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.