Anthony Brian Taylor – Melting Earth and Leaping Bulls: Shakespeare’s Ovid and Arthur Golding

Melting Earth and Leaping Bulls: Shakespeare's Ovid and Arthur Golding

Anthony Brian Taylor

Published in Connotations Vol. 4.3 (1994/95)

Like other Elizabethans, Shakespeare would have known Ovid's myths from his grammar school study of the poet's work which primarily centred on the Metamorphoses.1) He would also have been taught a variety of interpretations of Ovidian myths as well as a miscellany of related but un−Ovidian Graeco−Roman traditions. Gathered from works such as mythography manuals, emblem books, translations, the voluminous editorial notes in contemporary editions of Ovid's poems, philosophical tracts, educational works, and dictionaries, these appendages to myth reflect the eclectic and copious nature of sixteenth century culture.2) And as is shown by his use of works like Abraham Fraunce's The Third Part of the Countess of Pembroke's Yvychurch (1593), the exegesis and traditions of myth remained of interest to the dramatist in later life.3) It is unsurprising, then, to find material from an array of secondary texts mediating and colouring Ovidian myth in his work.4)

A small but representative illustration is provided by Richard II's comparison of himself to Phaethon as he descends to kneel before Bolingbroke:

Down, down I come like glist'ring Phaethon,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.

(Richard II 3.3.177−78)5)

As the king indulges his taste for grandiose, tragic roles, the allusion to the boy who set fire to the earth and fell when he no longer had the strength to control the horses of the chariot of the Sun, primarily derives from the Latin text of Ovid's poem where Phaethon is pictured as an ill fated, glamorous figure.6) But a debt to Golding in these lines subtly mediates Ovid; the word Shakespeare uses to convey Phaethon's [→page 193] brilliance, "glist'ring," is taken from the translation where it is used on several occasions but never applied to the boy himself. And its first and most striking use is when the Sun god voluntarily removes his own crown,

putting off the bright and fierie beames

That glistred rounde about his heade like cleare and golden streames (2.53−54)7)

before embracing the mortal who will take his place, and, in Golding's words, "usurpe that name of right" (48, italics mine).8) Soon his successor will cause chaos, blinded by "the glistring light" (231) so that all the earth "with flaming fire did glistre" (320), "Bicause he wanted powre to rule" the "charge" he took "in hand" (221, italics mine). Richard's apparently glamorous epithet for Phaethon, therefore, carries ominous connotations of impending disaster. And as the king kneels speaking "like a frantic man" (3.3.184) before Bolingbroke, the political moral Golding drew from the myth is echoing in the background:

how the weaknesse and the want of wit in magistrate

Confoundeth both his common weale and eeke his owne estate

(Epistle 75−76)

Richard's reference to the horses as "unruly," a word which could carry the political meaning of "not amenable to government" (OED), also recalls the tradition that the uncontrollable horses pulling Phaethon's chariot represented the rebellious subjects who destroy the prince. Shakespeare could have known this from a number of sources,9) but, given Richard's neurotic character and histrionic make up, Abraham Fraunce is the likeliest. In his interpretation of the myth, Fraunce not only sees Phaethon as a youthful "magistrate" ruined by his rebellious subjects, represented by the "fierce and outragious" horses, but also describes him as one of those who "by their owne wishes procured their owne confusion," and whose "ambitious conceit" served only "to comfort his destruction."10)

Finally, the description of the horses of the Sun as "jades" is taken from an Elizabethan translator whose work Shakespeare knew well and who was himself so fascinated by the Phaethon story in Ovid that he repeatedly introduced it, often without the least justification, into his [→page 194] translations of Seneca. In Hercules Oetaeus, John Studley once again shows his fondness for the story with a digression in the Chorus to Act Two where, as Phaethon loses control of the horses:

While he from wonted wayes his Jades doth jaunce.
Amonge straunge starres they pricking forward praunce,
Enforcing them with Phoebus flames to frye,
Whose roaming wheeles refuse the beaten rutt:
Thus both himselfe, and all the Cristall skye
In peril of the soulthring fyre he put. (Italics mine)11)

This passage occurs as the Chorus, taking up a familiar theme in Seneca, laments the dangers attending kings "every time the sunne at West goes downe, ⁄ They looke another man should clayme the Crowne"; the poor man to whom "Fortune hath bequeath'de a slender share," can drink at leisure from a "woodden dishe" while a king who sups from the "goulden cup,"

… ever as hee liftes his head and drynkes,
The rebelles Knyfe is at his throate hee thinkes.12)

And moments before he makes the Phaethon comparison, Richard, his mind filled with "sad stories of the death of kings," had expressed his desire to exchange his "gorgeous palace for a hermitage," and his willingness to give "My figured goblets for a dish of wood" (3.3.149). Richard's Phaethon allusion thus reflects the dramatist's awareness of the price that the king, Bolingbroke, and England will have to pay for the surrender of the crown. And its rich, dense language is redolent of deposition, rebellion, and disaster because Shakespeare is characteristically drawing on a range of secondary works to mediate and colour Ovidian myth. And as he does in this example, Arthur Golding often features prominently among such secondary texts; Shakespeare knew the translation well and it offered its own quite distinctive interpretation of the Metamorphoses. But besides contributing, along with other works, to the rich and complex texture of Shakespeare's Ovid, there were also occasions, as two examples will show, when it suited the dramatist's purpose for Golding alone to mediate Ovidian material. [→page 195]

a) The Melting Earth

Subscribing to the belief that the Bible was the inspiration for the Metamorphoses,13) Golding, as he explains at some length in the Epistle to his translation, attached particular importance to the Pythagorean Sermon in Book Fifteen; in his view, Ovid's philosophical summation of the ever changing world of his poem contained important "shadowy" and "veiled" Christian doctrine.14) When he comes to translate it, however, committed as ever to the sense of each line of Ovid's text, he characteristically refrains from explicit or interjected comment on its content; but it is also characteristic that he cannot resist occasionally, implicitly pointing the reader in the direction of its real, hidden meaning. There is no system or pattern to these "pointers"; indeed, their being intermittently scattered through his text on a random, ad hoc basis is also, unfortunately, characteristic of Golding who, working at speed, rarely paused to think things through.15) Thus, for example, after conveying the picture of life passing endlessly between birds, animals, men, plants, and faithfully rendering expressions like "Omnia mutantur, nihil interit" (xv.165; "All things doo chaunge. But sure nothing dooth perrish" 15.183), Golding deliberately mistranslates "omnis … vagans formatur imago" (xv.178). This literally means "everything is formed with a changing or wandering nature," but from being a phrase which takes the reader to the heart of the pagan philosophy being expounded, it suddenly becomes the very different and very Christian sentiment "every shape is made too passe away" (15.198). This occurs in the midst of a discussion of transmigration where it is not only totally out of place but positively subversive. And some time later, after further description of universal change, time and renewal, when Ovid concludes that in this world all moments and actions are renewed and repeated ("momentaque cuncta novantur" xv.185), Golding again exercises Christian licence. Translating as "Eche twincling of an eye ⁄ Dooth chaunge" (15.205−06), he implicitly invites the reader to compare Ovid's world of constant change to the very different scenario of the Last Day when "we shall all bee changed ⁄ In a moment, in the twinkling of an eie" (1 Corinthians 15.51−52).16)

[→page 196] Later in the Sermon, when Ovid, after describing change in the seasons of the year and in man's life, tells how the elements themselves mutate upwards,17) the same instincts are at play. Ovid's text reads:

Alta petunt, Aer atque Aere purior ignis.
Quae quamquam spatio distant, tamen omnia fiunt
Ex ipsis, & ipsa cadunt, resolutaque tellus
In liquidas rarescit aquas, tenuatus in auras,
Aeraque humor abit, demptoque quoque pondere, rursus
In superos aer tenuissimus emicat ignes. (xv.243−47)

and this becomes:

The other cowple Aire and Fyre the purer of the twayne
Mount up, and nought can keepe them downe. And though there doo remayne
A space betweene eche one of them: yit every thing is made
Of themsame fowre, and intoo them at length ageine doo fade.
The earth resolving leysurely dooth melt too water sheere,
The water fyned turnes too aire. The aire eeke purged cleere
From grossenesse, spyreth up aloft, and there becommeth fyre.


What has aroused Golding's christianising instinct here is the prospect of a form of earthly life being refined and purified before rising up irresistibly to heaven in a final, fiery form. And in his version, this process begins with the biblical image of the melting earth. Ovid had written that the earth "rarefied" into water ("tellus ⁄ In liquidas rarescit aquas" xv.244−45), an image which particularly impressed later distinguished English translators of the Metamorphoses.19) But Golding forfeits the sense of refinement in the Latin verb, opting instead for "The earth … dooth melt too water sheere" (15.270, italics mine). This recalls examples such as Amos 9:5 where, having created "his globe of elements in the earth," in order to punish the wicked, "the Lord God of hostes shal touche the land, and it shal melt away … & shall rise wholy like a flood"; or Psalm 46 where, against the backcloth of a changing world—"thogh the earth be moved, and thogh mountaines fall into the middes of the sea," the power of the Almighty is such that when "the nations raged, & the kingdomes were moved, God thundred, & the earth melted" (italics mine).20)

[→page 197] Elizabethan writers were fond of the Pythagorean Sermon and Shakespeare, who, like Spenser, knew it in both the original Latin and in the translation, was particularly attracted by Golding's image of the melting earth.21) He uses it on several occasions to signify the passing of time and universal change: there is the ailing Henry IV's wish,

O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea … . (2 Henry IV 3.1.44−48, italics mine)

This echoes not only the theme of the Pythagorean Sermon but also details like how "mountaynes hygh" are made "levell ground" (291−92) or have "intoo sea beene worne" (293). And in Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses in his speech on degree, states that were discord to prevail,

Each thing melts

In mere oppugnancy; the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe … . (1.3.110−13, italics mine)22)

But more intriguing is his use of the image of the melting earth to depict changes not in the outside world but in man himself. Thus with Rome at his mercy, Coriolanus confesses at the approach of his mother, wife, and son, as they come to plead for clemency, that,

I melt, and am not

Of stronger earth than others.

(Coriolanus 5.3.28−29, italics mine)

Primarily, he is confessing that the difference on which he has based his proud life, is now lost, and like other men, he is not constant. Yet in his weakness, and he presumably dissolves into tears, Coriolanus is paradoxically also becoming richer for a process of refinement has begun in him.

And, of course, the image is used again in the play in which the refinement of the elements is a major theme, most notably in Antony's magnificent opening declaration of love for Cleopatra: [→page 198]

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of ranged empire fall. Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't—in which I bind
On pain of punishment the world to weet
We stand up peerless.

(Antony and Cleopatra 1.1.35−42, italics mine)

And it is not only a matter of a single image here for, as is indicated by the italicised words, the passage from Golding cited above is an important subtext for the speech, underlying its structure and giving complex richness to its language.23) Here, too, the image of earth melting into water begins a process of refinement, a purging process in which the lovers, too, will be free from "grossenesse." And while at one level, the word "twain" has associations with marriage,24) at another, in the context of a speech dealing with the refining of earthly life, it echoes the "twayne" of Golding's passage and signifies the two superior elements, "Aire and Fyre." Shakespeare is thus associating Antony and Cleopatra with air and fire from the beginning, yet like the speech, magnificent though it is, this identification has at this stage an air of unreality about it. Cleopatra's teasing comment on the speech, "Excellent falsehood" (40), is not without truth; its unreal, fanciful nature is reflected in the debt to the hyperbole of love poetry, most patently in the closing lines where the world is pictured as being at their beck and call and punishable as if it were their servant. And for Antony, at this point, of course, kingdoms are not "clay," he does indeed care about Rome and empire, and Cleopatra is not his "space" in the absolute sense he implies.

The irony is that the speech is prophetic of Antony's fate, the play's action translating what has been amorous fancy into reality: "the wide arch ⁄ Of rang'd empire" does indeed fall for him, and caught and degraded in the "toils" of the real world, more and more Cleopatra becomes his only "space." Yet when their politically disastrous love has shamed him, the paradox of the play is that it is also revealed as glorious and transcendent. And once again, in the play's finale, as in its beginning, we have an implicit picture of the mutating and ascending elements.25) This time, however, the lovers' refinement is not simply [→page 199] in fancy; nor is the process truncated, ending with their merely standing up "peerless" on the "dungy" earth. Beginning with Cleopatra's memorable expression at the death of Antony:

O see, my women:

The crown o' th' earth doth melt.

(4.16.64−6, italics mine)

the queen herself rises above the "drosse" of earthly life, as the elements do in Golding, and prepares to follow her "man of men" and "mount up" to heaven, declaring as she approaches her own death:

I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life … . (5.2.284−85)

The profundity and mystery of Shakespeare's great lovers, therefore, derives in some part from Ovid's "Pythagoreanism" as it was mediated by Arthur Golding. Like the Pythagoras of Book Fifteen of the Metamorphoses, "though distant from the Goddes," in their complex love, Antony and Cleopatra come "neere ⁄ To them in mynd" (15.69−70) and see "the things which nature dooth too fleshly eyes denye" (71); like Pythagoras, too, they finally resolve "too leave the earth," "this grosser place," and "in the clowdes too flye" (164−65) and to spend their time,

looking downe from heaven on men that wander heere and there … (167)

b) Leaping Bulls

In the final scene of Much Ado About Nothing, when he meets the Prince and Claudio for the first time since their estrangement, Benedick's sombre, "February face" prompts Claudio to remark:

I think he thinks upon the savage bull. (5.4.43)

This recalls the Prince's earlier reference to the proverbial "'In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke'" (1.1.241−42), the inference being that [→page 200] Benedick is preoccupied with marriage and gloomy because it is the fate of husbands to wear horns. And Claudio continues:

Tush, fear not, man, we'll tip thy horns with gold,
And all Europa shall rejoice at thee
As once Europa did at lusty Jove
When he would play the noble beast in love.

to which Benedick replies:

Bull Jove, sir, had an amiable low,
And some such strange bull leap'd your father's cow
And got a calf in that same noble feat
Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.


Such witty, bawdy banter is to be expected among courtiers, but notwithstanding the lightness of its tone and the fact that it comes only moments before the play's happy and harmonious finale, within the overall context of Shakespeare's "dark" comedy, it is disconcerting. Based on the premise that women are inevitably adulterous in marriage, Claudio's mockery of Benedick includes the startling image of a woman relishing the prospect of a divine bull making love to her, Europa, the daughter of King Agenor, rejoicing as "lusty Jove" in the bovine shape he has assumed, prepares to "play the noble beast in love." And Benedick, taking his cue from this, fashions his insulting riposte with the even more outlandish image of a woman, the Countess who is Claudio's mother, giving birth after copulating with "some strange bull," an image recalling the story of the Cretan queen, Pasiphae, and another "savage bull."26) Jocular though this interchange is, it is also an uncomfortable reminder of the play's icy, misogynistic undercurrent, its imagery of high born women satisfying their sexual appetites with cattle recalling the comparison of their sex with "pamper'd animals ⁄ That rage in savage sensuality" (4.1.60−61).

And if the source for the passage is examined, its disconcerting implications are underscored. It is based on a favourite passage for Elizabethan writers, Arachne's tapestry in Book Six of the Metamorphoses,27) and again Shakespeare is using Golding to mediate Ovid. [→page 201] Arachne's tapestry begins by revealing Jove deceiving Europa "in shape of Bull," and then assuming a series of other forms with Asterie, Leda, Antiope, Alcmena, Danae, Aegina, Mnemosyne, and Proserpine. But the dramatist has selected details not from the escapades of "Bull Jove" himself but the god with whom Arachne next deals:

She also made Neptunus leaping by

Upon a Maide of Aeolus race in likenesse of a Bull,
And in the streame Enipeus shape begetting on a trull
The Giants Othe and Ephialt, and in the shape of Ram
Begetting one Theophane Bisalties ympe with Lam,
And in a lustie Stalions shape she made him covering there
Dame Ceres with the yellow lockes … (6.141−47, italics mine)28)

Here we have the "lustie" god in the shape of a "leaping" bull, and the procreation of bleating young animals. But incidental verbal echoes are far less important than the meaning Golding sees in this revelation of the erotic escapades of the pagan gods.

The girl intended the pictures she wove into her tapestry as a revelation of the degeneration and debauchery to which gods could be reduced by lust. For the Renaissance, however, her tapestry took on a range of meanings: it could be interpreted scientifically as the mixture of the higher and lower elements that created all life;29) its features could be read as spiritual allegory, "Danae may represent mans soule, and Iupiters golden showre, the celestiall grace and influence";30) and even if a moral reading was adopted, as Spenser's treatment of the motif in the House of Busyrane shows,31) the richness and profusion of the scene tempers any narrow condemnation. The views of Golding, however, were extreme and exceptional; a passionate Calvinist, he regarded the flesh as "a sinke of sinne and cage of unclennesse," and in the Preface to his translation, in the course of expounding a narrow, moralistic reading of Ovid's poem, he is especially outraged by this passage. Who,

… seeing Jove (whom heathen folke doo arme with triple fyre)
In shape of Eagle, bull or swan too winne his foule desyre? (33−34)

he asks, "would take him for a God?" The answer he arrives at is that the deities depicted by Arachne are not gods at all but allegorical figures for men whose nature is so prone to vice that they habitually sink to [→page 202] the level of "brutishe beasts" for lust. And in a passage that immediately follows in which he identifies different classes of his own society with different gods, he specifically identifies Jove with "all states of princely port" (59), using the allegory to launch an attack on aristocratic excesses.

As his romantic comedy draws to its end, therefore, Shakespeare is thinking of an erotic Ovidian tapestry which significantly became a spider's web when its creator met her eventual fate, and which for Golding, was an illustration of the depravity of the flesh and of the deceitful, degrading, and lustful nature of love for princes. One is led to reflect not only on the irony of an apparently casual phrase like the "noble beast in love," but also on what deceit and degradation love almost proved for the princely faction in the play. Returned from the wars where they had covered themselves in glory, when they involve themselves in love, Don Pedro and his companions are all but overthrown. An ironic undertone is also added to the moment when Don Pedro singles Hero out in the masked revel:

ll. 23−36




My visor is Philemon's roof. Within the house is Jove.

Why then your visor should be thatched.

Speak low if you speak love. (2.1.88−91)

This is a charming moment, recalling from Golding the gods and Philemon and Baucis.32) But this Jove in the person of a prince, has come to earth and is humbling himself not to receive homely entertainment and tribute, but to involve himself in love by initiating the affair between Claudio and Hero. And as he does so, appearance and reality are confused for the first but by no means the last time in the play. Moreover, although the affair eventually ends happily, from the outset love involves him and his companions in a web of deceit and humiliation. There are the immediate suspicions of broken trust followed by actual treachery; the young men are involved in degrading squabbles with old men and in the similarly demeaning and potentially deadly quarrels among themselves; and all the while, as their situation deteriorates, they have before them at least the illusion that love is no more than "savage sensuality."

As Much Ado About Nothing finally breaks free from its dark mood and moves towards its end, with Golding's acerbic Ovid in mind, [→page 203] Shakespeare is recalling the monstrous vision of love and of women glimpsed earlier in the play. His doing so does not puncture the happy mood of the final denouement, of course, but it does show his continued awareness of the potentially sinister nature of love and of women. And shortly after writing this "dark" comedy, when the chill fell on his imagination, this vision of love and women as monstrous and depraved was to become a central feature of his work in the great tragedies. The archetypal figure of the prince in the dramatist's work will reject love with deep seated loathing; and whereas savage denunciations of women are transient and illusory in Much Ado, they take on a frightening permanence and reality in the sexually voracious "Centaurs" of Lear's agonised world.

The Swansea Institute