Shakespeare and Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Arguably William Shakespeare’s favourite poet, Ovid’s collection of myths was a powerful source of inspiration for the Bard’s plays and poetry
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a strong claim to being Shakespeare’s favourite book, surfacing throughout his career as a narrative source, a spring of thematic inspiration, and a treasure trove of verbal echoes – particularly in the monumental English translation by Arthur Golding, published in 1567, from which I quote in this article.
Publius Ovidius Nasso lived during the turbulent first century BCE, and his Metamorphoses (c.8 CE) offered a swirling history of the world from its creation to the assassination of Julius Caesar – which had taken place the year before Ovid’s birth. ‘History’ suggests something analytical and scholastic, but Metamorphoses was anything but. In fifteen books, Ovid provided a compendium of mythological stories that furnished western Europe with a more or less complete account of the doings of the immortal gods and their mortal co-stars. His main purpose was to show the constantly evolving state of the world, encapsulated in acts of dramatic transformation performed by the gods in moments of overwhelming lust, envy or rage. Central to his vision was the notion – reassuring or disturbing by turns – that a person’s soul remained unchanged through the process of metamorphosis: when Actaeon is turned into a stag by an outraged Diana, whom he had glimpsed bathing, his human mind persists to experience the full horror of death at the jaws of his own hunting dogs who ‘[w]ith greedy teeth and griping paws their lord in pieces drag’ (Book 3).
‘Metamorphoses has a strong claim to being Shakespeare’s favourite book, surfacing throughout his career as a narrative source, a spring of thematic inspiration, and a treasure trove of verbal echoes’
Ovid’s stories as inherited by Shakespeare’s England were a powerful challenge to the regime of gender conformity and sexual chastity preached by early modern church and society. More often than not it was the ‘lewdness of the gods’ (the subject of Arachne’s tapestry in Book 6, for which she is turned into a spider by Minerva) that provided the most vivid inspiration for poets and artists: Jupiter’s abduction of Europa in the form of a bull; Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree to save her from rape by Apollo; poor Io’s bitter wandering through the world as ‘a cow as white as milk’, a cruel sequel to her rape by Jupiter.
The themes of Metamorphoses made it an unlikely addition to the canon of improving literature deployed in England’s grammar schools, but it was a key teaching text from the sixteenth century onwards. Ovid’s chief English champion Arthur Golding could hardly deny that they were ‘outwardly most pleasant tales and delectable histories’ (‘pleasant’ carrying much more salacious implication than it does now) but he attempted in his preface to argue that the stories were also ‘fraughted inwardly with most pithy instructions and wholesome examples’.
Golding’s laundering was part of a long tradition of finding in Ovid a morality consistent with much chillier Christian ethics, a seemingly awkward fit made slightly easier by the apparent overlap between Ovid’s description of the beginning of the world and the story of Genesis (Golding understands the classical Golden Age as ‘Adam’s time in Paradise’, and Ovid’s description in Book 1 of a cataclysmic flood as a colourful interpretation of the story of Noah and his ark). For Golding, the stories appear as cautionary tales for the respectable English reader, whereby we might, for example, ‘learn by Icarus how good it is to be / In mean estate and not to climb too high’ (In Book 8, Icarus attempts to fly with wings fashioned by his father Daedalus, but he veers too close to the sun and plummets to the ground when the wax holding down his feathers melts away).
It’s hard to believe that readers like Shakespeare paid much attention to the allegedly virtuous lessons in Metamorphoses, but an unearned reputation for morality allowed this sexually explicit and thematically disturbing work to remain in active use in classrooms, universities and among general readers. It’s possible Shakespeare owned his own copy from a young age: a Latin edition of 1502, printed in Venice, survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford with the frustratingly vague signature ‘Wm She’ and the unverifiable assertion, dated 1682, that ‘this little book of Ovid was given to me by W. Hall who said it was once Will Shakespeare’s’ (perhaps the inscription represents a bequest within the wider family of William’s future son-in-law, John Hall).
‘An unearned reputation for morality allowed this [Metamorphoses] sexually explicit and thematically disturbing work to remain in active use in classrooms, universities and among general readers’
Ovid’s polymorphous imagination made a strong impression on Shakespeare. The story of Philomel and Tereus (Book 6) reappeared in his early tragedy Titus Andronicus (c. 1589), written in part-collaboration with George Peele: the savage cycle of deception, rape, dismemberment, and retributory cannibalism that makes the play so disturbing is lifted wholesale from Ovid. Pyramus and Thisbe, one of the inspirations for Romeo and Juliet and the source for the mechanicals’ play before the Athenian court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, appear in Book 4. Venus and Adonis, the subjects of his first published poetry, have their unhappy history relayed in Book 10. Even in the last years of his career, Metamorphoses was a touchstone: in Cymbeline, Imogen is reading her copy in bed in the moments before her privacy is invaded by the malign Iachimo.
As Metamorphoses hits the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage in a new version by writers-in-residence Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz, we’re continuing a very long tradition of reinterpreting, challenging, and writing back to one of the world’s most compellingly provocative works.