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The Misfortunes of Philomel In Book VI of the Metamorphoses (lines 424-674) Ovid relates how Tereus, king of Thrace, is married to Procne, daughter of king Pandion of Athens. After five years, however, Tereus conceives a violent passion for Procne's sister Philomela, abducts her, rapes her, and then, to prevent discovery, tears her tongue from her mouth and incarcerates her in a forest hut. Philomela, with a cunning born of grief, weaves the story of her sad adventure into a tapestry and contrives to have it brought to Procne, who promptly rescues her sister during a Bacchic festival and then brings to fruition a fearsome revenge on her errant husband. Slaying their own son, Itys, she serves the child up to its father as the main course at a sacred feast, afterwards taunting the king with his involuntary cannibalism, while Philomela completes the vengeance by flinging Itys's bloody head in his face. The enraged Tereus leaps up and pursues the two sisters sword in hand, but all three are metamorphosed into birds; Tereus becomes a hoopoe and (although Ovid does not in fact specify this) Philomela is transformed into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow. Combining in short compass the diverse attractions of kidnapping, incest, rape, adultery, mutilation, infanticide, and anthropophagism, Ovid's peculiarly unpleasant narrative inevitably possessed a strong appeal for Elizabethan readers. Beginning with George Gascoigne's metrical version of 1576, Philomela's sad tale was frequently recounted, both in prose and in verse, and its basic ingredients are embodied in one of the most popular of Elizabethan tragedies, Titus Andronicus, which indeed makes a number of references to its Ovidian source.! It is not difficult to see why the myth should have enjoyed such widespread popularity. After all, not merely does it constitute an especially sensational revenge narrative, but it also gives rise to some absorbing moral questions. Which, after all, was the worse offender; the incestuous Tereus or the infanticide Procne? George Pettie, who incorporated the tale among the "Pretie Histories" in his Petite Pallace, concludes it by telling his hypothetical female reader: 1 See Titus Andronicus, ed. J.C. Maxwell, 3rd edn., London, 1961, xxxi-ii; Eugene M. Waith, The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare Survey 10, 1957, 39-49. A Latin tragedy, Progne, adapted from Gregorio Corraro's play of the same name by James Calfhill, was performed before the Queen during her visit to Oxford in 1566. Although Philomela's rape and the death of Itys are merely related, the banquet takes place on stage (see Frederick S. Boas, University Drama in the Tudor Age, Oxford, 1914, 104-5). 74 R.J. Dingley It were hard here. Gentlewoman, for you to give sentence, who more offended of the husband or the wife, seeing the doings of both the one and the other near in the highest degree of devilishness - such unbridled lust and beastly cruelty in him, such monstrous mischief and murder in her • • • ^ Again, Procne's extreme measures raise emphatically the whole problem of the morality of vengeance. George Gascoigne, while admitting that Tereus's "doome came by deserte", is still shocked at Procne's "cruel crabbed heart" and sternly counsels a passive resignation to the dispensations of Providence: But men must leave revenge to Gods, What wrong soever raigne73 Procne's stony cruelty, moreover, plainly aligns her with the termagant woman or hic-mulier, whose indecorous assumption of the masculine role formed a fashionable target for antifeminine satirists in the late sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries.4 For all of these reasons, then, the currency of the Philomel myth was assured among Elizabethan readers. But what is, on the face of it, far more surprising, is the overwhelming frequency of allusions to so bloodthirsty a tale in sixteenth-century lovelyrics . As the harbinger of springtime and in more specific but invariably auspicious roles, Philomel's innumerable appearances in amatory verse were already exciting some comment in the 1550's. Ronsard, for example, in his poem "L'Alouette" of 1556, hazards the guess that the nightingale's perpetual plaint is occasioned by her continual misuse at the hands of poets.5 Not that Ronsard himself had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 73-86
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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