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Shakespearean Classics: Titus Andronicus, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a new papyrus of Sophocles

In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Titus’s daughter Lavinia is brutally raped by Demetrius and Chiron. They prevent her from denouncing them by cutting out her tongue, and cutting off her hands. But as we see in the passage below, Lavinia nevertheless communicates their crime by pointing to a passage of Ovid’s Metamorphoses describing Tereus’s rape of Philomela. Guiding a staff with her mouth and stumps, she then writes her attackers’ names in the sand, leaving her father Titus to exact a terrible revenge.


‘The xv. Booke of P. Oudious Naso, entyltuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter by Arthur Golding Gentlemen’, from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (SCETI). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Known to Shakespeare both in the original and through Arthur Golding’s influential translation (1567), Ovid’s epic poem describes how king Tereus of Thrace, after marrying the Athenian princess Procne, returns to Athens to fetch Philomela, Procne’s sister, for whom she had been pining. On the way, however, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue. Hidden away in the countryside after their arrival in Thrace, Philomela is discovered by Procne and reveals Tereus’ crime through a piece of weaving. The sisters wreak vengeance by killing Itys, Procne’s child by Tereus, and serving him as a meal to his unknowing father. On discovering the truth, he pursues them, only for the gods to turn them into birds: Procne into a nightingale, Philomela into a swallow, Tereus into a hoopoe.

Behind Ovid’s account stands Sophocles’ influential lost play Tereus, the earliest work known to tell this gruesome story. Only a few fragments of the drama survive; but the publication in 2016 of a papyrus dating to the second century, from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, gives a precious glimpse into a crucial scene from this lost masterpiece. After a speech in which Procne bitterly laments the fate of married women – but before she has learned of her sister’s dreadful fate – a shepherd enters with news so significant, and so strange, that he promises to swear an oath that it is true. Telling Procne that he has come from a hunt, he describes his journey through the countryside. The papyrus breaks off just as we reach the Greek word for “hut.”

That hut will be the place where he has discovered the mutilated Philomela, news of whom he is now bringing to his queen. Sophocles’ Philomela, then, like Ovid’s, is imprisoned in the countryside after Tereus’ crime; so too Shakespeare’s Lavinia is left “in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods.” Ovid’s Philomela is discovered at a religious festival, but Shakespeare changes this detail. He has Lavinia discovered after a hunt, thereby unknowingly aligning his play with the Sophoclean drama which inspired Ovid, since (as we can now infer from the papyrus) the same is true for Sophocles’ Philomela.

It is natural enough for someone hidden in the country to be found by a man traversing the wilds as he hunts. But at a deeper level, the mention of the hunt is appallingly appropriate to the situation in which Procne and Lavinia find themselves. Both women have themselves been the object of a (perverted) hunt; both women have been tragically treated with a cruelty exceeding anything meted out by a regular hunter to his prey. And both will initiate the pursuit and punishment – the hunt, we might say – of the men who thought that they had thereby rendered them powerless.

As Colin Burrow points out in his recent book Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (2013), “Shakespeare almost certainly never read Sophocles or Euripides (let alone the much more difficult Aeschylus) in Greek, and yet he managed to write tragedies which invite comparison with those authors.” So it is fascinating to see, thanks to the papyrus, this similarity between Shakespeare and a play that he could not have read even if he had wanted to. There is no question here of influence; we rather perceive the matchless dramatic instinct, independently honed, of two of the world’s greatest playwrights.

Featured image credit: ‘Nicolas Poussin, Apollo and Daphne (1625)’ from the Alte Pinakothek. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jessica

    Had, of course, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, written the plays he would undoubtedly have read all you suggest in Greek. Shakespeare was steeped in classical education and was Arthur Golding’s nephew.

    The man from Stratford allowed his children to grow up functionally illiterate.

    Always important to go to primary research.

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