A Kind of Scandal

A.D. Nuttall

  • Shakespeare and Ovid by Jonathan Bate
    Oxford, 292 pp, £35.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 19 812954 8

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.

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