Shakespeare's Myths

No explicit reference is made to Ixion in Shakespeare’s works, but an allusion can be found in King Lear (quarto and folio texts). Not all editors have explained the hint of “a wheel of fire” by the Ixion myth. Kenneth Muir, in his Arden edition (1952), does not mention Ixion. The potential of the Ixion myth in King Lear was suggested by Robert Kilburn Root in 1903: “If one could assume that Shakespeare knew the story of Ixion as contained in Apollodorus I, viii, 2, the allusion would be especially appropriate, since the theme of the myth, like that of Lear, is ingratitude” (Root 1903: 78). The suggestion was repeated in Starnes and Talbert 1955 and developed in two ensuing papers (Andrews 1965-66, Hardison 1975), whose analyses are integrated in recent editions of the play. In the 1992 New Cambridge edition, Jay L. Halio considers Ixion’s wheel to be “especially relevant”. R. A. Foakes (Arden Shakespeare, 1997) and Stanley Wells (Oxford Shakespeare, 2000) also mention Ixion in a footnote, and so do Bate and Rasmussen (Macmillan, 2007).


The allusion to the “wheel of fire” occurs in Act IV, scene vii (all quotations refer to The Tragedy of King Lear). King Lear, rejected by his selfish daughters Goneril and Regan, has become mad, has wandered over the heath, and has gone through a terrible thunderstorm. Cordelia’s followers have found Lear, taken care of him, and now carry him, asleep, to his youngest, loving daughter.


As he wakes up, he believes he is dead: “You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ grave”. The next sentence, spoken to Cordelia, shows an opposition between the daughter’s and the father’s states: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, / that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead”. Cordelia’s “soul in bliss” is reminiscent of the souls of the valorous, inhabiting Elizium, a part of the Underworld. Seeing Cordelia’s face, Lear might also be mistaking her for an angel in Heaven. On the contrary, Lear reckons he is in Hell, where fire invades Ixion’s wheel, and where heat transforms his tears into molten lead, as if his suffering were an alchemist’s still, in contrast with Cordelia’s suffering, which creates tears “As pearls from diamonds dropped” (History of KL, sc. 17, 23).


Since Fulgentius, Ixion’s wheel often merged with the wheel of Fortune — and sometimes of the Furies (Henryson) —, as it seems to do in King Lear, where most characters in the play are fully aware that they are the toys of Fortune, especially Lear when he says: “I am even / The natural fool of fortune” (IV.v.186-87). At the same time, Lear’s “wheel of fire”, set in infernal flames, is a powerful conflation of Ixion’s wheel and the wheel of Fortune, of the tortures of both classical and Christian hells. It emphasizes the old king’s moral and physical suffering at this moment of the action, while pointing back to the crimes which it is supposed to punish.


Vanity and delusive clouds.

Ixion, once he has been invited at the table of the gods, thinks he is great enough to share Juno’s bed, then boasts that he has slept with the Queen of the gods, although it was merely with an insubstantial cloud. Lear’s vanity first expresses itself through his narcissistic wish to hear how much he is loved by his daughters (Bate 1993, 150). The old king fails to differentiate between gross flattery and sincere love, unlike Gloucester, the King of France, and Kent. Not unlike Ixion, who, according to a mythographic tradition initiated by Fulgentius, affects the glory of power but only embraces a cloud, Lear divests himself of the reality of rule, to retain a mere illusion of it (Hardison 1975, 232-34). This is embodied by his troop of a hundred retainers, reminiscent of the hundred horsemen (or centauri) with whom Fulgentius’ Ixion surrounded himself (Hardison 1975, 237-38).



Ixion’s is undoubtedly a myth of ingratitude. Not only did the impudent king of Thessaly have no qualms about killing his father-in-law, he later tried to seduce the wife of his benefactor, Jupiter, who had purified him of his fault and invited him at the gods’ table. In King Lear, beyond the king’s acts of ingratitude towards Cordelia and Kent (Hardison 1975, 240), several characters share Ixion’s part. The eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, display obvious ingratitude to their father, who has not only catered for their upbringing but also given them his kingdom. Lear is aware of this, when he exclaims: “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend” (I.iv.237, about Goneril), and “All the stored vengeances of heaven fall / On her ingrateful top!” (II.ii.335-36, about Regan). Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, is ungrateful to his father, who acknowledges him, introduces him to the court, and asks Kent to remember Edmund as his “honourable friend” (I.i.27). As if myth structured the play at the cost of fragmentation and sometimes inversion.



After the murder of Deioneus, Ixion is banished. So are several characters in Shakespeare’s play: Kent is banished by Lear, and ultimately, Lear by Goneril and Regan. Although Cordelia is not really banished by her father (the word is not spoken), he disinherits her, makes her “a stranger to [my] heart” (I.i.115), dispossesses her of “her father’s heart” (I.i.126), and wishes never to see her again (“Hence, and avoid my sight!”, I.i.124; “nor shall ever see / That face of hers again”, I.i.263-64). Yet, unlike Ixion, neither Kent, Cordelia nor Lear, although banished, have committed any murder. The contrasts takes the tragedy out of a neat crime-and-punishment pattern — the innocent suffer most — and relativizes the Lear-Ixion equation; as much as an agent of punishment, the “wheel of fire” is an expression of the pain suffered by one “more sinned against than sinning” (III.ii.60).


Parricide, says Edmund, is a crime punished by Jove’s thunder: “I told him [Edgar] that the revenging gods / ‘Gainst parricides did all the thunder bend” (II.i.44-45). It is no parricide, though, but a betrayed father, who is threatened by thunder.


The thunderstorm.

Boccacio writes that Jove sent Ixion to the Underworld with a thunderbolt — “fulmine” (Genealogia, IX, xxvii, 1). “This thunderbolt was sent by Jove and was interpreted both as a symbol of sudden disillusionment and as providential justice. Both interpretations apply to the storm in Lear” (Hardison 1975, 235).

Several scenes in King Lear take place during a thunderstorm: II.ii, III.i, III.ii and III.iv. The stage direction in II.ii reads “storm and tempest”; the others, “Storm still”. Lear refers to Jovian thunderbolts several times. He calls upon lightning, wishing a swift revenge against Regan (II.ii.338-39), then against Goneril (II.ii.400-02).


The centaurs.

The coupling of Ixion and the cloud-woman gave birth to the centaurs, half men, half horses. (Ixion himself was not a centaur, contrary to what Robert Greene wrote in Gwydonius, or Jasper Fisher in Fuimus Troes). Following a mythographical tradition which goes as far back as Fulgentius, Boccacio states that there were one hundred of them, the same number as the knights King Lear keeps for his company. The centaurs were reported to be disruptive and lawless, like the old king’s retainers, whom Goneril describes as “riotous” (I.iii.6), “Men so disordered, so debauched and bold” (I.iv.220).


Lear, however, did not only produce centaurs when surrounding himself with his hundred knights, but also when he created the conditions for  Regan and Goneril to prove themselves half-human, half-bestial:


… Down from the waist

They’re centaurs, though women all above.

But to the girdle do the gods inherit;

Beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. (IV.v.122-26)


The Centaurs were known to be lecherous, as indeed was their father. The last sentence of the quotation is especially interesting. It turns the treacherous daughters into devilish creatures (Goneril was called “devil” by Albany, IV.ii.36), but also recalls Ixion’s punishment through the description of darkness, fire, heat and burning, all typical of the Virgilian Underworld.


In turn, Gloucester’s illegitimate son may be another Centaur, when he admits that, born under the influence of the Great Bear (and hence of Mars and Venus, see footnote 114, p. 118, in Halio’s edition), he is “rough and lecherous” (I.ii.128).


Ixion, Tityus, and Orpheus

Lear’s mental agony finds an expression in the tortures of hell. When Lear complains that Goneril “hath tied / Sharp-tooth’d unkindness like a vulture here” (II.ii.306-07), he sees himself as a new Tityus, an image which announces the Ixion allusion. In the series of classical punishments in hell, the fact that only Tityus and Ixion are selected may, or may not, be significant. Their stories are parallel, and were sometimes confused insofar as both attempted to rape a goddess [see Secondary Sources, Underdowne’s translation of Ovid’s Ibis and Contemporary References, III]. An obsession with sexual matters does run through Lear’s apparently disconnected ravings. If they express Lear’s still confused but tortured feeling of guilt, this may not only refer to having produced centaur-like daughters, but also to having deeply injured Cordelia, goddess-like in her uncompromising purity. Tityus’ and Ixion’s torments may be felt as retributive for an assault against Cordelia, whether the obstinate attempt to make her speak her love against her will is seen as a symbolical rape or as an underlying incestuous tendency. It is Cordelia who leads Lear out of hell. The text of both The History and The Tragedy of King Lear refer to Lear’s torments, as a loss of mental harmony, “Th’untuned and jarring senses” (V.i.14). The History neatly completes the symbolic pattern by introducing a Doctor calling for louder music to wake up the king (sc. 21, l. 23), which implies that Lear’s rest was induced, from the beginning of the scene, by some kind of soft music. This symbolic context turns Cordelia into an Orpheus figure, whose harmony relieves Lear from both the wheel of fire and the gnawing vulture.

How to cite

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

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