Ovid: Bowm-Chicka-BowWah

Last month, we discussed the use of references to the Roman poet Ovid (and mostly to his Metamorphosis) in Titus Andronicus… we also mentioned near the end of the month that Shakespeare would be using more Ovid later in his career.  I mentioned a couple of plays where the references were obvious, but didn’t know at the time that The Taming of the Shrew would have its share of Ovid-ian (not a word I’m sure) focal points.

As the lord and serving men talk about the pictures they can bring to the newly awakened Sly, they mention “Io as she was a maid // And how she was beguiled and surprised, // As lively painted as the deed was done” (Induction.ii.52-54), as well as “Daphne roaming through a thorny wood” (Induction.ii.55).  Both are references tales Ovid recounts in his Metamorphosis.  Io was ravished by Jove/Jupiter, and Daphne was pursued for equally amorous purposes by Apollo (both of these adding to Sly’s drunken arousal).

When Lucentio first sees (and falls in love with) Bianca, he tells his servant, “Hark, Tranio, though mayst hear Minerva speak” (I.i.84).  This, too, is a reference to Metamorphosis, only this time more chaste and respectful, as Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and the arts.  Later in the same scene, Lucentio again references Ovid’s work when he compares the beauty he has seen in Bianca’s face as “Such as the daughter of Agenor had, // That made great Jove to humble him to her hand” (I.i.166-167).  Again, we get to see the master mythic serial fornicator Jove/Zeus/Jupiter again at work (turning himself into a bull so that she would ride away with him).

Later, in the Latin lesson, Lucentio/Cambio asks Bianca a couplet from Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines): “Hic ibat Simois, hic est Sigeia tellus, // Hic steterat Priami regia celsa senis” (III.i.28-29).  The lines translate as “Here flowed the Simois, her lies the Sigeian plain, here stood the lofty palaces of old Priam” and they come from a letter to Odysseus from Penelope; he had gone to fight the Trojan war (which took ten years), she had remained chaste and true, and now he was nearing the end of his VERY long journey home (another ten years).  This is the first of the poems in this collection, and the choice of subject matter is interesting:  the Trojan War was fought over a beautiful woman, stolen by Paris; in a sense, this is what Lucentio is doing, stealing Bianca from the other suitors.  The fact that the letter come from Penelope is just as interesting: he wants Bianca to be as true to him as Penelope was to Odysseus (and I’m sure he’s hoping to be as heroic as his counterpart).

But the most interesting use of Ovid, however, does have anything to do with his higher-minded works like Metamorphosis or Epistulae Heroidum.  Tranio tells Lucentio upon their arrival in Padua:

Let's be no Stoics nor no stocks, I pray,
Or so devote to Aristotle's checks
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjur'd.

— I.i.31-33

Tranio doesn’t want to be a stoic (who preached living beyond either pain or pleasure) or a “stock,” a stick — both a pun on “Stoic” and to use the modern vernacular, a stick in the mud — or a follower of Aristotle (all philosophy, no play).  No, he does NOT want his master to give up all that Ovid stands for.  But this makes no sense if we see Ovid only as the classical poet responsible for Metamorphosis.

Ah, dear reader, he wrote more than that.  He also wrote Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love)… basically, the “How to Pick Up Girls” for the Roman bachelor.  And if there’s any doubt that this is Tranio’s point of reference, Lucentio himself removes that doubt in response to Bianca’s question as to his reading materials, he says, “I read that I profess, The Art to Love” (IV.ii.8), and it must work, as Bianca flirtatiously responds, “And may you prove, sir, master of your art” (IV.ii.9).

Cue the thumping bass and guitar wah-wah pedal.