Shakespeare's Myths

Tereus’ main function in Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ texts is as an example of a classical rapist (as such, he is often paired with Lucrece’s rapist, Tarquin) and thereby references to Tereus are in actuality usually a factor of allusion or reference to Philomela. The allusions to Tereus in Shakespeare are limited to an acknowledgement of the parallel experiences of Titus Andronicus’ Lavinia and the classical Philomel, where Tereus as a classical rapist is made to stand in for all rapists (“But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee”, II.iv.26) and a comparison of Lucrece’s rape to Philomela’s in The Rape of Lucrece. However, in Titus the myth is used throughout as a model for action, whereas in The Rape of Lucrece, it is rather used as a figurative exemplar of reaction, as Lucrece assesses her response to the attack.


The story of Philomela, Tereus and Progne is an extremely popular reference point for early modern authors. It is clear that there is something in the composite parts of this myth that was particularly relevant to the ideology of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English writers and the myth is matched in reference to mythological rapes only by the legendary Lucrece. Unsurprisingly, the general view of Tereus’ rape of Philomela is one of condemnation, and his actions in severing her tongue are seen as barbaric. Such condemnation is clearly more forthcoming when the details of Philomel and Progne’s bloody revenge are omitted, as issues of blame and the shocking revenge potentially create an ambiguous narrative. Similarly, Ovid refers to Tereus as a predatory wolf—a reference picked up and emphasised by some translators and commentators, such as Chaucer, Hannay, and Pettie, which makes his metamorphosis into a bird somewhat unexpected and seems to resist allegorical interpretation. Most early modern retellings of the myth stress Tereus’ intentions and actions as defiling or ruining Philomela, and concentrate on this initial aspect of the story as violating classical and contemporary values of virginity and sexual purity. As with all classical mythology reassessed in the Renaissance, there is also a strong element of moralisation. Most moralisers see here a moral against lasciviousness, and in some cases against revenge. The earlier moral tradition, exemplified by the fourteenth-century Ovide Moralisé, and indicated in Philomel being one of Chaucer’s “Good Women”, is continued in Pettie (“see the frailty of our felicity, mark the misery which mortal men are subject to” [p. 30]), and in John Bereblock, who provides a moral commentary to the anonymous play Progne (Commentari, 1566) and concludes that there is “a clear moral of those who indulge too much either in love [meaning Tereus] or in wrath [Procne]” (quoted by W. Y. Durand, p. 515).


In contemporary dramatic allusions to the myth of Philomela, the element of sexual violence is the main focus of the playwright. The myth is most often used to indicate a threat of rape to female characters, or, as in the case of Shakespeare’s Lavinia, as an illustration of such. For example, in Chettle’s revenge tragedy The Tragedy of Hoffman or A Revenge for a Father, Hoffman claims his methods of revenge will “pass those of Thyestes, Tereus, / Jocasta” (I.i.398-99) and is later advised to “prove [himself] Tereus” in abducting a female character (V.i.461). The threat of rape is understood as the primary danger to the female characters and is illustrated through classical exemplar. The constant threat to female chastity highlighted by the judicious use of the myth of Philomela and Tereus can be taken as a starting point in explaining the popularity of the myth in the early modern period. The importance of regulating female sexual access is linked to concerns of legitimacy, lineage and inheritance, with largely political and economic motives.


In Titus Andronicus characters use the myth both explicitly and implicitly to guide their actions or explain occurrences. Tereus’ example is followed and bettered by Chiron and Demetrius, who remove Lavinia’s hands as well as her tongue, and this is recognised by Marcus, who suggests that Lavinia has met with a “craftier Tereus” (II.iv.41). The way Shakespeare uses the Ovidian text is exemplified here as increasingly creative, pervasive, and elaborative when compared to his contemporaries. Imitatio, the imitation of classical texts in humanist education, does not constitute a direct copy, and does not restrict the early modern creative writer to a single model or his characters to a single fixed role. For example, as rapists, Chiron and Demetrius fulfill the Tereus role in the mythological model, but also, as cooked and consumed offspring, the role of Itys. Their mother, Tamora, as the character upon whom the grisly cannibalistic revenge is served, also takes the place of Tereus in the repetition of this aspect of the myth. The Tereus role is shared, and thereby doubled, in the Goth brothers’ gang rape of Lavinia, providing two villains and a shared plan of attack from the source of one immoral individual. As Chiron and Demetrius outdo Tereus in evading potential revelation of their crimes through tapestry or writing, Shakespeare outdoes the Ovidian tale through this doubling (or tripling, if we include Tamora’s role) and in their villainy, as they both increase the scale of the sexual violence in their brutalisation of Lavinia and negate all forms of communication for the unfortunate female character. As such, the visceral symbolic dismemberments and the inability to communicate become pervasive themes throughout the play, and thereby Shakespeare demonstrates his sound understanding of both the underlying implications and cultural resonance of the mythical narrative.


As mentioned above, the revenge aspect of the myth of Philomel, Progne, and Tereus is also a contributory factor in allusions to Tereus and Philomel and is used most thoroughly in Shakespeare’s Titus. The cannibalism of the myth is repeated in Titus’ dismemberment and cooking of Tamora’s sons in order to feed them to their mother (amongst others) at a banquet. Contemporary texts which refer to the myth regularly condemn this inventive revenge of Progne’s as abhorrent, the limit of vengeance, and sometimes to the extent that Tereus’ crime is lessened, if not counterbalanced, by this filicide and duplicitous cannibalism. Though it is agreed that Tereus’ crimes require punishment, Progne’s revenge is sometimes seen as an overreaction to Tereus’ sexual violence. For example, George Pettie writes: “surely if a man bee disposed to do his enemy a displeasure […] let him follow the council of a woman, nay all the Devils in Hell could not so have tormented Tereu as they did, so that I think your selves will say her fury exceed his folly” (p. 36).


In contrast to its utilisation in drama, the myth of Philomel was used primarily by poets of the period in terms of her metamorphosis into the nightingale, both as an interchangeable name for the bird and as an exemplar of beautiful mournful music, and as a representative of the poet. In addition, the poetic resilience demonstrated by Philomela’s gift of song seems to have appealed to many writers. These were common poetic constructs, and while the wider myth is sometimes alluded to, for example certain imaginative representations of the nightingale’s song explicitly relate to the circumstances of Philomela’s metamorphosis by having “Tereu” variously cited as one of the nightingale’s sung “words”, the broader sexual ramifications are not generally considered in depth in poetry. Tereus’ overwhelming function in early modern references is as an example of a classical rapist and a brutal silencer of women whose actions created the celebrated mournful song of the nightingale.


How to cite

Sarah Carter.  “Tereus.”  2013.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology  (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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