Ovid goes to Stratford

Michael Dobson

  • Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith
    Wiley-Blackwell, 216 pp, £14.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 470 65851 2

Perhaps it was inevitable that Shakespeare’s talent should have been understood in mythological terms from the outset. Even before he published Venus and Adonis (1593) his early plays had revealed an imagination profoundly shaped by Ovid’s tales of the interaction between gods and mortals, and, despite the growing prevalence among his audiences of a neoclassical taste for satirical urban realism, throughout his career he scripted scenes in which Hymen personally ratifies the ending of a comedy, or Hercules abandons Antony, or Jupiter descends on an eagle. The first published review of his work, in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592), depicts Shakespeare as Aesop’s vain corvid posing as a peacock, calling him an ‘upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’. Using the avian motif to more positive effect, Ben Jonson’s elegy in the First Folio of 1623 apostrophises Shakespeare as ‘Sweet Swan of Avon!’, thereby identifying him not only with his inconveniently swan-infested home town but with Zeus, who conceived the most beautiful of women through his union with Leda. Milton, another connoisseur and rewriter of myths, turned this trope on its head in the early 1630s: for him Shakespeare was still a bird – a wood-warbler, apparently – but one who was to be identified not as a divine father but as a divinely parented infant. In ‘L’Allegro’, the lively extrovert of the title proposes an excursion to the theatre, where he and his companions may hear ‘Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,/Warble his native woodnotes wild’.

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[*] Contested Will was reviewed by Helen Hackett in the LRB of 11 March 2010. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is published by Cambridge (298 pp., £18.99, April, 978 1 107 60328 8).