(Shakespearean Criticism)


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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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René Girard (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Harold Fisch (essay date 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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André Lorant (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.”


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Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Truax (essay date 1989-90)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

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Richard Knowles (essay date 1966)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Marjorie Garber (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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René Girard (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Janet S. Wolf (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Freake (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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D. J. Palmer (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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M. E. Lamb (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Barbara A. Mowat (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Roche Rico (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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A. B. Taylor (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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:...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)