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Shakespeare, “a 16th Century Ovid”

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is widely regarded as the greatest writer, poet and dramatist of the English language, writing 38 plays, 2 narrative poems and 154 sonnets. Like Homer, Dante and Tolstoy, his works have transcended national barriers and are still read widely in the modern world. With most of his works being written between 1589 and 1613, there is no doubt that he was heavily influenced by the revival in popularity of classical literature during the early-Elizabethan period. Although Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Johnson stated that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”, he was undoubtedly (in a modern perspective) classically learned, reading a lot of Ovid during his time at Stratford grammar school. The ample amount of mythic allusions speaks clearly as evidence of the continued importance and influence the Greek and Roman classical world had during the period which he wrote.


Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786


In Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the somewhat whimsical classical references to mythology provides context for the play’s events and furthers the reader’s understanding of the insinuations created through the chosen allusions. It is regarded by many scholars as Shakespeare’s “most Ovidian” work, second to the narrative poem “Venus and Adonis”. The character Theseus, Duke of Athens can be delineated from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s “Ives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”. Theseus in antiquity was considered the mightiest Athenian hero with impressive aptitude of mental and physical strength, however in the play, Theseus is satirically depicted far from this.

When we are first introduced to the Duke, he is lovesick before his marriage to Amazonian Hippolyta, lamenting that the remaining four days are passing too slowly - “how slow/ This old moon wanes!”. However, Shakespeare makes the audience question the sincerity of the Duke’s initial speech through the classically known nature of Theseus’ former tumultuous romantic endeavours. Shakespeare uses the character of Oberon, the king of fairies, to accuse his wife, Titiana of being covertly involved with Theseus, stating that she “led him through the glimmering night/ from Perigenia” and aided him in obtaining mistresses in the forms of “fair Aegles…with Ariadne, and Antiopa” in Act 2 Scene 1. Shakespeare, therefore, uses the classical subtext to subvert the initial perception of him being a tender lover and warn the audience that he is truly a promiscuous, virile and ruthless warrior.

Hippolyta’s character is also rooted in North’s translation of Plutarch’s iconic work and the tradition “Ipolita” used by Chaucer is replaced by “Hippolyta” due to the influential power of North’s translation. Shakespeare’s characterization of her being a hesitant and battle-won bride through her narrowly developed and quiet character confirms the tragedy of her story without including her past experiences. Shakespeare glosses over that Theseus “wooed [her] with his sword/ and won [her] love doing [her] injuries,” but does not go into the cause of the battle which reveals further complexity within their relationship. One version states that during Theseus’s campaign against the Themyscira Amazons, Theseus captured Antiope (Hippolyta’s sister) but on the way to Attica, Queen Hippolyta and her tribe launched an attack. The Amazons controlled the hill of Pnyx but Theseus was ultimately victorious and therefore, Antiope withdrew to Megara and died.

The mourning Hippolyta is taken as prisoner and forced to marry her captor and perhaps bear his children (ultimate form of subjugation for an Amazon). Shakespeare is able to justify Hippolyta’s reluctance and her being portrayed as and with little lines adds depth to her underdeveloped character.

Perhaps the most developed allusion is the rude mechanicals’ “Pyramus and Thisbe”of the originally sombre Ovidian myth (Book Four of the Metamorphoses). Which speaks of the tragic tale of two beautiful Babylonian youths’ forbidden love who communicated through a hole in their shared wall and decided to meet secretly, consumed by passion. Thisbe is then frightened by a lion and drops her veil, causing Pyramus to see a blood stained shawl and kill himself in despair which leads to Thisbe’s own tragic suicide after seeing his body. Shakespeare manipulates the romantic features of Ovid’s original so the satire forces the audience to confront the deeper inferences. The inversion of the myth begins from when Bottom and the tradesmen search for a suitable drama for the Duke’s wedding, Peter Quince proposes “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” in Act 1 Scene 2, combining the paradoxical adjectives to evoke humour in the otherwise grave narrative and setting the stage for the hodgepodge troupe’s disaster outlay entertaining performance.


The production is seen as a complete farce, Bottom absurdly states “I see a voice; now will I to the chink/ to spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face”and that the night is “ever art when day is not”, again compromising the gravity and maturity of Ovid’s characters. Other disasters include the oral blunder of the Latin possessive structure ad busta Nini (“the tomb of Ninus,”) when Pyramus’s request for Thisbe to “meet [him] at Ninny’s tomb straightway” and the breaking of the metaphorical fourth wall in the closing of Thisbe’s dying speech, “adieu, adieu, adieu,”. This shatters the theatre’s illusion of legitimacy and the original pathos from those familiar with the Ovidian tale.

Therefore, Shakespeare’s dislocation from Ovid’s classical mythology forces readers to search for it in the relationship of Lysander and Hermia. Their love is just as youthful and prohibited by their fathers as Hermia’s dad, Egeus, insists that she marries Demetrius. Hermia asserts that she “know(s) not by what power [she] is made bold” which echoes Ovid’s rendition of Thisbe motivations through the phrase audacem faciebat amor (“Love made her bold”). When Lysander is faced with his beloved either being put to death or becoming a nun, he says, “If thou lovest me then/ Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night/And in the wood, a league without the town” will he meet her, echoing Pyramus and Thisbe’s resolve “to steale out of their fathers house and eke the Citie gate…they did agree at Ninus Tomb to meete without the towne”. The clear borrowings from Ovid show a somewhat “distorted mirror-image” of potentially tragic romantic love and therefore adds an element of seriousness to a depiction of love that could be seen as too naive and idealised.

Shakespeare’s allusions from classical mythology in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides a depth of layered meanings to an already developed storyline. Shakespeare uses the iconic characters to give the audience a truer sense of their nature and context for their actions.Through the distorted parody of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, the playwright forces the reader to look at the serious legitimacy of Lysander and Hermia relationship without being distracted by the lunacy of the woods. Overall, Ovid’s Metamorphoses undoubtedly influenced the writings of Shakespeare, but it is not restricted to the casting of ancient heros or the theme of young love, but it is felt in varying degrees of significance and strength, over the entire play.






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