Shakespeare’s Reconfiguration of “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” in Titus Andronicus
Few of the episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses have resonated so powerfully with audiences as Book VI’s story “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” has been able to. From the time of Metamorphoses’ publication until the present day, the agonizing myth has been retold, modified, and elaborated on in many creative mediums that encompass forms of both high and low art. Some of these works only focus on a single element of the story; Matthew Arnold’s “Philomela,” for example, expresses the plight of the story’s transformed victim by revisiting her as a nightingale well after the fact, while Tereus’ consumption of Itys at Procne’s feast is re-imagined in the South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” when Tenorman unknowingly has his parents fed to him in a bowl of chili by a vengeful Eric Cartman; but Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is one of the rare retellings that manages to encapsulate almost all of the different fabrics woven into Ovid’s tale. Though Titus Andronicus is in dialogue with the entire Metamorphoses and other works of classical antiquity throughout, it is centrally concerned with transforming the “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” story into a more complex revenge tragedy, while retaining and reconfiguring most of Ovid’s original themes and plot details. Just as Metamorphoses is a self-reflexive narrative that continually reuses and advances elements of its own stories, Titus Andronicus is able to do the same with Ovid’s text and present it to an Elizabethan audience that had embraced the revenge tragedy after Shakespeare’s predecessor Thomas Kyd had revived the genre (Eisaman Maus 399).
Because “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” appears in Book VI of Metamorphoses, it is able to revisit themes that have been expressed earlier in the poem while also introducing some of its own. Tereus is directly echoed in Book VI’s “Pyreneus” by its titular character, another Thracian king. Pyreneus, like Tereus after his victory at Athens, is a war hero that has captured territory in Daulis and Phocys. He develops a lustful passion for the Muses upon passing them in travel and also shows that he is capable of the same kind of persuasiveness that Tereus speaks with when “Love makes him eloquent” (Ovid 196) in his speech towards Pandion and Philomela. Above all though, Tereus is linked to his royal predecessor by the “dark fire which burns in Thracian souls” (Ovid 195). This is exhibited in the way that Tereus brutally rapes and mutilates Philomela and in Pyreneus’ attempted rape of the muses that ends with him hurling down from his fortress in a fit of rage-induced madness.
Beyond the circumstances of the well-documented Thracian aggression, rape is a very prominent theme elsewhere in Metamorphoses. In particular, the rapes of Philomela and Io bear much in common. Io’s story in Book I begins by acknowledging her father Inachus, who worries greatly when he isn’t able to locate his daughter. Although Pandion has nothing to grieve for until after Philomela is violated, he and Inachus are paralleled as anxious fathers who care deeply for their daughters. The perpetrators of both stories also take similar steps in how they go about their heinous deeds. Jove speaks to his victim with the same kind of cunning dialogue that Tereus is able to muster when he needs Philomela to come with him, telling Io, “O virgin, you indeed would merit Jove and will make any man you wed—whoever he may be—most glad. But now it’s time for you to seek the shade of these deep woods” (Ovid 26). Not only does Jove use words to his advantage like Tereus does, but he then proceeds to lead Io away from the stream and into the woods—which he conceals with his godly powers—and commits his crime in the same location as his Book VI counterpart. When Jove’s wife Juno comes to check up on him after the rape has occurred, he transforms Io into a heifer and invents a cover-up story as Tereus did with his wife Procne. The comparisons between these two stories are plentiful, but their strongest point of connection is how the two victims are able to adapt when they lose the ability to communicate verbally. In Book VI, Ovid writes, “But desperation can indeed invent; in misery the mind is keen” (200). Both women, deprived of their innocence, find the courage to speak up without the luxury of a voice. Philomela’s woven tapestry and the words that Io etches into the ground with her hooves represent the great potential of human faculty, and, in a self-reflexive sense considering Metamorphoses itself, the value of writing and poetry.
Gods are omnipresent in Metamorphoses, and one of their recurring patterns is the role they play in the dissolution of families. Earlier in Book VI before “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela,” “Niobe” explores the devastating effect that the Gods will have on mortal families when they are offended by human actions. Niobe’s defiance to the Gods at the prospect of worshipping Latona is reason enough for them to sequentially dispose of her entire family. In the case of the second story, the absence of Juno, Hymen, and the Graces at Tereus and Procne’s wedding leaves the couple without the Gods’ blessing and sets the story up for a tragic ending. The inevitability of this situation allows Ovid to occasionally narrate in a style that alludes to the upcoming disastrous events; comments like “what she thinks is victory for both her sister and herself will be a sad defeat” (196) highlight the poet’s use of both free and indirect discourse and dramatic irony.
A more jarring theme in Metamorphoses than Gods causing the destruction of families is parents themselves that do so. In “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela,” Itys is one of several Ovidian children to die at the hands of their parents. Unlike Pentheus, who is mistaken by his mother Agave for a boar and killed by her unintentionally, the closest parallel to the death of Itys is that of Medea and Jason’s infant children. Returning to Corinth on a dragon, Medea learns that Jason has remarried and proceeds to slay his new wife along with the children they had in their first marriage. The rage that Medea feels towards her ex-husband is also felt by Procne upon discovering what her husband has done to her sister: ““No tears are needed here; it’s time for steel, or if you know of something harder still, then give me that. I’m ready now to kill in any way, however criminal”” (Ovid 201). The more astounding similarity, however, is that both women feel obligated to kill their children as part of retribution for the fathers’ transgressions. Itys’ strong resemblance to Tereus feeds the vengeful fire that is inside of Procne, and she capitalizes on her unabashed anger to set up the punishment that she and Philomela deliver to Tereus. These murders stand out as some of the most shocking acts in Metamorphoses because of how unnatural it is to see a child die before his or her parent—and that’s before the intentional aspect of these deaths is factored in. They serve to highlight that revenge can sometimes become a transformative force that alters not only a target or incidental victim, but the person seeking vengeance as well.
In Titus Andronicus these types of vengeful acts are quickly established as the norm, perpetuating a vicious cycle of talion justice that sees—in addition to the play’s characters undergoing transformations in response to the mass revenge—the city of Rome get transformed from a city in decline into a disarray that fully contradicts the years of order that preceded the play’s events. Titus’ decision to adhere to Roman tradition and sacrifice Tamora’s son Alarbus in the opening scene is the first domino to fall, sparking the rest of the plays major retributions: the murder of Bassianus, the rape of Lavinia, the innocent deaths of Martius and Quintus, the severing of Titus’ hand under false pretenses, the killing of Tamora’s nurse, the feeding of Demetrius and Chiron to Tamora and Saturninus, and the final sequence of murders. Even though Shakespeare has undeniably used “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” to characterize Titus Andronicus, he mixes many of the parallels he establishes, unwilling to shackle his characters and plots by the constraints of Ovid’s plot. Such exercising of artistic liberty is a reminder that Shakespeare’s retelling of the Book VI myth—much like the way in which “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” comments on stories like “Io & Jove,” “Pyreneus,” and “Niobe”—wants to transform the story into something new, but still remain faithful to the original template.
Shakespeare’s character parallels between Ovid’s work and his own are nearly always coupled with a separate parallel to another Ovidian character or represent a doubling up of two Titus Andronicus characters to a single Metamorphoses character. The connection between Lavinia and Philomela, the steadiest and most obvious in the play, isn’t even immune from this reconfiguration. Lavinia’s rape occurs between Act II Scene III and Act II Scene IV of the play, at the hands of Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron. Like the rapes of Philomela and Io, Lavinia is defiled in the woods and pleads right before the act occurs, begging for death like her classical counterparts: “with thine own hands kill me in this place; For ‘tis not life that I have begged so long; Poor was I slain when Bassianus died” (2.3, 169-171). One interesting distinction between this scene and Metamorphoses however, is that Lavinia isn’t pleading to the two men about to rape her; she’s pleading to Tamora, who stands in the forest with Aaron while her adversary’s daughter gets dragged away to a terrible fate. “O Tamora, thou bearest a woman’s face,” (2.3, 136) says Lavinia, full of shock. The passage implies that Lavinia isn’t necessarily surprised that the men are choosing to assault her, but she feels betrayed on a gender level that Tamora isn’t doing anything to stop her sons from carrying out the act. Tamora’s desire to exact revenge far outweighs her sense of female empathy, prompting Lavinia’s final words of the play, “No grace, no womanhood—ah, beastly creature, The blot and enemy to our general name, Confusion fall—” (2.3, 182-183). Although the circumstances are quite different, Tamora’s position towards the rape directly contradicts the way in which Procne responded to it upon receiving Philomela’s woven words. Not only is Procne astounded and horrified by the rape, but it turns her into a more vengeful person than the situation even warranted. Procne’s solidarity with her sister as a victim of rape is so deep that she kills her own son for no practical reason. Tamora, on the other hand, isn’t even moved to bargain with her sons to try and lessen the damage they will cause, or just to respect Lavinia’s request and kill her.
In addition the one she shares with Philomela, Shakespeare in his retelling also establishes an unlikely parallel with Itys for Lavinia. Procne and Tereus’ son is ruthlessly murdered by his mother and aunt, and becomes part of the feast they prepare for his father. Lavinia isn’t a part of the dishes that Titus cooks for Saturninus and Tamora, but her father in that scene murders her suddenly—and without prior warning. This deed establishes a second parallel, one between Titus and Procne. Like Procne, Titus is under no obligation to commit the murder, but he does so anyways, citing an ancient Roman story as the reason for his motivation: “My lord the Emperor, resolve me this: Was it done well of rash Virginus To slay his daughter with his own right hand Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowered?” (5.3, 35-38) As the play progresses, it is suggested—but never confirmed—that Titus has been progressively growing more and more insane, and this act of desecration seems to remove any audience doubt that Titus has been overcome by at least some degree insanity. Just as Procne is swept up into the cycle of revenge and transforms into a cold-blooded killer with little regard for the moral consequences of what she does, Titus has reached more or less the same level of impulsive and incoherent anger, transforming from someone that felt bad about ending the life of a fly (4.1, 54-58) into someone that feels comfortable murdering his daughter as part of a strange path towards what he deems to be justice for everything that has taken place. Despite sharing this vengeful anger with Procne, the murder of Lavinia is something she would never condone, and thus sets them apart—arguably aligning Titus with the other perpetrators, even though he is presumably acting in a fit of insanity. Procne is far too loyal to Philomela’s cause to actually go through with murdering her, even if a Roman legend inferred that it would be for the best.
Titus also embodies elements of other characters in Ovid’s myth. Before murdering Lavinia, he is akin to Pandion and Inachus in the role of the grieving father. When Lavinia is first brought to him by Marcus, he responds with the words of an utterly broken man, crying out, “My grief was at the height before thou cam’st, And now like Nilus it disdaineth bounds. Give me a sword and I’ll chop off hands too, For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain; And they have nursed this woe in feeding life” (3.1, 70-74). In this passage, he not only describes his grief, but he also alludes to his war exploits, which he shares with Tereus. Tereus sets the events of the Book VI myth into action by coming to the rescue of the Athenians and winning Procne from Pandion as his reward; so too does Titus when he returns from successful battle against the Goths, and demands that tradition be upheld and Alarbus killed. The variation in Titus’ roles and comparative characters throughout the play is evidence of him as a transforming figure, whose descent into madness mirrors the sad descent of a once-great Roman empire. Titus’ adherence to order and piety is admirable in Act I Scene I when he invokes tradition to assign the next emperor and decide whether or not there should be a sacrifice, but he essentially descends into a parody of himself in the final scene of the play when his desire to maintain some small shred of tradition by mimicking the story of Virginus and killing his violated daughter is actually an indication of how completely and irreversibly wrong everything has gone.
Despite Tereus’ minor similarity to Titus, Aaron the Moor best represents the Thracian king in Titus Andronicus. While the play’s other characters are thrust into the cycle of revenge, Aaron freely admits “O, how this villainy Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! Let fools do good and, and fair men call for grace: Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1, 201-204), implying that he would be committing evil acts regardless of the circumstances. This type of attitude echoes the Thracian hyper-aggressiveness displayed by Pyreneus and Tereus in Metamorphoses. Demetrius and Chiron only rape Lavinia because Aaron spies them discussing their mutual lust for her in the forest and imparts his words of devilish wisdom to them: “’Tis policy and stratagem must do That you affect and so must you resolve That what you cannot as you would achieve You must perforce accomplish as you may. Take this of me: Lucrece was not more chaste Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love” (2.1, 109-110). Whereas Tereus is capable of producing the desire and plan of action it takes to rape Philomela, Tamora’s two sons only have the desire until Aaron sways them into actually performing the crime. In spite of all of his evil though, Aaron can actually lay claim to being the best of all the parents in Titus Andronicus and “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Unlike Tamora, Titus, and Procne, Aaron immediately rebukes the idea of killing his child when Tamora’s nurse presents it to him. It is incredibly ironic, but it speaks to how unexpectedly prominent the idea is in the two works collectively, and also forces us to reevaluate characters who would appear to be “good” or “bad” archetypes; as Ovid demonstrates in his works, it is always possible to transform or represent multiple—seemingly contradictory—elements at once, as he does with Hermaphroditus in Book IV of Metamorphoses for example.
The Andronicus clan finally learns the truth about Lavinia’s rape in Act IV Scene I when she is able to bring everyone’s attention to a copy of Metamorphoses before proceeding to write her perpetrators names in the sand with a stick in her mouth. This notable moment in the play is just one of many in which Shakespeare references or mirrors classical antiquity. It is understood that “all the characters in the play are acutely conscious of the glorious Roman past as it is enshrined in narrative” (Eisaman Maus 402), which means that Shakespeare hopes to include the audience in the dialogue he has with these works. Characters will make comments such as, “Or is it Dian, habited like her Who hath abandoned her holy groves To see the general hunting in this forest?” (425) and “He would have dropped his knife and fell asleep, As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet” (3.1, 53). In Act IV Scene I, Titus and his sons shoot arrows into the sky with letters addressed to Jove, Apollo, Pallas, Mercury, and others under the direction of Titus. These references to the many parts of Metamorphoses and classical antiquity in general show that Shakespeare’s play also isn’t limited to just the story of “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” by any means. Still, it is the most significant of any of these references and companion works. In the scene where Lavinia reveals her secret, Shakespeare’s subtly recalls the aforementioned quote about desperation being able to inspire inventiveness. Demetrius and Chiron are familiar with the Book VI story and they think that they have outsmarted Philomela by cutting off her hands as well as her tongue, but she is able to outwit them in the end, partially by using that very same work of literature as her means of communication. It serves as a metaphor for how Shakespeare has approached Titus Andronicus as a whole: he wants Ovid’s work to be at the forefront of his audiences’ minds, but also to show them that he is building off of the Roman poet’s work, not merely retelling it in a real-life manner.
By the end of Titus Andronicus, Lucius Andronicus is crowned as the new emperor of Rome, and after he orders Aaron to be executed, the vicious cycle of revenge is put on hold for at least the immediate future and the city is given an opportunity to restore itself. In the final lines of the play Lucius comments on Tamora’s death, “No mournful bell shall ring her burial; But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey. Her life was beastly and devoid of pity, And being dead, let birds on her take pity” (5.3, 196-199). These words can be read as an allusion to the end of the “Tererus, Procne, and Philomela” myth, which sees the three titular characters transformed into different types of birds. It is a fitting ending to a play that has seen Shakespeare establish singular and multiple parallels between characters, reuse Ovidian motifs such as the woods and the role of the Gods, and explicitly reference Metamorphoses itself on countless occasions. Although Metamorphoses tells an unrealistic account of how humans have come to be, it accurately portrays our emotional nuances and desires; in “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” we see a narrative that features animals and Gods, but is above all, a human story. It is because of this aspect that Titus Andronicus is able to work as a drama, and the compelling myth continues to be retold and reinvented.
Arnold, Matthew. “Philomela.” Bartleby. 25 March 2014.
Cohen, Walter, and Eisaman Maus, Katharine, and Greenblatt, Stephen, and Howard, Jean E., eds. The Norton Shakespeare Volume 1: Early Plays and Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.
Eisaman Maus, Katharine. “Titus Andronicus Preface.” The Norton Shakespeare Volume 1: Early Plays and Poems. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Harcourt, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Cohen, Eisaman Maus, Greenblatt, and Howard 408-463.
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