Juno, patroness of Rome (patroness in the OED sense of “a female tutelary deity”), and her chthonic son Mars, protective god of the city's outermost boundaries.


First, the fact that Shakespeare does not mention a father in Coriolanus is extremely “suggestive,” to use Howard's word, since it was well known during the Renaissance that the god Mars had no father. In Ovid's Fasti, a popular Latin text for sixteenth-century schoolboys, the goddess Flora recites the following myth of Juno's conception of Mars by parthenogenesis:

“Mars, too, was brought to the birth by my contrivance; perhaps you do not know it, and I pray that Jupiter, who thus far knows it not, may never know it. Holy Juno grieved that Jupiter had not needed her services when Minerva was born without a mother. … I consoled her with friendly words. ‘My grief,’ quoth she, ‘is not to be assuaged with words. If Jupiter had become a father without the use of a wife, and unites both titles in his single person, why should I despair of becoming a mother without a husband, and of bringing forth without contact with a man, always supposing that I am chaste? … Help me, I pray,’ she said. … ‘Thy wish,’ quoth I, ‘will be accomplished by a flower that was sent me from the fields of Olenus.’”4

Mars is instantly conceived when Flora touches Juno's bosom with this mysterious blossom. In the light of Georges Dumézil's findings in Archaic Roman Religion, the strange choice of a delicate flower as the progenitor of the god probably alludes to the fact that the Roman war season began in early spring.5 Later in the Fasti, Juno states that she does not repent having left her former city of Carthage to become Rome's guardian deity, since “there is no people dearer to me” than the Romans: “here may I be worshipped, here may I occupy the temple with my own Jupiter. Mavors himself hath said to me, ‘I entrust these walls to thee. Thou shalt be mighty in the city of thy grandson’” (p. 323). Mavors is of course another name for Mars, father of the city's eponymous ancestor Romulus. Now, I do not intend to argue here that the Fasti was a source for Coriolanus, only that it could have provided certain mythological knowledge to the playwright, who would almost certainly have read the poem in grammar school.6 Moreover, it is significant that in Shakespeare's Coriolanus a senator addresses Volumnia not as a Roman matron but exactly as he would address the powerful goddess Juno: “Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!” (V.v.1.)7

The story of Mars's chthonic birth is retold in the sixteenth century with a salacious addition and a Christian moral tag by the Renaissance mythographer Vincenzo Cartari, who was regularly consulted by most Renaissance poets and painters:

“Why do the fables say that Juno, envious that Jove had made himself little-boy-children without her, wished to do likewise without him, and by virtue of a certain flower shown to her by Flora, as Ovid tells it, or as certain others have said, by masturbating, became pregnant with Mars and went to give birth afterwards in Thrace, where the people are extraordinarily frightful and facile in warfare? This story goes to show that wars originate for the most part in the desire for power and riches, as we see in Juno.”8

This Renaissance belief that Juno desired riches and power is transferred to her city of Rome in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and Rome's “patroness,” Volumnia or Juno, speaks truly of her son's biological origins when she says, “There's no man in the world / More bound to's mother” … (V.iii.158-59). A similar Renaissance treatise in English, Batman uppon Bartholome, also speaks of Mars as “Junoes sonne, without company of her husband. The poets fained that Mars neuer had father, because he hated peace: for the nature of bastards, is commonly to be either very fearful, or very venturous, and most commonly delighting in those exercises, that be aunsiverable to heady, trayterous, and unseemly practices. Iuno found in the fieldes of Olenius a floure, with ye which as soone as she had tasted, conceived and brought forth Mars.”9

Just as Volumnia often seems to be angry in Coriolanus, Roman myths constantly refer to Juno as jealous and angry. Virgil records her fury at the Trojans in the Aeneid. Ovid not only points out her jealousy over Jupiter's creation of Minerva without a wife in the Fasti but also has Juno remind us that “I had a double cause to anger: I fretted at the rape of Ganymede, and my beauty was misprized by the Idaean judge” (p. 321). In his English adaptation of Cartari entitled The Fountaine of Ancient Fiction, Richard Linche describes the statue of Juno in similar terms:

The Statue of Iuno hath been framed by the auncients into the proportion of a woman of middle age, yet habited like a graue Matron, holding in the one hand a silver vessell, and in the other a sharpe-pointed speare: and although it may seeme strange to place in the hand of Iuno this warlike weapon, shee being of herselfe naturally mild, peacefull, and gentle, yet the auncients haue so defigured her, in that shee is many times also fierce, wrathful, and furious. …10

Shakespeare's equally bellicose matron Volumnia calls the patrician Menenius to welcome her son home from the wars: “my boy Martius approaches. For the love of Juno, let's go” (II.i.100-01). Then she boasts to Menenius, “O he is wounded. I thank the gods for't (II.i.121), and together they gloat over the number of scars Martius now carries on his body. Menenius sets the final total at twenty-seven, thus rendering the scene absurd in purely human terms. Later, as the incarnation of Juno Martialis, or mother of Mars, and patron goddess of Rome in the play, Volumnia berates the Roman citizens for their ungrateful treatment of her son, and then she states,

Anger's my meat; I sup upon myelf,
And so shall starve with feeding. Come let's go.
[To Virgilia] Leave this faint puling, and lament as I do,
In anger, Juno-like. Come, come, come.


These ferocious lines foreshadow the bloody sacrifice Volumnia as Juno will later (V.ii) ask of her son Coriolanus-Mars and of herself as mother for the sake of Rome. They may also remind us of Henry IV's grim description of the motherland during civil war as daubing “her lips with her own children's blood” (I Henry IV: I.i.6).

In fact the bloodthirsty Roman mother in Shakespeare's play is notably unlike Plutarch's more human Volumnia, who weeps tears of joy when her boy wins the wreath of victory. M. W. MacCallum points out that she does very little in the “Life” other than persuade her son not to invade Rome.11 Above all she does not ask Coriolanus to stand for the consulship. Plutarch's Martius enters politics on his own volition and freely displays his wounds to the populace, thus omitting the most painful scene in Shakespeare's dramatic version, namely III, ii. MacCallum also notes of the mother in Plutarch that “she is less masculine and masterful [than Shakespeare's Volumnia]. … Indeed, from Plutarch's hints. … It would be quite legitimate to picture her as an essentially womanly woman, high-souled and dutiful, but finding her chosen sphere in the home, overflowing with sympathy and affection, and failing in her obligations as a widowed mother only by a lack of sternness” (p. 497). This gentle matron apparently becomes Coriolanus' wife Virgilia in the tragedy.

Plutarch is the first of Shakespeare's classical sources to introduce the motif of the three women who save Rome from the wrath of Coriolanus, calling the mother Volumnia, the wife Virgilia, and identifying the third lady as Valeria, sister of Publicola. In Livy's The Roman Historie (translated into English by Philemon Holland in 1600), the hero's mother is called Veturia, his wife is Volumnia, and no third lady is mentioned. Livy's Veturia is simply described as “an aged woman … mourning and bewailing exceedingly above the rest. …”12 Thus Shakespeare's terrifying female character, who counts over the bloody wounds of her son and sees him as the ruthless harvester of his enemies, appears to be an original product of the English stage, although she has her roots in ancient Roman religion.

As many scholars have noted, Shakespeare's Coriolanus—when not revealing in an unprejudiced manner the self-interest of the various factions within the city—concentrates psychologically on the mother-son relationship. Indeed Martius' desire to please his mother in everything is remarkable even to the plebeians in the first scene of the play. Moreover, Volumnia's peculiar love for blood and cicatrices on her son's body is markedly inhuman, although we should remember that savage blood sacrifices were commonly offered in pre-classical antiquity to the Earth Mother in her terrible aspect. Apparently Shakespeare senses that Plutarch's pseudo-historical Volumnia in some way embodies that dark and mysterious aspect of the Indo-European Triple Goddess who presides over the human extremities of birth and death and who in Rome was called Juno. There can be no doubt that Shakespeare was well acquainted with the ancient notion of the Triple Goddess since he mentions triple Hecate in many of his plays.13 He knew Virgil's description of the sacred rite of the Triple Goddess as it is described in Book IV of the Aeneid, and he knew the great hymn to Isis in Book XI of Apuleius' The Golden Ass which states that all forms of the moon and earth goddess are but aspects of the one.14 Thus it is interesting to note the use of mysterious music in the recent BBC television production of Coriolanus to announce each appearance of the three women together.

According to Dumézil, Juno synthesized all three primordial functions of the Indo-European Feminine Principle—mother, warrior and purification—although in Rome she was eventually “confined to the two functions of sovereignty and fecundity” (I, 300). Gail Kern Paster reminds us that when we first see the three ladies together in I, ii, of Coriolanus, “The entire scene, composed only of women, is insistent on its emphasis on generations of women giving birth and nurturing children. …”15 Shakespeare's Volumnia, however, is also particularly proud of her son's ability as a harvester of men or as a figure of death:

                    His bloody brow
With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that's task'd to mow
                    Or all or lose his hire.


E. O. James informs us that modern archaeological studies have revealed the mother goddess to be widely recognized in antiquity as “the guardian of the dead—an underworld deity concerned alike with the crops and the seed-corn buried beneath the earth.”16 Such discoveries corroborate the literary evidence in Apuleius, where the Great Mother is hailed even if she “be called terrible Proserpine, by reason of the deadly howlings which Thou yieldest, that hast power with triple face to stop and put away the invasion of hags and ghosts which appear unto men, and to keep them down in the closures of the Earth …” (p. 262). Thus, although Shakespeare created in Coriolanus an unbelievable woman from the point of view of common sense, he achieved a very convincing portrait of this mythological female power in the relentless character of Volumnia, flanked by the chaste Valeria and the dove-eyed wife and mother Virgilia, the remaining two aspects of the Triple Goddess and of the moon. Menenius greets them accordingly: “How now, my as fair as noble ladies—and the moon, were she earthly, no nobler” (II.i.97-98). Moreover, Coriolanus himself observes, “My mother bows, / As if Olympus to a molehill should / In supplication nod” (29-31), and later he admits, “Ladies, you deserve / To have a temple built you” (V.ii.206-07).

In addition, Ralph Berry is surely correct when he suggests that, in another sense, Shakespeare's Volumnia symbolizes the city of Rome itself.17 Both Plutarch and Shakespeare understood the ancient Indo-European notion of the city as Feminine. Although the enraged and vindictive Coriolanus eventually snarls that “My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon / This enemy town” (IV.iii.23-24), the normal Indo-European typically sees his place of nativity as his true mother to whom he must be returned in death and as the place he must never harm. According to Erich Neumann, “Like the gate, enclosure and cattle pen, the collective village and city is a symbol of the Feminine. Their establishment originally began with the marking of a circle, the conjuring of the Great Round, which reveals its feminine nature equally well as a containing periphery or as a womb and center. The latest ramifications of this symbolism are the goddesses crowned with walls and the feminine names of cities.”18 Even Volumnia's name—the name chosen by both Plutarch and Shakespeare—comes from the word meaning “enclosed space.” Thus, as the Feminine Principle incarnate, she is for her warrior son the source of both birth and death; she is also the city which he has been trained to defend and which he must not enter as an aggressor. For this reason, only Volumnia can actually stop Coriolanus from breaking through the gates of his native Rome with the revived Volscian army. To do so would be a forbidden act redolent with sexual implications, as Volumnia reminds him: “thou shalt no sooner / March to assault thy country than to tread / (Trust to't, thou shalt not) on thy mother's womb / That brought thee to this world” (V.iii.122-25).

A servant in IV, v, comments that “war, in some sort, may be said to be a ravisher” (226-27), and, as Rome's greatest warrior, Coriolanus has certainly been a ravisher of cities. Shakespeare shows him to the audience in I, iv, driving himself bodily through the gates of Corioles with a sexual battle cry debasing to the sacred rite of Hymen: “come on! … we'll beat them to their wives” (40-41). If we recall the famous body imagery of Menenius in I, i, we may add to his analysis of the state that Martius is Rome's phallus, as Berry has noted (p. 302). Indeed, Martius cries out to his fellow soldiers, “O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?” (I.v.76). But later, when he wishes to turn that same sword against his native city, Volumnia reminds him—by her very presence in his camp—that he will be raping his own motherland, “our dear nurse” (V.iii.110). Furiously, he tries to stand firm in his resolve by denying his kinship to both Volumnia and Rome. In words much like those of Oedipus, who calls himself defiantly a child of Fortune, Coriolanus growls,

                    Let the Volsces
Plough Rome and harrow Italy, I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.


But when he stands face to face with his mother a few moments later, he quickly changes his tune:

                    You gods, I [prate],
And the most noble mother of the world
Leave unsaluted. Sink my knee, i'th'
earth; [Kneels]
Of thy deep duty more impression show
Than that of common sons.

(V.iii.48-52; emphasis mine)

Coriolanus is indeed no common son.

Nevertheless, even the proud claim of autochthony turns against the hero, since he then becomes a child of “the place” alone. Mircea Eliade tells us that,

among Europeans of today there lingers an obscure feeling of mystical unity with the native Earth; and this is not just a secular sentiment of love for one's country or province, nor admiration for the familiar landscape or veneration for the ancestors buried for generations around the village churches. There is also something quite different; the mystical experience of autochthony, the profound feeling of having come from the soil, of having been born of the Earth in the same way that the Earth, with her inexhaustible fecundity, gives birth to rocks, rivers, trees and flowers. It is in this sense that autochthony should be understood: men feel that they are people of the place, and this is a feeling of cosmic relatedness deeper than that of familial and ancestral solidarity.19

In the play, Volumnia then reminds Coriolanus of his doubly awkward position in relationship both to her and to the city of Rome.

                    Thou knowst great son
The end of war's uncertain; but this is certain,
That if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
Whose repetition will be dogg'd with curses;
Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
But with his last attempt he wip'd it out,
Destroy'd his country, and his name remains
To th' ensuing age abhorr'd.”


We all know the indelicate English equivalent of that name reserved for violators of the mother. On the other hand, it is Volumnia herself who trained her son to his life of violence so that he could protect her and conquer for her: “had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (I.iii.22-25). In V, iii, she reminds Coriolanus, “Thou art my warrior, / I holp to frame thee” (62-63), as indeed she did. This is clearly the voice of the Terrible Mother, the goddess of “the place” to which we all must eventually return.

Shakespeare completes the mythical persona of the Triple Goddess, as I have previously suggested, with the other two women in Coriolanus. Valeria's mythic origin is the goddess Diana, warrior-huntress and the new moon, who is the first aspect of the Great Goddess. Coriolanus hails her in V, iii, as “The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle / That's curdied by the frost from purest snow / And hangs on Dian's temple” (65-67). Characteristically, it is Valeria, or the moon huntress, who describes young Martius' heroic chase after the butterfly which he ultimately tears to pieces with his teeth: “A' my word, the father's son” (I.iii.57). According to Glynne Wickham, Valeria is “something of an enigma” who has no real function in the play,20 which suggests that Shakespeare may have included her mainly to complete the persona of the Triple Goddess. Virgilia is Coriolanus' adored wife and the mother of his son. The hero describes her as having “doves' eyes, / Which can make the gods forsworn” (V.iii.27-28), thus associating her with Venus, goddess of love and fecundity. Together Venus and Mars were symbolic during the Renaissance of discord overcome by love and thus of concord, an idea which may have originated in Book I of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Virgilia represents the full moon and the nubile aspect of the Triple Goddess. With the grandmother Volumnia as crone and the waning moon, Valeria and Virgilia are all three at last victorious over Coriolanus' passion for revenge against his native city, even though—as they are all aware—their victory will result in his death at the hands of the Volscians.

They love and admire him, but they do not mourn him for one minute, even though Coriolanus himself cries out,

O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son, believe it—O, believe it—
Most dangerously you have with him prevail'd,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come.


With this speech Coriolanus accepts his sacrificial role in relation to the Feminine Principle. Similarly, the god Mars was laid to rest each year in Rome through the ritual sacrifice and dismemberment of the October horse, a ceremony to be discussed later. This is the nature of things, as Coriolanus-Mars well knows.


Shakespeare's bloody hero does indeed appear to be Mars personified. As M. C. Bradbrook has observed, the figures of both Coriolanus and Antony seem “to expand” on stage until they “fill the whole universe to become a cosmic power, like something out of mythology.”21 Other scholars have related the antisocial behavior of Coriolanus to the Politics of Aristotle, who says (in a 1598 English translation) that “he that can not abide to live in companie, or through sufficiencie hath need of nothing, is not esteemed a part or member of a Cittie, but is either a beast or a God.”22 Shakespeare may indeed have been influenced by this Aristotelian notion when making Plutarch's Coriolanus his own. However, he carefully portrays Coriolanus not as a sympathetic albeit misguided human hero (if human he is ridiculous rather than tragic) but rather as the war god Mars and as his emblematic beast, the serpent or dragon, as well. Coriolanus is both god and beast in the shape of a man, perhaps an insinuation that war itself is beastly.

Within the play, Cominius describes Coriolanus in battle as Mars besmeared with gore, but he is also the hot planetary influence of Mars:

                    His word, death's stamp,
Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was tim'd with dying cries. Alone he ent'red
The mortal gate of th' city, which he painted
With shameless destiny; aidless came off,
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioles like a planet.


Menenius sees Coriolanus as inhuman and metallic, a war machine to be used: “When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a corslet with his eye, talks like a knell, and his hum is a battery. He sits in his state, as a thing made for Alexander” (V.iv.18-22).

Tremendous noise is another well-known attribute of the god Mars, as we know from Venus' noisy warning to Aeneas of Mars' approach in Book VIII, lines 522-32, of the Aeneid. Thus Titus Lartius says of Coriolanus on the battlefield:

                                                  Thou wast a soldier
Even to Cato's wish, not fierce and terrible
Only in strokes, but, with thy grim looks and
The thunder-like percussion of thy sounds,
Thou mad'st thine enemies shake, as if the world
Were feverous and did tremble.


Later, when Coriolanus returns to Rome heralded by the brazen sound of trumpets, Volumnia boasts of her son as though he were indeed divine:

These are the ushers of Martius: before him
He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.
Death, that dark spirit, in's nervy arm doth lie,
Which being advanc'd, declines and then men die.


Since the activity of Mars as a ravisher of cities is a popular metaphor of male sexuality, even this aspect of Coriolanus' personality is mentioned in the play. The people's tribune Junius Brutus comments on the post-war sexual popularity of Coriolanus whom women pursue, “As if whatsoever god who leads him / Were slily crept into his human powers, / And gave him graceful posture” (II.i.219-21). The comment serves no function in the play other than further to associate Martius with Mars.

References to the dragon-like nature of Coriolanus provide more evidence that Shakespeare intended the character to be recognized as Mars. The dragon was the mythical servant of the Great Goddess who guarded the earth's riches and who drew the chariot of the moon across the sky.23 The dramatist obviously knew Ovid's story of Medea in Book VII of The Metamorphoses when Jason swears by the Triple Goddess to marry the Princess of Colchis if she will help him overcome the dragon which guards the golden fleece and yoke the fiery bulls. In Book III of the same poem, Ovid also describes the serpent of Mars which guards the sacred waters and the land itself, the serpent which Cadmus must kill in order to found Thebes: “There was a spring with silver streames that forth thereof did flow. / Here lurked in his lowring den God Mars his griesly Snake / With golden scales and firie eyes beswolne with poyson blake.”24 Both Jason and Cadmus sowed the dragon's teeth from which sprang armed men to defend the land. And, like the dragon of Mars, Shakespeare's Coriolanus has only one real purpose—to guard his mother's treasures.

In Act IV, the Volscian general Aufidius—an all too human warrior capable of both military force and political art—greets Coriolanus quite openly as the god of battle who has just changed sides:

                                        Why, thou Mars, I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm for't.


And a servant reports on the succeeding treatment of the exiled Coriolanus by the Volscians in terms of ceremonies befitting a god: “Why he is so made on there within as if he were son and heir to Mars; set at the upper end o' th' table; no question ask'd him by any of the senators but they stand bald before him” (IV.v.191-94). This increasing recognition of Coriolanus as the god incarnate is then communicated to Rome by Cominius who reports,

He is their god; he leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than Nature,
That shapes men better. …


Finally, Menenius completes the deification process by telling Sicinius in Rome that Coriolanus “wants nothing of a god / But eternity and a heaven to throne in” (V.iv.23-24). He is not a man but an irresistible “thing” throughout the play and thus a divine creation and a divinity in his own right.25

Even Coriolanus' ability to shift his allegiance to a city other than his birthplace is typical of Mars. Robert Graves reminds us that “Thracian Ares loves battle for its own sake … he never favors one city or party more than another, but fights on this side or that, as inclination prompts him, delighting in the slaughter of men and the sacking of towns.”26 Moreover, the Roman Mars, like Coriolanus, was always associated with the patrician class, and Dumézil believes that in Rome “Mars was not recognized as their god by the plebeians, who were … so often opposed to the wars which the patricians used to wage” (I, 213). Hence Junius Brutus complains about Coriolanus' shocking inhumanity towards the people as follows: “You speak a' th' people / As if you were a god, to punish; not / A man of their infirmity” (III.i.80-82)—behavior which eventually and quite properly causes the plebeians to exile Coriolanus from the city. And one of Shakespeare's ordinary citizens in the play tells Coriolanus, “You have not indeed lov'd the common people” (II.iii.92-93).

Mars, again like Coriolanus, is concerned only with combat and not with legal disagreements leading up to war or with later peace treaties. According to Dumézil, he is the god who “makes one fight; he breaks loose, saevit, in the arms and in the weapons of the combatants” (I, 209). In Shakespeare's tragedy, Martius says of his copious bleeding before the gates of Corioles, “My work hath yet not warm'd me. … The blood I drop is rather physical / Than dangerous to me” (I.v.17-19); and he leads the now equally maddened Romans to victory over the Volscians. Dumézil further notes that the Romans also called Mars caecus or blind, since “At a certain stage of furor he abandons himself to his nature, destroying friend as well as foe, just as the youth Horatius, still drunk with blood, slays his sister after having slain the Curiatii” (I, 229). Most significantly, in Rome a horse was the annual October sacrifice to the god in order to bring him once more under control, as Shakespeare could have learned from Plutarch (Roman Questions 97) and other classical sources, as well as from Cartari (p. 408). After the battle of Corioles, the only reward Coriolanus will accept from the Roman general Cominius for his bravery is a war horse, the general's most noble steed and a known emblem of Mars.

Unfortunately, Mars can never change his nature and live within the city, since he is essentially the god of its outermost boundaries beyond the cultivated fields. Mars “within” can only mean dissension and civil war. Hence, once Coriolanus returns to his native city, a Roman reports to a Volscian that “There hath been in Rome strange insurrections; the people against the senators, patricians and nobles” (IV.iii.13-15). The Romans soon exile Coriolanus as an “enemy to the people and his country” (III.iii.17-18), an act in complete accord with Roman religious custom. Dumézil tells us that “Until the founding of the temple and cult by Augustus in favor of Mars Ultor, the avenger of Caesar (pro ultione paterna, Suet. Aug.29.1), the sanctuaries of Mars conformed to one rule, explicitly formulated: as a kind of sentinel, he has his place not in the city, where peace should reign, where the armed troops do not enter, but outside of the precincts, on the threshold of the wilderness which is not, though it has been so called, his domain, but from which come dangers, and especially the armed enemy” (I, 206). The Campus Martius, a strip of land along the banks of the Tiber, was therefore devoted to Mars, and there in spring and fall the Romans raced horses in honor of the god and practiced the martial arts. A temple of Mars was also dedicated at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. extra portam Capenam, or outside the Capena gate. This information was generally known during the Renaissance, since Cartari informs his readers that the Romans “depicted Mars outside of the towns, showing in this manner that war is always to be kept as far away as possible. And because the Romans were wary of keeping in the city those deities who, they thought, were in charge of harmful things, they put the temple of Bellona outside, and that of Mars also” (p. 388). Thus Shakespeare's plebeians in Coriolanus are historically and religiously correct in escorting the god incarnate out of their city with the ceremonial cry, “Come, come, let's see him out at the gates, come” (III.iii.141-42).

Perhaps the principal reason for arguing that Coriolanus is meant to personify the god Mars lies in the dehumanized rigidity of his character. Men can alter their natures somewhat. They can, unlike Coriolanus, play a variety of roles as policy demands, an ideal upheld in Geffrey Whitney's emblem “Marte et arte,” which reads in part:

Where courage great, and consaile good doe goe,
With lasting fame, the victorie is wonne:
But separate theise, then feare the ouerthrowe,
And strengthe alone, dothe vnto ruine ronne:
Then Captaines good, must ioyne theise two, in one:
And not presume with this, or that, alone.(27)

Aufidius, the general so loved by Coriolanus-Mars, is just such a politic military man, as we see when he accepts Coriolanus' offer to lead the Volscians against Rome and again when he turns the Volscians against Coriolanus by his clever rhetoric. But gods cannot alter their personalities. They can transform their external shapes but never their inner natures; and Coriolanus' inflexible nature is emphasized over and over again in the play. Volumnia, who wishes her son to change from soldier to politician in peacetime, complains that he is “too absolute” (III.ii.39). All the puzzled Martius can reply is,

Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say, I play
The man I am.


It is necessarily in the nature of Mars, and thus in the nature of Coriolanus, to be proud and aggressive. Sicinius first remarks that “Such a nature, / Tickled with good success, disdains the shadow / Which he treads on at noon” (I.ii.259-61), and later he tells the plebeians how to deal with such a “surly nature” (II.iii.195). After Coriolanus attacks the Roman rabble with his sword, a patrician plays on the name of Mars when he observes that “This man has marr'd his fortune,” to which Menenius replies:

His nature is too noble for the world;
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth;
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent,
And being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.


Even Aufidius comments on the pride and inflexibility of his rival:

                                                  He bears himself more proudlier,
Even to my person, than I thought he would
When first I did embrace him; yet his nature
In that's no changeling, and I must excuse
What cannot be amended.


He also implies that it is in Coriolanus' nature “Not to be other than one thing, not moving / From th' casque to th'cushion” (IV.vii.42-43), the same in peace as in war.

In the end, however, it is the frustrated and very human general, Aufidius, who reacts with murderous fury when Coriolanus uncharacteristically turns from war to peace in response to Volumnia's pleas for the safety of Mother Rome. No longer Mars in the service of Corioles, Coriolanus is now to Aufidius that son of Mars and Venus, the “boy of tears” or Cupid who runs weeping to his mother when he is stung by bees—as portrayed, for example, by Lucas Cranach in the “Venus and Cupid” of the National Gallery, London. But Aufidius wants a war god, not a love god, to advance his military career and the affairs of his own city. The violent response of Coriolanus to this suggested but impossible transformation from Mars to Cupid allows Aufidius and the conspirators to kill him. Thus the god Mars—now disarmed by the triple Goddess and ambivalent between love and war—becomes a bloody sacrifice to peace and to all the peaceful values of Civitas which must now rule in Rome, and in Corioles as well, during the winter season when Mars sleeps.


John Holloway has correctly identified the last scene of Coriolanus as a classical sparagmos invited by Martius himself: “Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads, / Stain all your edges on me” ( As Holloway states, “in Coriolanus's death the situation is unmistakably one of the now isolated figure suffering what has the nature of a ritual killing required by society. It is death ritualized into a social event.”28 Paster agrees that the tragedy is highly ritualistic and very public throughout, further pointing out that “The absence of private moment … takes on greater significance for the idea of Rome through Shakespeare's use of ceremony as a key structural device” (p. 129). Along these same lines, I believe that several important scenes in Coriolanus can be traced back to ancient rituals in honor of Mars and Juno.

First, as Dumézil explains, the Romans held horse races on February 27 and March 14 on the Campus Martius in honor of the god. These races, staged to arouse the martial spirit, were followed by victory ceremonies for the winners. Then, formally to initiate the war season, the Roman general touched the “lance called Mars” while speaking the words “Mars Uigila” (“Mars wake up”) before he set forth on a campaign (I, 207). This ceremony, which was intended to stimulate the god to action, is reflected by Shakespeare in the glorification of Martius on the battlefield in I, vi: “make you a sword of me?” (76). Cartari, who passes on to the Renaissance a great deal of information about the worship of Mars in ancient Rome, actually prints an illustration of Mars as a sword enclosed in a box-like structure until it is time to awaken him (p. 400). We should recall as well that after the defeat of Corioles, Martius refuses a soldier's share of the spoils of war, as would the god, but he accepts a horse from the Roman general:

I mean to stride your steed, and at all times
To undercrest your good addition
To th' fairness of my power.


Now, when Plutarch wonders in Roman Questions why a horse is sacrificed annually to Mars, one answer he considers is that there may be a likeness between Mars and the horse: “Is it because the horse is a spirited, bellicose, and consequently martial animal, and because what one sacrifices to the gods is principally the things which they like and which have a connection with them?”29

For whatever reason, a horse was indeed sacrificed annually to Mars during the festival of the Equus October in order to lay the god to rest for the winter, as Cartari explains to his Renaissance readers (pp. 398-99). Plutarch says that, “the right-hand horse of the winning chariot” in a race was killed by a javelin thrust. The animal was then dismembered and its bleeding tail was carried to the circular hearth of the Regia where the blood was sprinkled.30 In this way the aggressive energy of the god was ceremonially given back to the earth (or Juno) by the flamen of Mars. In a similar sacrificial ritual, the Volscians attack Coriolanus in the last scene of the tragedy with the ritual cry, “Tear him to pieces!” ( After they have stabbed Coriolanus to death, they then do formal honors to his bloody corpse. Aufidius reverently intones the eulogy:

                                                  My rage is gone,
And I am struck with sorrow. Take him up.
Help, three a' the chiefest soldiers, I'll be one.
Beat thou the drum, that it speak mournfully:
Trail your steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.


Coriolanus has been a play about anger,31 but now rage melts away with the death of Mars. According to Dumézil, after the sacrifice of the October horse on the Ides in Rome, the sacred lance in which the deity resided and the soldiers' arms were lustrated on October 19 and stored away for the winter (I, 206). Dumézil goes on to observe that to these rituals, “we must surely add, on the Calends, the ritual of the tigillum sororium, explained by the legend of the young Horatius, representing the type of warrior who is submitted to a purification after the necessary or superfluous violences of war.” In the words of Aufidius, “My rage is gone / And I am struck with sorrow.”

Secondly, Volumnia, on her return from the Volscian camp, is ritually hailed in Rome as the goddess Juno:

Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!
Call all your tribes together, praise the gods,
And make triumphant fires! Strew flowers before them!


This processional scene should be staged in the theater clearly as a theophany. Heralded by musical flourishes, the three women representing the Triple Goddess pass triumphantly over the stage with Senators in reverent attendance. This is a formal ceremony in honor of Juno. It looks beyond the sacrifice of Martius to the New Year, which begins in his month of March, and to a ceremony Shakespeare may also have learned about while reading the Fasti. In Book III, the war god Mars describes the Matronalia, a festival which celebrates the saving of Rome by the Sabine women who stood, with their children, between their Sabine fathers and Roman husbands and stopped the war. It also celebrates the beginning of springtime and the fruitful season of new birth. In Fasti, the war god tells the poet Ovid, “‘My mother loves brides; a crowd of mothers throngs my temple; so pious a reason is above all becoming to her and me. Bring ye flowers to the goddess; this goddess delights in flowering plants; with fresh flowers wreathe your heads. Say ye, ‘Thou Lucina, hast bestowed on us the light of life …’” (p. 139). Thus the Senator in Coriolanus shouts “Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!” and orders the tribes to strew flowers before Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria.

He also commands the people to “make triumphant fires!” as well, a detail not present in Plutarch's “Life of Coriolanus.” This is very likely a reference to the sacred fire of Vesta within every household and in the temple of Vesta as well. According to Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City, “There was one day in the year—among the Romans it was the first of March—when it was the duty of every family to put out the sacred fire and light another immediately. But to procure this new fire certain rites had to be scrupulously followed.”32 Ovid reports in the Fasti that the Roman New Year began in March when, after the laurel branches are renewed in the public places, “the withered laurel is withdrawn from the [Ilian] Vestal hearth, that Vesta also may make a brave show, dressed in fresh leaves. Besides, ’tis said that a new fire is lighted in her secret shrine, and the rekindled flame gains strength” (p. 131). It seems probable, therefore, that the victory ceremony in the last act of Coriolanus derives from Shakespeare's understanding of Roman rituals in honor of the New Year and of Juno's special celebration, the Matronalia. The Goddess, in her three aspects, accepts the homage of her city with dignity and accepts the sacrifice of her terrible son without sorrow or any sign of mourning, knowing full well that he will rise again whenever she needs him. Indeed the First Senator reminds us of this promise of renewal when he orders the populace to “[Unshout] the noise that banish'd Martius! / Repeal him with the welcome of his mother” (V.v.4-5).

This, then, is the hidden mythological infrastructure of the Coriolanus story—strongly suggested by Shakespeare, although muted by Plutarch—together with the probable ceremonial patterns underlying the play. Like the great tragedies of Greece and Rome, which were also based on seasonal rituals, Coriolanus is primarily concerned with the actions of deities and the effect of these actions on the polis. But we should keep in mind that deities incarnate are in the theater as much men and women as they are gods. Their recognizable human personalities allow the poet to characterize for an audience the powerful cosmic forces which operate within the human individual, within the body politic, and within the rhythms of nature herself. In this play, as in all of his tragedies, Shakespeare has once again revealed the mysterious workings of the universe. The tragedy of chthonic Coriolanus, the banished military hero who goes off “alone / Like to the lonely dragon, that his fen / Makes fear'd and talk'd of more than seen” (III.iii.29-30), is as inevitable in our world as the tragedy of chthonic Oedipus, the fertility hero who has too intimately known his goddess mother. The Feminine Principle makes use of such recurrent masculine energies in complete accord with natural law.

Shakespeare demonstrates in the tragedy of Coriolanus that although the Great Goddess herself has created and dearly loves the aggressive personality of her divine son Mars, she never hesitates to sacrifice him when the time comes to transform her soldiers back into citizens. The archetypal myth of Coriolanus, who could not become a peaceful citizen at his mother's bidding, informs us that this is the nature of things. At the same time, in Shakespeare's dramatization of the myth, the true relationship between mother and son must always remain a sacred mystery: to use the words of Volumnia, it is “one of those mysteries which heaven / Will not have earth to know” (IV.ii.35-36).


  1. John W. Velz, “Cracking Strong Curbs Asunder: Roman Destiny and the Roman Hero in Coriolanus,English Literary Renaissance, 13 (Winter 1983), 58-69.

  2. Northrop Frye, “Literature and Myth,” in Relations of Literary Study: Essays on Interdisciplinary Contributions (New York, 1967), p. 34.

  3. J. R. Mulryne, “Coriolanus at Stratford-Upon-Avon: Three Actors' Remarks,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (Summer 1978), 327.

  4. Ovid, Fasti, trans. Sir James Frazer, The Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), pp. 275-79.

  5. See Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, trans. Philip Krapp (Chicago, 1970), I, 206.

  6. T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana, 1944), II, 573.

  7. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

  8. Vincenzo Cartari, Le Imagini de i Dei de gli Antichi (Venice, 1571), p. 395, trans. mine.

  9. Stephan Batman, trans., Batman vppon Bartholome, his Booke De Proprietatibus Rerum (London, 1582), p. 130v.

  10. Richard Linche, The Fountain of Ancient Fiction (London, 1599), sig. L ij.

  11. M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and their Background (1910; rpt. New York, 1967), p. 496.

  12. Quoted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York, 1966), V, 503-04.

  13. See V. ii. 383-86 in A Midsummer Night's Dream; III. ii. 257-60 in Hamlet; I. i. 109-10 in King Lear; and III. v. in Macbeth when Hecate herself appears with the three witches.

  14. Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. William Adlington (New York, 1962), pp. 261-62. For Shakespeare's use of Apuleius as a source for several plays, see D. T. Starnes, “Shakespeare and Apuleius,” PMLA, 60 (1945), 1021-50; and James A. S. McPeek, “The Psyche Myth and A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly, 23 (Winter 1972), 69-79.

  15. Gail Kern Paster, “To Starve with Feeding: The City in Coriolanus,Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 128.

  16. E. O. James, The Cult of the Mother Goddess: An Archaeological and Documentary Study (New York, 1959), p. 32.

  17. Ralph Berry, “Sexual Imagery in Coriolanus,Studies in English Literature, 13 (1973), 302.

  18. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, 2nd ed., trans. Ralph Mannheim (Princeton, 1963), p. 283.

  19. Mircea Eliade, Myth, Dreams, and Mysteries, trans. Philip Mairet (New York, 1960), p. 164.

  20. Glynne Wickham, “Coriolanus: Shakespeare's Tragedy in Rehearsal and Performance,” in Later Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1966), p. 171.

  21. M. C. Bradbrook, The Living Monument: Shakespeare and the Theatre of His Time (London, 1979), pp. 171-72.

  22. See F. N. Lees, “Coriolanus, Aristotle, and Bacon,” Review of English Studies, N.S. 1 (1950), pp. 114-17; G. K. Hunter, “The Last Tragic Heroes,” in Coriolanus: A Casebook, ed. B. A. Brockman (London, 1977), pp. 258-67; and Holt, pp. 27-41.

  23. Ad de Vries, “Dragon,” Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery, 2nd ed., 1976.

  24. Ovid, Metamorphoses. The XV Bookes, trans. Wm. Arthur Golding (London, 1567), p. 30.

  25. For a detailed analysis of the progressive dehumanization of Coriolanus in the play, see Christopher Givan, “Shakespeare's Coriolanus: The Premature Epitaph and the Butterfly,” Shakespeare Studies, 12 (1979), 143-58.

  26. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Baltimore, 1955), I, 73.

  27. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (1586), ed. Henry Green (1866; rpt. New York, 1967), p. 47.

  28. John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London, 1961), p. 130.

  29. Quoted in Dumézil, I, 215-16.

  30. Quoted in Dumézil, I, 215.

  31. See Herman Heuer, “From Plutarch to Shakespeare: A Study of Coriolanus,Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957), 51.

  32. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, trans. Willard Small (1873; rpt. Garden City, n. d.), p. 26.

Elizabeth Truax (essay date 1989-90)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7437

SOURCE: “Macbeth and Hercules: The Hero Bewitched,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1989-90, pp. 359-76.

[In the following essay, Truax draws comparisons between Shakespeare's Macbeth and the mythological hero of Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens.]

On 27 August 1605, James I was welcomed at the gates of Oxford by three Sibyls who greeted him as the fulfillment of a prophecy made to Banquo long ago and hailed him as King of Scotland, King of England, and King of Ireland.1 Four years later, Macbeth, inspired perhaps by the Oxford playlet, was performed before the King at Hampton Court as an entertainment to please and flatter the monarch. Shakespeare's tragedy also serves to remind an audience of courtiers and commoners that the perils as well as the joys of history are linked to transitory and cyclical patterns of nature. In the course of history, great men rise to power through natural forces, by inheritance or election like James I, and often, like Hercules, they are called upon to make personal choices, whether for good or evil, that will affect generations to come. The witches, like the furies of classical myth, have come to meet with Macbeth, a hero of extraordinary stature like Hercules, and they plan to bewitch him by undermining his deepest moral convictions and bringing about a metamorphosis that will change the course of history.

The setting, characters, and dramatic concerns of Macbeth belong to Scottish history described in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587),2 and the defeat of Macbeth, the general gone awry, prefigures James' triumphant ascent to the throne in 1603. The role played by the witches, however, is charged with ambiquity because they function in response to the imperative of time not only as sibyls who prophesy the future but also as mysterious agents sent from a subterranean hell to find lodgings in the human heart. In appearance the Weird Sisters, as they call themselves, do not resemble the courtly ladies dressed in Elizabethan finery, depicted in the woodcut in the first edition of The Chronicles (1577), which Dr. Matthew Gwinn used as his model for the Oxford dialogue. Shakespeare's mysterious women, following Holinshed's description in the edition of 1587, are withered and dressed in wild disarray. Even their gender is in doubt, for they wear beards.

To effect a wider sweep of history than the English Chronicles, Shakespeare evokes the sinister echoes of an underworld from which the furies, rather than well-meaning sibyls, come to vex a protagonist of extraordinary stature. Macbeth's encounter with the enigmatic witches has curious similarities with the experience of Hercules, described in Seneca's Hercules Furens, who on his return from the conquest of the Hades is met by demonic spirits and transformed into a bloody madman who commits acts of incalculable violence.3 The parallels between Hercules Furens, translated by Jasper Heywood (1561), and Macbeth—and, to a lesser degree, Hercules Oetaeus and Medea—are remarkable.4 Not only does Macbeth agree with Hercules Furens in mood, temper, and rhetoric, but also there are numerous correspondences in language, plot, and characterization as well.

For Shakespeare, the past is always mirrored in the events of the present. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, a poem which may have influenced Shakespeare more than any other, Pythagoras explains, “All things are in a state of flux, and everything is brought into being with a changing nature.”5 “Nothing retains its own form … [and] nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form” (XV.252-55). History, like nature, follows a continuing process of destruction and renewal. Winter storms precede the flowering of spring. Cities and farms, destroyed by bloody violence spawned from uncontrolled passions of villainous men, are rebuilt when valiant men affirm order and accord through strength and commitment to moral responsibility. Heroes are continually born and reborn, and, for Shakespeare, the greatest hero of all time is Hercules.

In response to a constantly changing world, Shakespeare, the dramatist and the poet, takes images from myth and history in literature and the visual arts and transforms them into new images of human experience. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the myth of Hercules, although the hero is never mentioned by name, as a vehicle to express the concept of history as a complex process involving the interaction between nature and human behavior. Extraordinary men like Macbeth interrupt nature's normal cycles of birth, maturation, and death either through wise and well-reasoned conduct or through rash and irresponsible actions which violate the natural order of succession. The conflict between reason and passion, between just action and personal greed is a universally human one; all men—including the demi-god Hercules—are subject to temptations, and few, if any, can maintain a perfect balance at all times.

Hercules, both demi-god and mortal man, served the Renaissance as a model of heroic virtu, of manly excellence, possessing moral and physical strength, which Macbeth, like many of Shakespeare's protagonists, attempts to emulate. Shakespeare formed his acquaintance with Hercules from Ovid's Metamorphoses IX as well as from other classical writers such as Seneca and from Renaissance mythologies and emblem books. Hercules' remarkable strength, his quick wit and discerning intelligence, were qualities admired in a Renaissance hero, and the exciting episodes in Hercules' life served as models of valor. Cesare Ripa affirms that Hercules represents the ideal of heroic endeavor for which all valiant men should strive, and a woodcut in the Iconologia shows Hercules posing as Virtu heroica with his club and the Nemean lion's skin and holding the apples of the Hesperides.6

According to classical myth, Hercules is the most indefatigable, the most persistent, the brawniest if not the brainiest of heroes. He was born of a mortal, Alcmena, but his father was the god Jupiter who intended him to have extraordinary powers. His feats of strength and valor, especially those of the twelve labors assigned to him by Eurystheus on orders from his jealous stepmother Juno, commanded no end of respect and admiration. But Hercules was not invincible; he was betrayed by his wife, Deianira who, fearing his disloyalty, sent him a cloak stained with poisoned blood which burned into his flesh. When Hercules died, so the story goes, Jupiter reached down to him from heaven, whereupon, transformed into a god, he became the only mortal to be enshrined at Olympus.7

Shakespeare's fascination with the mythic hero Hercules is evident again and again as the name is evoked repeatedly in his plays,8 often in comparison with human characters whose emulations of the demi-god are in some respects wanting. It is no coincidence that the entrance of the Globe playhouse boasted a decoration of Hercules carrying the globe, with the motto Totus mundus agit histrionem, a testament to the eternal verity, as Jaques points out in his commentary on the Ages of Man in As You Like It (II.vii.139-66), that all the world's a stage upon which we play our parts. The twelve labors of Hercules were a popular subject for Renaissance artists; pictures of Hercules carrying the globe can be found at the beginning of the ninth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses in European editions with allegorized commentaries by Raphael Regius and Andrea Dell'Anguillara.9

For his penultimate labor, Hercules offered to hold the globe while Atlas went in his place to secure the golden apples of the Hesperides that were guarded by a dragon. After Atlas obtained the apples, he was reluctant to resume his burden, but he was tricked by Hercules, who asked him to hold the globe for a moment while he adjusted a pad. Hamlet, recalling the episode, asks the Players if a rival company of boy actors “carry it away.” He is told, “Ay, that they do, my Lord—Hercules and his load too” (II.ii.360-62), a bit of irony which reinforces Hamlet's own sense of impotence. Once free of his burden, Hercules went his way to continue a career of marvelous adventures. This is the Hercules whom Shakespeare's protagonists attempt to imitate, but, like Hamlet, they often discover to their dismay that they lack the fortitude and moral integrity of the superhero.

The choice of Hercules, one of the many legends associated with the achievements of Hercules, provides a useful context from which to examine the decision-making process through which Hercules triumphs and the mortal hero fails. The contest is not between brawn and brain but between unbridled passion and right reason—between Vice and Virtue. The story, told in Xenophon's Memorabilia, was well known in the Renaissance and, like so many classical myths, had become incorporated with Christian values. Versions of the story were painted by Veronese (Frick, New York) and Raphael (National Gallery, London).

An emblem in Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblemes (1586), entitled Biuim virtutis et vitij, is illustrated with a woodcut showing young Hercules, known as Alcides, at the crossroads of life.10 The young hero is greeted by Virtue, who is dressed like the warrior maiden goddess of wisdom, Pallas or Minerva. She is accompanied by Vice, often called Voluptas, represented by Venus, the goddess of Love, discreetly clad (not bare-breasted, as is usually the case in Renaissance iconography), and by naked Cupid. As the epigram explains, each of these goddesses seeks to convince Alcides to follow her. Vice offers a pleasant, easy life of roses; Virtue offers the gift of reason but promises a more difficult path leading to a richer reward. The young man hesitates, but ultimately he chooses to follow Virtue and climb “the steepe, and craggie hill” (l. 15) to achieve the crown of fame.

In Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies, two pictures of Hercules are presented simultaneously to us: the valiant, godlike hero and the lesser figure of fallible human being who is vulnerable to passion. What is interesting and significant about the comparison between Shakespeare's protagonists and Hercules is that no dramatic character who chooses to follow Virtue ever fulfills the requirements of a Herculean hero; everyone falls short in some important way. But then even Hercules, the demi-mortal, sometimes loses his way temporarily.

In Shakespeare's comedies, the parallels between Hercules and his on-stage counterpart are absurd and prompt laughter. As Moth points out in Love's Labor's Lost, Hercules was overcome by love (I.ii.66), and so are many of the young lovers in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. The dramatic situations, however, are presented on such a small scale that the outcome is certain to be felicitous. In Love's Labor's Lost, the page Moth is mocked as Hercules-in-little; in Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro vows he will “undertake one of Hercules' labors” to bring Beatrice and Benedick together as lovers (II.i.365); and, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio, aspiring to accomplish Hercules' thirteenth labor, sets out to tame his Kate (I.ii.255-56).

On the other hand, the parallels between Hercules and Shakespeare's tragic heroes are often central to the dramatic action. These protagonists are brave and valiant, but they are not gifted with Hercules' godlike prowess and their failed efforts appear to be in ironic contrast with Hercules' splendid achievements. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony is frequently associated with Hercules by other characters as if to imply superhuman stature, an analogy that Shakespeare had discovered in Plutarch.11 Antony's human limitations, however, become apparent through his actions, and his debauching with Cleopatra tarnishes his herculean image. Coriolanus has a posture so powerful that, Menenius suggests, he could shake Rome “As Hercules / Did shake down mellow fruit,”12 but he too is overwhelmed by the demands of a politically obsessed woman, his mother. Hamlet repeatedly laments his inadequacy as a heroic revenger, bemoaning the fact that his uncle Claudius, who is “no more like my father / Than I to Hercules,” has seduced his mother (I.ii.152-53).

What matters in Shakespeare's tragedies is that the protagonists must make difficult choices, like Hercules, espousing Virtue and rejecting Vice, and undertake whatever challenge confronts them, using all their strength and energy. Antony, Hamlet, and Coriolanus engage in a valiant struggle against immeasurable odds, but are defeated. Heroic affirmation, however, occurs iconographically upon the stage when their bodies are lifted up as if in an imitation of the apotheosis of Hercules, and the laurels of the hero become theirs at last. Horatio's eulogy of the dead Hamlet evokes a neoplatonic image of a heavenly transformation: “Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (V.ii.359-60). An engraving by Antonio Tempesta (1606), like woodcuts printed in numerous illustrated editions of the Metamorphoses, shows Hercules in a chariot, riding towards heaven where Jupiter reaches downward to greet him.13

In Macbeth, which parallels, yet departs in striking ways from Seneca's Hercules Furens, Shakespeare creates an image of a protagonist who undergoes a metamorphosis calculated to destroy him. In Hercules Furens, the furies have the absolute power of the gods, and Hercules is unable to resist them; in Macbeth, however, the power of the witches is limited, given the Christian world in which they operate, and they cannot prevail against Macbeth's free will. Macbeth retains the aura of the hero as long as he resists the evil forces that work against him. But when he falters and agrees to commit murder, his heroic stature shrinks, and an apotheosis is no longer possible. That Hercules is able to cope with the horror that he has caused and yet reaffirm his heroic image while Macbeth becomes a desperate victim of his own aims and desires—a ruthless murderer—is perhaps the measure by which Shakespeare separates the ideal hero from the human.

The metamorphosis of Hercules in Hercules Furens begins following the completion of the twelve labors. In a lengthy monologue, Juno bitterly rehearses her anger and frustration because a triumphant Hercules, accompanied by his cousin Theseus and the three-headed dog Cerberus whom he has conquered as his final labor, is returning from Hades. Impelled by a desire for revenge, Juno resolves to reach into the deepest abyss of Tartarus to call up spirits that will drive Hercules into a mad frenzy during which he will commit a heinous crime that, she hopes, will destroy him. In her evocation of the hellish furies Megaera, Tisiphone, and Alecto, who resemble Macbeth's weird sisters in number and in kind, Juno calls for them to bring “hateful Crime … and reckless Impiety, stained with kindred blood, Error, and Rage, armed ever against itself—this, this be the minister of my smarting wrath” (ll. 97-98).14

The furies as portrayed in woodcuts illustrating sixteenth-century editions of Ovid's Metamorphoses may have been models for Macbeth's witches. The iconography of these pictures, which summarize the stories in remarkable detail, is reputed to be the work of Bernard Salomon, a skilled artist whose minute, intricately executed designs influenced engravers like Antonio Tempesta. In a well-crafted woodcut for Metamorphoses IV by Virgil Solis (a reverse copy and slightly larger version of the Salomon woodcut), Juno is shown on another trip to Hades to ask the furies to destroy the house of Cadmus. The furies are thin, wild, and ugly with bare sagging breasts and snakelike hair (but no discernible beards).15 In Geoffrey Whitney's Woodcut for the emblem Inuidiae descriptio, another copy of a Salomon design, the fury Megaera (Envy) is especially ugly, a snake emerging from her mouth.16

The witches are waiting for Macbeth, as the furies waited for Hercules in Seneca's tragedy. Macbeth also returns homeward in triumph, not from Hades, but from the hellish field of battle where he has accomplished extraordinary feats of valor in the killing of Macdonwald, an act which his Sergeant describes to the King in glowing language. For his brave disdain of Fortune, Macbeth is called “Valor's minion” (I.ii.19) and “Bellona's bridegroom” (l. 54).

Clearly Macbeth is committed to virtue and to manly excellence like Hercules, but, in a re-enactment of the choice at the crossroads, he discovers that the lures of vice can be overwhelming. Although the three weird sisters may have origins in the folk figures of the English countryside, they have an air about them that reeks of Hades, and they are up to no good when they chant prophetically: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (I.i.11-12).17

Banquo, who accompanies Macbeth, as Theseus accompanied Hercules, instantly recognizes their otherworldiness:

                                                  What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on't?


In his creation of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare may also have been mindful of the words of James VI of Scotland in Daemonologie, written before he ascended the English throne as James I. The King describes witches as “detestable slaues of the Deuill” who can cause or cure human miseries.18 To resist their spell he advises, in phrases which echo the choice of Hercules, that we should not “restraine from vertue, that the way wherby we climbe thereunto be straight and perrilous” because witches have power over “those that are of infirme and weeke faith” (p. 49). In Macbeth, the witches' greetings establish the very temptation about which James warns and become the framework upon which the tragedy rests: the promise of power for Macbeth and future glory for Banquo.

For Macbeth, as for Hercules long before, the witches at the roadside offer the seductive lure of Vice. No lady Virtue stands nearby beckoning; she is the quality of virtu, of manly excellence, that lies in the hero's breast. These creatures, despite their sinister appearance, operate in the visible terrestrial world. Macbeth listens, “rapt” (I.iii.142), but he retains the ability to act as a morally responsible individual. Like Hercules, Macbeth's choice whether to accept or to reject the enticements they describe is one of his own making. And he must accept the consequences to his action. Macbeth, rejecting the first temptation, avows, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (ll. 143-44).

The hellish witches vanish, and for a time Macbeth retains the image of the responsible, excellent warrior who, like Hercules, will follow Virtue. Macbeth's composure is shaken once again, however, when Duncan announces he will settle the succession on his son Malcolm. Macbeth recognizes immediately that his own ambitions are in jeopardy. Perhaps he sees the figure of Vice beckoning in the darker regions of his own heart, but he rejects her call a second time: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (I.iv.50-51).

The homes to which Hercules and Macbeth journey become a kind of hell where a reception is being prepared for both men that will determine their future action and impel them towards self-destruction. Nowhere will these men find the tranquillity and peace for which a soldier yearns after battle, but only the urgent requirement to kill again. Paradoxically, although the situations are similar in both plays, the value systems are reversed. Hercules is called upon to kill a tyrant and a seducer; Macbeth will kill a just and noble king.

In Seneca's tragedy, the home of the absent hero becomes a hellish place where the tyrant Lycus has killed the king, usurped the throne of Thebes, and now lusts for Hercules' wife, Megara. To advance his adulterous suit, Lycus attempts to denigrate Hercules' heroic stature with insinuations of cowardice and effeminacy associated with the time when Hercules was ruled by Omphale, Queen of Lydia, who dressed him in woman's clothing and forced him to sit with her maidens and to entertain them by playing a small percussion instrument (ll. 465-71). The insults are quickly denied by Amphitryon, who compares his son to the god Bacchus—a god not ashamed to wear richly furnished robes and sweet perfume because “After much toil, valor seeks relief” (l. 476). When Hercules enters, as yet unaware of Juno's plot, and learns about Lycus' advances against Megara, he immediately affirms his strength and courage by sending the villain to Dis. The killing of a usurper is an act of virtus, of just vengeance, and Hercules does not hesitate over his choice.

The Hades of Hercules Furens, described by Theseus while Hercules is off stage murdering Lycus, is a grim and awful place where “the sun in eclipse falls there and cheats the vision” and “sluggish Sleep clings to the overhanging yew” (ll. 669-70, 690). Lethe slides down into the abyss; everywhere the cries of vultures and owls shatter the silence. “The air hangs motionless and the black night broods over a sluggish world. All things are with grief dishevelled, and worse than death itself is the abode of death” (ll. 704-06). Theseus describes the familiar punishments of Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus as well as the three-headed dog Cerberus, which are vividly portrayed in Virgil Solis' woodcut of Juno and the Furies.

The aura of Hades clings to Hercules when he returns after killing Lycus, and Amphitryon urges him to “purify thy hands, dripping with thy slaughtered foeman's blood” (ll. 918-19). Hercules agrees, knowing that the assassination of Lycus, like a sacrifice to the gods, represents a triumph of virtue over evil, and he need not fear judgment.

In the great hall of Macbeth's castle, Shakespeare's protagonists begin a charade that is reminiscent of Hercules' reception on his return, and they undergo a number of metamorphoses which are reminiscent of Seneca's characters yet in ironic contrast with them. When Macbeth arrives in the posture of Hercules, Lady Macbeth, like Hercules' father Amphitryon, greets the returning hero with his new titles: “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!” (I.v.54). Then, like Megara who prayed for Hercules' swift return so that he can destroy the bloody tyrant Lycus (ll. 279ff), Lady Macbeth presses Macbeth with her command to commit murder: “He that's coming / Must be provided for” (I.v.66-67).

The roles which Lady Macbeth plays mirror a number of Senecan women. Like Megara, she is devotedly loyal to her husband, but, like Deianira and other important women in Hercules' life, she also seeks to dominate him. In a series of transformations, Lady Macbeth changes from an apparently devoted wife and mother to an enchantress. Like Juno, Hercules' greatest enemy, who is the instigator of Seneca's tragedy, Lady Macbeth calls upon unnamed and clearly malevolent spirits to aid her in her plot to overcome Macbeth's reluctance and to force him to kill Duncan. In so doing, she rejects her role as lover and nurturer and calls upon the furies to transform her into an instrument of death whose cruelty transcends the limitations of her sex and of her mortal nature: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty!” (I.v.40-43).

The struggle between virtue and vice which follows becomes doubly powerful when Macbeth, meditating over his dilemma, uses language that parallels Hercules' argument for killing the tryant Lycus to justify his own situation.19 Macbeth recognizes that if he kills a just king, he faces divine judgment, but he acknowledges that his motive for the murder of Duncan is “Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself” (vii.27). Once again Macbeth's moral strength prevails, and he rejects the temptation of Vice a third time, insisting to his determined wife. “We will proceed no further in this business” (l. 31). Undaunted, Lady Macbeth assumes the role of Vice masquerading as Virtue. She prods her husband to action by mocking his heroic stature with words that recall Lycus' insults against Hercules: “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress'd yourself?” (ll. 35-36).

Macbeth attempts to reaffirm his heroic stance; “Prithee peace! / I dare do all that may become a man” (ll. 45-46). In his hesitation to do his wife's bidding, Macbeth discovers, like Hercules with Omphale, that he is helpless before a woman's ridicule. Macbeth's capitulation to the charms of Vice is certain when he accepts Lady Macbeth's final insult: “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (l. 49).

Lady Macbeth's transformation into an instrument of evil is complete, and briefly she assumes the dominant role in the marriage. She becomes the witches themselves, the furies sent by Juno to effect her revenge. She is Omphale ordering Hercules to dress in woman's clothes and Medea ruthlessly plotting deaths to aid Jason in his quest for the golden fleece. And, like Medea, she would not hesitate to kill her own children if their deaths would further her purpose:20

                                                  I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


In Seneca's play, Juno's demonic spirits begin their spell as soon as Hercules completes his triumph over Lycus. Hercules is powerless to resist their magical charms, and he is suddenly transformed into a mindless madman, berserk in an earthly hell. Invisible shadows overcome him, and he is haunted by the image of the Nemean lion which he once slaughtered. Swollen with pride, a demented Hercules announces his victory over all adversaries on earth and in Hades. Reaching up to the heavens, he demands that Jove admit him. Jove, at Juno's urging, refuses. Then, deep in melancholy madness, Hercules loses all contact with reality. Seeing his own children, he mistakes them for the children of Lycus—and he kills them. Finally he kills his loyal wife, Megara, for he believes in his delusion that she is Juno, his harasser. Then, the horrid murder finished, Hercules falls asleep.

When Macbeth agrees to Lady Macbeth's demands, he surrenders to Vice and allows himself to be ruled by pride. He has not been transformed by a magical charm conjured up by the witches, like the god-sent furies who transformed Hercules into the murderer of his family. Nor has Lady Macbeth bewitched him; she retains her mortal form, and her powers are merely temporal. But Macbeth is indeed bewitched because Lady Macbeth's demands touch his deep-seated ambitions and unleash his licentious greed. Although Macbeth moves like a man caught up in a bloody nightmare, he alone is responsible for his action.

As Macbeth waits for the bell that will summon him to action—the bell which symbolizes Lady Macbeth's dominance over him—he contemplates the dagger which he sees before him as another image of his impotence. Gradually he seems to slip away from the world of real experience into a hellish world of fantasy. When the bell sounds at last, Macbeth, answering it, mutters starkly, “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (II.i.63-64).

When Macbeth murders Duncan and his servants, the castle becomes a truly Senecan hell. Lady Macbeth complains twice that she hears “the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman” (II.ii.3-4, 14). The Porter complains that he stands guard at Hell Gate, and, affirming Hercules' choice, he determines no longer to “devil-porter” to those who “go the primrose way to th' everlasting bonfire” (II.iii.17-19).

Almost immediately, like Hercules furens, Macbeth is metamorphosed into a corrupt and melancholy madman, increasingly unable to control his own destiny21—a condition which King James links to possession by evil spirits (Daemonologie, p. 30). Macbeth will never sleep again in peace. There is no cure for this madness because, by choosing Vice, Macbeth loses his will, his freedom, and he becomes possessed by the malevolent spirits latent in human nature. He must travel deeper and deeper into that hell of his own making and move closer and closer to the judgment that awaits him.

For Hercules, ironically, sleep brings healing. When Hercules awakens from his therapeutic rest, he has been cured of his madness and changed back to his normal state. His clear sight is restored, and, to his horror, he discovers the bodies of his murdered loved ones. Agonized by grief, Hercules looks at his hands. What he sees is not the blood of just revenge shed when he killed the tyrant Lycus but the innocent blood of his own wife and children. And he wonders how he will be able to wash away the stain:

quis Tanais aut quis Nilus aut quis Persica
violentus unda Tigris aut Rhenus ferox
Tagusve Hibera turbidus gaza fluens
abluere dextram poterit?

(ll. 1323-26)

What Tanais, what Nile, what Tigris, raging with Persian torrents, what warlike Rhine, or Tagus, turbid with the golden sands of Spain, can cleanse this hand?

Hercules' speech has long been recognized as hauntingly similar to Macbeth's words when he first looks at his own hands stained with Duncan's innocent blood:

What hands are here? Hah! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?


And the verbal parallels with Hercules Furens continue in Lady Macbeth's own mad soliloquy which comes near the end of the play:

What, will these hands ne'er be clean? …
Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia
not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!

(V.i.43, 50-52)

Macbeth's guilty reveries are harshly interrupted by the knocking at the gate, and the awful presence of the real world is impressed upon the nightmare. Macbeth awakens to recognize the gulf that now separates him from the valiant hero he once was: “To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself. / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst” (II.ii.70-71).

The curious similarities and differences between Macbeth and Seneca's tragedy continue as Shakespeare extends an elaborate design that contrasts the image of a mortal man who struggles against insurmountable odds and stumbles with that of a demi-god who possesses heroic virtu and triumphs. Hercules goes with Theseus to Athens, and under the protection of the goddess Athena, Lady Virtue, the stain will leave his hands. Macbeth, who has surrendered to Vice, cannot turn back, and thus he goes further and further into the depths of villainy. In additional passages which have frequently been compared to Seneca, Macbeth agonizes over his sleeplessness in a hellish nightmare that appears to contrast ironically with Hercules' long sleep.22 Macbeth assumes the role of Lycus, the tyrant, and the horrors deepen when he orders Macduff's castle stormed and his wife and children slaughtered—a chilling parallel to Hercules' deluded murder of his own wife and children.

The nightmare of violence destroys both Macbeth and his Lady. She, who seemed the stronger when she first adopted masculine guise, becomes the first to lose her way in the forests of Hell. Her sleep-walking functions in a curious manner as an awakening to the truth of her guilt, the guilt of blood. For Macbeth, on the other hand, recognition does not come so easily. His one calm, rational moment in the final scenes of the play comes when he learns of Lady Macbeth's death. For him, life has become futile, pointless and absurd, “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V.v.26-28).

Macbeth's impending fall can be viewed in terms of the medieval and Renaissance notion of tragedy as a fall of great men brought low by Fortune's wheel, exemplifying the mutability of life and illustrating Providence's retribution against the proud and sinful. However, as R. A. Foakes points out, Shakespeare's dramatization of the process by which Macbeth is overwhelmed by mixed emotions and motives adds a new dimension to the theme of the ambitious prince brought low.23 The ghastly image of the fallen tyrant's head brought in upon a pike should remind us all of the consequences of villainy, but for a brief moment before that catastrophic conclusion, Macbeth resumes the stature that his mad violence has forfeited. Ironically, the herculean essence has been with Macbeth all along because, as we recognize, he has been placed against his will into circumstances which have undermined his decision-making ability.

Macbeth is not enchanted like Hercules, but, as a fallible mortal man, he has been unable to resist the combined force of the witches, representing his own covert desires, and Lady Macbeth's unyielding demands. He recognizes that his day of judgment is imminent, but at his death there is a moment of glory as he fights gloriously, valiantly for a lost cause. Heroic stuff still clings to Macbeth as, recognizing that he is trapped, he announces: “bear-like I must fight the course” (V.vii.2). And he vows not to yield:

Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”


From history and myth (which foreshadows history), Shakespeare knows there are always lessons to be learned. When Macbeth visits the witches a second time (IV.i), they present a series of apparitions that advise him of his future. Huston Diehl regards enigmatic images like these in Macbeth as evidence of a frightening and uncertain world because they are linked to the downfall of political stability in Scotland.24 The apparitions, however, anticipate a better future. Not only do they prophesy Macduff's triumph over villainy, Virtue over Vice, but they bring another message, derived from the emblematic literature and visual arts of the day, to an audience at either court or public theaters. An “armed Head” (l. 68sd), like the helmet in Geoffrey Whitney's emblem ex Bello, pax, celebrates the blessings of peace following war;25a bloody Child” (l. 76sd), like pictures of deformed children found in German woodcuts and described in English broadside ballads which warn of the fragility of human life;26a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand” (l. 86sd) reinforces Claude Paradin's Heroicall Devices in which a crown is used repeatedly as a device to demonstrate the power and divine authority of the monarch.27 James I especially is honored and guided by the final apparition depicting a pageant of kings, resembling the portraits of kings and noblemen hanging in the long galleries of aristocratic homes and suggested perhaps by Virgil's pageant of the worthy Romans who will make Rome mistress of the world that the Sibyl shows to Aeneas (Aeneid, Book VI). Shakespeare may also have had in mind a picture of the Nine Worthies,28 long celebrated as models for men to emulate. Hercules (not normally included) appears among the Worthies in Love's Labor's Lost.

The images created by the witches that dazzle Macbeth are not charms or enchantments intended to bewitch us. They serve as reminders for us all (as they may have reminded James I) of the transitory nature of history to which we are called to respond, like Hercules, by choosing Virtue and rejecting Venus' offer of the primrose path.29


  1. Vertumnus sive Annus recurrens, quoted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), VII, 470-72. The title itself, which may be translated as The Seasons Return, might have suggested to Shakespeare the theme of perpetual change in Macbeth. The importance of this entertainment by Dr. Matthew Gwinn, Fellow at St. Johns, Oxford, to the aura of James as hereditary monarch is discussed by Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950); Paul suggests that Shakespeare may have been present when the playlet was performed at Oxford as the King and his court entered the city (pp. 15-24).

  2. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources, ed. Bullough, VII, 478-508. Shakespeare follows the text of the 1587 edition closely; the three women are described as dressed “in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world” (pp. 494-95). In the 1577 edition, however, the garments of the women are described as “serly” (p. 243), which the OED defines as strange and wonderful. The woodcut from that early edition is reprinted by Bullough, p. 494.

  3. Shakespeare may have read Seneca's tragedies directly in Latin or in Jasper Heywood's English translation, printed in a Latin-English edition (1561) and then reprinted in Seneca His Tenne Tragedies Translated into English (London: Thomas Marsh, 1581).

  4. J. A. Thomson is convinced that in many respects Macbeth is Shakespeare's most classical, most Senecan play, and he points to Shakespeare's use of tragic irony, to similarities between Lady Macbeth and Medea, and to specific passages in Hercules furens that resemble lines in Macbeth (Shakespeare and the Classics [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1952], pp. 119-24). Bullough generally supports Thomson's argument (Narrative and Dramatic Sources, pp. 451-55), as do most scholars. Frederick Kiefer, however, finds no unanimity of opinion on the subject and argues that verbal similarities can often be dismissed as “coincidences”; see his “Seneca's Influence on Elizabethan Tragedy: An Annotated Bibliography,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 21 (1978), 17. A detailed, highly informative review of scholarship on the influence of Seneca upon Renaissance tragedy follows, pp. 17-32. Gordon Braden also hesitates to affirm Seneca's direct influence on Shakespeare because only one complete edition of his tragedies was printed, and he suggests that the real case for Elizabethan Senecanism rests on generic feature (such as ghost scenes), technique, and mood and feeling (Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985], p. 175).

  5. Shakespeare read Arthur Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses (1567), but he may also have read the Metamorphoses in a Latin text. Citations here are for convenience from the Latin-English edition of the Loeb Classical Library, trans. Frank Justus Miller (London: William Heinemann, 1926), XV.179.

  6. For convenience I have used the edition of 1644: Iconologie, trans. Jean Baudouin (Paris, 1644), ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Garland, 1976), II, 83; for the description but not the woodcut, see Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Rome, 1603), p. 507.

  7. The story of Hercules, probably written in the first century a.d., is told in the Theogony and found in the Library of Apollodorus: Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, trans. Michael Simpson (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1976), pp. 91-137. Shakespeare's primary source for the life of Hercules was Metamorphoses IX, but, since the story of the madness is not included, he probably discovered it in Seneca. For interpretations of Hercules in Renaissance literature, see G. Karl Galinsky, The Herakles Theme (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972), pp. 125-202, and Eugene Waith, The Herculean Hero (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 16-40.

  8. For discussion of Shakespeare's allusions to Hercules, see Robert Kilburn Root, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare (1903; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1965), pp. 71-74. In all, Shakespeare mentions Hercules forty-five times. All quotations from Shakespeare in my text will be taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  9. See Metamorphoseon Libri XV Raphaelis Regii (Venice, 1586), p. 189; La Metamorfosi di Ovidio di ridotte da Gio. Andrea Dell'Anguillara (Venice, 1584), facing p. 169. Engravings of the labors of Hercules are listed in Adam Bartsch, Le Pentre Graveur (Leipzig, 1854-67), 21 vols., and F. W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700 (Amsterdam, 1949-87), 31 vols.

  10. Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden: Christopher Plantin, 1586), p. 40. Although Shakespeare never alludes to the choice directly, scholars assume that he was familiar with it; see Richard Cody, The Landscape of the Mind: Pastoralism and Platonic Theory in Tasso's Aminta and Shakespeare's Early Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 105. The choice of Hercules is also illustrated in the popular Das Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant, translated to English as The Ship of Fools by Alexander Barclay (London: Richard Pynson, 1509). Christianizing of classical mythology had been taking place since the twelfth century. In some accounts of Ovid moralized, Hercules is Christ; see Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretations in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 166-73, and Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), p. 295.

  11. The Life of Marcus Antonius, in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North (1579), ed. W. E. Henly (London: David Nutt, 1896), VI, 4.

  12. While the story of the golden apples has many versions, most artists, including Shakespeare, prefer to report that Hercules himself came to battle the dragon and obtain the golden apples. The order of Hercules' labors also differs in various accounts.

  13. For Antonio Tempesta's engraving, see Metamorphoseon … Ovidianarum (Amsterdam [1606]), ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Garland, 1976), p. 85. Seneca dramatizes Hercules' death and apotheosis in Hercules Oetaeus.

  14. Seneca's Tragedies, trans. Frank Justus Miller (London: William Heinemann, 1916), vol. I. Hereafter line citations to Seneca will be from this edition.

  15. Salomon's woodcuts were published by Jean de Tournes in La Metamorphose d'Ovide figurée (Lyons, 1557) and were immediately copied by printers elsewhere. It should be noted, however, that in most cases Salomon simply followed Ovid's vivid descriptive language. For Solis's woodcut for Metamorphoses IV.421, see Johan Sprengium, Metamorphoses Ovidii (Frankfurt, 1563), p. 52. Salomon's contribution to art is evaluated by Robert Brun, Le Livre Français illustré de la Renaissance (Paris: A. et J. Picard, 1969), pp. 77-80.

  16. Whitney, p. 94; this emblem's source is a plate in Omnia Andreae Alciati V. C. Emblemata (Antwerp: Christopher Plantin, 1577), p. 271.

  17. For comment on the contribution of the classics to Elizabethan daemonology and the association of the Furies with witchcraft, see Arthur R. McGee, “Macbeth and the Furies,” Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966), 55-67.

  18. Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1597), p. 2; reprinted in the Bodley Head Quartos, ed. G. B. Harrison (London: John Lane, 1924), p. xi. Subsequent page references to this edition will appear in parentheses in my text.

  19. See lines 735-36: “What each has done, he suffers; upon its author the crime comes back, and the guilty soul is crushed by his own form of guilt.” Howard Jacobsen, “Macbeth I.vii.7-10,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 321-22, identifies another group of lines in Seneca's Thyestes which reflect the same linguistic pattern and which he believes is even closer to Shakespeare.

  20. For a comparison of two of Lady Macbeth's speeches to examples in Seneca's Medea, see Bullough, p. 451; additional sources for Shakespeare may have been Ovid's Metamorphoses VII and Heroides XII.

  21. For a discussion of madness in several Elizabethan plays and the significance of Seneca's Hercules Furens, see Rolf Soellner, “The Madness of the Elizabethans,” Comparative Literature, 10 (1958), 309-24. Soellner finds Lady Macbeth's excuses for her husband's rapture when he sees Banquo, “being often thus” (III.iv.61-62), as evidence of an epilepsy (p. 313).

  22. Thomson, p. 120, links allusions to sleep by the Chorus in Hercules Furens, ll. 1065ff, to similar passages in Macbeth. Additional sources for Shakespeare's imagery associated with sleep are Ovid's Metamorphoses XI.623ff; Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 39; and references to sleep in the dramatist's own plays such as Henry IV, Part II, III.i.5-31.

  23. R. A. Foakes, “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth,” in Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 2-20. The damnation of Macbeth, his fall from divine grace, has long been a concern of scholars. Among those who discuss Macbeth in terms of Christian theology are Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgment (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), pp. 159-82; Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 144-46; Robert H. West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1986), pp. 21-22, 70-77.

  24. Huston Diehl, “Horrid Image, Sorry Sight, Fatal Image: The Visual Rhetoric of Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies, 16 (1988), 191-204. To Diehl, the play is full of acts of seeing and interpreting in an uncertain and invisible world. Members of the audience gain perspective on the limitation of human knowledge as they watch the downfall of Macbeth, his lady, and Duncan. All pictures, like the apparitions, are enigmas in a fallen world where ambiguous signs disturb and confuse the audience.

  25. Whitney, p. 138; the plate is from Omnia Andrea Alciati, p. 177.

  26. A Collection of 79 Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides (1559-1597), ed. Joseph Lilly (London, 1867), pp. 27-31, and The German Single-Leaf Woodcut (1550-1600), ed. Walter L. Strauss (New York, 1975), II, 674, 850.

  27. Devises Heroiques (Lyons: Jean de Tournes, 1557), p. 18. The woodcut, attributed to Bernard Salomon, shows a crown over a star. For other crown emblems, see ibid., pp. 23, 25. These devices were widely published, and a translation by P. S. with Plantin woodcuts was printed in London as The Heroicall Devices of M. Claudius Paradin (London, 1591).

  28. The Nine Worthies were frequently illustrated and even used as wall decorations in upper middle class homes like the house on 61 High Street, Abersham, Bucks.; see Francis Reader, “Tudor Mural Paintings in Lesser Houses in Bucks.,” Archaeological Journal, 89 (1932), 166-72.

  29. The Porter elects to eschew the primrose way to Hell, and Laertes warns Ophelia that Hamlet walks “the primrose path of dalliance” (I.iii.50). Roses are associated with Venus, and the pleasant way of Vice is called the path of roses. Clifford Davidson relates the devil imagery which I have linked with classical myth to a Christian view of damnation in The Primrose Way: A Study of Shakespeare's Macbeth (Conesville, Iowa: John Westburg, 1970).

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8220

SOURCE: “Antony and Cleopatra: A Mythological Perspective,” in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 45, No. 3, 1990, pp. 309-29.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie suggests that Shakespeare constructed parallels between the eponymous characters of Antony and Cleopatra and figures from Roman mythology, only to abandon this classical perspective later in the play in order to pursue a new mythology based upon the ideal of human love.]

The tensions of divided loyalty in Antony and Cleopatra have challenged the imaginations and ingenuity of many critics. Hazlitt speaks of a duel between “Roman pride and Eastern magnificence,”1 a century later M. W. MacCallum argues, of Mark Antony, “the life at Rome and the life at Alexandria both tug at his heart-strings,”2 and Eugene Waith insists that the “central problem remains the validity of Cleopatra's, as opposed to Caesar's ideal.”3 Some commentators have further articulated the mechanism of tension by relating it to structural and verbal perspectives, pointing to the visual alternation of Roman and Egyptian worlds, as Granville-Barker4 has done in Prefaces to Shakespeare, and to differing verbal textures that serve to identify and distinguish these worlds, the latter approach best exemplified in the work of Maurice Charney.5

Few critics have sought to examine the play's tensions in terms of its myth fabric, and there appears to be little agreement amongst those who have as to which of the Classical motifs is the most significant.

Eugene Waith6 views Antony as the Virtus Heroica, a hero of Herculean proportions whose flaws are dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of his achievements. Such an all-embracing framework tends to rely more heavily on an appeal to general characteristics of the mythic hero and Antony than on a close comparison of career details. The common denominator must be loose and fairly flexible if it is to be of use, and Waith's discussion of Shakespeare's play is both strengthened and weakened by this approach: strengthened because he establishes Antony and Cleopatra within something of a coherent Herculean tradition, but weakened always by the nagging doubt that broad comparison is apt to overlook subtleties of significance. Waith may talk, for example, of a “Hercules unmanned by Omphale” (p. 113) but he fails to link this idea adequately with the question of Antony's relation to Cleopatra and the series of crucial emasculating references that appertain to it. J. Leeds Barroll7 sees Antony's choice between Rome and Egypt in terms of a popular sixteenth century emblem depicting Hercules' choice between Virtue and Vice. Barroll notes that “seldom in the Renaissance is Hercules a mere god of battle; he is always a figure of morality, however ambivalent” (p. 73) and he goes on to argue that Antony's final allegiance to Cleopatra is, in fact, a surrender to what he calls a “Voluptas temptation” (p. 73). Unfortunately, Barroll's interpretation tends to see the play from a purely Roman point of view, imposing upon Antony's world a simple morality structure that takes as understood the equation of Rome with Virtue and Egypt with Vice. The mythological issues of the play seem more complex than this.

In blunt terms, Hercules is mentioned four times by name in Antony and Cleopatra: I.iii.84 (Cleopatra speaking); III.vii.67 (Soldier); IV.iii.16 (Second Soldier); and IV.xii.44 (Antony). The dramatist probably derives the Herculean association with Antony from a passage in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch: “Now it had been a speech of old time that the family of the Antonii were descended from one Anton, the son of Hercules, whereof the family took name. This opinion did Antonius seek to confirm in all his doings, not only resembling him in the likeness of his body, as we have said before, but also in the wearing of his garments. For when he would openly show himself abroad before many people, he would always wear his cassock girt down low upon his hips, with a great sword hanging by his side, and, upon that, some ill-favoured cloak.”8 Critics have not always been in agreement as to the exact relation of Plutarch's Antony to Shakespeare's hero. T. Campbell's cautious remark that “In his portraiture of Antony there is, perhaps, a flattered likeness of the original by Plutarch”9 appears to be contested, in one area at least, by E. A. J. Honigmann's observation that “Long before Actium … Antony impresses us in scene after scene as a loser; Herculean, but still a loser; and his defeats in conversation, added by Shakespeare, distinguish him equally from Plutarch's Antonius and from other tragic heroes.”10 To this we might add that Shakespeare allows his hero the luxury of voicing his ancestry on only a single occasion, and that in a moment of anger when boasting is not his intention (IV.xii.44). Compared to Plutarch's ostentatious Roman, Shakespeare's Antony, a loser perhaps, is an altogether more palatable figure.

It is true that Hercules, like Mars, was one of the most “Roman” of the Classical deities. Guillaume du Choul recounts, in Discours de la Religion des Anciens Romains Illustré (1556), that one Roman Emperor wished to call Hercules “conditeur de la cité de Rome.”11 And Henry Peacham posits Hercules as a type of old Roman virtue—“Virtus Romana et antiqua”12—who upholds the militarist and moralist qualities traditionally associated with the ancient city and its inhabitants. Antony's great military prestige in Rome has made him the subject of adulation and mythologisation, putting him in something like the same position as his illustrious forefather. But the mantle of Herculean hero is bestowed upon him more at the insistence of others than of himself, and as the identities of the bestower vary, so the connotations of the bestowal modulate with each fresh appellation. Although the allusion is loaded with sarcasm, Cleopatra's “Hercules” is quite unambiguously Roman:

Antony: Now, by my sword—
Cleopatra: And target. Still he
But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.


The death of Fulvia has occasioned Antony's return to Rome, and with the demands of his mother city in the back of his mind, and the taunts of the Egyptian Queen in his ears, he might almost stand, as Hercules in Xenophon's anecdote, at the desert fork of Vice and Virtue.13 This, at least, is the probable Roman interpretation of the situation and the one Cleopatra hangs reproachfully before Antony's eyes. In calling him a “Herculean Roman” she assumes that his choice has been made, that he is for Roman Virtue and not Egyptian Vice, that he loves Fulvia and not her. The phrase carries the weight of accusation. In placing Antony in the High Roman Herculean tradition, the Egyptian Queen directly challenges his ability to “love” her in the sense that she understands the word. And whatever kind of “love” is tolerated in Rome, the Alexandrian version is clearly not acceptable. The hero's spasmodic reversions to the Roman archetype, as at I.ii.125-7 (quoted above), are ample evidence of that. Roman understanding of “Vice” and “Virtue” closely parallels the sixteenth century's interpretation of Hercules' Vice-Virtue encounter. Adriaan de Jonge's print in Les Emblemes reveals the two women celebrities in an urbanised version of the desert choice:

Deus femmes à l'entour d'Hercule l'indompté
Taschent de le tirer, chasqu'une à son coste:
L'une est pleine d'amour, l'autre est toute hideuse:
Ainsi Vertu nous tire en son chemin estroict,
Et le Vice nous pousse hors le sentier tout droit,
Pour nous faire noyer en l'eau delicieuse.(14)

To remove any possible doubt as to which of the two women actually represents “Vice,” de Jonge portrays her hand in hand with a child Cupid. The boys who like “smiling Cupids” (II.ii.206) fan Cleopatra on her barge may represent to Enobarbus' rather Easternised aestheticism the very quintessence of Egyptian love and, in its own context, Asiatic virtue, but they acquire a significance that has quite different moral implications in Rome. We may look, for instance, at the way in which the word “lust” creeps in as a disparaging Roman synonym for the Egyptian experience, and, particularly, for Antony's flirtation with Cleopatra: I.i.6-10 (Philo speaking); (Octavius); (Octavia and Octavius). Octavius never uses the term “love” in a manner that is other than socially obligatory or familial. In Rome, “love” is a trinket of rhetoric (III.ii.18), a tool to cement political alliance (III.iv.21), a fully practised and public expression of familial kinship ( Always premeditated and cold, never warm and spontaneous, it is a virtue rather than an emotion—just the kind of virtue Cleopatra ridicules in her reference to Hercules.

“Herculean,” in its Roman sense, quite naturally implies, as well, a military superlative, since the equation, in the Roman world, of soldierly discipline and virtue is axiomatic. Stephen Batman, in The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577), writes that “Hercules apparayled in a Lions skinne, signyfyeth the valiant courage of a woorthy Captayne, also the Prudencie wherewith his minde beinge furnished, he subdued his outrageous affections.”15 So, to the Soldier at III.vii.67, Hercules is a metaphor for the excellence of military judgement that Antony has failed to exercise: “By Hercules, I think I am i' th' right,” he says, in clear disapproval of his commander's strategy. And while the epithet “By Hercules” is not uncommon in Classical and Renaissance literature, the peculiarly Herculean currents that run through this play licence us to attach more importance to its usage here than we might otherwise have done. In a single line, the soldier weighs the myth paradigm against the fallible man. And we see at once that Antony's relation to the Roman Hercules has become distant and rhetorical. In fact, the whole question of Antony's Herculean military mantle must come under scrutiny. It is Octavius Caesar who first outlines the mythic stature of his fellow triumvir who once endured hardships “with patience more / Than savages could suffer” (I.iv.55-61). And Pompey remarks, on hearing that Antony is every hour expected in Rome, “his soldiership / Is twice the other twain” (II.i.34-5). Yet, in III.i, Shakespeare shows us that there is something synthetic in Antony's Herculean heritage, something that devalues his myth-hero status. Antony's lieutenant Ventidius, rejecting Silius' suggestion that he should push on with his military expedition, reminds him:

I have done enough. A lower place, note well,
May make too great an act; for learn this, Silius:
Better to leave undone than by our deed
Acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away.
Caesar and Antony have ever won
More in their officer, than person.


Ventidius understands only too well the true nature of Roman military mythologisation. “Being” Herculean consists of something besides performing Herculean acts. It is not a pure quality of military achievement—if it were, Ventidius himself might fill the part more appropriately than Antony. The rôle of the Roman Hercules is, in some measure at least, a political manufacture, a deification necessary to the processes of leadership.

Ironically, the point is made most forcefully by Antony himself at the very moment he chooses to voice his pedigree:

The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage;
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o' th' moon,
And with those hands that grasp'd the heaviest club
Subdue my worthiest self. The witch shall die.
To the young Roman boy she hath sold me, and I fall
Under this plot. Se dies for't. Eros, ho!


Eugene Waith believes that Shakespeare makes the equation of Antony and Hercules explicit at this point: “Rage is the characteristic response of the Herculean hero to an attack on his honour. Both Hercules and Antony want more than anything to recover some part of their lost honour in order to make themselves worthy of a hero's death. Both of them wish that revenge upon a perfidious woman might atone for their guilt towards an innocent woman, as well as punishing an infamous betrayal.”16 Surely, though, here, as at other points in the play, Shakespeare strives to emphasise the differences between Antony and his myth-ancestor. For a start, we are inclined to wonder just what is Antony's shirt of Nessus. Presumably, he sees it as some kind of damning treachery foisted unsuspectingly upon him by his Egyptian queen, though it is likely that the blame for the naval débâcle lies more on his own shoulders than on hers. Reuben Brower is taking the passage too seriously when he writes of lines 43-7 (cited above): “The first lines sound like the mad Hercules of myth; the last line, like the other Hercules, the Stoic hero of self-conquest.”17 Antony may cry out that the shirt of Nessus is upon him, as his great forefather could once have done, but he lacks the guiltlessness and the pathos of a dying Hercules. So, too, he may inveigh in the most mournful terms against his fate but, with an army still at his disposal, such pessimism is premature. And, as a measure of his anguish, he may ask “Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o' th' moon” (Lichas was the unfortunate servant who unwittingly brought Hercules the poisoned shirt) but if blind revenge had really been his intention he could well have attacked and dismembered Cleopatra a few lines earlier. The whole tirade actually works against equation with a dying Hercules. Antony's brush with the Queen of the Nile has given him a sprinkling of the dramatic ebullience that hallmarks Cleopatra's speech and mannerism. Antony may be an unpractised actor but he has learnt from his exotic tutor the dramatic value of myth comparison. The transmigration from Roman military to Egyptian love ethic is here marked by the dramatist in a most unexpected fashion.

Plutarch is notably harsh in his condemnation of Antony's subservience to Cleopatra, likening it to that of Hercules to Omphale.18 For his murder of Iphitus, the Delphic oracle bade Hercules go into slavery for a year. He was sold to Omphale, Queen of Lydia, and set to woman's work, while she assumed his lion's skin and club.19 The association of Cupid with the Omphale-Hercules incident finds powerful expression in Renaissance iconography. The affair seems to have been taken as irrefutable proof of love's invincibility. A Carracci20 drawing from Windsor shows Hercules kneeling with spindle and distaff while Omphale, grasping the usurped club, towers over him. A winged Cupid rests languidly at her feet. And Henry Peacham's print and apothegm “Vis amoris”21 makes the point that love conquers all. Though not specifically alluding to the Omphale incident, the emblematist Otto van Veen, in Emblemes d'Amour, claims that “pour monstere que rien ne luy pouuoit resister, d'ou print subject Alcibiades de faire grauer sur son bouclier d'Iuoire un Cupidon, qui embrassoit un foudre.”22

Inferences of slavery and of emasculation are prominent in Antony and Cleopatra (I.iii.113; II.v.2; II.v.21-3; III.vii.16-19; III.vii.69-70; IV.xii.47-8). On this evidence, the Roman Philo may be right in calling Antony a “strumpet's fool” (I.i.13), and Octavius embarrassingly accurate in asserting that his fellow triumvir “is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he” (I.iv.5-7). Certainly, Antony, like Hercules, is happy to fall into the grasp of his queen. In spite of this canon of Omphalean suggestion, there are still flaws to the comparison. Foremost, Omphale is never actually mentioned by name. Assuredly, the equation of Antony's usurped “sword Philippan” with Hercules' usurped club is always attractive. But Cleopatra is not the only person to pilfer the hero's sword. Dercetas also steals it at IV.xiv.112. Further, Cleopatra never dresses in Roman armour, as Omphale dressed in Antony's lion skin. The major indication we have of a change from her imperial costume is Octavius' claim that she appeared before the Egyptian populace dressed as Isis, a deity who essenced femininity. Nor are we given the impression that Cleopatra's sway over Antony is as unqualified as Omphale's was over Hercules. The Roman's alleged bondage apparently precludes the return trip to Rome and the arranged marriage with Octavia, both of which are or will be against the wishes of Cleopatra. In fact, when Antony bandies about his accusations of slavery at IV.xii.13-14 (“Triple-turn'd whore! ’tis thou / Hast sold me to this novice”) and at IV.xii.47-8, his point seems to be that he believes Cleopatra has sold him into slavery and not that he has been sold into her slavery as Hercules was sold into Omphale's service. An equation of Cleopatra and Omphale is further impeded by several competing images of transformation associated with figures other than the Egyptian Queen. Cleopatra styles Fulvia, and even Octavius Caesar, in the Omphalean rôle when she suggests in I.iii that they have undermined Antony's manly independence and authority. And to the Roman Enobarbus, Antony himself has become the emasculating agent. “For shame! / Transform us not to women” (IV.ii.35-6) he begs his master.

The Omphalean myth may not be the dramatic mirror of Antony's subordination that some critics have suggested.23 It is perhaps more indicative of Shakespeare's efforts to contrast and compare the activities of his two protagonists with those of mythic counterparts. Comparison does not suggest equation, though the temptation to accept the bogus synonym of Omphale and the Nilean Queen is always strong. Only when we recognise the fundamental incompatibility of myth and actuality do we begin to appreciate that actuality is setting its own precedent, devising its own mythology of matchless love. The Omphale flirtation is, again, a useful measure not of similarity but of difference.

The Second Soldier is, therefore, incisively to the point when, on hearing a strange noise, he guesses that

… the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd,
Now leaves him.


Derek Traversi has seen this as “the sad premonition of Antony's fallen manhood … the dissolution of his heroic integrity.”24 There is another interpretation. The word “lov'd,” placed centrally in the sentence, is crucial to its effect. In terms of connotation and tense, it pronounces a bondage that was once Roman and is now obsolete. It parcels up the whole gamut of Roman “love” and dispatches it with Mercurial haste. At least one critic25 has alerted us to the idea that Enobarbus and Hercules both desert Antony at roughly the same time. The notion is intriguing, though the critic in question does not explain why Enobarbus and Hercules should be linked, other than to say, somewhat enigmatically, that the lieutenant “has been like a Hercules to Antony.”26 Nor can we say that Enobarbus, like Hercules, symbolises a Roman martial value that now forsakes his master, for an act of cowardly desertion is hardly a fully satisfactory metaphor for the loss of Roman military idealism, though it does savour of Octavius' political pragmatism. We are better advised to consider the departure of Hercules as a signal of what we might call a mythological eclipse. A martial myth has been subtly superceded by a new mythology of the senses. The hero's Roman love for Hercules is now outmoded and the departure of that god acknowledges the ascendency of a new and a vibrant mythology—an idea expanded in the last phase of this essay. Antony himself is never quite prepared to accept that the transition has taken place. A Roman upbringing has left its indelible mark. Yet, transition there has been and the “Herculean” Roman is no longer Herculean. This is perhaps why the dramatist is at such pains to distinguish Antony's “apotheosis” in Act Four from that of his illustrious predecessor.

Renaissance representations of Hercules' deification usually show him dignified and triumphant as he is borne aloft, still clutching his club and lion skin. Tempesta's illustration of Ovid's account reveals the hero ascending in triumph to a Jove who awaits him with open arms.27 Rubens' “The Apotheosis of Hercules” shows a winged boy crowning Hercules with a laurel wreath as a horse drawn chariot bears him, in familiar garb, to the lap of the gods.28 Lodovico Carrucci's painting is untypical in its perspective but traditional in its values.29 Having been swept up to the seat of Jove, Hercules grasps the god of gods' hand in a powerful and moving moment of fulfilment. Our visual perspective puts us, as it were, by the hero's pyre, gazing heavenwards at the mortal who has transcended his own mortality.

As spectators to Antony's final moments, we feel much less inclined to wonderment. As many commentators have noticed, the hero experiences no visionary truths or heightened insight in death. For a horse drawn chariot, Antony has to make do with four of his own guard (“Take me up” he tells them weakly at IV.xiv.138) and for apotheosis a rather unceremonious heaving aloft not to Jove but to Cleopatra must suffice (IV.xv.37). No wonder he puns with such atrociously wry humour at IV.xiv.134 and 138! Most interesting of all, though, is Cleopatra's lament for her dying lover:

… Had I great Juno's
The strong-wing'd Mercury should fetch thee up,
And set thee by Jove's side. Yet come a little.
Wishers were ever fools.

(IV.xv.34-7 Emphasis added.)

Robert G. Hunter30 has suggested, in his paper “Cleopatra and the ‘Œstre Junonicque,’” that there may be a reference to Juno's gadfly at III.x.10-15 but he himself concludes that the allusion is oblique and the evidence inconclusive. There is, in fact, only one other open appeal to Juno in the play and this comes during one of Antony's most abject moments of military disaster. Cleopatra is, once more, the source of utterance:

Eros: Nay, gentle madam,
to him! Comfort him.
Iras: Do, most dear Queen.
Charmian: Do? Why, what else?
Cleopatra: Let me sit down. O Juno!
Antony: No, no, no, no, no.

(III.xi.25-9. Emphasis added.)

Juno, it must be noted, pursued Hercules with an inveterate malice from the moment of his birth. The son of one of her husband's paramours, he spent much of his life avoiding or enduring her jealous machinations. A passage in All's Well That Ends Well, referring to “despiteful Juno” (III.iv.13), strongly suggests that Shakespeare was familiar with the story. There appears to be no warrant in Plutarch for Shakespeare's use of the Classical figure of Juno in Antony and Cleopatra. Why, then, does the dramatist give his heroine Cleopatra the word “Juno” at two of the play's most anguished, and Herculean, moments? Have we here some unfortunate Hercules plagued by the spite of a jealous Juno? Apparently not, for both instances catch the Egyptian Queen in a state of most un-Juno-like helplessness. Her lover distraught and unreasonable in III.xi, she is bullied into inactivity by her battling senses of fear and duty. “Let me sit down” she implores, and then exclaims “O Juno!” clearly in recognition of her dilemma and not of some evil deed accomplished on her part. And when she wishes, in IV.xv, that she had great Juno's power to set Antony by Jove's side, the point is surely that she lacks such power, that “Wishers were ever fools.” As Antony turns out to be no second Hercules, so Cleopatra emerges as no spiteful Juno maliciously assailing the fortunes of his life. In the end, the pair cannot be measured in terms of Herculean myth. It remains to be seen if the same may be said of the Mars mythology that some critics see as central to our understanding of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra.

J. F. Danby has noted that the “play is Shakespeare's study of Mars and Venus—the presiding deities of Baroque society, painted for us again and again on the canvasses of his time.”31 Danby does not expand on this, but Raymond B. Waddington32 picks up the idea in his paper “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus did with Mars.’” Rejecting the Omphalean nuances of the play on the grounds that “Shakespeare fails to take advantage of iconographic touchstones” (p. 214) and doubting the significance of Herculean and Isis references because they tend to isolate the hero and heroine for purposes of character analysis rather than exploring the nature of the relationship between them, Waddington concludes that the play is an expression of “concordia discors,” of extremities compromising—an idea implicitly suggested in the union of the god of war and the goddess of love. In assessing the validity of Waddington's contentions, it will be necessary to examine closely the play's allusions to Mars.

In The Myrrour or Glasse of helth (1545), Thomas Moulton writes that Mars patronises “batayle, pryson / maryage and inimyte.”33 Though Shakespeare's war god in Antony and Cleopatra inclines to less controversial significances, we cannot deny his remarkable diversity, and it is on this point that Waddington's approach may be deemed incomplete. The first deity to whom Antony is compared, Mars, as father of Romulus, patron of Rome and the most revered of the Roman gods, is not an unlikely choice for such comparison. Polydore Vergil remarks that, “as Diodorus thinketh, the maner of warre was found out by Mars34 and Antony's appeal to a Roman mind like Philo's rests on his unparalleled military stature. Superlative feats of endurance and courage have apparently set Antony apart from the run of ordinary men. When dalliance “blemishes” such a history, Philo concludes that the legend is lost:

… Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front.


H. A. Mason observes, in Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love, that “Grammatically, it is true, his eyes are merely compared to the god in armour, but the god-like fire passes back and would turn Antony at the very least into a demi-god of war.”35 Of significance, as well, is Philo's image of surveillance for it also tends to deify Antony by styling him in the mould of Vergil's architect of battle, and reminding us of Hotspur's awful Mars sitting on his altar as patron of all bloody carnage. Philo's Mars simile turns to metaphor as Antony is remembered as the model warrior of the battlefield, the archetypal Roman.

On the surface, Mars presents the dramatist with character traits that have at least a little in common with those of Hercules. In Classical mythology he, too, is a strange mixture of competing inclinations. Philo gives us a Mars Ultor who is unmitigably Roman and who betrays none of the traditions of adulterous lover or gentle knight, as in Chaucer's Complaint of Mars (43-4, 75, 187, and 275).36 But, within four scenes, the Egyptian Mardian has painted the god romantic and lasciviously passionate:

Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.


The eunuch disrobes the Roman Avenger-God ethic, mocking and mirroring in Mars' name precisely what the Romans now believe has happened to their corrupted hero. The martial connotations of the deity's name have been blatantly flouted. The soldier has been turned into a lover, and the sway of the victory can be deciphered in Mardian's phrasing—it is not what Mars did with Venus, but what Venus did with Mars. The lesson works within a well-established Renaissance tradition of love's insuperability. That tradition is often expressed in the context of the Venus-Mars entanglement.37 This can be seen, for example, in Caraglio's engraving after Rosso (ca. 1530) depicting the Graces disrobing Mars and Venus, while Cupid-like figures play with Mars' helmet and shield.38 In the figure of a small winged Cupid holding Mars' sword between his legs, we have a symbolic explanation of the eunuch Mardian's quip.

Darting, as the play does, between aspects of the Classical god's multifaceted character, Mardian's vision of a Mars pacified is soon turned, by Enobarbus, into the promise of a Roman Mars rampant. He tells Lepidus:

… If Caesar move him,
Let Antony look over Caesar's head
And speak as loud as Mars.


The circumstances are almost as ironic as the eunuch's subversion of the Roman Mars theme earlier. That one so seduced by the luxurious dalliance of Egypt as Enobarbus should cast such belligerent “Romanic” demands on Antony is odd enough but that he should do so in conversation with an impotent and vulnerable Lepidus draws the scene into realms of absurdity. Needless to say, this “shouting Mars” rests rather uneasily on the lips of the Roman lieutenant and it takes only the curiosity of Agrippa to send him into a paean of Egyptian nostalgia:

… She did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold, of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy out-work nature. On each side of her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour's fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.


At last the association of Cleopatra with Venus is made explicit, but not so much to emphasise their similarities as their clear differences. In Plutarch, Cleopatra is “apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture.”39 And in Daniel's The Tragedie of Cleopatra, offered as a possible source of Shakespeare's play by Arthur M. Z. Norman,40 the Egyptian Queen is represented as a Venus come down to earth:

Euen as she was when on thy cristall streames,
Cleare Cydnos, she did shew what
earth could shew;
When Asia all amaz'd in wonder,
Venus from heauen was come on earth

Unlike Plutarch and Daniel, Shakespeare does not equate Venus and Cleopatra. According to Enobarbus, the Nilean Queen actually “o'erpictures” Venus. It is difficult to know precisely how much significance to attach to a superlative like “o'erpicturing” in a play whose style is often one of hyperbole and whose sentiments frequently strain to excess. Cleopatra is, by her own admission, an ageing queen (“wrinkled deep in time” is her phrase at I.v.29). And yet, Enobarbus prefers this waning human to even the immortal Venus. She still retains the accoutrements of a Venus in her pretty dimpled boys who fan her “like smiling Cupids”, but she has transcended the Classical precedent. The Roman Enobarbus does not tell us precisely how she has done this, but we may infer from the tenor of his description that her victory is a victory of the senses—burnished thrones, purple sails so perfumed that the winds are love-sick with them, silver oars beating to the melody of flutes, multicoloured fans that tint the cheeks they cool. Enobarbus' easternised imagination transcends the limits of actuality, encapsulating, in marvellous images of the tangible, the sensuous essence of Cleopatra. We are, as it were, transported out of the familiar myth of Venus and relocated in a new and unrivalled mythology of the senses.

In keeping with this notion, allusions to the Venus and Mars mythology abruptly end after Enobarbus' exposition, and it is left to Cleopatra herself to conclude the Mars development in II.v when she says, of Antony, after learning the awful truth about his marriage to Octavia:

Let him for ever go—let him not, Charmian—
Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,
The other way's a Mars.


Mythology's most celebrated “two-faced” figure is Janus, often portrayed with one face smiling and the other frowning. Without using the precise figure, Cleopatra intends a similar opposition. Gerard Leigh, in The Accedence of Armorie (1591), notes that “Medusa with Neptune the god of the Sea, committed adultrie in the Temple of Minerua, who was in reuenge therof turned by the mightie godes, into an ouglie monstrous shape, and her golden haires into foule lothsome serpents, whose enuieng hir life with further reuenge, seeking to haue that monster slaine, gaue a Christiline shielde to hir liuetenant Perseus the Palladian knight.”42 Henkel and Schöne record an emblem, titled “Amoris Vmbra Invidia,”43 in which a pretty Cupid, holding a bow and arrow, casts the shadow of a foul snake-saturated Gorgon. Cleopatra is jealous, but her insistence on the Gorgon image may perhaps go further than this. Both the cited sixteenth century examples connect the Gorgon with the more unseemly side of “love” and, as love is central to Cleopatra's consciousness, her choice of metaphor is appropriate. Maurice Charney44 relates the Gorgon reference to the play's serpent motif, reminding us that the mythic anomaly had snaky locks. But the point is surely that Cleopatra sees the Gorgon as a total inversion of all that is desirable. By the same token, Mars here becomes desirability itself, though presumably not in any exclusive Roman sense. The wheel has come full circle. Starting as Philo's mythic tag for Antony, Mars ends as Cleopatra's mythic metaphor for the same. But the value attached to the Classical name by each is profoundly different. Philo's comparison aspires specifically to a military code, Cleopatra's usage to features and qualities that are simply un-Gorgon. Her vision of Mars is broader, encompassing the whole spectrum of potential human excellences. In this sense, the name Mars has been modified to signify something more than the god's Classical history could suggest. As Enobarbus spoke to Cleopatra as a woman “o'erpicturing” Venus, as something more than the goddess, so Cleopatra aggrandises Antony's potential worth, not by an open superlative that styles him as greater than Mars, but by a straight comparison with the absolute monstrosity of the Gorgon that lifts the label of “Mars” into absolute and unfamiliar regions of praise. Significant, too, is Cleopatra's terminology. Antony is “painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars,” the stress lying tellingly in the sense of imaginative artifice that, to a large extent, defines the personal mythologisation of both hero and heroine.

It might be useful to consolidate the argument at this point. The key mythologies Shakespeare uses to demonstrate the great perplexities of choice are all Classical—Hercules, Omphale, Juno, Mars, Venus. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare uses a two-way imagistic mechanism to express competing mythological significances. Thus, Hercules is, on the one hand, a moral and military paradigm and, on the other, an effeminate slave. Mars is both a soldier archetype and an emasculated debauchee. These, at least, are Roman moulds into which the individual is slotted approvingly or disapprovingly as the case requires. Geographically and ideologically distanced from Rome, Egypt offers, to those who experience its liberalities, the chance to adjust Roman mythologies. And so, Enobarbus speaks of a Cleopatra who exceeds the bounds of Classical myth, “O'erpicturing that Venus” (II.ii.204). And Cleopatra, using the “two-way” imagistic mechanism in variation, devises a Mars who excels his Roman namesake: “Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way's a Mars” (II.v.116-17). This, though, does not mark the periphery of the play's mythological exploration. Adjustment is not Shakespeare's ultimate intention in regard to Classical myth—abandonment is his objective. The experience of an English mythology that turns sour in Henry V, after a protracted development from the opening play of the Yorkist Tetralogy, appears to have left Shakespeare in some doubt that the fulfilment of a militarist myth, expressed in whatever terms, can be a valid expression of human triumph. Written many years after the first performance of Henry V, this new play based on the lives of Antony and Cleopatra afforded Shakespeare perhaps his first real opportunity to reexamine, at some length, the mythology of military heroism and to offer a meaningful and enduring alternative. Shakespeare's deliberate discreditation of Classical material in Antony and Cleopatra culminates in the final act where no overt Classical allusions evidence themselves. This is in keeping with the work's broader movement away from the illusion of close equation with a given myth towards the suggestion that, in the world of Antony and Cleopatra, we have a new myth emerging, a myth whose participants are distinguished by qualities other than military prowess or moral righteousness.

The idea that the affections existing between these two protagonists are both new and unparalleled is evoked with some force in the first act of the play:

Cleo.: I'll set a bourn
how far to be belov'd.
Ant.: Then must thou needs find
out new heaven, new earth.


In the same scene, Antony exclaims that he and his lover “stand up peerless” in the world: (I.i.36-40). And, two scenes later, the queen reminds him that once “Eternity was in our lips and eyes” (I.iii.35) and “none our parts so poor / But was a race of heaven” (I.iii.36-7). As the drama unfolds, we become increasingly aware that such sentiments, as powerful and compelling as they may be, are, to some extent, indebted to the imagination for their survival. Cleopatra is an ageing and devious queen, Antony an uneasy and middle-aged soldier. Neither wholly trusts the other. In rhetorical flights of the imagination, their love is perfection itself, in reality it is flawed with doubts. Enobarbus' poetic description of Cleopatra in her barge on the Cydnus (II.ii) exemplifies this mechanism of fantasy. In his account, he manufactures a sensual and aesthetic utopia whose only viable domain is the mind and the painted word. And when he says of Cleopatra's tears “This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a show'r of rain as well as Jove” (I.ii.145-6), his imagination mythologises where actuality could not.

With words, Cleopatra is able to lift the stature of waning Antony into realms of imagined excellences. When he has left for Rome, Cleopatra turns him into the very stuff of myth: he is “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men” (I.v.18-24). In his death, the world is devalued: “this world did equal theirs [the Gods] / Till they had stol'n our jewel” (IV.x.77-8). In Cleopatra's remembrance, Antony is the quintessence not simply of a military excellence but of all those exemplary qualities that compose a perfection of humanity:

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphin-like: they show'd his back above
The element they liv'd in. In his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.


Colossal, supreme, eloquent, thunderous, bountiful, endowed with every human excellence—Cleopatra turns Antony into a god. And, though distanced by the earthliness of her imagery from the sphere of Classical deity, Antony is in no way deprived of magnificent properties or accoutrements. Cleopatra commits his memory to a world of half-realities and dream. There was such a man as Antony and he was an exceptional man. But the agency of the dream turns the remarkable into the immortal. The splendid, though fallible, hero is transformed into a very monument, bestriding the oceans, commanding the world, surpassing all in achievement and magnanimity. Cleopatra tells Dolabella: “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” (V.ii.76), asks him “Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?” (V.ii.93-4) and, at last, censures the Roman messenger for denying the human myth (“Gentle madam, no” at V.ii.94) in a eulogy that considers the splendour of Antony's life in terms of the imagination and fancy:

You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.


That Antony existed there can be no argument. It is in the perception of that existence, in the verbal and mental renewal of an earthly majesty, that the imagination and fancy vie for dominion. In Roman terms, we might guess, Cleopatra's vision of her Antony is fanciful. But in Egypt, where the bounds of “truth” extend beyond the literal (as in Enobarbus' description of Cleopatra in II.ii), the imagination finds sanction and validity in an embellished recollection of greatness. Dolabella, a stranger to the Egyptian world, can understand none of this. But in making the imagination, the Egyptian imagination, the vehicle of recollection, Cleopatra suggests that the memory of Antony might win a final victory against the slanders of Rome. As a Roman, Antony has failed to live up to the Roman militarist myth—the myth of Hercules and Mars—that the eternal city would build around its most favoured sons. For all his praise at the end of the play, Octavius Caesar pointedly avoids celebrating Antony as a soldier. If we look for a final myth, Cleopatra seems to be telling us, we must seek it in an actuality of love and human worth painted and thereby mythologised in the Egyptian imagination.

It is both strange and sad that when Mardian brings news of Cleopatra's death, Antony makes no effort to build out of her history a new and personal myth of miraculous proportions. He describes prolonged life as torture (IV.xiv.46) and admires her courage (IV.xiv.60). But there is no aggrandisement of the qualities that compounded her earthly existence, no eulogy of mythic dimensions, no extravagant expression of his love for her. Antony does not seem aware of the development from the mythologisation of his life into typical Roman modes, to a myth that is unprecedented and free of the shackles of Classical mythology. His real concerns latterly, as formerly (despite apparently hollow protestations in I.i), are with his Roman myth status. In his darkest moments, he can sink so low as to accuse Cleopatra of sullying his very ancestry: “Have I my pillow left unpress'd in Rome, / Forborne the getting of a lawful race” (III.xiii.106-7). But in his most splendid moments, he can only rise to the vain promise of a Martian-type militarist superlative:

If from the field I shall return once more
To kiss these lips, I will appear in blood.
I and my sword will earn our chronicle.

(III.xiii.173-5. Emphasis added).

If there is a union in the closing acts, it is not a union of mythic understanding, for while Cleopatra shows a willingness to mythologise Antony and her love for him, Antony does not appear to be conscious of a present movement towards the personal love-myth. It is only in the afterworld, where they will make the ghosts gaze (IV.xiv.52) and where “Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, / And all the haunt be ours” (IV.xiv.53-4), that he considers their love will be able to achieve mythic and new dimensions.45 We can assume he believes the present has fallen short of this. Since the love-myth relies for its dramatic existence on an imagination openly and rhetorically acknowledged, Antony's failure to offer a genuine reciprocation of Cleopatra's proffered myth-harmony in the final stages of the play leaves us short of what Raymond Waddington would term the play's “concordia discors.” The full act that separates the deaths of the lovers to some degree may be seen as a temporal and a visual metaphor for this disunity.

The manipulation of mythological figures in Antony and Cleopatra suggests a movement away from a view of a world structured purely in terms of traditional Classical mythology. Such a view reflects a Roman perspective, and, accordingly, its mythological figures assume “two-way” significances of virtue and vice, of approval and disapproval, in terms of Rome's ideal militarist values. The process of bogus or synthetic Roman mythologisation, an acceptable and even necessary function of political life in Julius Caesar, comes under increasingly pejorative scrutiny in Antony and Cleopatra. This is perhaps because the earlier play does not offer, and does not intend to offer, any viable alternative to the mythological norms of its Roman setting. Antony and Cleopatra is quite different. Here, a love myth emerges to challenge the Roman military ethos. It is perhaps a tenuous myth, and Antony's understanding of it is limited, but, in its emphasis on the worth of the human bond and interpersonal obligations, it expresses an ideal that is both fresh and vibrant.


  1. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (C. H. Reynell, for R. Hunter, 1817), p. 95.

  2. Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1910), p. 396.

  3. “Manhood and Valour in Two Shakespearean Tragedies,” in: ELH, 17 (1950), p. 271.

  4. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946-1947), I, 371.

  5. Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961).

  6. The Herculean Hero (Chatto & Windus, 1962), pp. 112-21.

  7. “Enobarbus' Description of Cleopatra,” in: Texas Studies in English, 37 (1958), 61-78.

  8. This quotation comes from “The Life of Marcus Antonius” in T. J. B. Spencer's edition of Shakespeare's Plutarch (1964; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), p. 177.

  9. Campbell is quoted in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia & London: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1907), p. 478.

  10. Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies (Macmillan Press, 1976), p. 153.

  11. Discours de la Religion des Anciens Romains Illustré (1556; facsimile rpt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976), p. 182.

  12. Minerva Britanna: Or A Garden of Heroycal Devices (Wa. Dight, 1612), p. 36.

  13. For Xenophon's account of Hercules' choice between the damsels of Vice and Virtue, see his Memorabilia (II.i.21-32) in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Xenophon, IV (1923; rpt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968), translated by E. C. Marchant.

  14. Les Emblèmes, translated into French by Jacques Grévin (Anvers: De l'imprimerie de Christophe Plantin, 1567), p. 48.

  15. The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577; facsimile rpt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976), pp. 12r-12v.

  16. Waith, The Herculean Hero, pp. 119-20.

  17. Hero & Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 333.

  18. Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, p. 130.

  19. Richard Wagner's edition of Apollodori Bibliotheca (Leipzig: Teubner, 1894), II, 127 foll.

  20. R. Wittkower refers to this print as being that of Annibale Carracci, Cat. No. 390 (Plate 50) in his work The Drawings of the Carracci in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle (The Phaidon Press Ltd., 1952), p. 152.

  21. Peacham, Minerva Britanna: Or A Garden of Heroycal Devices, p. 95.

  22. Emblèmes d'Amour. Illustrez D'une Explication en prose fort facille pour entendre le sens moral de chaque Emblème (Paris?: n.p. 16—), n. pag.

  23. For example, Eugene Waith, The Herculean Hero, p. 113; and Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, p. 130.

  24. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Hollis & Carter, 1963), p. 159.

  25. Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, p. 138.

  26. Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, p. 138.

  27. Antonio Tempesta, Metamorphoseon Sive Transformationvm Ovidianarvm (1606; facsimile rpt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976), plate 85.

  28. “The Apotheosis of Hercules”, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (Cat. No. 195). The work is listed in Julius S. Held's catalogue The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens, II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

  29. The painting, possibly the work of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), is described (p. 31) and reproduced (fig. 13) in The Farnese Gallery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) by John Rupert Martin.

  30. “Cleopatra and the ‘Œstre Junonicque’” in: Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), p. 237: “It would seem that there is a case to be made for the series of equations: Cleopatra=a cow in June=Io=Isis=Cleopatra.”

  31. Poets on Fortune's Hill: Studies in Sidney, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher (Faber and Faber, 1952), pp. 150-1.

  32. “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus did with Mars,’” in: Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 210-227.

  33. The Myrrour or Glasse of helth necessary and nedefull for euery person to loke in that wyll kepe theyr body from the sekenes of the Pestylence (W. Myddleton, 1545), sig. C3r.

  34. An Abridgement of the notable worke of Polidore Vergile conteygnyng the deuisers and first finders out as well of Artes, Ministeries, Feactes & ciuill ordinaunces, as of Rites, & Ceremonies, commonly vsed in the churche: and the originall beginnyng of the same, compended by Thomas Langley (R. Grafton, 1546), fol. 48r.

  35. Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love (Chatto & Windus, 1970), p. 232.

  36. The text used is that in F. N. Robinson's edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 529-32.

  37. See Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, revised ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 89-96.

  38. Caraglio's engraving is recorded by Adam Bartsch in Le Peintre Graveur, Nouvelle Edition (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 1867), XV, “Sujets De Mythologie” No. 15 on p. 74.

  39. Spencer, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch, p. 201.

  40. “Daniel's The Tragedie of Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra,” in: Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 11-18.

  41. Lines 1477-82. Norman, “Daniel's The Tragedie of Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra,” quotes this passage on pp. 16-17.

  42. The Accedence of Armorie (1562, first publ.; R. Tottel, 1591), fol. 16v. Pollard and Redgrave, A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland (1475-1640), refer to the author as Gerard Legh.

  43. Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, Emblemata: Handbuch Zur Sinnbildkunst Des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967), column 1572.

  44. Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, p. 99.

  45. Donna B. Hamilton, in “Antony and Cleopatra and the Tradition of Noble Lovers,” in: Shakespeare Quarterly, 24 (1973), 245-251, has demonstrated that Dido and Aeneas enjoyed a high reputation as noble lovers in Shakespeare's day.

In the documentation of references, London is assumed as the place of publication unless otherwise indicated. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from Peter Alexander's edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London & Glasgow: Collins, 1978).

Richard Knowles (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8553

SOURCE: “Myth and Type in As You Like It,” in ELH, Vol. 33, No. 1, March, 1966, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Knowles highlights a number of mythological allusions in As You Like It, specifically studying references to the classical hero Hercules and the Christian mythology associated with him.]

If many a careful scholar still hesitates to accept mythical readings of Shakespeare, it is largely because up to now there have been few studies in the middle range between theoretical interpretations on the one hand and historical fact on the other. One has had to be content with the best of either world but seldom of both. Drawing on anthropological and psychological theories, Northrop Frye makes illuminating, even dazzling analogies between certain archetypal patterns and the structure of the plays and poems, but he offers no full explanation of how such analogous forms got into the Shakespeare canon;1 Douglas Bush, bringing to bear a thorough historical knowledge of Elizabethan familiarity with Greek and Roman myths, shows the local applicability of Shakespeare's mythological allusions but not their relationship to an overall mythical pattern in play or poem.2 On the whole, mythic and ritual interpretations by Knight, Traversi, Tillyard, Barber, and others neglect the specific mythological allusions, while detailed studies of the allusions usually attempt to show the extent of Shakespeare's learning or to read the plays as topical allegory.3 Eugene Waith does bridge the two worlds, but his main interest is a type of character, not a mythical dimension or “meaning.”4 Studies which approach Shakespeare's mythmaking through his use of an established mythological tradition, such as Don Cameron Allen's essay on The Tempest,5 remain the exception, not the rule.

No one would suggest that only those mythical archetypes specifically alluded to in a literary work are relevant to it; conversely, mythological allusions may be so casual and conventional that they are no important part of a writer's imaginative vision. But after the work of iconographers like Panofsky and Wind, one should not want to neglect mythological references in a Renaissance writer when trying to discover the full significance of his work: they are likely to be at least one kind of base to build on. Such an approach to Shakespeare's As You Like It, a play never yet treated fully in the mythic mode, reveals that the allusions consistently make the literal action reverberate beyond itself, and that they suggest a universal application that accounts for many details in the play not satisfactorily explained by the themes of romantic love or the pastoral life.

Robert K. Root noticed long ago a greater seriousness of mythological allusion in As You Like It than in other Shakespearean comedies, and showed that the influence of Shakespeare's poetic master Ovid, named in III.iii.8, asserts itself strongly in the play.6 As might be expected, the greater part of the allusions occur in the play's source, Lodge's Rosalynde;7 but whereas in Lodge some seventy mythological names in three times that many references give the effect merely of the profuse embellishment conventional in pastoral romance, Shakespeare's fifteen names in some thirty references, even in a work two-fifths the length of Lodge's, suggest more pointed, meaningful selection.

Although Hercules is mentioned only once, he is, as one other writer has noticed,8 the dominant mythological figure in the play. Hercules' hold on Shakespeare's imagination was stronger than even the many allusions to him in the plays would suggest;9 Holofernes had even made him one of the Nine Worthies.10 Because in the Renaissance Hercules was one of the two or three best-known mythological personages, the subject of paintings, tapestries, engravings, drawings, sculptures, plays, poems, learned treatises, emblems, adages, schoolboy essays, and countless incidental allusions, it is likely that Shakespeare, having once firmly established Orlando as a Hercules figure in Act I of As You Like It, did not need to point out the analogy explicitly throughout the play. He did select from Rosader's boisterous and often disreputable actions in Rosalynde only those reminiscent of heroic deeds of Hercules, and the play contains further Herculean reminiscences not in its source. What especially suggests Hercules' importance in the play is that the two most clearly Herculean deeds come precisely at the two watershed moments of the action: the first deed begins the complication and the second brings about the denouement.

The wrestling match at Frederick's court is the catalyst that begins the action proper of As You Like It: Orlando's defeat of Charles arouses the suspicion of Frederick and the jealous wrath of Oliver, and as a result first Orlando and Adam, then Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone, then Oliver, and finally Frederick are driven to Arden. It is at this moment, just before Orlando goes to meet the court wrestler, that Rosalind cries, “Now Hercules be thy speed, young man!” (I.ii.222). Besides wishing him the strength of the man who once took the place of Atlas, an event often mentioned in Shakespeare11 and depicted on the sign of the new Globe playhouse, she is also making the parallel between Orlando and the great wrestler who had defeated Antaeus, Cacus, Acheloüs, and Death himself (for Alcestis), as well as a series of beasts and monsters.

Shakespeare found the hint for the allusion in Lodge, but the changes he made are significant. In Rosalynde the Norman wrestler (Charles' counterpart) “looked like Hercules when he advaunst himselfe against Acheloüs” because of the amazing “furie of his countenance” (p. 170). In As You Like It the Hercules figure is not the sinister professional wrestler but the noble Orlando. Moreover, the parallel is not with Hercules' defeat of Acheloüs, rival for his wife, since Rosalind's hand is not at stake here; rather, since Charles has already mortally wounded three contenders, the obvious allusion is to Hercules' defeat of the man-killing giant Antaeus.

There is also evidence that the allusion is not only to the classical myth itself, but to a special Renaissance interpretation of it. Charles' challenge to Orlando contains a puzzling indecency not found in Lodge: “Come, where is this young gallant that is so desirous to lie with his mother earth?” (I.ii.212-213). The phrase “lie with his mother earth” obliquely names the distinguishing trait of Antaeus: as the son of Earth (Tellus, or Gaea) he could renew his battle strength by lying full-length on the earth, so that Hercules finally defeated him only by holding him above ground. The details of the story were widely known among the Elizabethans. The most extensive account of Antaeus' birthright could be found in Lucan's Pharsalia (IV.590 ff.), very popular as a schoolbook,12 though Hyginus (Fabulae XXXI.1) and Ovid (Meta. IX.184) also name Earth as the parent of Antaeus and she is called his “mother” by Arthur Golding and Thomas Underdown in their Ovidian translations.13 It is because Renaissance mythographers, following Fulgentius (Mythologiae II.7), moralized the wrestling match as the victory of the rational soul over earthly or sensual appetite that Antaeus' earthly origin and the phrase “mother earth” are repeatedly stressed. Raphael Regius glosses Ovid's parentis as terrae matris, as Natalis Comes has Antaeus touching Terram matrem and Abraham Fraunce, following him, “his mother the earth”; in Jonson's masque “Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue,” Hercules begins an invective against Comus' orgies and against sensual appetite in general by crying “Breeds Earth more Monsters yet? / Antoeus scarce is cold”; and Milton's Antaeus, “receiving from his mother Earth new strength,” continues the commonplace.14 Thus Charles' jest, at once a challenge and a mocking offer of illicit pleasure that Orlando's “more modest” will wryly declines (I.ii.214), helps to establish his identification with Antaeus, Orlando's with Hercules, and the chaste virtue of the young hero. The allusion is echoed later in Celia's warning of a “fall” if Rosalind does not “wrestle with thy affections” (I.iii.21).

The other clear Hercules allusion occurs at the turning point of the action: Orlando's rescue of his sleeping brother Oliver from a snake and a lion. From this act stem Oliver's conversion, his restitutions to Orlando and betrothal to Celia, Orlando's consequent impatience with Ganymede's feigned love, and in turn Rosalind's discovery, her reunion with her father, and the quadruple marriage that ends the play. Orlando's act is romantic story-book heroism to begin with, but the modifications of the source give the act still less realistic, more mythical overtones. In Lodge a “Boare speare” (p. 217) kills the lion, whose dying roar wakes Saladyne (Oliver's counterpart); in the play Orlando, not out hunting but on his way to dally with Ganymede, evidently strangles the lioness in barehanded wrestling whose “hurtling” awakens Oliver (IV.iii.131-132). The event is reported at second hand because even Bottom knew the problems of staging a lion, but the effect is to give a remote, fabulous quality to the event, a tendency to the legendary. Many Elizabethans could recognize here the Herculean labor that Shakespeare had frequently alluded to:15 the wrestling of the Nemean lion, besides being a favorite topic for moralists, was recalled in every description and picture of Hercules because his dress was its skin.16 The Hercules allusion is reinforced by the addition to Lodge's account of an unrealistic and apparently unnecessary detail: a “green and gilded snake” wreathed around Oliver's neck also threatens his life but is frightened away by the very sight of Orlando. This equally fabulous event is an added reminder of the Hercules whose cradle game, as Golding has him say,17 was strangling snakes sent by Hera, and who defeated the Hydra, Acheloüs, and possibly the Typhon.

As with the earlier Hercules allusion, this one may also take part of its meaning from popular Renaissance moralizations of the classical myth. Hercules' many battles with snakes, lions, and other monsters were regarded as the logical consequence of his famous choice at the crossroads between pleasant vice and unpleasant virtue; similarly, Orlando's battle here follows a debate with himself about saving his enemy Oliver. Though the choice of Hercules had come to stand for any difficult moral decision, as Erwin Panofsky has shown for the continent and Hallett Smith for England,18 the victories over the Nemean lion and the Lernean Hydra (and Hera's snakes in the cradle) were popularly moralized specifically as the defeat of cruel arrogance and malicious envy respectively;19 Orlando's deed symbolizes his victory over the savage egotism and jealousy that his brother embodies in the play and with which he himself is tempted. The serpent's sting and poison are recurrent metaphors in As You Like It for man's unkindness and envy in general and for Oliver's in particular: in poisoning Charles' mind, Oliver attributes his own moral faults to Orlando, including “practice … by poison” (I.i.155); and when Orlando flees Oliver's murderous envy, Adam bewails a world where “what is comely / Envenoms him that bears it” (II.ii.14-15), probably in allusion to the Hydra's venom in the coat of Nessus that killed Hercules.20 Thus in the tableau Oliver finally paints of Orlando's heroism, a Hercules allusion merges with the common Renaissance device of externalizing a moral conflict or a psychomachy as a fight with beasts or monsters.

One difficulty in tracing the mythopoetic use of allusions is deciding how long after an allusive chord has been struck it continues to reverberate. There are no unmistakable references to Hercules between Orlando's first and last wrestlings, but at best a series of progressively fainter echoes that not everyone will hear. One can therefore only suggest, without insisting on them, a number of hints that Hercules remains Orlando's genius throughout much of the play.

A minute or two after Rosalind identifies Orlando as a type of Hercules, he can greet her modest advances only with tongue-tied silence which is not in Lodge's story. Possibly for Shakespeare and his audience there was a twofold comic parody here. First of all, as Bottom's reference to “Ercles' vein” and “a part to tear a cat in” (Dream I.ii.31, 42) indicate, the customary speech of the stage Hercules was terrific rant.21 Shakespeare almost certainly knew22 the familiar Hercules Gallus or Gallicus; always pictured as an older Hercules with golden chains reaching from his tongue to the ears of other men, he signified the rhetorical eloquence of seniority rather than the bodily strength of youth. Here, after several earlier high-flown speeches, the new-found Hercules Orlando is twice unable to manage a single word to Rosalind, let alone rhetorical bombast.23

Secondly, Orlando unmanned by love is a possible comic parody of Hercules tamed by Omphale (or by Iole in Caxton, Tasso, Spenser, and others).24 Largely because of Ovid's Ninth Heroic Epistle, well known in George Turberville's translation,25 Hercules brought from club to distaff rather than Mars, Samson, or Anthony had become the proverbial example of the power and folly of love, especially in the lyrics of the miscellanies. Previous to As You Like It there had been many light-hearted Shakespearean references to Hercules as a great lover: Armado, for instance, takes comfort that even the mighty Hercules fell to loving, and Berowne asks, “For valor, is not Love a Hercules, / Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?”26 In As You Like It Shakespeare seems to model his hero largely on the Hercules in love whom Sir Philip Sidney had declared an ideal subject for comedy.27

Rosalind easily turns the young Herculean wrestler into “a quintain, a mere lifeless block” (I.ii.263), and he soon cries, “O poor Orlando, thou art overthrown! / Or Charles or something weaker masters thee” (I.ii.271-272). Thereafter he forgets wrestling altogether and becomes “Signior Love” (III.ii.310), shaken with the “quotidian of love” (III.ii.384), writing love-sonnets on trees, and subjecting himself to Ganymede's mockery. From time to time Rosalind herself seems to think of Orlando as a young Hercules. When Celia reports finding him under a tree “like a dropped acorn” (III.ii.248), Rosalind, knowing that the oak was sacred to Jove, answers, “It may well be called Jove's tree when it drops forth such fruit” (III.ii.250-251). What she may mean is that Jove's tree ought to produce a man like Hercules, who was in fact the “scion of the seed of Jove.”28 In this scene she herself has been associated with Diana (III.ii.4), and behind her remark at Orlando's hunter's furnishings—“Oh, ominous! He comes to kill my heart” (III.ii.260)—may be a punning allusion to Hercules' third labor, the capture in Arcadia of Diana's sacred stag. Later, after the battle with the lion, she may be referring to Hercules' weakness before love when she says to Orlando about Oliver and Celia, “Clubs cannot part 'em.”29

The other mythological names in the play have less comprehensive implications, though the allusions are significantly more apt and consistent than in Lodge. The four references to Cupid30 are merely conventional, indicating the mischievous force of love. Rosalind is associated with Helen and Atalanta (III.ii.153-156), Diana (III.ii.2-4; IV.i.154), Juno (I.iii.77; V.iv.147), and Ganymede (I.iii.126-127 et passim); all of these personages were notable for their beauty and (except for Helen) chastity. There-is no such consistency in Lodge, where Rosalind is compared in addition with Apollo, Aurora, Daphne, the Graces, Phaeton, the Phoenix, and Venus. W. Schrickx has noticed a continuous association of Celia with Jupiter;31 since all but one of Rosalind's uses of the names Jupiter and Jove may be spoken directly to Celia, they are probably at least a playful pretense that Celia must be the father of the gods if Rosalind is Ganymede, Jove's cupbearer.

Some of the classical allusions in As You Like It are serious, some playful or mock-heroic, some are more far-reaching than others, and all of them indicate analogies between details of the play and the universals embodied in older stories. Like all allusions they are a kind of incidental decoration, displaying the author's inventiveness with conventional stock-in-trade and designed to delight and flatter an audience able to recognize their aptness; and even when used humorously, they operate as a kind of hyperbole, lending an aura of the bigger-than-life, an added romantic glamor. We shall not, however, see the full importance of the mythological references until we see their connection with another order altogether of allusive reference in the play.

The many allusions in As You Like It to religion have often been noticed. Besides the considerable number of precise Biblical echoes identified by Richmond Noble,32 more than three score of specifically religious terms appear, often repeatedly. Since Lodge has very little religious language in Rosalynde, such a wealth of it in As You Like It would seem important to the meaning of the play. Yet even Edward A. Armstrong, who treats of it more fully than anyone else, is interested in it mainly as it reveals the psychology of the poetic imagination,33 and a few other critics mention it only in passing as an incidental excrescence echoing the religion of courtly love.34 Part of such language in As You Like It, like the little of it there is in Rosalynde, is indeed playful hyperbole about love, but most of it cannot be explained as a surviving convention of romance. Rather, the Biblical references and religious language spoken by most of the main characters seem designed to suggest evanescent, half-playful parallels between this world of romantic comedy and a more serious country of the religious mind, and so to make the play's action vibrate with more than comic energy. To say, as C. L. Barber rightly does, that “the folly of going to Arden has something about it of Christian humility, brotherliness, and unworldliness”35 is not to exhaust the subject.

Critics ever since Gervinus have recognized an association between Arden and Adam's paradise, and Donald Stauffer's essay on As You Like It is actually entitled “The Garden of Eden.”36 Since Arden is patently not an Eden, the usual conclusion is that the only Eden in the play is the one within, created by love in the liberty of the forest. If life in Arden is not prelapsarian, however, it is close to it, and the echoes of Eden are explicit and numerous. Charles compares Arden to the “golden world,” a phrase used by Golding, Googe, and others for the golden age of Saturn's reign;37 the golden age was commonly taken as the gentile corruption of the Genesis story of paradise.38 The play opens with a character named simply Adam, not Adam Spencer, and Orlando soon associates this “good old man” with “the antique world, / When service sweat for duty, not for meed” (II.iii.57-58). Although Adam is apparently a steward, as in Lodge, Orlando speaks metaphorically of him as a gardener, husbanding and pruning trees (II.iii.63-65); one will recall many other Shakespearean references to the medieval tradition of Adam hortulans.39 Duke Senior finds Arden an Eden except for “the penalty of Adam, / The seasons' difference.”40 Details of setting and imagery suggest the fruitfulness implied by the Septuagint's word paradise: from Lodge's unrealistic pastoral setting Shakespeare has kept, besides the oak of Jove and England, only those trees with strong Biblical significance, the palm and olive, and the thoughts of people in Arden are rife with images of animals both familiar and exotic. Though the play's many references to time41 remind us that the timeless world of Eden is not here, yet Arden approaches Eden even in respect to time: there Senior and his men “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (I.i.124-125) and “lose and neglect the creeping hours of time” (II.vii.112); and Celia says, “I like this place, / And willingly could waste my time in it” (II.iv.94-95).

Armstrong also finds a series of reminiscences of the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and Adam and Eve.42 Probably more certain allusions than those he offers are the repeated images of snake and lion. In Arden the serpent does not destroy the sinner under Jove's tree, but in the fallen world adversity is “ugly and venomous” (II.i.13), “what is comely / Envenoms him that bears it” (II.iii.14-15), and Adam's penalty of winter weather, like man's unkindness, has a keen tooth and a sharp sting (II.i.8; II.vii.177, 185, 188). The lion commonly symbolized many things besides the devil, but the addition of the snake makes the meaning unmistakable, especially since both symbols for evil have frequent Biblical sanction; “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet (Psa. 91:13).43

It is also possible that an Elizabethan audience might have noticed, glimmering through the action, incidental reminiscences of other Biblical subjects which had for centuries been among the most familiar and important in religious instruction and literature, ecclesiastical art, and the mystery cycles. It might have recognized, as Jaques does,44 the parallel between Duke Senior and Moses in the wilderness; and it might have seen Cain in the fratricidal and later vagabond Oliver, and Pharoah or Herod in the raging, murderously jealous Duke Frederick. Also, several names in the play, besides Adam's, suggest religious overtones. Shakespeare changed Rosader to Orlando, the name of a great Christian champion, and Alinda to Celia, or “heaven.” The name of Juno's other swan Rosalind, though Germanic in origin, had by similarity with the Spanish rosa linda come to mean what Celia calls Rosalind: “My sweet Rose, my dear Rose” (I.ii.24). The centuries-old associations of the rose with heaven and paradise seem to be repeatedly evoked in the play: Orlando calls her “heavenly Rosalind” (I.ii.301) and associates her with heaven and a heavenly synod four more times (III.ii.148 ff.), and in the final masque the god Hymen says to Duke Senior, “Good Duke, receive thy daughter. / Hymen from Heaven brought her” (V.iv.117-118).

The climactic scene of As You Like It, however, contains the most striking of the Biblical reminiscences, an epitome of the central mystery of Christianity. Orlando is presented with the situation that all who would imitate Christ must face: whether to take “revenge” on one's sinful brother and enemy when there is “just occasion” for it (IV.iii.129-130) or to take the more difficult and dangerous course of “kindness.” Orlando might with justice consign his would-be murderer to perdition, for Oliver has only himself to blame that he is in the power, actual and symbolic, of the serpent and lion; like Iago, Oliver becomes demonic when he assumes the role of slanderer or false accuser indicated by the very name of Satan (see Wives V.v.163). Yet after being tempted three times to abandon the sinner, Orlando decides to be his brother's keeper and thus, by exercising mercy rather than justice, wins a victory over Satan both for Oliver and for himself.

This allusion is hinted at in Lodge: at one point old Adam offers to save Rosader's life by giving him his blood to drink, and Orlando explains after rescuing Oliver, “I counted it the hart of a resolute man to purchase a strangers reliefe, though with the losse of his owne bloud” (pp. 195, 218). Moreover, a number of Shakespeare's details differ subtly but significantly from the original. In Lodge the lion gives Rosader “a sore pinch” (p. 217) that is quickly forgotten among the lengthy speeches that follow; Orlando's wound causes him to faint away—to suffer a ritual death, in Northrop Frye's phrase45—and to retire for a while to Duke Senior's cave while the heavenly Rosalind swoons in sympathy. Lodge's Saladyne repents of his evil in prison before coming to the forest, whereas the very turning point of As You Like It is Oliver's conversion from sinfulness through Orlando's sacrifice. The religious overtones of the event are amplified by several suggestive details: Oliver receives “fresh array” from the patriarchal Duke, alters his whole personality, bears as a token of his savior's sacrifice a napkin dyed with his blood, and falls immediately in love with a girl named Celia.

The spectacular finale of the play has especially troubled critics. They often attribute the so-called Masque of Hymen, like the similar Masque of Jupiter in Cymbeline, to a hand other than Shakespeare's; and the defense of romantic comedy as a ritual wish-fulfillment is apparently not enough, even in a play entitled As You Like It, to justify that final lapse from versimilitude, Duke Frederick's conversion. Yet when seen as the culmination of a series of religious references, the action ending the play, including the Duke's conversion, seems designed to evince the providential guidance foretold by Adam (II.iii.43-45); and the stylized masque form, in itself suitable for the wedding ceremonial (as in Jonson's Hymenaei), becomes the medium for a merger of ritualistic and more or less realistic drama. A form of god appears on the stage and to the sound of “still music” ensures “mirth in Heaven” by making “earthly things … / Atone together.” He unites the New Adam to the heavenly Rose, promising that henceforth “no cross”46 shall part them; immediately the redeemed sinner is married to Celia and all are united with each other and with the Duke to the music of a hymeneal “hymn.” “Tidings” are then brought that the play's other demonic oppressor has been miraculously converted by “an old religious man.” Bequeathing to his brother the earthly kingdom he had usurped, as the other redeemed brother had already done with his father's estate, he restores the long-awaited promised land and ends the old Duke's wanderings in the wilderness. The play ends as it began, with a testament, when Jaques bequeaths, as he has said wordlings do (II.i.47-49), his blessings on the already joyful. The god invites all present to seek to understand “these most strange events” as all join in the image of heavenly harmony, a dance.

Far from being a piece of theatrical hack-work, this is a remarkably rich and complex scene; like several others towards the end of the play (esp. III.ii, IV.i, IV.iii), it is simultaneously full of both classical and Christian allusion. Shakespeare was typical of his age in that his imagination moved as easily in either frame of reference and often merged the two. Orlando, in a “tedious homily,” declares that a “heavenly synod” gave Rosalind the graces of Helen and Atalanta; Ganymede-Rosalind compares herself with Diana, exhorts Orlando to keep his promise “with religion” lest he be thought “of the gross band of the unfaithful,” and then rails at “that … wicked bastard of Venus”; a Christian marriage and heavenly atonement is presided over by Hymen, who sings a hymn to Juno; Fortune's wheel spins a providential web. Allusions as easily and lightly intermixed as these are familiar in Elizabethan literature; yet when throughout a play a hero is recurrently linked with both the myth of Hercules and the story of Christian redemption, a modern reader needs assurance that such a transaction would not have surprised or troubled Shakespeare's contemporaries. The evidence is to be found in Elizabethan commonplaces about Hercules.

In the Renaissance Hercules' physical power came to symbolize any other kind of heroic strength, whether moral, religious, or intellectual. This wide range of symbolic meanings had grown within the medieval tradition of allegorical commentary on pagan myths that culminated in the encyclopedic Ovide Moralisé and Pierre Bersuire's Ovidius Moralizatus. In the Renaissance, Ovidian commentaries by Raphael Regius and Georgius Sabinus, mythographical compendia by Alexander ab Alexandro, Lilio Giraldo, Natalis Comes, Vincenzo Cartari, and Cesare Ripa, and treatises like Coluccio Salutati's De Laboribus Herculis and Giraldo's Herculis Vita, not to mention the countless artistic treatments that these helped engender,47 represented Hercules as the supreme exemplar of moral fortitude, as epitomized in the Choice of Hercules, and of virtuous works, as typified by his twelve or more Labors. As the vir perfectissimus, the embodiment of ideal Renaissance virtú, Hercules Furens became also the symbol of intellectual strength and wise prudence, fit to replace John the Baptist in the seal of Florence and to be the namesake of members of the d'Este family and the emblem of famous Italian academies.48

Throughout the period, however, a much older interpretation of Hercules as a type of Christ or of the Christian man persisted and often merged with the more strictly moral allegories. Recently Marcel Simon in his Hercule et le Christianisme49 has traced throughout the whole history of Christian thought the intimate, complicated ways in which the figures of Hercules and Christ have helped to enrich each other and has shown how Renaissance artists like Zelotti and Michelangelo merged the two figures. The Christian interpretation of Hercules was kept alive into the seventeenth century by such works as the often-reprinted Metamorphosis Ovidiana moraliter … explanata (1509 et seqq.) (a corruption of Bersuire's Ovidius Moralizatus), Jacobus Bonus' De Vita & Gestis Christi … atque Herculis Laboris & Gesta in Christi Figuram (1526), Ronsard's “Hercule Chrestien” (1556), and Théodore d'Aubigné's “L' Hercule Chrestien” (1630).50

Hercules never became so popular with English as with continental writers and artists, and although Zwingli expected to see Hercules in heaven near God,51 the Christian interpretation of Hercules remained a Catholic rather than a Protestant exercise. Yet in spite of Luther's attack on the allegorical method in general, echoed by many English Puritans, Elizabethans continued to go to the classical myths for moral if not usually religious allegory,52 and in such moralizations the analogy between Hercules and Christ was often tacitly suggested. Ever since Virgil's Evander had called him “our greatest avenger” (Aeneid VIII.201), Hercules had been regarded as a champion against tyranny, and as such he appeared at length in Lydgate's Troy Book, Caxton's Recuyell, and its descendant, William Warner's Albion's England, as well as in frequent references.53 As such a half-divine, self-sacrificing benefactor of men he often became an analogue of Christ. At the death of Diomedes in Warner's history, the Thracians “thinke some God had left the Heavens, to succour men on earth,” and earlier Pluto's kingdom, a “Hell” complete with “damned Soules” and “Diuels,” “did giue a figure plaine,” after Hercules' descent, of a “harrowed Hell.”54 The speaker in Chapman's “Hymnus in Noctem” (1594) says, “Fall Hercules from heaven in tempestes hurld, / And cleanse this beastly stable of the world.”55

Similarly, as a human being who had worked on the whole for virtue and who, “his terrestriall body being purged and purified, himselfe was afterward deified and crowned with immortality,”56 Hercules could stand as a model for all Christians. Palingenius stressed his general beneficence:

To profit many men, and ayde, with all his power the same:
This way to heauen onely leades, by this obtayned the game
Great Hercules, and many more, whose
worthy fames remayne
As yet wyth us, whome neuer age can cause to die agayne:
The gentle and the liberall man is lyke to God aboue.(57)

To others, more specific traits were instructive. Erasmus, who sometimes satirized the allegorical method and treated Hercules euhemeristically, said in his manual for Christians that “the labors of Hercules [may] show you that you achieve heaven by honest effort,” and elsewhere recommended as a theme topic for schoolboys, “Hercules gained immortality by destroying monsters”—i. e., human vices and passions.58 In The Faerie Queene the Christian hero Artegall is compared with Hercules, who “monstrous tyrants with his club subdewed; / The club of Justice dread,” and who got thereby, like all such heroes, “place deserved with the gods on hy.”59 In A Booke of Christian Ethics (1587), William Fulbecke gave Christians the choice of Hercules at the crossroads, between Virtue and Venus.60 Whereas Abraham Fraunce and Stephen Batman, like their masters Comes and Cartari, make Hercules symbolize the strength to subdue vices and voluptuous desires, Thomas Wilson makes the analogous connection with Christianity explicit: “What other thing are the wonderfull labours of Hercules, but that reason should withstand affection, and the spirit for euer should fight against the flesh? Wee Christians had like Fables heretofore of ioyly felowes [i.e., St. Christopher and St. George], the Images whereof were set up (in Gods name) euen in our Churches.”61

At the turn of the century in England one could still treat the Hercules story, as all pagan myths, either as a strange version of an original Bible story or as an antetype supporting God's revelation. One finds the first idea in the early pages of Ralegh's History of the World, begun in 1604: “The fiction of those golden apples kept by a dragon [was] taken from the serpent which tempted Evah: so was paradise itself transported out of Asia into Africa, and made the garden of the Hesperides: the prophecies, that Christ should break the serpent's head, and conquer the power of hell, occasioned the fables of Hercules killing the serpent of the Hesperides, and descending into hell, and captivating Cerberus.”62 The typological view one finds in Donne's Biathanatos (c. 1608): Samson, says Donne, was “a man so exemplar, that not onely the times before him had him in Prophecy … and the times after him more consummately in Christ, of whom he was a Figure, but even in his own time, other nations may seem to have had some type, or Copy of him, in Hercules.”63 Milton's several identifications of Christ and Hercules are famous and indicate how long the tradition survived.64

In view of these continuing associations of Christ and Hercules both on the continent and in England, in literature both scholarly and popular, didactic and imaginative, religious and secular, it seems unlikely that any Elizabethan would have been surprised or troubled to recognize comparisons of Orlando with both Hercules and Christ. As Holofernes says, “The allusion holds in the exchange” (L. L. L. IV.ii.42). The play implies two familiar “mythical” patterns in a familiar combination; since they did not conflict with each other outside the play, neither would they within it. If anything they reinforce one another: the allusion to one story is a kind of supporting (though not sufficient) evidence that its complement is also alluded to.

Moreover, the double allusions extend beyond Orlando to other characters and details. Arden approaches both the golden world and Eden; the snake is reminiscent both of the serpent in the garden of the Hesperides and of Eve's tempter. Arthur Golding makes the common identification of the classical golden age with “Adams tyme in Paradyse” (p. 10). When Rosalind takes the name of Jove's page Ganymede, she associates herself not only with a child of peerless beauty, as Spenser and Palingenius knew, but also, in the view of Comes, Fraunce, Chapman, and Giles Fletcher, with the platonically ideal beauty of the mind that God desires to bring to heaven, or with the heaven-bound soul itself.65 Such significations are fitting for the heavenly bride of a New Adam, and they are reinforced by Rosalind's associations with Diana, who from Fulgentinus to Lyly, Drayton, and Chapman represented “celestiall contemplation” ravishing the soul of man.66 Even Celia's associations with Jove, though always comic, are suitable for the girl named “heaven” whom the redeemed Oliver weds.

Before one can accept these many allusions as evidence that the archetypal imagination is at work in As You Like It, however, one serious objection needs to be answered: that to look for near-divine adumbrations in a pleasant stage entertainment is indeed to try to put Jove in a thatched house. Such an objection, insofar as it does not rest on the assumption that anything serious must be sober, is both natural and in part valid. To argue that an allegory or symbolic vision is the main informing pattern of a Shakespearean or almost any other play is to do it an injustice; a play, especially a comedy or romance, is play, an elaborate game of as-if, and its main focus is human action in its particular enactment on the stage, not an abstract idea or occult region of experience. The real question that analogical criticism poses is not whether comedies and romances may be serious but, as Philip Edwards says, how one can define “the manner in which they may be said to be serious.”67

Obviously As You Like It is not a symbolic or allegorical play, nor can its many allusions be made to sustain an allegorical pattern or “meaning.” The series of allusions is not comprehensive or even continuous enough to base an interpretation of the play upon; the references have to do at most with a half dozen of the characters and are entirely unrelated to several of the story lines or subplots, and they occur intermittently, not in the continuous sequence one expects from allegory. Moreover, to use Philip Wheelwright's terms, the “assertorial tone” of the allusive links is not “heavy” enough for allegory;68 one would never say that Orlando “signifies” or “stands for” Hercules or Christ as Artegall stands for Justice or Gloriana for Elizabeth; the connections are much more subtle and delicate, and anything like E. K.'s gloss to The Shepheardes Calendar is unthinkable.

What is needed is a critical term to name the kind of tentative, intellectually playful kind of identification and association found in As You Like It and in many Renaissance works; symbolism, allegory, even iconology all imply too fixed and definite a relationship between sign and referent. William Arrowsmith has coined the useful term conversion for the transformation or “transfiguration” of the received reality of the world of the play into higher reality “intended, under the pressure of poetry, to become incarnate in the secular terms of the play.” Such a conversion or transfiguration, “teasing, unanchored, suggestive of the mystery it is meant to record,” only glimpsed “on the fringes of our emotional field,”69 occurs momentarily in parts of As You Like It as a result of serio-comic classical and Biblical reminiscences.

If by design or by instinct Shakespeare was attempting to surround As You Like It with an aura of mythical reference, then many divergences from his source are explained and many details cease to be troublesome; but what literary interest is added to the play by its extra dimension? There is first of all the increased esthetic, or qualitative, interest of a greater density of texture, the appeal of complexity under control. Secondly, the mythic enlarging of the characters increases the play's practical, or moral, interest. We tend to take more seriously characters who are like the gods even in half-comic ways; people involved in deeds of recognizably universal interest make greater claims on our hopes and expectations than do ordinary comic foils, and our increased commitment changes the quality of our laughter. Similarly, the theme of the play is enlarged and with it the play's intellectual interest. Everyone in As You Like It is trying in his own way to accommodate his love and his intelligence, or his wit and his will, to each other, and that activity constitutes the central theme of the play. The bawdy Touchstone, unpoetical Audrey, and self-loving Frederick and Oliver represent the less ideal thematic extremes, and the rest of the characters suggest a wide range of human possibilities. The education in love and self-knowledge that Orlando sought at the beginning of the play and has been receiving from Duke Senior and Rosalind is finally completed with his Herculean defeat of self-love (arrogance and envy) and his charitable rescue of his sinful brother. The tissue of allusions surrounding him keeps reminding us that his action, as indeed the movement of the play as a whole, has a divine tendency, and that his final achievement, like Duke Senior's optimism and charitableness, points to the other extreme, the harmony of love and wisdom that “exceeds man's might, that dwells with gods above” (Troi. III.ii.163-164).

It is also at least possible that our comic pleasure is increased because the system of allusions has helped implicate into the play a time-tested pattern of life as we would like it—because we instinctively react to stage after stage of the collective fantasy of heroic success. In effect if not by intent the figures of Christ and Hercules are intermediary between Orlando and an archetype of heroic struggle; the merging of the deeds of Orlando with similar events from both the Bible and classical myth implies a still more general or archetypal pattern fairly consistent with those outlined by Rank, Raglan, Campbell, and others; one finds here the birth of a hero to a distinguished parent, his own early distinction, sibling rivalry and danger to his life, exile from the fallen paradise and search for a new one, the aid of a lowly old man, meeting with the female promise of paradise, the education in mysteries, the slaying of monsters, and the leading of men back to a paradisal state.70 It is no denial of preconscious archetypal “thought-forms” to suggest that the mythic pattern may have arrived and taken shape in this particular play because the poet's metaphoric imagination recognized and then exploited analogies between his basic story, familiar myths, and their traditional interpretations.

Quite apart from the possibility of a purely archetypal-ritual reading, however, the allusions in As You Like It help to determine the quality of our comic apprehension of the play by widening our perspective. In “this wide and universal theater” (II.vii.137) we see ludicrous events surprisingly intermixed with others tending, as the allusions remind us, to the heroic and divine; as we listen to the comic aria on stage center we are every so often aware of distant, more profound harmonies of the music of heaven and earth atoning together. We are kept aware of the whole wide human province between the dog-ape and Hercules, between a Barbary cock-pigeon and Juno's swans. Insofar as the people in the play flounder and fall short of the ideal, they are the more laughable for our awareness of it; but our amusement is the more sympathetic because some of these human beings are able to approach that ideal for a fleeting instant, during a brief stay in Arden.


  1. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), passim.

  2. Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (Minneapolis, 1932), pp. 139-155; “Classical Myth in Shakespeare's Plays,” Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson, ed. Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1959), pp. 65-85.

  3. On Shakespeare's mythical learning see, e. g., Robert K. Root, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare, Yale Studies in English, No. 19 (New York, 1903) and Thomas W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana, 1944); for examples of personal allegory, Eva T. Clark, Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays: A Study of the Oxford Theory (New York, 1931) and W. Schrickx, Shakespeare's Early Contemporaries: The Background of the Harvey-Nashe Polemic and Love's Labour's Lost (Antwerp, 1956).

  4. The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (London, 1962).

  5. “The Tempest,” Image and Meaning: Metaphoric Traditions in Renaissance Poetry (Baltimore, 1960), pp. 42-66.

  6. Root, p. 125. Citations from Shakespeare, unless otherwise noted, are to The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1952).

  7. Citations from Rosalynde are to Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. II: The Comedies, 1597-1603 (New York, 1958)—hereafter cited in the text by page only.

  8. F. N. Lees, “Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Won,” TLS, March 28, 1958, p. 169; April 10, 1959, p. 209.

  9. See F. S. Boas, “Aspects of Classical Legend and History in Shakespeare,” Proc. Brit. Acad., XXIX (1943), 114-115; Waith, pp. 112-143 passim.

  10. L. L. L. V.ii.592 ff. See John H. Roberts, “The Nine Worthies,” MP, XIX (1922), 297-305.

  11. L. L. L. IV.iii.340; Hamlet II.ii.378-379; Cor.; Per. I.i.27.

  12. Baldwin, II, 549-551, et passim.

  13. Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, 1904), p. 186; Underdown, Ouid his inuectiue against Ibis (London, 1569), sig. H3r.

  14. P. Ouidii Metamorphosin cum luculentissimis Raphaelis Regii enarrationibus (Venice, 1509), fol. xcvir; Natalis Comitis Mythologiae, sive Explicationis Fabularum (Frankfurt, 1596), p. 691 (Bk. VII, Ch. 1); Fraunce, The Third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch. Entitled Amintas Dale (London, 1592), fol. 47r; Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford, 1925-52), VII (1941), 484; Paradise Regained, The Minor Poems and Samson Agonistes, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Garden City, N. Y., 1937), pp. 531-532 (P. R. IV.562-568).

  15. L. L. L. IV.i.90; Dream I.ii.31; John II.i.141-144; perhaps Hamlet I.iv.83.

  16. Or so many Renaissance writers believed. See Spencer, Muiopotmos, lines 71-72, and F. Q. VII.vii.36. In classical accounts, the skin is of the Thespian lion.

  17. Shakespeare's Ovid, p. 183.

  18. Panofsky, Herkules am Scheidewege, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, XVIII (Leipzig-Berlin, 1930); Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), pp. 293 ff.

  19. Fraunce, identifying the lion with wrath, pride, and cruelty (fol. 46v), echoes Comes' “superbia & ira & arrogantia & furor animi … qui leo est Nemeaeus, & in sylva incitiae nostri animi pascitur, omnesque virtutes populatur” (p. 709); Hera's snakes signify to Comes “aemulationem virtutis alienae” (p. 708); to Fraunce the Hydra is “Envy.” Cf. Andreae Alciati V. C. Emblemata: cum Claudii Minois Diuionensis ad eadem commentariis (Leyden, 1591), p. 507; Théodore Agrippa d'Aubigné, “L'Hercule Chrestien,” Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Eugene Réaume and F. Caussade (Paris, 1873-92), II, 227-228. The symbolism, of course, is more general than the Hercules myth: for arrogance as a lion and envy as a snake, see, e.g., 2 H.VI III.i.6-20, III.ii.259-267, 309-326; 3 H. VI I.iv.12-17; Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et Symboles dans l'Art Profane, 1450-1600 (Geneva, 1959), s. v. “Lion,” “Serpent,” and “Vipère.”

  20. Root, p. 73.

  21. See Waith, p. 208, n. 47.

  22. If only because he is described s. v. “Hercules Gallus” in Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus, which Shakespeare apparently drew on for his knowledge of Hercules. See DeWitt T. Starnes and Ernest W. Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (Chapel Hill, 1955), pp. 113-114. But other descriptions are common: e. g., George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, Eng., 1936), p. 142; Fraunce, fol. 47r; and, translated from Vincenzo Cartari's Le Imagini, Richard Linche, The fountaine of ancient fiction (London, 1599), sigs. R4v-Sr.

  23. Orlando's cry, “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?” (I.ii.269) after Rosalind hangs a chain on him (rather than sending a jewel, as in Lodge) may hint the Gallic Hercules, though the evidence is too slight to be conclusive.

  24. The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, ed. Oskar Sommer (London, 1894), II, 491; Gerusalemme Liberata, XVI.3; F. Q. V.v.24, V.viii.2. See also Cooper, s. v. “Omphale”; Florios Second Frvtes (London, 1591), p. 167; Fraunce, fol. 47r.

  25. The Heroycall Epistles of the Learned Poet Publius Ouidius Naso (London, 1567).

  26. L. L. L. I.ii.67-70, IV.iii.340; see also Merch., III.ii.85-87; Much II.i.260-266, III.iii.145-147.

  27. The Defense of Poesie, in The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1962 [1912]), III, 40.

  28. Nicholas Grimald's translation (London, 1553) of Cicero, De Officiis, I.xxxii.118. Cf. Aeneid VIII.301. Spenser (F. Q. II.v.31) makes the oak the tree of both Jove and his son. For a different reading of Rosalind's line, see Mary E. Rickey, “Rosalind's Gentle Jupiter,” SQ, XIII (1962), 365-366.

  29. V.ii.45. Cf. L. L. L. I.ii.180-181: “Cupid's butt shaft is too hard for Hercules' club.”

  30. I.iii.1; III.v.31; IV.i.48, 216.

  31. Schrickx, pp. 72-73. See I.ii.226-227; I.iii.126; II.iv.1, 61; III.ii.163, 249. There is no need for Spedding's improvement of the Folios' “Jupiter” to “pulpiter” (III.ii.163); see As You Like It, ed. Horace H. Furness, vol. VIII of A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia, 1890), p. 153, n. 154; Charles Jasper Sisson, New Readings in Shakespeare (Cambridge, Eng., 1956), I, 152; Rickey, p. 365.

  32. Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer (London, 1935), pp. 191-194.

  33. Shakespeare's Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration (London, 1946), pp. 112-114.

  34. See Karl F. Thompson, “Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies,” PMLA, LXVII (1952), 1080; Helen Gardner, “As You Like It,” More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London, 1959), pp. 31-32.

  35. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), p. 227.

  36. Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), pp. 67-109.

  37. Shakespeare's Ovid, p. 10; Marcellus Palingenius, The Zodiake of Life, tr. Barnabe Googe, ed. Rosemond Tuve (New York, 1947), p. 30.

  38. See Golding, p. 10; Ralegh, infra, p. 17.

  39. E. g., 2 H. VI IV.ii.142; R. II III.iv.73; Hamlet V.i.35.

  40. II.i.5-6. Depending on how one reads a textual crux, “the seasons' difference” is either the extent of the Duke's troubles or no trouble at all. See George L. Kittredge, ed., Sixteen Plays of Shakespeare (Boston, 1939), p. 312; Sisson, I, 148-149.

  41. I.iii.90, 137; II.iii.56-57; II.vii.20-33, 139-166, 174-190; III.i.7; III.ii.317 ff.; III.iv.21; III.v.60; IV.i.39 ff., 183 ff.; IV.iii.1-2; V.iii.31-34, 39.

  42. Armstrong, pp. 113-114.

  43. Cf. Tervarent, loc. cit.; Thomas Taylor, Christs combate and conquest; or, the lyon of the Tribe of Judah, vanquishing the roaring lyon (1618) and Christs victorie over the dragon: or Satans downfall (1633).

  44. See II.v.62-63; Noble, pp. 265-266.

  45. Anatomy of Criticism, p. 179.

  46. The serio-comic pun would seem unlikely had there not already been a similar pun on cross in II.iv.12.

  47. For a general discussion of the mythological tradition, see Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, tr. Barbara F. Sessions (New York, 1953). For bibliographical information about works named above, Starnes and Talbert may be used to supplement Seznec; neither book, however, cites Alexander ab Alexandro, Genialum dierum (Frankfurt, 1591); Salutati, De Laboribus Herculis, ed. B. L. Ullman (Zürich, 1951); Giraldo, Herculis Vita, in Opera Omnia (Leyden, 1696), I, 571-598.

  48. Seznec, p. 20; Hughes, ed., Paradise Regained, p. 408.

  49. Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Strasbourg (Paris, 1955), esp. p. 184.

  50. Ronsard, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Paul Laumonier (Paris, 1914-59), VIII (1935), 207-223; Aubigné, loc. cit.

  51. Simon, p. 180.

  52. Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, pp. 31-32, 69 ff.; Simon, p. 185.

  53. Smith (Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 296, 297, 299-300) cites passages from Petrarch, William Harrison, Thomas Fenne, and Spenser; cf. Georgius Sabinus, Fabularum Ovidii Interpretatio (Cambridge, 1584), p. 351.

  54. Warner, pp. 18, 20, 51.

  55. The Poems of George Chapman, ed. Phyllis B. Bartlett (New York, 1941), p. 25, lines 255-256.

  56. Fraunce, fol. 47r.

  57. Zodiake, p. 56.

  58. The Enchiridion of Erasmus, tr. Raymond Himelick (Bloomington, 1963), p. 106; Opera Omnia, ed. Johannes Clericus (Leyden, 1703-6), I, 525—cited in Starnes and Talbert, p. 24. On Erasmus' ambivalence towards myth, see Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 68, and an apparently euhemeristic reference to Hercules in De Copia (London, 1573), foll. 153v-154r.

  59. F. Q. V.i.2, V.ii.1.

  60. (London, 1587), sig. D8v.

  61. Fraunce, fol. 47r; Batman, The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (London, 1577), foll. 12r-v; Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique, 1560, ed. G. H. Mair (Oxford, 1909), p. 196.

  62. The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh (Oxford, 1829), II, 167. Cf. Guillaume Budé, De asse et partibus eius (Paris, 1532), fol. clxxii: “Hercules Alexicacus dictus est malorum depulsor quasique generis humani protector. quo nomine Christus proprie significatur.” Cf. foll. cxci. cxcvi.

  63. Biathanatos, ed. J. William Hebel (New York, 1930), p. 199 (III.v.4).

  64. See Hughes, ed., Paradise Regained, p. 408.

  65. F. Q. III.xii.7; Zodiake, pp. 15, 42; cf. Iliad XX.232-235. Comes, pp. 1005-6 (Bk. IX, Ch. 13); Fraunce, fol. 33r; Chapman, “Hymnus in Cynthiam” (1594), in Poems, p. 41, lines 466-467; The Poetical Works of Giles Fletcher and Phineas Fletcher, ed. Frederick S. Boas (Cambridge, Eng., 1908), I, 78.

  66. Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, p. 157; Fraunce, fol. 43v; Lyly, Endymion, passim; Drayton, “Endimion and Phoebe,” The Works of Michael Drayton, ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford, 1931-41), I, 142, 146-148 (lines 505-522, 681-734); Chapman, loc. cit., Poems, p. 34, lines 154-155.

  67. “Shakespeare's Romances; 1900-1957,” Shakespeare Survey, XI (1958), 12, 17.

  68. The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism (Bloomington, 1954), pp. 66-68.

  69. “The Comedy of T. S. Eliot,” English Stage Comedy, ed. William K. Wimsatt, English Institute Essays, 1954 (New York, 1955), pp. 152, 157-158.

  70. See Clyde Kluckhohn, “Recurrent Themes in Myths and Mythmaking,” Myth and Mythmaking, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York, 1960), pp. 56-57.

Marjorie Garber (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5422

SOURCE: “Cymbeline and the Languages of Myth,” in Mosaic, Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 105-15.

[In the following essay, Garber observes Shakespeare's use of classical mythology as a unifying force in Cymbeline.]

In many ways, Cymbeline is an experimental play. Like Pericles, it presents audience and reader with a relatively new mode of image-making, which we may perhaps call “realization”: things, objects, and concrete images, which in the tragedies were part of metaphors, are in the romances brought out of the linguistic texture of utterance, and transferred to the dramatic texture of action. As an example of this technique, we might consider the jewel, which is used in the play as a metaphor for a beloved person, and by extension for that person's fidelity and chastity. In the course of the action the jewel as image becomes equated with actual jewels in the dramatic action: the ring Imogen gives to Posthumus, and the bracelet he gives her in return—“she your jewel, and this your jewel,” as Iachimo expresses it (I.iv. 157-8).1 When, pursuing this pattern, Iachimo steals Imogen's bracelet, Posthumus is persuaded that he has stolen her chastity as well; he then completes his part in the wager by giving his jewel, the ring, to Iachimo.

Now, this taking of things for concepts has an intellectual, as well as a stylistic function—because it accords with one of the central themes of the play, the concept of “seeming”—of taking the outside for the inside. Cymbeline thinks the Queen is “like her seeming” (V.v.65) he says, because she is beautiful and flatters him. Bewitched by external beauty and external language, he almost loses his kingdom. Imogen thinks the body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus' clothes, is Posthumus himself, and has to learn otherwise. And both Cloten and Cymbeline learn not to take the rustic appearance of Guiderius and Arviragus at face value—Cloten is killed by the young man he calls a “rustic mountaineer,” and Cymbeline, who almost has Guiderius put to death for the murder, instead finally recognizes and accepts him as his son.

Some kinds of “seeming,” of course, are positive—connected with “wonder” and revelation, as for example when the awakened Imogen, finding herself buried in the rural graveyard, exclaims, “The dream's here still. Even when I wake it is / Without me as within me; not imagined, felt” (IV.ii. 306-7). This, of course, is the essence of romance—that imagination should prove true—as Keats says of Adam's dream that “he awoke and found it truth.” “Seeming” thus has two opposing connotations: dream, fantasy, and wonder, on the one hand, and on the other deception, guile, pretense. A major underlying issue of the play is the problem of finding a way to distinguish between the two—and this, I think, we could logically and profitably call a kind of “reading,” on the part of both characters and audience. We have to learn, as Imogen and Cymbeline have to learn, to “read” characters and symbols and actors. Faced with what is essentially a binary opposition—seeming is dream and fiction, or seeming is guile and deception—what I am calling the reader (that is, actor and audience) must participate in an educative choice. Clearly this parallels, in a direct thematic way, the riddle which Jupiter delivers to Posthumus and which is later interpreted by the soothsayer; reading is a function of interpreting experiences and emblems and placing them in the right light. It is striking that Jupiter, king of the gods, delivers the riddle himself, saying as he does so something very suggestive: “Whom best I love, I cross; to make my gift / The more delayed, delighted” (V.iv. 71-2). Experience learned, rather than gifts freely given, ensures a true humanity. Grace, providence, is offered at the end of the play, rather than at the beginning, because the act of unscrambling its complicated relations—between plots, for us, and between disguised truths and disguised persons, for the play's characters—leads toward a condition of achieved and deserved happiness and fruitfulness.

Now this is a long preamble to a tale—because what I would like to suggest here is that this experimental play is perhaps best approached in an experimental way, by taking as one controlling assumption the idea that the play's deep structure has something to do with deciphering “seeming,” with reading the truth behind human actions and motives, behind riddles and dreams—and by relating that assumption to the fairy-tale quality implicit in romance, which for my own purposes I would like to call “providence”: the conviction that everything will come out all right at the end. My purpose is to try to find a way of unifying, and finding order in, a number of central themes and actions in the play.

It is often said that Cymbeline is highly disunified; that it has too many plots, too many characters, too many literary styles, too much of everything. But let us see what we can find in the play's deep structure that offers some congruence, some order, among the following rather peculiar and discrete subjects or themes: 1) the image of boxes, chests, and trunks; 2) the loss—and later recovery—of children by parents; 3) the adoption—and later loss—of children by parents; and 4) the question of sacrifice. Let us begin our investigation with the more concrete and tangible elements, and move rather gingerly along toward the more implicit and speculative; let us begin, therefore, with the box or chest, and therefore with the scene in which Iachimo hides himself in Imogen's bedchamber, Act II, sc. 2.

You will remember that Iachimo, having offered Imogen one temptation—to believe that Posthumus has been false to her—proceeds, after the failure of this first temptation, to a second and more devious one. Failing to appeal to her lack of faith, he smoothly switches his approach (somewhat in defiance of realism), and convinces her that it has all been his little joke, a way of testing her to confirm his sense of her virtue. Imogen, won over, now agrees to help him, by storing for him a trunk which contains—he claims—jewels and plate bought as presents for the Roman emperor. Significantly, in view of subsequent events, Imogen volunteers that she will “pawn mine honor for their safety” ( 194), again equating jewels and her chastity. Even more interestingly, perhaps, she decides to keep them in her bedchamber. The stage is set for that astonishing scene in which Iachimo hides himself in the trunk, emerges once Imogen is asleep, and takes notes on the appearance of the room and of her body.

The scene is worth our closest attention. Imogen retires to bed, and reads there until she falls asleep. The book she has been reading, we discover, is Ovid's Metamorphoses, a core text for the romances, and the story she has chosen is “the tale of Tereus,” the story of how Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law. In a way, then, Imogen has been reading a tale very similar in structure to what happens to her in this scene: a man she doesn't want invades her room and—in a way—rapes her. Obviously Iachimo does not violate her physically, but he does violate her privacy and her nakedness, and he also takes away with him the bracelet Posthumus has given her as a sign of their mutual love and fidelity.

We may notice, also, that the scene has other mythological details. Iachimo compares his silence, as he steals toward her, to that of Tarquin, another noted rapist; and the walls of the room are painted, in high Renaissance manner, with images of Cleopatra at Cydnus, when she met Mark Antony, and of Diana bathing. Cleopatra, of course, is an emblem of beauty and fertility, but Diana, the goddess of chastity, is even more interesting, because when Diana bathed she was spied upon by Actaeon, who was thereupon turned into a stag, destroyed by his own hounds, and ultimately metamorphosed into a flower. Iachimo is clearly an Actaeon figure here, spying on Imogen, later hunted, finally restored to pardon.

But the emergence of Iachimo from the trunk in Imogen's chamber has always seemed to me an inescapably sexual and Freudian image.2 We know that boxes and chests, to Freud, symbolize the womb—and this play does nothing to make that association less marked. Imogen has, perhaps oddly, perhaps appropriately, chosen as bedtime reading a story about a rape. We may remember that Iachimo propositioned her directly, and we are therefore free to think whatever we please about the degree to which she subconsciously wanted, or did not want, or speculated upon, his proposal. What I think is not open to question is that the presence of Iachimo, in the larger enclosed box of her chamber, himself contained in another box or trunk, constitutes a metaphorical sexual intrusion, whether imagined by her or by Shakespeare. In any case, our salacious imaginations here need not go unsupported by fact—because of what Iachimo says when he emerges from the trunk. First, removing her bracelet, he comments that “this will witness outwardly / As strongly as the conscience does within” (II.ii. 35-6), calling our attention once again to the inside-outside issue, the matter of disguise and “seeming.” But even more tellingly we then hear him say, noting certain details of her body, that “This secret / Will make him think I have picked the lock and ta'en / The treasure of her honor” (II.ii. 40-2). In this pregnant phrase we have the whole scenario in little; the “treasure of her honor” is made equivalent to the treasure in the trunk; the trunk itself is directly compared to her chastity, supposed to be locked, but unlawfully entered by Iachimo.

To this point, I have suggested what we might call a Freudian reading of the scene. Box or trunk corresponds to womb, honor, chastity, both are violated by Iachimo, and the whole scene may in fact be a kind of dream, inspired by her real-life temptation by him, and her literary explorations, which so resemble those of Chaucer's dreamers. I find this a persuasive reading of the scene, and yet I think that we might go one step further, and look at the scene from the point of view of myth, rather than psychology. And if we do that, what do we find? We find that Imogen has agreed to accept a box, which is supposed to contain precious things, like gold and plate, but which in fact contains Iachimo—that is, guile and lust. And once we view the scene in this way we have something entirely new to contend with, because the delectable box full of good things, which produces pestilence and sin, can only remind us—and must remind us, finally—of Pandora, a peerless lady, beautiful and bejeweled, who opened a box (in some versions a jar), or tempted a man to open it; from the box, of course, issued all the sins and evils of the world, leaving in the bottom only hope.

If we take, for a moment, this view of the scene in Imogen's bedchamber, we can assimilate the other boxes and containers of the play to the myth as well. The Queen, too, has a box or casket; we know that boxes are female symbols, and so we should not be surprised that both women in the play are associated with them. But the Queen's box, of course, is an object very similar to Iachimo's trunk. Pisanio, persuading Imogen innocently to take it, says, “My noble mistress, / Here is a box; I had it from the Queen. / What's in't is precious.” (III.iv. 188-90). Again a container, supposed to contain something miraculous and healthful, and again opened in the presence of Imogen, turns out to be not something of value, as expected, but rather a cause of sickness and disease. Once again Imogen's action, in opening or having opened the precious box, almost destroys her. We may perhaps here recall what we have already observed about seeming: this box is something which seems to be what it is not, just as the Queen, so beautiful, so flattering, seems to Cymbeline to be what she is not. In both cases, the experiment, by not being deadly, becomes instructive; seeming and appearance are themselves seen through.

To our list of boxes and chests we may now add the cave in which the king's young sons are brought up. Both cave and trunk conform to the same basic literal and symbolic description; literally, both are enclosures, containers; symbolically, both are emblems of the womb, of birth, containing something which will come forth. In the two court boxes, then, we have objects which promise the opposite of what they perform—boxes, like Pandora's, which set loose upon an unsuspecting and to some extent Edenic populace a world of sin and experience, and almost of death. On the other hand, in the cave we have a box-like structure which contains more than its exterior promises. As Belarius points out,

                                                  'Tis wonder
That an invisible instinct should frame them
To royalty unlearned, honor untaught,
Civility not seen from other, valor
That wildly grows in them, but yields a crop
As if it had been sowed.

(IV.ii. 176-81)

Out of the humble cave, the humble box, or mythic container, or womb, comes real value, real wealth, real royalty.

We may notice that our analytic method here has in fact been to posit another binary opposition, in terms of the value of the box or chest. A box—in the terms of Cymbeline—may be either handsome, and full of evils, or humble, and full of unsuspected wealth. The binary method isolates a relation, and breaks it down into constituent parts, alternative possibilities. We have gotten this far with the help of the Pandora myth, which clearly exposes the dangers of a seductive outside and a diseased or evil inside, and it is perhaps time for us to acknowledge that the Pandora myth is in fact a portion of a larger mythological pattern which is even more directly germane to our concerns here. Pandora was given as a gift—a deliberately tempting gift—by Jupiter to Prometheus, and the Pandora story is of course another myth in which an uxorious male permits a willful female to take something, or open something, she isn't supposed to, and therefore brings down sin and death upon the world. It is not, of course, Prometheus himself who is weak enough to permit this, but rather his brother Epimetheus—not forethought, but afterthought, who permits the violation of a sacred prohibition. For Renaissance mythographers, Prometheus was seen, as one writes, to “clearly and elegantly signifie Providence”3 and it is Prometheus and the stories associated with him which seem to me to loom as a hidden and unifying presence behind so much of the play.

Let me say at once that I am not proposing an intentionalist argument. It is not my concern, nor do I think it necessary to speculate here, on whether Shakespeare deliberately designed his play to evoke the figure of Prometheus, although we may wish to note similarities between some patterns in Cymbeline and the Prometheus story, particularly as it was presented by contemporary mythographers. I would suggest, instead, that the myth of Prometheus represents a mediating deep structure, a generative structure which underlies the play and shapes it below the level of conscious response. Claude Lévi-Strauss articulates this distinction clearly in his well-known statement on the structuralist reading of myths: “I thus do not aim to show how men think in myths but how myths think in men, unbeknownst to them” (“comment les mythes se pensent dans les hommes, et à leur insu”).4 In this connection, it is most interesting to observe that Posthumus, the chief internal reader in Cymbeline, raises an issue very like that of deep structures when he receives the riddle, and tries to decode it. He struggles but finds that it is beyond his comprehension, yet he senses a hidden bond between himself and the text:

'Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not … [but]
                                                  Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it.


Or, as Imogen says, “the dream's here still.” A correspondence between patterns is sensed and accepted, without ever being rationalized, proven, or explained. In a similarly adventurous spirit of inquiry, let us approach the story of Prometheus.

Of all the details of the Prometheus myth with which we are generally familiar, perhaps the most familiar of all is the fact that Prometheus made man out of clay, and then, incurring Jupiter's displeasure, gave him fire. It was to punish him for this that Prometheus was given the double edged gift of Pandora, the lady of “all gifts,” who was as beautiful and jewel-decked as Imogen, and as guileful as the fictive or “snowy” Imogen painted to Posthumus by Iachimo. Prometheus was thus an artist and creator figure, and the Renaissance recognized him as such. He was also viewed as a believer in nurture as well as nature, a philosopher of hard primitivism; the men to whom he was so generous were weak and naked, in need of help, in need of culture and instruction. What he achieved for them was to transform men from the brutish state, by teaching them arts and sciences and bringing them to a condition of civilization. This is the radical meaning of the gift of fire: a confrontation with primitivism which brought man from the cave to the court, from wilderness to civility, from savagery to nobleness. As one Renaissance mythographer reports, “By Prometheus may be meant a wise Father, who begets a stupid and foolish Sonne.”5

Some myths tell us that man was ungrateful to Prometheus, and rejected him; others suggest that man was given eternal life by him and lost that, too. In any case, the actions of Prometheus earned him the hatred of Jupiter because he gave man the gifts of fire, civilization, and ceremonial sacrifice. And for this series of kindnesses to man, Prometheus was bound to a rock in the Caucasus, there to be pecked at perpetually by an eagle. Not unnaturally, then, we may link this generosity of Prometheus toward man to the question of sacrifice and self-sacrifice, without necessarily—as yet—adducing any direct connection, beyond the fact, which can again be expressed in binary terms, that the play is indeed full of children who need nurture, and children who need nature. “How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature!” (III.iii. 79) Belarius says of the boys in the cave, and these sparks of nature are a human fire which Cloten altogether lacks. He lacks nature, they lack only nurture, and do not even lack that entirely, since Belarius has “trained them up in arts.” Belarius, of course, as a humble parent who takes in a kingly son in disguise, follows a pattern at once pastoral and Christian, and one which is not distinct from the question of sacrifice. Most of the young people of the play—not only the boys, but also Imogen and Posthumus—share a common characteristic: they have lost or been separated from their parents. Only Cloten suffers no emotional sundering from his adoring mother, the Queen, and only Cloten therefore fails to achieve a reunion in maturity—a reunion which is a kind of rite of passage, underscoring the fact that such separations from parent and child are a kind of fortunate fall. This is one kind of beneficial seeming, illusion, in which Cloten never takes part, and perhaps it is therefore fitting that Cloten himself becomes the sacrificial victim, the man who dies because he denies civilization, because he lacks Promethean fire.

At first glance, as we have said, the question of sacrifice seems to have little or nothing to do with the business of dangerous boxes full of poison, and only a little to do with parents and children. But the more we look at it, the more, I think, it will appear germane, both to the twinned themes of seeming and providence, and to the figure of Prometheus who may hover somewhere in the background of the play's mythos.

Let us start with what might seem to be a trivial example, yet again expressed in the form of a binary opposition, this time a pun. Very early in the play, in fact as early as the second scene, we observe the comic and ludicrous figure of Cloten engaged in bragging about his accomplishments as a warrior. In the first line of the scene, one of his attendant lords counsels him, “Sir, I would advise you to shift a shirt; the violence of action hath made you reek as a sacrifice” (I.ii. 1-3). Soon afterward, we receive further testimony to Cloten's oderiferous nature, when we hear him again boasting of his skill and position in II.i. He calls himself a gentleman, disingenuously laments that he is as noble as he is, and rues the fact that on that account he has had to abandon the prospect of a duel. “Would he had been of my rank,” he complains, and the second lord comments, aside to the audience, “To have smelled like a fool” (II.i. 16-17). The word “rank,” thus acquires a punning set of meanings—smell or stink, on the one hand, and position in society on the other. Cloten's rank is itself rank, it smells, it lacks sweetness and health. And Cloten, who reeks as a sacrifice, will himself become a sacrifice, slain by Guiderius, his head cut off and floated down the river toward the sea.

But this is only one of the connotations that sacrifice acquires in the course of the play. After that first reference to Cloten reeking as a sacrifice, the subject is not mentioned, directly at least, until the play's final scene, when suddenly we hear Cymbeline mention it not once but twice. His sons and daughter have been restored to him, the story of Belarius has been told, peace has been made with the Romans, and now Cymbeline proposes:

                                                  Let's quit this ground
And smoke the temple with our sacrifices.

(V.v. 397-8)

At this point the riddle is read, the soothsayer interprets it, and the king observes “This has some seeming”; now he consents in gratitude to give tribute to Caesar, and his closing lines, which are also the closing lines of the play, constitute another call to sacrifice:

                                                  Laud we the gods,
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars. Publish we this peace
To all our subjects.

(V.v. 476-9)

The peace is to be ratified with sacrifice, and the issue of sacrifice now also acquires a double value in the play. Cloten is an obnoxious—and a noxious—sacrifice, who represents purgation; Cymbeline proposes sweet-smelling sacrifices which represent gratitude and thanks. In fact, of course, the whole issue of sacrifice occupies a much larger part of the play's concerns than the linking pun on “rank” would suggest, because it too is related to seeming, as the two kinds of sacrifice we have noticed will testify: purgation, getting rid of something bad, gratitude, welcoming something good.

By this time, it should not surprise us to recall that Prometheus, the spirit of providence and forethought, was also a crucial arbitrating figure in the decision about men's sacrifice to the gods. Having decided that men should sacrifice to them and share the sacrificial victim, the gods asked Prometheus to devise a way to apportion the sacrifice. Prometheus, the story tells us, took an ox, and divided it into two bundles. Into one he put the bones, invitingly wrapped up in a package of hide and fat. In the other he placed the edible portions, the flesh and the entrails, but hid them in the ox's stomach. Jupiter, given his choice of bundles, unhesitatingly took the bundle of fat, and was furious to discover that he had nothing but bones. From that time men were permitted to keep the best part of the meat for themselves, and sacrificed only the bones, skin, and fat. Again Prometheus aids men and civilization, through a device of seeming.

In this fable we have another apparently far-fetched tale which nonetheless does reflect, if obliquely, upon Cymbeline. The choice between the appetizing-looking bundle containing dross, and the humble bundle containing things of value, is yet another version of the inside-outside pattern we saw in the trunks and boxes, and in the children of nature versus the children of nurture. Cloten, the false son, is a nobly dressed sacrifice without intrinsic value, while the apparently lost boys, the true sons, are returned, and are replaced on the sacrificial altar, as Abraham replaced Isaac, by an acceptable but expendable sacrifice of gratitude.

Moreover, this question of sacrifice, and its relationship to the pattern of “seeming” and of parents and children, connects in a useful and satisfying way with another question the structure of the play invites us to ask—the question of why Shakespeare chose Cymbeline to write about at all. As man and king, Cymbeline seems singularly ineffectual and unheroic, always hovering on the edge of the action, absent from the play for long intervals, and subjugated throughout to his wicked Queen. Why then choose him as the eponymous figure of a play which is otherwise unhistorical in its concerns? Clearly, because of the time period in which he lived. Spenser puts the matter straightforwardly:

Next him Tenantius reigned, then Kimbeline;
What time th' eternall Lord in fleshly slime
Enwombèd was, from wretched Adam's line
To purge away the guilt of sinfull crime.

FQ II.x. 50

Cymbeline, of course, was the king who ruled England at the time of the birth of Christ. Once we have noted this, we can begin to pull together a whole series of subsidiary issues, like the question, much vexed in the play, of whether or not Cymbeline should pay tribute to Rome, and the conjunction of Britain and Rome at all.

We may think it odd, initially, that the right answer to the tribute question seems to be to pay it, rather than to follow the Queen's advice and assert the independence of Britain. But biblical example, of course, leads us in a more adroit direction. Christ is born in Bethlehem because of a command given by the Emperor: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1); when the Pharisees, hoping to trick him, asked of Jesus “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”, he answered, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's” (Matt. 22:21); Paul admonishes the Romans to “Render … to all their dues; tribute where tribute is due” (Rom. 13:7). We are not told of these Christian associations explicitly in the play—no messenger arrives to announce a miraculous birth—but the call to sacrifice, and the promise of “peace / To all our subjects” suggests that the end of Cymbeline is millennial and transcendent. The Pax Romana is at hand.

In this context we may think yet again of Jupiter's “Whom best I love I cross, to make my gifts / The more delayed, delighted.” In fact under this same heading we can fittingly consider all the many rebirths and regenerations the play contains: the apparent rebirth of Imogen, who has been laid on the ground as a tragic sacrifice, and who wakes to a transformed world in which dream and reality are one, “without me as within me; not imagined, felt”; and the stylized but parallel rebirth of Posthumus, whose name declares his fatherless state, but who offers himself as a sacrifice: “For Imogen's dear life take mine; and though / 'Tis not so dear, yet 'tis a life; you coined it” (V.iv. 22-23)—creation as craftsmanship again. Having offered himself in this way, Posthumus falls asleep, and is reunited with parents and brothers in a dream. We may also appropriately consider, among the play's rebirths, the return of Guiderius and Arviragus, which restores fertility to the land, and branches to the cedar tree; and even the song, “Hark, hark, the lark,” with its insistent refrain, “My lady sweet, arise, / Arise, arise” (II.iii. 27-28). Early in the play the incomparable Imogen is compared to the sole Arabian tree—that is, to the tree where the phoenix perches—and the phoenix is of course yet another emblem of regeneration and rebirth, rising from its own ashes; a rebirth, perhaps significantly, out of fire. And to this list of apparent deaths and rebirths we may wish to add the example of Prometheus, who was for Renaissance mythographers transparently a pagan anticipation of the figure of Christ: a godlike being, chained to a rock and tortured for his kindnesses to man.

Cymbeline as a play seems continually to return to the question of birth and rebirth, in the landscape, in the kingdom, and in the human spirit. It posits the necessary progression from a raw state of nature to a civilized state of nurture, and it defines those conditions not by location or external appearance—the beautiful Queen, the suit of clothes—but rather by a quality of human fire, sparks of nature, which distinguishes itself under stress: for the boys and Posthumus, the heat of battle; for Imogen, the moment when she joins the Roman army to fend for herself. In Cymbeline we have, as well, a play which continually engages the question of “seeming”—that is, of choosing between a fair outside and a fair inside—as Imogen does in learning to love the boys in the cave, calling them “brothers” long before she knows this to be a literal truth—and as Cymbeline does not do, in trusting his Queen because she is beautiful and flattering, and trusting Cloten because he is the Queen's son. Like all the romances, Cymbeline is also a play of providence, of divine forethought, and of the supernatural become natural, the godlike in many guises descending to earth. As Pisanio says, “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (IV.iii. 46); incidentally it is Pisanio, too, who speaks of “forethinking” (III.iv. 169), though this is hardly a crucial clue to the whole.

What does seem to me crucial is for us to recognize a basic correspondence of theme and concern among the disparate details of this complex and lovely play. Beyond that, it is interesting to contemplate through them what may perhaps be a buried pattern of creation myth, embodying the several details of fall, hardship and nurture, fire and sacrifice, and the descended god. It seems to me very likely that in turning away from mimesis and toward epiphany and transcendence in the romances, Shakespeare was also turning, at the same time, toward creation myths, as well as tales of metamorphosis. Prometheus, after all, was preeminently an emblem of the humanistic artist as redeemer; an artist who, like Shakespeare, endowed his creatures not only with external shape but with inspiration; with the sparks of nature, and with Promethean fire.


  1. References are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, Sylvan Barnet, general editor (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

  2. As I have argued in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 144-5.

  3. Arthur Gorges, trans., The Wisedome of the Ancients (De sapientia veterum), by Francis Bacon (London, 1619), p. 124.

  4. Le Cru et le cuit (Plon: Paris, 1964), p. 20. The English translation, by John and Doreen Weightman, is published by Harper & Row: New York, 1969. The translation given here, however, is that of Jonathan Culler, in Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 50. Culler's book is perhaps the most useful general treatment of structuralism and its influences upon literary study. See also Robert Scholes, Structuralism: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), and Michael Lane, ed., Introduction to Structuralism (New York: Basic Books, 1970). A provocative reading of Shakespearean drama from a structuralist perspective is offered in René Girard, “Lévi-Strauss, Frye, Derrida, and Shakespearean Criticism,” Diacritics 3, iii (1973), pp. 34-38, and perceptive criticism which has affinities to structuralist method can also be found in Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), and Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

  5. Alexander Ross, Mystogogus Poeticus (London, 1647), p. 225.

René Girard (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8712

SOURCE: “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 189-212.

[In the following essay, Girard explores the relationship between rhetoric, reversals, and conflicts of imitative desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Shakespeare's representation of “a serious genetic theory of myth” in the play.]

I have considered, our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetfull of himselfe, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, wee so insist in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to ourselves: like Children, that imitate the vices of Stammerers so long, till at last they become such; and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.

—Ben Jonson, Timber of Discoveries

The opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream leads the audience to expect an ordinary comedy plot. Boy and girl love each other. A mean old father is trying to separate them, with the help of the highest authority in the land, Theseus, duke of Athens. Unless she gives up Lysander, Hermia will have no choice but death or the traditional convent. As soon as this formidable edict is proclaimed, the father figures depart, leaving the lovers to their own devices. They launch into a duet on the impediments of love: age difference, social conditions, and, last but not least, coercion by those in authority.

The two victimized youngsters leisurely and chattingly prepare to flee their ferocious tyrants; they plunge into the woods; Hermia is pursued by Demetrius, himself pursued by Helena, Hermia's best friend, whom, of course, he spurns. The first couple's happiness appears threatened from the outside, but the second couple, even from the start, insist on being unhappy by themselves, always falling in love with the wrong person. We soon realize that Shakespeare is more interested in this systematically self-defeating type of passion than in the initial theme of “true love,” something unconquerable by definition and always in need of villainous enemies if it is to provide any semblance of dramatic plot.

It quickly turns out that self-defeating passion dominates the relationship of not just one but both couples, involving them in a fourway merry-go-round that never seems to allow any amorous reciprocity even though partners are continually exchanged. At first the two young men are in love with Hermia; then, during the night, both abandon that girl and fall in love with the other. The only constant element in the configuration is the convergence of more than one desire on a single object, as if perpetual rivalries were more important to the four characters than their changing pretexts.

Although the theme of outside interference is not forgotten, it becomes even more flimsy. In the absence of the father figures, the role is entrusted to Puck, who keeps pouring his magical love juice into the “wrong” eyes. When Oberon rebukes Puck for his mistake, he does so with a show of emotion, in a precipitous monologue that ironically reflects the confusion it pretends to clear, thereby casting doubt upon the reality of the distinctions it pretends to restore:

What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite,
And laid the love juice on some true love's sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turned, and not a false turned true.


Who will tell the difference between some true love turned and a false turned true? We may suspect a more serious rationale for the four protagonists' miseries, for the growing hysteria of the midsummer night. A close look reveals something quite systematic about the behavior of the four, underlined by more than a few ironic suggestions. The author is hinting at something which is never made fully explicit, but which seems cogent and coherent enough to call for a precise formulation.

The midsummer night is a process of increasing violence. Demetrius and Lysander end up in a duel; the violence of the girls' rivalry almost matches that of the boys. Their fierce quarreling certainly contradicts—or does it?—Helena's earlier expression of unbounded admiration for her friend Hermia:

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue's sweet air,
More tunable than lark to shepherd's ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching. O! were favor so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.


This is a strange mixture of quasi-religious and yet sensuous worship. The last line admirably sums up the significance of the passage. Desire speaks here, and it is desire for another's being. Helena would like to be translated, metamorphosed into Hermia, because Hermia enjoys the love of Demetrius. Demetrius, however, is hardly mentioned. The desire for him appears less pressing than the desire for Hermia's being. In that desire, what truly stands out is the irresistible sexual dominance that Hermia is supposed to exert upon Demetrius and all those who approach her. It is this sexual dominance that Helena envies: “O teach me how you look and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart” (I.i.192-193). Helena sees Hermia as the magnetic pole of desires in their common little world, and she would like to be that. The other three characters are no different; they all worship the same erotic absolute, the same ideal image of seduction which each girl and boy in turn appears to embody in the eyes of the others. This absolute has nothing to do with concrete qualities; it is properly metaphysical. Even though obsessed with the flesh, desire is divorced from it; it is not instinctive and spontaneous; it never seems to know directly and immediately where its object lies; in order to locate that object, it cannot rely on such things as the pleasure of the eyes and the other senses. In its perpetual noche oscura, metaphysical desire must therefore trust in another and supposedly more enlightened desire on which it patterns itself. As a consequence, desire, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, perpetually runs to desire just as money runs to money in the capitalistic system. We may say, of course, that the four characters are in love with love. That would not be inaccurate; but there is no such thing as love or desire in general, and such a formulation obscures the most crucial point, the necessarily jealous and conflictual nature of mimetic convergence on a single object. If we keep borrowing each other's desires, if we allow our respective desires to agree on the same object, we, as individuals, are bound to disagree. The erotic absolute will inevitably be embodied in a successful rival. Helena cannot fail to be torn between worship and hatred of Hermia. Imitative desire makes all reciprocal rapports impossible. Shakespeare makes this point very clear, but for some reason no one wants to hear. The audience resembles the lovers themselves, who talk ceaselessly about “true love” but obviously do not care to understand the mechanism of their own feelings.

Metaphysical desire is mimetic, and mimetic desire cannot be let loose without breeding a midsummer night of jealousy and strife. Yet the protagonists never feel responsible for the state of their affairs; they never hesitate to place the blame where it does not belong, on an unfavorable fate, on reactionary parents, on mischievous fairies, and on other such causes. Throughout the play, the theme of outside interference provides much of the obvious dramatic structure; and we must suspect that it is not simply juxtaposed to the midsummer night which, in a sense, it contradicts: the two may well be in a more complex relationship of disguise and reality, never clearly spelled out and formalized, allowing enough juxtaposition and imbrication so that the play, at least in some important respects, can really function as two plays at once. On one level it is a traditional comedy, destined for courtly audiences and their modern successors; but, underneath, mimetic desire holds sway, responsible not only for the delirium and frenzy of the midsummer night but also for all the mythical themes which reign supreme at the upper level.

The real obstacles are not outside the enchanted circle of the lovers: each of them is an obstacle to the others in a game of imitation and rivalry that is their mode of alienation, and this alienation finally verges on trancelike possession. The outside obstacle is an illusion, often a transparent one, a telltale disguise of the real situation, constructed so that it can serve as an allegory. It even happens that absolutely nothing has to be changed in order to pass from the truth to the lie and back again to the truth: the same words mean both the one and the other. Shakespeare loves to play on these ambiguities. I have already mentioned the love duet between Lysander and Hermia: most critics would agree that it constitutes a parody of fashionable clichés, and they are no doubt correct; but we cannot view this parodic character as sufficient justification in itself. The real purpose cannot be parody for parody's sake. There must be something more, something which Shakespeare definitely wants to say and which we are likely to miss because it will appear in the form of “rhetoric.” In the duet part of that love scene, the first seven lines seem to mark a gradation which leads up to the eighth, on which the emphasis falls:

Lysander: The course of
true love never did run smooth;
                                                  But either it was different in blood—
Hermia: O cross! Too high to be
enthralled to low.
Lysander: Or else misgraffed in
respect of years—
Hermia: O spite! Too old to be
engaged to young.
Lysander: Or else it stood upon
the choice of friends—
Hermia: O hell! To choose love
by another's eyes.


The last two lines can be read as only one more “cross,” the most relevant really, the one we would expect to see mentioned first in the present context. The reference to “friends” is somewhat unexpected, but not so strange as to merit a second thought for most listeners. But if we isolate these last two lines, if we replace the love mystique in the spirit of which they are uttered with the present context, the context of the preceding remarks and of countless Shakespearean scenes (not only in A Midsummer Night's Dream but also in almost every other play), another meaning will appear, a meaning more evident and infinitely more significant.

Everywhere in Shakespeare there is a passion which is primarily the copy of a model, a passion that is destructive not only because of its sterile rivalries but because it dissolves reality: it tends to the abstract, the merely representational. The model may be present in the flesh and strut on the stage of the theater; and it may also rise from the pages of a book, come out of the frame of a picture, turn into the worship of a phantom, verbal or iconic. The model is always a text. It is Othello's heroic language, the real object of fascination for Desdemona rather than Othello himself. It is the portrait of Portia which her lover chooses to contemplate in preference to the original. This metaphysical passion is a corruption of life, always open to the corruptive suggestions of mediators and go-betweens, such as the Pandarus of Troilus and Cressida. The paramount role that Shakespeare attributes to such desire, in an obviously calculated way, even in relationships where we may least expect it, is matched only in the works of such writers as Cervantes, Molière, or Dostoevsky. O hell! To choose love by another's eyes. Since the phrase is uttered in conformity with the ideology of “true love,” surely appropriate to a royal wedding (the occasion of A Midsummer Night's Dream), the true Shakespearean meaning must dawn upon us, prompted not only by the events that follow but by a thousand echoes from all the other plays.

Mimetic desire remains unperceived even when it is most obvious. In the very process of being denied, displaced, reified, it still manages to proclaim its own truth. Almost every time they open their mouths, the lovers unwittingly proclaim what at the same time they ignore, and we generally go on ignoring it along with them. The midsummer night is a hell of the lovers' own choosing, a hell into which they all avidly plunge, insofar as they all choose to choose love by another's eyes. Hermia, talking about the turn her love affair with Lysander has given her own life, naively recognizes that the hell is all hers, and that it was already there before the appearance of the parental and supernatural bugaboos that are supposed to be its cause:

Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
O then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turned a heaven into a hell!


Shakespeare is making fun of us, of course. He seems intent on proving that you can say almost anything in a play as long as you provide the audience with the habitual props of comedy, the conventional expressions of “true love,” even in minimal amounts, adding, of course, a ferocious father figure or two to satisfy the eternal Freudian in us. As long as the standard plot is vaguely outlined, even in the crudest and least believable fashion, the author can subvert his own myths and state the truth at every turn, with no consequences whatsoever. The audience will instinctively and automatically rally around the old clichés, so completely blind and deaf to everything which may contradict them that the presence of this truth will not even be noticed. The continued misunderstanding of the play throughout the centuries gives added resonance to the point Shakespeare is secretly making, providing ironic confirmation that the most worn-out myth will always triumph over the most explicit demythification.

If the subject persists in his self-defeating path, the rivalries into which mimetic desire inevitably runs must logically be viewed as glorious signs and heralds of the absolute that keeps eluding him. Mimetic desire breeds rejection and failure; it is rejection and failure that it must ultimately seek. The impossible is always preferred to the possible, the unreal to the real, the hostile and unwilling to the willing and available. This self-destructive character flows directly and automatically from the mechanical consequences of the first definition: to choose love by another's eyes. Are these consequences really spelled out in the play? They are in the most specific fashion, in perfectly unambiguous statements that somehow never manage to be heard; and even when they are noticed, a label is immediately placed on them, canceling out their effectiveness. The following lines, for example, will be labeled “rhetorical,” which means that they can be dismissed at will, treated as insignificant. Recall that when Helena seeks the secret of Hermia's power over Demetrius, Hermia answers:

                                                  I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
Helena: O that your frowns would
teach my smiles such skill!
Hermia: I give him curses, yet
he gives me love.
Helena: O that my prayers could
such affection move!
Hermia: The more I hate, the more
he follows me.
Helena: The more I love, the more
he hateth me.


It cannot be denied that there is a great deal of rhetoric in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rhetoric in the pejorative sense means that certain figures of speech are repeated unthinkingly by people who do not even notice their meaning. The four protagonists of A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly are unthinking repeaters of modish formulas. But mere parodies of rhetorical vacuity would be themselves vacuous, and Shakespeare does not indulge in them. With him the most exhausted clichés can become bolts of lightning. When Helena calls Demetrius a “hard-hearted adamant,” she speaks the most literal truth. Harshness and cruelty draw her and her friends as a magnet draws iron. The supposedly artificial figures of speech really describe the truth of desire with amazing exactitude. When an impeccably educated reader comes upon the lines, “Where is Lysander and fair Hermia? / The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me” (II.i.189-190), he feels a secret anxiety at the thought that a cultural monument like Shakespeare may be lapsing into less than impeccable taste. These lines are satirical; but, in order to be completely reassured, we have to know what the satirical intent is about. Shakespeare is not mocking a particular “rhetoric” and a particular “bad taste.” Considerations of “style” are mainly relevant to professors of literature. It is rather the whole language of passion, with its constant borrowings from the fields of war, murder, and destruction, that Shakespeare is commenting upon. A book like De Rougemont's Love in the Western World throws more light on the type of meditation that nourishes Shakespearean satire than all stylistics put together. Shakespeare is almost contemporary in his recourse to the debased language of degraded human relations. With us, however, debased language generally remains just what it is and nothing more; the work never rises above the mire it pretends to stigmatize, or else it immediately sinks gently back into it. Not so with Shakespeare. The interest of the so-called rhetoric is its frightening pertinence; the destiny it spells for the four lovers, the destiny they unthinkingly announce, is really the one that they are busily forging for themselves; it is a tragic destiny from which they escape only by the sheer luck of being in a comedy.

This ambiguous nature of “rhetoric” is essential to the twofold nature of the play. As long as we listen as unthinkingly as the protagonists speak, we remain in the superficial play which is made up of “figures of speech,” as well as of fairies and father figures. At the purely aesthetic and thematic level of “poetic imagination,” we operate with the same conceptual tools as Theseus and the lovers; good and bad metaphors, true love turned false and false turned true. We understand little more than the lovers themselves. If, on the contrary, we stop long enough to hear what is being said, a pattern begins to emerge: the disquieting infrastructure of mimetic desire, which will erupt into hysterical violence a little later.

One of the most striking features in the amorous discourse of the protagonists is the abundance of animal images. These images express the self-abasement of the lover in front of his idol. As he vainly tries to reach for the absolute that appears incarnated in the model, the lover exalts his successful rival to greater and greater heights; as a result, he feels degraded to lower and lower depths. The first animal images appear immediately after Helena's hysterical celebration of her rival's beauty:

No, no, I am as ugly as a bear.
For beasts that meet me run away for fear. …
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne?


We will be told once again that such images are “pure rhetoric”; their source has been identified: most of them, it appears, come from Ovid. This is true, but the existence of a literary source for a figure of speech does not necessarily imply that it is used in a purely formal and inconsequential manner, that it cannot be given a vital significance by the second writer. It can be shown, I believe, that the animal images are part of the process which leads from mimetic desire to myth; this process is a continuous one, but a certain number of steps can be distinguished which have an existential as well as a functional significance. Far from raising himself to the state of a superman, a god, as he seeks to do, the subject of mimetic desire sinks to the level of animality. The animal images are the price the self has to pay for its idolatrous worship of otherness. This idolatry is really “selfish” in the sense that it is meant for the sake of the self; the self wants to appropriate the absolute that it perceives, but its extreme thirst for self-elevation results in extreme self-contempt, quite logically if paradoxically, since this self always meets and invites its own defeat at the hands of a successful rival.

Animal images are thus a direct consequence of the inordinate metaphysical ambition that makes desire mimetic. They are an integral part of the rigorous pattern I am trying to unravel; the law of that pattern could be defined by Pascal's aphorism, Qui fait l'ange fait la bête. The whole midsummer night looks like a dramatization of that aphorism. Here again is Helena, who fait la bête with Demetrius:

I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me—only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be used as you use your dog?


Partners in mimetic desire cannot think of each other as equal human beings; their relationship becomes less and less human; they are condemned to an angel-beast or superman-slave relationship. Helena's near worship of Hermia might be described, today, in terms of an “inferiority complex.” But psychiatrists view their so-called complexes almost as physical entities, almost as independent and stable as the self they are supposed to affect. Shakespeare is alien to this substantial thinking; he sees everything in terms of relations. Helena's “inferiority complex,” for example, is only the “wrong” or the “beast” end of her relationship with Hermia and Demetrius. Ultimately, everyone ends up with the same “inferiority complex,” since everyone feels deprived of an absolute superiority that always appears to belong to someone else.

Being purely mimetic, this relationship is anchored in no stable reality; it is therefore bound to be unstable. The metaphysical absolute seems to shift from character to character. With each shift the entire configuration is reorganized, still on the basis of the same polarities, but reversed. The beast becomes a god and the god becomes a beast. Inferiority becomes superiority and vice versa. Up is down and down is up.

During the first scenes, Hermia, being worshiped by everyone, appears to be and feel divine. Helena, being truly rejected and despised, feels despicable. But then it is Helena's turn to be worshiped and Hermia feels like a despicable beast. After the initial moment of relative stability, the four lovers enter a world of more and more rapid reversals and inversions. The necessities of dramatic presentation force Shakespeare to be selective and somewhat schematic in his description of the process, but the principles at work are obvious. As soon as the midsummer night crisis begins in earnest, the animal metaphors are not only multiplied but turned upside down and jumbled together. As the reversals become more and more precipitous, we obviously move toward complete chaos. All this, of course, to the renewed chagrin of our guardians of “good taste,” who do not see any purpose to this unseemly spectacle and view it as mere stylistic self-indulgence on the part of the author. The “rhetoric” was bad enough before, but now it is going out of its rhetorical mind. Here is Helena, once more, getting ready to chase Demetrius through the woods:

Run when you will, the story shall be changed.
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger.


Reversal is so pervasive a theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in most of Shakespeare's plays, that it finally extends to the whole of nature. Titania tells us, for example, that the seasons are out of turn. Scholars assume that the weather must have been particularly bad in the year Shakespeare wrote the play; this, in turn, gives some clues to the dating of the play. It must be true, indeed, that Shakespeare needed some really inclement weather to write what he did; however, the bad weather serves a specifically Shakespearean purpose, providing still another opportunity for more variations on the major theme of the play, the theme of differences reversed and inverted:

                                                  … The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase now knows not which is which.


The very pervasiveness of reversal makes it impossible for commentators not to acknowledge the theme, but it also provides a means of minimizing its significance by shifting the emphasis where it should not be shifted, onto nature and the cosmos. This, of course, is exactly what myth itself does in its constant projection and expulsion of human violence. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century mythologists who asserted and still assert that myth is mostly a misreading of natural phenomena really perpetuate the mythical dissimulation and disguise of human violence. Shakespeare seems to be doing the same thing when he inserts his midsummer night into the poetic frame of a crisis of quasi-comic proportions. In that vast macrocosm, our four protagonists' antics appear as a tiny dot moved by forces beyond its own control, automatically relieved, once more, of all responsibility for whatever harm its even tinier components may be doing to one another and to themselves. Nature, in other words, must be included among the other mythical excuses, such as the mean father and the fairies. Shakespeare certainly gives it a major poetic and dramatic role, in keeping with the principles of what I earlier called the surface play. This is true; but, as in the other instances, he also makes sure that the truth becomes explicit. The real Shakespearean perspective is clearly suggested immediately below the lines just quoted. Titania ascribes disarray neither to herself nor to Oberon nor even to both, insofar as they would remain serene divinities manipulating humanity from outside, but to the conflict between them, a very human conflict, to be sure, which implies the same reversals of roles as the midsummer night and which duplicates perfectly the strife among the four lovers:

And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissensions;
We are their parents and original.


Reversals in nature are only reflections, metaphoric expressions, and poetic orchestrations of the mimetic crisis. Instead of viewing myth as a humanization of nature, as we always tend to do, Shakespeare views it as the naturalization as well as the supernaturalization of a very human violence. Specialists on the subject might be well advised to take a close look at this Shakespearean view; what if it turned out to be less mythical than their own!

The lopsided view that the lovers take of their own relationships keeps reversing itself with increasing speed. This constant exchange of the relative positions within the total picture is the cause of the vertigo, the loss of balance which the four characters experience. That feeling is inseparable from the sense of extreme difference to which the same characters never cease to cling, even as this difference keeps shifting around at a constantly accelerating tempo. It is a fact, to be sure, that two characters who face each other in fascination and rivalry can never occupy the same position together, since they themselves constitute the polarity that oscillates between them. They resemble a seesaw, with one rider always going up when the other is going down and vice versa. Never, therefore, do they cease to feel out of tune with each other, radically different from each other. In reality, of course, the positions successively occupied are the same; whatever difference remains is a purely temporal one which must become smaller and, as the movement keeps accelerating, even tend to zero, though without actually reaching it.

Even though they persevere in difference (an ever more vertiginous difference to be sure, but difference nevertheless), the protagonists become more and more undifferentiated. We have seen that the seasons lose their relative specificity, but the true loss of differentiation comes from the crisis among men who are caught in the vicious circle of mimetic desire. Progressive undifferentiation is not an illusion but the objective truth of the whole process, in the sense that reciprocity becomes more and more perfect. There is never anything on one side of a rivalry which, sooner or later, will not be found on the other. Here and there it is exactly the same mixture of fascination and hatred, the same curses, the same everything. It can be said that mimetic desire really works: it really achieves the goal it has set for itself, which is the translation of the follower into his model, the metamorphosis of one into the other, the absolute identity of all. As the climax of the midsummer night approaches, the four protagonists lose whatever individuality they formerly appeared to have; they wander like brutes in the forest, trading the same insults and finally the same physical blows, all drugged with the same drug, all bitten by the same serpent.

The more our characters tend to see one another in terms of black and white, the more alike they really make one another. Every slightest move, every single reaction becomes more and more immediately self-defeating. The more these characters deny the reciprocity among them, the more they bring it about, each denial being immediately reciprocated.

At the moment when difference should be most formidable, it begins to elude not one protagonist but the four of them all at once. Characters dissolve and personalities disintegrate. Glaring contradictions multiply, no firm judgment will hold. Each protagonist becomes a masked monster in the eyes of the other three, hiding his true being behind deceptive and shifting appearances. Each points at the hypocrite and the cheat in the others, partly in order not to feel that the ground is also slipping from under him. Helena, for example, accuses Hermia of being untrue to her real self: “Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!” (III.ii.288). Hermia misunderstands and thinks Helena is making fun of her shortness:

Puppet? Why so? Aye, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures, she hath urged her height.
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole?
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.


C. L. Barber correctly observes that the four young people vainly try to interpret their conflicts through something “manageably related to their individual identities,” but they never achieve their purpose:

Only accidental differences can be exhibited. Helena tall, Hermia short. Although the men think that “reason says” now Helena is “the worthier maid,” personalities have nothing to do with the case. … The life in the lovers' part is not to be caught in individual speeches, but by regarding the whole movement of the farce, which swings and spins each in turn through a common pattern, an evolution that seems to have an impersonal power of its own.1

The time comes when the antagonists literally no longer know who they are: “Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?” (III.ii.273).

Here it is no exaggeration or undue modernization to speak of a “crisis of identity.” To Shakespeare, however, the crisis is primarily one of differentiation. The four characters lose a self-identity which they and the philosophers would like to turn into an absolute and which becomes relative for that very reason; it is made to depend upon the otherness of a model. When Barber points out that Shakespeare fully intends for his characters, in the course of the play, to lose whatever distinctiveness they had or appeared to have at the beginning (which wasn't much anyway), he runs counter to a long tradition of criticism, the whole tradition of “realism” and of “psychology.” Many critics do not find it conceivable that a writer like Shakespeare might be more interested in the undoing and dissolving of “characters” than in their creation, viewing as they do the latter task as the one assigned to all artists of all eternity. Only the most honest will face squarely their own malaise and formulate the obvious consequences of their own inadequate principles: they blame Shakespeare for “insufficient characterization.”

The question is truly fundamental. The whole orientation of criticism depends on it. It is usually the wrong solution that is adopted, all the more blindly because it remains implicit. I personally believe that the conflictual undifferentiation of the four lovers is the basic Shakespearean relationship in both his tragedies and comedies.2 It is the relationship of the four doubles in A Comedy of Errors; it is the relationship of the Montagues and the Capulets, of course, but also of Caesar, Brutus, and his coconspirators, of Shylock and Bassanio, of all the great tragic and comic characters. There is no great theater without a gripping awareness that, far from sharpening our differences, as we like to believe, our violence obliterates them, dissolving them into that reciprocity of vengeance which becomes its own self-inflicted punishment. Shakespeare is fully aware, at the same time, that no theater audience can assume the full force of this revelation. Its impact must and will necessarily be blunted. Some violence will be made “good” and the rest “bad” at the expense of some sacrificial victim, with or without the complicity of the writer. There is no doubt that, in many instances, Shakespeare is a willing accomplice; but his is never an absolute betrayal of his own vision, because the differences he provides are always at the same time undermined and treated as quasi-allegories. An excessive appetite for “characterization” and catharsis will take nothing of this into account: it will systematically choose as most Shakespearean what really is least so, at least in the form in which it is chosen. It will thus provide not only our realistic stodginess but also our romantic self-righteousness with the only type of nourishment they can absorb.

It is in a comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream, if we only agree to read through the transparence of the “airy nothing,” that the truth will stare us most openly in the face. Far from lacking substance and profundity, as even George Orwell inexplicably maintained, this play provides a quintessence of the Shakespearean spirit.

Am I not “going too far” when I assimilate the midsummer night to the tragic crisis; am I not running the risk of betraying the real Shakespeare? The language of differences and undifferentiation is not Shakespeare's own, after all. This is true if we take the matter quite literally; but it is also true that Shakespeare, in some of his writing, comes close to using that same language. A case in point is the famous speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: it describes that very same crisis, but does so in purely theoretical language and on as vast a scale as the most ambitious tragedies, as the crisis of an entire culture. The speech is built around one single word, degree, which would certainly be condemned as too “abstract,” too “philosophical,” if it were applied to Shakespeare by anyone but Shakespeare himself. And obviously Shakespeare applies it to himself as well as to the Greeks: it is the social framework of tragedy which is at stake.3

                                                  … O when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.


The word degree, from the Latin gradus (step, degree, measure of distance), means exactly what is meant here by difference. Culture is conceived not as a mere collection of unrelated objects, but as a totality, or, if we prefer, a structure, a system of people and institutions always related to one another in such a way that a single differentiating principle is at work. This social transcendence does not exist as an object, of course. That is why, as soon as an individual member, overcome by hubris, tries to usurp Degree, he finds imitators; more and more people are affected by the contagion of mimetic rivalry, and Degree collapses, being nothing more than the mysterious absence of such rivalry in a functional society. The crisis is described as the “shaking,” the “vizarding,” or the taking away of Degree; all cultural specificities vanish, all identities disintegrate. Conflict is everywhere, and everywhere meaningless: Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. We must note this use of the word “thing,” the least determined, perhaps, in the English language. The meaningless conflict is that of the doubles. Unable to find a way out, men err and clash stupidly, full of hatred but deprived of real purpose; they resemble objects loose on the deck of a ship tossed about in a storm, destroying one another as they collide endlessly and mindlessly.

In the light of the above remarks, a precise analysis of the midsummer crisis becomes possible. The four protagonists do not see one another as doubles; they misunderstand their relationship as one of extreme if unstable differentiation. A point must finally be reached where all of these illusory differences oscillate so rapidly that the contrasting specificities they define are no longer perceived separately; they begin to impinge on one another, they appear to merge. Beyond a certain threshold, in other words, the dizziness mentioned earlier will make normal perception impossible; hallucination must prevail, of a type that can be ascertained with some precision, being not purely capricious and random but predetermined by the nature of the crisis.

When polarities such as the ones described earlier between the “beast” and the “angel” oscillate so fast that they become one, the elements involved remain too incompatible for a harmonious “synthesis,” and they will simply be juxtaposed or superimposed on each other. A composite picture should emerge which will include fragments of the former “opposites” in a disorderly mosaic. Instead of a god and a beast facing each other as two independent and irreducible entities, we are going to have a mixture and a confusion of the two, a god that is a beast or a beast that is a god. When the polarities revolve fast enough, all antithetic images must be viewed simultaneously, through a kind of cinematic effect that will produce the illusion of a more or less single being in the form or rather the formlessness of “some monstrous shape.”

What A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests, in other words, is that the mythical monster, as a conjunction of elements which normally specify different beings, automatically results from the more and more rapid turnover of animal and metaphysical images, a turnover which depends on the constantly self-reinforcing process of mimetic desire. We are not simply invited to witness the dramatic but insignificant birth of bizarre mythical creatures; rather we are confronted with a truly fascinating and important view of mythical genesis.

In a centaur, elements specific to man and to horse are inexplicably conjoined, just as elements specific to man and ass are conjoined in the monstrous metamorphosis of Bottom. Since there is no limit to the differences that can be jumbled together, since the picture will necessarily remain blurred, the diversity of monsters will appear properly limitless and the infinite seems to be at hand. Insofar as separate entities can be distinguished within the monstrous whole, there will be individual monsters; but they will have no stability: they will constantly appear to merge and marry one another. The birth of monsters, their scandalous commingling with human beings, and the wedding of the one with the other, all these mythical phenomena are part of one and the same experience. The wedding of Titania with the ass-headed Bottom, under the influence of that same “love juice” that makes the lovers crazy, can take place only because the difference between the natural and the supernatural is gone; haughty Titania finds to her dismay that the barrier between her and ordinary mortals is down:

Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping there was found
With these mortals on the ground.


The conjunction of man, god, and beast takes place at the climax of the crisis and is the result of a process which began with the play itself. It is the ultimate metamorphosis, the supreme translation.

In that process the animal images play a pivotal role. I noted earlier that their perfect integration into the disquieting symphony conducted by Shakespeare was not at all incompatible with their identification as literary reminiscences. We must now go further. To say that these images are compatible with the role that Shakespeare himself wants them to play in his own work is no longer enough. It is evident that these animal images are especially appropriate to that role and that Shakespeare has selected them for that reason. Most of them come from Ovid's Metamorphoses. They are directly implicated in an earlier genesis of myth, still quite mythical, and far removed from the obviously psychosocial interpretation implicitly proposed by Shakespeare. It is no exaggeration to assert that A Midsummer Night's Dream, because it is a powerful reinterpretation of Ovid, also provides, at least in outline, Shakespeare's own genetic theory of myth. It is a mistake, therefore, to view the animal images as if they were suspended in midair between the matter-of-fact interplay of desires on the one hand and purely fantastic shapes on the other. They are the connecting link between the two. Thus we can no longer see the play as a collage of heterogeneous elements, as another monstrosity; it is a continuous development, a series of logically related steps that will account even for the monsters in its own midst if they are only followed to the end, if enough trust is placed in the consistency of the author.

At the climax of the crisis, Demetrius and Lysander are about to kill each other, but Puck, on Oberon's orders, substitutes himself for the doubles and puts the four lovers to sleep. When they wake up the next morning, they find themselves reconciled, neatly arranged this time in well-assorted couples. Good weather is back, everything is in order once more. Degree is restored. Theseus appears upon the scene. He and his future wife hear an account of the midsummer night, and it is for the duke to pronounce the final word, to draw the official conclusion of the whole episode in response to a slightly anxious question asked by Hippolyta. Then comes the most famous passage of the entire play. Theseus dismisses the entire midsummer night as the inconsequential fruit of a gratuitous and disembodied imagination. He seems to believe that the real question is whether or not to believe in the fairies. Hippolyta's later words will reveal that her concern is of an entirely different sort; but, like all rationalists of a certain type, Theseus has a marvelous capacity for simplifying the issues and displacing a debate toward his favorite stomping ground. Much of what he says is true, of course; but it is beside the point. To believe or not to believe, that is not the question; and, by trumpeting his fatuous skepticism, Theseus dispenses himself from looking at the remarkable pattern of the midsummer night and the disturbing clues it may contain concerning the nature of all social beliefs, including his own. Who knows if the crisis and its cathartic resolution are responsible only for the monsters of the night? Who knows if the peace and order of the morning after, if even the majestic confidence of the unchallenged ruler are not equally in their debt? Theseus' casual dismissal of myth is itself mythical in the sense that it will not ask such questions. There is irony in the choice of a great mythical figure to embody this rationalistic dismissal. Here Theseus acts as the high priest of a benign casting-out of all disturbing phenomena under the triple heading of poetry, lunacy, and love. This neat operation frees respectable men of all responsibility for whatever tricks, past, present, and future, their own desires and mimetic violence might play on them, thus perfectly duplicating the primary genesis of myth, the one that I have just noted.

Hippolyta: 'Tis strange,
my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true.
I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehend.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast Hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!


This positivism avant la lettre seems to contradict much of what I have said so far. Evidence so laboriously assembled seems scattered once more. Where are the half-concealed yet blatant disclosures, the allusive ambiguities artfully disposed by the author (or so I supposed) for our enlightenment? Long before I came to it, I am sure, many skeptical readers had the passage in mind, and they will rightly want to know how it fits into my reading. Here it is, finally, an obvious ally of the traditional readings that quite naturally regard it as the unshakable rock upon which they are founded. As such, it must constitute a formidable stumbling block for my own intricate revisionism.

The lead is provided by Shakespeare himself, and the present status of the passage as a piece of anthology, a lieu commun of modern aestheticism, testifies to the willingness of posterity to take up that lead. The reading provided by Theseus is certainly the most pleasant, the one which conforms to the wishes of the heart and to the tendency of the human mind not to be disturbed. We must note, besides, that the text is centrally located, placed in the mouth of the most distinguished character, couched in sonorous and memorable phrases, well fit to adorn academic dissertations on the so-called “imaginative faculty.”

This speech has been so successful, indeed, that no one ever pays any attention to the five quiet lines that follow. Hippolyta's response does not have the same resounding eloquence, but the dissatisfaction she expresses with the slightly pompous and irrelevant postmortem of Theseus was written by Shakespeare himself. It cannot fail to be of immense significance:

But the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy,
But howsoever strange and admirable.


Hippolyta clearly perceives Theseus' failure to come up with the holistic interpretation that is necessary. He and his innumerable followers deal with the play as if it were a collection of separate cock-and-bull stories. To them imagination is a purely individual activity, unrelated to the interplay of the four lovers. They themselves are the true inheritors of myth when they confidently believe in their simplistic objectivity. They see myth as something they have already left behind with the greatest of ease, as an object of passing amusement, perhaps, when the occasion arises to watch some light entertainment such as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

There is no doubt that we are dealing with two critical attitudes and that Shakespeare himself vindicates the one that has always been least popular. When I suggest that A Midsummer Night's Dream, behind all the frills, is a serious genetic theory of myth, I am only translating the five lines of Hippolita into contemporary parlance. It is not I but Shakespeare who writes that the midsummer night is more than a few graceful arabesques about English folklore and Elizabethan lovers. It is not I but Shakespeare who draws our attention to all their minds transfigured so together and to the final result as something of great constancy, in other words, a common structure of mythical meaning.

I have suggested that A Midsummer Night's Dream might well be two plays in one. This hypothesis is now strengthened. At this point, the two plays are coming to life as individuals; they are speaking to us and to each other, one through Theseus, the other through Hippolyta. The exchange between the bridegroom and his acutely perceptive but eternally overshadowed bride amounts to the first critical discussion of the play. Representing as he does blissful ignorance and the decorum of Degree enthroned, Theseus must hold the stage longer, speaking with a brilliance and finality that confirms the dramatic preeminence of the surface play, a preeminence that is maintained throughout. Since he gives a voice to all those—the immense majority—who want nothing more in such an affair than “airy nothings,” Theseus must be as deaf and blind to his bride's arguments as Shakespeare's audiences and critics seem to have been ever since. The debate seems onesided in the duke's favor, but how could we fail, at this juncture, to realize that the real last word belongs to Hippolyta, both literally and figuratively? In the context of the evidence gathered earlier, how could we doubt that Hippolyta's words are the decisive ones, that they represent Shakespeare's own view of how the play really hangs together? If we really understand that context, we cannot be surprised that Shakespeare makes his correction of Theseus as discreet and unobstrusive as it is illuminating, visible only to the same thoughtful attention already needed to appreciate such pregnant ambiguities as “to choose love by another's eyes” and other similar gems of exquisitely direct, yet almost imperceptible revelation.

Hippolyta is gently tugging at Theseus' sleeve, but Theseus hears nothing. Posterity hears nothing. Hippolyta has been tugging at that sleeve for close to four hundred years now, with no consequence whatever, her words forever buried under the impressive scaffoldings of Degree once more triumphant in the guise of rationalism, eternally silenced by that need for reassurance which is answered first by belief in myths, then by a certain kind of disbelief. Shakespeare seems to give his blessing to both, ironically confounded in the person of Theseus. He places in the hands of his pious and admiring betrayers the instruments best designed to blunt the otherwise intolerably sharp edge of their favorite bard's genius.


  1. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland: Meridian, 1963), p. 128.

  2. See my Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 43-49.

  3. Ibid., pp. 49-51.

Janet S. Wolf (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4763

SOURCE: “‘Like an Old Tale Still’: Paulina, ‘Triple Hecate,’ and the Persephone Myth in The Winter's Tale,” in Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature, edited by Elizabeth T. Hayes, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 32-44.

[In the following essay, Wolf examines parallels between the leading female characters in Shakespeare's drama The Winter's Tale and the Greek goddesses Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate.]

It has long been recognized that the Persephone myth plays a role in The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's story of redemption, rebirth, and reconciliation. The earliest and most complete development of the idea was made by W. F. C. Wigston in 1884. He noted that Hermione, with the loss of Perdita, falls like the earth in winter into her death-sleep. She is restored to life at the return of her daughter who, like Persephone, is a lost child and is connected with the spring through the text. G. W. Knight (1958, 106) and Northrop Frye (1986, 161) also touch on the idea. Carol Neely specifically connects the myth to the dominant role of women in the play (1987, 81).

All of these studies quite rightly focus on Hermione as the figure of grieving Demeter and Perdita (whose name means “lost”) as the lost Persephone. But there is another grieving woman in the play, Paulina, and Hermione is also lost and brought back from the dead, in one of the most moving and theatrically wonderful scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote. Thus, Paulina could equally well represent Demeter and Hermione could represent Persephone.

The blurring and overlapping of the roles of mother and daughter in the play reflect the blurring found in the Persephone myth and its rituals, for Demeter and her daughter “were a sacred duo, often nameless, each related to the other as past and future” (Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck 1978, 101) and “merely the older and younger form of the same person” (Harrison 1903, 274). There is, however, a third woman with an important role in the myth, and that is the ambiguous goddess Hecate. I suggest that Paulina represents Hecate, and that the shifting roles among the three women in the play parallel their roles in the myth. If, as Robert Graves maintains, the triad of Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate does indeed represent the three phases of the moon, the seasonal cycle (1957, 1:12, 92), and women at the three main stages of their life cycles (Graves 1957, 1:12; Wasson et al. 1978, 101-2), i.e., woman as maiden, nymph, and crone,1 then Hermione, Perdita, and Paulina have a similar function in a play so centered around sexuality, thwarted maternity, and fertility, a play whose ending embodies life affirmation and continuity. Although Apollo's oracle certainly plays a role in the play, it is not, as Shakespeare scholars have suggested, the god Apollo who dominates The Winter's Tale (Tillyard 1963, 189; Martz 1987, 124) but rather the triple goddess Demeter-Persephone-Hecate.

Shakespeare mentions “triple Hecate”2 in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this line is usually glossed as referring to Hecate's function as moon goddess along with Artemis and Selene or Luna.3 The epithet has additional roots, however. According to Hesiod's Theogony, the Titan Hecate is honored by Zeus above all others and holds dominion over the three realms of land and sea and sky. In Hesiod's accont she can be a beneficent figure, endowed by Zeus with the power of bestowing on mortals any desired gift—success in battle, athletics, fishing, livestock breeding. She is a nurse; kourotrophos, “a fostering goddess for all youths,” “a nurturer of youths” (Hesiod 1983, lines 404-52). In later tradition, she is commonly referred to as a fertility goddess, sharing attributes with Demeter and with Artemis (all of them, for example, are depicted as carrying torches, a common attribute of goddesses of fertility). One of Hecate's epithets is phōsphoros, “bringer of light” (Euripides 1956, 569; Kerényi 1969, 110); another, euōnymon, “whom it is good to speak of,” she shares with Artemis (West 1966, 281). Like Artemis, Hecate presides over childbirth, and like Persephone, over death. Hesiod hints at the potential for a destructive Hecate when he adds to his account that she has the capability of withholding success from her votaries if she wishes. That power, along with her role as earth or fertility goddess, leads to her eventual connection with the world of the dead, and in later times she is more widely known in her sinister dimension as goddess of witches, “associated with uncanny things” (Hammond and Scullard 1970, s.v. “Hecate”) and invoked at crossroads, where three-bodied statues of her on triangular pedestals were set up. She is Medea's patroness, for example, and is invoked in Euripides' play and Apollonius's epic. Her companions are the Erinyes, and her appearances accompanied by them, scourges in hand, were terrifying.

The earlier, benevolent Hecate plays a role in the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter.” She hears but does not see the abduction of Persephone, and she approaches Demeter, torch in hand, to report what she has heard. The two goddesses go together to Helios to ask him what he knows, and when Persephone returns, Hecate is the first to greet her, after her mother. The author of the Homeric hymn reports that Hecate “showed much affection” for Persephone (Homer 1970, 130), and from that point on, she is Persephone's constant companion. In the Homeric hymn, Hermes brings Persephone back; but on a vase dating from the time of the Parthenon, Hecate is shown lighting Persephone's way out of Hades (Hammond and Scullard 1970, s.v. “Hecate”). Moreover, Hecate is often confused with Persephone and Demeter. The Erinyes, Hecate's companions, are sometimes said to be Demeter's daughters; and in Euripides' Ion, the chorus invokes Hecate herself as a daughter of Demeter (1958, line 1048). Like Demeter, she is a goddess of crops, a torch-bearing goddess, and a driver of a chariot drawn by dragons or serpents (triple Hecate's team in Midsummer Night's Dream). As a goddess of the underworld she is often confused with Persephone, invoked in Aeneid, book 4, at the death of Dido. In some localities Demeter took on a Hecate-like quality: she was known in Phigalia as “the Black One” (Pausanias 1935, bk. 8, sec. 42) and in Thelpusa as “Demeter Erinyes” (Pausanias 1935, bk. 8, secs. 25, 42). Hecate does not appear in the Homeric epics, but when Persephone is mentioned in the Iliad, it is with the epithet epainē, “awful” or “dreaded” (Homer 1938, bk. 9, line 457). The Homeric “Hymn to Demeter” blurs the roles of Hecate and Demeter, for Demeter, in her disguise as old woman and then nurse to the son of Keleos and Metaneira, takes on Hecate's role as nurse and crone, and, in her anger, the role of avenging fury.

Overlapping and confusion of the roles of the triad of Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate were widespread in the Renaissance. Shakespeare was familiar with the Erinyes dimension of Demeter's character, because he draws on it in The Tempest. When summoned by Iris to attend Juno at the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda, Ceres (Demeter) angrily replies that she will come only if Venus and Cupid are not there, because she holds them responsible for Dis's abduction of her daughter and has “forsworn” (4.1.91) their company. In Heywood's The Silver Age, Hecate the moon goddess and Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, have become confused. Ceres grieves for the loss of her daughter the moon, and the compromise achieved between Ceres and Pluto results in the phases of the moon rather than in the change of seasons. Proserpine will shine twelve times a year in heaven and be with Pluto twelve times a year.

In The Winter's Tale, Perdita compares herself to Proserpina and is the lost daughter; it therefore makes perfectly good sense to regard her as the Persephone figure in the play and to regard Hermione as the Demeter figure. To this duo Shakespeare has added a third woman, Paulina, whose role is similar to that of Hecate in the myths. Although Paulina and Antigonus have young children ranging in age from five to eleven, they are slightly older than Hermione and Leontes: Antigonus has a “beard” that is “grey” and “little blood … left”4 and Paulina in good-natured but wistful self-disparagement refers to herself at the end of the play as “an old turtle” (5.3.132). Like Hecate in the Homeric hymn, she is a good friend to the two women—defending Hermione, protecting the infant Perdita, preserving Hermione, curing Leontes, and rejoicing at the reunion of husband, wife, and daughter.

Moreover, Paulina is regarded by Leontes as a Hecate in her sinister dimension, the “railing Hecate,” as Shakespeare refers to her in I Henry VI (3.2.64). Leontes calls Paulina “a mankind witch” (2.3.67), “crone” (2.3.76), and “hag” (2.3.107) and threatens to burn her at the stake. Paulina becomes a fury in act 3, scene 2, chastising Leontes for his crimes against his wife, his children, his friends and counselors, and his guest. Several critics have seen Paulina as Leontes' conscience (Knight 1958, 26; Martz 1987, 137). The crimes that Leontes has committed, against a guest, against a mother (not his own mother, admittedly, but a pregnant woman who is the mother of his children), were exactly the crimes for which Hecate's companions the Erinyes, who personified the pangs of conscience, hounded transgressors (see Oedipus at Colonus, Oresteia). Then, like the Erinyes in Oedipus at Colonus, Paulina becomes a benign figure to the repentant Leontes, curing him of his “lunes” (2.2.30). She in fact becomes a kind of nurse to the reborn Leontes; her “medicinal” words had failed to “purge” (2.3.37-38) Leontes earlier in the play but now succeed. “O grave and good Paulina, the great comfort that I have had of thee” (5.3.1), he says to her toward the end of the play.

And Paulina in the last scene of the play becomes something of a sorceress-magician, in the tradition of the Hecate who is the patroness of witches, although both she and Shakespeare deny it. Leontes speaks of the “magic” in the statue that “conjures” (5.3.39) again a recollection of his crimes and drains the life from Perdita, who looks like stone herself when she sees the statue. Paulina creates a miracle and brings Hermione back from the grave while insisting that she is not “assisted by wicked powers” (5.3.90) or engaging in “unlawful business” (5.3.96) and that her “spell is lawful” (5.3.105). “Be stone no more … I'll fill your grave up” (5.3.99, 102) she tells the statue. Paulina is Heracles bringing Alcestis back from the dead, or Medea renewing old Eason, yet she is none of those things but is instead a loving, comforting, nurturing friend whose rectitude and patient faith have repaired Leontes and Hermione's shattered family. She has nursed Hermione back to health and sustained her for sixteen years, cured Leontes, and kept both hopeful that the oracle would be fulfilled. Like Hecate with her torches, she is “the bringer of light” to The Winter's Tale. And like the Hecate of the Theogony, she has indulged Leontes' dearest wish.

The Winter's Tale, like the Persephone myth, contains three women at the three major stages of a woman's life cycle, each dominating a different section of the play. Hermione is the nymph or matron, the mother, dominating the first section of the play; Perdita is the Kore, the maiden, dominating the second; and Paulina is the crone, presiding over the end of the play. But Shakespeare provides, as does the Persephone myth, a great deal of overlapping among the roles of the three women.

Paulina, for example, briefly replaces Hermione as a nurse to Perdita in act 2, scenes 2 and 3. She replaces Hermione as companion to Leontes for sixteen years. She gets to greet Perdita before her own mother does, and then greets her as if Perdita were her own lost child, as Hecate does in the Homeric hymn. In the statue scene, Paulina watches overjoyed as Hermione embraces Leontes, then bids Hermione turn to acknowledge her daughter: “turn, good lady, / Our Perdita is found” (5.3.121, my italics). Leontes at various points in act 3 threatens to burn all three women at the stake. As Paulina was by Leontes, so Perdita is later accused of witchcraft by Polixenes, who breaks up his son's betrothal ceremony and then turns on the bride with: “fresh piece of excellent witchcraft” (4.4.426-27) and “you, enchantment” (4.4.438).

There are, naturally, many similarities between mother and daughter, some shared by Paulina. Both Perdita and Hermione share Paulina's feistiness, and Perdita shares her mother's charm, beauty, hospitality, and sexual frankness. Her happy world of love and warmth, both familial and sexual, is violated by a tyrannical male figure, just as her mother's was. She resembles her mother physically, as Leontes can see when he first sees her as a sixteen-year-old. (Similarities between mother and daughter have led several directors to have one actress play both roles.)

If Perdita is the Persephone figure, then strictly she is the Queen of Hades, queen of the dead; but it is the two older women in The Winter's Tale who are more closely allied to the underworld. Hermione appears as a ghost to Antigonus “in pure white robes” (3.3.21) in a scene with connotations of the Hecate triads. She bows to him “thrice” (3.3.23) (cf. “with Hecate's ban thrice blasted” in Hamlet [3.2.258]) and waits until her “fury [is] spent” (3.3.25) before she speaks to him. She is both the grieving mother and a ghostly, scary, vengeful figure:

                                                                                                    ‘For this ungentle business,
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne'er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more.’ And so, with shrieks,
She melted into air.


In a later scene, Paulina imagines herself as the ghost of Hermione, a vengeful fury pursuing Leontes should he marry another woman:

Were I the ghost that walked, I'd bid you mark
Her eye, and tell me for what dull part in't
You chose her: then I'd shriek, that even your ears
Should rift to hear me; and the words that follow'd
Should be ‘Remember mine.’


Eventually, of course, Perdita the maiden will become a nymph and then a crone. The joy at the end of the play is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that Hermione, Leontes, and Paulina are reunited with Perdita just as she is about to leave them again; she is betrothed to Florizel and is about to move into her mother's role as matron, as wife and mother. A comparable situation occurs with Polixenes seeing his son reach sexual maturity. Polixenes feels threatened by the change, however, and refuses to accept his son's independence, whereas the women, as Neely has noted, are more tolerant of natural change and growth (1987, 79).

These are the broadest parallels between the Persephone myth and The Winter's Tale, with both myth and play enacting the lives of three women, essentially kindred, at three stages of life, through experiences of loss and restoration. But there are many other evocations of myth in The Winter's Tale, some closely related to the triad of Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate, some less so. Their cumulative force is to suggest that women dominate the play not only as dramatic characters, which is evident from the plot, but also as presiding deities.

Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate are fertility goddesses, but Hecate is part of another triad controlling fertility, the triple moon goddess Luna-Artemis-Hecate. Among their other functions, both Artemis and Hecate are concerned with childbirth, children, and families. Hecate shares the cult epithet kourotrophos, “nurturer of children,” with Artemis. In ancient times the moon, not the sun, was thought of as influencing fertility, partly because dew is heaviest on moonlit nights, and dew is an important substitute for rain in warm climates; and partly because of the similar duration of the menstrual and lunar cycles (cf. the “moist star” of Hamlet [1.1.118], and “governess of floods” in Midsummer Night's Dream [2.1.103]).

The sheepshearing festival combines native English and ancient classical fertility festivals. Martz thinks that the scenes may be indebted to festivals for Apollo (1987, 124). But why should there not be resemblances to the most famous ancient fertility ritual of all, the Eleusinian Mysteries? One characteristic of the Eleusinian Mysteries was their celebration of humanity. In the classical era, women played a much more important role in the ceremonies than they did in Athenian society, and men and slaves were admitted to what began as a women's ritual. The sheepshearing festival is inclusive and communal, welcoming rich strangers like Polixenes and Camillo, male and female, young and old, and even, albeit unknowingly, thieves like Autolycus. It's probably more important, however, that the rituals for Demeter involved a celebration not just of fertility but of human sexuality. Demeter, it must be remembered, was a fertility goddess who never married, and who enraged Zeus when she bore her son Iacchus (or Pluton) after she and the Titan Iasius sneaked away from a wedding to make love in a thrice-ploughed field (Homer 1965, bk. 5, 125-28; Hesiod 1983, 971).

We know we are in a different world from that of Leontes' possessive jealousy when the old shepherd comes in complaining good naturedly about teenagers who will get wenches with child and assuming, with no trace of condemnation whatsoever, that Perdita is the product of “trunk work, behind-stair work” (3.3.74). Yet the happy influence of Bohemia will be carried back to Sicily, where evidence of Leontes' “recreation” (3.2.238) is his willingness to stick up for the young lovers. The whole Bohemian episode includes a comfortable acceptance of young love and celebration of sexuality, culminating in Perdita's lament for virgins who die unmarried and her subsequent sexual joking with Florizel about burying him under flowers, not dead, but “quick, and in my arms” (4.4.132) and about pretending that he is a bank to make love on. The spirit of tolerance in the Bohemian community exists even among the puritans in their midst. The entertainment, Perdita's foster brother tells us, includes one puritan, but he sings anyway. In another account of the Persephone story, an Orphic hymn, the grieving Demeter is cheered up by a peasant wife (another version of the crone) named Baubo, who makes ribald gestures and causes Demeter to laugh for the first time since Persephone's disappearance. The Eleusinian Mysteries included a ritual copulation and a lot of coarse games and tales (Kerényi 1967, 40). Autolycus provides those in The Winter's Tale with his ballads “so without bawdry” and such “delicate burdens” as “jump her and thump her” (4.4.195-97). In classical myth the tie between Demeter and herders was very close because in the Orphic hymn, a swineherd, shepherd, and cowherd witness the rape and bring Demeter news of Persephone's whereabouts (Kerényi 1967, 171). In gratitude, she rewards one of them by giving him the gift of knowledge of agriculture, which he spreads to all lands by traveling in a chariot drawn by serpents, much like Hecate's team (Graves 1957, 1:92). Singing shepherds played a prominent role in Eleusinian processions. In the Orphic hymn, the name of the shepherd who helps Demeter find Persephone is Eumolpos, “the sweet singer” (Harrison 1903, 555-56). It is entirely appropriate, then, that Perdita's saviors in The Winter's Tale should be genial, festive shepherds.

The idea that women in various stages of their life cycle dominate the play as presiding deities is supported by references in the play to fertility of human life and to seasonal changes. The second scene opens with the line “Nine changes of the watery moon” (1.2.1), making explicit the connection between the moon, water, and human pregnancy. The first two and a half acts take place in winter, as Mamillius tells us when he begins his “sad tale” (2.1.25). There is some confusion over the season of the Bohemian episodes, but they certainly take place in spring or summer. Act 4, scene 3 begins with Autolycus's joyous song of praise to spring, to the daffodils, the first flowers of spring, to spring fever in humans and birds, and to spring housecleaning and the opportunities it affords for him to ply his trade. And sheepshearing should take place in spring. Florizel's description of Perdita's dress compares her to Flora “peering in April's front” (4.4.3), again giving the impression that we are in the early spring of the year. But Perdita, in her Proserpine speech, laments that she has no spring flowers and gives Camillo and Polixenes flowers of midsummer (Martz 1987, 135). Leontes tells Perdita, whom he knows only as Florizel's fiancee at this point, that she is as welcome to Sicily “as is the spring to th' earth” (5.1.151), but this remark is symbolic and metaphorical. The mood in the closing act, with Leontes' remarks about his wife's wrinkles and Paulina's about her age, is “autumnal” (Pafford 1976, lxx), but of course it is in this scene that Hermione is reborn and Perdita is found.

Knowing the season of the sheepshearing scene is not critical; with the entrance of the shepherd in act 3, scene 3, we move from the tragic winter world of Leontes' court and Sicily to the spring-summer world of Perdita and Bohemia. All seasons of the year are represented in the play, and Hermione's pregnancy is a visible reminder of her role as earth mother or corn goddess. There are various accounts of where the rape of Persephone took place—in the Homeric hymn, it is near Mt. Nysa. But according to Ovid, it occurred in Sicily, and the explanation given for this location is that Sicily was renowned for the fertility of its soil. Wigston also suggested that Shakespeare changed the name of his heroine from Bellaria in Pandosto to Hermione because Hermione is the name of a city where Demeter had a famous temple.

The Persephone story is about a rape, and no one gets raped in The Winter's Tale. But of course the story of the rape of Persephone is about death as well as about sexual violation and forced marriage. Leontes causes the death of his son and one trusted counselor, and tries to cause the death of his wife, his daughter, his best friend, and another trusted counselor. He has destroyed his family, and in his barbaric treatment of his pregnant wife and his children, he has attacked life itself. Before he begins to repent, he seems bent on becoming an agent of death. His turning against a previously welcome guest violates codes of hospitality; Hades himself is called sometimes “the receiver of many guests” but also “the Inhospitable One” (Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck 1978, 110). The Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival's 1986 production of the play presented the scene of Hermione's arrest as a kind of rape. Hermione and her women were dressed in night clothes, Hermione was sleepily putting her son to bed, and into this warm, intimate, and protected atmosphere burst Leontes and six men. According to Colm Feore, who played Leontes, David William, the director, “staged it as a vicious, absolutely vicious infiltration of her chamber … her women, her pregnancy and her children. … He violates her chamber as he feels she has violated him” (quoted in Gaines 1987, 206).

The Winter's Tale contains many references to tales and stories, beginning with the title. There are Mamillius's tale; Hermione's misery, “which is more than history can pattern” (3.2.35); the stories that the young shepherd can tell his children when “he's dead and rotten” (3.3.81), as the old shepherd puts it in a happy malapropism; Autolycus's “true” ballads (4.4.282); and the marveling of the courtiers over the revelations of the last act. Their astonishment over the unfolding of miraculous incredible events, so “like an old tale” (5.2.62), forestalls any possible audience objection to the denouement. Paulina's announcement that the statue is indeed alive, “That she is living / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale: But it appears she lives” (5.3.115) has a similar function. Shakespeare, as scholars have noted (Goddard 1951, 272), also draws in this play on some old tales of good women who have been tested and proven. The Griselda story is one, the Alcestis myth another.5 But the oldest tale he draws on is the myth of the grieving mother, the lost child, and the supportive older woman of the Demeter-Persephone story.

Louis Martz has made a good case for Greek influences on The Winter's Tale. It should be noted that Hecate does not appear in Ovid's account of the Persephone story, so that if the parallels I have adduced are valid, Shakespeare has chosen Greek rather than Roman versions of the story. Martz makes a case for the scope of a play that begins in a Grecian context and ends in a Christian context, the three sections being a summary of all human history. But the analogues to the Persephone story do more than universalize the experience of the play or pay tribute to Shakespeare's Greek predecessors. The triad of Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate underpins and enriches the portraits of three of Shakespeare's strongest, most attractive, and most triumphantly successful women.


  1. A nymph is a married woman, a matron; a crone is a woman past the years of childbearing.

  2. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in The Riverside Shakespeare, act 5, scene 1, line 384. Subsequent act, scene, and line numbers in parentheses in discussions of all plays by Shakespeare except The Winter's Tale refer to this edition.

  3. See, for example, Kittredge's gloss on the line: “The moon goddess has three names—Diana on earth, Phoebe in heaven, and Hecate in Hades. In the character of Hecate she is the goddess of nocturnal spells and the patroness of witches” (1971, 246, note to 5.1.367). Dr. Johnson wrote that “thrice-crowned queen of night” (3.2.2) in As You Like It “allud[es] to the triple character of Proserpine (or Hecate), Cynthia, and Diana, given by some mythologists to the same goddess” (1968, 251).

  4. Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, act 2, scene 3, lines 161, 165. Subsequent act, scene, and line numbers in parentheses in discussions of The Winter's Tale refer to the Arden edition.

  5. The Alcestis story has some connections with Persephone; in Apollodorus's version, Persephone refuses Alcestis's sacrifice and sends her home.


Euripides. Ion. Translated and with an introduction by Ronald Frederick Willets. In The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958.

———. Helen. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides II. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1956.

Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. Edited by Robert Sandler. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986.

Gaines, Robert A. John Neville Takes Command. Stratford, Ontario: William Street Press, 1987.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951.

Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and the Romans. Cleveland: World, 1962.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957.

Guthrie, W. K. C. Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement. New York: Norton, 1966.

Hammond, N. G. L., and H. H. Scullard. Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1903.

Hesiod. Theogony. Edited by M. L. West. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

———. Theogony; Works and Days; Shield. Translation, introduction, and notes by Apostolos N. Athanassakis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by A. T. Murray. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1938.

———. The Odyssey. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

———. “The Hymn to Demeter.” Translated by Charles Boer. Chicago: Swallow, 1970.

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson on Shakespeare. Edited by Arthur Sherbo. Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, edited by John M. Middendorf, vol. 7. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968.

Kerényi, C. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967.

———. “Kore.” In C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969.

Kittredge, George Lyman, and Irving Ribner. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1971.

Knight, G. W. The Crown of Life. London: Methuen, 1958.

Martz, Louis L. “Shakespeare's Humanist Enterprise: The Winter's Tale.” In Modern Critical Interpretations of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Issue in The Winter's Tale.” In Modern Critical Interpretations of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Pafford, J. H. P. Introduction to The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. Arden edition. London: Methuen, 1976.

Pausanias. Description of Greece. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blackmore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

———. The Winter's Tale. Edited by J. H. P. Pafford. Arden edition. London: Methuen, 1976.

Tillyard, E. M. W. “Shakespeare's Last Plays.” In The Winter's Tale, edited by Frank Kermode. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck. The Road to Eleusis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

West, M. L. Prolegomena and Commentary to Theogony, by Hesiod. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Wigston, W. F. C. A New Study of Shakespeare: An Inquiry into the Connection of the Plays and Poems, with the Origins of the Classical Drama and with the Platonic Philosophy, through the Mysteries. N.p.: Trubner, 1884.

Douglas Freake (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “A Midsummer Night's Dream as a Comic Version of the Theseus Myth,” in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essays, edited by Dorothea Kehler, Garland Publishing, 1998, pp. 259-74.

[In the following essay, Freake interprets Shakespeare's recasting of the classical myth of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly focusing on issues of gender dynamics and patriarchal power contained in the story.]

Myth criticism, by which I mean examinations of the relation between literary works and the myth on which they are based or to which they allude, has fallen on hard times. Poststructuralist criticism in general distrusts essentialist or trans-temporal modes of interpretation; and varieties of poststructuralism, such as new historicism, which emphasize the intricate connections between texts and their social contexts, shy away in embarrassment from the sort of literary criticism encouraged by Jung or Joseph Campbell.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, it could be argued, is of all Shakespeare's plays the most indebted to a mythic source. Yet, perhaps because it is a comedy—and therefore assumed to use myth decoratively rather than seriously—the play's mythical sources, while not ignored, have received less attention than they deserve. Although the specific episode of the Theseus story used by Shakespeare is a relatively minor one—Theseus' marriage to the queen of the Amazons—the parts of the play which make up its real action seem to become more infused with aspects of Theseus' adventures the longer one contemplates them. One notices the name Egeus (Aegeus) given to Hermia's father; the similarity of the lovers lost in the wood to the Athenian youths forced to enter the Minotaur's labyrinth; Bottom as a “monster” reminiscent of the minotaur; Bottom's craft of weaving, which recalls Ariadne's thread; Hermia's desertion which echoes Ariadne's abandonment on Naxos; Titania as Pasiphae, in love with “sweet bully Bottom” (4.2.19)1; and, in Oberon, aspects of both Minos the king and judge and Daedalus the craftsman and magician, maker of labyrinths.

Reviewing some of the work that has been done on the Theseus story as it appears in Shakespeare's play, often in displaced form, I explore here the tension between an essentialist and a historicist view of myth. My hope is to suggest answers to three interrelated questions: Is it possible to reconcile these supposedly dichotomous attitudes to myth? Does A Midsummer Night's Dream contain or allude to a generative kernel discoverable in Greek versions of the Theseus story? Is it significant that this kernel, assuming we find it, is contained, half-hidden and half-revealed, in a comedy, which would therefore seem to be the best medium for preserving whatever mythic essence structures the Theseus cycle of stories?

The universalist attitude to myth always seems to assume, as Ted Hughes says in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, that a myth, as an element in a literary work, operates “as a controlling, patterned field of force, open internally to the ‘divine’, the ‘daemonic’, the ‘supernatural’ (of which the constituent myths were the original symbolic expression), but externally to the profane, physical form and individualities of the action, to the words of the actors, and the local habitation and burden of the plot.”2 Hughes echoes Theseus' famous speech in this formulation, but he does not discuss A Midsummer Night's Dream in his five-hundred-page book, presumably because he does not think that the play is informed by the Great Goddess myth, although, as we shall see, such mythic residues can clearly be seen in it. Neither does he explain how, or why, the divine, daemonic or supernatural elements of myth mysteriously persist in much later literary creations. It could, I suppose, be said to reside in the narrative itself, which exists within a cultural tradition for reasons that are partly formal, partly psychological and partly accidental, but we know that thousands of ancient narratives have been lost or forgotten in spite of their “daemonic” connections.

Although he is often viewed as the most universalist of theorists, in defining myth Joseph Campbell actually allows room for historicist or ‘socially constructed’ factors that Hughes ignores. He claims that myths reflect

certain irreducible psychological problems inherent in the very biology of our species, which have remained constant, and have, consequently, so tended to control and structure the myths and rites in their service that, in spite of all the differences that have been recognized, analyzed, and stressed by sociologists and historians, there run through the myths of all mankind the common strains of a single symphony of the soul.3

This is as firm a statement of the universalist view as one could imagine. Yet in the same breath, Campbell notes that traditional functions of myth include “validating and maintaining some specific social order, authorizing its moral code as a construct beyond criticism or human emendation” and “shaping individuals to the aims and ideals of their various social groups,”4 formulations that concur with Roland Barthes' view in Mythologies.

What theorists like Barthes most dislike about traditional myth criticism is the claim that literature has inherited the universal qualities of myth. Deconstruction has undermined all foundational ideology and shown that claims to ongoing ‘presence,’ which are key to defenses of both myth and literature, are illusory and manipulative. As Reuben Arthur Brower has said, “Although we commonly speak of ‘the Oedipus myth’ or ‘the Hercules myth,’ and although anthropologists refer to mythical ‘archetypes’ or ‘structures,’ it can be said that there are no myths, only versions. To put it another way, there are only texts for interpretation. …”5 Yet there is something in the study of myth that deconstruction cannot completely dismiss. Even if myths exist only in “versions,” each version is a version of something; and even if we allow that the ‘something’ can never be captured or fixed, it cannot, either, be destroyed if the social will exists to keep it alive. Stories are clearly remembered and retold by societies over long periods of time. The difficult question is to explain why—without begging the question by appeals to their concern with “irreducible psychological problems” or to their ‘greatness’—certain stories are versioned over many centuries. Even if we can find the mythic kernel of the stories about Theseus, we still need to explain why the story remained so popular in European culture that it provided material not only for the Roman dramatists but for Shakespeare and Racine as well. Perhaps some sense of the primordial conflicts buried in the Theseus cycle and its antecedents will explain why Shakespeare creates his idiosyncratic version of the Theseus story as a play about marriage, intended to serve as part of a real marriage celebration.6

Do the episodes of the Theseus story, placed over each other like transparencies, reveal, “something of great constancy” (5.1.26)? Certainly the cycle reveals a conflict between the culture-founding, civilization-building elements of the story and more anarchic, destructive ones. In particular, it tells of Theseus' conflicts with women, suggesting, in Erich Neumann's words, that he is “the hero who conquers the symbol of matriarchal domination,” that is, the minotaur.7 Behind the Theseus myth, says Neumann, lies the conflict between the patriarchal and the matriarchal worlds and the gradual substitution of human sacrifices to animal ones in annual festivals of the renewal of kingly power.8

Most medieval and later retellings of the Theseus story seem far removed from such ancient rituals. Simon Tidworth, in a survey of the Theseus story in the Renaissance, remarks on “the universal popularity of the old stories and their universal accessibility. They were told not only for their own sakes but for the sake of practically any message that an author wished to impart.”9 The Theseus story was very well known in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was accepted as an “antique fable,” but paintings of episodes from the story suggest that it was taken as having historical validity as well. After all, Theseus appeared in Plutarch along with firmly historical figures such as Mark Antony. Moreover, like history in general, the story was seen as a repository of moral exempla and as having continuing significance for Christian audiences. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, an Elizabethan audience would see, Shakespeare is involved in mythopoesis, the recreation of ancient stories, transposed and given a symbolic meaning yet treated with a sophisticated self-reflexiveness. Tidworth notes that Shakespeare took a classical story and used it as the medium for his own thoughts on human conduct in “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” but that he wrote no Theseus and Ariadne, apparently from lack of interest. “Theseus appears in his conventional role as Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but apart from that all we can gather are a few scraps of simile like ‘Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth; / There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk’ from Henry VI Part I.10

Others have perceived in A Midsummer Night's Dream a more extensive use of the Theseus story, but rarely have they seen the play as dealing with conflicts present in the Greek texts. In 1979, in an admirable article, “A Midsummer-Night's Dream: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur,” M. E. Lamb was the first to focus on the play's extensive use of the Theseus myth.11 She notes that Theseus was read during the Renaissance not only as a reasonable man in control of his lower nature, but as an unkind lover and deserter of women. In spite of the fact that he and Hippolyta are happily wed at the end of the play, the audience would have known that the product of their union, Hippolytus, would eventually die because of his father's curse. This essay does not focus on the workings of “myth,” in either Campbell's or Barthes' sense; instead, the dark elements in the play are seen mostly as inevitable, in the sense that fear and death reside at the heart of the labyrinth of the world, even if the comic perspective can deny them for a time.12

The most admired of myth critics, Northrop Frye, noted, in 1983, that A Midsummer Night's Dream owes a great deal to Classical mythology, and, in typically suggestive fashion, he comments that Shakespeare's play retains signs of the struggle between matriarchal and patriarchal forms of social power which Neumann saw as an essential element of the Greek myth: “It might be possible to think that the fairy world represents a female principle in the play which is eventually subordinated to a male ascendancy associated with daylight. In the background is the unseen little boy who moves from female to male company as Oberon simultaneously asserts his authority over Titania; in the foreground is Theseus' marriage to a conquered Amazon.”13

Having had this insight, Frye immediately rejects it:

But this seems wrong, and out of key with the general tonality of the play. Theseus' marriage will at least end his unsavoury reputation as a treacherous lover, glanced at by Oberon, and the most explicit symbol of male domination, Egeus' claim to dispose of Hermia as he wishes, is precisely what is being eliminated by the total action. The fairy wood is a wood of Eros as well as of Venus and Diana, and both sexes are equally active principles in both worlds.14

Frye is right to see in the play yet another version of the ascendancy of male power over the “female principle,” yet all too cavalier in finding himself “wrong” and in assuming that “both sexes are equally active principles” in the world of dream and the world of political reality, if those are indeed the worlds to which he refers. His wording is in fact extremely ambiguous at this point. Are “both worlds” the world of Eros versus the world of Venus and Diana (a claim that makes little sense), or the worlds of night and day, the latter of which, at least, is not one in which both sexes are equally active “principles”? Frye's choice of such phrases as “a female principle” and “a male ascendancy associated with daylight” indicates a distaste for gender politics, which were flourishing when Frye wrote his essay. He notes a formidable tension in the play but re-represses it by an appeal to the play's genre; the “general tonality” fitting to a comedy is enough to make his potential reading unnecessary.

Louis Adrian Montrose's “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” was published in 1983, the same year as Frye published the remarks just quoted. It does not overlook the gender politics that Frye recognizes but downplays. In discussing Elizabethan myth-making about Amazon societies supposedly being discovered in Africa and the New World, Montrose claims that Shakespeare's play reveals a similar “collective anxiety about the power of the female not only to dominate or reject the male but to create and destroy him. It is an ironic acknowledgment by an androcentric culture of the degree to which men are in fact dependent upon women: upon mothers and nurses, for their birth and nurture; upon mistresses and wives, for the validation of their manhood.”15 He has striking things to say about the central importance, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, of Titania's and Oberon's quarrel over a changeling boy. In a phrase reminiscent of Neumann's description of the Theseus tales, he refers to Theseus' victory over Hippolyta as “a defeat of the Amazonian matriarchate,”16 one of many myths, he says, which recount a cultural transition from matriarchy to patriarchy. He argues that the placement of this story “at the very threshold of A Midsummer Night's Dream” sanctions Oberon's attempt to take the boy from Titania and “to make a man of him”;17 notices the Oedipal implications of the struggle (Oberon and the boy are rivals for Titania, who has forsworn Oberon's “bed and company” [2.1.62-63] because of their quarrel);18 and notes perceptively that Titania's attachment to the changeling boy reflects her devotion to the memory of his mother, a devotion which Oberon destroys by forcing Titania to give the boy over to him. The play, Montrose concludes, “enacts a male disruption of an intimate bond between women: first by the boy, and then by the man.”19

This subtle essay directs our attention to an aspect of the Theseus story which may be a key to its continuing fascination: male fear of women's procreative power and attempts to deny that power by gaining control of children, and thereby women, through patriarchal marriage and the elaborate ideology of sexual roles that accompanies it. Its argument takes us a long way towards understanding the religious and social tension that is part of both the original Greek myth cycle and of Elizabethan concerns about female power and the politics of procreation.

Validation for a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream as an intersection of ancient and modern politics comes from C. Kerényi, who describes events in the myths about early Athens which resonate in the play, even though Shakespeare may not have known about all, or any, of the episodes. In his account of the early kings of Athens, the ancestors of Theseus, Kerényi records that the Athenians believed themselves to be descended not from a male primaeval being “but directly from the soft, reddish soil of Attica, which in the beginning brought forth human beings instead of wild beasts.”20 Cecrops, who was regarded as the “heroic founder” of Athens, was half-serpent, half-human: “serpent as having sprung from the earth, yet also with a share in human form and therefore diphyes, ‘of twofold nature.’” One serpent appears in the play, in Hermia's dream, or nightmare: “Help me, Lysander, help me! Do thy best / To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!” (2.2.144-45). In a volume on the myth of the divine child, which he wrote with Kerényi, Jung remarks that the fear of dragons and serpents points to the danger that the consciousness will be overtaken by the unconscious; “snake-dreams,” he says, “usually occur … when the conscious mind is deviating from its instinctual basis.”21 It is hardly surprising that Hermia dreams of serpents when alone in the woods with her lover, since at that moment her consciousness is indeed threatened, by darkness, dream, and sexual desire. Her dream is not, of course, related to the story of Cecrops, but like Bottom's transformation into a half-animal creature, it does suggest that return to the womb of nature is a threat for the conscious and the social mind, a threat that Bottom can survive much more triumphantly than Hermia.

Half-animal mythical founders no doubt combine elements of chthonic origins (‘the people who live here sprang from this very earth’), totem memories, and psychological aspects that link the infant or child to the uncultured beast. Bottom's name may point to ways in which, in his dual form, he is at the ‘bottom’ of society, in the sense of being foundational: he recalls the beast consort who may fertilize the great mother goddess, but more obviously he is a baby, almost a divine child. Kerényi comments: “Being sprung from the earth and the nurseling of the maiden goddess, Pallas Athene, her father's daughter, and formed after her mind, the picture of the primitive Athenian was first present in Kekrops.”22 The Athenians thought of themselves as autochthonous, but they worshipped Athena who, although she became a patriarchal goddess, born without a mother, was doubtless at first a mother goddess. Like Artemis/Diana, one of whose names in Ovid is Titania,23 Pallas Athena shunned male domination, even though she became firmly placed within the Olympian hierarchy dominated by Zeus. The transformed Bottom, in his man-animal double nature, resembles Cecrops as “picture of the primitive Athenian;” in relation to Titania he seems like an indulged baby, child rather than consort of a mother goddess. He stands (or lies) in for the changeling boy, who is in fact never seen in the play. Jung's comment that in myths of the divine child “Nature, the world of the instincts, takes the ‘child’ under its wing,”24 is an apt commentary on Bottom's treatment by the fairies who bring him the good things of the wood. Jung's words about the power of the child archetype uncannily capture Bottom's experience as he struggles to remember the dream that he cannot express: “Consciousness hedged about by psychic powers, sustained or threatened or deluded by them, is the age-old experience of mankind. This experience has projected itself into the archetype of the child, which expresses man's wholeness. … The ‘eternal child’ in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, and a divine prerogative.”25 Bottom's metamorphosis is explicable, in part at least, as a vision of the child archetype.

But why would the child archetype, or, more modestly, concern with children, be part of a version of the Theseus story? Theseus, after all, is famous for cursing and destroying his son. The issue of lineage may suggest an answer. Cecrops “discovered, as it were, the double descent of human beings, that they come not only from a mother but also from a father. He founded the institution of marriage between one man and one woman, which was to be under the protection of the goddess Athene. That allegedly was his act of foundation, worthy of a primaeval father, who was not personally the ancestor of the Athenians, although they had him to thank for their patrilineal descent.”26 The instituting of marriage no doubt marks, to some degree at least, the suppression of matriarchal customs and powers. The marriages in A Midsummer Night's Dream, although they are not determined by the tyrannical Egeus, nevertheless occur only with the approval of Theseus and the blessing of Oberon; moreover, “[t]hose who emphasized the point that Kekrops instituted marriage were obliged to add that men and women had mated promiscuously before his time.”27 The tradition of another status for women than that in historical Athens, where they were excluded from public life, remained in the latest form of the story of how Pallas Athena took possession of the land:

In this version of that famous tale, the olive grew out of the earth for the first time while Kekrops reigned, and at the same time a spring appeared. The king is said to have inquired thereupon of the Delphic oracle and got the answer that the olive signified the goddess Athene, the water the god Poseidon, and the citizens were to decide after which the city was to be named. Now in those days the woman [sic] had still the franchise, and they out-voted the men by one; thus Athene was victorious and the city was named Athenai. Poseidon, as many tales teach us that he did, became angry and flooded the coasts. To pacify him, the women had to renounce their former right, and ever since then the children were not distinguished by the names of their mothers but by those of their fathers.28

The quarrel of Oberon and Titania causes disruptions in nature reminiscent of the floods that Poseidon visited on Athens until he was placated by the women's sacrifice of their franchise. Titania gives in to Oberon, much as the women of Athens gave up their power, for the good of the community.

These stories about the beginnings of Athens record that with the discovery of the male role in procreation came marriage, monogamy, and the ‘voluntary’ surrender of women's rights to political power. The aspect of Shakespeare's play that most uncannily suggests the myth of Athen's founding is the choice of a cause for Titania's and Oberon's quarrel. Oberon wants control of a changeling boy who has been in Titania's care. It may be that Oberon is announcing the time when a boy-child should be initiated into the masculine world and that Titania is unjustifiably retarding the child's ‘natural’ development, but the text does not make that argument. Oberon simply says, “I do but beg a little changeling boy / To be my henchman” (2.1.120-21). The fact that he “begs” the child suggests that in spite of his later tricks, which quickly if illogically enforce Titania's compliance, he is dependent on Titania's willing gift of the child if he is to consider it his.29

In response to Oberon's plea, Titania presents her own little ‘myth’ of the boy's birth:

His mother was a votress of my order;
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side;
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th'embarked traders on the flood:
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire),
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake I will not part with him.


Although this passage does not claim a virgin birth for the changeling boy, the simile of the “wanton wind” impregnating the sails of ships makes it appear that his mother had herself become pregnant without the help of a man. In light of Jung's remark that “like the womb of the mother, boundless water is an organic part of the image of the Primordial Child,”30 it is striking that the changeling boy was born on the seashore. In far-off India Titania has received something close to worship (“votress of my order”) from her charming follower. Their friendship is similar to that of Hermia and Helena in their girlhoods, or even to that of the Amazons. As Montrose says, for Titania the changeling boy is a token of friendship among women, who are united in part by their self-evident primacy as progenitrixes; to give him up is to submit to male power. The ignorance of early Athenians about the role of the father in conception permitted promiscuous behavior like that which the four lovers in the play are in danger of embracing. Titania's insistence on children as links between women rather than between men, as they must be in any patrilineal system, and in particular her beautiful invocation of the self-sufficiency of women, which stops just short of accepting parthenogenesis, threaten both the natural and patriarchal orders, or rather, the natural order as interpreted by a patriarchal consciousness. Compared with the mother's role, the father's is a matter of faith, dependent on the mother's ‘word.’ In the beginning was the word, the word of submission not only to a male symbolic order but to fatherhood as the basis of social order. The name, and law, of the father depend on the submissive word (‘the child is yours’) of the mother. Titania is re-stating, here, one can imagine, the attitudes to birth and female solidarity of early Athenian women and of the Amazons, including perhaps Hippolyta herself, whose protests are unvoiced, unless, as I think is reasonable, we take Titania as her alter ego.

Interestingly, in turning to thoughts of revenge Oberon uses a word employed by Theseus when, at the beginning of the play, he described his wooing of Hippolyta, who has submitted because of “injuries” done to her (1.1.17). Oberon now promises to torment Titania “for this injury” (2.1.147). He will do so by using ‘love’ against her, as Theseus, in a sense, has done to Hippolyta, whose loss of independence is supposedly made up for by her marriage. Titania will be forced to love, against her reason and her will, and will be shamed by that love. Oberon inserts his own Ovid-like myth at this point, explaining to Puck that the juice of the flower called “love-in-idleness” (2.1.168) “will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees” (2.1.171-72). Ultimately Oberon uses the juice of “love-in-idleness” to effect two results connected to Kerényi's account of early Athens. After some confusion, he leads the young lovers to “marriage between one man and one woman,” thereby creating a social order in which the husband's power is secured by his legalized control over his wife. He also uses the juice to bring the rebellious Titania to heel. He does this by causing her to enact a version of the Pasiphae story: Bottom is both the bull that Pasiphae lusted after and the minotaur that resulted from her lust. Although Titania does not mate with Bottom, who as I have suggested is more divine child than sexual object, she will be shamed by her desire for him. No doubt the original story of the labyrinth reflects a view of the matriarchal, or more matriarchal, religion of Crete as seen by Greeks of the patriarchal period. For them, the Cretan palace and its acrobats vaulting over the backs and horns of bulls represented a forbidding image of the mother goddess with her beast consorts, not that Greek religion, at any stage, was without its powerful goddesses. But the power of the mother goddess, except for Ceres, perhaps, who was in any case associated with the mysteries rather than with more public forms of devotion, had been reduced, by subordination to male gods and by various specializations of her power, such as patronage of love or of virginity.

The important point, of course, is that such a submission is not just generous, or inevitable, but productive of women's real social enslavement. It is hardly surprising that woman's giving up of control over the child, on many levels except that of actual care, must be seen as freely given. Myths which concentrate on this point, and many do, usually present the female submission as a gracious and ‘natural’ occurrence. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, in spite of the chaos that their quarrel has threatened, the fairy king and queen ‘resolve the issue’ (and here the phrase can be taken almost literally) with a suspicious haste which foreshortens the conflict and allows a comic ending, at least from the viewpoint of the patriarchal order which is thus reaffirmed. In Oberon's song in the final scene, a blessing on the children to be born to the couples that have wed that day, he refers to “issue” twice: “And the issue there [in the bride-bed] create / Ever shall be fortunate” (5.1.391-92) and “And the blots of Nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand …” (5.1.395-96). The parentless changeling boy has aroused primal and dangerous conflict between Oberon and Titania, figures who, although they seem to be childless themselves, readily suggest parental power. Their conflict resonates with doubts over the origin of children which, as Kerényi shows, are bound up with the institution of patriarchal marriage. The strangely static quality of A Midsummer Night's Dream—the play consists of the announcement of a marriage and the celebration of a marriage, but no representation of marriage itself—suggests that the interspersed plot lines, which involve escape into night, wood, and dream, are essential to the working out of a major block to the reconciliation of Theseus and his Amazon queen. The two plot lines which ‘handle’ this block are that of Oberon's and Titania's quarrel and that of the lover's night in the wood, which has been caused by Egeus' deadly willfulness, an extreme form of the position adopted by Oberon.

Although I would not claim that the story of Cecrops and early Athens is directly related to Shakespeare's play, I am impressed by the fact that it is in his great epithalamium that Shakespeare has chosen to recast the Theseus myth. In this recasting, he has included quarreling over the generation and control of children and, by extension, over the relative power of men and women. Oberon and Titania, in their struggle over the changeling boy and in Oberon's efforts to enforce Titania's obedience to his will, act out the sort of dream that might well trouble mortals' sleep. If the central part of the play is, among other things, a joint dream of Theseus and Hippolyta, then it is a dream that ‘resolves’ an underlying tension just as, according to Lévi-Strauss, and others, a myth resolves an intolerable social contradiction. Speaking of Levi-Strauss' view of myth, Ronald Schleifer has commented that “the function of mythic discourse is to create the illusory resolution of real cultural contradictions.”31 Shakespeare's play uses a version of the Pasiphae and minotaur story to create the “illusory resolution” of “real cultural contradictions.” One of the most repulsive aspects of the Theseus story is transformed into a charming fantasy in which Bottom returns to nature, has his (innocent) physical and emotional desires fulfilled, and is allowed, perhaps, to indulge an appreciation of the “female principle” that the waking man can admire only when it is firmly subordinated to male supremacy. This transformation of ‘repulsive’ into comic material does not, however, change the underlying meaning of the plot or of the social narratives that it supports.

In what sense, then, is A Midsummer Night's Dream a ‘mythic’ version of the Theseus story? Lamb has shown us that the story informs the play as a powerful and suggestive intertext; she has also noted some of the archetypal resonances of the labyrinth and of Bottom as minotaur. Frye has noted the play's reflection of struggles between male and female principles, and Montrose has argued its involvement in the contradictions and realities of Elizabethan society. I have suggested that the play brings forward a less obvious element in the Theseus cycle of stories, namely, its somewhat veiled treatment of the conflict between the matriarchal and patriarchal orders, which in turn is connected, as Kerényi suggests, to a primordial struggle over generation.

This ‘revelation’ of a ‘mythic kernel’ need not lead us to agree with essentialist views of myth. Or at least, we must be clear about why a myth has an ‘essence.’ Enough stories have been significant for a time and then been forgotten to persuade us that the power of myth is dependent not on some sort of primordial ‘charge’ but on continuing social relevance. That is, it is not the story or myth itself that remains ‘timeless,’ but the social context, which in spite of great changes in particulars, can sustain a basic pattern over time. No pattern has been more sustained over time than that of male supremacy, so it is hardly surprising that uneasiness over passion and over female independence would link ancient Athens, Elizabethan England, and contemporary societies. Perhaps it makes sense to see the essentialist view of myth as a kind of metaphor pointing to particularly important ongoing concerns. Especially in the masterful hands of Jung, whose comments on the child archetype I have quoted, this metaphor can provide emotional and even logical satisfaction, as long as the historical and social contexts recorded if not explained by Kerényi are kept firmly in mind.

Although patriarchal power is explored and defended in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, its arbitrariness is nowhere more explicit than in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play is a comic version of the Theseus story, not because it parodies the myth, nor because it transforms the minotaur into a beneficent image of the divine or archetypal child, although both of these arguments can reasonably be made. Rather, Shakespeare's playful yet haunted play of Duke Theseus is a comedy because the comic mode best allows its underlying social theme, that of women's submission to men in marriage, to pass like a dream—a dream founded on the starkest reality.


  1. All quotations from the play are taken from Harold F. Brooks' Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1979).

  2. Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 3.

  3. Campbell, “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art,” in Myths, Dreams and Religion, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Dutton, 1970), 141.

  4. Campbell, 140.

  5. Brower, Mirror on Mirror: Translation, Imitation, Parody (Cambridge: Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), 17.

  6. See the introduction to the Arden edition, liii.

  7. Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954; rpt. 1970), 2.

  8. Neumann, 78.

  9. See Tidworth, “From the Renaissance to Romanticism” in The Quest for Theseus, A. G. Ward et al. (New York: Praeger, 1970), 195.

  10. Tidworth, 215.

  11. Lamb, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21 (1979): 478-91.

  12. For further discussion of the labyrinth, see David Ormerod's “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Monster in the Labyrinth,” in Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 39-52. Ormerod's article uses the narrative of Theseus and the minotaur, and its allegorizations during the Renaissance, to explore the notion of “blind love” and the eventual reconciliation of opposites into “a new discordia concors” (39).

  13. Frye, The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 80-81.

  14. Frye, 81.

  15. Representations 1.2 (1983): 66.

  16. Montrose, 71.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Allen Dunn follows suit in his “The Indian Boy's Dream Wherein Every Mother's Son Rehearses His Part: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 15-32, especially 24-26.

  19. Montrose, 71.

  20. C. Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks, (1959, rpt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 209; see his chapter entitled “Kekrops, Erechtheus and Theseus.” I have retained Kerényi's spellings in quotations from his text but have otherwise used standard spellings.

  21. C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, Bollingen Series (1949; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 85.

  22. Kerényi, 209.

  23. See Frye, 80.

  24. Jung and Kerényi, 87.

  25. Ibid., 97-98.

  26. Kerényi, 209.

  27. Ibid., 210.

  28. Ibid., 210-11.

  29. For an interesting discussion of Elizabethan beliefs about paternity, see Montrose's article, especially 72-75.

  30. Jung and Kerényi, 49.

  31. Ronald Schleifer, “Structuralism,” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 700.

D. J. Palmer (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3438

SOURCE: “Twelfth Night and the Myth of Echo and Narcissus,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 32, 1979, pp. 73-78.

[In the following essay, Palmer examines Shakespeare's adaptation of Ovid's Echo and Narcissus myth in Twelfth Night.]

Orsino's attitude to love, particularly in the play's opening speech, has often provoked charges of self-indulgence and self-deception, and one critic is even driven to declare him ‘a narcissistic fool’.1 However, the association with Narcissus can be more precisely defined, since Orsino's luxuriant musing on the appetite that craves to die in its own too much, the music that cloys the sense so that it seems no longer sweet and the capacious spirit of love in which anything of value ‘falls into abatement and low price’ (I, i, 13)2 plays upon the motif ‘inopem me copia fecit’, the complaint of Ovid's Narcissus translated by Golding as ‘my plentie makes me poore’ (l. 587).3 In its original context, ‘inopem me copia fecit’ expresses the paradoxical realisation of Narcissus that he himself is the unattainable object of his insatiable desire, but the Elizabethan poets appropriated the tag as a paradigm of unrequited love.4 Spenser, for instance, constructs the thirty-fifth sonnet of Amoretti around it:

My hungry eyes through greedy covetize,
          still to behold the object of their paine,
          with no contentment can themselves suffize:
          but having pine and having not complaine.
For lacking it they cannot lyfe sustayne,
          and having it they gaze on it the more:
          in their amazement lyke Narcissus vaine
          whose eyes him starv'd: so plenty makes me poore.
Yet are mine eyes so filled with the store
          of that faire sight, that nothing else they brooke,
          but loth the things which they did like before,
          and can no more endure on them to looke.
All this world's glory seemeth vayne to me,
          and all their showes but shadowes, saving she.(5)

Orsino's opening speech is not only full of similar languishing, but it also expresses the restlessness of the affections that come to ‘loth the things which they did like before’. In the poems written early in his career Shakespeare himself plays some less neo-Platonised variations on the motif of ‘inopem me copia fecit’. At the beginning of Venus and Adonis, for instance, Venus promises the reluctant youth that her kisses will ‘not cloy thy lips with loath'd satiety, / But rather famish them amid thy plenty’, (ll. 19-20) although later in the poem, when she tries to embrace Adonis by force, it is her own lips that ‘surfeit, yet complain on drouth. / He with her plenty press'd, she faint with dearth’(ll. 544-5). Similarly, in The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin's lust is apparent in his ‘still-gazing eyes’,

Which, having all, all could not satisfy;
But, poorly rich, so wanteth in his store
That cloy'd with much he pineth still for more.

(ll. 96-8)

When Orsino calls for music as ‘the food of love’,

Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die,

(I, i, 2-3)

Shakespeare is adapting Barnabe Riche's reflection on the foolish lover, ‘onely led by the apetite of his owne affections’,6 to a conventional and perhaps slightly old-fashioned literary trope. Orsino loves by the book; at a further remove from his beloved than Spenser's tormented lover or the predatory Venus, Orsino's passion is fed neither by eyes nor by kisses, but by imagination:

                                                  So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

(I, i, 14-15)

Orsino recalls, not only the Narcissus of ‘inopem me copia fecit’, mediated through the tradition of Elizabethan love poetry, but also the Narcissus whose plight is somewhat unfeelingly described by Golding:

He feedes a hope without cause why. For like a foolishe noddie
He thinkes the shadow that he sees, to be a lively boddie.

(ll. 521-2)

Orsino too pursues an illusion; the fact that during the course of the play he does not encounter Olivia until the final scene reinforces this sense of an infatuation with an image rather than love for a real person. His attitude can indeed be described as ‘narcissistic’, though it is defined in relation to other allusions to Ovid's fable and its later recensions in the pattern of the play as a whole.

Malvolio, for instance, is also initially identified with Narcissus when Olivia rebukes him on his first appearance for being ‘sick of self-love’ (I, v, 85). This Narcissus is the allegorised figure of Philautia, a diagnosis later confirmed by Maria's description of the self-conceit that she will exploit in her plot against him: ‘the best persuaded of himself, so cramm'd, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him’ (II, iii, 140-2). Malvolio, like Orsino, is self-deceived, but to an opposite effect. The Duke plays the long-suffering unrequited lover of poetic tradition, while the steward, ‘practising behaviour to his own shadow’ (II, v, 14-15), a very narcissistic pastime, imagines that his lady dotes on him.

Olivia herself is the subject of another sequence of allusions to Narcissus in Viola's criticism of her refusal of love. Again, some of these are mediated through poetic tradition, while some more directly recall the Ovidian tale. Viola's tribute to Olivia's beauty, for instance, is often compared to the opening theme of Shakespeare's own Sonnets:

Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave,
And leave the world no copy.

(I, v, 225-7)

The youth addressed in the Sonnets is reproached in several references to the beauty, vanity and eventual fate of Narcissus, including the following quatrain from the first sonnet, with its adroit play upon ‘inopem me copia fecit’ in the third line:

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.


The vanity of the mythical youth who scorned all his suitors is also paralleled by Viola's accusation that Olivia is ‘too proud’ (I, v, 234), while Viola's imprecation on this ‘fair cruelty’,

Love make his heart of flint that you shall love;
And let your fervour, like my master's, be
Plac'd in contempt!

(I, v, 270-2)

corresponds to the prayer of the rejected suitor in Ovid (Golding's version is cited again):

I pray to God he may once feele fierce Cupids fire,
As I doe now, and yet not joy the things he doth desire.

(ll. 505-6)

The wish is fulfilled upon Olivia no less ironically than it is in the myth: ‘poor lady, she were better love a dream’ (II, ii, 24).

More incidental to the dramatic design, but indicative of the associations at work in Shakespeare's mind, is Malvolio's description of Viola, ‘yond young fellow’ demanding admission at Olivia's gate, as ‘in standing water, between boy and man’ (I, v, 150). The New Arden edition of the play notes that the line is reminiscent of Golding's account of the adolescent Narcissus:

For when yeares three times five and one he fully lyved had,
So that he seemde to stande betweene the state of man and Lad,
The hearts of divers trim yong men his beautie gan to move,
And many a Ladie fresh and fair was taken in his love.

(ll. 437-40)

The verbal recollection brings with it the context of sexual ambivalence, appropriate to Viola's disguise and to the ironic outcome of the following interview with Olivia, while Shakespeare's improvement upon the neutral expression ‘stande betweene’ in the metaphoric phrase ‘in standing water’ is also fitting for this lady from the sea.

Viola's role, however, has more in common with Echo, the nymph deprived of her own speech by Juno and compelled to express her feelings in borrowed terms. Ovid's Echo falls in love with Narcissus, but is spurned by him and hides away until she fades into a disembodied voice. It is tempting to believe that the poignancy of Viola's secret love for Orsino is indebted to Echo's plight, particularly in the device by which Viola preserves her secrecy yet reveals to Orsino ‘what love women to men may owe’ in the fiction of a sister who ‘never told her love’ (II, iv, 109). This tale of melancholy concealment and pining love certainly corresponds in feeling to Ovid's description of Echo (here given in the words of a literal modern translation in preference to Golding):

Thus spurned, she lurks in the woods, hides her shamed face among the foliage, and lives from that time on in lonely caves. But still, though spurned, her love remains and grows on grief; her sleepless cares waste away her wretched form; she becomes gaunt and wrinkled and all moisture fades from her body into the air. Only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice; for they say that her bones were turned to stone. She hides in woods and is seen no more upon the mountain-sides; but all may hear her, for voice, and voice alone, still lives in her.7

Viola's skill in attuning her speech to the occasion is an important feature of her use of disguise. In resolving to serve Orsino she refers to her ability to speak ‘in many sorts of music’ (I, ii, 58), and this claim is first tested when Orsino sends her to court Olivia on his behalf, assuring her that ‘It shall become thee well to act my woes’ (I, iv, 25). In her encounter with Olivia, she proves herself versatile in adopting different voices, playing in turn the impertinent youth (Orsino has instructed her to ‘Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds’, I, iv, 20), the flattering courtier (‘Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty’, I, v, 160), the candid moralist (‘What is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’, I, v, 177) and, at the climactic point of the interview, the ardent lover who would, ‘If I did love you in my master's flame’,

Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia’. O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

(I, v, 256-60)

Golding describes Echo as ‘a babling Nymph’, but Viola is no gossip, although she voices Orsino's suit: ‘what I am and what I would are as secret as maidenhead’ (I, v, 203).

The matching response which Viola's impersonated passion so inadvertently elicits from Olivia suggests another variation on the Echo theme, as fable fades into metaphor. Echo is that reciprocation of feeling so eloquently expressed by Viola as she and Orsino listen to music:

Duke.                                         How
dost thou like this tune?
          It gives a very echo to the seat
          Where Love is thron'd.
Duke.                                         Thou dost
speak masterly.

(II, iv, 19-21)

Orsino's praise of her response also acknowledges that her ‘masterly’ reply echoes and articulates his own feeling. It is a moment of true emotional consonance, and as Orsino recognises by Viola's answer that his page knows what it is to be in love, the two are drawn closer together. The irony and pathos of Viola's secret plight lend emotional conviction to her repetition of his poetic cliché:

                    For women are as roses, whose fair flower
                    Being once display'd doth fall that very hour.
                    And so they are; alas, that they are so!
                    To die, even when they to perfection grow!

(II, iv, 37-40)

Viola, like Feste, is a realist, and she tries to make Orsino see the truth of his fruitless pursuit of Olivia:

                    But if she cannot love you, sir?
                    I cannot so be answer'd.
Viola.                                                   Sooth,
but you must.

(II, iv, 86-7)

That is the crux of the matter: love that lacks a responding echo is in vain.

Concealment and reciprocation, which I have associated with the Echo motif of the love plot, are concerns that extend into other areas of the play. ‘Is it a world to hide virtues in?’ asks Sir Toby (I, iii, 123), and certainly Viola's enforced secrecy and self-restraint contrast with the generally unrestrained and uninhibited temper of life in Illyria. Orsino's ready trust in his new servant, ‘I have unclasp'd / To thee the book even of my secret soul’ (I, iv, 12-13), is paralleled by Sebastian's unfolding to Antonio:

But I perceive in you so excellent a touch of modesty that you will not extort from me what I am willing to keep in; therefore it charges me in manners the rather to express myself.

(II, i, 10-12)

Viola persuades Olivia to unveil and withhold herself no longer, but she must in turn ungraciously refuse Olivia's offer of love (and money), while in a later scene Sebastian accepts Antonio's unsolicited gift of love (and money):

                                                  My kind Antonio,
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks, and ever thanks; and oft good turns
Are shuffl'd off with such uncurrent pay.

(III, iii, 13-16)

Requiting what is freely given is the essence of civility and proper relationship throughout the play, epitomised in Feste's thanks for the sixpence sent by Sir Andrew: ‘I did impeticos thy gratillity’ (II, iii, 25).

A less civil form of requital is the revenge upon Malvolio, and the great gulling scene also turns on concealment and exposure. Before he finds Maria's letter, Malvolio unwittingly betrays his secret fantasies to his enemies concealed behind the box-hedge, and then, with tantalising obtuseness, Malvolio discovers, opens and eventually deciphers the letter with its hidden message: ‘daylight and champain discovers not more. This is open’ (II, v, 141-2). Hilarity is tinged with a more ominous hint when Sir Toby says to Maria at the end of the scene: ‘Why, thou hast put him in such a dream that when the image of it leaves him he must run mad’ (ll. 173-4).

Malvolio's painful awakening from fantasy suggests how much happiness seems to depend on deception and illusion in this play. As Sebastian says, when Olivia, a perfect stranger to him, invites him inside her house,

Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep,
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

(IV, i, 60-2)

Perhaps this is why the final clarifications, which depend on the recognitions of Viola and Sebastian, are deferred for as long as possible. Viola has no cause to wish for delay in resolving the various predicaments she is in, yet in the final scene, when she has more clues than anyone else to the source of the mounting confusion, she preserves a curious secrecy.

From the beginning of the play Viola has been aware of the possibility of Sebastian's survival: ‘Perchance he is not drown'd’ (I, ii, 5). The audience knows of Sebastian's presence in Illyria from the opening of act II, when he declares his belief that his sister is drowned. We are again reminded of Viola's tentative hope that her brother lives when she says to Orsino, almost giving herself away,

I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.

(II, iv, 119-20)

But when Antonio claims his purse from her at his arrest, and actually calls her Sebastian, Viola cautiously speculates on his error without jumping to conclusions:

He nam'd Sebastian. I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother; and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate. O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!

(III, iv, 363-8)

In the final scene, as Antonio is brought before Orsino for fighting in the streets, Viola testifies on his behalf, but surely pretends to less understanding than she has:

He did me kindness, sir; drew on my side;
But in conclusion put strange speech on me.
I know not what 'twas but distraction.

(V, i, 60-2)

Antonio's account to Orsino of all that he has done for ‘that most ingrateful boy there by your side’ (l. 71) merely draws from Viola the blank incomprehension of ‘How can this be?’ (l. 86). Before Antonio's grievance can be settled, Olivia appears and immediately reproaches Viola with breaking the vow which we know was sworn by Sebastian. Again Viola's response is evasive: ‘my lord would speak; my duty hushes me’ (l. 101). Her declaration that she loves Orsino ‘More, by all mores, than e'er I shall love wife’ (l. 130) provokes Olivia to protest that she is beguiled, but still Viola is seemingly as perplexed as the others: ‘Who does beguile you? Who does do you wrong?’ (l. 134). When Olivia directly claims Viola as ‘husband: can he that deny?’ (l. 138), the denial, ‘No, my lord, not I’ (l. 140), might be construed as arch rather than bewildered, and similarly her feigned ignorance is wearing thin when Sir Andrew enters to accuse her of wounding himself and Sir Toby: ‘Why do you speak to me? I never hurt you’ (l. 179).

All this is comically effective in arousing the audience's anticipation of Sebastian's own climactic entrance, and it teases us in its disingenuous use of the stock device of mistaken identity. But Viola is not obtuse, and she is in a better position than the other characters to realise that Sebastian must be the key to these apparent contradictions. Secrecy and patience are hers to the end, in contrast to Olivia's o'erhasty marriage and her summoning of the priest,

Here to unfold—though lately we intended
To keep in darkness what occasion now
Reveals before 'tis ripe—what thou dost know.

(ll. 146-8)

With Sebastian's eventual entrance, the twins are together on stage for the first time, but for twenty-four lines Viola remains silent, while her brother, not noticing her, greets his bride and then his friend Antonio. At last it is Antonio's astonishment that draws Sebastian's attention to his other self. The moment of recognition that will disperse error and confusion is now at hand, but still tantalisingly delayed, as brother and sister speak the antiphonal exchanges that bring them with unhurried and almost ritual solemnity to the point of mutual identification.

Even at this point, however, Viola's reticence permits only a provisional declaration of herself, drawing back from the embrace that would finally reunite her with her brother:

If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurp'd attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola.

(ll. 241-5)

This protracted and deferred reunion can be explained as Viola's distrust of appearances in the uncertain and unstable world of Illyria, where, as Feste says, ‘nothing that is so is so’ (IV, i, 8). But from the moment of Sebastian's amazed ‘Do I stand there?’ (l. 218), it is Viola's identity that has to be proved. Moreover, her first reaction to Sebastian's presence as that of a spirit ‘come to fright us’ (l. 228), while referring to his supposed death, also has something in common with that aura of the uncanny and unearthly associated with the confusion and eventual coming together of the twins in The Comedy of Errors. As the Duke of Ephesus exclaims in the recognition scene of that play, ‘Which is the natural man / And which the spirit?’ (V, i, 332-3). In this early comedy, the identical twins pose a threat to each other's sense of self and separate identity; to find his brother, Antipholus of Syracuse must ‘lose myself’ (I, ii, 40). In Twelfth Night, ‘drowned Viola’ (recalling the plea of Narcissus to his own image in the water: ‘It is a trifle in respect that lettes us of our love’, l. 568) will not embrace Sebastian in her ‘masculine usurp'd attire’: according to several Elizabethan versions of the myth, Narcissus drowned endeavouring to embrace his own reflection.8 In both plays, however, the true union of two-in-one is achieved in marriage, and the motif of the lost twin embodies that quest for the other self.


  1. Herschel Baker, Introduction to Twelfth Night, The Signet Classic Shakespeare (1965), p. xxviii.

  2. Quotations of Shakespeare's plays and poems are from The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (1951).

  3. Quotations of Arthur Golding's translation of Metamorphoses (1567) are from Shakespeare's Ovid, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (1961). All line references are to The Third Booke.

  4. L. Rick, ‘Shakespeare und Ovid’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, lv (1919), 50-1.

  5. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (1912), p. 568.

  6. Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581) as cited in the New Arden edition of Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (1975), Appendix 1, p. 158.

  7. Ovid: Metamorphoses. With an English Translation by Frank Justus Miller. The Loeb Classical Library. 2 vols. (1916), 1, 153.

  8. T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakespere's Poems & Sonnets (Urbana, 1950), pp. 18-21.

M. E. Lamb (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5702

SOURCE: “Ovid's Metamorphoses and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,” in Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, New York Literary Forum, 1980, pp. 63-77.

[In the following essay, Lamb studies Shakespeare's use of internalized metamorphosis in his representation of Orsino and Olivia, as well as his application of “Ovidian” rhetoric in Twelfth Night.]

The contradictory attitudes held toward Ovid in the Renaissance complicate the relationship between Ovid's Metamorphoses and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will. According to one tradition-rooted in the Middle Ages and continuing vigorously into the seventeenth century, Ovid was a didactic teacher whose tales were really allegorical lessons about the human soul. Twelfth Night can be interpreted as a play about change within the souls of Orsino, Olivia, and Viola,1 and metamorphosis serves as a metaphor for an inner spiritual state revealing that love can lead to either stasis or transcendence. The second Ovid, the urbane Ovid of the epyllia or erotic narratives still in fashion at the time of Twelfth Night, is diametrically opposed to the first. Delighting in his own verbal gymnastics and narrative poses, he is reflected in the interpretation of Twelfth Night as a play about characters who only perform roles and lack absolute identity.2

These opposite views of Ovid in the Renaissance are both valid. Many metamorphoses reveal spiritual states, and the narrator's attitude toward his material is often playful. In the end, the antithetical nature of Ovid's influence arises not from Renaissance literary traditions or modern interpretation, but from the complexity of the Metamorphoses itself.3


Metamorphosis is a complex word: it refers both to the process and the product of the change. Ovid's Metamorphoses treats “of shapes transformde to bodies straunge”4; it portrays reality as an unstable chimera where gods become animals, women become trees, men become wolves, dragon's teeth become men. These changes are final, and mortals who undergo transformation will never again be human. These transformations sometimes occur at moments of extreme stress, when the normal identity is destroyed under the force of some unendurable emotion, such as Niobe's grief over the death of her children. Her physical transformation into a rock is merely the realization of what has already occurred on the emotional level.

Other transformations, like that of Io into a cow, proceed from a petty motive of a god or goddess, such as Jove's fear that Juno might discover his attempted rape of Io. If there is a meaning in Io's metamorphosis, it is in its senselessness, its portrayal of a world without order or justice. But most metamorphoses, whether they are inherently connected to an emotional state of the person transformed or not, do serve an etiological function. Marble “sweats,” for example, because Niobe continued to weep even after her transformation into stone. Taken together, the metamorphoses relate the history of the world from creation until the time of Augustus. They culminate in Caesar's transformation and Augustus' projected transformation, into a star, representing deification, transcendence of the mortal state.5

Medieval readers reasoned that the subject of the Metamorphoses could not truly be the apparently foolish tales of humans transformed into trees or birds or rocks. The tales must have some deeper meaning, or, if they were to be read at all, they at least must be given some use to repay the reader for his time. Consequently, readers allegorized the Metamorphoses on historical, physical or astrological, moral, and theological levels. By the Renaissance, these four levels began to yield to the moral level, which usually operated according to a fairly simple formula: the transformation of a man into a beast meant that his soul had become bestial; a god was simply a virtuous man; a metamorphosis into a star was an honor accorded to the righteous. Arthur Golding, who translated the Metamorphoses read by Shakespeare, related the system this way:

But if wee suffer fleshly lustes as lawlesse Lordes too reigne,
Than are we beastes, wee are no men, wee have our name in vaine.
And if wee be so drownd in vice that feeling once bee gone,
Then may it well of us bee sayd, wee are a block or stone.
This surely did the Poets meene when in such sundry wyse
The pleasant tales of turned shapes they studyed too devyse.

(Preface to the Reader, 11.111-16)

For Golding, Ovid's metamorphoses referred to spiritual states. Turning into a beast or stone was a metaphor for becoming less than human, and this kind of meaning took precedence over the etiological or historical framework important in Ovid's time. In some cases, the allegorical treatment produces an unforced meaning. In the example of Io's metamorphosis into a cow, however, the allegory works against the natural response to the tale. Jove, not Io, was guilty of bestial desires, yet Golding blames Io. Ovid's work was too complex for any rigid system, including that used by Golding and other Renaissance readers. The allegorizers posited a world that made sense in which the virtuous were rewarded and the evil punished; and according to this view, sexuality was especially to be abhorred. This was not Ovid's world and, while he was influenced by the allegorical method, it was not Shakespeare's either.

The opening scene of Twelfth Night provides us with an example of Shakespeare's use of Ovidian metamorphosis, as Orsino dignifies his love melancholy with the epic precedent of Ovid's Actaeon, the hunter who was changed to a deer and eaten by his own hounds as punishment for his accidental glimpse of the naked Diana:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.


Orsino's comparison of himself with Actaeon is trite, and it shows him in the stereotype of courtly lover. It also borrows a habit of mind from medieval and Renaissance commentators on Ovid's Metamorphoses. He has internalized an Ovidian tale to describe his own emotional state, with the hounds as his desires and the chase as taking place within his own soul.

This interpretation of the Actaeon myth had become commonplace by the late sixteenth century, when it appears in English sources. Geoffrey Whitney's popular Choice of Emblemes and Other Devises (1586) expounds its meaning under the heading “Voluptas aerumnosa” (sorrowful pleasure):

By which is ment, that those whoe doe pursue
Theire fancies fonde, and thinges unlawfull crave,
Like brutishe beastes appeare unto the viewe,
And shall at lengthe, Actaeons guerdon have:
And as his houndes, soe theire affections base,
Shall them devowre, and all their deedes deface.(6)

Orsino's implied analogy between Olivia and the goddess Diana gives us more insight into his character. He compliments his mistress for those very qualities, including inveterate virginity, which cause his suit's persistent lack of success; and his parallel between hounds and his desires shows his love to be a self-destructive force. Orsino's application of the Actaeon myth to himself reveals his own state of spiritual metamorphosis. He is stuck; he has reached a point of inner stasis from which there is no apparent rescue.

Orsino's name may point to another metamorphosis, less explicit than the Actaeon myth but perhaps still worth exploring. Orsino means “bear.” In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Juno, in her anger over Jove's seduction of Callisto, turned that beautiful maiden into a bear. The innocent Callisto had herself been deceived, for in order to approach her, Jove had transformed himself to resemble Diana, the goddess Callisto served. This ruse perhaps recalls Viola's disguise as a man to bring her into Orsino's presence. In fact, Orsino explicitly compares Viola to Diana at one point:

For they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious.


Like Actaeon, Callisto became a hunter hunted. Unlike Actaeon, however, she is rescued by Jove. When her own son Arcas is unknowingly about to kill his mother, she and her son both are transformed into stars, the highest honor possible for a mortal, an event which causes Juno disgruntlement:

I have bereft hir womans shape, and at this present howre
She is become a Goddesse.


The commentators on this tale agree that Callisto's metamorphosis into a bear proceeds from her moral deformity. Even though Ovid's tale portrays her as an innocent victim, the formula that anyone turned into a beast is really bestial wins out.7 Most of the commentators do not explain her metamorphosis into a star, except for Bersuire, who interprets it to mean that great and noble persons can sometimes come from paupers.

At the risk of committing the same kinds of excesses as my medieval predecessors, I am proposing the following line of inquiry: the implied metamorphosis in Orsino's name points to the dual potentiality towards subhumanity and transcendence possible through love. Callisto's change to a bear provides a judgment about Orsino's spiritual state similar to Actaeon's change to a stag. In each case the mythographers are more severe on the Ovidian characters than Shakespeare's play gives us warrant for Orsino, but there is a grain of truth in what they say. Although Orsino is not bestial, in his self-preoccupation he has become a stereotype of a lover. In this sense, perhaps, he is not fully human. In his rage over Olivia's love for Cesario, he becomes dangerously predatory like a bear: “I'll sacrifice the lamb that I do love / To spite a raven's heart within a dove” (5.1.124-25). These are the unfortunate effects of his love for Olivia, which is really a form of self-love. Yet the star metamorphosis points to another kind of love which he seems to feel for Viola, a love that leads to the marriage proposal typical of comic endings and to his regeneration.

Like the name Orsino, the name Olivia also perhaps implies a dual metamorphosis. At the beginning of the play, she fits both classic Ovidian myths of maidens transformed into trees. Like Daphne pursued by Apollo, she insists on her chastity despite Orsino's persistent suit; and like the sisters of Phaeton, in mourning her dead brother, she gives up a portion of her life. Golding follows the traditional interpretation of the Daphne tale by praising her as a “myrror of virginitie.”8 The fate of Daphne is however, threatening in a comic world. Prolonged virginity, a virtue esteemed by the predominantly religious community interpreting Ovid's tales, assumes a different value in the context of comedy, for it menaces the expected marriages at the end of the play and ultimately endangers the regeneration of the community itself. The lesson of the metamorphosis of Phaeton's sisters into willow trees to teach moderation in mourning9 fits the comic world without strain: Olivia's extreme vow to mourn her brother for seven years, abjuring the company of men the while, means giving up the most fertile years of her life.

Like the metamorphoses of Actaeon into a stag and Callisto into a bear, these transformations point to inner stagnation. At the beginning of Twelfth Night, Olivia's treelike spiritual state becomes explicit, ironically enough, when she declares her love for Cesario: “A cypress, not a bosom, / Hides my heart” (3.1.123-24). However, as with the Callisto myth implied in Orsino's name, the myth implied in her name holds out comic possibilities. She is not a laurel or a willow; she is an olive, a tree of peace and fertility. These qualities are released in her through her love for Cesario/Sebastian.

Viola explicitly describes her feelings in terms of internalized metamorphosis when she tells Orsino of her father's daughter's unrequited love for a man much like Orsino:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought;
And, with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.


Viola's description of her inward self as “Patience on a monument” evokes an Ovidian metamorphosis like Niobe's transformation to stone in her grief over her dead children. Critical to the metamorphosis of each is their inability to speak. One effect of Niobe's grief is that “even hir verie tung / And palat of hir mouth was hard, and eche to other clung” (6.388-89). “Patience on a monument” cannot speak either; like Niobe, she cannot even cry out in pain. She must, in fact, go one step beyond Niobe; she must smile.

Moreover, Viola's image is dynamic. A decay of natural growth is revealed by her metaphor of concealment as a “worm i' th' bud;” and Patience's monument suggests a love ending in the grave rather than the wedding bed. This image of inner stasis and decay is all the more moving because it contrasts so dramatically with Viola's behavior, which is so entertaining and sympathetic. Yet this description of her inward self reveals that Viola has reached an inner state not unlike Olivia's or Orsino's. The reasons for her emotional situation are admirable rather than neurotic. She is honor-bound not to reveal her identity to Orsino and to court Olivia for him; yet she is finally, like Olivia and Orsino, denying life rather than affirming it. At this point, her love for Orsino is as fruitless as his for Olivia. There is no apparent solution for any of them. Like Orsino's bear and Olivia's tree, Viola's “Patience on a monument” is an another internalized metamorphosis that reveals that her love for Orsino, like his for Olivia, has caused stasis and even decay within her soul.

Even though she has reached the same emotional state as Orsino and Olivia, Viola's behavior is quite different. Far from being preoccupied with her own problems, she can laugh with Feste and feel sympathy for Olivia. She has enough perspective to avoid confusing the present moment with the future; she trusts to Time: “O Time, thou must untangle this not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie” (2.2.40-41). In this faith she resembles an Ovidian character whose love situation parallels hers. The moral of the story of Iphis, a woman loved by a woman, is that we must not become desperate even in the greatest difficulties, but we must trust to divine help.10 Iphis was a woman raised as a man because her father had ordered that any daughters her mother bore should be put to death. The goddess Isis, however, appearing in a vision to Iphis' mother, ordered her to save her infant by rearing her as a boy. Obeying the goddess, Iphis' mother raised her daughter to maturity, at which time she was betrothed to the lovely Ianthe, who loved her passionately. As the marriage date approached, Iphis and her mother prayed to Isis for help. Suddenly Iphis' stride grew longer, her face darkened, and she became a man and a happy bridegroom. This presents parallels with what happens between Olivia and Viola. Viola, a woman disguised as a man and loved by another woman, suddenly “becomes” her twin brother Sebastian, whose sudden appearance and wedding to Olivia are a providential solution to an impossible love situation.

The names and epithets of Viola and Sebastian point to an even closer relationship than that of twins. They are the male and female aspects of one function through which harmony is restored to society and love becomes a transcending power. John Hollander has already pointed out the significance of Viola's name: she is an instrument of “rhetorical music,” restoring balance in Orsino and Olivia and in the country of Illyria.11 Sebastian's harmonizing power is implied in the sea captain's description of him as Arion:

I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself
(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin's back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.


In this description, the sea captain was comforting Viola with the possibility of her brother's survival of the shipwreck through the agency of divine providence. In fact, his likening Sebastian to Arion implies more. In Ovid's Fasti, Arion, a talented lyre player, was about to be murdered for his money by a greedy ship's crew. As a last request, he asked to play his lyre; the beauty of its music summoned a dolphin, which carried him safely ashore.12 The universal power of music, even over wild beasts, was a commonplace: Orpheus, for example, tamed animals with his music, and this tradition was implicit in Ovid's tale. In both Ovid's time and Shakespeare's, music was an emblem and an agent of divine order. Its power derived from its correspondence to the music of the heavenly spheres, manifestations of the divine order of the mind of God.13

The tempest that swallowed the ship carrying Viola and Sebastian, was a common Shakespearean representation of disorder, corresponding to disorder or madness in the human soul. Sebastian was not saved by providence entirely, for in the face of disaster he maintained his own sanity; the order of his own soul gave him the “courage and hope” to bind himself to a mast. Both the mast “that lived upon the sea” and the waves, with which he holds “acquaintaince,” are described as alive and friendly agents within a death-threatening chaos. He found them out, he trusted them, and they saved him. These same characteristics that save Sebastian are found in Viola. Her actions also reveal “courage and hope.” Never giving in to despair in the bleakest of circumstances, she trusts to time and she is saved. Together, Viola and Sebastian/Arion are emblems of divine music, both in the order of their own selves and in their ability to restore order to others. In this sense, they are one.

The identity of Viola and Sebastian is further revealed by Viola's assumed name Cesario, or “little Caesar,” which forms a pair with “Sebastos,” “the Greek equivalent of Octavian's epithet, ‘Augustus.’”14 Cesario and Sebastian represent a significant reference to the culmination of the Metamorphoses, Caesar's metamorphosis and Augustus' projected metamorphosis into stars. In Ovid's work, transformation into a star signified defication. According to allegorical tradition, as expressed by Golding, it signified the glory due virtuous acts: “The turning to a blazing starre of Julius Cesar showes, / That fame and immortalitie of vertuous doing growes” (Epistle to Leycester, 11.292-93).

In Twelfth Night, this transformation into a star also implies virtue, although in the living rather than the dead. Like the other metamorphoses in Twelfth Night, transformation into a star is internalized to represent a spiritual state. Viola's love for Orsino was a source of grief for her for much of the play; her inward self was static, like Patience on a monument. Now her love has a different kind of stasis, transcendence. Her love has transcended the turmoil and change usual in human lives to become like the star in Sonnet 116, one of Shakespeare's most profound statements on ideal love:

It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.


Metamorphoses into stars imply the same happy fortune for Sebastian's love for Olivia and Orsino's for Viola, through the Callisto myth.


The most remarkable transformations in the Metamorphoses belong to the narrator, whose continually changing postures toward his own material play havoc with the responses of any sensitive reader. Absurd tales are told seriously; serious tales are told absurdly. Even within a single tale, his tone can change at the most unpredictable moment. Just as a reader is drawn into a tragic vision, the narrator jolts him with a comment that is flippantly incongruous. For example, when Phaeton's ill-fated attempt to drive the chariot of the sun sets the earth on fire, causes his own death, and creates such grief in his father that he prefers to leave the earth in darkness rather than to drive the chariot himself, the narrator points out the utility of these destructive conflagrations: “The brightnesse of the flame / Gave light: and so unto some kinde of use that mischiefe came” (2.419-20). Just when we had gotten absorbed in the tale, the narrator reminds us of his presence with a ridiculous sentiment appropriate to a Pollyanna of ancient Rome. Through such means he makes us highly aware of his role as narrator and in the process often makes fun of the essentially serious tales he has collected. And integral to his poses is his wit. Continually calling attention to itself through puns, small elegancies, clever ironies, his language often distances the most moving tales.

Ovid's manipulation of narrative role and his highly self-conscious use of language were valued and imitated in the Renaissance. They are primary characteristics of the Ovidian epyllia or little epics written at the end of the sixteenth century by authors like Thomas Lodge, Christopher Marlowe, as well as Shakespeare himself. Ovid's techniques were ideally suited to their attempt to embrace complexity and to portray reality through a variety of perspectives.15 For the writers of epyllia, as for Ovid, the primary subject of poetry is not the narrative material, but the varying attitudes toward it. Shakespeare, for example, often plays with incongruous narrative poses in his Ovidian Venus and Adonis when Venus' eyes, beholding her dead Adonis, are likened to snails whose tender horns are hit. In The Rape of Lucrece, the lustful Tarquin's hand, “smoking with pride,” “did scale” her bare breast whose veins suddenly left their “turrets” to tell Lucrece of her danger (11. 438-41). These bizarre comparisons inevitably draw attention to themselves, not unlike Ovid's “jerks of invention” admired by Shakespeare's pedant Holofernes (Love's Labor's Lost, 4.2.125-27).

Interest in manipulating roles perhaps accounts for the frequent presence of the female wooer in both Ovid and Shakespeare. The female wooer inevitably creates two feelings: a usually sympathetic reaction to her love and an awareness, sometimes humorous, of her reversal of roles. As Helena exclaims in A Midsummer Night's Dream: “We cannot fight for love as men may do; / We should be wooed, and were not made to woo” (2.1.242-43). Olivia's proposal to Sebastian, surprising enough as the proposal of a man to a woman, becomes hilarious because it comes from a woman to a man. Both sympathy and humor result as she enters with a priest to perform the ceremony. The female wooer is an ideal inhabitant of the essentially rhetorical reality portrayed in the Metamorphoses and in Twelfth Night. Just as Ovid's language constantly calls attention to the role of the narrator, so we become especially conscious of the role of lover when the expected roles are reversed. Our reaction is inevitably complex.

The Ovidian succession of roles is nowhere more apparent than in Viola's dazzling performance for Olivia. Disguised as Cesario, she begins her speech, intended to court Olivia for Orsino, with the expected flattery, “Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty” (1.5.168), only to interrupt it by an ingenuous request to know which veiled lady is Olivia, for she doesn't want to throw away her speech, “excellently well penned” and difficult to learn, on the wrong person. First she flatters Olivia, and then she calls attention to her role as flatterer, one who must laboriously write and memorize compliments. In reacting to Olivia's unveiled face, she plays the role first of admirer and then of cynic: “Excellently done, if God did all” (1.5.236). Her response to Olivia's beauty is both admiration and criticism for leaving “the world no copy” (1.5.243). Finally, she embarks on an exquisite speech on how she would win Olivia if she (Cesario) were Orsino: she would “Hallo [Olivia's] name to the reverberate hills / And make the babbling gossip of the air / Cry out ‘Olivia!’” (1.5.273-75). Her role-playing is clear. Crying Olivia's name is not what she is doing; it is only what she would do if she were Orsino.

Her performance is splendid and highly self-conscious. She does not let Olivia forget for a moment that she is just role-playing. She even admits “I am not that I play” (1.5.182). Yet Olivia falls in love with her, and so in most performances does the audience, which is aware of the additional aritifice that Cesario does not exist except as a role adopted by Viola as a way of protecting herself in Illyria. In her succession of poses, in her distancing of her message by constantly pointing to her language and her role, she is brilliantly Ovidian. No one, not even Olivia, could mistake her for being “sincere.” Viola is real to us not in spite of her role-playing, but because of it. It is Viola's skill as an actress which marks her off from the other characters: Aguecheek, who is unable to portray the roles of “drinker, fighter, wencher,” as Joseph Summers points out;16 Olivia, who is at first confined to the limited role of mourner; Orsino, who is acting out the role of unrequited lover—they are all one-dimensional not because they are acting instead of being, but because they are limited actors.

Malvolio defines the Ovidian character by contrast. No character could be more artificial than the Ovidian narrator; no one could act more roles or parody his own role more. The difference between the Ovidian narrator and Malvolio is not between acting and being, artificiality and sincerity but between good acting and bad acting. A good actor like Viola can play many roles and regard them all with irony, and so she is a full character, able to respond to many different situations. A bad actor like Malvolio is doomed to be one-dimensional. And Malvolio is a bad actor. When he attempts the role of smiling lover, a part much easier than Cesario's role of courting an unwilling lady by proxy, Olivia misunderstands the nature of his attempted role. She thinks he is insane.

Malvolio's predictable, unimaginative responses make him an easy target for Feste's gulling. His refusal to believe in Pythagoras' theory of the transmigration of souls, for example, is the expected academic answer. It is, in fact, Golding's response in his Epistle to Leycester (11. 49-54), commenting on Pythagoras' oration, which makes up much of the last book of the Metamorphoses. Yet far from proving Malvolio's sanity, it points to his special form of madness: his rigidity. Malvolio stands against more than Pythagoras' theory of the transmigration of souls; he stands against change itself. Change is the essence of sanity in Twelfth Night, whether we view it as a play about transformations within the inward self or about actors performing roles. According to Pythagoras, all creatures change; change is our stay against annihilation; change is the essence of life itself. In this way, microcosm seems to mirror macrocosm. The constant change necessary to maintain order in the world is also necessary to maintain order within the self. In this sense, Malvolio is mad in his refusal to change; and we must, with Feste, doubt his sanity until he holds the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl.

The consequences of his failure are these. Because he cannot act, he cannot change, and he is stuck with a single role: Malvolio, humorless and righteous conserver of his mistress' possessions, stifler of undue merriment. He cannot understand how Olivia, with the help of Feste, can laugh at her role of mourner; he certainly cannot share in the laughter. He most certainly cannot step outside his role for a moment to laugh at himself. But perhaps most important, he cannot forgive. He cannot imagine the roles of the other characters; he cannot act them out in his own imagination; he cannot imagine himself in their places. Thus their playing a practical joke on him is inconceivable. He cannot accept Olivia's proffered reparations, and he must leave vowing revenge.

Feste, of course, is the most Ovidian of all. He can assume any role: gentle yet thorough critic of Olivia; reveler with Sir Toby Belch; singer of melancholy songs for Orsino; Sir Topas, curate to Malvolio. Much of his humor is self-parody, on the nature and function of fools. Regarding the drunk Toby, he exclaims, “The fool shall look to the madman” (1.5.136); in reference to Viola's master Orsino, “The fool should be as oft with your master as with my mistress” (3.1.41); to Malvolio, “Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool” (4.2.92-93). Totally artificial, he is yet a sympathetic character whose effect on the play is profound.

To Feste is given the final song, ending this comedy on a melancholy note, reminding us that “the rain it raineth every day.” In his final stanza, he breaks down the difference between character and actor, play and reality beyond the stage: “our play is done, / And we'll strive to please you every day” (5.1.409-10). The ramifications of this dissolution of the barrier between stage and life are tremendous. Not only is the real actor playing Feste's part in Feste's situation, earning a small living from pleasing and perhaps instructing others with his performance, but the essentially dramatic reality in Twelfth Night flows out to the audience and real life. We are all actors assuming various roles with various degrees of competence. Like Viola and Malvolio, we are defined not by our “real selves,” but by our ability to play our roles, to step outside them, to understand the roles of others. Absolute reality and even absolute identity are illusory. This is the Rome celebrated by Ovid, and it seems much like Shakespeare's Illyria.


  1. See Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), pp. 163-200; Douglas Bush, “Ovid Old and New,” Mythology in the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932, rev. 1963), pp. 69-73; L. P. Wilkinson, Ovid Recalled (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), pp. 399-438. For allegories of Ovid's tales influential in the Renaissance, see Metamorphosis Ovidiana Moraliter a Magistro Thoma Walleys Anglico (Paris, 1511) (this work was really a fourteenth century allegory by Pierre Bersuire or Berchorius: see Allen, p. 168); Metamorphoseon. Libri XV. Raphaelis Regii … cum novis Jacob Micylli Viri eruditissimi additionibus (Venice, 1549); Shakespeare's Ovid Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses (1567), ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961); Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Ivychurch (London, 1592); P. Ovidii Metamorphosis, seu Fabulae Poeticae: Earumque interpretatio ethica, physica, historica Georgii Sabini (Frankfort, 1593) (this work was written by George Schuler: see Allen, p. 179); George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, ed. Karl K. Hulley and Stanley T. Vandersall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).

  2. See Elizabeth Donno, Elizabethan Minor Epics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963); William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1977); Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 48-64, 82-110. A third Ovid, philosopher of mutability, has been demonstrated in Twelfth Night by D. J. Palmer, “Art and Nature in Twelfth Night,Critical Quarterly, 9 (1967), 201-12.

  3. See G. Karl Galinsky, Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975); Lanham, pp. 48-64; Brooks Otis, Ovid as an Epic Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1966).

  4. Shakespeare's Ovid Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses, p. 21; I, 1; all quotations from Ovid will be taken from this translation, hereafter called Golding's Ovid.

  5. See especially Galinsky, pp. 45-69; and Otis, pp. 122-51, 260-63, and his argument (pp. 298-300) that the deification of Caesar and projected deification of Augustus were merely compliments and not meant to be taken seriously.

  6. Whitney's Choice of Embles, ed. Henry Greene (London: Lovell Reeve, 1866); p. 15; see also Fraunce, M1. Other popular interpretations include Actaeon as a man whose estate was consumed by usurers, and the son of God pursued by cruel persons (Walleys/Bersuire, D2, D2v). A man whose patrimony is consumed by hangers-on appears in Regio-Micyllus, E2; Golding, Epistle to Leycester, 11. 97-100; Fraunce, M1; Sandys, p. 151. The tale is moralized as a warning to avoid curiosity into the affairs of princes in Fraunce, M1 and Sandys, p. 151. Written after Twelfth Night, Sandys shows the conservatism of allegorical interpretation.

  7. Walleys/Bersuire, C5, repeated word for word in Regio-Micyllus, D7, translation by Allen, p. 173 quoting from Paris, 1515 edition; Sabinus/Schuler, E1v; Sandys, pp. 112-13. Regio-Micyllus adds that her change to a bear is also able to signify her change from prosperity to poverty.

  8. Epistle to Leycester, 1.68. See also Walleys/Bersuire, B8v; and Sandys, p. 74, who moralizes the tale to show what “immortall honour a virgin obtaines by preserving her chastity.”

  9. Walleys/Bersuire, C4; Regio-Micyllus, D7; Sabinus/Schuler, D6v; Sandys, p. 110.

  10. Sabinus/Schuler, X7; Sandys, p. 449.

  11. “Musica Mundana and Twelfth Night,Sound and Poetry, ed. Northrop Frye, English Institute Essays, 1956 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), pp. 80-82.

  12. Ovid's Fasti, ed. and trans. James George Frazer (London: Macmillan, 1929), I, 59.

  13. See, for example, S. K. Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony; Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1974), pp. 6-7, 179-89.

  14. John S. Lawry, “Twelfth Night and ‘Salt Waves Fresh in Love,’” Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), 108, n.17.

  15. Keach, pp. 5-24; Lanham, pp. 48-64. Through these techniques they were able to express a quality Keach calls “ambivalence,” “the coexistence in one person of opposing emotional attitudes towards one subject” (p. xvi).

  16. “The Masks of Twelfth Night,University Review, 22 (1955), 28.

Bibliographical Note

The works of special use in my study of Ovid are Brooks Otis, Ovid as an Epic Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966); G. Karl Galinsky, Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975); Richard A. Lanham, Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 48-64. For Renaissance understandings of Ovid, I was most impressed by William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1977) and Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970). Essential works on Ovid's influence on Shakespeare include Lanham, Stephen Booth's edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Eugene Waith, “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957) 39-49. Articles on Ovid's influence on Twelfth Night include D. J. Palmer, “Art and Nature in Twelfth Night,Critical Quarterly, 9 (1967), 201-12, and Anthony Brian Taylor, “Shakespeare and Golding: Viola's Interview with Olivia and Echo and Narcissus,” English Language Notes, 15 (1977), 103-6.

Barbara A. Mowat (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5348

SOURCE: “Lavinia's Message: Shakespeare and Myth,” in Renaissance Papers, 1981, pp. 55-69.

[In the following essay, Mowat detects the presence of classical myths from Ovid's Metamorphoses as structuring principles in Shakespeare's plays Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice.]

Act IV, Scene 1, of Titus Andronicus is surely one of the more remarkable scenes in Shakespeare. It opens with young Lucius running on-stage carrying an armload of books, pursued by his mutilated Aunt Lavinia, hands cut off, tongue cut out. In his panic, the boy throws down the books and calls for help. Lavinia rummages through the books with her stumps, heaves her arms in the air, and, as her father and uncle notice with astonishment, pulls “Ovid's Metamorphosis” from the pile. Perhaps, they suggest, the book has sentimental associations for her. Then they see her try to turn the pages; they watch as she “quotes the leaves”; they read the story to which she points:

Titus: Lavinia, wert thou thus surpris'd, sweet girl,
Ravish'd and wrong'd, as Philomela was,
Forc'd in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?
See, See!
Ay, such a place there is, where we did hunt—
.....Pattern'd by that the poet here describes. …(1)

Although the scene becomes increasingly bizarre as Lavinia, using a stick held in her mouth and guided by her stumps, writes the names of her ravishers in the sand, what is most striking in the scene is not its obvious grotesqueness but rather its more subtle hint of self-parody. Since Shakespeare himself, in writing Titus Andronicus, had also pulled out his copy of “Ovid's Metamorphosis” and had found and read there “the tragic tale of Philomel,”2 it is hard not to see in Lavinia a shadow figure of Shakespeare himself, pointing mutely but eloquently to the “Metamorphosis.”

Interestingly, as readers or viewers of Titus Andronicus, we hardly need Lavinia's blatant reminder that her story is like Ovid's Philomela. Lavinia's ravagers had expressly re-enacted the Philomela story, with Aaron saying, as he set up her rape: “… Philomel must lose her tongue to-day” (II.iii.43). After the rape, Lavinia had been taunted with the fact that she had lost not only her tongue but also her hands (II.iv.3-10), so that, unlike Philomela, she could not weave out in a tapestry her accusations. Her uncle had noted, when he found her:

But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy tongue.
.....Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
.....A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.


And Lavinia's father, as he prepares the dreadful banquet for Tamora, says to his victims:

… worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.


We need no Lavinia, then, “quoting the leaves” to let us know that her story is Philomela's story. Why, then, this physical, urgent pointing toward Ovid? I would suggest that Lavinia's gesture focuses our attention on the fact that this play does more than allude to the Philomela myth—that the gesture forces on us an awareness that the sequence of incidents in Ovid and in Titus Andronicus are deliberately parallel. The rape and mutilation in a dark wood, the revelation of a story through a story (Philomela's woven in a tapestry, Lavinia's pointed out in a child's book), the decision by a loved one to take revenge, the use of madness as a cover for the revenger, and, finally, the terrible banquet in which a parent unknowingly eats its own child—this is the pattern that Ovid devised and Shakespeare followed. Further, this physical pointing toward the printed text—toward a story fixed and finished and known—just at the moment when Lavinia's story is only half completed, when her Procne is just learning the truth, prepares us as audience for the actions which follow and encourages us to attach to Titus and Lavinia the anguish and desperation of Procne and Philomela as they move toward their revenge.3

I have lingered over this scene—this moment—in Titus Andronicus because I believe that we can find in it instructive insights about Shakespeare's use of myth in his plays. Perhaps nowhere else in the canon does Shakespeare so overtly link a play to the story that his characters are re-enacting. But his use of the Philomela story is not unique. More than once Shakespeare turned to Ovid, or to Virgil, or to the Bible, drew out not just allusions but entire stories—using “story” here as C. S. Lewis defines it as “a series of imagined events”4—and used that series of events to shape his drama. Moreover, as he does with Philomela, in at least two plays he alludes at crucial moments to the myth that he is, in effect, retelling, thus allowing the myth both to fill the play with its own meaning and emotional impact and also to guide our expectations and imaginative responses to characters and to incidents.

The larger topic of Shakespeare's use of myth is a vast territory; what I will be exploring here is one small corner of that territory, Shakespeare's use of mythologems as structuring devices.5 I will limit my discussion to Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice—two plays where Shakespeare leads us directly and repeatedly to the stories he is using, and where I therefore feel that I can speak with confidence about what he seems to be doing. Even with so small a sample, we can begin to see interesting patterns in Shakespeare's methods of shaping drama and of stirring audience response, and can begin to recognize a special quality in Shakespeare's imagination.

First, then: in both Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare took from Ovid a familiar story which he used to structure the play at a very deep level and to which he calls our attention at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the play. In Titus Andronicus, despite Lavinia's insistence on the centrality of the Philomela story, the larger shaping myth is actually that of Hecuba's Revenge, into which the Philomela myth and others are embedded.6 Ovid tells Hecuba's story in Book XIII of the Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare alludes to that story at three key points in Titus Andronicus: in the opening scene, in mid-play (where we're reminded that “Hecuba of Troy ran mad for sorrow”), and in the final scene, where Rome is likened to King Priam's Troy on “that baleful burning night.”

At first, it is Tamora who, in Titus Andronicus, is compared to Hecuba, and, in a sense, Tamora does play out the Hecuba's Revenge story. Like Hecuba, Tamora is the defeated queen of a defeated nation. Tamora's son, Alarbus, is, like Hecuba's daughter Polyxena, ritually slain in order to appease the ghosts of the dead. Like Hecuba, Tamora kneels and weeps, and like Hecuba, she hopes for help from the gods in gaining her revenge. Her son's prayer for her is that

The self-same gods that arm'd the Queen of Troy
With opportunity of sharp revenge
Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent
May favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths,
(When Goths were Goths, and Tamora was queen)
To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes.


Remember, boys, I pour'd forth tears in vain
To save your brother from the sacrifice,
But fierce Andronicus would not relent.
Therefore away with her, and use her as you will.


And Tamora's visit to Titus in the garb of Revenge is reminiscent of Hecuba's visit to the Thracian tyrant.

Yet the links between Tamora and Hecuba are superficial compared to those between Hecuba and Titus. It is no accident that, as Eugene Waith puts it, “at the end it is Titus … who produces an effect like that of Ovid's Hecuba, for whom even the gods felt pity when revenge had dreadfully transformed her” (p. 46). Titus, in I, i, compares himself to Priam, but the sequence of incidents which attach to Titus are those which Hecuba undergoes after Priam's death. Her only daughter is taken from her and stabbed; she mourns for the loss of her many children; confronted with a final and unexpected horror—the mutilated corpse of her last remaining son—she reaches a moment in which horror has so piled on horror that she can only remain silent in the midst of others' weeping,8 she gathers her rage about her and, despite her years, dupes the child's murderer into a secret meeting at which she digs out his eyes, plunges her fingers into his brain, and then is transformed into a howling dog. It is at this point that the gods feel pity for her. This sequence of events and this sequence of emotional states closely approximate Titus's experience once Tamora and Aaron set out to “massacre” the Andronici, to “race their faction and their family, / The cruel father and his traitorous sons” (I.i.450-2).

The general shape of Titus Andronicus is that of the destruction of a noble house where the parent is destroyed through the destruction of the children. The play recalls at some points Juno's destruction of the House of Cadmus, with Tamora reminiscent of Juno in her rage, as well as of the Fury whom Juno calls from hell. The play reminds one even more of Latona's destruction of the House of Thebes, where Niobe, a double of Hecuba, is destroyed through the slaughter of her children—Niobe, who at her story's end, sits on the ground among the dead bodies, holding her youngest daughter in her arms, weeping, turning into a stone which “weepeth still.”9 Titus's brother, in mid-play, looks at the ruin of the Andronici family—at Lucius banished and Lavinia mangled, at Titus's butchered hand and at the heads of Titus's two sons—and feels himself becoming, like Niobe, “a stony image, cold and numb,” and he encourages Titus to die, as Niobe's husband had died, of grief. But Titus's story is not complete. Like Hecuba, he has received a final, mocking, gratuitous blow that pushes him past despair and into rage, and he becomes a personified Vengeance. It is this final part of Hecuba's story—the revenge conclusion—that sets it apart from the other Ovidian stories of destruction of houses, and which, perhaps, made it more attractive to Shakespeare as a structuring myth than the stories that simply end with the mother's or father's anguished death.

In The Merchant of Venice, too, Shakespeare selects a familiar story—this one, the story of Jason and Medea—and calls our attention to the tale at three key points: in the first scene, when Bassanio sets his desires toward Belmont and toward Portia, the Golden Fleece; in mid-play, when Gratiano proclaims, “We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece”; and in the fifth act, where we are reminded that on one moonlit night Medea saved the life of old Aeson, Jason's father.10 As Ovid tells it, the first major incident in the tripartite story is Jason's winning of the fleece through the magic enchantments of Medea; the second part of the story is Medea's use of magic to restore Aeson to life; the final incident is the infidelity of Jason, and Medea's revenge. Shakespeare follows the general outline of this story and parallels the major incidents with some fidelity to detail.

Bassanio, like Jason, must first get a ship, collect a crew, and make his way to the land of the golden fleece. This Bassanio does in the first two acts of The Merchant of Venice. He must then survive a hazardous test. Portia, like Medea, finds herself caught between loyalty to her father's will and love for the young hero. Unlike Medea, Portia (as I read the play) remains obedient to her father and allows another kind of magic—love, perhaps—to guide Bassanio successfully through the dangers that destroyed his predecessors. But Bassanio's moment of triumph, like Jason's, is short indeed. He wins the “fleece” only to learn that his friend Antonio, like Jason's father, is near death's door. This time his Medea does use a kind of magic. She transforms herself into a lawyer and undertakes the seemingly impossible task of saving Antonio from Shylock's knife. Her lawyer's robe, her pretended “wanderings,” her quick flight to Venice and back, all are reminiscent of Medea's actions in the saving of Aeson.

Yet at key points Shakespeare makes significant changes away from the structuring myth. For Ovid's frightening ritual of blood-spilling and magic brews, Shakespeare substitutes the famous trial-scene where wit replaces witchcraft. At the end of the story, where Jason was literally unfaithful and Medea cruelly vengeful, Bassanio is only weak, only symbolically unfaithful. Under pressure, he breaks his vow and gives away Portia's ring. Portia's vengeance too is symbolic: she threatens never to consummate the marriage, she threatens to be herself an unfaithful wife, and she says harshly to Bassanio: “Even so void is your false heart of truth.” The infamous ring incident, then, is Shakespeare's major transformation in this play of the potentially tragic into its comic equivalent, a transformation in line with comparable changes in the story of the winning of the fleece, where, for example, Jason's failure would have been punished with death, Bassanio's with a celibate life.11

The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus, then, are alike in their dependence on a familiar myth for larger structural patterning, though The Merchant of Venice uses the myth far more skillfully, as a kind of bass continuo on which the comic themes can play. In two other ways, the plays are alike in their use of mythologems, though in general The Merchant of Venice is in all cases more subtle, more adroit. First, Shakespeare embeds in both plays allusions to parallel mythologems. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare alludes, for instance, to other anguished fathers and victim daughters—to Junius Brutus and Lucrece, to Inarchus, grieving for his transformed daughter Io, and to Io herself, who, like Lavinia, could speak to her father only by drawing letters in the sand.12 In The Merchant of Venice, Portia likens herself, in the casket scene, to Hesione, sacrificed by her father, helpless, yearning for rescue (III.ii.53ff.). These inset allusions work powerfully to reinforce audience emotional response. Titus is not just a crazed Roman general; he is Pandion, Inarchus, Junius Brutus, Priam, Hecuba, Niobe; Portia is, for some little time, the maiden threatened by the sea-monster, shaken by feelings of helplessness and yearning, while Bassanio is the young Alcides who through his right choosing can release her from bondage. Portia's extended dramatic metaphor gives us unexpected insight into the intensity of her emotions, and raises Bassanio to the position of rescuing hero.

Finally, the plays are alike in that each includes not only allusions, but also overlapping inset stories. We began by looking at the Philomela story which Shakespeare embeds within the Hecuba's Revenge structure. Lavinia is Polyxena in one story, Philomela in the other. One of the problems with Titus Andronicus is that often the overlapping myths pull against each other. At the play's end, for instance, both Tamora and Titus are playing the Hecuba's Revenge role, each attempting to dupe the child-killing tyrant. Further, Titus at this point is also Procne, preparing the banquet for Tereus, a role transferred here confusingly to Tamora while the actual Tereuses are being baked in pasties. Little but confusion and fragmentation can result from such superpositions and role duplications.

In The Merchant of Venice, the inset story belongs to Shylock, and not to fragment but to augment the play. In the romantic Ovidian main plot, Shylock plays essentially the role that Death plays in the Jason-Medea myth. Antonio's time, like old Aeson's, has run out, and Shylock stands with his knife like Death with his scythe. The Jason-Bassanio figure can do nothing but vainly offer his life in the threatened one's stead. Only Medea-Portia can wield the saving magic.

But Shylock is more than an obstacle to be overcome by the heroine. He is a man with his own story, and that story complicates the play for us emotionally. The sequence of events that structure his story are found in Genesis 30-31, and they involve Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel's father Laban. Shakespeare leads us to the story early in the play with Shylock's strange tale (I.iii.66-85) of Jacob and Laban's sheep, taken from Genesis 30. Shylock, in this speech, seems to identify himself with Jacob, but the role he proceeds to play is that of Laban, the duped father whose daughters, hating him for his cupidity, escape with the son-in-law, stealing Laban's household gods. Jessica's escape from Shylock, her stealing of his “gods” (his ducats and other treasures), Shylock's frantic search for his daughter, his lamentations, his accusations—parallel the Rachel-Laban story with remarkable fidelity. When Shylock enters the trial-scene, then, he goes both as a negative death-force which Portia must destroy and as the greedy, unjust, but injured father venting his fury.

Until the trial-scene, Shakespeare keeps his Ovidian and Biblical myths quite separate. Granted, Lorenzo and Jessica have joined Portia's household in the magic land of Belmont, but there they simply become a part of the Ovidian world. But the Shylock of the trial-scene carries his role as injured father with him, and the emotional tone of the scene is therefore qualified and ambiguous. Because Shakespeare links Shylock so closely with Old Testament Judaism and with the familiar Jewish legend of the lost daughter and the duped father, he makes the trial scene emotionally complex; the strictures placed on Shylock and his final words, “I am not well,” seem particularly harsh when placed against the covenant which resolves the Jacob-Laban strife, against the words which end their dispute: “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.” Interestingly, the trial-scene is given an additional twist of emotional complexity by Shakespeare's superimposing yet another Old Testament story—the familiar Apocryphal story of the young Daniel, Susanna and the Elders—onto the trial, heightening thereby our sense of Shylock's evil, of Antonio's vulnerability, and of Portia's miraculous legal expertise, promising us a clever judicial happy ending and perhaps, by placing Shylock in the role of the wicked Elders, qualifying the sympathy which his Laban-role may have called up in us.13

In two plays, then, Shakespeare draws from Ovid a rather intricate mythologem which has its own familiar series of incidents, its own completeness; he uses that story to shape the larger plot of his play, and, at key points, he calls our attention to the story, thus allowing the myth to enter the play directly and to point our expectations in a given direction. Further, within each play he embeds and interweaves other myths and legends—again using the series of events in the order in which he found them, and again calling our attention openly to the embedded stories. Third—and here he is like many of his contemporaries—he includes allusions to yet other myths and legends. In these two plays, though, the allusions seem especially carefully placed to add depth to a given moment or to reenforce audience emotional response to a character or to the situation being enacted.

What is striking to me about all of this is, first, that it shows pretty clearly that Shakespeare had that “special ‘ear’” for myth which C. Kerényi says one must have if myth is to work upon one fully: i.e., that Shakespeare heard in mythologems musical ground-themes inviting variations, inviting new inventions; that he perceived the pictorial quality of myth—saw in mythologems that outpouring of images which are at the same time an unfolding, a making of story, a making of meaning; that he found in the tales of Ovid and of the Bible stories that take us into the primordial.14 He found in Ovid, for example, story after story of the death of children and grief of parents. In Titus Andronicus, as I suggested, he used these stories both structurally and allusively to weave his own tale of destroyed off-spring and destroyed parents. He would return to this particular primordial story throughout his career, drawing on the image of Niobe and her dead daughter in the final scene of King Lear, drawing on Hecuba's silent gathering of her rage in Macduff's learning of his children's slaughter.

Lavinia leads us here, then, to a tendency in Shakespeare's own imagination. She leads us also to a heightened awareness of the centrality of story in Shakespeare's crafting of drama—of story-incident as a shaping device, and of story as a way of controlling audience response and expectation. We need, therefore, to take seriously what has already been made clear by Madeleine Doran, Nevil Coghill, Northrop Frye, and others: namely, that romantic story forms the foundation of Shakespeare's dramas. Moreover, we need to go yet further and recognize the care with which Shakespeare used story structurally. Further study of Shakespeare's use of story for structure will reveal, I suspect, a demonstrable difference between Shakespeare and his contemporaries—a difference which may explain, in terms other than simply greatness of vision, why it seems sometimes more natural to couple Shakespeare with Dante or Chaucer or Homer—with the great storytellers, that is—than with his contemporary playwrights.

Finally, I would suggest that Lavinia also points us to a more concrete way of examining Shakespeare's use of myth in his later plays than we have had heretofore. We can see, for instance, when we place Titus Andronicus against Ovid's Metamorphoses, that Shakespeare did not read myths in isolation. Lavinia may have been interested only in the Philomela story, but it is clear that when Shakespeare re-read that story, he also read the stories which frame it, the stories to which it is thematically linked, the stories which parallel the various parts of the Philomela myth—stories of revenge for lost children, stories of transformed or mutilated daughters, stories of grief of fathers. It is possible that a similar pattern of reading and borrowing lies behind the later plays where myths are alluded to much more subtly. It is possible, too, that although Shakespeare does not, in later plays, deliberately cite Ovidian or other stories as a way of shaping audience expectation, he may, in fact, continue to draw on myths for structuring. The stories of Persephone or Alcyone (or both) may lie behind The Winter's Tale; Jason's or Aeneas's stories behind The Tempest—both are certainly alluded to.

At this point, these are mere speculations, further areas to be explored. When I speak of Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, though, I do not feel the need to be so cautious. In those plays, Shakespeare himself points, as determinedly as does Lavinia, to the leaves which he quotes. If we mark his gesture toward his Ovid or his Bible, we can watch, in these plays, myths being released, re-shaped, re-created.


  1. All quotations from Titus Andronicus are from the Arden edition, edited by J. C. Maxwell (London, 1968). As Dover Wilson noted, Shakespeare used the spelling of Ovid's “Metamorphosis” as it appears in Golding's translation (see Maxwell, p. 76, note 42).

  2. Howard Baker, in his Induction to Tragedy: A Study in A Development of Form in “Gorboduc,” “The Spanish Tragedy,” and “Titus Andronicus” (University, La., 1939), discusses in detail Shakespeare's use of Ovid's Philomela story in the shaping of Titus Andronicus (pp. 121-129). For Baker, the lines which read “Forc'd in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods … / Pattern'd by that the poet here describes” openly acknowledge the dramatist's debt to Ovid, and make it unnecessary for us to go to Seneca for descriptions of murky woods or Thyestean banquets. I am aware, of course, that debate has long raged over rival claims of Ovidian and Senecan influences in this play, with the debate further complicated by the existence of a doubtless pre-Shakespearean chapbook which includes many of the “Ovidian”—and “Senecan”—incidents. I can only say, with Maxwell, that “it is the Ovidian story alone that is referred to in the play itself, and it is in some ways the closer analogue” (p. xxxi); “on balance, the resemblances to Ovid seem to me decidedly the more important …” (p. xxxii).

  3. Shakespeare's debt to Ovid for the emotional patterns of Titus Andronicus is explored with great insight by Eugene Waith in “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957), 39-49.

  4. “On Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis, (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1966), p. 90. Lewis's discussion of the impact of Story on “the whole quality of imaginative response,” his description of the “series of imagined events” as a potent device for stirring the reader's imagination, finds its way at many points into my discussion of Shakespeare's use of story.

  5. I am using “mythologem” here in the sense suggested by C. Kerényi. Kerényi says that the content of mythology is “a body of material contained in tales about gods and god-like beings, heroic battles and journeys to the Underworld—‘mythologem’ is the best Greek word for them—tales already well known but not unamenable to further re-shaping.” “Prologomena,” Essays on a Science of Mythology by C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, 1969), p. 2.

  6. Several critics see the Philomela story as central; Gustav Cross, e.g., says that “the main plot of the play parallels that of Ovid's tale” of Philomela, Tereus and Procne (“Introduction to Titus Andronicus,The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage [Baltimore, 1959], p. 825), and see note 2, above. But as Fredson Bowers points out, “the rape of Lavinia is merely incidental to the larger plan to strike at Titus through his sons” (Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 [Princeton, 1940], p. 112).

  7. The mysterious reference to the Thracian tyrant's tent, which has led to a variety of speculations and even emendations, is less mysterious if we consult Golding, where the lines read, confusingly:

              even so Queene Hecubee
                                                                … too Polymnestor went
    The cursed murtherer, and desyrde his presence too thentent
    Too show too him a masse of gold. …

    (ll. 658-662)

    where Golding's “too thentent” (his normal rendering of the phrase “for the intent”) can easily be misread as “to the tent.”

  8. J. C. Maxwell, editor of the Arden Titus Andronicus, notes at Titus Andronicus III.i.263, that E. Wolff, in Die Antike 20 (1944), 143-4, “compares Hecuba's behavior as described in Ovid XIII, esp. l. 538: ‘Troades exclamant, obmutuit illa dolore’” to “Titus's momentary silence at the supreme moment of grief.” Maxwell does not find the resemblance close, even though, as he admits, “both characters go on to plan revenge,” and “the Hecuba story has already been referred to” in the first scene of the play.

  9. For the story of Juno's destruction of the House of Cadmus, see the Metamorphoses, Book IV (ll. 515ff. in Golding's translation). Niobe's story is found in the Metamorphoses, Book VI (ll. 182ff., in the Golding translation), immediately preceding the Philomela story. After Niobe's death (as Ovid tells the story), Niobe's husband dies of grief, and Thebes mourns the fall of the House of Cadmus, the death of its king and “all his issue,” and every neighboring city sends its king to “go and comfort Thebes” in its grief. Only Athens sends no one. It is under siege, but is soon rescued by the warrior Tereus—Tereus, who is given the hand of Procne, King Pandion's daughter, in marriage; Tereus, who will rape and mutilate Procne's beloved sister Philomela. By way of Thebes, Niobe, destruction of children, and overwhelming grief, then, we move into the Philomela story; we move out of the story at its horrible end, by way of more suffering for lost children as Philomela's father dies of grief for his lost daughters.

  10. T. W. Baldwin has discussed at some length Shakespeare's allusions to the Jason-Medea story as told in Book VII of the Metamorphoses. Curious about the three references, Baldwin hypothesizes that, “becoming aware of the parallel between Bassanio's search for a wealthy wife and that of Jason for the golden fleece, Shakespeare turns to Ovid's story in search of possible ornament for his own. …” Baldwin sees Shakespeare as picking up the phrase “Colchos strond” (I.i.170) from Golding and continuing his reading into “the next story,” where, “some twenty-five lines past Colchos strond, Medea had made a promise to Jason and is ready to begin” her incantation to the full moon and her use of sorcery to rejuvenate Jason's father. “I believe it is clear,” says Baldwin “that Shakespeare had read on, and in reading had picked up this moonlight night for pure ornamentation. Medea's moonlight night would furnish the correct setting for Medea-Portia's Belmont” (William Shakespere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, Vol. 2 [Urbana, 1944], pp. 436-443).

    Where Baldwin misses the mark is in his assumption that Medea's rejuvenation of Aeson is a separate story following the story of the Golden Fleece, a story referred to by Shakespeare simply for “ornament.” Actually, Medea's renewing of old Aeson is not “the next story,” as Baldwin would have it; it is, rather, a continuation of the Jason-Medea myth, a second work of beneficent magic that Medea performs because of her love for Jason.

  11. I am arguing here for a reading of the play's conclusion in which Bassanio's transgression and Portia's forgiveness are more meaningful and more closely tied to the rest of the story than many assume. Norman Rabkin perhaps speaks for most critics when he refers to “the ring plot” as “Portia's stratagem against Bassanio” and notes “the triviality at best of the game she plays with the ring” (Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning [Chicago, 1981], pp. 18-19). It is true that Portia tests Bassanio in IV.i, after he “presses” her to take a remembrance from him, (ll. 405-450), but it is also true that Bassanio fails the test. Portia had said, in giving him the ring:

                                                      even now, but now,
    This house, these servants, and this same myself
    Are yours,—my lord's!—I give then with this ring,
    Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
    Let it presage the ruin of your love. …


    And Bassanio had responded:

                                                      … when this ring
    Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence—
    O then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


    In this context, Bassanio's acquiescing to Antonio's plea:

                                                      “… let him have the ring,
    Let his deservings and my love withal
    Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement”


    seems weakness, a breaking of a vow, a “fault,” as Portia stresses in V, i, and as Bassanio admits, though he sees it as an “enforced wrong.” (All quotations from The Merchant of Venice are from the Arden edition, edited by John Russell Brown, 1964).

  12. The allusion to Io has long been recognized. J. C. Maxwell quotes Golding's translation of the lines (Met. I, 649-50) in which Io, changed to a cow, identifies herself to her father by printing her name in the sand with her foot. The allusion to Inarchus in III, i, 122-9, is more subtle, depending as it does on the shared image of Inarchus “bewayling piteously / His daughter” and “augment[ing] the waters” “with doleful teares” (Met. I, 719-22), and Titus “sit[ting] round about some fountain … Till the fresh taste be taken from that clearness and made a brine-pit with … bitter tears” (III.i.123ff.).

  13. I am here disagreeing in part with the critical assumption, expressed best by Madeleine Doran, that Shakespeare over-developed the character of Shylock through his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, thereby pulling the romantic story out of line (See Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama [Madison, 1964], pp. 362-4). I would argue that Shakespeare deliberately interweaves two very different stories, heightens their impacts with additional embedded stories, and thus creates an extremely complex drama. The complexity that Norman Rabkin finds reflected in criticism of the play seems to me built into the play's structure (See Rabkin, pp. 1-32).

  14. Kerényi, pp. 2-4.

Barbara Roche Rico (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4548

SOURCE: “From ‘Speechless Dialect’ to ‘Prosperous Art’: Shakespeare's Recasting of the Pygmalion Image,” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 285-95.

[In the following essay, Rico follows Shakespeare's treatment of the Pygmalion myth in his dramas The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale.]

                                                  Oh, she's warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

The Winter's Tale, V.iii, 109-1111

In The Winter's Tale, Hermione, long thought dead, comes down from her platform, a living woman walking among us. In presenting this scene, Shakespeare not only gives new life to Greene's pedestrian Pandosto; he also restores to greatness the Pygmalion myth itself. By Shakespeare's time, this myth was clearly in need of such restoration; for the narrative which might seem the perfect celebration of the artist's power to move an audience had itself become sullied, first by medieval commentators and then by the Elizabethans themselves.2 During much of the Renaissance the Pygmalion myth seemed to offer less a portrait of the artist than a warning about the power of women and of art. And if the Elizabethan John Marston made Pygmalion into a doting and foolish lover, the minor characters in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure remind us that Pygmalion's statue had become by then an emblem for a whore.3 In this paper I would like first to outline the deterioration of the Pygmalion image; then by examining three Shakespearean plays, I would like to show how Shakespearean drama treats the myth, comes to terms with its power and its unseemliness, and alters the connotation that it held.

To illustrate this, I would first like to return for a moment to Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, traditionally acknowledged to be the narrative's source. (The Ovidian text was itself an act of recovery; for as Brooks Otis notes, Ovid's version was actually a recasting of a more sensationalist story in Philostephanus' Kypriaka, an ancient collection of erotic tales.)4 The Ovidian narrative depicts the transformation of both the ivory image and the artist, and a temporary recovery of the society that contains them. It seems to contain four sections: the artist's sculpting his image, his praise of her, his prayer to Venus, and his witnessing the transformation itself. In Ovid's text, each of these sections is important; one often serves to comment on or to correct the excesses of the scene before it.

In the first scene, Pygmalion rejects the affection of the Propoetides and sculpts for himself an ivory image of a young girl. In contrast to the Propoetides, hardened into prostitution and then into stone, the ivory image is likened to snow: an analogy which both reflects the figure's purity and anticipates its moment of transformation, the moment of melting and softening.5 Even in Ovid's version, the threat of narcissism is never absent; for in the second scene the artist calls on his imagination to supply the satisfaction that the image cannot offer. Yet in contrast to later versions, Ovid's narrative offers the more public prayer to Venus as a corrective to Pygmalion's isolated adoration of the ivory image which is his own work. Here Pygmalion's ritual is answered, not simply by his imagination, but by Venus' bright flames; through Venus' intervention, the image itself, first compared to whitest snow, now likened to Hymettian wax, softens in his hands. The public context that surrounds the last scene also helps to diminish the threat of Narcissus; for in praying “to have as wife … one like [his] ivory maid,” Pygmalion requests not simply an end to his frustrations but rather a return to an earlier state, the recovery of an earlier society when men relied on women, not on images of their own making, for their satisfaction. Ovid's narrative ends, not only with the consummation of love, but with the birth of Paphos and the temporary recovery of the Cyprian land.

In one sense the Pygmalion myth would seem to embody the ideal of Renaissance poetics, dramatizing both the artist's wish to move his audience and his desire to create a world more perfect than Nature's own.6 Although a few writers, Petrarch among them, try to adapt the image, many more writers and artists concerned with the concept of liveliness preferred to allude to the myth only cryptically, or in the most general of terms.7 Indeed by the Renaissance, the Pygmalion story had become a myth alluded to often, but seldom called by its own name. Although there had been many medieval pictorial representations of the myth, there were few Renaissance images of it. Bronzino's Mannerist painting is one of the few exceptions.8 The myth is neglected by Comes, Cartari, Giraldi; and even as the blason flourished, the Pygmalion myth appeared only rarely in the works of the Pleiade.9

During the Middle Ages, of course, many classical myths underwent what Panofsky has called a “disjunction,” a reinterpretation within a nonclassical context. For the Pygmalion myth, such alteration might be called extreme; for as Rosamund Tuve suggests, the myth had become “as much as a cliché as that of Narcissus for idolatrous self love.”10

During must of the Renaissance the Pygmalion myth remained darkened by its medieval precursors, tales of seduction and idolatry, allegories about the threat of women and of art. Clement of Alexandria warned of the myth's “lewdness” and “perversion,” and Arnauf of Orleans warned about its necromantic idolatry. Such warnings emerged not only in the moralized versions of Ovid's text (Pierre Bersuire's Ovid moralizatus), but also in Jean de Meun's version of the Roman de la rose, which treats Pygmalion as a doting fool. And even Boccaccio's protohumanist celebration of the classics, the Genealogia deorum, conceded that the myth was either an allegory about artistic genius or the study of a lovelorn old man.11 Similarily, Castiglione's Cortegiano first uses the Pygmalion figure to “fashion” a gentlewoman, but later recommends that the same woman avoid the advances of Pygmalion by retaining “cold quietness,” and the “steady virtue of silence.”12

In Elizabethan England, the general enthusiasm for Ovidian texts did not seem to improve the status of Pygmalion, but the Elizabethan rediscovery of Ovid presented new opportunities to examine the myth. As Elizabeth Story Donno and Clark Hulse have shown, the period from 1560-1598 included the publication of not only Golding's translation (1560), but also a series of minor epics based on Ovidian texts.13 Despite the Elizabethan interest in other Ovidian narratives, the idealism offered by the Pygmalion myth was still overshadowed by the moral threat it seemed to contain. Indeed the unseemliness already coloring the myth only became more pronounced. Samuel Daniel might have used Pygmalion in a single poem,14 but George Pettie's tract, “Pygmalion's Image and His Friend,” made the Ovidian narrative into a scaffold for misogynist flyting and adulterous tales. “May one gather grapes of thorns, sugar of thistles, or constancy of women? Nay, if a man sift the whole sex thoroughly, he shall find their words to be but wind, their faith forgery, and their deeds dissembling.”15 And John Marston's “Metamorphosis of Pygmalion's Image,” while ostensibly satirizing the overly-fond Petrarchan lover, made Pygmalion's image and the artist himself into a perverse couple indeed.16 All this at a time when Elizabethan society was asked to celebrate the Queen's celibacy. As she herself proclaimed: “a marble stone shall declare that a queen having reigned such a time lived and died a virgin.”17

The Pygmalion theme seems present in much of Shakespeare's work. We can find its intertwining of sexual and artistic concerns in the Sonnets and in Prospero's need to establish distance from his creation. In this paper I have chosen to examine the theme in three plays: The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale. If both The Shrew's main plot and its dramatic frame show how the artist can refashion his subject, Measure for Measure's multiple plots subsume Marston's Pygmalion-grotesquerie and fashion from it a narrative about the seductive power of pure language and honorable intent. The Winter's Tale answers Pettie's misogynist flyting and adulterous accusations and helps to restore the Pygmalion myth itself.

Shakespeare's use of the Pygmalion myth seems both to reflect and to challenge Elizabethan distaste for the image. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he uses the myth to expose and to examine the issue of artistic control in its public and private forms. The public idea of Pygmalionism, given voice in Castiglione's Cortegiano, reemerges in Baptista's educational program for his daughters. (As the play's comedy reveals, however, such a process is always vulnerable to the intrusion of imposters.) More often in the play, of course, art takes the form not of “fashioning” but of feigning and disguise. While Pygmalion carves and pampers his image, Petruchio asserts control over Kate, until she is carved and molded into shape. Whereas Pygmalion delights in dressing his statue, Petruchio rejects each of Kate's costumes. Converted, Katherine uses her last speech to act out the melting and softening Ovid's narrative describes:

Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?


This passage suggests that the lady has indeed been won over.

In the play's dramatic frame, the Lord's duplicitous victory over Christopher Sly at once reinforces and challenges the main plot's treatment of artistic control. Whereas the converted Christopher Sly is rendered powerless in his new role, Katherine continues to exert her influence, even as she claims to have been converted. If she is transformed, she is also capable of transforming others. Katherine's advice to her female audience, her plea for softness and acquiescence, actually softens and converts her other audience, the formerly cruel Petruchio.19 When he takes Kate into his arms, he shows that she too has triumphed; for he is lord of “cold comfort” no more (V.i.181).

We can see the myth's intertwining of art, sexuality, and power become even more problematic in Measure for Measure. It is of course this play, and not The Winter's Tale, that contains the poet's only direct reference to the Pygmalion myth. Like Marston, Shakespeare uses the term to suggest a harlot. For as Lucio asks Pompey:

What is there none of Pygmalion's images,
Newly made woman, to be had now?


This image, which connects Shakespeare's Vienna with the land of the Propoetides described in Ovid, is only one in a network of such images pervading the play. As we soon discover, the myth's more troubling aspects are figured forth, not in the subplot of painting and whoring, but in the larger plot's examination of sexual and artistic control. Much of the play's imagery—its images of carving, sculpting, and engraving—provides an opportunity for misogynistic observation and commentary. Even Isabella is left to exclaim: “We are as soft as our complexions / And credulous to false prints” (II.iv.128-129). The issue emerges even more forcefully in the intrigue of the play's major characters: the ritual of exchange where each player assumes the roles of both the hardened image and the artist attempting to soften it. Finally it emerges most problematically in the machinations of the Duke himself, the play's supreme Pygmalion figure, who “frames” a maiden and a plan to restore his kingdom (III.i.260). And in so doing he comes to embody the more threatening aspects of the Pygmalion myth itself.

The play's major characters assume roles of the hardened image and the artist attempting to soften it. Isabella, advertising her own “cold chastity,” rejects Claudio's attempts to convince her of her duty to him. Angelo becomes known for his coldness, his firm resolve, his unwillingness to be moved: he “scarce confesses that his blood flows or his appetite is more to bread than stone” (I.iv.50-52). His blood is “snow-broth”; he “never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense” (I.iv.57-59). The play does not endorse such “coldness,” for if such immobility is an asset to a kingdom in need of strong correctives, it can also become a serious defect in more private affairs. Indeed Angelo's “coldness” is revealed to be not simply fairness of firm resolve, but a refusal to show compassion or to acknowledge his own fault. Such imagery describes Angelo's rejection of Mariana: whatever her appeals, he is “a marble to her tears” (III.i.233).

In the play's ritual of exchange, Angelo assumes the role not only of the hardened image but also of Pygmalion himself; for, just as Pygmalion found the Propoetides easy to resist but a purer image fully seductive, Angelo acknowledges:

Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigor, art and nature
Once stir my temper
But the virtuous maid subdues me quite.


Angelo's wooing, of course, differs from Pygmalion's; whereas Pygmalion relied on soft words, small gifts, and songs to woo his beloved, Angelo more violently attempts to erode Isabella's resolve: “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite” (II.iv.161). But whereas Pygmalion's consummated affair gave birth to a new child and the temporary recovery of the Cyprian state, Angelo's is “made dull,” by his evening's pleasure. Unlike Pygmalion, he is not transformed: “This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant. And dull to all proceedings” (IV.iv.22-24).

Just as Katherine attempts to soften the stern Petruchio, Isabella stands, a chaste maiden, about to enter the convent but asking pardon for her brother who has violated chastity. A pure maiden, she attempts, for her brother's sake, to “soften” Angelo (I.iv.68-70). Lucio's advice to her, “You are too cold,” and “Touch him,” underscores the relationship between artistic success and sexual conquest (II.ii.45,70). What such attempts achieve, however, is not a softening or a greater compassion, but merely the awakening of an appetite.

Angelo himself perceives that for all her artistry Isabella is “but an instrument of some more mightier member” (V.i.237). Indeed, the play's most successful but most problematic Pygmalion is of course the Duke himself.20 Like Pygmalion, the Duke becomes disgusted with his own society, and he withdraws from it. He creates Angelo, lends him “terror” and dresses him with “love,” and then wanders in disguise to evaluate the creature's performance (indeed to wonder at his transformation). He then “frames” a “maid” to make her fit for the performance, another illusion of his own (III.i.260). Like Pygmalion's image, this plan “will grow to a most prosperous perfection” (III.i.265). The Duke's art leaves Angelo exposed, Isabella vindicated, Claudio brought back from the dead, and Mariana standing “a marble monument” to her own constancy (V.i.233).

As a result of the Duke's appeals, Isabella casts off her former coldness; as a result of his duplicity, the play can offer a restored community and a sense of dramatic closure. Such an ending is achieved, however, not without residual questions. The Duke's magic treats persons not as persons but as creations, to be “framed” as desire dictates. By the play's end, the Duke's power, like that of Angelo, becomes something to be feared.

It is not until The Winter's Tale that the myth's most threatening aspects are treated and transformed. The final scene, which brings together poetry, art, and music, has already received the critics' generous attention.21 Recently, Ewbank has shown how Shakespeare introduced statues to the Jacobean stage. Richard Studing has shown how Shakespeare adapted the conventions of masque and royal pageantry to form “one sweeping breathless moment,” and using the Pygmalion myth Leonard Barkan has offered a way of interpreting the play's troubling reference to Giulio Romano. Barkan suggests that the description in Vasari's text provided the artist a privileged position: as sculptor, painter, and architect, Romano came to embody “the multiplicity of arts, the paragone of art and nature.” Barkan concludes his essay by suggesting that whatever threat of idolatry Romano's image contained had to be “balanced” against this “paragone” and the loving faith which brought the image into being.22

I would like to suggest that the Pygmalion motif Barkan so elegantly describes extends further into the play itself, and further into the tradition of Ovidian narration and commentary. Like Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale seems to feature an intertwining of sexual and artistic concerns. Here, too, the Pygmalion ritual is repeated, with different characters assuming the roles of the hardened image and of artist. If initially the coldness of the Pygmalion image figures forth both Polixenes' resolution and Leontes' “unmoved,” jealous state, the image eventually comes to embody the constancy of Hermione herself. In the final scene the ritual of Pygmalion emerges in language and in art, as Paulina's words and Hermione's living image silence critics' skepticism and restore to wholesomeness the Pygmalion myth itself.

The play's second scene gives new life to the Pygmalion ritual by resurrecting a scene from Measure for Measure. Like Isabella, Hermione attempts to act as advocate, softening Polixenes' stubborn resolve. Standing as critic of her performance, of course, is not the indifferent Lucio, but Hermione's own husband (I.ii.28). At last Hermione does succeed in convincing Polixenes to stay with them; yet her success with persuasion is interpreted as a sign of the other's sexual triumph. Whereas Lucio once chanted, “Touch him,” Leontes concludes that she must have been “touched … forbiddenly” (II.ii.417).

Looking back on his own jealousy, Leontes expects the stone to “chide” him “for being more stone than it” (V.iii.36-38). Throughout the play's second act, the imagery of hardness and coldness refers as much to Leontes' jealousy as to Hermione's constancy. Just as Isabella's chastity and Claudio's fate depend on the Duke's “framing” a maiden, this community's recovery depends on a “design” that Paulina and Hermione have “hammered of” (II.ii.48).

The centerpiece of the plan, is of course, the statue that comes to life. In contrast to earlier images, the hardness expected from this image reminds the viewers of both Hermione's constancy and Leontes' refusal to acknowledge it, his unwillingness to be “softened.” Yet for all its perceived stoniness, this image can itself soften, or bring to stony admiration, whoever beholds its. As Leontes exclaims,

There's magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance, and
From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee.


In the play's last scene, however, Paulina's mediation prevents the Pygmalion ritual from taking on the idolatrous or unseemly aspect that it earlier assumed. Here, as in Ovid's narrative, the statue is kept apart, without equal in the gallery; yet whereas Ovid's medieval commentators treated the moment of devotion as something secluded, idolatrous, and even perverse, Paulina's mediation reminds the participants of the ritual's public nature. Whereas the isolated artist could only imagine or simulate the statue's movement, the onlookers at Paulina's ceremony need only “awake [their] faith” (V.iii.95). Medieval versions often mocked Pygmalion's overly devout attention to the image he adored; Leontes' order, “Let no man mock me,” at once calls to mind but also silences all such remarks (V.iii.78). What was once comic or perverse has now been recovered as a genuinely dramatic moment. If commenting on the audience's reaction renders the moment theatrical, it is only in the most powerful sense. In so doing, it celebrates the myth's potential: to engage, even to capture, its audience. The added music, once thought to encourage idolatry, now helps to celebrate the restoration of the image and the conversion of the audience.

If Ovid's narrative offers us the temporary recovery of the Cyprian land, the ending of The Winter's Tale helps to restore Leontes' kingdom and provide for his succession. When Hermione, long thought dead, comes down from the platform, Pettie's misogynist comments are answered. It has been suggested that statues became more commonplace on the English stage after The Winter's Tale.23 Perhaps the play's final scene of revivification and forgiveness helped not only to return Hermione to a kingdom that once spurned her but also to restore the Pygmalion image from a banishment of its own.


  1. All citations to this play are from The Winter's Tale, ed. J.H.P. Pafford, New Arden Shakespeare (London, 1965).

  2. I have found several studies especially helpful in outlining the myth's development. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (London, 1966), 93-94, mentions allusions to the Pygmalion myth in the Renaissance. (Interestingly, few such allusions employ the name “Pygmalion” itself). Mary E. Hazard, “The Anatomy of ‘Liveliness’ as a Concept in Renaissance Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 33 (1974): 407-418 describes the idea of “liveliness” as it was used by Renaissance artists, theorists, and poets. David J.D. Cast, The Calumny of Apelles: A Study of the Humanist Tradition (New Haven, 1981), describes Renaissance methods of comparing painting to poetry, and outlines the humanists' use of rhetorical categories in characterizing a work's effect on the viewer. Vicenzo Cilento, “Pygmalion ovvero la statua vivente,” in Un Augurio a Faffaele Mattiolo (Firenze, 1970), 313-342, discusses the myth's philosophical implications for classical, Renaissance, and modern audiences.

    The medieval recasting of the Pygmalion myth is discussed in F. Ghisalberti, “Medieval Biographies of Ovid,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 9 (1941): 18ff; Rosamund Tuve, Allegorical Images: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton, 1966), 262-264; D. W. Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton, 1969), 99-102; Thomas D. Hill, “Narcissus, Pygmalion, and the Castration of Saturn: Two Mythological Themes in the Roman de la rose,Studies in Philology, 71 (1974): 404-426, disputes Robertson's claims that the Pygmalion figure represented idolatrous self-love. For an examination of medieval illustrations of the myth, see Virginia Wylie Egbert, “Pygmalion as Sculptor,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, 28 (1966): 20-33, and the illustrations from the Roman de la rose printed in Fritz Saxl, Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters (London: Warburg Institute, 1953), III,ii:128-140.

    In examining the Elizabethan interest in Ovidian narrative, I have found two texts especially helpful: Elizabeth Story Donno, Elizabethan Minor Epic (London, 1963), 3-18; Clark Hulse, Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton, 1981). On Shakespeare's use of the image, see especially Leonard Barkan, “‘Living Sculptures’: Ovid, Michelangelo, and The Winter's Tale,ELH, 48 (1981): 639-667.

  3. John Marston, “The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion's Image,” in Donno, Elizabethan Minor Epic, 247; Philip J. Finkelpearl, “From Petrarch to Ovid: Metamorphoses in John Marston's Metamorphosis of Pygmalion's Image,” ELH, 32 (1965): 133-148; William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III.ii.45, in the New Arden Shakespeare text, ed. J. W. Lever (London, 1965). All citations to the play are from this edition.

  4. Brooks Otis, Ovid as an Epic Poet (Cambridge, 1970), 37.

  5. Ovid, Metamorphoses, x: 247-249:

    Interea niveum mira feliciter arte
    sculpsit ebur fornamque dedit, qua femina nasci
    nula potest, operisque sui concepit amorem.

    (“Meanwhile, with wondrous art he successfully carves a figure out of snowy ivory, giving it a beauty more perfect than that of any woman born”), trans. Frank Justus Miller, (Cambridge, 1966), 82-83.

  6. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 93: “The artist does not aim at creating a likeness but at rivalling creation itself.”

  7. Francesco Petrarca, Rime 78, lines 12-14:

    Pigmaliòn, quanto lodar ti dei
    de l'imagine tua, se mille volte
    n'avesti quel ch'i'sol una vorrei.

    (“Pygmalion how glad you should be of your statue, since you received a thousand times what I yearn to have just once”), trans. Robert Durling, Petrarch's Lyric Poems, (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), 178-179.

    Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 93-94, quotes from a less direct allusion to the theme in Leonardo da Vinci's work: “If the painter wants to see beauties to fall in love with, it is in his power to bring them forth.” Barkan, “‘Living Sculptures,’” 649, identifies “an implicit reference to [Michelangelo] as Pygmalion” in Michelangelo's Rime V. Very often in Michelangelo's work, however, the self-conscious artist's figures embody, not the artist's triumph over material (as the Pygmalion myth suggests), but a more sustained struggle whose outcome is less favorable. One need only think of the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew with which Michelangelo represents the artist in The Last Judgement, or the artist being overcome by his own creation in The Victory.

  8. For medieval illustrations of the myth, particularly in the Roman de la rose, see Saxl's Verzeichnis astrologischer …, III,ii: plates L-III; V. W. E. Egbert, “Pygmalion as Sculptor,” 20-33; John Fleming, The Roman de la rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography (Princeton, 1966), 91-92. J. L. Carr, “Pygmalion and the Philosophes,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 23 (1960): 239-255, notes Bronzino's illustration of the myth.

  9. Constance Jordan, “Montaigne's Pygmalion: The Divine Work of Art in ‘De l'affection des peres aux enfans,’” Sixteenth Century Journal, 9-10 (1978): 10, notes that the myth is absent from these sources; I have found the myth also absent from Alciati's Emblemata (Antwerp, 1577), Conti's Mythologia (Venice, 1568), and from Abraham Fraunce's Countess of Pembroke's Ivychurch (London, 1592). G. Demerson, La mythlogie dans l'oeuvre de la Pleiade (Geneva, 1972), 140, asserts that the Pygmalion story is found only rarely in the works of the Pleiade poets.

  10. Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascenses in Western Art, (New York, 1974), 84-87; Tuve, Allegorical Imagery, 262.

  11. Clement and Arnauf's warnings are discussed in D.W. Robertson, Preface to Chaucer, 99; Tuve, Allegorical Imagery, 262; and Egbert, “Pygmalion as Sculptor,” 30. Both the anonymous Ovide moralisé and Pierre Bersuire's Ovidius moralizatus offer expanded descriptions of Pygmalion's devotion to the statue. Ovidius moralizatus is the title used in a 1933 edition of the text (Moraliter) assigned to Thomas de Walleis, though it is “probably” by Bersuire. While Bersuire judges the character quite sternly, the Ovide moralisé has been considered more playful in its scolding. Hill, “Narcissus, Pygmalion, and the Castration of Saturn,” and others, have stressed the humorous tone of both the Ovide moralisé and Jean's Roman, which is thought to have been influenced by it. It was not until the late fifteenth century that Raphael Regius' edition of the Metamorphoses presented a more “humanist Ovid.” Not until Ludovico Dolce's translation, Le trazformazioni (1553) was the tale's special delicacy actually celebrated.

  12. Baldassare Castiglione, Il Libro del cortegiano, “The Courtier,” trans. Thomas Hoby, in Three Renaissance Classics, ed. Burton A. Mulligan (New York, 1953), 454-455, 468.

  13. Donno, Elizabethan Minor Epic, 3-18; Hulse, Metamorphic Verse, 244.

  14. Samuel Daniel, “Delia,” XIII, quoted in Barkan, “Living Sculptures,” 660.

  15. George Pettie, “Pygmalion's Image and His Friend,” A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, ed. H. Hartman (Oxford, 1938), 113.

  16. Marston, “Metamorphosis,” in Donno, Elizabethan Minor Epic, 247.

  17. J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography, (Garden City, New Jersey, 1957), 74. On the notion of the queen's celibacy, see also Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations, 1 (1983): 61-87.

  18. The citations are from The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris, New Arden Shakespeare, (London, 1981).

  19. I am grateful to Professor Maureen Quilligan of the University of Pennsylvania for first suggesting this point to me.

  20. On the more problematic aspects of artistic control, see especially Leonard Tennehouse, “Representing Power: Measure for Measure in its Time,” Genre, 15 (1982): 139-156; Susan Moore, “Virtue and Power in Measure for Measure,English Studies, 4 (1982): 308-317; David Sundelson, “Misogyny and Rule in Measure for Measure,Women's Studies, 9 (1981): 83-91.

  21. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “The Triumph of Time in The Winter's Tale,Review of English Literature 5 (1964): 91; Richard Studing, “Spectacle and Masque in ‘The Winter's Tale,’” English Miscellany: A Symposium of History, Literature and the Arts, 21 (1970): 55-80; Mueller, “Hermione's Wrinkles, or Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter's Tale,Comparative Drama, 5 (1971): 226-239.

  22. Barkan, “‘Living Sculptures,’” 657.

  23. Ewbank, “The Triumph of Time,” 98; Studing, “Spectacle and Masque,” 77.

A. B. Taylor (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5394

SOURCE: “Shakespeare Rewriting Ovid: Olivia's Interview with Viola and the Narcissus Myth,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 50, 1997, pp. 81-89.

[In the following essay, Taylor details Shakespeare's reshaping of the Narcissus myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses in the Olivia-Viola-Orsino relationship of Twelfth Night.]

The writer is always a rewriter, the problem then being to differentiate and authenticate the rewriting. This is executed not by the addition of something wholly new, but by the dismembering and reconstruction of what has already been written.

(Terence Cave on creative imitation of the classics in the sixteenth century)1

When Orsino sends her to Olivia with his latest message of love, Viola sees little hope of success for,

If she be so abandoned to her sorrow
As it is spoke, she never will admit me.


Still grief stricken after nearly a year, the young Countess has only recently announced her intention to continue in mournful seclusion for a further seven years;2 and it is public knowledge that she has also solemnly forsworn any romantic attachment. And yet it takes only a brief display of obstinacy before Viola is admitted, Olivia explaining that hearing of her spirited responses to Malvolio, she has ‘allowed your approach rather to wonder at you than to hear you’ (1.5.189-91). She has no interest in the message, then, but the messenger is being entertained because ‘he’ promises to be a diverting curiosity. Yet if Olivia were still ‘so abandoned to her sorrow / As it is spoke’, the interview would not take place at all. And even if one ignores the incongruity of a ‘fair young man’ being admitted to the presence of one who has ‘abjured the sight / And company of men’ (1.2.36-7), here is a young woman, having just publicly announced that she is shutting herself away from the world to spend the foreseeable future weeping and mourning, ready to avail herself of casual diversion.

The evidence indicates that, although she continues to display all the external trappings, Olivia's grief has run its course, and that by the time the play opens, for all the public pronouncements, she is simply a bored young woman with time on her hands. Like others in Illyria where appearance and reality are constantly confused and ‘Nothing that is so, is so’ (4.1.8), the young Countess is not what she seems. And in a dramatic world where it is not until the anagnorisis that ‘the glass seems true’ (5.1.263), her appearance as the eternally grieving sister is one more ‘untrue’ image. It is a reminder, too, that, although she may create the impression of maturity with her presence and the command she exercises over her household, Olivia is still, as E. S. Donno, the New Cambridge editor, has reminded us, ‘very young indeed’.3 Both the public extension of her mourning and her going to the extreme lengths of forswearing all men, for example, smack of the impractical idealism of the young, and also have more than a hint of the histrionics in which even the more sensible young ladies of her age sometimes indulge. But her behaviour goes deeper than youthful whimsy: basically, it stems from a lack of interest in and complete indifference to the outside world and a wish not to be bothered by it. As virginal figures on the fringes of life sometimes do, the elegant young Countess, who is comfortable in her reclusive life-style, sees no reason to emerge into the world and suffer its complications and entanglements. Consequently, in a household where time hangs heavy, the young mistress is yet another victim of the ‘lethargy’ that afflicts various other members in one form or another. And as she languidly allows her life to drift into sterile emptiness, excuses made earlier when Viola was still at the gate, that Olivia was ‘sick’ or ‘asleep’ (1.5.134 and 136), carry far more truth than was intended.

The interview which fundamentally transforms her outlook, ‘curing’ and ‘awakening’ her to life, is a key moment in the play. It is also a very remarkable and rare example of the ‘language of imitation’ in Shakespeare, a reminder that imitation of classical texts could be a rich linguistic resource for sixteenth-century writers. The only comparable imitation in the dramatist's work is Prospero's invocation (‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves’ The Tempest 5.1.33ff.) where with superb inventiveness and consummate skill, he closely follows Ovid's Medea speech (‘montesque amnesque lacusque / Dique omnes nemorum’ Metamorphoses vii.197ff.).4 The interview, too, is based on an Ovidian text, the Narcissus myth which with its confusion of appearance and reality and ambience of lethargy has long been recognized as having relevance to the play.5 But it is imitation of a different order, a carefully crafted and substantial example of ‘creative imitation’ of a classical text as it was known and practised in the Renaissance.6 Accordingly, focusing throughout on Metamorphoses iii.339-510, Shakespeare disassembles Ovid's text and, carefully shaping and adapting its various parts to the dramatic circumstances, brilliantly reconstructs it to serve his own purposes.


A feature of the myths of the innocents in the Metamorphoses who also shun love and languidly turn away from the world is the comparison of their beauty to a work of art. Ovid uses this motif ironically, placing it just as they lose their picturesque composure and their lives are thrown into confusion by the advent of passion. Hermaphroditus, for example, is compared to carved ivory figures or lilies preserved in glass as he enters the waters of Salmacis' pool where his world will be shattered (iv.354-5). And Narcissus is compared to a statue of Parian marble as he lies by the pool and sees the non-existent ‘boy’ who is to inflame and totally confuse him (iii.418-19). The interview where passion first enters the life of Shakespeare's own beautiful young recluse, throwing her into confusion and inflaming her, too, with ardent desire for a non-existent ‘boy’, begins with a variation on Ovid's motif and the Narcissus image. At Viola's request, Olivia removes her veil and, as she does, compares herself to a painting: ‘we will draw the curtain and show you the picture’ (1.5.223). The variation from statue to painting which is more in accord with immediate circumstances, may have been suggested by details of Golding's translation of the Parian marble simile which, as we see below, was in Shakespeare's mind at this point.

Although Olivia's self-comparison is accompanied by a sardonic question, ‘Is't not well done?’, her words remind us that the young Countess has her share of vanity; they also unintentionally throw into relief the stillness and inertia of her life. And confronted by Olivia's ‘picture’, Viola, who has had to bear her own share of grief and hardship, and yet remains ‘fresh and quick’ with love, is provoked into a courteous but not unsympathetic reprimand:

'Tis beauty truly blent,
whose red and white
Nature's own sweet and cunning hand
laid on.
Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive
If you will lead these graces to
the grave
And leave the world no copy.

(1.5.228-32: italics mine)

Direct and indirect echoes of Narcissus thread this speech. With its image of the red and white of Olivia's complexion skilfully mixed (‘truly blent’) as if they were paints, together with the reference moments later to Olivia's lips as ‘indifferent red’ (236), and the subsequent reference in the speech to physical gifts as ‘graces’, the first line echoes Golding's translation of the mythical boy lying by the pool ‘like an ymage made of Marble stone’ (3.523), and gazing upon:

                                                  the perfect grace
Of white and red indifferently bepainted in
his face.

(3.529-30: italics mine)7

Nature's own sweet and cunning hand’ is also taken from Golding, but this time from the translator's version of the Pythagorean Sermon where the picture of man's brief span begins when ‘Dame Nature’ releases him from the womb at birth with ‘conning hand’ (15.240).8 And this description of the brevity of human life leads directly into the great classical caveat on woman's vanity, the haunting image of the aged Helen who, as she awaits ‘lingring death’:

                                                  when shee saw her aged wrincles in
A glasse, wept also: musing in herself what men
had seen


Even before his heroine actually begins her polite censure of Olivia for leading ‘graces to the grave’ in line three of the speech, then, the dramatist's thoughts are on Narcissus, child-birth, vanity, and ‘tyme the eater up of things’. And the brief censure when it is delivered, recalls moments involving narcissistic figures from two of Shakespeare's other works. The burden of Viola's argument, and details like leaving the world a ‘copy’ of one's beauty, recall the repeated appeals to the ‘lovely boy’ of the Sonnets. And also echoing in the background as Viola politely censures Olivia's ‘picture’, is a far more outspoken rebuke of another figure who also scorned love and involvement, Adonis:

Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,
Well painted idol, image dull and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone

(Venus and Adonis 211-14)

The context in which Ovid's motif is set, as Shakespeare adapts the first element of the myth, sees a resumption of an old argument between the two great writers. Ovid's comparison of Narcissus' youthful beauty to a work of art stems from his belief that only art had permanence in an ever-changing world;10 the implication is that if the boy had indeed been a work of art, his beauty would have survived instead of simply wasting away. But Olivia's self-comparison to a painting, and Viola's critical response, show once again how little Shakespeare cared for Ovid's aesthetic creed. Equally concerned for the plight of frail beauty amid the ‘wastes of time’, his firm view was, as is shown by the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and perhaps most splendidly by the magnificent resurrection of Hermione in The Winter's Tale, that it is in ‘warm life’ that salvation lies, not in any ‘poor image’ or ‘cold stone’, or ‘curtained’ ‘oily painting’ (see 5.3.35ff.). And through Viola, he is here underscoring his conviction that it is in a child, a living ‘copy’ of the individual, that beauty survives. What is needed, it is implied, is not a retreat from ‘all complexities of mire or blood’ into man-made art, but a commitment to life and a meaningful use of God's ‘graces’. Having already implicitly reminded Olivia that ‘God did all’, Viola is arguing that Olivia should not bury her heaven-sent gifts ‘in the earth’ as the ‘slouthful’ servant did in the Parable of Talents (see Matthew 25.25 and 26), but use them before it is too late.

The interview now appropriates a second element of the Narcissus myth and probably its most celebrated feature, the catalogue of the boy's beauty. As he gazes into the mirror of his pool, Narcissus surveys his eyes, cheeks, neck, and complexion, Ovid concluding that ‘he admires all the things for which he himself was admired’ (‘Cunctaque miratur, quibus est mirabilis ipse’ iii.424). And Olivia, who, as we have seen, has her share of vanity, now brushes aside Viola's argument to present a catalogue of her own beautiful features. In contrast to the myth, however, Olivia's catalogue has an immediate air of death about it; fastening on the reference to the ‘grave’, she ‘labels’ her beauty as if composing a ‘will’:

O sir, I will not be so hard-hearted. I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and utensil labelled to my will, as item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.


To her own mind, she is languidly indulging in witty repartee; but it is as she is ironically and ominously ‘tombing’ her own ‘unused beauty’, just as the narcissistic boy of Sonnet 7 threatened to do, that Viola realizes why she cannot love:

I see you what you are, you are too proud


It is the culmination of the subtextual imagery linking Olivia and Narcissus for, as D. J. Palmer has pointed out in an influential article, it identifies the young Countess with the mythical boy.11 Narcissus turned away from the world and shunned love because ‘his delicate beauty was mixed with unyielding pride’ (‘in tenera tam dura superbia forma’ iii.354), and Olivia's ‘most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty’ (163) is similarly infected. Hence, like Narcissus, who realized too late that ‘plenty has made me poor’ (‘inopem me copia fecit’ 466), she, too, to use the words of the Sonnets, is making ‘a famine where abundance lies’ (1.7). Moreover, although she cloaks her vanity in sardonic humour, to this point in the interview, in the elegant, lethargic setting of the household which is her retreat, her eyes, like the boy's in his refined, languid locus amoenus, have been on her own image.12


One now becomes aware of the extent of Shakespeare's imitation of Ovid's myth for at this point Viola becomes Echo to Olivia's Narcissus.13 Just as Ovid's nymph echoed words of love to the disdainful boy in an attempt to persuade him to love, so does Viola to the disdainful Countess. Initially, when asked how Orsino loves Olivia, she echoes her master; like Echo, ‘she reports words she has heard’ (‘audita … verba reportat’ 369). The accents of Orsino's clichéd yet somehow intensely passionate speech sound through as she tells Olivia that her master loves her ‘With adorations, fertile tears, / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire’ (244-5). And then when asked what she would do, becoming even more like Ovid's nymph, she echoes her own frustration in love:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.


As she reveals love as a passionate, urgent power, set ‘Between the elements of air and earth’ and driving those it afflicts into a restless pursuit of its goal, her message is that of her mythical counterpart—‘let us meet’ (‘coeamus’ iii.387).14 But ironically, like Echo, Viola is only a voice, ‘calling’, ‘singing’, ‘hallooing’, and making the nymph herself, ‘the babbling gossip of the air’, ‘cry out’, and the hills ‘reverberate’ with hopeless love. And the loved one, Olivia, who is pictured as having the absolute power that Echo gave to Narcissus (‘sit tibi copia nostri’ (‘I am yours to command’) iii.392), is like the legendary boy, isolated by pride in a shadowy, world.

At the very beginning of the interview, as they first engage in conversation, Viola and Olivia make reference to the ‘divinity’ of love, its ‘profanation’ by the incognoscenti, the lover's suit as ‘doctrine’ contained in the ‘chapters’ of his ‘bosom’, and his insincerity as ‘heresy’ (1.5.209-19). In polite, aristocratic circles, such pseudo-religious terminology was conventional and gave what were often casual liaisons the appearance of great substance.15 But Shakespeare is not content with such clichéd romantic language for long and it suddenly deepens into actual religious terminology with ‘God doing all’ as the Creator and endowing men with ‘graces’. A similar depth is imparted to trite, conventional language in Viola's speech where the tormented, sleepless lover, his anguished state symbolized by the willow, serenades his disdainful lady through the night in the hope that she might ‘pity’ him.16 But this time cliché is not suddenly transformed; it is infused with genius from the first. However, amid the speech's passionate and beautiful lyricism, there is one particularly arresting phrase, ‘my soul within the house’. Apparently sounding a beautiful but merely lyric note, this relates the speech via a religious image to the play's central themes of sterility and fruitfulness. It recalls the magnificent Pauline image of the ‘soul’ within the ‘earthly house’ of the body from 2 Corinthians 5, an epistle which warns that men should not ‘rejoice in the face’ (12) and ‘live unto themselves’ (15) but seek a renewal of their life. In a way that is characteristic of his eristic approach to the Roman poet, Shakespeare is thus both using and going beyond Ovid and continuing to invest his imitation of the latter's pagan myth of physical beauty with profound spiritual undertones.

The speech proves the turning point of the interview. Brief and hypothetical though it is, it has apparently offered Olivia the novel prospect of herself as an object of real desire; and this does more for her than any amount of reasoning has been able to do for suddenly, all opposition forgotten, she falls in love. The irony, of course, is that the feelings expressed in the speech have nothing to do with her; they are no more than an echo of Viola's passionate but frustrated love for Orsino.17 But the end result is that Olivia becomes even more like Narcissus; for her, as for her mythical counterpart, it is now a case of ‘a sweet boy beloved in vain’ (‘Heu frustra dilecte puer’ iii.500) and of ‘gazing insatiably on a beautiful, deceiving form’ (‘Spectat inexpleto mendacem lumine formam’ 439).

Ovid had opened the Narcissus myth with a witty parody of the words of the Delphic Oracle in Tiresias' prophecy that the boy would come to maturity ‘only if he did not know himself’ (‘si se non noverit’ 348). And Shakespeare, again bridling at negative elements in Ovid, concludes the interview by reversing this opening motif. Hearing Viola, Olivia has at last come to know herself, and finally been awakened to the depths and needs of her own nature. For this Narcissus figure self-knowledge will be the key to the ripeness her Ovidian counterpart never reached. And the process begins as Olivia falls in love with the deceptive form of the ‘boy’ before her: for her, in contrast to Ovid's Narcissus, the advent of passion does not mark the beginning of a slow decline toward death but of a renewal of her appetite for life. No longer will her richness make her poor, and in a very different sense to the Narcissus of the Metamorphoses, Olivia has been brought to the realization that ‘what I seek is in myself’ (‘Quod cupio, mecum est’ 466). She therefore becomes most like Narcissus in the very moment that she is most unlike him and the lethargic spell is broken. She herself now realizes that she should not ‘rest’ between ‘the elements of air and earth’ and, having been confronted by the illusion of love, her life is to resolve into an urgent pursuit of its reality,18 a pursuit in which, although often frantic and undignified, she is to be refreshingly free from concern for self and able to express the innate richness and generosity of her nature.

Of his own borrowings from classical literature, John Donne wrote, ‘If I doe borrow any thing of Antiquitie, besides that I make account that I pay it to posterity, with as much and as good: You shall still finde mee to acknowledge it, and to thanke … him … that hath digg'd out treasure for mee.’19 Shakespeare was of a like mind for he now closes the interview by tacitly and gracefully acknowledging his debt to Ovid and the Narcissus myth as both women closely echo the Latin text. Viola leaves with the wish that Olivia one day endure what her master endures:

Love make his heart of flint that you shall love,
And let your fervour, like my master's be
Placed in contempt.


This recalls the prayer to Nemesis of one of Narcissus' suitors who is placed in contempt (‘despectus’ iii.404)—‘So may he love and be reduced to despair’ (‘sic amet ipse licet, sic non potiatur amato’ 405). And moments after Viola has left, Olivia declares:

Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.


which echoes the moment Narcissus is ‘silently overcome by the sight of the beautiful image before him’ (‘visae correptus imagine formae’ 416).

From the impact of Erasmus analysing the problems of emulation and the preservation of the writer's own identity when imitating the classics in works such as Ciceronianus, right down to the schoolroom where masters like William Kempe instructed boys to imitate ‘Tullyes Epistles’ ‘altered with many varieties at once’,20 creative imitation of specific classical texts was as central to Humanist culture in England as it was elsewhere in sixteenth-century Europe. And as two excellent recent studies remind us, creative imitation was often positively discordant: in his seminal and wide-ranging study of imitation in Renaissance poetry in Europe, Thomas Greene refers to a special category he calls ‘dialectical’ imitation which is based on an awareness of the ‘incompleteness’ of the classical subtext;21 while in his examination of the problems of writing in the French Renaissance, Terence Cave defines all imitation of the classics as ‘a kind of intertextual dialogue or conflict’.22 It is against such a backcloth that Shakespeare's contentious imitation of Ovid's myth should be seen. As he rewrites Ovid's text in a radical fashion, making the self-knowledge motif the conclusion instead of introduction, and rearranging its various parts so that it becomes life-affirming rather than life-denying, one's eye is inevitably taken by the ongoing arguments with his favourite classical poet; but the real importance of this fractious imitation of Ovid is its function within the overall context of the play.

When Viola arrives in Illyria and proposes assuming disguise as Orsino's ‘eunuch’ (1.2.52), she is doing no more than unwittingly adapt herself to an environment which is sterile and in which ‘Nothing that is so, is so.’ The tone is set in Illyria by Orsino and Olivia who both seem to be what they are not and who both have adopted barren life-styles. Apparently engaged in society, the one observing the rituals of courtship, the other those of mourning, in reality, both have turned away from the world and retreated into themselves to live a life of self-centred and barren seclusion. Moreover, in their elegant retreats, both are bemused by shadows for like the mythical boy, they dwell, in their different ways, on their own images and reflexions. When the inner sanctum of Olivia's world is penetrated, as we have seen, beneath the dark mourning veil is a beautiful, young victim of arid self-fixation. And Orsino suffers, albeit in a less obvious way, from the same condition. The ‘image of the creature / That is beloved’ (2.4.18-19) which he spends hours contemplating when ‘canopied with bowers’, is carefully modelled after his own constant and idealistic nature. It has long been recognized that the noble duke is in love with an idea of love but the extent to which that idea is a subtle projection of his own image has, perhaps, been insufficiently appreciated. And, like the mythical boy in his fascination with this ‘shadow’ of love, he is careful to preserve his isolation, fearing exposure to the real world would show him what Narcissus secretly knew was true, that ‘what you seek is nowhere’ (‘quod petis est nusquam’ iii.433).23 Finally, the play's preoccupation with the theme of narcissism is underscored by the presence in the sub-plot of Malvolio, patently ‘sick of self-love’ (1.5.86) and periodically retiring to the seclusion of the garden to practise his ‘behaviour to his own shadow’ (2.5.16). Where the steward is different is that in his case, there is an absence of any sense of rich gifts being wasted; a pastiche of Narcissus, he possesses comparative pride and vanity but is conspicuously lacking in the grace and personal beauty that went some way towards explaining the boy's fascination with himself.

For Orsino and Olivia, the play is a movement from shadow into sunlight, from the confusion of an unreal world where they are ‘jaded’ by uncertain and deceptive ‘images’, ‘dreams’, and ‘fancies’, into the reality of a ‘daylight’ world where confusion dissolves and ‘appearances seem true’. The action turns on the exposure of their narcissism. As she does with Olivia, Viola holds a mirror up to Orsino, making him aware of his stagnant life-style; the turning point is again a key speech, in this case—‘She sat like patience on a monument’ (2.4.114). Consequently, responding to the promptings of love, he, too, awakens to life, dispenses with shadows and emerges into the real world to claim Viola's hand and take his place in the community. For Olivia, exposure and release come, of course, with the interview, the moment when, freed from the confines of the imagination, she begins to change from a proud, vain, self-centred girl into a mature and giving woman. Her progress to reality, which is reflected in a newly discovered sense of time (‘The clock upbraids me with the waste of time’ 3.1.129), is to culminate in union with Sebastian and the appearance of ‘the glorious sun’ (4.3.1). For Malvolio the movement of the main plot is reversed; he moves from shadow into darkness, from confusion into madness. The box-tree scene shows his foolishness can only be exposed to others: he himself is so encased by pride and vanity in his private world that he is totally incapable of realising it. Predictably finding his own image in the ‘mirror’ of Maria's letter, he just as predictably plunges even deeper into self-fixation and egocentric fantasy. Because of his overweening philautia and a spiteful, mean nature that is incapable of love, it is his lot to remain in isolation mocked and driven to madness by uncertain shadows. He stands as a powerful warning against what Orsino and Olivia have escaped: the ultimate consequences of self-centred absorption into ‘the world of the imagination’ and the mockery and torment that comes with subjection to ‘its inconstant shapes’.24


  1. The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 76. I am indebted in this article, as in so much of my work, to the wise counsel of Michael Quinn of University College, Cardiff.

  2. Shakespeare may have in mind the Bible where seven years is traditionally the period of famine (see, for example, Genesis 41.30). In courtly literature like The Adventures of F.J., seven years is also used to signify ‘the flower’ of a woman's youth. (Reference is to The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, ed. J. W. Cunliffe in 2 vols (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1907), vol. 1, p. 430; and The Geneva Bible ed. L. E. Berry (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)).

  3. Twelfth Night (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 8.

  4. Reference is to a standard sixteenth-century edition of Ovid's poem containing the notes of Regius and Micyllus, Metamorphoseon Pub, Ovidii Nasonis (Venice, 1545).

  5. For important recent considerations of the Narcissus myth and the play, see D. J. Palmer, ‘Twelfth Night and The Myth of Echo and Narcissus’, Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979), pp. 73-8; William C. Carroll, The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 80ff.; and Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 148-51. Although the eclectic approach to myth fashionable in the sixteenth-century saw a wide variety of traditions associated with Narcissus, the Elizabethans would know that the myth had particular relevance to Illyria's ‘lethargy’. When they first met Ovid's myth in the grammar school, for example, they used Natalis Comes's Mythologiae, and while he recounts various other traditions associated with the boy, Comes gives prominence to that identifying him with ‘inactivity’ and ‘sluggishness; (‘torpor’). (See Mythologiae, ed. S. Orgel (London and New York, Garland Publishing Inc., 1976), p. 285r; for the use of Comes in the grammar school, see T. W. Baldwin, Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke 2 vols. (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1944), vol. 1, pp. 421 and 436. In Narcissus and the Invention of Personal History (London and New York, Garland Publishing Inc., 1985), where he traces the traditions linked to Narcissus through the ages, Kenneth Knoespel shows the association of the boy with ‘torpor’ goes back to Ancient Greece and ‘an etymological link between the Greek words narcissus and narcotic’ (p. 3)).

  6. On imitation in the Renaissance, see Terence Cave, The Comucopian Text and Thomas Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1982).

  7. Golding is translating ‘decusque / Oris, & in niveo mixtum candore ruborem’ (iii.422-3).

    (Reference to Golding is to The xv Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter, by Arthur Golding Gentleman (London, 1567), ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, 1904, rpt. Centaur Press, 1961).)

  8. Ovid had written that ‘Nature moved cunning hands’ (‘Artifices natura manus admovit …’ xv.218) which Golding translates as ‘Dame Nature put too cooning hand’ (15.240).

    (It is the Christian colouring the Calvinistic Golding repeatedly gave to his translation that explains why Shakespeare chose to recall it rather than the original in Viola's speech. For this recurrent but spasmodic feature of his work, see my analysis of the Pythagorean Sermon in ‘Melting Earth and Leaping Bulls: Shakespeare's Ovid and Arthur Golding’, Connotations 4 (1994/5), 192-206).

  9. The Latin text reads:

    Flet quoque, ut in speculo rugas adspexit aniles,
    Tyndaris et secum cur sit bis rapta requirit.


  10. It is Ovid's proud claim at the poem's conclusion, for instance, that his own ‘art’ (‘opus’) will survive ‘the anger of Jove, war, fire, and the ravages of time’ (‘Iovis ira … ignis … ferrum … edax vetustas’ xv.871-2).

  11. Twelfth Night and The Myth of Echo and Narcissus’, p. 74.

    (It is also evocative that as Olivia emerges as a Narcissus figure, Viola continues: ‘But if you were the devil, you are fair’ (240). Amid the cluster of traditions associated with the mythical boy, the Elizabethans would have known the medieval associations of Narcissus with the fallen angels who ‘by reflecting upon themselves, and admiration of their owne excellency, forgot their dependence upon their creator’ (George Sandys, Ovids Metamorphosis englyshed mythologiz'd and Represented in figures (London, 1632), p. 106).

  12. This lends considerable irony to her statement that she has granted the interview ‘to wonder at’ Viola. To this point, in her girlish vanity, it is not Viola that she has ‘wondered at’ but herself.

  13. Her general affinity to Ovid's retiring nymph in the play has been the subject of much discussion: recently, for example, Jonathan Bate considers that in the role of Echo, Viola ‘redeems the play’ (see Shakespeare and Ovid, pp. 149ff.).

  14. As Raphael Regius reminds us with his annotation on this word, besides being a request to meet, it also carried a sense of physical desire and meant ‘let us lie down together, copulate’ (‘Coire … & convenire & concumbere significat’).

  15. The religious language of love in aristocratic affairs can be briefly illustrated by The Adventures of Master F.J.: rising early because of his longing for his mistress, for example, F.J. is a ‘knight’ at ‘Morrow Masse’ serving his ‘Saint with double devotion’ (401), and when she later attends his sickbed, his mistress ‘bedewed his temples with sweete water’ saying ‘Good servaunt be whoale’ (426-7).

  16. Again cf. The Adventures of F.J. where the willow is repeatedly used as a symbol of the suffering rejection can bring (see 418 and 421), and where, when his lady disdains him, F.J. writes a poem ‘to plead for pitie’ (450).

  17. It is symptomatic of the general malaise prevailing in the aptly named country of Illyria that a thorough corruption of language takes place. Both Viola's great speeches on love, to Olivia and to Orsino (2.4.110ff.), for example, have an air of duplicity and mendacity. The difference is that her corruption of language tends to have a healing effect; the corruption of words by others—for example, Orsino's strained interpretation of Olivia's rejection of his suit (1.1.32ff.), Malvolio's tortured gloss on Maria's letter (2.5.84ff.)—merely causes reality to recede.

  18. For a stimulating consideration of Spenser's similar investment of the Narcissus myth with Platonic undertones, see Calvin R. Edwards, ‘The Narcissus Myth in Spenser's Poetry’, Studies in Philology 74 (1977), 63-88.

  19. Prefatory Epistle to ‘The Progresse of the Soule’, cited by Thomas Greene, The Light in Troy, p. 47.

  20. See ‘The Method of Schooling’ in The Education of Children in Learning (London, 1588).

  21. Greene, see pp. 45ff.

  22. Cave, The Cornucopian Text, p. 36.

  23. For discussion of Orsino as a Narcissus figure, see D. J. Palmer, ‘Twelfth Night and The Myth of Echo and Narcissus', 74, and my ‘Narcissus, Olivia, and a Greek Tradition’, Notes and Queries 241 (1997), 58-61.

  24. In both this play and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as Jonathan Bate has pointed out in his admirable study, Shakespeare and Ovid, the dramatist is preoccupied with the ‘world of the imagination and its inconstant shapes’ (see pp. 146ff.).

Further Reading

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Aguirre, Manuel. “Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty.” The Review of English Studies 47, No. 186 (May 1996): 163-75.

Discusses mythic symbolism associated with Gertrude's adultery, sexual desire, and transfer of sovereignty to Claudius in Hamlet.

Armitage, David. “The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Mythic Elements in Shakespeare's Romances.” Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): 123-33.

Recounts Shakespeare's sometimes ironic reworking of the Orpheus myth from Ovid’s Metamorphosesin his later plays.

Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, 292 p.

Extensive study of Ovidian influence on Shakespeare's dramas and poetry.

Baumlin, Tita French. “The Birth of the Bard: Venus and Adonis and Poetic Apotheosis.” Papers on Language and Literature 26, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 191-211.

Contrasts treatments of the Venus and Adonis myth by Shakespeare and Ovid.

Cole, Douglas. “Myth and Anti-Myth: The Case of Troilus and Cressida.Shakespeare Quarterly 31, No. 1 (Spring 1980): 76-84.

Examines Shakespeare's subversion of mythic/epic assumptions concerning love and war in Troilus and Cressida.

Froes, João. “Shakespeare's Venus and the Venus of Classical Mythology.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 301-7. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Argues that Shakespeare's representation of Venus in Venus and Adonis, while differing specifically from that of Ovid, is “in full accordance with tradition, whether it be of history or mythology.”

Gardette, Raymond. “The Lovers of Venice, or the Argonauts' Second Return: From Myth to Dramatic Representation.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 203-12. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

Views the story of Jason and the Argonauts as a mythological “paratext” to The Merchant of Venice, particularly in view of the drama's concern with voyages and quests.

Hoover, Claudette. “Women, Centaurs, and Devils in King Lear.Women's Studies 16, Nos. 3-4 (1989): 349-59.

Centers on Shakespeare's allusion to centaurs in King Lear, stressing their significance as mythological symbols of human lust, depravity, and injustice.

Hulse, S. Clark. “Shakespeare's Myth of Venus and Adonis.” PMLA 93, No. 1 (1978): 95-105.

Explores Shakespeare's mythographic technique—a combined representation of the visual, narrative, and emblematic components of myth—in Venus and Adonis.

Lamb, M. E. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21, No. 4 (Winter 1979): 478-91.

Asserts that the story of Theseus and the Minotaur provides an underlying mythic and thematic structure for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lamoine, Georges. “Richard II and the Myth of the Fisher King.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 30 (October 1986): 75-78.

Interprets Richard II in the contexts of the Arthurian tale of the Fisher King and the mythic quest for the Holy Grail.

Longo, Joseph A. “Myth in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Cahiers Élisabéthains 18 (October 1980): 17-27.

Probes allusions to classical mythology, as well as mythological motifs, structure, and themes, employed by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 318-39.

Analyzes the mythology of an Eden-like, English paradise in Richard II.

———. “Myth and Anti-Myth in the First Tetralogy.” Orbis Litterarum 42, No. 1 (1987): 1-26.

Investigates the myth of paradise in England and the anti-myth of the nation ravaged by civil war and devoid of heroic virtue in Richard III and 1, 2, 3 Henry VI.

———. “Girding the Gods: Mythologies of Mars in Coriolanus.Litteraria Pragensia 4, No. 8 (1994): 17-38.

Records the shared characteristics of Coriolanus and the Roman god of war.

———. “The Third Face of the Elizabethan Mars: The Fallacy of Heroism in 1 Henry IV.Neohelicon 22, No. 2 (1995): 185-203.

Surveys mythological allusions in 1 Henry IV, commenting on the drama's ultimately pessimistic references to heroes and heroism.

McPeek, James A. S. “The Psyche Myth and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 23, No. 1 (Winter 1972): 69-79.

Proposes that Shakespeare reshaped the Psyche myth from Apuleius's Golden Ass for his A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Merrix, Robert P. “The Phaëton Allusion in Richard II: The Search for Identity.” English Literary Renaissance 17, No. 3 (Autumn 1987): 277-87.

Cites parallels between Shakespeare's Richard II and Ovid's Phaëton, including their shared ambition, insecurity, and thematic search for identity.

Mulryne, J. R. “Philomel: Speech and Silence, Nature and Art: Three Instances.” In Les Mythes poetiques au temps de la Renaissance, edited by M. T. Jones-Davies, pp. 171-86. Paris: Centre de Recherches sur la Renaissance, Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1985.

Concentrates on Shakespeare's assimilation of the Ovidian myth of Philomela into his representation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.

———. “History and Myth in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, edited by Michele Marraponi, et al., pp. 87-99. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Delves into the myths and realities of Venice as Shakespeare would have understood them, and as they appear in The Merchant of Venice.

Pratt, Samuel M. “Shakespeare and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: A Study in Myth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, No. 2 (Spring 1965): 201-16.

Evaluates Duke Humphrey of Henry VIas “a mythic figure whose story symbolizes the perilous path the good public servant has to travel in this evil world.”

Shulman, Jeff. “At the Crossroads of Myth: The Hermeneutics of Hercules from Ovid to Shakespeare.” ELH 50, No. 1 (Spring 1983): 83-105.

Assesses Shakespeare's multifaceted and ironic allusions to Hercules in Love's Labour's Lost,and suggests that Shakespeare interpreted Ovid's works in a truer and more complex manner than his Renaissance contemporaries.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “Myths, Explicit and Implicit, in Cymbeline.” In Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction, pp. 66-93. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Discusses the presence and meaning of classical myths in Cymbeline, and maintains that the Neoplatonic quest-myth of Cupid and Psyche provides a significant substructure for the play.

Slochower, Harry. “Renaissance Mythopoesis—Hamlet.” In Mythopoesis: Mythic Patterns in the Literary Classics, pp. 154-77. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970.

Psychoanalytic and mythic study of Hamlet that concentrates on the drama's reenactment of the pattern of heroic rebellion, journey, and return.

Sorelius, Gunnar. “Othello and the Language of Cosmos.” Studia Neophilologica 55, No. 1 (1983): 11-17.

Highlights the tragic significance of Othello's allusions to Renaissance cosmology and Greek and Roman mythology in Othello.

Steadman, John M. “The Merry Wives of Windsor: Falstaff as Actaeon. A Dramatic Emblem.” In Nature into Myth: Medieval and Renaissance Moral Symbols, pp. 117-30. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979.

Considers Falstaff's iconographic link to the mythological figure Actaeon in the fifth act of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and reads the scene as an emblematic parody of human lust.

Suzuki, Mihoko. “‘Truth tired with iteration’: Myth and Fiction in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Philological Quarterly 66, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 153-74.

Describes Shakespeare's radical revision of classical and medieval myth in Troilus and Cressida.

Weisinger, Herbert. “The Myth and Ritual Approach to Shakespearean Tragedy.” In Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, edited by John B. Vickery, pp. 149-60. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Criticizes the interpretation of Shakespeare's plays according to mythic and ritual patterns of rebirth and reconciliation. Weisinger argues that this approach disintegrates in regard to the later tragedies and romances.

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Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works

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