Shakespeare's Myths

Chrétien de Troyes.  Philomela (12th century).

[Narrative poem]


Ovide Moralisé.  Book VI (14th century):

[incorporates Chrétien de Troyes’s narrative poem and adds a Christian allegory: Progne’s father, Pandion, the king of Athens, is God. Progne is God’s daughter. Tereus is the body, fashioned from dust (“terre”).]


Sebastian BrantThe Shyppe of fooles (1509) (STC 3547), “Of conditions, murmurings and great unhappiness of wives”, ca. lxi, sig. O8v:

There is nothing upon the earth so outrageous nor so cursed as an ireful woman. She is repleat with the furour of a lion more perverse than the tiger. I never saw nor never heard speak of a thing that is worse than a woman when she is set on it. As it appeareth of Medea that detrenched her two children and that made Jason’s uncle die. Progne did worse for because that she would be avenged upon her husband Tereus that had violed [raped] her sister she cut her sister’s tongue of that was called Philomina, she slew her son, the which was great cruelty, and after she made him be sodden [boiled] and roasted and gave Tereus him to eat.


Nicholas Smith [trans. Of Angelo Poliziano’s Latin version (1493) of Herodian’s History of the Roman Empire].  The History of Herodian (1556) (STC 13221), “The annotations in form of a table after the order of the alphabet, containing the exposition of many words, histories, fables, situations of places, and descriptions of countries, serving to the more easy understanding of the present History”, sig. F4r:

[Under “P”, Smith offers the following (note the deviations from the standard tale, Pliny’s reasoning regarding swallows, and the absence of Philomela’s metamorphosis):]

Perynthians are a people of Thrace, wherein standeth a city called Perinthus, what in it which there is a fortress called Bizia, some time belonging to the kings of Thrace. In this royalme [kingdom / realm], there are no swallows, for the offence of Tereus king of Thrace, as saith Pliny, in the .xi. cap. the .iiij. book of his natural history. The offence was this. His wife named Progne, the king of Athens’ daughter, had a sister which hight [was named] Philomela: whom she greatly desired to see. And Tereus to please her withal, promised to fetch her sister. In bringing of her, he deflowered her. And to the end she should not disclose it to any person, he cut out her tongue, shut her up in a secret place, and told Progne that she died by the way. But Philomela wrote with blood in a kerchief all the matter, and sent it unto Progne her sister. Who being chafed with ire for the same, slew a little child called Itys, which she had by Tereus, and presented it him to eat. Tereus perceiving the matter pursued her. And she fleeing away was turned into a Swallow, Tereus himself into a Lapwing, and Itys into a Pheasant.


Arthur GoldingMetamorphosis (1567) (STC 18956), VI, 542-855.


John Studley [transl. Seneca].  Agamemnon (1566, 1581) (STC 22222 and 22221), Agamemnon, III, sig. O7r-v:


To mingle tears to other tears

   it doth us good to moan.

In those the burning teary streames

   more ardently do boil,

Whose secret thoughts of lurking cares

   in privy breast turmoil    [turmoil: cause distress]

Not sad and solemn Aedon [Aedon: nightingale, sister of Niobe, changed into a nightingale after mistakenly killing her son Itylus]

   that in the woods doth sing

Her sugared ditties finely tuned

   on sweet and pleasant string:

And recording Itys’ woeful hap

   in divers kind of note,

Whom Progne, though he were her child

   and of her womb begot,

For to revenge his father’s fault,

   she did not spare to kill;

And gave his flesh and blood for food

   the father’s maw to fill.

Nor Progne, who in swallow’s shape

   upon the ridges high

Of houses sits in Biston town,   [Biston: town of the Bistones, a Thracian people]

   bewailing piteously,

With chattering throat, of Tereus

   her spouse the cruell act—

Who did by strength and force of arms

   a shameful brutish fact,

Defile the sister of his wife,

   fair Philomel by name,

And eke cut our her tongue, lest she

   should blab it to his shame—

Though Progne this her husband’s rape

   lamenting very sore

Do wail, and weep in piteous plaint,

   yet can she not deplore

Sufficiently, though that she would,

   our country’s  piteous plight.


George Sandys.  Ovids Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz’d And Represented in Figures (1632) (STC 18965), Book VI, p. 226-27:

… the Furies kindled the nuptial torches with funeral fires at this wedding of Tereus and Progne; the ominous owl screeching sad presages, confirmed by the sequel: Tereus ravishing Philomela, and revengeful Progne feasting her husband with the flesh of her own son, as he before had contaminated his table with the flesh of others. …

Tereus, when he could not reduce his subjects to obedience, who for his cruelty towards them and violence to Philomela had rebelled against him, slew himself at Megara: where he had a hill of earth raised over him, an ancient fashion among the Thracians of entombing their kings. …

Tereus is said to be the son of Mars, not only for his valour, but propensity to Venus… Mars also being principally adored by the Thracians, a furious and barbarous people … A people who in their lusts were no less outrageous. So Tereus, infected with the vice of his country, burns with love of Philomela, by giving liberty to his eyes to gaze too much on her beauties, and draw in that affection, which should have been avoided by preventing the occasion. …

He therefore furiously affects; and ravisheth the affected. For over-violent love is little less than madness, which emboldens the frantic lover to rush on whatsoever is forbidden and horrid, one wicked deed begetting another; who violates first his faith and her honour, and then cuts out her tongue to conceal his offense, with as great an impiety. But flagitious [infamous] crimes cannot long lie hid. All known to Progne, she bends her thoughts in a strange revenge, and though her own bowels strikes at her husband. So cruel is the rage of an injured woman. Of the sisters’ swift flight, and his fierce pursuit, they were said to have been changed into birds, the lustful tyrant into a lapwing, in that, saith Pausanias, the lapwing was discovered upon that hill, under which he laid buried: a filthy fowl, delighting in dung, and therein making his nest. His long sharp bill represents the sword of tyranny, the tuft on his head resembling a diadem. The other have their bosoms stained with red, the eternal brand of their cruelty. All are said to have certain articulate notes, whereby they express their infortunes, the which I omit to rehearse, since they no way accord with our language.


How to cite

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

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