Shakespeare's Myths

Modern interpretations of Iris tend to restrict the goddess’s name to a mere synonym of the rainbow, which the biblical tradition has made into a sign of alliance and reconciliation. Classical texts, however, paint a more complex portrait, not devoid of cruel features, of a death-bringing goddess. In Homer’s Iliad, Iris drops from heaven, in Chapman’s words,  “like a mighty snow, / Or gelid hail” (XV, 161-62). Virgil sees her as “an experienced mischief-maker” in Aeneid (V, 618): she provokes the frenzy of the women who set Aeneas’s fleet on fire. Not surprisingly, then, Servius derives her name from Eris (discord), thus making her the opposite of the biblical rainbow, a figure of concord.


Very often, Iris is associated to a storm; the relation, however, is ambivalent. In Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautics, Iris heralds the end of a storm and the return of fine weather. In Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautics, she calms the winds down to enable the Argo to continue its voyage. But in Virgil’s Georgics she announces a storm (I, 380); and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I, 270-71), she sucks up the rivers to swell the clouds which will cause the universal deluge. Not only does she announce a cataclysm, she sets it in motion. In the Bible, by contrast, the rainbow appears after the deluge, to show that it is over.


In Shakespeare’s works, two passages throw light on each other. In The Rape of Lucrece, the heroine is described as “clad in mourning black, / And round about her tear-distained eye / Blue circles streamed, like rainbows in the sky / These water-galls in her dim element / Foretell new storms to those already spent” (1585-89). One recognizes Virgil’s Iris, announcing rain and storm, here symbolic of tears and woe. A very similar image occurs in All’s Well that Ends Well  (I.iii.146-48), when the Countess of Rossillion asks a mournful Helena: “What’s the matter, / That this distempered messenger of wet, / The many-coloured Iris, rounds thine eye?” The verb “rounds” echoes, and is expounded by, the description of Lucrece’s grief: “round about her tear-distained eye / Blue circles streamed”. At this moment, in All’s Well that Ends Well, Iris expresses sorrow and presages tragedy even though this is finally averted.


This Virgilian Iris, herald of discomfort and death, also appears in 2 Henry VI (III.ii.409-11), when Queen Margaret takes leave of Suffolk: “To France, sweet Suffolk, let me hear from thee. / For wheresoe’er thou art in this world’s Globe, / I’ll have an Iris that shall find thee out”. Although Iris might seem to be alluded to here merely in her traditional role of Juno’s messenger, it is not to be excluded that here too she announces a storm, which is implicit in Suffolk’s reply: “Even as a splitted bark, so sunder we”.


In Troilus and Cressida (I.iii.371-73), Ulysses proposes to push forward Ajax in order to abate Achilles’ pride: “For that will physic the great Myrmidon, / Who broils in loud applause, and make him fall / His crest, that prouder than blue Iris bends”. Because Ulysses only mentions the colour blue and no other, some commentators have assumed that he is referring not to the rainbow but to the flower. This interpretation, however, is difficult to accept, not only because it would make the grammar awkward, but because the flower, up to Milton’s time, was commonly known as “flowerdeluce”, not “iris”. The reference in The Rape of Lucrece suggests that Shakespeare’s imagination does associate Iris with blue. As a symbol of vanity (often because of her bright colours, which are perceived as ostentatious), Iris generally symbolises feminine affectation for Shakespeare’s contemporaries. By associating Achilles’ pride with Iris’ vanity, Ulysses is feminizing him at the same time as he is implying that the plume on his helmet, which is raised in a proud curve, like a sign of arrogant masculinity, ought to be made to droop, if not done away with: “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” (I.iii.379). Whether Ulysses’ reference to Iris also implies some forthcoming storm, in which Achilles’ pride would sink, may not be altogether excluded, although it is not explicitly stated.


The wedding masque in The Tempest (IV.i), with Iris as a figure of concord, seems to mark a break with Shakespeare’s earlier allusions. But the rainbow as a sign of peace is not new. In the course of Elizabeth’s reception at Harefield (July 31-August 2, 1602), Iris had been divested of her variegated dress which had then been presented to the Queen. The Rainbow Portrait, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, was painted the same year: Elizabeth is holding a rainbow, with the inscription “Non Sine Sole Iris” (No Iris without Sun). For the celebrations that marked the coronation of James I, Ben Jonson designed an allegorical entertainment, Part of the King’s Entertainment in Passing to his Coronation, in which Iris, daughter of Electra, symbolized Serenity; a marginal note explained: “Valerius Flaccus in his Argonauticae makes the rainbow indicem serenitatis. Rather than Virgil’s harbinger of stormy weather, Ben Jonson clearly chose Valerius Flaccus’s Iris, who celebrates the end of a storm and heralds fine weather. From then on, Iris regularly appears in court masques, in Samuel Daniel’s The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), as well as Ben Jonson’s Hymenaei (1606) and Masque of Beauty (1608), representing peace and serenity, as in The Tempest, where the union of sun and water in the dance of water nymphs and sun-burnt harvesters is Ceres’ terrestrial counterpart of Juno’s celestial rainbow, the alliance of both being a promise of harmonious fecundity.


Yet, while drawing its inspiration from court masques, Prospero’s masque is also part of a complex dramatic work, whose tensions and ironies it does not ignore. Most Renaissance mythographers quote and comment on Hesiod’s Theogony, in which Iris appears as the Harpies’ sister. Iris and the Harpies belong to the same meteorological family, Iris the rainbow and the Harpies the winds. The Tempest does not imply a radical opposition between Iris and the Harpies, insofar as it is Ariel who plays the roles of Iris and a Harpy in two successive masques, thus displaying both promising and threatening potentials. In the same line, one cannot exclude that when he “flamed amazement” on Alonso’s ship, Ariel is not far from playing the same role as Iris when she caused Aeneas’ fleet to catch fire.


Far from marking a break between the Virgilian Iris of Shakespeare’s earlier works and the Iris of Ben Jonson and Valerius Flaccus, The Tempest recreates the goddess’ ambivalence.


Iris is again associated to woe and sorrow when the wooer of the jailer’s daughter reports her death in The Two Noble Kinsmen  (IV.1.84-88):


Wooer:           about her stuck

Thousand freshwater flowers of several colours —

That she appeared, methought, like the fair nymph

That feeds the lake with waters, or as Iris

Newly dropped down from heaven.


The image not only connects the jailer’s daughter with Ophelia in a similar death by water, it associates her, through Iris, with images of feminine woe, unfortunate Lucrece and sad Helena.


How to cite

Yves Peyré. "Iris."  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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