Shakespeare's Myths

Giovanni Boccaccio.  Caccia di Diana (1333-1335):

[Boccaccio’s Diana’s Hunt is a self-conscious reversal of the fable of Actaeon: the lover begins as a stag and is then hunted by the virtuous Diana and her votaries.]


Petrarch.  Il Canzoniere (1327-1370), XXIII, 147-60:

[The poet likens himself to Actaeon, as he has been transformed by his love for his chaste Laura.]


John Gower.  Confessio amantis (c. 1390), (STC 12142), I, 333-84:

[Confessor tells and comments the story of Actaeon’s transformation and death: “Better is to wink than to look”. He follows it with the story of Medusa, which he presents as yet another cautionary tale about those who “misuse” their sight.]


Geoffrey Chaucer.  The Knight’s Tale, 2065-68:

There saugh I Attheon an hert ymaked,  [saugh: saw]

For vengeaunce that he saugh Diane al naked;

I saugh how that his hounds have hym caught

And freeten hym, for they knewe hym naught.  [freeten: devoured]


Maurice Scève.  Délie (1530), 168, “Fortune par les miens me chasse” [Fortune uses my friends to hunt me]:

[Eugène Parturier ed.  Délie.  Paris: Nizet, 1987 (1916).] 

[Actaeon as the image of the tormented lover. Petrarchan topos.]


Helisenne de Crenne.  Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d’amours (1538) [A young lady tortured by her love]

[Christine de Buzon ed.  Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997]

O mon corps tant delicat et delyé, comment peuz tu souffrir tant de maulx inhumains ? Acteon fut de ses familiers laceré. Thiaceus fut de chiens devoré […] mais eulx tous ensemblement n’ont eu tant de peine que toy: car leur mort a esté subite, et moy miserable de continuelle cruaulté je suis angustié (sig. I3, p. 207)

[Oh, my so delicate and supple body, how can you suffer such inhumane torments? Actaeon was torn to pieces by his favourites. Thiaceus [Thiaceus could be a misprint for Thrasus, in Ovid, Ibis, 479] was devoured by hounds […] yet taken together, they did not suffer as much as you did: their death was a quick death, while I, made miserable by ceaseless cruelty, am oppressed.]


Pernette du Guillet.  Rymes, Elegie 2 (1545)

[Victor E. Graham ed.  Geneva: Droz, 1968]

O qu’alors eust l’onde telle efficace

De le pouvoir en Actéon muer

Non toutefois pour le faire tuer,

Et dévorer à ses chiens comme Cerf:

Mais que de moy se sentist etre serf,

Et serviteur transformé tellement

Qu’ainsy cuydast en son entendement

Tant que Dyane en eust sur moy envie,

De lui avoir sa puissance ravie.

[O, then might the water have the power

To change him into Actaeon,

Not, however, so that he would be killed

And devoured by his dogs, like a deer.

But so that he would feel he was my slave,

And so transformed into a servant

Might he think and understand himself to be,

That Diana herself would envy me,

For having taken her power away from her].

[“cerf”, “serf”: a pun in the French original on the homonyms “cerf”, “deer”, and “serf”, “slave”.]


John GrangeThe Golden Aphroditis (1577) (STC 12174), sig. ijv-iijv:

[Diana is made pregnant of the nymph A.O. [Alpha and Omega] by “her sweetheart Endymion”; she gives birth in the woods and disappears from the company of gods for a while.]

Jupiter demanded of her [Diana] where she had been, and what sport she had had all this time. Who first fixed her eyes upon her apron-strings, secondly looking steadfastly in the midst thereof, straightforth had a ready answer by the end, which proves not a little the readiness, ripeness, sharpness and subtlety of a woman’s wit. For she, meaning indeed to disclose the whole matter, least some eavesdropper or pickthank [flatterer] should bewray [expose] her unto Venus, who always was and will be her mortal enemy, yet, in such secret manner and after such a lofty style as the gods themselves should hardly understand her, answered him in this sort: “Sir, quoth she, in sport I passed the bands of pleasure, and came to the court of felicity, for I had no sooner entered the wild and fenny [boggy, swampy] forest of my wonted game, but a goodly buck forth of the thick and flaking [flagging] fern began to rouse himself, who contrary to the nature of his sex, leaving both fierceness and wilderness — as though he had known me — gan lovingly to fawn upon me, besmearing me with his lips, and licking my garments with his tongue. Whereat I, being amazed, and taking it to be some of Circe’s enchantments, who had taken upon him the crocodile’s nature, I sent a piercing shaft to stick amidst his ribs, which contrary to his former force rebounded back again; the buck likewise not fearing aught, began to lick afresh. Whereat I, marvelling not a little, seeing this change of nature, persuaded myself it was some wayned [weaned] buck which of late had strayed from the lodge of my forest, and now forgotten through my tasting of Lethe lake at my first entering into the same, wherefore I began to play with him — calling him by this name: Will, Will  who no otherwise, as it were, fleered upon me [grinned at me], than doth the child or little infant, who smiles upon his mother or nurse calling him by some childish name. And perceiving I had yielded unto his lore, as indeed I had, thinking I would follow him, began lightly to trip before me, until such time as he came to a broad gate of a fair lawn field. I, like a good bloodhound pursuing my chase leisurely, kept true footing, and drew near unto him, whom when he spied — more like a man than a beast —, he opened the hatch with his crooked horn, and with the same held it open until such time as I had entered. Then did I see him make toward the middle of the lawn, wherein was a slip [plot] hedged about with black and white thorn, but rather made in the order of a list wherein a combat had or should be fought, whom incontinently I followed. He entered, I entered also; thus being entered, he laid him down to breathe. 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 [ferine, bestial, wild] thrusts, that before I could recover my feet again, he gave me a goring wound. Whereat I being amazed, and yet desirous to see further before I enjoyed his death, withstood him stoutly, nothing regarding his force. Wherein I found that a valiant knight may soon be overcome, but a fierce soldier sooner tired, for so was he; yet, being vanquished, he yielded himself, fawning upon me as he did before, to whom, being moved with pity, and hoping in short time to recover [from] my hurt, I granted life, yet brake his horns and let him go. Who was no sooner gone, but the sore incontinently began to swell; I, fearing the worst, sought straight forth for elleborus to purge me thereof, which found, I stamped it and drank the juice thereof at my discretion; soon after the drinking whereof, all the corruption and matter which before was congealed in my gored wound, gushed forth, but to my deadly pain. Thus in a fair large field between the lists I encountered with my mortal foe, who receiving the foil but not the repulse, I brake his horn, and for the testimonial thereof behold the same — showing the gods in deed the little finger of a borne gauntlet which was her sweetheart’s Endymion, which we call the lover’s finger, but what she meant thereby I refer to you, Madames [Ladies], whose wits herein do pass my foolish skill. The gods hearing this tale, not perceiving her subtlety, laughing sore, commended her sport, and began, as Terence saith, “Omnia bona dicere et laudare fortunam ejus” [“to say a lot of good and congratulate her for her fortune”, adapted from Terence, Andria, 96-97], saying moreover she had done valiantly, and in giving order wished themselves there — being merrily disposed — some with cap-case [bag, casket] and bodkin, some with cushion and bell-headed pin, other some with beer bung [large cork stopper] and faucet, another with pot-lid and ladle, and some again with chamber-pot and bedstaff. Thus every god had his sundry wish, and every one his wish alike.


Thomas Watson.  Hekatompathia (1582) (STC 25118a), VIII, sig. A4v:

Actaeon for espying Diana as she bathed her naked, was transformed into a Hart, and soon after torn in pieces by his own hounds, as Ovid describeth at large Lib. 3. Metamorph. And Silius Italicus Libr. 12 De Bello Punico glanceth at it in this manner:

Fama est, cum laceris Actaeon flebile membris

Supplicium lueret spectatae in fonte Dianae,

Attonitum novitate mala fugisse parentem

Per freta Aristeum. etc. [etc.: et Sardoos isse recessus]

[It is reported that when Actaeon was dismembered, a lamentable punishment that was inflicted on him when he saw Diana bathing in a fountain, horrified by the unexpectedness of this infortune, his father Aristaeus fled across the sea etc. (unto a remote place in Sardinia). Punica, XII, 365-68]

The author alluding in all this passion unto the fault of Actaeon, and to the hurt, which he sustained, sets 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. For thus he writeth:

Cur aliquid vidi, cur noxia lumina feci? Etc.

Inscius Actaeon vidit sine veste Dianam,

   Praeda fuit canibus nec minus ille suis.

[Why did I see anything? Why did I make my eyes guilty? … Unwitting was Actaeon when he saw Diana unclothed; none the less he became the prey of his own hounds. Ovid, Tristia 103-06, tr. A. L. Wheeler, rev. G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library, 1924, 1988.]

Actaeon lost in middle of his sport

Both shape and life, for looking but awry.

Diana was afraid he would report

What secrets he had seen in passing by;

   To tell but truth, the selfsame hurt have I

   By viewing her, for whom I daily die.

I leese [lose] my wonted shape, in that my mind

Doth suffer wreck upon the stony rock

Of her disdain, who contrary to kind

Doth bear a breast more hard than any stock;

   And former form of limbs is changed quite

   By cares in love, and want of one delight.

I leese [lose] my life in that each secret thought,

Which I conceive through wanton fond regard,

Doth make me say, that life availeth nought

Where service cannot have a due reward:

   I dare not name the nymph that works my smart,

   Though love hath grav’n her name within my heart.


Giordano Bruno.  De gl’Heroici Furori (1585) (STC 3937), Dialogo 4, sigs. D3r-F1r:

Atteone significa l’intelletto intento alla caccia della divina sapienza, all’ apprension della beltá divina

[Actaeon signifies the intellect applied to the hunt for divine knowledge, (and) for the understanding of divine beauty.]


Christopher Marlowe.  Doctor Faustus (1592-1593, 1592), A-text, IV.i.62-64:

Knight: I’faith, that’s as true as Diana turned me to a stag.

Faustus: No, sir, but when Actaeon died, he left the horns for you.


Christopher Marlowe.  Doctor Faustus (1592-1593, 1592), B-text, IV.i.90-102, 121-26:

Faustus: I’ll make you feel something anon, if my art fail me not.

My lord, I must forewarn your Majesty

That when my spirits present the royal shapes

Of Alexander and his paramour,

Your Grace demand no questions to the King,

But in dumb silence let them come and go...

Emperor: Be it as Faustus please, we are content.

Benvolio: Ay, ay, and I am content too. And thou bring Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, I’ll be Actaeon, and turn myself to a stag.

Faustus: And I’ll play Diana, and send you the horns presently.

[Dumb show follows]

Emperor: Oh, wondrous sight! See, Duke of Saxony,

Two spreading horns most strangely fastened

Upon the head of young Benvolio!

Saxony: What, is he asleep? Or dead?

Faustus: He sleeps, my lord, but dreams not of his horns.

Emperor: This sport is excellent. We’ll call and wake him.


Christopher Marlowe.  Edward II (1591-1593,1592), I.i.60-69:

Gaveston: Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,

With hair that gilds the water as it glides,

Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,

And in his sportful hands an olive tree,

To hide those parts which men delight to see,

Shall bathe him in a spring

One like Actaeon, peeping through the grove,

Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,

And, running in the likeness of a hart,

By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die.


Samuel Daniel.  Delia (1592), (STC 6243.2), sonnet 5, sig. B3r:

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 my view bewrayed  [exposed],

But with disdain to see me in that place

With fairest hand, the most unkindest maid,

Casts water-cold disdain upon my face,

Which turned my sport into a hart’s despair

Which still is chased, whilst 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.


Barnabe Barnes.  Parthenophil and Parthenope (1593) (STC 1469), Elegy III, p. 77:

Behold, one to his fancies made a prey,

   A poor Actaeon with his hounds devoured,

   An oak with his green ivy worn away, …


SHAKESPEARE.  Titus Andronicus. (1594), II.iii.60-65; II.iii.66-71.


Robert Wilson.  The Pedler’s Prophecy (1595) (STC 25782), sig. E2r:

Pedler: Did you never hear of one called Actaeon?

Landlord: Yes, indeed, I heard of such a one.

PedlerYou are like to play Actaeon’s part,

For you shall be turned to a wild hart.

And the dogs which to keep you were wont,

With most cruel death shall you hunt.

What will your raised rents help?

When you shall be torn of every whelp.

Your insatiable covetousness, your shameful simony,

Your sacrilege accursed, by God’s own testimony.


Anonymous (Lyly?).  The Maid’s Metamorphosis (1600) (STC 17188), Act I, sigs. B2v-B3r:

Silvius:  Diana with her bow and arrows keen,

Did often use the Chase, in forests green.

And so alas, the good Athenian knight,

And swift Actaeon herein took delight:

And Atalanta, the Arcadian dame,

Conceiv’d such wondrous pleasure in the game

That with her train of Nymphs attending on,

She came to hunt the Boar of Calydon.


Robert Yarington.  Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601) (STC 26076), sig. Ir:

Falleria: I am Actaeon, I do bear about

My horns of shame and inhumanity,

My thoughts, like hounds which late did flatter me

With hope of great succeeding benefits.

Now ’gin to tear my care-tormented heart,

With fear of death and torturing punishment,

These are the stings when as our consciences,

Are stuffed and clogged with close concealèd crimes,

Well I must smother all these discontents,

And strive to bear a smoother countenance.


SHAKESPEARE. Twelfth Night (c. 1601-1602, 1601), I.i.16-22.


Ben Jonson.  The Entertainment at Althrope (1604) (STC 14756), 191-204:

Satyr: ... Rise up, sir, I will betray

All I think you have to say:

That your father gives you here,

Freely as to him you were,

To the service of this Prince;

And with you these instruments

Of his wild and sylvan trade;

Better not Actaeon had.

The bow was Phoebe’s, and the horn,

By Orion often worn;

The dog of Sparta breed, and good,

As can ring within a wood; [Ringwood, the name given by Golding to one of Actaeon’s hounds.]

Thence his name is. You shall try

How he hunteth instantly.


George Chapman.  Sir Gyles Goosecappe (c. 1606), III.ii.39-53:

How vainly do I offer my strange love?

I marry and bid states, and entertain

Ladies with tales and jests, and Lords with news

And keep a houser [a dweller, lodger] to feast Actaeon’s hounds

That ate their master, and let idle guests

Draw me from serious search of things divine

To bid them sit, and welcome, and take care

To sooth their palates with choice kitchen-stuff,

As all must do that marry and keep house

And then look on the left side of my yoke

Or on the right perhaps and see my wife

Draw in a quite repugnant course from me

Busied to starch her French pirls [curls] and her puffs.


George Chapman.  Monsieur d'Olive (1606) (STC 4983), I.i:

Rhoderique (to Mugeron): … But now, forsooth, to redeem her honour, she must by a laborious and violent kind of purgation rub off the skin, to wash out the spot, turn her chamber to a cell, the sun into a taper, and (as if she lived in another world amongst the Antipodes) make our night her day, and our day her night, that under this curtain, she may lay his jealousy asleep, while she turns poor Argus to Actaeon, and makes his sheets common to her servant Vandome.


Edward Sharpham.  Cupid’s Whirligig (1607) (STC 22380), II.i.52-58; sig. E2r:

[This play is an English dramatisation of the 6th novella of the 7th day of Boccacio’s Decameron.]

Lady Troublesome: With many heart-biting thoughts, which like Actaeon’s hounds have almost slain myself … [The Lady complains to her servant that her husband suspects her of being unfaithful]

Knight: You are a whore, wife, a whore.

Lady Troublesome: Sir, the man is mad.

Knight: I, horn mad, ah thou vile perfidious, detestable, lascivious, unsatiable, luxurious and abominable strumpet, was it not enough to be an Actaeon, a cornuto, a cuckold, but to make me baud, a pimp, a pander? [The husband complains that he resembles Actaeon with a horned head due to his being a cuckold]


Anon.  Every Woman in her Humour (1609) (STC 25948), sig. H1r, sig. H2v:

Graccus: O gentlewoman, those are shows for those places they are used in, marry, here you must expect some rare device as Diana bathing herself, being discovered or oculated [gazed upon (this phrase is quoted in OED)] by Actaeon, he was transfigured to a hart, and worried to death with his own dogs.

Citizen’s wife: That’s pretty in good truth, and must Diana be naked?

Graccus: Oh, of necessity, if it be that show.

Hostis: And Actaeon too: that’s pretty in faith.

Hostis: Now we shall behold the show

Getica: Actaeon and his dogs I pray Jupiter.

[play within the play]

Getica: In truth I had good hope the foremost had been Actaeon when I saw his horns. 

Citizen’s wife: Sure the middlemost was my husband, see if he have not a wen [ lump] in his forehead.


SHAKESPEARE.  Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609), II.iv.80-82.


Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.  Philaster (1609), III.ii.183-87:

Arethusa. Diana, if thou canst rage with a maid

As with a man, let me discover thee

Bathing and turn me into a fearful hind,

That I may die pursued by cruel hounds

And have my story written in my wounds.


George Chapman.  The Widow’s Tears (1612), I.iii.64-74:

Tharsalio: Brother, are you wise?

Lysander: Why?

Tharsalio: Be ignorant. Did you never hear of Actaeon?

Lysander: What then?

Tharsalio: Curiosity was his death. He could not be content to adore Diana in her temple, but he must needs dog her to her retired pleasures, and see her in her nakedness. Do you enjoy the sole privilege of your wife’s bed? Have you no pretty Paris for your page? No young Adonis to front you there?

Lysander: I think none; I know not.


Ben Jonson. Cynthia’s Revels (1616), I.i:

The huntress, and queen of these groves, Diana (in regard of some black and envious slanders hourly breathed against her, for her divine justice on Actaeon, as she pretends) hath here in the vale of Geogaphy [Gargaphy] proclaimed a solemn revels.


Ben Jonson.  Cynthia’s Revels (1616), I.ii:

Echo: Here young Actaeon fell, pursued, and torn

By Cynthia’s wrath (more eager than his hounds)

And here, ay me, the place is fatal, see

The weeping Niobe, translated hither

From Phrygian mountains: and by Phoebe reared

As the proud trophae of her sharp revenge.


John HaringtonThe Most Elegant and Witty Epigrams (1618) (STC 12776), Epigram 57: “Of the naked Image that was to stand in my Lord Chamberlain’s Gallery”:  

Actaeon, guiltless, unawares espying

Naked Diana bathing in her bower,

Was plagued with horns, his dogs did him devour.

Wherefore take heed, ye that are curious prying,

With some such forkèd plague you be not smitten,

And in your foreheads your faults be written.


John HaringtonThe Most Elegant and Witty Epigrams (1618) (STC 12776), Epigram 60,

In Cornutum”:

A Thais? No, Diana thou didst wed,  

For she hath given to thee Actaeon’s head.


How to cite

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

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