Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Plays of Shakespeare

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

The number of ancient sources available to the readers and playwrights of Elizabethan times was truly immeasurable. These sources could be reached both as original texts in Greek and Latin, and in French and English translations. Popular indirect sources were translations of Italian Renaissance literature based on ancient prototypes.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” was a powerful source of inspiration for William Shakespeare. At the same time, mention of other sources of ancient literature is instrumental to the understanding of Shakespeare’s approach and interpretation of the ancient literary tradition.

Although Shakespeare, unlike Marlowe, never received a college education, his school education, in the traditions of the time, had to be classical and he had to master Latin and Greek on some level. It is possible then that Shakespeare could have used his own translations of some phrases and passages.

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C – 17 A.D.), a Roman aristocrat and poet, wrote a collection of poems based on Greek and Roman mythology. Ovid called it “Metamorphoses” as he selected myths that dealt with the transformation of people, gods, and heroes into forces or features of nature. Metamorphoses became one of the most popular and influential literary works in the history of European civilization. Shakespeare must have read Ovid in Latin, as Metamorphoses was part of his school program. There is also a Latin copy of Metamorphoses with Shakespeare’s signature on it, but its authenticity is highly doubted by scholars.

What Shakespeare used on a daily basis was probably the English translation of Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding published in 1567. It was one of the most popular books of Elizabethan times, treasured for its entertaining plots and the moral lessons that Golding added to the ancient text. Shakespeare’s texts are full of direct quotations and indirect references to Ovid, as well as the moral connotations of ancient myths derived from Golding.

Titus Andronicus and Midsummer Night’s Dream include the most direct references to Ovid, re-telling the stories of Philomel, and Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare must also have read Ovid in the original Latin. He uses the name Titania for the Queen of the Fairies, which was skipped in Golding’s translation.

Homer’s Illiad, written in the 8th century BC, was reintroduced to Renaissance Europe by numerous translators and interpreters. Shakespeare could have known at least nine different versions of Homer’s text in Latin, French, and English. The most popular English translations were those of Arthur Hall, based on a French version (1581), and George Chapman’s translation from the original Greek (published in part in 1598 and in full in 1612). Some of the characters and events of the Iliad were included by Ovid into his Metamorphoses. Although only Troilus and Cressida was based directly on the work of Homer, Shakespeare’s plays are full of direct and indirect references to the heroes and tragic events of the Trojan War.

Lucius Apuleius was a Roman poet of the 2nd century A.D. who wrote his own “Metamorphoses” known as The Golden Ass. It is the story of a young traveler who is accidentally transformed into an ass by magic. He undergoes many adventures and love affairs before he is restored to his human form by the goddess Isis.

The Golden Ass was translated into English by William Arlington in 1566 and widely known in Elizabethan times. The transformation of Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, was most probably inspired by Apuleius. The entire atmosphere of the Forest scenes could also have been influenced by Apuleius’s work, which was full of ancient magic. A follower of the mysterious cult of Osiris and Isis, Apuleius was even charged with witchcraft. His defense speech “Apologia” that bought him freedom still leaves doubts as to the justification of his acquittal.

Plautus (ca. 254-184 B.C.) was a Roman dramatist who wrote a large number of comedies very popular in the Roman world and much later. He is known for complicated plots often based on the errors and misunderstandings of the characters. Shakespeare could have known these plays in the translation of William Warner. It is certain that some of Plautus’s plays were performed in the theater of Shakespeare’s time, as Polonius remarks that “Plautus [cannot be] too light” (Hamlet 2.2.396-397). Shakespeare could also have been familiar with them through the works of Italian poet Ariosto. Arioso’s play I Suppositi (1509), based on Plautus’s plays was translated into English by George Gascoigne as Supposes (1566).

Menaechmi and Amphitryon provided the two pairs of twins and the plot for Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

Plutarch (ca. 46 – ca. 130 A.D.), a Greek philosopher and biographer, worked in Athens and Rome and left a large legacy of works on political and religious matters in Greek. His major works are the biographies of famous figures of Greek and Roman history. He also analyses the issue of the suitability of politicians for their places of power on moral grounds. This inspirational piece of work became very popular in Renaissance Europe. It was translated into French by Jacques Amyot in 1559. The English translation by Sir Thomas North first published in 1579 under the title “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans”, was based on a French translation from Greek. “Lives” became a primary source for many of Shakespeare’s plays. The issue of the moral responsibilities of people of power became one of the leading themes in Shakespeare’s historical tragedies.

The same ancient sources were familiar to all the Elizabethan playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s most prominent contemporaries. Yet there is a big difference between having a source available, and the methods chosen for incorporating it into the tapestry of a literary work. Marlowe had a distinct advantage over Shakespeare – a Cambridge education in classical literature. He was fluent in ancient Greek and Latin and known as a skilled translator. However, the way Marlow used his vast knowledge of ancient literature in his plays is rather descriptive or comparative. For example, in the play Dido, Queen of Carthage the introductory scene between Jupiter and Ganymede literally introduces some of the elements of the plot of the play. Sometimes he describes an entire action saying merely: “…one like Actaeon peeping through the grove…”. (Edward II 1.66). It seems that Shakespeare brought the conception of using ancient sources to a completely new height creating a hierarchy of references. Using the plays included in this paper it is possible to determine at least four “levels of depth” in referring to ancient sources.

The shallowest and most obvious of these levels is the use of reference as description. In such cases a mythological character or place, presumably familiar to the audience, is used instead of an adjective. Usually in such cases, the mythological name being used has little bearing on the actual events at hand. It is merely a label, which gives the audience an instant message in an elegant form without getting overly wordy. These references employ commonly known traits ascribed to a certain mythological deity or character to describe someone’s physical appearance, personality, current mood, or even occupation. Theseus’s monologue about the lunacy of lovers makes rather literal use of this device, describing how the lover sees “Helen’s beauty” in his beloved, even if she is objectively unattractive (Midsummer Night’s Dream V.1.11). This is a reference that anyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood. Even in modern art and literature, Helen of Troy is seen as the epitome of female beauty.

In Twelfth Night, Orsino’s claim that “Diana’s lip/Is not more smooth and rubious…” (I.5.34-35) than Viola’s, actually sends the audience a double message. This description both emphasizes Viola’s youthful beauty and femininity, and at the same time hints at her current situation. Diana, the eternally chaste huntress, is the ultimate symbol of a woman filling a traditionally male occupation, just as Viola is doing.

Tamora, in Titus Andronicus, explores a rather less romantic view of Diana. In answer to the chides of her brother-in-law, Bassianus, she proclaims the wish that she was endowed with the powers of Diana so his “temples should be planted presently/With horns, as was Acteon’s…” (II.3.61-62). The reference here is to the myth of Diana and Actaeon, documented in Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The virgin goddess, accidentally seen naked by the unfortunate hunter, Actaeon, grows furious and turns him into a stag to be run down and torn to shreds by his own hunting dogs. Like Actaeon, Bassianus has accidentally run into Tamora in the forest. However he is no meek, awed hunter, and is quick to pile insults on her because of her illicit love affair. Little does he know that Tamora’s comparison of herself to the vengeful goddess is rather prophetic, as she proceeds to destroy him and his family with no less viciousness and cruelty than the gods of Olympus themselves.

Shakespeare also uses references to describe an individual’s abilities in a certain occupation. He eliminates the need to expound verbosely on a minor character’s talents by drawing simple parallels. When the Duke of York in Richard II describes his brother, the Black Prince, as “that young Mars of men” (II.3.105), any more detailed description is immediately rendered unnecessary. Mars (Ares in Greek) was the Roman god of war, also known for his extreme ferocity and explosive temper. However, the positive tone of York’s speech instantly reveals which side of Mars’ character he is referring to. This comparison shows that the Black Prince was a skilled and fearless warrior deserving admiration from all who fought alongside him. He could have spent hours describing his brother’s military exploits and praising his courage, but by simply choosing the appropriate name and placing it in context, he has made his statement concise and powerful.

Sometimes Shakespeare uses the name of a particular god almost as a title. For instance, he frequently refers to messengers or letter carriers as ”Mercury”. Mercury was the messenger of the gods also known for his mischievousness, and was possessed of a miraculous pair of winged sandals. Such an appellation immediately signals that the messenger is to be as swift or as sly as Mercury himself. In Richard III, when Richard laments the speed of the messenger who carried the order for his brother Clarence’s death, he refers to him as “a wingèd Mercury” (II.1.91).

On a wider level, Shakespeare mentions mythological names to help the audience get a feel for a certain character’s mood or state of mind at a certain point in time. When Hermia, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, describes her love for Lysander, she makes a range of references from Venus, the goddess of love, to Cupid’s golden arrows, to the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who burned herself alive when she was abandoned by her Trojan lover, Aeneas (I.1.171-181). As all of these names would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience, they could fully understand the all-encompassing passion that Hermia is attempting to convey.

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