Shakespeare's Myths

George PeeleThe Arraignment of Paris (c. 1581-1584, 1581), I, iii:

Flora: Not Iris in her pride and bravery,

Adorns her arch with such variety.


George WhetstoneAn Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582), p. 10:

The mighty Jove beholding from above,

The mists of sin, which from the earth arose,

In angry mood, sent Iris down to move,

Throughout the world, the exercise of foes,

With vengeance armed: who poured down her Ire,

And with debates, set Monarchies afire.

[Adapts Aeneid, when Iris sets ships on fire]


Thomas WatsonHekatompathia (1582), 7:

Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies.


George PeeleThe Battle of Alcazar (1588-1589, 1589), Act IV:

At last descendeth Fame, as Iris,

To finish fainting Dido’s dying life.


Edmund SpenserMuiopotmos (1590), 89-96:

Lastly his shinie wings as silver bright,

Painted with thousand colours, passing farre

All Painters skill, he did about him dight:

Not halfe so manie sundrie colours arre

In Iris bowe, ne heauen doth shine so bright,

Distinguished with manie a twinckling starre,

Nor Iunoes Bird in her ey-spotted traine

So many goodly colours doth containe.


SHAKESPEARE.  2 Henry VI (c. 1590)


Robert GreeneThe History of Orlando Furioso (1591), 1291-99 [Iris mentioned in description of Juno’s coach]



Thomas LodgeRosalynde (1590), p. 68:

Iris’ riches lies folded in the bosom of Flora


Christopher MarloweEdward II (1591-1593, 1592), I.iv.369-70.

Edward:                      Beaumont, fly

As fast as Iris or Jove’s Mercury.


Thomas NasheThe Prayse of the Red Herring (1599), ed. Mc Kerrow, vol. 5, p. 217 [Iris the messenger of Juno].


Anon. (John Lyly ?).  The Maid’s Metamorphosis (1599-1600, 1600), II [Juno sends Iris to ask Morpheus to send Ascanio a vision revealing to him where he can find Eurymine].


Edward FairfaxGodfrey of Bulloigne, or the Recouerie of Ierusalem [Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata], 1600, XVI, 24, 193-96:

The jolly peacock spreads not half so faire,

The eyed feathers of his pompous train,

Nor golden Iris so bends in the air

Her twenty colour’d bow, through clouds of raine [Description of Armida]


Sir John Davies.  “Beauty’s rose and Virtue’s book.”  Harefield Entertainment, July 31-August 2, 1602 [the speaker takes Iris’s rainbow dress from her to offer it to the Queen]:

[to Saint Swythan’s feast],

cometh Iris an unbidden guest

in her moist robe of colours gay


He gently first bids Iris go

unto the Antipodes below

but she for that more sullen grew

when he saw that with angry look

from her, her rainy robes he took

which here he doth present to you.


SHAKESPEARE.  Troilus and Cressida (1602)


SHAKESPEARE.  All's Well That Ends Well (1603)


Ben JonsonPart of the King’s Entertainment in Passing to his Coronation (from 1616 ed. of Jonson’s Works)  [Iris, daughter of Electra, interpreted as signifying Serenity]

Electra: And see, my daughter Iris hasts to throw

Her roseat wings, in compasse of a bow,

About our state, as signe of my approach:

Attracting to her seate from Mithras coach,

A thousand different, and particular hiewes,

Which she throughout her body doth diffuse.

Side note d: She is also faind to be the mother of the rainebow. Nascitur enim Iris ex aqua & erenitate, è refractione radiorum scilicet. Arist. in Meteorol.

Side note e: Val. Flac. Argonaut. makes the rainbow indicem serenitatis. Emicuit referata dies, coelumque resoluit. Arcus, & in summos redierunt nubila montes.


Samuel DanielThe Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, (1604).  [Iris announces the goddesses’ entry]


Ben JonsonHymenaei (1606) [Iris accompanies Juno, “gouernesse of marriage”]


Thomas TomkinsLingua (1602-1607, 1607), sc. 15

Tactus [as Hercules Otaeus] :

                                    Villaines flie up to heaven,

Bid Iris muster up a troupe of cloudes,

And shower downe cataracts of raine to coole me,

Or else Ile breake her speckled bowe in peeces.


William AlexanderJulius Caesar (1607), I, 33-36

Juno: My painted Iris in her beauties pride,

Smiles not on Phoebus with so many hewes,

As Jove in divers shapes himselfe can hide,

When he poore Maydes (by Cupid spurr’d) pursues


Gervase MarkhamThe English Arcadia (1607), sig. F 3 :

… and he became such an Iris in the mutable exchange of his resolutions, that hee had all the colours in the which any passion could be disguised…


Ben JonsonThe Masque of Beauty, (1608).  [Iris’ attributes are given to the allegory of serenity]


George ChapmanThe Iliad (1611):

III, 145: the thousand-colour’d Dame

V, 348: She that paints the air

V, 352:  the windy-footed dame

VIII, 347: [Iris,] that hath the golden wings.

XV, 139-40: Iris that had place / Of internunciess from the gods

XV, 152: the fair ambassadress

XV, 161-63: and like a mighty snow, / Or gelid hail, that from the clouds the northern spirit doth blow : / So fell the windy-footed dame ;

XV, 190-92.

XXIII, 182: She that wears the thousand-colour’d hair

XXIV, 92-97: the dame that doth in vapours shine,

Dewy and thin, footed with storms, jump’d to the sable seas

‘Twixt Samos and sharp Imber’s cliffs; the lake groan’d with the press

Of her rough feet, and (plummet-like, put in an ox’s horn

That bears deathto the raw-fed fish) she div’d, and found forlorn

Thetis, lamenting her son’s fate;


Thomas HeywoodThe Silver Age (1610-1612, 1611).  [Iris accuses Mercury with helping Jupiters’ extra-marital adventures, while she claims, with Juno, to favour faithful marriages. She also serves Juno’s vindictiveness; she brings back two snakes from Medusa’s head to kill Hercules, Jupiter’s adulterous son; she enjoys the show of Semele’s destruction.]


SHAKESPEARE.  The Tempest (1611)


Francis BeaumontThe Masque of Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, (1613).  [Iris, clothed in variegated taffeta, and crowned with clouds, feeds Floras’ fruitfulness; Mercury is not impressed, however, by her “painted glory”.]

[See Lois Potter, ed., The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Arden Shakespeare, 1997, Appendix 4, Beaumont’s 1613 Masque and The Two Noble Kinsmen, p. 350-55.]


William BrowneUlysses and Circe (1615):

Circe:             … what though the bow

Which Iris bends, appeareth to each sight

In various hues and colours infinite?

The learned know that in itself is free

And light and shade make that variety.


Anon.  [Ben Jonson?].  A Masque presented at Coleorton (1618).  [Iris reconciles six feminine and six masculine Vertues, which she draws into a dance.]


Philip MassingerThe Picture (1629) III.v.46-52:

Mathias:                                  If Juno

Were now to keep her state among the Gods,

And Hercules to be made again her guest

She could not put on a more glorious habit

Though her handmaid Iris lent her various colours

Or old Oceanus ravished from the deep

All jewels shipwreck’d in it.

Michael DraytonThe Muses Elizium (1630), 78: [Iris, a] pert and saucy Elf.


Ben Jonson Chloridia, (1631). [With Juno’s help, Iris, a serene messenger, and provider of fruitful spring showers, overcomes winter storms and saves the goddess of flowers; she overcomes “hell and jealousy”]


Philip MassingerThe City Madam (1632), III.ii.159-72:

Luke:                           And it shall be

My glory, nay a triumph to revive

In the pomp that these shall shine, the memory

Of the Roman matrons, who kept captive queens

To be their handmaids. And when you appear

Like Juno in full majesty, and my Nieces

Like Iris, Hebe, or what deities else

Old poets fancy ; your cram’d ward-robes richer

Than various natures, and draw down the envy

Of our western world upon you, only hold me

Your vigilant Hermes with aerial wings,

My caduceus my strong zeal to serve you,

Press’d to fetch in all rarities may delight you,

And I am made immortal.

Ibid, IV, iv, 34-37:

Anne:              You talk’d of Hebe,

Of Iris, and I know not what; but were they

Dress’d as we are, they were sure some Chandler’s daughters

Bleaching linen in moor-fields.


MiltonComus (1634), 82-84:

                        I must put off

These my robes spun out of Iris woof,

And take the weeds and likeness of a swain


Ibid., 992-1002 :

Iris there with humid bow

Waters the odorous banks that blow

Flowers of more mingled hue

Then her purs’d scarf can show,

And drenches with Elysian dew

(List mortals, if your ears be true)

Beds of Hiacynth, and roses)

Where young Adonis oft reposes,

Waxing well of his deep wound

In slumber soft, and on the ground

Sadly sits th’Assyrian Queen.


How to cite

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

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