Shakespeare's Myths

After the last battle in 2 Henry VI, young Clifford discovers his father’s dead body lying on the battlefield. His deep grief immediately fuels his craving foe revenge, with a grim determination which, under the pretence of deceptive eye for eye symmetry, will repay the death of an “old” man (in fact a vigorous, experienced soldier) with that of a harmless, helpless infant: “York not our old men spares; / No more will I their babes” (V.iii.51-52). Revolving on the murder of children, and on his own imperviousness to “Tears virginal” and “beauty” (V.iii.52-55), Clifford’s imagination finally settles on Absyrtus’ death:


Meet I an infant of the house of York,

Into as many gobbets will I cut it

As wild Medea young Absyrtus did. (V.iii.57-59)


In a footnote to his edition (Arden Third Series, 1999), Ronald Knowles remarks that “Given the number of beheadings in 2H6 …, it may be significant to note that in a source well known to the Renaissance (Ovid, Tristia, 3.9) Medea  places the head and hands high up on a rock to gain her father’s attention”. More generally, Clifford’s image of Medea tearing up her brother’s body, together with the numerous actual beheadings mentioned in the play, may contribute to building up a symbolic representation a the dismemberment of the country in civil war.


A complementary line of thought is suggested by Shakespeare’s use of the word “gobbet” into which much of the horror of the imagined scene graphically concentrates. It sends back to John Studley’s translation of Seneca’s Medea, in which the protagonist remembers the death of her brother, his “shredded and dismembered corpse with sword in gobbets hewed” (1566, fol. 6v)—the only known early modern English text (apart from 2 Henry VI) describing Absyrtus’ body torn into “gobbets”.


The Elizabethan translator had added a detail of his own, that is not to be found in Seneca’s original text (Medea, 131-33)—or, indeed, in any other classical or early modern reference to Absyrtus’ death: John Studley, probably to intensify the horror of her crime, has his Medea remember the slaughter of her brother “with his secret parts cut off” (fol. 6v). It is obviously impossible to ascertain that Shakespeare’s attention was caught by Studley’s gruesome detail, but a notion of emasculation would fit with Clifford’s dream, half expressed in his Absyrtus image, of the total extermination of a whole lineage. Clifford’s threat to kill off the children of the house of York is made real at the beginning of 3 Henry VI (I.iii), when young Rutland falls under his clutch and Clifford stabs him “to root out” York’s “accursèd line” (I.iii.33).


Inga-Stina Ewbank has shown the reverberations of the Absyrtus passage in 2 Henry VI into Shakespeare’s tragedies—mainly Macbeth (“The Fiend-like Queen”, pp. 88-89), focussing on the “deliberate rejection of pity and the murder of innocent children”. Clifford’s decision, “Henceforth I will not have to do with pity” (V.iii.56), is immediately followed by his elaboration of the Absyrtus image, after which he takes his father’s corpse on his shoulders: “As did Aeneas old Anchises bear, / So bear I thee upon my manly shoulders” (V.iii.62-63), explicitely reproducing on stage a common emblem of filial piety, made famous by Alciati’s “Pietas Filiorum in Parentes”, that appeared in the 1531 edition, and all successive editions of his Emblematum Liber. Thus, the strong affirmation of piety (towards the preceding generation) is forcibly articulated with the negation of pity (for future generations) in the fratricidal war tearing up the country. Barthélemy Aneau’s interpretation of the Absyrtus story as piety preventing revenge (“Pietas Vindictam Avertens”, Picta Poesis, p. 67) finds itself reversed here as piety fuels revenge. As if piety was becoming the root of—or a mask for— the impiety of crime, not any type of crime, but specifically, the murder of children: the self-destroying act of killing the future.


How to cite

Yves Peyré. “Absyrtus.”  2014.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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