|Ovid by Luca Signorelli|
Ovid has influenced many writers and artists, including Geoffrey Chaucer, the composers Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten, and many more.
But the influence he had on Shakespeare was profound and seemingly unparalleled. Many of Shakespeare's plays, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, and The Comedy of Errors were influenced by Ovid.
In fact, scholars have found that 90 % of Shakespeare's mythological references come from Ovid's narrative poem masterwork, Metamorphoses.
Why would Shakespeare write plays and poetry so frequently that were so obviously influenced by Ovid?
I think there is something deeper here, something worth exploring.
In 1567, Arthur Golding's famous translation of Ovid was published.
|Arthur Golding's 1567 translation|
This was only two years after Shakespeare was born, and by the time Shakespeare was a schoolboy learning Latin and Greek, it is well known that he would have read this translation.
Shakespeare's father was a glovemaker by trade, and he served the Stratford community in various positions. But he also got into trouble for wool brogging, illegal dealing in sheep's wool.
I find it interesting that the name Ovid means 'sheep.'
Shakespeare did not go to university. It is thought that his father's troubles brought the family to an almost complete financial ruin, and they could not afford to send Shakespeare to Oxford, as was most likely.
We don't know what Shakespeare would have studied, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was law.
That was never to happen, and within a few years Shakespeare was on his way to London to become an actor and playwright.
I would think that this was met with at least a little scepticism by his family and especially his father, who probably considered a career on the stage no better than being a common criminal.
Ovid's father wanted him to become a lawyer, and after serving in some minor public offices, Ovid resigned from public service and became a poet. His father did not approve.
Ovid was successful right away.
Shakespeare, it would seem, did not waste any time when he got to London, because his earliest plays were big hits.
When the plague hit London very hard in 1592 and it closed the theatres, Shakespeare wrote an erotic poem Venus and Adonis, which was hugely successful. It was like the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Elizabethan era.
Venus and Adonis was modeled after Book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Shakespeare's later epic poem Rape of Lucrece was modeled after Ovid's Fasti. It is interesting to note that the Fasti had not been translated yet, so it is proof that Shakespeare did in fact read Latin.
Shakespeare's sonnets were based on Ovid's love lyrics, Amores.
Time and time again, Shakespeare turned to Ovid to inspire him and help lead him. I know that many writers find inspiration from the lives and works of other writers, but I can't escape the thought that there was something deeper here between Shakespeare and Ovid.
In Ovid's lifetime, he was perhaps most famous for having been banished from Rome by Emperor Augustus.
We don't know why he was banished. It is a mystery to this day.
|Ovid Banished from Rome, by J.M.W. Turner 1838|
Ovid wrote that he was banished because of "carmen et error" which means "a poem and a mistake." He claimed that his crime was worse than murder and more harmful than poetry.
What was the poem and what was the mistake? Was the poem a mistake?
What did he write and what did he do to so offend and anger the Emperor that he would be kicked out of Rome?
What could be worse than murder?
Plato, in The Republic, attacked the art of poetry, and theatre for that matter. He argued that these arts have a corrupting influence on society, and should be censored and banished.
It was written in 380 BC, so by the time of Ovid, the debate about censorship had been raging for over 300 years.
By the time Shakespeare was writing, the debate had been raging for about 2000 years.
And of course, the argument is far from over, and still rages all over the world today.
When Shakespeare was writing his plays, the history of plays and playhouses and playwrights in England had just been born. With every word he wrote he was breaking new ground and paving a path that had never existed in England before.
England was allowing freedoms unheard of in England before. Shakespeare's father John didn't know such freedoms and would not understand them perhaps to the day he died.
So, Shakespeare knew that his artistic freedom, given to him by Queen Elizabeth, was under siege. It was being attacked (especially by the Puritans) and could disappear just as quickly as it had appeared.
I think Shakespeare felt a real kinship with Ovid, that was deeper and more significant than with any other artist or historical figure.
Shakespeare probably thought to himself, on more than one occasion, that history was repeating itself -- first Ovid and now him, Shakespeare.
And I think Shakespeare couldn't help but be aware of the fact that the raging debate about art and freedom could banish him, or worse yet, kill him.
Shakespeare's greatest friend and enemy, his frenemy, playwright Christopher Marlowe had died under suspicious circumstances. It was believed that Marlowe had worked as a spy for the state, and probably was killed by other agents of the state.
Thomas Kyd, another playwright, was tortured by the government and died from his wounds, not long after.
John Marston, another playwright, had offended King James with his plays, and by 1607 his career was over. He was not killed, but his career was over. Banished like Ovid perhaps.
I think Shakespeare lived with the fear and the very real likelihood that his plays might one day be the end of him.
There were precedents for this in antiquity and precedents in his own lifetime.
I have often thought that Shakespeare may not have retired from playwriting in about 1610. Was he perhaps forced into retirement? Was he banished to Stratford?
This may have been one last great coincidence between Ovid and Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare was banished from London, then it is would be one of the greatest mysteries of the Elizabethan period, just as Ovid's banishment from Rome is the one of the greatest mysteries of Classical antiquity.
David B. Schajer
Fifty Shades of Shakespeare
Christopher Marlowe's Life & Shakespeare's Life
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