Shakespeare and Ovid 
by Jonathan Bate.
Oxford, 292 pp., £35, May 1993, 0 19 812954 8
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Ovid was Shakespeare’s favourite poet. The fact is central to his genius, crucial to the understanding of his work. Shakespeare himself remains visible to posterity; Ovid is now, through the decay of Classical learning, almost invisible. The Shakespeare industry roars on, but the number of people for whom Actaeon, Adonis, Arachne, Echo, Narcissus, Philomel and Tereus are mere un-meaning names grows greater with each successive year. For Shakespeare (and Keats and Eliot) such names are like windows opening on another world, which is like and unlike ours. Each name involves a story and story begets story in a living system of extraordinary richness. To forget all this is to experience absolute loss.

We have in general come to accept the account of Shakespeare gently offered by Ben Jonson, later hardened and simplified by Milton, as a poet without learning, warbling his ‘native woodnotes wild’. Jonson and Milton both knew far more Latin and Greek than Shakespeare, so perhaps they could afford such judgments. I am not sure that we can do so today. There is clear evidence that Shakespeare read and remembered Ovid’s Latin and was not confined to English translations. He alludes to or borrows phrases from all 15 books of Ovid’s great mythological poem, the Metamorphoses. He also knew the Fasti (a poetic calendar of the Roman year), the Heroides (verse letters to absent lovers) and parts at least of the Amores, The Art of Love and the Tristia. This, from one who was never at university and of course never thought of himself as a Classicist. Today an undergraduate reading Classics at Oxford is expected to read only one book of the Metamorphoses.

It must be said, however, that the Classicists themselves turned against Ovid, long before sheer ignorance of Latin began to play its part. Ovid’s greatest poem is all about the amours of the gods, about sexual pursuit, rape and transformation: in Marlowe’s words,

Jove slyly stealing from his sister’s bed
To dally with Idalian Ganymed,
And for his love Europa bellowing loud,
And tumbling with the Rainbow in a cloud.

The Metamorphoses presents a field of polymorphous divine sexuality. The later Middle Ages dealt with this morally dangerous material by allegorical interpretation. In the massive 14th-century Ovide moralisé it is laboriously explained that the revolt of the giants against the Olympian gods shadows forth the building of the Tower of Babel and illustrates the folly of human pride. By this method the most licentious material can, by a transforming spell which Ovid, the master of transformations, never imagined, be turned to pious ends. In the 1590s, however, Marlowe and Shakespeare between them blew the gaff. The principal source of Marlowe’s glittering Hero and Leander, with its breathtakingly beautiful homoerotic description of Leander swimming, is Musaeus, but the tone is Ovidian, and this is Ovid unmoralised, undisguisedly erotic. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis is a heterosexual Ovidian story but that scarcely renders it safe, for Venus is the active party, Adonis the pursued. As Jonathan Bate says, the poem is partly about a woman who wishes to rape a man and is frustrated by physiological difference. The magisterial Jonson, in his play Poetaster, drew the moral conclusion: if that is what Ovid is really like, then Ovid must go, and Virgil, the poet of piety, honour, order and the idea of Rome, must come forward in his place. This severe placing of the two poets held firmly and perhaps still holds. When I was taught Latin and Greek it was made very clear to me that Ovid was a negligible poet: frivolous, trivial, superficial. I imagine that in the intervening centuries a formal objection had gradually taken shape, mirroring the original moral objection.

Classical art, unlike Gothic or Romantic, had, we are told, a Vitruvian stability. The history, rhetoric and poetry of the ancient world resembled its architecture in being unified, apprehensible and orderly. It will be obvious that to such a view of literary history Ovid is deeply embarrassing. The very title, Metamorphoses, warns us to expect not stability but flux. The severe marble figures of the Olympian gods are suddenly suffused with colour (like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, like the statue loved by Pygmalion) and quickened with erotic life. The stories themselves will not settle around a dominant, central narrative line but instead prove as joyously fecund as the persons they tell of. Ovid, therefore, is the unclassical Classical poet.

It must be granted that the Roman establishment, at least, thought as Jonson did. It seems that Ovid’s amorous poetry led to his banishment; Jonson in due course drew on this in his Poetaster. Moreover, Ovid himself may have been conscious of an element of formal or literary transgression in his work. He refers to the ever-flowing stream of his poem as carmen perpetuum, ‘perpetual song’. This is likely to be a deliberate, arrogant inversion of the canon laid down by his Greek predecessor, Callimachus. Callimachus disliked long poems, believed strongly in the separate, sharply unified short poem and used the phrase ‘continuing song’ as a term of abuse. The situation is a remote pre-echo of something we have seen in our own century, not in fiction but in literary criticism: the New Critical emphasis on the separateness of the poem-in-itself succeeded by a structuralist intuition that literary knowledge is endlessly relational. This makes Ovid the great poet of différance, differentiation and endless deferral.

All this suggests that Ovid, if we could only read him, might be very much à la mode. Jonathan Bate might have made this the central pillar of his argument. In fact he has chosen instead to push the debate to a further stage and so to do something much more difficult, much more interesting: in effect, he shows us that, while Ovid may delight the timeless theorist, he constitutes a kind of scandal for the New Historicist.

As Laurence Lerner recently remarked, New Historicism can be summed up, not unfairly, as the doctrine that a poem is not for all time. All literary works, including the greatest, are embedded in history, their meaning wholly determined by contemporary pressures; the idea, so dear to Ben Jonson, that great art can over-arch history, can speak with its own authoritative voice to generations yet unborn, is chimerical. Yet Bate is struck by the fact that Shakespeare seems genuinely able to use Ovid as a means of transcending his immediate historical situation. Ovid’s Actaeon, who gazed on the naked beauty of Diana and was torn to pieces by his dogs, was used by both Jonson and his commentator Sandys for a political purpose; Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor links it instead with immemorial folk stories of Herne the Hunter.

The Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives was excited by the thought that beneath the fluid surface of things there lay an essential human nature. It is an idea which we, in our time, have been taught, by a series of genuinely powerful arguments, to scorn. Some may be surprised to learn that C.S. Lewis, of all people, put the case against Vives with especial effectiveness. The essentialists would have us believe, he wrote, that

if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human heart and on this we are to concentrate … I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as unchanging if you ignore its changes. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere LCM is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself.

Yet Jonathan Bate, with the wind blowing briskly against him, is willing to write of Shakespeare and Ovid, separated as they are by centuries of historical turbulence: ‘Neither the lightness nor the darkness of sexual desire has changed so very much.’ He also writes that the allusion in Richard II to Phaethon universalises the King’s situation and that this in its turn contributes to ‘the enduring power’ of Shakespearean tragedy. I would guess that such sentences will attract a now almost automatic hostility. Lewis himself allowed that there might be a continuous residuum of common human identity, but simply insisted that it would be of small interest. But then Lewis was notoriously unwilling to think about human sexuality – one obvious candidate for consideration as a perennial component. Freud (and what would Lacan be without Freud?) was as willing as Jonathan Bate to proceed directly and without historical mediation to the myths of antiquity to explain sexual psychology.

The tension, explored by Bate, between the moralised history of Virgil and the timeless have flux of Ovid casts a curious light on such figures of our own time as Jonathan Dollimore. I have always sensed a doubleness in Dollimore’s writing. On the one hand he is an evangelist of sexual pluralism, joyously discovering subversion – that is, opinions at odds with the times at which they were set down but in tune with Dollimore’s own thought – in old texts. On the other hand, he is widely seen as an English New Historicist, whose political roots lie in Marxist historiography. Virgil’s notion of the destiny of Rome as law-giver to the world has an affinity, as has often been noticed, with Jewish conceptions of a chosen people and a shaped future. These ideas, in their turn, if Russell and Popper were right, lead to Marxist history. Is Dollimore an Ovidian thinly disguised as a Virgilian? It remains odd that the past decade has seen in criticism an increased insistence on the ‘embeddedness’ of literature in time and, in dramatic performance, an undiminished flow of ‘historically promiscuous’ productions – armour, 19th-century greatcoats and leather jock-straps in merry simultaneity.

Bate’s choice of Ovid as affording a means of returning to the idea of literature as transcending history seems to me both correct and very cunning. The New Historicists are geared up to confront a foe of adamantine stability, of boring ethical probity. Bate instead suggests that their most formidable antagonist was a poet of endless movement and dubious morality, who found a kind of continuity in change itself (‘eterne in mutabilitie’, as Spenser wrote, imagining a garden of illicit love-making). If you can’t rely on anything else, you can rely on the fact that things won’t keep still.

Of course Vives wanted a little more than the mere fact that changes are continual (which would be compatible with the complete absence of an underlying human essence). I suspect that both Ovid and Jonathan Bate want a little more, also. Myth works as a kind of language, an alternative language to that of psychology which necessarily presupposes enough continuity in the referent for meaning to be established by use. In practice this amounts to the presupposition of certain ‘deep structures’ in human nature. Psychology, which is at least partly scientific, is friendly to myth because of this interest in continuities. Biology in its turn is quite clearly concerned, in its use of a term like ‘sex’, to refer to ahistorical factors common to almost all animals. Myths are narratives and are notoriously located in the distant past but we know, and I think Ovid knew, that these things never actually happened. The Neoplatonist Sallustius (fourth century AD) said that myth was all about ‘what never happened and always is’. That is why the dogs never cease to tear Actaeon. I last saw him in David Lodge’s Nice Work.

I have suggested a certain equivalence of myth and psychology. This may mean that they are in a way rivals. In Euripides’ Hippolytus one can sense that psychology is preparing to take over from myth. The story itself is firmly mythical: the hero is horribly punished because he rejects Aphrodite (Ovid would call her Venus). Yet at the same time we begin to feel, as we do not with the earlier drama of Aeschylus, that all this could be re-expressed in psychological language: Hippolytus is repressed and repression can lead to trauma. Bate brilliantly observes that the first act of The Winter’s Tale, which gives us the neurotic jealousy of Leontes, is strangely without mythical reference. ‘Everything seems to come from within Leontes’s brittle psyche.’ Then the different order of myth begins to work in the play, a marvellous interweaving of Proserpina (the girl gathering spring flowers who was carried off by the god of the dead) with Pygmalion (who loved a statue and saw it come to life). Euripides, perhaps, was writing in tune with a movement of history. It is as if Shakespeare sought to reverse this movement, to recover mythical thought and agency.

This special quality of timeless movement assists the powerful association of Ovidian myth with what is technically known as ecphrastic poetry. One of the meanings of ekphrasis is ‘a poem about another (usually visual) work of art’. Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, already referred to, is perhaps the greatest ecphrastic poem in the language. The urn is at first an object of uncanny, cold stillness, but as we gaze on the figures carved on it, we are drawn into a world of heady, Ovidian turbulence. In the Metamorphoses the daughters of Minyas reject the sexual orgies of Bacchus and choose to stay at home and spin. As they work, they in their turn begin story-telling about Pyramus and Thisbe, the same Pyramus and Thisbe who provide matter for the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In The Rape of Lucrece, Lucrece, as Bate points out, constructs an inner ekphrasis, a visual set-piece in which the ravished Philomel is set before us. In paintings and tapes-tries moments from known, often violent stories are eerily arrested. Bate writes admirably about the varying effects of these ‘nested’ structures.

Perhaps the most admired of all the many paintings involving an internal image is Velazquez’s Las Meninas; and it may be that that picture speaks to our century because it is more psychological than it is mythical. The time has perhaps come to look more carefully at the same painter’s other great essay in ‘nested’ images, the far more Ovidian Las Hilanderas (‘The Spinners’). The foreground is occupied by women of Velazquez’s own time, working around the spinning wheel (here is one of the most beautiful, most tenderly painted representations of the back of a woman’s neck in the whole history of Western art). But we can see through into a further, more brightly lit room. There stand three women, much more richly dressed than the spinners, apparently watching a sort of tableau-drama (the awkward compound word reflects the now familiar conjunction of narrative and fixity). Minerva, in a helmet, is rebuking Arachne for daring to make much of her skill in weaving. Beyond them hangs a tapestry showing an early stage in the story of the rape of Europa. In Ovid Arachne tells the story of Europa and the bull in her tapestry before she is turned into the spider, the weaver of webs. It will be observed that this review is getting out of hand: story is begetting story. But that is the Ovidian effect.

In Cymbeline we find more ekphrasis. Before she is so to speak visually raped by Iachimo, Imogen has been reading in Ovid himself (!) about the rape of Philomel. In the room where she lies, meanwhile, the chimney-piece is carved with representations of Diana bathing. Those who knew the myths would sense at once the nearness of Actaeon who, like Iachimo, was a voyeur. Remember Eliot in The Waste Land:

Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice.

Are there any bad spots in this marvellous book? Bate is relatively weak on As You Like It. Duke Senior’s celebrated praise of the simple life at the beginning of Act II is taken at face value, as if it were separately printed as an improving passage in a book of ‘beauties’ from Shakespeare. Bate stolidly notes the allusion to Eden and the Golden Age, discovers the moral of the sermons in stone but has nothing to say about the irony of the situation. The Duke praises the very discomforts of the forest on the ground that they afford an unmediated reality: no flattering rhetoric here. But at the same time his speech is marked by a pronounced rhetorical elegance and the imagery he uses, tongues in trees, sermons in stones, books in running brooks, seems to betray a courtier’s love of language. Even as he praises Nature for her pre-linguistic purity he assimilates her to language. When the Duke has finished, he is pleased to receive Amiens’ compliment:

                       Happy is your grace.
That can translate the stubbornness of fortune
Into so quiet and so sweet a style.

The word ‘translate’ suggests an echo, at the level of language and thought, of the Ovidian metamorphosis of persons.

Similarly, Bate represents the moment when Orlando enters with drawn sword to secure food for his aged servant as turning wholly on the surprise experienced by Orlando: he expected to meet with barbarity in the forest but is instead received with courtesy. In fact the distinctively Shakespearean thing about this moment is the way in which the dramatist, having set up a simple pastoral surprise sequence, then works internally against it. For Orlando does not in fact burst in upon a scene of civil friendliness. Instead he interrupts what looks like the start of a surprisingly nasty quarrel between Jaques and Duke Senior. The moment of shocking confrontation –

Jaques.      I am ambitious for a motley coat.

Duke. Thou shalt have one

– is broken by a lateral interruption. Moreover it is strange that in a book on Shakespeare and Ovidian licentious imagination nothing should be said about the line, ‘The sight of lovers feedeth those in love.’ Rosalind, disguised as a boy, asks Orlando to make love to her as if she were Rosalind. This multiplication of identities produces a faintly perverse excitement. Rosalind’s line momentarily transforms the forest into a sort of erotic panopticon.

There are a few other minor blemishes. Bate, a little prissily, ticks off 16th-century Thomas Cooper for calling Ovid’s forced departure from Rome ‘exile’ – strictly, it was ‘relegation’ – and then uses the word ‘exile’ himself a couple of pages later. He accepts the attribution of the Hercules Oetaeus to Seneca, as if there were no doubt in the matter. His footwork is poor when he writes about Tamburlaine’s ‘Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia’ and its altered appearance in the mouth of Ancient Pistol as ‘hollow pampered jades of Asia’. The change from ‘holla’ to ‘hollow’, says Bate, reflects die fact that Tamburlaine’s language is empty, almost bombastic. I suspect that something more dynamic than mere reflection is before us here. Speech which would be empty ranting in almost anyone else becomes strangely full when uttered by Tamburlaine, because be is such a doer; he enacts the hyperboles and renders them soberly realistic. But when this language is transferred to Pistol, then indeed we have pure bombast and the word ‘hollow’ signals the fact of transformation.

In another place Bate suggests that the historical Earl of Essex can be seen as an Actaeon-figure. He bases this on the earl’s bursting in on the Queen when she was unprepared, ‘with her hair about her face’. He then endorses Herford and Simpson’s comment, that this was ‘as near an approach as a mortal was likely to make to gazing upon Cynthia’s naked loveliness’. The reader is given the impression that the Queen was universally regarded with awe-struck veneration. What about Jonson’s gossip to Drummond about the privy membrane which (he said) prevented Elizabeth from having sexual intercourse? Or torturer Topcliffe’s boast that he had felt the breast, legs and belly of the Queen? I offer this not as showing what Topcliffe did but as showing what could be thought and said.

Writing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream Bate says, in my opinion correctly, that Shakespeare plays down the violence of the Ovidian material. Here Apuleius’ Golden Ass might have been explored in detail. In Apuleius a tear is expressed at the pain a woman would feel if she had actual sexual intercourse with an ass. In Shakespeare’s play Bottom is indeed hilariously indifferent to the blandishments of the beautiful creature climbing all over him, but this is funnier if we remember the Apuleian grossness. Bate also says, on real but slender textual evidence, that Caliban is associated with apes. This has been a common view since the Darwinian Daniel Wilson published Caliban: The Missing Link in 1873. In fact Shakespeare puts far more of his verbal energy into telling us that Caliban is like a fish. I think I know why. There is talk in The Tempest of showing Caliban at a fair. When I was a child I saw a fairground booth with a sign, ‘Come in and see the Mermaid.’ I went in and saw a severely deformed person who looked very like a fish. Shakespeare may have seen something similar. Real, biological metamorphosis can be a dreadful thing.

Meanwhile Bate is, again and again, brilliant. For example, true to his principle of never insisting on a debt to Ovid where none exists, he points out that the transformations in Dr Faustus are necromantic and not Ovidian. He catches very exactly the eeriness with which the horrors of Titus Andronicus are permeated by the language of a school-room Latin lesson. He is right when he teaches his reader to hear the baying of Actaeon’s hounds in the one word ‘pack’ in Malvolio’s last words, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.’ Similarly sharp is his detection of a buried reference to Ovid’s Echo, who loved Narcissus, in Viola’s lines,

Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia’. Olivia …

Viola, herself a physical echo of Sebastian, is disguised as Cesario, whose proxy wooing echoes her own real feelings. This is literary criticism of the highest order. Equally sharp is Bate’s comment on Prosperous ‘farewell’ speech. This is taken straight from Ovid and has all the grandeur of an opening invocation – and yet Shakespeare places it late and turns it into a valediction. ‘The audience is given its incantatory fix only when the necessity of withdrawal is apparent.’

What then of the ethical question-mark which has hung over Ovid for so many centuries? If we think that freedom, multiplicity and pleasure are good in themselves and consider censoriousness a kind of sin we must reverse the ethical judgment of Jonson and be clear that our critical admiration of Ovid is as moral as Dr Leavis himself could ever have wished. But a certain anxiety persists. There is so much pain and so many rapes in Ovid, and the poet seems in a way not to care. Indeed the co-existence of violation and exquisite elegance, of shock and a golden remoteness, is of the essence of his amazing art – and this is less easily moralised. There is an oddly refreshing moment in this book when Bate observes that Shakespeare himself seems to have been revolted by the displays of rhetorical copiousness laid on by the ravished Lucrece. Near the end Bate writes movingly that for Ovid there is no innocence, that Shakespeare half-knows that he is right but refuses to relinquish his half-belief that he might be wrong.

The daughter of Dr Blimber in Dombey and Son loved antiquity in a spirit of learned necrophilia. ‘None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead – stone dead – and then Miss Blimber dug them up, like a ghoul.’ One senses that many Classical scholars have actively relished the petrific lifelessness of antiquity. Ovid himself, meanwhile, is everywhere instinct with the mobility of living things. The last word of the Metamorphoses is a glorious, arrogant shout: Vivam, ‘I shall live!’

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