Ariadne and Orpheus
Bill Long 8/9/06
Shakespeare's Use of Mythology in Two Gentlemen of Verona
You don't have to read much Shakespeare to realize that myths from Greek antiquity bulked large in his imagination. They functioned mostly as extended similes or as stories to illustrate the emotion or experience he was presenting with his main characters. Though TG refers to at least four Greek myths (Theseus and Ariadne; Phaeton's chariot; Leander and Hero; Orpheus), I will only mention two here in hopes of whetting your appetite to make the Greek myths an important part of your intellectual furniture. Just as we really can't understand Western literature without a good knowledge of the Bible, so we can't understand modern psychology or much of our literature without a familiarity with the Greek myths. The quickest "introduction" to the Greek myths is Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The Story of Ariadne and Theseus
Julia, disguised as the boy Sebastian, laments to Silvia (beloved by Valentine but sought by Proteus, who is already committed to Julia) about a time when she had "dressed up" as Julia while playing a "pageant of delight" on a past Pentecost (4.4.159). Dressed as Julia, he/she played a sad part, even though it was supposed to be a happy occasion. In Julia/Sebastian's words, "at that time I made her weep agood" (4.4.165). What was the part she played?
"For I did play a lamentable part.
Madam, 'twas Ariadne passioning
For Theseus' perjury and unjust flight;
Which I so lively acted with my tears
That my poor mistress, moved therewithal,
Wept bitterly; and would I might be dead
If I in thought felt not her very sorrow" (4.4.166-72).
Shakespeare is already experimenting with levels of disguise, a technique which will reach its acme in Twelfth Night. Here we in fact have Julia, dressed as Sebastian, narrating a story where he/she, who was supposedly the servant of Julia, dressed up as Julia and played the part from Greek mythology which currently Julia feels deep within her--that of the pining/passioning and betrayed lover.
The various "threads" of the story of Theseus and Ariadne make for one of the most powerful psychological dramas in all of Greek mythology. Here is an attempt to unravel some of them. Suffice it to say for our purposes that Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. Crete, having defeated Athens in a battle, required the tribute of 7 beautiful maids and 7 handsome males periodically (the versions differ on how often) to be given to Minos. These young people were fed to the Minotaur, a mixed human/beast who dwelled deep within the labyrinth, a complex structure made by the architect Daedalus. Theseus, so the most popular version of the myth narrates, volunteered one year to be one of the young Athenian men offered to the Minotaur.
Love at First Sight
While in Crete before being offered to the Minotaur, Theseus was spotted by Ariadne, who promptly fell in love with him. Deciding to help him defeat the Minotaur, she gave him two gifts: a sword and a thread. One doesn't have to be a psychologist of much stature to realize that here is a woman who not only "falls" for a man, but is able to give him his "manhood" and "guidance" in life. It is a powerful story of love--she is attracted by the externals, but she brings two things to Theseus' life which he could not provide for himself and which are essential to his success. And, she seemingly is satisfied playing that "role." The myth is suggestive today because in our confused understanding of gender roles and love, we so much emphasize the importance of being "self-sufficient" (through education, physical attractiveness, etc.) that we often quite forget the issue that the myth presents: that it is the woman who actually enables the man to realize his maleness.
As you can see, a fertile ground for thought. But the story continues. Theseus ties one end of the thread to the entrace of the cave and unravels it as he walks deeper into it. After a fierce battle he polishes off the Minotaur. In gratitude for Ariadne's help, Theseus declares he will take her back to Athens and make her his wife.
But, as is often the case with men, the very object of their help becomes an object of their loathing. She who helped him defeat the Minotaur is, in Theseus' mind, a traitor. That is, by the very act of helping him save his life, she has to betray her family. Love, which often knows no loyalty but to the beloved, ought in Theseus' mind to be subordinated to one's duty to family and city state. So, with these thoughts swirling in his mind, Theseus stops at the Mediterranean island of Naxos, ditching Ariadne there before returning to Athens. In Shakespeare's language, he has committed perjury (he swore falsely to marry her) and flight (he left her).
Ariadne pines for Theseus or, in Shakespeare's words, she was "passioning" after him. It is the quintessential story of a woman dumped. She did all that she could for Theseus; indeed she saved his life. In gratitude he takes her away from her people and then unceremoniously leaves her to other forces on Naxos. Different versions of the myth now enter in--that Ariadne possibly was beloved of a God, and Theseus for good reason abandoned her, for example-- and they would become important if we wanted to talk about the evolving nature of male/female dynamics, but for Shakespeare's purposes the only "vision" of importance is that we see Ariadne abandoned, dumped by the man she loves.
Sebastian/Julia's sorrow therefore works at several levels here. The most obvious one is that Julia, under the disguise, laments Proteus infidelity and feels the same kind of abandonment as Ariadne. Silvia must be thinking, "My how this lad acts the part of a woman so well. He puts such feeling into the role!" But then, of course, it is only a play. And its "only" being a play is what hooks us forever.
Well, I didn't get to Orpheus yet, so I will have to devote one more essay to him.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long