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 Amphitryonprovided 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.Continued on Next Page »
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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Mary Zimmerman, a member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and a professor at Northwestern University, started working on her adaptation of “Metamorphoses” back in 1996. Based on the classical mythology by Ovid and notably set in a pool of water (a nod to the ancient maritime cultures), the play earned her a 2002 Tony Award and a claim as one of the theater world’s leading directors. Zimmerman has now returned with ‘Metamorphoses’ in a production at Washington’s Arena Stage.
Zimmerman joined me for a conversation at our studio:
Read the transcript after the jump.
JEFFREYBROWN: Welcome to you.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Thank you.
JEFFREYBROWN: I want to take you back. Do you remember the original excitement and challenge of doing this?
MARYZIMMERMAN: I do, absolutely. I had this idea of doing myths in water. You know it’s such a maritime culture and story, these Greek and Roman myths, and in this case with “Metamorphoses,” it’s so much about transformation and change and water.
JEFFREYBROWN: So you thought about the water early on?
MARYZIMMERMAN: Oh, yes. It was sort of myths and water. Actually, originally it was “The Odyssey” in water, but I went on to do that on dry land. And then I ended up doing this, at the time, little school show at Northwestern called “Six Myths” in a way to just test out that water. But I do remember the first time the students got in the water, going home that night and just being sort of vibrating with excitement about it. And also feeling like I might be in trouble because it was so sexy. They were my students, and it was just so very sensual and sexy and beautiful. And I remember when we first professionally produced it with Lookingglass Theater, during what are called technical rehearsals, when we add the lights and costumes and stuff like that — a whole night during that that I didn’t sleep, with the excitement of like, I cannot wait for people to see this. There is a moment where a woman’s lying asleep on the shore. She’s in very shallow water and her reflection is mirror-like and perfect. And I just remember I couldn’t sleep with the kind of overwhelming beauty of it.
JEFFREYBROWN: Really, so the sort of ah-ha moment came fairly early that this could work.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes. I mean the water is so real. And it helps the actors a great deal, it stands in for very literal things: They row in it and when the oars hit the water, that’s not something that’s a recorded sound or manufactured. It’s like actually happening. But then the water is also very metaphorical. So it stands in for grief — when they grief-stricken, they take handfuls of water and put it on their face and they look tear-stained. Or its very, very sensual. Or they dissolve into it. And then sometimes it’s just like a swimming pool, and then it’s very funny when it’s suddenly used literally. The audience really likes that late in the show.
JEFFREYBROWN: What is it is about the myths themselves? And you’ve gone to other classical texts in the past.
MARYZIMMERMAN: You know all of— most of what I spent my career, as it is, doing is stories that were oral to begin with. And I believe that they belong in the air, they belong as told events.
JEFFREYBROWN: Not the way that most of us experience them
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes. And it’s not just a conspiracy of classicism, English professors, that they’ve remained with us. It’s because they speak to something fundamental about being a person. And these myths are sort of impenetrable. There is something that always remains mysterious. You sense a symbolic and psychological content, but what that is is shifty and unknown a little bit. They pull me in very deeply that way.
JEFFREYBROWN: When you are doing something else — and I’m thinking back, I saw a production you did of “Pericles” at Shakespeare Theater here — so when you are doing something else that isn’t based on that myth, do you require some other challenge or some other way into those?
MARYZIMMERMAN: Well, that’s Shakespeare. And I love— you know, “Pericles” is a very epic tale, it’s up my alley. It involves sea voyages, which I always like.
JEFFREYBROWN: The water.
MARYZIMMERMAN: And mistaken identity and lost children and found— you know all of that. It has an epic quality.
JEFFREYBROWN: But it has a text and it has—
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes, it’s a text.
JEFFREYBROWN: It’s Shakespeare.
MARYZIMMERMAN: And it’s an entirely different approach. I mean the way I do my shows is unusual. I start with no script and I write just a day ahead of the actors and I bring it in every morning, every morning a little bit more, a little bit more.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes. I do that in the same timeframe that most just normal plays rehearse in, so it’s a very pressured situation. So I feel like when I’m directing something that’s already achieved, such as “Pericles” by William Shakespeare, in the evening I can go to a movie or go out to eat or actually have a thought about something else. But when I’m in this process, there is no other thing but figuring out what I’m going to do the next day and how to get the story told. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, because I have a text it’s based on. In this case though, I had my choice of all, all of the myths of Greece of Rome. So I’m trying to structure an evening. And it’s not like I’ve done the Odyssey, which has a beautiful structure that’s given already. I’m trying to find the structure, as well as just the individual incidents — how am I going to stage them? Because these were not conceived conveniently to be staged. You know, how are you going to do sea battles, and so forth?
JEFFREYBROWN: But if you are doing it this, I don’t know, frantically down to the wire, so you literally come in the next day and here is what you are going to do, and then if that doesn’t work you’ve got to redo it quickly, down to a deadline.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes, yes, I do. Down to a deadline. And it’s— I’ve done it so often and for so long that I’m pretty confident on it and I work a lot of the time with the same people, and like I say, there is a text that we’re working from something that’s being adapted, so it’s not a total leap. The set is also already designed because just in the way practically how it works it has to be being built by the time we’re in rehearsal. And so the set actually helps me make the script. In this case, I chose myths that lean into the water, that benefit from the water, that can use it symbolically, that are amplified by the water, that have something to do with the water. And that helps me, that helps me shape the show actually.
JEFFREYBROWN: So here you are back with “Metamorphoses,” and you did it in Chicago, and you are doing it here in Washington. Is it like remaking it again, or what happens?
MARYZIMMERMAN: You know, it’s undergoing its most radical change in a way here in D.C., because we’re at the Arena and it’s in the round — or in the rectangle — and that has been really, really challenging because some of our little tricks are more difficult to—
JEFFREYBROWN: Yes, because people can see them.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes. There is nowhere to hide. I keep saying it’s like being in the Roman coliseum, but less lions. You know, but we are sort of exposed. And they are all around. And the pool imposes certain constraints. And wanting to share equally, side to side, imposes other constraints. So it’s been challenging but that’s but I wanted to do it. Like I don’t need to go around the country and keep doing Metamorphoses the rest of my life. But this was a unique, the space seemed to invite it. Everyone’s looking down on the water, it’s intimate and it just felt like a great welcoming space for it. So we wanted to bring it here.
JEFFREYBROWN: And in fact I want to ask you about the new thing you are working on.
JEFFREYBROWN: “Jungle Book.”
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes, I am.
JEFFREYBROWN: A new challenge. One that people have in their heads, again.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes, they do. It’s a double-edged sword. I haven’t met a human being that doesn’t say, “oh, I’m coming to see that,” which they don’t say when you say I’m doing the myths of Greece and Rome or “The Notebooks of the Leonardo Da Vinci,” or “In Search of Lost Time.” They actually don’t say that believe it or not? But when you say ,I’m doing Disney’s “Jungle Book” or Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” everyone is “I’m there, I’m there.” Which is great. You feel like the production is born on third base in a way, but also terribly frightening because it can’t be the film and it can’t be the books. It’s something in between.
JEFFREYBROWN: Alright, that’s “Jungle Book” in Chicago in June.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Yes, it’s the summer show at the Goodman Theater.
JEFFREYBROWN: And right now at Arena is “Metamorphoses.” Mary Zimmerman thanks so much.
MARYZIMMERMAN: Thank you.