Shakespeare's Myths

Geoffrey Chaucer.  The Legend of Good Women (c. 1372-1386), “VII: The Legend of Philomela”:

[Chaucer’s version is unusual in not recounting the revenge or metamorphosis of Philomel and Progne, but ends with the sisters reunited. Condemnation of Tereus is clear in the opening and conclusion of the narrative, 7-166:]

Why sufferest thou that Tereus was bore,     [addressing God]

That is in love so fals and so forswore,

That, fro this world up to the firste hevene

Corrumpeth whan that folk his name nevene?   [nevene: pronounce]

And, as to me, so grisely was his dede,

That, whan that I his foule storye rede,

Myne eyen wexe foule and sore also.  [wexe foule: ache]

Yit last the venym of so longe ago,   [last: lasts]

That it enfecteth hym that wol beholde

The storye of Tereus, of which I tolde.


The remenaunt is no charge for to telle,

For this is al and som: thus was she served,

That nevere harm agilte ne deserved   [That neither did nor deserved wrong]

Unto this crewel man, that she of wiste.

Ye may be war of men, yif that yow liste.    [be war: beware]

For al be that he wol nat, for his shame,

Don as Tereus, to lese his name,   [lese: lose]

Ne serve yow as a morderour or a knave,

Ful lytel while shal ye trewe hym have—

That wol I seyn, al were he now my brother—

But it so be that he may have non other.


John Gower.  Confessio Amantis (1483) (STC 12142), “Tale of Tereus”, 5551-6074.


James Calfhill.  Progne (1566):

[This lost Latin play, adapted (?) from a tragedy (c. 1428), by Gregorio Corraro, or from its translation into Italian by Lodovico Domenichi (1561), was presented before Elizabeth I at Oxford University. In his Commentarii John Bereblock describes the staging at Oxford, in presence of the Queen: “First there is heard distinctly there a sort of subterranean noise, shut in and fearful. … And that play was a notable portrayal of mankind in its evil deeds, and was for the spectators, as it were, a clear moral of all those who indulge too much either in love or in wrath, each of which even if they come to fairly good men nevertheless inflame them with too strong desire, and make them far fiercer and more ungovernable, and very different in voice, countenance, spirit, in word, and deed, from moderation and self-control.” Transl. W. Y. Durand, “Palaemon and Arcyte, Progne, Marcus Geminus, and the Theatre in Which They Were Acted, as Described by John Bereblock (1566).” PMLA XX (1905): 502-28. p. 514, 516]


George Gascoigne.  The Steel Glas, A Satyre, Together with The Complainte of Philomene (1576) (STC 11645):

[Gascoigne’s text explores the myth of Philomela in a multi-layered, heavily allegorical, and intentionally satirical narrative. Initially, he invokes “Philomel” in a framing poem with a brief summary of the myth. The function of Philomel here is the common poetic one as a muse. In the framework of The Steel Glas, the poet (under the guise of a female narrator) describes being abused by the rapist’s friend, Slander’s tongue, and finally having her own tongue cut out by “The Rayzor of Restraint”. The main poem does not mention Philomel, though it is related to Gascoigne’s personal complaints, which he refigures in the framing text as echoing the mythological tale; it concerns a steel mirror that cuts through men’s vanities by reflecting things as they really are. However, because of his appropriation of Philomel in the framing device, Gascoigne attaches The Complaynt of Philomene, Elegye to this piece. This is a straightforward retelling of the myth, narrated by the nightingale/Philomel.]


George Pettie. A Petite Pallace of Pettie his pleasure (1576) (STC 19819), “Tereus and Progne”:

[A romanticised retelling of the narrative in a particularly courtly style, this text remains faithful to Ovid’s version, with additional further examples of classical wronged women, and a condemnation of both Tereus and Procne. Pettie’s summary introducing the story, p. 24:]

Tereus King of Thrace, enamoured of Progne, daughter to Pandion Prince of Athens, obtaineth her in marriage, and conveyeth her into his own country. Progne, desirous to see her sister Philomela, moveth Tereus to go to Athens, and to get licence to bring her to Thrace, who on the way falling into unlawful liking of her, forceth her to his pleasure, and cutteth out her tongue, that she might tell no tales. Progne, having hereof secret intelligence, in lieu of that foul fact, murdereth his and her own son, young Itys, and dresseth him in meats for his father’s mouth, which horrible deed when Tereus would have revenged upon the mother and aunt, they escape his hands, and are transformed into birds.


Timothy Kendall. Flowers of Epigrams (1577) (STC 14927), “The Nightingale”, p. 25: 

Fair Philomela  howls, for fact

Of Tereus filthy king:

A maid she could not speak, a bird

She loud and shrill doth sing. 


John Lyly.  Campaspe (c. 1583), V.i.35-39:

Trico: What bird so sings and yet does wail?

O ’tis the ravished nightingale.

Jug, jug, jug, jug, Tereu, she cries,

And still her woes at midnight rise.

Brave prick-song!    [prick song is written vocal music, possibly with a pun intended]


Robert Greene.  Gwydonius: The Carde of Fancie (1584) (STC 12262), sig. D2v:

[A rejected suitor reflecting on female cruelty. This is a highly anomalous example.]

Valericus: What currish cruelty reigned in Philomela? […] What gains got Tereus in winning Progne? But a loathsome death for a little delight.


Robert Greene.  Gwydonius: The Carde of Fancie (1584) (STC 12262), sig. N3v:

 Tereus the Prince of Thrace,  being sent by his father to defy Pandion  the king of Athens , was enamoured of his daughter Progne,  whereby between the Parents instead of fatal enmity, there ensued friendly amity.


 Progne, poor wench, loved Tereus, but  how wretchedly did he reward her loyalty?


SHAKESPEARE, Titus Andronicus (1594)


SHAKESPEARE, The Rape of Lucrece (1594)


Robert RocheEustathia, or the constancie of Susanna (1599) (STC 21137), sig. E4v:

O hearts much harder, than the Adamant,

O charts of sin, maps of impiety;

Are you the men, that vices should supplant?

Do you (in show) adore the deity?

And seek in secret, sin’s variety?

   O do but think, there comes a judgement day,

   Where such misdeeds, cannot be wiped away.


But your hearts harbour nought, but ravishment,

You follow Tereus vain, in villany.

Your careless how to die, or to repent,

Do live secure of shame and infamy,

And think on nought but opportunity.

   To perpetrate your wicked lewd intent,

   In which already, many days are spent.


Robert KittoweLoves Load-starre (1600) (STC 15026), sig. G3v:

The king then, pleasantly conceited, asked her what bedfellow she would desire to have. And she answered, she desired such a one, as would for dishonour (like libidinous Tereus) seek neither to defile her, nor like a lewd Priapus to defame her; for it is better be killed than live with cracked credit.


Sir Philip Sidney [attr.]. England’s Helicon (1600) (STC 3191), “Another of Astrophel” in John Bodenham ed., sig. Y3v, 8-16:

For Tereus force, on her chaste will prevailing.

Oh Philomela fair , oh take some gladness,

That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness.


Alas, she hath no other cause of languish

But Tereus love , on her by strong hand wroken:    [wroken: past participle of wreak]

Wherein she suffering all her spirits languish,

Full woman-like complains, her will was broken.


Henry Chettle. The Tragedy of Hoffman or A Revenge for a Father (1602) (STC 5125), I.i.396-99: 

[Planning revenge for a murdered father]

Hoffman: He was the prologue to a Tragedy,

That if my destinies deny me not,

Shall pass those of Thyestes, Tereus,

Jocasta, or Duke Jason’s jealous wife. [Medea]


Henry ChettleThe Tragedy of Hoffman or A Revenge for a Father (1602) (STC 5125), V.i.460-62:

[In relation to Martha]

Larrique: Shut her perpetual prisoner in that den;

Make her a Philomel, prove Tereus:

Do’t, never fear it.


AnonThe History of the tryall of chivalry with the life and death of Cavaliero Dicke Bowyer (1605) (STC 13527), sig. F2r:

[The Kings of France and Navarre declare a truce on learning that their respective sons and daughters love each other. Jealous of prince Philip’s love, Bourbon enters into the tent of Bellamira, Navarre’s daughter. When she refuses to yield to him, he disfigures her with poison. One of Bourbon’s allies, accuses Bellamira’s brother, Ferdinand, of kidnapping the French king’s daughter Katharine. Praising Bourbon’s attack on Bellamira, the French king decides to fight Navarre.]

France: In Bourbon’s rescue draw our forces up

Navarre: What means the king of France?

Roderick: To join with him

Nav.: What, with a traitor and a murderer?

Lewes: He did a deed of merit and of fame,

Lewes: He did a deed of merit and of fame,

Poisoned the sister of a ravisher,

A Tarquin, an incestuous Tereus,

And our poor child the wronged Philomel;

Arraign our battles straight, and join with Bourbon.


Richard Niccols.  The Cuckoo (1607) (STC 18517), p. 13:

There Progne came who did present for food

In tragic feast, her own dear Itys’ blood

To bloody Tereus , in avengement fell

Of sister dear Pandions Philomel.


Richard Niccols.  The Cuckoo (1607) (STC 18517), p. 18:

My furious sister, Progne did  compel

The lustful Tereus in a fatal feast

To swallow down into his lust-burnt breast

His own dear son, his Itys, that sweet youth,

Whose death breeds in my heart eternal ruth:


Richard Niccols.  The Cuckoo (1607) (STC 18517), p. 19-20: 

Nor is it yet enough alas, that I

From stately palaces of kings do fly,

Still dreading Tereus’ loathsome luxury

To live in woods far from all company?

But must another Tereus seek t’expel

From woods likewise the forlorn Philomel?

Alas if so, where shall I hide my head,

Where shall I shun th’inevitable dread

Of bloody Tereus’ hot lust-sparkling face,

If nor in woods, nor house I shall have place?


SHAKESPEARE, Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609), II.ii.44-46:


Richard BrathwaiteThe Scholars Medley (1614) (STC 3583), p. 52:

These natural descriptions of beasts are very delightful to the generous reader; they are very fit for illustrating any subject; making comparison betwixt the natures of beasts, birds, or plants, and other material subjects of our discourse; comparing lust, incest, and such lascivious exorbitances to the lapwing, represented by Tereus, the ravisher of Philomel; inferring by the spider, arrogancy, or pride, that durst compare with Pallas for preeminency. By the cormorant, grating oppression, senseless and remorseless of others’ miseries. Progne (in a swallow’s habit) implying the sweetness of revenge to murder.


Sir Walter Raleigh.  The History of the World (1614) (STC 20637), Part I, Book 2, Chapter 13, §3, “Of Ehud’s time, and of Proserpina, Orithya, Tereus, Tantalus, Tityus, Admetus, and others that lived about those times”, p. 419:

In his [Ehud’s] time also, Tereus ravished Philomela, of which the fable was devised of her conversion into a nightingale. For Tereus having married her sister Progne, conducting Philomela from Athens to see her sister, forced her in the passage and withal cut out her tongue that she might not complain; persuading Progne his wife, that Philomela died in the midway. All which her brother in law’s merciless behaviour towards her Philomela expressed by her needle upon cloth and sent it Progne. In revenge whereof Progne caused her only son Itys to be cut in pieces and set before Tereus her husband, so dressed as it appeared to be some other ordinary food; of which when he had eaten his fill, she caused his head, hands and feet to be presented unto him; and then fled away with such speed towards Athens where her father Pandion yet lived, as the poets feigned, that she was turned into a swallow. [This is followed by geographical and historical details from Strabo and Thucydides.]


Richard Braithwaite. Nature’s Embassy (1621) (STC 3571), “The Argument”, p. 32:

Thus may adulterous want-graces look into Tereus’ fall , and then apply his ruin to their present state.


Richard Braithwaite. Nature’s Embassy (1621) (STC 3571), “The Seventh Satire”, 1-6, p. 33:

How now fond Tereus,  whither rid’st so fast,

To Progne or to Itys? O, it’s true,

Thou goest unto thy sister, made unchaste,

By thy enforced rape, for she ne’er knew

What lusts-embraces meant, till thou hadst taught her,

Which gave her cause of sorrowing ever after.


Richard Braithwaite. Nature’s Embassy (1621) (STC 3571), “The Nightingale”, 9-32, p. 245-46:

Rape-defiled Philomel 

In her sad mischance,

Tells what she is forced to tell,

While the Satyrs dance:

Unhappy I, quoth she, unhappy I,

That am betrayed by Tereus’ tr eachery;

T’is, T’is, 

I am not as I wish:


Thus hath faithless Tereus  made

Heartless Philomel 

Moan her in her forlorn shade,

Where grief I feel:

Grief that  wounds me to  the heart,

Which though gone, hath left her smart;

T’is, T’is, 

I am not as I wish.


Patrick Hannay.  The Nightingale (1622) (STC 12748):

[Hannay’s poem records the overheard song of the nightingale recounting the events which lead up to her metamorphosis.]


How to cite

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

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