Shakespeare's Myths

The mythological tale of Actaeon undergoes several successive reinterpretations within the works of Shakespeare. Three main themes are represented: the burlesque Actaeon when the attribute of the horns becomes that of the cuckold; the political — and didactic — Actaeon for which “Nimium videsse nocet” (One should not see too much); and, finally, Actaeon as a tormented lover who suffers from “Voluptas aerumnosa” (the torments resulting from erotic passion), when Shakespeare, in an elaborate textual myth-making process, echoes the Petrarchan trope. What is significant in this thematic approach to the mythological figure is the way in which Shakespeare elaborates on emblematic readings, creating new meanings by confronting them. Moreover, Shakespeare capitalizes on the erotic power of imagination contained in the Actaeon narrative, teasing the ambiguity of the spectatorial gaze and exploring subversive desires in a more abstract manner.


The burlesque Actaeon — who represents the perfect cuckold due to the horns (and no longer the hart’s antlers) he is given by Diana — is well represented in the city comedy and popularizes this traditional reading of the myth in a significant manner for theatre audiences. To take just one example, in Edward Sharpham’s comedy entitled Cupid’s Whirligig (1607), Sir Timothy Troublesome, described in the dramatis personae as “a jealous Knight”, even uses the mythological reference paronomastically when quarrelling with his chaste wife, the ill-named Lady Troublesome:


Sir Timothy Troublesome: You are a whore, wife, a whore.

The Lady Troublesome: Sir? The man is mad!

Sir Timothy Troublesome: Ay, horn mad, ah, thou vile perfidious, detestable, lascivious, insatiable, luxurious and abominable strumpet, was it not enough to be an Actaeon, a cornuto, a cuckold, but to make me a bawd, a pimp, a pander?

The Lady Troublesome: What pimp? What pander? (II.iv.52-58)


The reduction of the myth to one of its segments, a paradoxical one, stimulates the interpretive process: the horn, a symbol of metamorphosis, suggests sexual vitality and, also, recalls the horn of plenty; it thus becomes copiously fruitful on the contemporary stage. The jealous knight’s own, total assimilation with Actaeon produces a farcical situation. Timothy Troublesome finally lets himself be castrated to test his wife’s fidelity, thus turning Actaeon into a grotesque emblem of male impotency: he is literally “circumcised to the quick” (IV.i.13). A case in point is offered in Shakespeare’s earlier The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597). The jealous and cuckold Actaeon impersonated by Page is mirrored at another level by the amorous parade of Falstaff at the play’s end (Laroque, 170-71). The conflation of two complementary interpretations of the same myth stresses the shift in perspective that occurs in this very domestic version of a classical fable: the tormented hero is but a grotesque figure and morality wars with derision in a typical serioludic allusion. Actaeon’s horns, a symbol of his voyeurism and his immoderate desires, become the horn of the assumed cuckold in II.i.105-17.


Pistol: Hope is a curtal dog in some affairs.

Sir John affects thy wife.

Ford: Why, Sir, my wife is not young.

Pistol: He woos both high and low, both rich and poor,

Both young and old, one with another, Ford.

He loves the gallimaufry, Ford. Perpend.

Ford: Love my wife?

Pistol: With liver burning hot. Prevent,

Or go thou like Sir Actaeon, he,

With Ringwood at thy heels.

O, odious is the name!

Ford: What name, sir?

Pistol: The horn, I say. Farewell.


Pistol’s comment relies on two emblematic features: the ungrateful hounds (with the sustained metaphor of the dog) and the horn. If hope is compared to a mutilated hound (a “curtal” dog refers to the standard hunting practice of dogs having their tails docked), the husband is also implicitly deprived of his masculine power. His male authority is threatened in the same way as Actaeon’s when he lost all authority over his pack of dogs; and Ringwood is the name of one of Actaeon’s hounds (Golding, Metamorphoses III, 270). Pistol is simultaneously deprived of his masculinity when his hope is identified to a “curtal dog” but also when he becomes horned by his wife. Furthermore, the allusion to the horn (note the use of the singular) becomes a generic term propitious to various comical paraphrases throughout the play, as “[i]t shall hang like a meteor o’er the cuckold’s horns” (II.ii.247-48) or “the peaking cornuto her husband …” (III.v.63). Falstaff uses this Italian word — which will be further taken up in association with Actaeon, as Sharpham’s Cupid’s Whirligig illustrates — to enrich the lexical proliferation of the horn, which permeates the play. Thus the classical horns (antlers, really) of punishment are turned into a metaphorical horn (singular) and may indeed refer to the classical cornucopia as a figure of plenty. More crudely, the allusion to Actaeon’s horns may also provide a useful subtext to mention sexual intercourse. This can be exemplified by John Grange’s parodic narrative, The Golden Aphroditis (1577). Grange elaborates on Diana’s falsehood by making her the mother of a beautiful nymph A.O. with the shepherd Endymion. To hide her intercourse with him, she makes up a story in which she is made pregnant by a buck:


I sat me down, likewise to rest my wearied limbs, and played with his horns in my lap. But, to be short, he suddenly rising, gan fiercely to push at me with his pricking horns, and so fiercely pursued his ferinish thrusts, that before I could recover my feet again, he gave me a goring wound. (Grange, The Golden Aphroditis, sig.iijr)


Clearly, the encounter with the “weaned buck” turns out to be a sexual one and the horns may be read as symbols of sexuality and fertility. In Shakespeare’s comedy, Actaeon’s tragedy is turned into the denunciation of the jealousy of husbands and the condemnation of the immoderate Falstaff, only too prone to immorality, while reactivating grotesque and sexual overtones.


Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, also makes use of this domestic reading of the classical fable to denounce female profligacy. The Ovidian fable illustrates the power of emblematic reading on audiences while introducing an ironical interplay between the different glosses, stimulating the audience’s response to the myth. Bassianus, Tamora and Lavinia wittily explore the serioludic interpretations of the fable in their dialogue: its cynegetic aspect, its political meaning, its popular and grotesque reading. The characters thus provide the audience with valuable information. Yet the spectator also perceives the several levels of truncated awareness on their part: in the general context of the hunt of Act II, they seemingly perceive some of the irony implied by the mythological reference but they are finally blinded as to its wider meaning in the tragic context.


During the performance, a large hunting ground is delineated in which hunters are in turn hunted. During this “general hunting”, which is staged in Act II, Lavinia and Bassianus unexpectedly come upon the adulterous couple formed by Tamora and her private counsellor, Aaron. Bassianus’ ironical reference to the Ovidian tale of Actaeon builds a fruitful tension between this cynegetic myth and its diverse interpretations:


Bassianus: Who have we here? Rome’s royal Empress,

Unfurnished of her well-beseeming troop?

Or is it Dian, habited like her,

Who hath abandonèd her holy groves

To see the general hunting in this forest?



The suggestion of Tamora’s spotless chastity is blatantly contradicted by the image presented on stage by the illegitimate couple. Tamora is but a fake Diana: she is rather a Venus, under the guise of Diana. This is the first level of irony that results from the discrepancy between what is said and what is seen on stage. An inverted staged emblem is thus composed (Mehl 1969, 54).


Caught red-handed with her lover, the Empress turns Bassianus’ argument against himself in a new twist of interpretation. She uses an emblematic reading of the same fable in the political context:


Tamora: Saucy controller of my private steps,

Had I the power that some say Dian had,

Thy temples should be planted presently

With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds

Should drive upon thy new transformèd limbs,

Unmannerly intruder as thou art.



In a Machiavellian manner, Tamora knows the political maxims according to which princes are protected against their intruding courtiers: “nimium videsse nocet”. She had read Conti’s Mythologia and benefited from his teaching. In The Wisdome of the Ancients, Francis Bacon also comments on this mythological episode in relation to politics. Tamora thus refuses to endorse Bassianus’ criticism and positions herself as a threatening political entity by adding this well-known gloss of the story.


The link between Actaeon’s story as an amorous myth, illustrating love torments (here ironically of course), and as a political myth can be traced back to Ovid himself in his Tristia. This was well known in the sixteenth century as the gloss of Thomas Watson, in Hekatompathia (1582), illustrates:


The author alluding in all this passion unto the fault of Actaeon, and to the hurt, which he sustained, setteth down his own amorous infelicity; as Ovid did after his banishment, when in another sense he applied this fiction unto himself, being exiled (as it should seem) for having at unawares taken Caesar in some great fault. (Passion VIII)


This witty, learned allusion has nothing to do with the love poem it supposedly glosses but rather demonstrates how consciously and knowledgeably myth was used in a poetic context at the time. The same myth-deciphering process is to be found in Titus Andronicus where the workings of the mythological reference is consciously laid bare, thereby illustrating how knowledgeably some characters manipulate others.


Tamora uses this political exemplum to cover up her adulterous relationship; on another level, Actaeon’s mythological plight also provides her with the scenario for revenge she will use against Lavinia and Bassianus. The political persona of the queen thus satisfies a personal grudge in a deadly conjunction of public and private affairs. The myth both provides a lesson and a scenario: as Tamora hypothetically alludes to Actaeon’s horns, the audience understands how she, another Diana, will avenge herself. Thus, the mythical segment illustrating revenge contaminates other levels of the structure of the play and causes dramatic irony to irradiate throughout. What is more, the power of the gloss in bono (in a positive way) fuels the tragic mechanics of the play.


Punning lead to a third inversion of the gloss. When she wittingly points out the popular tradition of the horn of the cuckold, Lavinia reads the myth in malo (in a negative way), following a pattern which is echoed in The Merry Wives of Windsor.


Lavinia: Under your patience, gentle Empress,

’Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,

And to be doubted that your Moor and you

Are singled forth to try experiments.

Jove shield your husband from his hounds today—

’Tis pity they should take him for a stag.



Lavinia’s joke parodies the Ovidian metamorphosis in a gross manner and puns on Tamora’s promiscuousness: “you have a goodly gift in horning”. The shift in meaning that results from the contamination between classical readings and the popular traditions of the horn endows this segment of myth with new associations. However, this impertinent comment — which relies on a comical interpretation of the classical motif of revenge — will prove fatal to Lavinia later on in the play. In Titus Andronicus, Actaeon is used on two levels: learned and grotesque readings are combined and used deliberately by two strong female figures, thus adding to their characterisation; on a structural level, the reference to the Theban hunter, who is finally hunted and dismembered, also points to the presiding dramatic irony in the play. Manner and matter are both explored, commenting upon one another.


In the sixteenth century, Actaeon’s sufferings also conjure up the image of the tormented lover, using a Petrarchan topos popularised by love poetry and love sonnets. When Orsino laments his amorous predicament in the opening scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he merely puns on traditional love discourse.


Curio: Will you go hunt, my lord?

Orsino:                               What, Curio?

Curio:                                                  The hart.

Orsino: Why so I do, the noblest that I have.

O, when my eyes did see Olivia first,

Methought she purged the air of pestilence;

That instant was I turned into a hart,

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E’er since pursue me.

(Twelfth Night, I.i.16-22)


Actaeon, in this dramatic context, is sometimes considered as the paradigm of a “veiled emblem” (Mehl 1969, 39-57; Laroque, 172) since that may be taken as referring to an emblematic reading well-known to audiences; as Geoffrey Whitney’s emblem shows, Actaeon may symbolize beastliness and impurity for Elizabethan playgoers. The emblematic turn of mind with which the Elizabethans related to the theatre certainly picks up on this veiled allusion and perceives its tragic potentialities in the opening scene of the comedy. However, Orsino’s love torments are also idealised when the reading of Actaeon’s dismemberment by his dogs becomes a metaphor for “self-consuming passion” (Bate 1996, 146; Laroque, 173-75). Here the literary and rhetorical model that is recalled is closer to the love poetry of the 1590s than to the emblematic genre. Samuel Daniel’s Sonnet V in Delia (1592) uses the conceit in a similar manner: the indirect reference — through the motifs of metamorphosis and of dismemberment — is also to be found. The poet’s mistress metamorphoses her lover to punish him.


Whilst youth and error led my wandering mind,

And set my thoughts in heedless ways to range,

All unawares a Goddess chaste I find,

Diana-like, to work my sudden change.

For her no sooner had mine eye bewrayed

But with disdain to see me in that place,

With fairest hand, the sweet unkindest maid

Casts water-cold disdain upon my face.


The metamorphosis is quick: sacrilegious glance and punishment are almost simultaneous. Love and deadly metamorphosis are entwined in an oxymoronic phrase: “the sweet unkindest maid”, enhancing an epitome of feminine cruelty.


After metamorphosis comes death. In this sonnet, Daniel constantly refers to two levels of reality: “Which turned my sport into a hart’s despair”. The conventional pun “heart/hart”, which Orsino also plays on in a disenchanted manner, sustains a strict parallel between Actaeon’s plight and the lover’s misadventures. The final sestet sets antithetic oppositions between “despair” and “fair” and between “breath” and “death”. Death, however, remains implicit in Daniel’s sonnet. As Actaeon is torn by his own dogs, so the lover is assailed by his inner torments. In Parthenophil and Parthenope (1593), Barnabe Barnes takes up this conventional trope, inherited from French Renaissance love poetry:


Behold, one to his fancies made a prey,

A poor Actaeon with his hounds devoured

(Parthenophil and Parthenope, Elegy III, fol.77r)


Barnes superimposes the mythological segment and the lover’s inner torment, as the poet is torn between his carnal desire for his beloved and the purity of his yearning for intellectual love (parthenia means virginity in Greek). Similarly, in the legend of Actaeon as it is poetically reworked, the physical dismemberment of the peeping hunter allegorically corresponds to the expression of his inner torments.


Which turned my sport into a hart’s despair,

Which still is chased, while I have any breath,

By mine own thoughts, set on me by my fair;

My thoughts, like hounds, pursue me to my death.

Those that I fostered of mine own accord

Are made by her to murder thus their Lord.

(Delia, sonnet 5)


This is yet another rewriting of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, XXIII, in which the poet is hunted by his own dogs because he saw his naked and forbidden mistress, Laura, bathing (Vickers; Murphy). In this poetical version, Daniel, in the same way as Orsino in Twelfth Night, proposes to truncate the myth to offer a new allegory of the disdain of his mistress, another avatar of a cruel Diana. What is different from the Petrarchan topos is that it is less a matter of expressing a sensuous torment (sharply criticized by the emblematic reading) than an intellectual suffering, something more melancholy and narcissic.


In Cymbeline (1609), Shakespeare uses the same cluster of myths as in Titus Andronicus in order to deceive the audience’s expectations; this deceptive method may provide a key to his use of the mythological figure of Actaeon, not because he is referred to, but because he is merely alluded to. In Cymbeline, the Theban hunter can be traced indirectly thanks to a mythological and historical cluster of female figures including Diana, Lucrece and Philomela (as well as Cleopatra). In this later play, the mythological allusions have become a means to frame the audience, to delude the husband (since Posthumus is the unreliable husband who threatened his wife’s chastity by a bet) but it may also be a means to deceive the learned audience, to share an hermeneutic deadlock in which the female character is trapped by devious literary interpretations. Indeed Giacomo reorganises a series of mythical segments imported from different stories to slander the chaste wife he cannot seduce. While this process convincingly threatens the reputation of Innogen, her rape is suggested by the use of a cluster of mythological and historical references.


Posthumus’s thoughtless bet is reminiscent of Collatine’s attitude in front of Tarquin as told by Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece. Giacomo is intent on winning his bet and decides to deceive Innogen since he cannot seduce her. When he enters her room, he compares himself to Tarquin, thus clearly designating his action as a metaphorical rape of the sleeping lady:


Our Tarquin thus

Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened

The chastity he wounded.



Lucrece’s predicament is thus put forward in a kind of learned epigraph, so that the audience may immediately perceive the symbolical dimension of the scene. Then the intruder who violates the intimacy of the bedroom clearly notices that Ovid’s Metamorphoses lays open on the bedside table:


She hath been reading late,

The tale of Tereus. Here the leaf’s turned down  

Where Philomel gave up. I have enough.



Philomela’s rape is euphemised in Giacomo’s words to become the moment when she “gave up”. As in Titus Andronicus, Ovid’s work is used as a prop and also as a guide to “read”, that is to interpret, Shakespeare’s story. Philomela, Lucrece and later in the same scene the mantelpiece adorned with a representation of a naked Diana bathing are famous precedents of threatened and raped female chastity: the situation makes the audience consequently read Giacomo’s intrusion as Actaeon’s.


The wiles of the treacherous Italian consist in manipulating emblems of chastity to turn them into symbols of lust by contaminating these with Venusian traits. When the scene witnessed by the audience is narrated to the husband in great detail, it acquires an imaginary status, staging the desire of the Italian intruder and not the actual scene that the audience was able to witness. The conflation of mythological details, belonging to Cleopatra, Venus and her two Cupids but also to Diana, surprised naked, or to Philomela and to Lucrece as beautiful women, casts doubts on the chaste Innogen instead of providing evidence for her innocence. Whether or not it was actually materialised with tapestries on stage at the time (Simonds Munoz, 109-19; Lomax, 111-12; Bate, 217), the mythological programme of the bedroom (II.ii) is designed to celebrate the beauty of the lady of the house (through the images of Venus and Cleopatra), her chastity (with the image of Diana) and the matrimonial balance between chaste and erotic love that may be read into the “two winking Cupids / Of silver, each on one foot standing, nicely / Depending on their brands” (II.iv.87-91) (Simonds Munoz, 97). The programme is reconfigured and finally destroyed by Giacomo’s narrative of his encounter with the sleeping beauty in II.iv.


Actaeon’s tale emphasizes a strategy of viewing, and offers a propedeutics of the spectatorial gaze, thereby teaching the audience that no gaze is innocent; indeed, insofar as the audience is privy to Giacomo’s manipulation, it is guilty of spying. Simonds Munoz deals with the image of Eros and Anteros in the fireplace (II.iv.109-119); the chimney-piece in Innogen’s room first seems to function as a visual oxymoron of chaste passion, a reconciling of opposites, which can be obtained through wedlock. However, the heterogeneity of the setting described by the Italian offers a displaced manner to describe the lady as a “chaste wanton”, thereby casting suspicion on her faithfulness. Such a hybrid association of mythological allusions — albeit a typical cluster to be found in The Rape of Lucrece (without the figure of Actaeon) and Titus Andronicus (as analysed above) — becomes ambiguous when perceived from Giacomo’s point of view; the vantage point from which chastity becomes an object of desire, with Innogen, formerly described as Diana revealed as an alluring Venus, is that of Giacomo, the voyeur, another Actaeon in the scenic device: “The gaze is fixed on the naked Diana bathing: Giacomo and with him the audience stand in the position occupied by Actaeon. The motif of auto-destructive desire is activated” (Bate, 217).

The performance text offers the learned audience a reduplication of the beautiful huntress, surprised defenceless (not bathing but sleeping): interestingly, Actaeon is never explicitly named in the play, which privileged the more allusive process of mythological affleurement. In Act II Scene iv there occurs what we may call a “hallucinatory” shift of perspective; the spectator becomes a voyeur, a double of the malevolent Giacomo. While the stage action unfolds in a linear manner, narrating a story, the mythological allusion unveils a void, a gap, within the play. What is thus unveiled is the workings of perversion: its mechanism entraps the audience’s gaze as well as the character’s; the spectator becomes Giacomo’s accomplice and is projected onto the stage, into the lady’s chamber. The theatrical illusion becomes real when it is most obviously evident: the disruptive power of the male desiring gaze is denounced while the spectator is made to share Giacomo’s voyeuristic pleasure. As the spectator follows Giacomo’s description, he/she relishes the show of abandoned female beauty and sides with Venus against Diana.


Actaeon as a voyeur, as a guilty intruder (or as an unlucky young man); Actaeon as a hunted hunter, Actaeon as a political intruder, Actaeon as a dismembered man, Actaeon as a cuckold. Among the various segments of the myth that are evoked by Shakespeare, it seems that a unifying and convincing theme is that of the gaze and the dangers it carries both for the person that is spied upon and for the viewer. Voyeurism, a highly dramatic theme, is a potential danger convincingly activated by the vast iconography which illustrates this mythological fable, be it in the context of emblems, decorative art or painting and sculpture (Lafont, 2013). Shakespeare draws from the Ovidian matter, directly or indirectly — as filtered through Petrarchan poetry or through sixteenth century treatises and emblem books — but as well as from the Ovidian manner: Actaeon’s metamorphosis, from predator to prey, from human to beast, from articulate young man to speechless creature is taken as a frame to question the audience’s ability to decode, to become an active co-creator of meaning in a performance text and not a passive recipient of a fixed written script.


How to cite

Agnès Lafont.  “Actaeon.”  2013.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology  (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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