Shakespeare's Myths

Palaephatus.  Peri Apiston (On Unbelievable Tales), (late 4th century BC), 6, “On Actaeon”:

[At a time when men used to work with their own hands, Actaeon was ruined because he spent his time hunting and neglected his own affairs: that is why he was said to have been “devoured” by his own dogs in the same way as one says that a man who spends all his money in the company of courtesans (“meretrices”) is “devoured” by them.]


Fulgentius.  The Mythologies (c. 5th-6th century), III, iii, “The Fable of Actaeon”:

[Actaeon lost almost all his means of subsistence in uselessly nourishing his dogs (“quos inaniter pascendo pene omnem substantiam perdidit”). Fulgentius adds that according to Anaximenes, Actaeon finally realized the dangers of hunting and acquired, in Homer’s phrase, “the heart of a stag” (Iliad, I, 225).]


Third Mythographer of the Vatican (second half / end of 12th century), VII, iii “Diana and Endymion”:

[A paragraph on Actaeon in this chapter repeats Fulgentius word for word.]


Ovide Moralisé (early14th century), III, 337-669:

[Repeats Palaephatus’ moralization (574-603); adds that Actaeon’s metamorphosis signifies Christ’s incarnation; Diana is the Holy Trinity, seen by Christ without a veil; Actaeon’s dogs are the Jews, who put Christ to death (604-69)]


Giovanni Boccaccio.  Genealogia (1350-1374), V, xiv, “On Actaeon, Aristaeus’ son”:

[After a brief summary, quotes Fulgentius word for word.]


Christine de Pisan.  L’Épître d’Othéa (1400-1401) [Trans. by Stephen Scrope.  The Epistle of Othea (c. 1440-1449)], LXIX:  

Many expositions may be made upon this fable, but to our purpose it may be said of a young man that abandoneth him[self] wholly to idleness, and dispendeth [spends] his goods and his getting in the delight of his body and in disport of hunting, and to keep idle meinie  [attendants]. Hereby it may be said that he was hated of Diana, which is noted for chastity, and devoured of his own meinie. Therefore it is said to the good knight that he should beware he be not devoured in like wise. And a wise man says that idleness engenders idleness and error.

[Another translation by R. W. [Robert Wyer] (1549) (STC 7272)]


Thomas Walsingham.  De Archana Deorum (early fifteenth century), III, ii:

[Paraphrases and expands on Fulgentius’ moralization; Actaeon saw Diana naked, this means that he realized that hunting is profitless (“Vidit Dianam nudam, id est inutilem”); he was said to have been transformed into a hart because, understanding the dangers of hunting, he became as fearful as that animal; and although he did not hunt any longer, he nevertheless went on feeding his dogs, whose upkeep ruined him.]


Ovide Moralisé en prose (c. 1466-1467?), III, iii-iv:

[After a narrative, gives two interpretations, one in the Palaephatus tradition, the other in the wake of Ovide Moralisé.]


William Caxton.  Methamorphoseos (1480)


Colard Mansion.  La Bible des Poètes (1493), III:

[Actaeon’s transformation into a stag is an image of Christ’s incarnation; he is devoured by his own dogs, that is, ungratefully put to death by his own people; four dogs represent four stages in his torment.]


Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim.  De incertitudine et vanitate omnium scientiarum (1530) [Trans. by James Sandford], Henrie Cornelius Agrippa, of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences (1569) (STC 204), chapter 77, “Of hunting and fowling”, fol. 121v:

[disapproves of hunting; to hunt beasts contaminates the very nature of the hunters and makes them cruel. See also Sabinus, below] … a notable folly of hunters doubtless, and a worthy battle, without which, whilst they are too busy, they, setting all humanity apart, become salvage beasts, and through monstrous naughtiness of nature, are changed like Actaeon into the nature of beasts.


Andrea Alciati.  Emblematum Liber (1531), Emblem 52, “In receptatores siccariorum” [“About those who entertain murderers”]:

[An attack on great lords’ expensive and rowdy retinues.]


Barthélemy Aneau.  Picta Poesis (1552), p. 41, “Ex Domino Servus” [“From master into slave”]:

[A warning against large retinues of parasites.]


Charles Estienne.  Dictionarium Historicum, Geographicum, Poeticum (1553):

[The fable warns against keeping troops of flatterers (the dogs), who end up ungratefully attacking their benefactor (Actaeon).]


Georgius Sabinus (Georg Schuler).  Fabularum Ovidii Interpretatio (ed. princeps Wittenberg: Georg Rhaw, 1555) [Cambridge: Thomas Thomas, 1584 (STC 18951), III, p. 107-08]:

Actaeon in cervum conversus docet Principes quodammodo exuere animum humanum, ac degenerare in naturam ferinam, dum assidue in sylvis agunt, ibique cum feris luctantur, et assuesiunt caedibus. Dicuntur autem vulgo dilianari venatores a canibus, cum exhausto sumptu in alendis canibus facto, rediguntur ad inopiam. Meminit hujus fabulae Euripides; sed aliam causam adfert quam Ovidius, quare Actaeon sit mutatus in cervum. Ait enim cum impiè locutum de diis, cum gloriaretur se praestantiorem esse venatorem ipsa Diana. Extat locus apud Euripidem in Bacchis, ubi Cadmus exemplo Actaeonis admonens Penthea ne quid arroganter aut impiè dicat de diis. Joannes Dantiscus, Episcopus Varmiensis, solebat comparare Actaeonis canes parasitis: ac dicebat, idem accidere Principibus a parasitis, quod Actaeoni a canibus, nempe ut devorentur ab iis quos alunt.

 [Actaeon changed into a hart teaches princes how they lose their human souls and degenerate into savage nature when they assiduously roam the woods and, fighting wild beasts there, grow accustomed to slaughter. Moreover, hunters are commonly said to be savaged by their dogs when, ruined by the cost of feeding them, they are reduced to poverty. Euripides recalls this fable, but the explanation of Actaeon’s metamorphosis he proposes differs from Ovid’s. The reason, he said, was that Actaeon talked of the gods with impiety when he boasted that he was a better hunter than Diana herself. This is in Euripides’ Bacchae, where Cadmus uses the example of Actaeon to warn Pentheus not to speak arrogantly or impiously of the Gods [Euripides, Bacchae, 337-41: Pentheus was Actaeon’s cousin] … Johannes Dantiscus, bishop of Warmia, [Jan Dantyszek] used to compare Actaeon’s dogs to parasites, saying that the same happened to princes with their parasites as to Actaeon with his dogs, namely that they were devoured by those they fed.]


Thomas Peend. The Pleasant fable of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (1565) (STC 18971), fols. 110v-111r:

[Translates and interprets Ovid] Actaeon. Son of Aristaeus, by Autonoe, daughter of Camus [Cadmus], builder of the city of Thebes, which after he had been a hunting, came by chance to a secret well or spring, where he saw Diana naked, washing of herself. Whereat she taking displeasure, turned him into a hart, and so, as he would have returned home, he was rent in pieces of his own hounds.

Actaeon once unwittingly, did / Diana naked see:

Wherefore unto his hounds, she made / him then a prey to be.

(Ovid Epist.) [The reference is to Epistulae ex Ponto or Tristia II, 105-06, of which the first words of the Latin text are recalled in the margin: “Inscius Actaeon vidit sine veste Dianam, Atque suis canibus etc. (“Actaeon unawares saw Diana unclothed / and became his own hounds’ prey etc.”).]

All which was feigned for that he had spent his substance [his resources: echoes Fulgentius’ “substantia], and undone himself by hunting, and keeping of hounds.


William Adlington.  The Golden Asse…with an excellent narration of the Mariage of Cupide and Psiches [Trans. Apuleius] (1566) (STC 718), II, 2, fols. 13v-14r: 

[Description of a carved object] On the contrary part, the image of the goddess Diana was wrought in white marble, which was a marvellous sight to see, for she seemed as though the wind did blow up her garments, and that she did encounter with them that came into the house: on each side of her, were dogs made of stone, that seemed to menace with their fiery eyes, their pricked ears, their bent nostrils, and their grinning teeth, in such sort that you would have thought they had bayed and barked. And moreover (which was a greater marvel to behold) the excellent carver and deviser of this work had fashioned the dogs to stand up fiercely with their former feet, and their hinder feet on the ground, ready to fight. Behind the back of the goddess was carved a stone in manner of a cavern, environed with moss, herbs, leaves, sprigs, green branches, and bows, growing and about the same, in so much that within the stone it glistened and shone marvellously, under the brim of the stone hanged apples and grapes carved finely, wherein arte (envying nature) showed his great cunning. For they were so lively set out, that you would have thought (if Summer had been come) they might have been pulled and eaten, and while I behold the running water, which seemed to spring and leap under the feet of the goddess, I marked the grapes which hanged in the water, which were like in every point to the grapes of the vine, and seemed to move and stir by violence of the stream. Moreover amongst the branches of the stone appeared the image of Actaeon. And how that Diana (which was carved within the same stone standing in the water because he did see her naked) did turn him into a hart, and so he was torn and slain of his own hounds.


Thomas Palmer.  Two hundred poosees (c. 1566), Sloane MS 3794, Emblem 53, “Against them that keep knaves and queans”:

[Moralization in the Palaephatus tradition.]


Natale Conti.  Mythologia (1567), VI, xxiv:

[Gives several different versions of the Actaeon story. Dismisses interpretations condemning hunting; favours moral interpretations reproving ungratefulness and curiosity as to private political affairs. Does not rule out a natural explanation: during the dog days, dogs are liable to go mad and might attack their own masters.]


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567) (STC 18959), III, 160-308; “Epistle”, 97-100:

All such as do in flattering freaks, and hawks, and hounds delight,

And dice, and cards, and for to spend the time both day and night

In foul excess of chamberwork, or too much meat and drink,

Upon the piteous story of Actaeon ought to think.


Thomas Underdown.  Ovid his invective against Ibis (1569) (STC 18949), sig. ki r-v:

That thou mayst be a prey to them, … that killed him, which hath chaste Diana naked seen.

[marginalia “Actaeon”] Actaeon, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, weary with long chase of wild beasts, came into a valley of Gargaphia, there, at a fair fountain, to cool himself. But, as ill fortune was, Diana with her mates were come thither before to bathe themselves, who so soon as she saw Actaeon come thither, lest he should bewray [expose] what he had seen, turned him into a hart, and so he became a prey to his own dogs.

[Underdown expands and elucidates Ovid’s periphrasis in Ibis, 477-80: “Praedaque sis illis, … Quique verecundae speculantem labra Dianae … diripuere (Mayst thou fall prey to those which tore him to pieces, that had seen Diana bathing).]


Thomas Churchyard.  The First Three Bookes of Ovids De Tristibus (1572) (STC 18977a), fol.5r [Trans. Ovid’s Tristia, II, 103-06]:

Why saw I ought? Mine eyes why have I guilty caused to be?

Why is my fault unwitting I, now knowing so well to me?

The naked Diana Actaeon saw, unwares as he did pass, [unaware]

To hungry hounds a present prey, no whit the less he was

For mighty gods do punish those, by chance that do offend,

Nor pardon ought where powers be hurt, to such mishaps do lend,

So in that day wherein I was with error thus beguiled,

Our little house decayèd is with fault yet undefiled.


Sir Thomas North. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579), [Trans. Amyot’s Plutarch] (STC 20066), “Sertorius”, p. 621-22:

... two called Actaeon, the one was torn a pieces by his dogs, the other by his lovers.

[The second Actaeon, son of Melissus, was torn to pieces by his father, his friends and his neighbours, who were trying to rescue him from Archias of Corinth; his story is told in detail in Plutarch, Moralia, “Five Tragical Histories of Love”, II. See Philemon Holland (1603) below, and George Sandys (1632), below.]


Thomas Newton [Trans. Seneca].  Thebais (1581) (STC 22221), Act 1:

[The place where Oedipus wants to put an end to his life is located where Actaeon’s metamorphosis and subsequent death occurred.]  

Oedipus: And though that I can nothing see, yet is my guilt and crime

Both seen and known, and pointed at, woe worth the cursed time!

Leave off thy hold, let loose thy hand, good daughter, let me go;

Let faltering foot light where it will, let it, this once, be so.

I’ll trudge, and run. I’ll scud, and range. I’ll hasten to the hill

Of craggy steep Cytheron, there I hope to work my will,

Where erst Actaeon lost his life by strange and uncouth death,

Where once Agave, bedlamlike, ranged up and down the wood

With sisters hers, inspired all with Bacchus’ raging mood.


Geoffrey Whitney.  A Choice of Emblemes (1586) (STC 25438) “Voluptas aerumnosa” [Passion is full of misery], p. 15:

[The picture of this emblem is similar to the one in Johannes Spreng, Metamorphoses Ovidii, Paris, de Marnef, 1570, fol. 41v.].

By which is meant, that those who do pursue

Their fancies fond, and things unlawful crave,

Like brutish beasts appear unto the view,

And shall at length, Actaeon’s guerdon have:

And as his hounds, so their affections base,

Shall them devour, and all their deeds deface.

[Follows the moral tradition, with an emphasis on beastliness.]


Angel DayDaphnis and Chloe (1587) (STC 6400) [Trans. Jacques Amyot, Les Amours pastorales de Daphnis et de Chloé, 1559, itself a translation of Longus’s poem], sig. C2v:

[Day inserts a reference to Actaeon, not to be found in Amyot, in the passage where Dorcon disguises as a wolf to view Chloe bathing at the fountain, with lustful intentions. He implies that Actaeon, too was disguised as a hart to spy upon Diana. Neither Chloe’s dogs, who sniff out Dorcon, nor Actaeon’s hounds are taken in by the disguise.]

Dorcon was now in an ecstasy, and not daring to stand upright, for fear and shame of the disguise by him without effect pretended. The dogs, unwitting of the fraud, took no more knowledge of him than whilom did the hounds of Actaeon upon their master, disguised as he was in the shape of a hart; but, harrying fast upon the cowherd, one in one place, and another in another place, so rudely rushed upon him, as tearing the wolf’s skin from his shoulders, they made him discover himself at the last to be no more than the poor and simple cowherd Dorcon.


Lodovico Ariosto.  Orlando Furioso, in English heroical verse [Trans. by Sir John Harington, 1591] (STC 746), p. 85r, stanzas 46-47; table [glossary], fol. 423v:

Actaeon. A notable hunter and a cuckold, and for that cause feigned to have had horns for the later of the two properties, and to have been devoured with his own dogs for the former, because he was beggared and consumed by them. [Gives a moralization in the Palaephatus tradition and adds a parodic reading of Actaeon as a cuckold.]


Abraham Fraunce.  The Third part of the Countess of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1592) (STC 11341), fol. 43r [quotes Ovid, De Tristibus as a source]:

We ought not to be over curious and insensitive in spying and prying into those matters, which be above our reach. [Moral interpretations reproving curiosity as to private political affairs.] … or lastly, thus, a wise man ought to refrain his eyes from beholding sensible and corporal beauty, figured by Diana: lest, as Actaeon was devoured of his own dogs, so he be distracted and torn in pieces with his own affections and perturbations. [Follows the moral tradition, using the same word as Whitney, “affections”.]


Francis Thynne.  Emblemes and Epigrames. (1600 autograph ms.), Emblem 58, “Ingratitude”, p. 45:

So, wicked men, the bastards of mankind,

Whom neither love nor reason can allure,

Whom others’ great rewards, to them should bind,

Because their life is nourished by their cure,

Actaeon’s curs, and thankless men do prove,

Wounding their patrons whom they ought to love.

[A reading of Actaeon which echoes Alciati: a warning against keeping a troop of flatterers (the dogs), who end up ungratefully attacking their benefactor.]


Philemon Holland.  Plutarch’s Morals (1603) (STC 20063), “Narrations of Love”, p. 945:

[Melissus, son of Abron, took his name from the village of Melissa, where he was born] … this Melissus, in process of time, had a son of his own, called Actaeon, who proved the most beautiful and withal the modestest lad of all other youths and springals of his age; in regard whereof, many there were, enamoured of him; but among the rest, one especially, named Archias, descended lineally from the noble race of Hercules and, for wealth, credit, and authority, the greatest person in all Corinth. This Archias, seeing that by no fair means and persuasions he could prevail with young Actaeon and win his love, resolved with himself to use violence, and forcibly to ravish and carry away this fair boy. So he came upon a time, as it were, to make merry, unto the house of Melissus, his father, accompanied with a great train of friends, and attended upon with a good troop of his own household servants, where he gave the attempt to have away the boy by force; but the father, with his friends, made resistance; the neighbours also came forth to rescue, and did all what they could to hold and keep the youth with them. But what with the one side and what with the other, poor Actaeon was so pulled and tugged that between them he lost his life.


Francis Bacon.  The Wisedome of the Ancients (1619), (STC 1130), X, “Actaeon, and Pentheus, or a curious man”:

For those that are near about Princes, and come to the knowledge of more secrets than they would have them, do certainly incur great hatred. And therefore (suspecting that they are shot at, and opportunities watched for their overthrow) do lead their lives like stags, fearful and full of suspicion. And it happens oftentimes that their servants, and those of their household (to insinuate into the Prince’s favour), do accuse them to their destruction: for against whomsoever the Prince’s displeasure is known, look how many servants that man hath, and you shall find them, for the most part, so many traitors unto him, that his end may prove to be like Actaeon’s.

[Elaborates on Natale Conti’s interpretation.]


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphoses Englished (1632) (STC 18966), translation, p. 84-86; commentary, p. 99-100:

[Recalls Natale Conti’s remarks about dog days and madness; then adds:]

Juno in Lucian upbraids Latona that her daughter Diana conversed Actaeon, having seen her naked, into a hart, for fear he should divulge her deformity—and not out of modesty, being so far from a virgin, as continually conversant at the labours of women, like a public midwife. [The reference is to Lucian, Dialogue of the Gods, XVIII, “Hera and Leto”.]

[After Natale Conti and Francis Bacon, Sandys underlines the dangers of prying into princes’ secrets, illustrated by Ovid, Tristia, II.103-06, translated as:]

Why had I sight to make mine eye my foe?

Or why did I unsought-for secrets know?

Actaeon naked Dian unaware

So saw; and so his hounds their master tare.

[Adds a traditional warning against] … ravenous and riotous sycophants, who have often exhausted the exchequers of opulent Princes, and reduced them to extreme necessity. Bounty therefore is to be limited according to the ability of the giver, and merit of the receiver; else it not only ruinates itself, but loses the name of a virtue and converts into folly.

[Sandys concludes:]

Plutarch in the Life of Sertorius makes mention of two Actaeons, the one devoured by his hounds, and the other by his favourites, not as if this latter were the allegory of the former. [The reference is to Plutarch, Lives, “Sertorius”, 2, where the second Actaeon, son of Melissus, is not torn to pieces by his “favourites” but by his friends, as they try to prevent Archias of Corinth from abducting him (His story is told in detail in Plutarch, Moralia, “Five Tragical Histories of Love”, II). Sandys’s reading of Plutarch is biased by his knowledge of Renaissance moralisations of Actaeon. See also Sir Thomas North (1579) and Philemon Holland (1603), above.]


How to cite

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

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