BMCR 2002.10.17

Shakespeare’s Ovid. The Metamorphoses in the Plays and Poems

, Shakespeare's Ovid : the Metamorphoses in the plays and poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii, 219 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521771927 $54.95.

Francis Meres neatly summed up one of the most striking literary kinships in the Western canon: “as the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare…”1 In recent years, Shakespeareans and Ovidians have increasingly come to appreciate the conspicuous homophrosyne of their authors and have started to explore how it plays itself out in intertextual practice. Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993) as well as the introduction to his Arden edition of Titus Andronicus (1995) have been milestones in this respect; in the context of Ovidian scholarship, Shakespeare has most recently received elegant discussion in Philip Hardie’s Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion (Cambridge, 2002) and Colin Burrow’s “Re-embodying Ovid: Renaissance afterlives” (in The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, ed. P. Hardie, Cambridge, 2002).2 The volume under review is therefore timely: focused specifically on Shakespeare’s engagement with the Metamorphoses, it brings together both Renaissance scholars and (a smattering of) classicists, identifies several promising areas for further investigation (such as the significance of Golding’s 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses), and offers interesting insights into how issues of common concern to littérateurs in any field (such as allusion, reception, and literary self-consciousness) are currently being handled in Shakespeare studies. At the same time, though, the volume is also an opportunity missed: as so often happens in ventures of this type, commitment to interdisciplinarity exists in theory, but not in practice. Most contributors do not even seem to be interested in the current state of scholarship in their neighboring discipline. This is particularly in evidence in the divergent approaches of the introduction (A. B. Taylor) and the postscript (Charles Martindale): in theoretical terms these essays face each other from opposite sides of a gaping chasm, with no discernible attempt by either to establish contact. We know about the fierce insistence on monadic scholarship in the humanities, but here a case could have been made for co-authorship.

A. B. Taylor’s introduction highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the collection: it is very good on the historical context in which Shakespeare’s reception of Ovid occurred, including astute remarks on Golding and Shakespeare’s experiences at school (his “Humanist education”); and it offers some fine analyses of Shakespeare’s use of Ovidian language. The appraisal of Ovid, on the other hand, is decidedly retro: Taylor finds himself in sympathy with Quintilian’s dismissive remark that Ovid was altogether too fond of his own ingenium and is therefore “in danger of diminishing myth” (5). Here we catch a distinct whiff of the “Dark Ages” of Ovidian studies, and while Taylor rightly emphasizes that “Shakespeare’s Ovid is complex”, his own Ovid is not: the last twenty years or so of Ovidian scholarship have clearly passed him by.3 This is all the more unfortunate in that Ovidians have been instrumental within Classics in taking up new theoretical advances and hammering out a critical idiom for the analysis of intertextual poetics. In studies ranging from genre and allusion to literary self-consciousness and the anxiety of influence, these scholars have revealed an Ovid who was arguably as fine a reader of his predecessors as Shakespeare was of him.4 The historicizing gesture of the volume’s title, then, ( Shakespeare’s, not our Ovid) has its discontents: the more sophisticated our view of the Metamorphoses, the better we should be able to appreciate Shakespeare as one of its readers. The solution to this critical “disconnect” has already been mentioned: increased dialogue between classicists and Renaissance scholars.

On to Part I (“The Background to Shakespeare’s Ovid”) which contains a pair of contributions, opening with R. W. Maslen’s “Ovid in early Elizabethan England”. Maslen starts well by demonstrating the slippery nature of Ovid’s text. Taking the embedded references to Procne and Philomela in Titus Andronicus as an example, he notes that the Metamorphoses can serve both as “a kind of rapists’ instruction manual” (for Chiron and Demetrius) and as the hermeneutic key that Lavinia uses to unlock the meaning of her unspeakable condition. Things go awry, however, when Maslen starts to contextualize: “in the sixteenth century”, he posits, “the reading of Ovid was a highly dangerous matter” (16). As a generalization this is patently false: Ovid was widely taught in Elizabethan grammar schools, and few of these would have exposed their students to material that was deemed explosive. The problems with Maslen’s analysis arise in part from a lack of methodological rigor. When speaking of “reading” Ovid, he is actually conflating at least four separate — if sometimes overlapping — phenomena: i) the act of reading, as conventionally understood; ii) the “reading” of explicitly identified Ovidian texts by characters in Elizabethan texts (such as the aforementioned use of the Metamorphoses in Titus Adronicus); iii) the production of prose exegesis (such as the notorious “themes” of Elizabethan grammar schools); iv) the literary reception of Ovidian texts by Elizabethan poets. If it quickly emerges that Maslen is principally concerned with (iv), he nonetheless freely uses evidence from (i), (ii) and (iii) to make his case. The individual “readers” discussed in detail are the anonymous Narcissus poet, Peend, and Gascoigne. In all cases, Maslen fails to make a fully persuasive argument for the inherent danger of their acts of Ovidian literary reception.5 Indeed, in the conclusion, Maslen comes close to disavowing his own assertion, noting that English poets of this period felt that they could exploit Ovid’s witty fables “as a means of meddling with impunity in the affairs of the rich and powerful” (28, our emphasis).

Chapter 2 by John Roe, “Ovid ‘renascent’ in Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander” opens with a similar premise — namely, that poetic engagement with Ovidian erotics was “dangerous” in the repressive cultural climate of the 1590s. This, however, is little more than a peg on which Roe hangs his predominantly literary exegesis of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. A useful preliminary discussion assesses in formalist terms the poetic merits of Golding and Thomas Lodge, important literary predecessors for both Marlowe and Shakespeare. Roe then launches into his main analysis, a comparative examination of sexual themes in Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander. He concludes that Marlowe relishes a subversive type of homosexual eroticism that challenges the prevailing mores of his society, whereas Shakespeare opts for a lightness of touch that is more congenial to the erotic sensibilities of his age. (Pauline Kiernan offers a different view on the matter: see below.)

Part II (“The Metamorphoses in the Plays and Poems”) makes up the bulk of the volume: it contains nine contributions, starting with William C. Carroll’s “‘And love you ‘gainst the nature of love’: Ovid, rape, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona“. This paper addresses the intertwining of two crucial moments in the play: Proteus’ attempted rape of Silvia, the beloved of his friend Valentine; and Valentine’s subsequent offer of Silvia to the repentant would-be rapist (“All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”, 5.4.83). After an extremely interesting survey of how directors have responded to Shakespeare’s text (generally emphasizing the rape-attempt and downplaying or even effacing the offer), Carroll considers the two decisive moments in the light of earlier versions of the tale. The offer is elucidated via Elyot’s tale of Titus and Gisippus, in which Gisippus yields his beloved to his best friend Titus in a wedding-night bed trick. The prior rape attempt, on the other hand, is identified as quintessentially Ovidian: Carroll notes Charles Segal’s designation of the Metamorphoses as an “epic of rape”, and then points to Proteus as the self-conscious emblem of a sophisticated intertextual dynamic. Understood together, the attempted rape and the offer act out “two key transactional moments of a masculinist ideology of possession” as well as bring together “source materials from the two gentlemen of England and Italy, Elyot and Ovid” (59).6 Consequently, Carrol argues, not to stage fully one scene or the other “is to miss a profound, and profoundly disturbing, connection between them which the text insistently makes” (62-3).

The next paper is A.B. Taylor’s “Animals in ‘manly shape as too the outward showe:’ moralizing and metamorphosis in Titus Andronicus“. Taylor begins with some shrewd observations on the pervasive animal imagery in the play and Shakespeare’s debt to Ovid’s tales of Actaeon and Tereus and Procne. The second section, however, which contrasts Ovid’s supposed immorality with Shakespeare’s moralizing is less persuasive, particularly in its discussion of Ovid. Here Taylor states that the myth of Actaeon begins “with a denial that innocence or guilt is an issue” (69), referring to Met. 3.141-2. This is misconceived: it assumes that because justice is not served in Ovid’s tale, morality is not a thematic concern. The exact opposite is the case: in contrast to earlier versions of the myth, Ovid foregrounds the fact of Actaeon’s innocence. Indeed, the gods themselves debate the fairness of Diana’s punitive reaction as the story comes to a close (see Met. 3. 253-5: “Was her punishment too harsh, given the circumstances? Opinion on Mt. Olympus is divided…”). Slightly closer to the mark is the subsequent statement that Actaeon’s fate illustrates a world in which “guilt or innocence is irrelevant” (70) — but even here Taylor brushes over the fact that this and other tales offer a multi-faceted exploration of theodicy that thwarts any such one-sided assessment. Taylor’s final argument, that Shakespeare follows Ovid in conflating civilization and barbarity, works much better: in many respects, the Roman family of Titus mirrors its Gothic foes, just as the Athenian sisters Procne and Philomela “adjust” to the hellish realities of life in Thrace.

Chapter 3, Pauline Kiernan’s ” Venus and Adonis and Ovidian indecorous wit”, explores the intertwining of characterization and poetics in the Shakespearean poem. The chaste boy Adonis and Venus, the divine femme fatale, are shown to embody decorous and indecorous eroticism respectively, which Kiernan respectively traces to Virgil (esp. his depiction of Lavinia) and Ovid (Corinna). An ensuing section successfully probes the (in)stability of the notion of decorum, both erotic and rhetorical, in an acute analysis of Venus’ vain attempts to win over the object of her desire, in language “just this side of the ridiculous”. Ovid’s Polyphemus in his pursuit of Galatea stands in for an apt, if irreverent comparison. Less convincing is Kiernan’s assertion that the concluding simile of the snail used by Shakespeare to describe the grieving Venus (“Or as the snail, whose tender horns being hit,/ Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain”, 1033-4) helps to restore a “moment of tragic decorum”; it looks rather more like the final twist in Shakespeare’s genre-bending divertissement.

It is worth lingering for a moment on an argument Kiernan advances on pp. 88-9 since it provides a good example of the sort of “associative intertextualities” that she and other contributors are fond of adducing. In Shakespeare’s description of Venus’ frustration, “worse than Tantalus’ is her annoy” (600), Kiernan sees “a straightforward allusion to Tantalus” at Met. 4. 458-9 (as if this is the only passage in classical literature where Tantalus is mentioned); Met. 4, of course, is “where the story of Venus and Mars is to be found” (recalled in line 110 of Shakespeare’s poem “when Venus refers to ‘leading’ the god of war ‘prisoner in a red rose chain”), as well as the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which “shares certain features with Shakespeare’s poem” (“a tale of a supernatural being possessed by desire for a lovely boy”, “the same red and white erotic charge”, “the conventional rhetoric of courtship”). Kiernan goes on to discuss the Salmacis analogy at some length to illustrate a specific kind of Ovidian influence: “‘presences’ which are not strictly parallels or explicit allusions, but provide a model for expressing the shape and ‘feel’ of a character’s impulse or motivation” (89). Potentially a fertile approach, the tracing of such cascading references nevertheless gives rise to a host of methodological reservations — particularly if the critic claims that they are in some way “intentional” (as Kiernan seems to do).

Gordon Braden, in “Ovid, Petrarch, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets” argues convincingly for the primacy of Ovid as Shakespeare’s source for a number of fundamental notions, including universal flux, literary immortality, and the ability of poetry to defy time. Although asserting a strong Ovidian presence in the Sonnets, Braden remains alert to the mediating influence of intervening poets, such as the troubadours, Golding, and especially Petrarch. Shakespeare’s poetry is thus presented as the latest in a series of acts of reception which take Ovid as their point of origin. Also perceptively treated is the transformation of fundamental Ovidian motifs within Shakespeare’s own work: Braden’s analysis culminates in a demonstration of how the notion of the immortalizing power of poetry, derived from the close of the Metamorphoses is progressively attenuated from Sonnet 60 onwards. This process culminates with Sonnet 65. 9-14 which seems to offer outright repudiation of the Ovidian idea: “It is as though Shakespeare were using Ovid’s own text to hobble Ovid’s happy ending” (109). This is an insightful analysis — and as unfettered a metapoetic reading as they come.

Niall Rudd follows with “Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare and Ovid”, the only essay in the volume previously published,7 rightly deemed by Taylor “a classic of its kind” (10). Rudd’s philological observations are excellent,8 and he importantly succeeds in demonstrating that Shakespeare was working with the original Latin text as well as Golding’s translation. His analysis also shows that “Pyramus and Thisbe” serves Shakespeare as implicit foil throughout the play before gaining dramatic presence at the end. Rudd sees A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “the most magical tribute that Ovid ever was paid” (125) — though the robust obscenities of Shakespeare’s adaptation are passed over in silence. Also curiously absent, given the focus on the strategic undermining of dramatic illusion, is any discussion of Shakespeare’s arresting inclusion of an arch “critical commentary” on the Kreuzung der Gattungen of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Before the play-within-the-play begins, the following little exchange takes place among the spectators:

LYSANDER [reads] “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe: a very tragical mirth.”

THESEUS: “Merry” and“tragical”? “Tedious” and“brief”? —
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange black snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?


Romance and the simile of the burst pipe, comic lovers finding a tragic end: since Shakespeare wrote, Theseus has been joined by a long list of classical scholars who likewise have tried hard to find “the concord of the discord” that is Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Reading the quoted lines as an astute Shakespearean assessment of his Ovidian raw materials would be a double instance of “metacriticism”, but Rudd, for one, steers well clear of such critical waters.9

In the brief offering “Niobe and the Nemean Lion: reading Hamlet in the Light of Ovid’s Metamorphoses“, Yves Peyré posits that one should not confuse the scarcity of explicit references to “the founding text of the Metamorphoses” with the pervasive Ovidianism that the play exhibits. Indeed, Peyré goes on to suggest, Ovidian vacillation between petrifaction and change is not only an important feature of the plot but enacts a metaliterary message as well, asserting a contrast between “the fluidity of artistic creation” and the “petrifaction of literary convention or imitation”. The paper identifies a series of “Ovidian” associations in Hamlet, not all convincing.10 “Ovidianism” is defined as a mode of influence that “permeated artistic creation and cultural perception through indirect channels such as textbooks, dictionaries, emblem books and mythographic treatises.” This is obviously a very different kettle of fish from the more precise notion of allusion that classical scholars tend to traffic in. Again, our qualms are not with the phenomenon itself but with the absence of critical reflection: no criteria are offered for identifying the presence of “Ovidianism”, and no effort is made to distinguish this sort of vague and indirect influence from the explicit and direct engagement of an author with his predecessors. If everything that “shifts” and “changes” is an enactment of Ovidianism, then the concept is clearly devoid of heuristic value.

A rather more acute and substantial analysis that operates with a similar distinction between explicit and implicit patterns of allusion follows in A. D. Nuttall’s ” The Winter’s Tale : Ovid transformed”. Nuttall shows how three myths which Ovid himself intertwined, i.e. the abduction of Proserpina in Met. 5, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the story of Pygmalion (both in Met. 10) contribute in diverse ways to the thematic economy of Shakespeare’s play. The oblique presence of Orpheus himself contrasts with the prime-time presence of the Pygmalion-plot and the local, yet explicit references to Proserpina. Nuttall can show, however, that a common agenda of “inversion” unifies the various modes of Ovidian allusion: in The Winter’s Tale, all three myths, deeply tragic or at least problematic in Ovid, reappear in a more light-hearted, optimistic guise. He concludes with some valuable general remarks on Shakespeare’s high level of literary self-consciousness.

Uniquely, Raphael Lyne’s “Ovid, Golding, and the ‘Rough Magic’ of The Tempest” confronts methodological issues head-on, and he is the only Shakespearean scholar of the volume who seems aware of more recent developments in classical scholarship. Lyne engages in fruitful critical dialogue with the recent work of Stephen Hinds ( Allusion and Intertext) and Alessandro Barchiesi ( La Traccia del Modello). As a result, two crucial distinctions, which are operative in many of the essays in the volume but are never raised to the level of critical consciousness, here find sharp articulation: the distinction between general intertextualities and specific allusions; and the distinction between a “straightforward” allusion and one with metaliterary implications, highlighted, at times, by an “Alexandrian footnote” (159-60). After testing the heuristic value of this critical terminology on some select passages from the Sonnets (retracing some of the ground covered by Braden), Lyne moves on to a sophisticated analysis of Prospero’s “Medean Speech” in The Tempest (5.1.33-57, based partly on Met. 7. 197-209), with close attention to Golding as intermediary.

François Laroque, “Ovidian v(o)ices in Marlowe and Shakespeare: the Actaeon variations” explores references to this myth in the two playwrights. His formulations are felicitous (“The icons of myth play the part of a silent language, of a whole network of visual signifiers which were used as warning signals on the Elizabethan stage”); and Laroque teases out the polysemous potential of mythic icons in a wide-ranging and subtle discussion. In his analysis, seemingly stock allusions to the world of myth turn into nodes of meaning that help pattern entire plays.

The third part, on “Shakespeare’s Ovid in the Twentieth Century” opens with a fine, bibliographically-centered contribution by John W. Velz, “Shakespeare’s Ovid in the twentieth century: a critical survey”. Velz traces the genealogy of the field from Robert Root’s 1903 study Classical Mythology in Shakespeare to Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), and beyond. Velz has some very generous words for Bate’s achievement, which provide a welcome contrast to the somewhat forced attempt by the editor of the volume to demarcate differences between Shakespeare and Ovid and Shakespeare’s Ovid (9). We note, however, that while Velz brings the scholarship on the Shakespearean side up to date, the same cannot be said for his cursory glance at development in Ovidian studies. This raises once again the question as to what extent our evolving comprehension of Ovid should in turn influence our understanding of Shakespeare‘s Ovid.

This question is, indeed, the subject of the last chapter, Charles Martindale’s “Shakespeare’s Ovid, Ovid’s Shakespeare: a methodological postscript”. Choosing Bate as his target of criticism, Martindale opens the methodological can of worms that most earlier chapters kept securely closed. Problems of historicism, critical terminology, authorial intention, and the insistence on cultural difference (versus modes of appropriation) emerge in his analysis like a ‘return of the repressed’.11 Though focused on the work of Jonathan Bate, the analysis raises by implication questions about many of the preceding chapters. Martindale’s authorities are Derrida and Gadamer, both of whom sit a bit oddly with his emphasis on historical readings, and the tension between presentism and historicizing finds no satisfactory solution here. There is, however, a refreshing moment of personal revelation: Martindale does consider some interpretations more persuasive than others ” for reasons that can be specified” (our emphasis).12 His theoretical endgame is, at any rate, a welcome round-up to the volume as a whole. We conclude by observing that Martindale, one of the few classicists in the collection, ironically opines that “Bate, like most scholars today, seems … to exaggerate Shakespeare’s classical learning”.


1. Meres’ conception of literary history as metempsychosis receives an astute analysis by Charles Martindale in the volume under review (198-9).

2. For a survey of scholarship on Shakespeare and Ovid up to and including Bate, see the contribution of J. W. Velz (“Shakespeare’s Ovid in the twentieth century: a critical survey”), discussed below.

3. Cf. S. Hinds’ observation that a new, more critically sophisticated aetas Ovidiana had recently emerged in the preface to The Metamorphosis of Persephone. Ovid and the self-conscious Muse (Cambridge, 1987).

4. On Ovid as “one of the finest readers” of antiquity, see S. Hinds s.v. “Ovid” in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, Oxford, 1996) 1086.

5. With respect to the Narcissus poet, Maslen combines allegorical exegesis and the poet’s stylistic imitation of Ovid in order to arrive at a cautionary reading on the topic of authorial wit which “could spell disaster for its possessor” (22). Here, however, the failure to distinguish between the historical author and the authorial persona (“implied author”) is crucial since, as Maslen himself acknowledges, the theme of the “prodigal poet” was a literary topos in this period. The discussion of Peend is more insightful, showing that this writer exploited the Elizabethan penchant for multivocal Ovidian exegesis to endorse two distinct uses of the Metamorphoses : as a source of learning which prepared the Elizabethan reader to take a responsible role in public life, and “as a rich repository of erotic rhetoric” (24). This is an intriguing point, but again it does little to demonstrate any real danger inherent in reading Ovid in the sixteenth century. More convincing in this regard is the analysis of Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas, in which, as Maslen shows, the poet turns to Ovid to voice his protest at the censorship of some of his earlier work. Even here, though, it would seem that the real danger resided in the earlier, censored work rather than the Ovidian counter-attack.

6. This conclusion and its associated analysis seem to contradict Carroll’s earlier declaration that Elyot’s tale of Titus and Gisippus “will not be considered as a source” (54).

7. In D. West and A.J. Woodman (edd.), Creative Imitation and Latin Literature (Cambridge, 1979) 173-93.

8. See, for example, Rudd’s comments on anhelitus oris ( Met. 4.72), which he takes, with Golding, to suggest scent rather than sound, a point picked up by Shakespeare, or his remarks on ad busta Nini, which becomes “old Ninny’s tomb”.

9. Unlike Burrow, who also takes the metapoetic qualities of his Renaissance authors for granted but in addition gingerly advances a case for a metapoetic approach to Ovid: “… the Cave of Sleep is so packed with the language of imitation that it invites reading, dread word, metapoetically.” See Burrow’s essay “‘Full of the Maker’s Guile’: Ovid on Imitating and on the Imitation of Ovid”, in: P. Hardie, A. Barchiesi, S. Hinds (eds.), Ovidian Transformations: Essays on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and its Reception, (Cambridge, 1999) 271-87, here 278.

10. Peyré is on shaky ground in assuming that Shakespearean references to Hercules’ conquest of the Nemean Lion — the first Labor and hence a ubiquitous literary point of reference which is barely mentioned in the Metamorphoses — are “Ovidian” (127). Similarly doubtful is the argument that references to Hercules’ powerful arms involving the standard noun lacertus are inherently Ovidian.

11. One genie that remains bottled is New Historicism, of which there is hardly a trace in this volume. This is of course partly due to the subject matter; nevertheless, many classical scholars now clamor for a broadening of the study of allusions (through a synthesis of Kristeva and Greenblatt, as it were) that would break open the narrow emphasis on literary matters. See, e.g., T. Habinek, “Ovid and Empire”, in P. Hardie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ovid (Cambridge, 2002), 46-61.

12. The Gadamer of Truth and Method would of course have had none of this. See T. Haussmann, Erklaeren und Verstehen: Zur Theorie und Pragmatik der Geschichtswissenschaften, (Frankfurt a. M., 1991). Martindale could have avoided replicating Gadamer’s contradictions by taking on board more recent theoretical paradigms, which combine radical constructivism with the insistence on the possibility of rational argumentation, incidentally “solving” the tension between the fact of historical contingency and our modern interest in historicizing. E pluribus duo : see S. J. Schmidt, “Vom Text zum Literatursystem: Skizze einer konstruktivistischen (empirischen) Literaturwissenschaft”, in: Einfuehrung in den Konstruktivismus, (Munich, 1985) 147-166; P. Bourdieu, Méditations pascaliennes (Paris, 1997).