Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Reviewed by Chloe Kathleen Preedy

Janice Valls-Russell, Agnès Lafont and Charlotte Coffin (eds.), Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Manchester University Press, 2017). ISBN 9781526117687, 304 pp., £75.00.

cover of book[1] Interweaving Myths in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Janice Valls-Russell, Agnès Lafont and Charlotte Coffin, is a collection that explores the diverse ways in which authors from the 1580s to 1630s responded to, engaged with, and reworked classical mythology in their writings. As the weaving image used in the title suggests, the contributors are keen to highlight the complex and varied ways through which mythological material was woven into early modern texts, proposing that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers made the most of ‘classical mythology’s lability, its potential for versatility and its inherent capacity to invite shifting interpretations’ (p. 2). Informed by Yves Peyré’s 1998 discussion of ‘Iris’s “Rich Scarf” and “Ariachne’s Broken Woof”’ (Bate, Levenson and Mehl: 280-93), the weaving figure is developed most fully in Chapter 8 of the collection, in which Nathalie Rivère de Carles explores the political resonance of allusions to the classical female weavers Penelope and Arachne in Jacobean drama. Along with Roland Barthes’s notion of feuilletage, or multilayering, the concept of interweaving also provides an ongoing theoretical basis for this volume’s attention to the temporal and intertextual nuances of mythological transmission and reception; the significance of the former image is considered in Yves Peyré’s opening chapter on the gendered politics of blushing in literary texts, which moves from Homer, Ovid, and Virgil to Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Spenser (Chapter 1).

[2] The early modern English interest in classical literature and mythology has been well documented, including through important studies of how Ovid and Virgil’s texts were received in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and work on Shakespeare’s engagement with ancient Roman sources. However, Interweaving Myths distinguishes itself not only through its nuanced attention to the subtleties of mythological reception, with contributors stressing that classical authors were themselves ‘receptors and crafters’ of ‘multi-faceted figures and tropes’ (p. 8), but also through the number of chapters that identify instances of early modern authors engaging with ancient Greek sources; as the volume’s editors Valls-Russell, Lafont, and Coffin note in their introduction, these contributions indicate that early modern English writers had a closer and more important relationship with Greek texts than was once thought, thereby ‘nuancing the picture of classical reception and opening up new perspectives’ (p. 4). The collection as a whole is also comparatively wide-ranging in the range of texts that is analysed, which include dramatic, poetic, and prose examples: while Shakespeare’s plays and poems receive considerable attention from the contributors, works produced by less studied authors (including Richard Barnfield, Jasper Heywood, and Thomas Watson) are explored in detail within individual chapters, illuminating mythological allusions and approaches in the writings of better-known contemporaries such as Thomas Heywood, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser.

[3] Although the eleven essays in Interweaving Myths are not subdivided by theme or topic, the introduction provides useful synopses of the individual chapters for readers who might want to pursue a specific line of investigation. The standard of the chapters is consistently good, although some pieces are primarily concerned to reassess the significance of material that may already be familiar to some readers, whereas others more emphatically break new ground. I especially enjoyed Tania Demetriou’s detailed, scholarly reassessment of the so-called ‘Ovidian epyllion’ (Chapter 2), which, through entertaining and illuminating analyses of Barnfield’s Hellens Rape and Watson’s 1586 version of Colluthus’ Abduction of Helen, persuasively establishes that the authors of early modern epyllions were influenced not only by Ovidian mock-epic but also by their familiarity with short ancient Greek epics; Demetriou concludes by demonstrating how an awareness of this context can importantly further our understanding of an especially well-known example of the early modern epyllion: Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. Janice Valls-Russell’s investigation into how events associated with Troy’s fall are echoed in Shakespeare’s English history play King John is another highlight of the volume (Chapter 4): this chapter demonstrates that, in what Valls-Russell evocatively characterises as ‘an aesthetics of shadows’ (p. 86), Shakespeare’s play subtly establishes compelling parallels between the supplicant mothers Andromache and Constance, and the fates of their sons Astyanax and Arthur, without relying on explicit allusions to Troy. Early modern responses to mythological narratives of familial loss are again explored thoughtfully later in the volume, with Katherine Heavey offering an intriguing account of how Medea’s killing of her brother Absyrtus (or Apsyrtus) was received by early modern translators and authors, including Robert Herrick and Shakespeare (Chapter 6); Heavey’s fresh, wide-ranging analysis reflects her extensive familiarity with Medea’s mythological reputation and is likely to be of particular interest to those who shared my enjoyment in reading her recent monograph, The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688 (2015).

[4] Alongside the chapters that I have already discussed, Interweaving Myths features several survey articles that examine the reception history of a specific myth, figure, or trope in early modern England, including Dominique Goy-Blanquet’s account of how Trojan foundational myths were used to political ends in medieval France and England (Chapter 3); Gaëlle Ginestet’s piece on early modern engagements with the myth of Europa (Chapter 7); and Ruth Morse’s exploration of early modern allusions to Pygmalion, beginning with a reference to this myth in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (Chapter 11). The remaining chapters focus more closely on the treatment of mythological themes within individual texts, as in Atsuhiko Hirota’s essay on ovine metaphors in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which examines both this play’s engagement with the classical myth of Jason’s Golden Fleece and its responsiveness to contemporary economic developments (Chapter 5); Agnès Lafont’s thoughtful, nuanced evaluation of how the medieval and early modern context of the querelle des femmes may have influenced Marlowe’s characterisation of Dido in the children’s play Dido Queen of Carthage (Chapter 9); and Charlotte Coffin’s interesting re-evaluation of Thomas Heywood’s classical comedy Love’s Mistress (1634) in light of a developing burlesque tradition that was popular in French salons (Chapter 10).

[5] As these examples indicate, many of the chapters in Interweaving Myths are especially concerned with the gendered or political implications of mythological allusion or patterning in early modern literature. This interest provides an ongoing thread that helps to unite the chapters in this collection, despite the diverse texts and tropes that are considered by its contributors; recurring references to the framing concepts of interweaving and feuilletage, as well as to Shakespeare’s works, further contribute to the collection’s overall coherence. While I found some of the survey chapters slightly less engaging than those chapters which pursued focused analyses of texts or specific forms, which were typically better suited to the short essay format of the volume, this collection contains some excellent articles and offers a wide-ranging, nuanced insight into the literary transmission and reception of classical myths in early modern England. If the print quality of the physical volume does not do full justice to the excellent work contained within it, the chapters themselves are interesting, thoughtful, and well-illustrated through textual examples. With its illuminating attention to the underappreciated significance of ancient Greek sources, Interweaving Myths will appeal to scholars interested in classical reception in early modern England, and the wide-ranging coverage of texts and authors across its chapters (including a sustained engagement with the works of William Shakespeare) ensures that this volume is also likely to be of wider interest to students of early modern literature.

University of Exeter, August 2018


Heavey, Katherine. 2015. The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature, 1558–1688 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan).

Peyré, Yves. 1998. ‘Iris’s “Rich Scarf” and “Ariachne’s Broken Woof”: Shakespeare’s Mythology in the Twentieth Century’. In Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century, ed. Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson and Dieter Mehl (Newark, University of Delaware Press): 280-93.

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