Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Plays of Shakespeare

By Katherine Blakeney
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 2/2 |

Similarly, when Aaron in Titus Andronicus tells his lover Tamora “…though Venus govern your desires,/Saturn is dominator over mine.” (II.3.30-31), he is trying to return her from the romantic fantasies associated with Venus to the harshness of reality, and the darkness of revenge, associated with the moody Saturn, which weighs heavily upon his own mind.

The next level of depth that Shakespeare attains is the use of mythological references as archetypes rather than simple descriptions. This type of use usually begins on the first level, as an adjective, but as the character’s plotline develops, striking parallels emerge between the fate of the character and the story that he/she has been associated with. This does not always mean than the characters themselves are psychologically similar; rather their fates, which seem almost beyond their control, and not their conscious decisions, echo one another’s paths. In fact Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus is so entrenched in her archetype that she is hardly an independent character at all. Throughout the play, various characters compare Lavinia to Philomela, the tragic victim in “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela”, from Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. At first these comparisons seem like little more but praise for her virtue and beauty. However, by Act II, scene 3, it becomes amply obvious that Lavinia is about to become a reflection of Philomela in much more that just her personality.

In any context, Philomela is not someone a young girl should want to be compared to. Beautiful, desirable, but chaste, Philomela attracts the uncalled for advances of her brother-in-law, Tereus. Tereus rapes her and then cuts out her tongue to keep her from seeking justice. Undaunted, the resourceful Philomela weaves an elaborate tapestry detailing her tragic fate and manages to send it to her sister, Procne, thus exposing Tereus’s crime. Just like Philomela herself, Lavinia is raped and deprived of the ability to accuse her assailants. However, it appears that the new Tereuses, Chiron and Demetrius, take the original story as a cautionary tale. They make use of the warning and dispose of Lavinia’s hands as well to keep her from following in Philomela’s footsteps. Thus, Shakespeare uses the story of Philomela as an archetype for an entire plotline, at the same time paying direct homage to his source when Lavinia uses her nephew’s copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to finally reveal to her family what happened to her.

Shakespeare utilizes this device in a similar manner in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play abounds with discussions of “Pyramus and Thisbe” (Book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses), and in fact culminates in a hilarious performance of the myth at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Though there are no direct comparisons between Pyramus and Thisbe and any of the couples, the analogy is obvious. Pyramus and Thisbe are the archetypical young lovers, passionately in love but kept apart by their families, deciding to flee their homes and the restrictions of society to be together. Shakespeare spun the story into an entire play in his famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is a little bit of Pyramus and Thisbe in each of the couples. Hermia and Lysander are separated by Hermia’s stubborn father, Egeus. Desperate to preserve their love, they escape to the forest.

Demetrius and Helena are a less obvious example, as they are kept away not by the enmity of their families, but by Demetrius’s rejection of Helena. However the similarity is still there: just as Pyramus and Thisbe are divided by the physical wall that splits their living quarters, Helena and Demetrius are divided by an insurmountable wall of misunderstanding. Oberon’s magic flower plays the role of the chink through which Pyramus and Thisbe manage to communicate. Artificial as the emotional transformation of Demetrius may seem, it allows him to see Helena’s merits in a different light through the eyes of love.

The magic of the Fairies, coupled with the untamed wilderness of the forest help the two pairs of Pyramus and Thisbes find one another and cross the invisible wall that stands between them. Titania and Oberon themselves find a way to settle their differences and understand that the feelings they have for one another are more important than minor squabbles. Unlike the original Pyramus and Thisbe of course, none of the couples meet a tragic end, although they often come close to it. The performance in Act V only helps to emphasize the fact that the mythical Pyramus and Thisbe live on eternally through the love of every couple.

The third level of depth is more than a retelling of a mythological archetype in a new form. In these cases, Shakespeare delves deep into the internal psychological qualities of a mythological character rather than his/or her story, and places them in a completely different context. Often there is no obvious parallel between Shakespeare’s character and his mythological counterpart, only a casual mention of a name, which if more closely examined, reveals volumes about the character’s personality and perception of the world. In Titus Andronicus, Chiron consoles his mother Tamora on the death of her eldest son, hoping that “The selfsame gods that armed the Queen of Troy/With opportunity of sharp revenge” (I.1.17) may aid her as well.

He is referring of course, to Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy. However he doesn’t mean the Hecuba of Homer’s Iliad, a minor character with little bearing on the narrative. He means the Hecuba described by Ovid in “The Sufferings of Hecuba” (Metamorphoses, Book 13). Though both Homer and Ovid are describing the same woman, Ovid gives her a much more vivid, passionate character. Ovid’s Hecuba is a grieving wife and mother, who has witnessed the death and destruction of her home and family. Desperate and half-insane, she attacks the murderer of her last remaining child and almost tears him to pieces with her bare hands.

Tamora is less demonstrative and more controlled in her vindictive fury, but this only makes her all the more terrifying. Also a fallen queen, although bereft of only one of her three sons, Tamora uses trickery, persuasion, and her seductive charms to destroy the family of Titus Andronicus, the murderer of her son. Though her story is different from Hecuba’s, the same fiery temper and insatiable lust for revenge lives within her heart.

Ovid’s “Daphne and Apollo” (Metamorphoses, Book 1), lends a humorous note to Helena’s plea for the affection of Demetrius in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unable to accept his rejection she pursues him into the depths of the forest, complaining that now “Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase” (II.1.238). In this exchange of roles, Helena takes the place of the lustful god Apollo, who pursues the timid nymph Daphne, who would rather be transformed into a tree than give in to him. Of course Demetrius is no chaste, innocent nymph, but his revulsion and desire to escape his ardent pursuer are genuine.

Shakespeare again turns to Ovid for emotional depth in Richard II. Realizing that he is about to be deposed by his own cousin, Richard laments, “ Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaëton” (III.3.183). Later on in the play he wishes he were “a mockery king of snow” who could “melt away” “before the sun of Bolingbroke” (IV.1.271-272). Both of these statements refer to Ovid’s “Phaëton” (Metamorphoses, Books 1 and 2), the unfortunate son of Apollo. Carried away by the discovery of his divine origin, Phaëton arrogantly attempts to prove himself by driving his father’s sun-chariot through the sky, and ends up literally being burned alive by Jupiter’s thunderbolts. Richard is even more similar to Phaëton than he would like to think. It is after all, his fatal arrogance that has brought him this low. A staunch believer in the divine right of kings, Richard was just as sure of his own invincibility as the vain Phaëton. Burnt by his own mistakes, Richard plummets down from his high position as king, to be destroyed by the harshness of reality.

In fact, Richard II is also reminiscent of another character from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His intoxication with what he thinks is almost limitless power and the tragic downfall that he experiences bring to mind the misguided Icarus (Metamorphoses, “ Daedalus and Icarus”, Book 8). Just like Icarus’s artificial wings, Richard’s illusions about his privileged position sweep him away into the scorching heat of the sun melting his wings and casting him into oblivion. The image evoked by Richard’s description of melting away “before the sun of Bolingbroke” (IV.1.271-272), can be seen as an allusion to Icarus as well as Phaëton. Icarus, however is never directly mentioned in the text. This brings us to the last and deepest level of reference.

With Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge and admiration of Ovid, it is natural to suppose that he could at times have been almost instinctively inspired by certain of Ovid’s stories in the choices he made in his writing. At times his plotlines and the development of his characters seem to be subtly tinged by Ovidian undercurrents, rather than brightly colored by obvious references.

For instance, Ovid’s “Erysichthon” (Metamorphoses, Book 8) clearly influenced the plot of Twelfth Night. The eternally famished Erysichthon sells his only daughter Mestra into slavery to buy more food. Terrified of what awaits her, Mestra calls upon the sea god, Neptune, who turns her into a male fisherman to hide her from her new master. Though Viola is not sold into slavery, she is forced to take on the disguise of a man when left defenseless and alone in a foreign country. The disguise does not protect her from servitude, which she enters into willingly, finding romance and adventure in the process. Her story is happier than that of Mestra in many ways, although it starts on a similar note. Viola emerges in her new male form as the consequence of a shipwreck, so in a way she is also given her protective disguise by Neptune himself.

At times an homage to Ovid is hidden in a single scene or dialogue. In Act I, scene 5 of Twelfth Night Viola, in disguise, chides Olivia for her pride and her rejection of Orsino’s love. Her indignant reproaches echo the words of Vertumnus, the ardent suitor of the nymph Pomona who would admit no men into her presence. Olivia’s reason for admitting no company is that she is mourning for her brother, but it evokes the despair of her most passionate suitor nonetheless. Vertumnus gains entry to Pomona’s garden in disguise and expresses his feelings about her policy, warning her against being too cold and self-centered. Viola urges Olivia to share her beauty with the world and not keep it greedily to herself. Just like Pomona, Olivia finally yields to her disguised suitor’s entreaties, although poor Olivia has yet to realize that the Vertumnus she has fallen for is actually a woman.

The colorful characters of Shakespeare’s Richard III also owe a heavy debt to Ovid. Richard’s courtship of Lady Anne (I.2) breathes new life into the story of “Acis, Galatea, and Polyphemus” (Metamorphoses, Book 13). The deformed but ambitious Richard is like the powerful cyclops Polyphemus, who lusts after the beautiful nymph Galatea (Lady Anne). Galatea rejects him, preferring the handsome Acis, just as Lady Anne clings to her husband Edward. Emulating the infuriated Polyphemus, who crushes Acis beneath a boulder, Richard kills Edward in battle and returns to claim his prize. Though Anne mourns for her lost husband, she is not possessed of Galatea’s power to bring her beloved back to life. Neither is she endowed with Galatea’s strength of character. She succumbs to Richard’s advances and agrees to become his wife.

Another striking example of Shakespeare’s interest in Ovid is his interpretation of the story of Niobe, from Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The figure of Queen Margaret, the scorned ruler, deprived of the honor she thinks is due to her plays the part of the vindictive goddess Latona to perfection. Blaming the Yorks for killing off her husband and son and taking her rightful throne, she expresses her wrath by cursing all who have wronged her. She accuses Queen Elizabeth of taking her place as queen, and placing her own children above the murdered child of Margaret herself. As her wrath takes on almost divine proportions she prophesies the death and destruction that is to come. She places Elizabeth in the role of the arrogant Queen Niobe, who claimed she and her offspring were worthier of veneration than the goddess Latona and her two children, causing Latona’s children to murder every last one of Niobe’s to destroy her vanity. The curses of Margaret turn out to be every bit as sharp as the arrows of Apollo and Diana. Elizabeth watches in horror as her children die one by one and she herself is plunged into the depths of despair.

The influence of Greek mythology, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular, on the work of Shakespeare is immeasurable, and it is impossible to presume that it can ever be fully covered. The examples chosen for this article are few compared to the enormity of the material in question. They are only meant to demonstrate the extent to which each of Shakespeare’s plays is infiltrated with the themes, characters, and stories of Classical literature on many levels.


Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Trans. William Adlington. New York: Rarity Press, 1931

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More. New York: Roundtable Press, 1990

Homer. The Illiad and The Odyssey. Trans. Samuel Butler. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. London: Penguin Books, 2003

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004

Plautus, Titus Maccius. Menaechmi. Trans. William Warner. London, 1595

Plautus, Titus Maccius, Plautus's comedies, Amphitryon, Epidicus, and Rudens : made English, with critical remarks upon each play. Trans. Laurence Echard. London : Printed for A. Swalle and T. Child, 1694.

Plutarch, The liues of the noble Grecians and Romanes, compared together by that graue learned philosopher and historiographer, Plutarke of Chæronea: translated out of Greeke into French by Iames Amyot, Abbot of Bellozane, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the Kings priuy counsel, and great Amner of Fraunce, and out of French into Englishe, by Thomas North. Imprinted at London : By Thomas Vautroullier dvvelling in the Blacke Friers by Ludgate, 1579.

Shakespeare, William. Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

Shakespeare, William. Richard II. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

Shakespeare, William. Comedy of Errors. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996

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