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The Bard Alluded Frequently to the Gods, Mortals, and Creatures of Ancient Myths
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Table of Contents
Background Ovid as Shakespeare's Source Gods of Olympus The Titans The Nine Muses Lesser Olympian Gods
The Trojan War Shakespeare's Allusions to Myths Mythical Characters and Creatures in Shakespeare's Works
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings © 2011, 2012, 2016
William Shakespeare frequently alluded or directly referred to ancient Greek and Roman mythology to make a comparison. Like many of his contemporary poets and playwrights, he usually used the Latinized Roman names for Greek deities, mortals, and other beings. For example, Shakespeare referred to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, as Jupiter or Jove (Roman names for Zeus), and to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as Venus (the Roman name for Aphrodite). On rare occasions, he used the Greek name for a god rather than the Roman one. For example, in Henry V he refers to the messenger god as Hermes (Greek name) rather than Mercury (Roman name). The names of some deities—such as the god of prophecy, Apollo—were the same in Greek and Roman mythology, as indicated later on this page. Be aware also that a few gods were Roman inventions. Janus is an example.
Metamorphoses, a long narrative poem, consists of fifteen books focusing generally on the theme of transformation, or change. It begins with a creation myth in which a preexisting force transforms a chaotic jumble of elements into an orderly universe from which the earth, stars, animals, and human beings evolved. It ends with commentary in which Ovid—then in his mid-thirties—praises Augustus Caesar (63 BC-AD 14). Augustus became emperor of Rome in 27 BC, ruling until AD 14, after years of turmoil following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Between the creation myth and the praise for Augustus are stories of humans, gods, goddesses, and monsters.
Ovid (pronounced AH vid) wrote in Classical Latin (as opposed to Vulgar Latin, the language of everyday conversation) for an educated, cosmopolitan audience. Grammar schools in Shakespeare's time required boys to study the Latin language as well as tales from Metamorphoses. An English translation of the work—written in lucid rhyming couplets by Arthur Golding (1536-1606)—became available to students and the general public in 1567. Revised editions appeared in 1575, 1587, and later years. Shakespeare consulted this translation often over the years, as did other great writers of his era, including Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and Edmund Spenser (circa 1552-1599).
Other popular works written by Ovid include Heroides (The Heroines), Amores (The Loves), Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), Remedia Amoris (The Cure for Love), Fasti (The Festivals), and Tristia (Sorrows).
Ovid (in full, Publius Ovidius Naso) was born in 43 BC in Sulmo, Italy, a small town about 90 miles east of Rome. (Today Sulmo is known as Sulmona.) He died in AD 17 or 18 in the Black Sea town of Tomis, which is the present-day Romanian city of Constanța. Augustus Caesar had exiled Ovid to Tomis in AD 8 for offenses which were not fully explained by Ovid or later historians.
Shakespeare used Ovidian characters and scenes in numerous works, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titus Andronicus, The Winter's Tale, Love's Labor's Lost, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare based his narrative poem Venus and Adonis on an episode in Book 10 of Metamorphoses. His narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece uses information from Ovid's Fasti.
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The Gods of Olympus
The most important deities in Greek mythology resided in the Thessaly region of Greece on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the country at 9,573 feet. They were as follows:
Name: Zeus (pronounced ZOOSE).
Name: Hera (pronounced HEER uh)
Name: Athena, Pallas Athena, or Pallas.
Name: Ares (pronounced AIR eez).
Name: Hades (pronounced HAY deez).
Name: Poseidon (pronounced poh SYE dun).
Name: Apollo. When spoken of as the sun god, he
was known as Phoebus Apollo or Phoebus
(pronunciation: FEE bihs).
Name: Aphrodite (pronounced af ruh DIGHT e).
Name: Hephaestus (pronounced he FEST ihs
or hih FEST ihs).
Name: Hermes (pronounced HER meez).
Name: Hestia (pronounced HEST e uh).
Name: Artemis (pronounced AR tuh mihs).
The Olympian gods were the successors of an earlier dynasty of gods known as Titans. The Titan ruler, Cronus, believing that one of his children might attempt to overthrow him, swallowed each of them after his or her birth. However, one child, Zeus, was rescued by his mother and hidden on the island of Crete. Later, Zeus forced his father to vomit the other children from his stomach. Then, with the help of his siblings, he overthrew Cronus. Zeus and the other gods listed above then became the new rulers of the universe.
Near the throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number. They regaled the Olympians with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes and history. These daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, learned under the tutelage of Apollo.
Other lesser gods on Olympus included the following: (1) Eros (Cupid), god of love and son of Aphrodite who shot arrows that impregnated humans with love. (2) Iris, messenger goddess of Zeus and Hera who created rainbows when she flew across the sky. (3) Themis, a companion of Zeus who was the goddess of justice. She holds scales on which she weighs the claims in a suit of law. (4) The Charites, or Graces, goddesses of joy and beauty. (5) Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment. (6) Aidos, the goddess of conscience.
works of Shakespeare and other writers, many
direct and indirect references to classical
mythology derive from accounts of (1) events
leading up to the Trojan War, (2) the war
itself, and (3) the aftermath of the war. Gods,
goddesses, monsters, and humans all appear in
these accounts. The war pitted the Bronze Age
city of Troy, a walled community in present-day
Turkey, against Greece.
ancient Mediterranean world, feminine beauty
reaches its zenith in Helen, wife of King
Menelaus of Greece. Her wondrous face and body
are without flaw. Even the goddess of love,
Aphrodite, admires her. When Aphrodite competes
with other goddesses in a beauty contest—in
which a golden apple is to be awarded as the
prize—she bribes the judge, a young Trojan named
Paris, promising him the most ravishing woman in
the world, Helen, if he will select her,
Aphrodite, as the most beautiful goddess. Paris,
of course, chooses Aphrodite. After receiving
the coveted golden apple, she tells Paris about
Helen; he goes to Greece and absconds with her
drags on for ten years—the Trojans gaining an
advantage one day, the Greeks gaining the
advantage the next.
Odysseus and his men return home on several
ships, they encounter many perils at sea and on
land—including a one-eyed giant (a Cyclops), who
eats some of his men; a sorceress named Circe,
who turns several of his men into pigs; the
six-headed monster Scylla, who devours more of
the crewmen; and other perils.
Allusions and Direct References in Shakespeare
Following are the names of
mythological beings, places, and things that
Shakespeare alludes or directly refers to in his
works. In parentheses after each entry is the
title of the work in which the allusion or direct
reference appears. If the work is a play,
the act, scene, and line number or numbers will
also appear in the parentheses. If the work is a
poem, the title and line number or numbers will
appear in the parentheses. Next comes
a brief description of the mythological
being, place, or thing. (The
line numbers of the plays and poems follow those
in the 1914
edition of the Oxford Shakespeare.)
Shakespeare used allusions
and direct references to vivify his language,
making it easier for audiences and readers
familiar with ancient myths to picture what he was
discussing in a passage. For example, a character
says of a villain named Cloten, "Not Hercules /
Could have knocked out his brains, for he had
none." Here, the name Hercules enables
audiences and readers to realize that even
superhuman strength was useless in any attempt to
rid Cloten of his stupidity.
Absyrtus (Henry VI Part II, 5.2.62-64): Brother of Medea. While trying to escape from her father, Medea murdered Absyrtus, sliced up his body, and scattered the pieces on a road. She hoped that her father would recognize the body parts and stop. He did stop--long enough for Medea to escape.
Acheron (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 3.2.379): River in the Underworld (Hades).
Achilles (Henry VI Part II, 5.1.106 ): Greek soldier who was the fiercest and deadliest soldier in the Trojan War. He slew Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors. Achilles was said to have only one vulnerable spot on his body, his heel. A poisoned Trojan arrow found that spot and killed Achilles. Over the centuries, the term Achilles' heel has come to mean a person's greatest weakness (physical or mental).
Actaeon (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.65-69): In Greek mythology, a hunter who happened upon Artemis when she was bathing. Her beauty enraptured him. When she noticed him staring, she was deeply offended. She then imposed a penalty on the intruder: he must not speak. If he did so, she would turn him into a stag. When he called out to his hunting companions, she made good on her threat. Actaeon became an antlered stag. His hunting dogs then attacked him and killed him, unaware that their master had been transformed into a deer.
Adonis: Title character of Venus and Adonis, one of Shakespeare's long narrative poems. Adonis was a handsome teenager who was pursued by the goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite).
Aegle (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.83): A mistress of Theseus.
Aeacides: (The Taming of the Shrew, 3.1.46). Another name for Ajax.
Aeneas (Julius Caesar, 1.2.120): Trojan warrior. After Troy fell to the Greeks at the end of the ten-year war between Greece and Troy, Aeneas escaped the city and sailed to Italy, where he laid the foundation for the Roman civilization.
Aeolus (Henry VI Part II, 3.2.98): God of the winds.
Aeson (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.19): Father of Jason, the Greek hero who undertook many perils to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Aeson was the king of Iolcos in Thessaly, Greece.
Aesculapius (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.3.19): Roman name for Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.
Agamemnon (Henry V, 3.6.6): Commanding general of the Greek armies during the Trojan War.
Agenor (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.142): A Phoenician king of Tyre and, according some accounts of Greek myths, the father of Europa.
Alcides (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.10.68): Another name for Hercules.
Ajax (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.3): Roman name for Aias, a gigantic Greek warrior who fought in the Trojan War. After the death of Achilles, he goes mad with rage after the Greek generals Agamemnon and Menelaus award Achilles' armor to Odysseus instead of to him. In his madness, he kills sheep in the belief that they are Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, then falls on his sword. Ajax is referred to in Henry VI Part II as Ajax Telamonius (5.1.29), because he is the son of an adventurer known as Telamon.
Alecto (Henry IV Part II, 5.5.2): See Furies.
Amazons (King John, 5.2.160): Warrior women who were said to have lived in Scythia, near the Black Sea.
Amphion (The Tempest, 2.1.69-70): Greek who used magic to construct the walls of the city of Thebes. In The Tempest, Shakespeare does not refer to him by name but alludes to his construction feat in these lines:
ANTONIO: His word is more than the miraculous harp.Anchises (Julius Caesar, 1.2.122): Father of Aeneas.
Anna (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.128): Sister and confidante of Dido.
Antenor (Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.120): Trojan commander in the Trojan War.
Antiopa or Antiope (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.84): Amazon captured by Theseus.
Apollo (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.74): Click here for more information.
Aquilon (Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.12): Roman name for Boreas.
Arachne or Ariachne (Troilus and Cressida, 5.2.178): Young woman whom Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, turned into a spider. Arachne (spelled by Shakespeare as Ariachne) had offended Athena by challenging her to a weaving contest and then making a magnificent tapestry, rivaling the excellence of Athena's work. Angry and jealous, Athena destroyed the tapestry. Arachne then hanged herself from a rope. Taking pity on the dead girl, Athena turned the rope into a cobweb and Arachne into a spider.
Argus (Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.2): Giant with one hundred eyes who served as a spy for Hera (Roman name, Juno), queen of the Olympian gods and wife of Zeus (Jupiter). The messenger god, Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) killed Argus. Hera removed his eyes and placed them on the tail of the peacock.
Ariadne (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 4.4.129): Daughter of King Minos of Crete. She enabled Theseus to find his way out of the Labyrinth after he killed the minotaur.
Arion (Twelfth Night, 1.2.17-19): Greek musician rescued by a dolphin after sailors stole his money and ordered him to jump overboard.
Ascanius (Henry VI Part II, 3.2.122): Son of Aeneas.
Astraea (Henry VI Part I, 1.6.6) Goddess of innocence and purity. In the Renaissance, English writers associated her with Queen Elizabeth I. In Henry VI Part I, the Dauphin of France, Charles, refers to Joan of Arc (called Joan La Pucelle) as Astraea.
Atalanta (As You Like It, 3.2.109): Beautiful young huntress and swift runner. She challenges young men to ourtrun her. The penalty for losing to her is death. Hippomenes takes up the challenge. During the race, he drops three golden apples. Because Atalanta stops to pick them up, she loses the race.
Atlas (Henry VI Part 3, 5.1.40): A Titan forced to bear the earth and the heavens on his back.
Atropos (Henry IV Part 2, 2.4.84): One of the three Fates.
Aurora (Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.121): Roman name for Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn.
Bacchanals (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.53): Wild parties in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine; drunken participants in these parties.
Bacchus (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.286): Roman name for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and vegetation and a patron of the arts.
Bellona (Macbeth, 1.2.65): A Roman goddess of war.
Boreas (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.40): God of the north wind. The god of winds in general was Aeolus.
Briareus (Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.24): Monster with one hundred arms and fifty heads.
Cadmus (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 4.1.98): Son of the king of Phoenicia and founder of the Greek city of Thebes.
Calchas (Troilus and Cressida): Greek seer who supported the plan of Ulysses to construct the Trojan horse. He is a character in Troilus and Cressida, making his first appearance at the beginning of the third scene of Act 3.
Capaneus (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1.1.59): Powerful but arrogant warrior who was among those who attacked Thebes when Eteocles, one of the sons of Oedipus, ruled the city. The Greek playwright Aeschylus told the story in Seven Against Thebes.
Cedius (Troilus and Cressida, 5.5.15): A Greek leader in the Trojan War.
Cerberus: (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.598): Fierce, three-headed dog at the gate of the Underworld.
Ceres (The Tempest, 4.1.71): Roman name for the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter.
Charon (Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.11): Boatman who ferried the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld (Hades).
Charybdis (The Merchant of Venice, 3.5.7): See Scylla and Charybdis.
Cimmerian (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.76): Person residing in a region of everlasting darkness.
Circe (Henry VI Part I, 5.3.39): Sorceress who turns crewmen of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses) into pigs. After Odysseus overcomes her magic, she cooperates with him, telling him he must visit the Underworld to confer with a prophet.
cockatrice: Serpent that could kill with the glare of its eyes.
Cocytus (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.242): River in Hades.
Colossus (Julius Caesar, 1.2.144): Gigantic statue of Apollo, built about 280 BC, at the harbor entrance of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Creon (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1.1.40): King of Thebes after the downfall of Oedipus.
Cressida: Title character in Troilus and Cressida.
Cupid (All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.94): Roman name for Eros, the god of love.
Cyclops (Hamlet, 2.2.342): Any of several giants with an eye in the middle of his forehead. It was said that these giants forged the thunderbolts wielded by Zeus (Roman name: Jupiter), the king of the gods.
Cytherea (Cymbeline, 2.2.18): Another name for Venus (Aphrodite).
Daedalus (Henry VI Part III, 5.6.20-23): Greek architect who constructed the Labyrinth, an extensive maze, for King Minos of Crete. The Labyrinth housed the minotaur, a man-eating creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. After Daedalus helped the Greek hero Theseus escape the labyrinth, Minos became angry and held Daedalus and his son, Icarus, captive. Daedalus made wax wings for himself and his son, and they flew out of the the labyrinth. However, when his son flew too near the sun, his wings melted and he fell into the sea. Daedalus arrived safely in Sicily.
Damon (Hamlet, 3.2.215): Damon and Pythias were loyal friends. After Pythias was sentenced by Dionysius I of Syracuse to be executed for treason, Damon took his place so that Pythias could put his affairs in order. When Pythias returned for his execution, Dionysius was so moved by the loyalty of the two friends that he released both of them.
Daphne (Troilus and Cressida, 1.1.74): Beautiful nymph (nature goddess) pursued by Apollo. After she refused his advances and prayed for deliverance, her father, a river god, changed her into a laurel tree.
Dardanian (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.62): Adjective used as another word for Trojan, referring to the residents of the city of Troy.
Delphos or Delphi (The Winter's Tale, 3.2.127): Site of the oracle of Apollo. In a temple, she predicted the future for petitioners.
demigod (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.32): Person with a human as one parent and a god or goddess as the other parent.
Deucalion (Coriolanus, 2.1.31): Son of the Titan god Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and gave it to humankind. Deucalion and his wife were the only survivors of a great flood caused by Zeus. They repopulated earth by throwing stones over their shoulders. Each stone became a human being.
Dian (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.65): Another name for Diana, the Roman name for Artemis, the virginal moon goddess and goddess of the hunt.
Diana (Troilus and Cressida, 5.2.109): Roman name for the Greek goddess Artemis, the virginal moon goddess and goddess of the hunt. See also Phoebe.
Dictynna (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.2.21): Cretan goddess associated with hunters, fishermen, and the sea.
Dido (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.14): Queen of Carthage, who had a love affair with Aeneas and killed herself after he abandoned her.
Diomedes or Diomede (Henry VI Part III, 4.2.22): One of the most skilled and courageous Greek warriors in the Trojan War.
Dis (The Winter's Tale, 4.3.138). Another name for Hades (either the god or his domain, the Underworld).
Doreus (Troilus and Cressida, 5.5.12): Greek soldier in the Trojan War.
Echo (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.174): Mountain nymph who falls in love with Narcissus. When he rejects her, she pines away until nothing is left of her but her echoing voice,
Elysium (Twelfth Night, 1.2.3): Abode of good people after they die; paradise.
Enceladus (Titus Andronicus, 4.2.98): One of the giants who rebelled against the gods of Mount Olympus. Minerva (Roman name for Athena, goddess of war and wisdom) hurled a stone that struck him down and killed him.
Endymion (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.120): Handsome youth loved by the goddess of the moon. Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter) granted Endymion's request for eternal sleep.
Epistrophus (Troilus and Cressida, 5.5.15): A Greek leader in the Trojan War.
Erebus (Julius Caesar, 2.1.93): Dark region beneath the earth through which the dead travel to reach the Underworld.
Europa (Much Ado About Nothing, 5.4.48-52): Phoenician princess. Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter) lusted after her and transformed himself into a white bull to mix in with cattle herds near her home. While in the fields, she stroked the bull, then mounted it. Zeus then carried her off to Crete. There, he revealed his identity and made love to her. She bore him three children.
Fates (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.198): Three goddesses who determined the destinies of humans. Their names were Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis.
Flora (The Winter's Tale, 4.4.4): Roman goddess of flowers.
Fortuna (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.8.54-55): Roman goddess of fortune, often associated with a spinning wheel symbolizing the cycle of life, with its ups and downs. Fortuna would spin the wheel at her whim, with the fates of humans in positions around the wheel. If the wheel stopped when a person's fate was on the bottom of the wheel, he could expect bad luck.
Furies (Richard III, 1.4.59): Roman name for the Erinyes, the three goddesses of vengeance who pursued and punished evildoers. The Furies—whose names were Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera—lived in the underworld.
Ganymede (As You Like It, 1.3.114): Handsome youth Zeus abducted to be the cupbearer of the Olympian gods.
Golden Fleece (The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.172): See Jason.
Gorgon (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.5.146): In Greek mythology, any of three sisters with snakes growing from their heads instead of hair. So terrifying was their appearance that it turned onlookers into stone.
Graces, Three (Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.143): In Greek and Roman mythology, three minor goddesses of beauty, charm, good cheer, and creativity. Their names were Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. Collectively, the Greeks called them the Charites (spelled with no i preceding the e) and the Romans called them the Gratiae. They were daughters of Zeus (Jupiter) and Eurynome, a sea nymph. In Troilus and Cressida, the singular "grace" (lower-cased) is used: "Had I a sister were a grace, or a daughter a goddess, he should take his choice."
Harpy (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.1.114): Monster with the trunk and head of a woman and the wings and claws of a predatory bird.
Hecate (Hamlet, 3.2.196): A goddess of the moon, earth, and underworld who became associated with witchcraft and magic.
Hector (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.556): Son of Priam and mightiest Trojan soldier in the Trojan War. He was slain by Achilles.
Hecuba (Coriolanus, 1.3.21): Wife of Priam, king of Troy during the Trojan War.
Helen (Henry VI Part III, 2.2.150): See The Trojan War: The Cause of the War.
Hercules (Coriolanus, 4.1.21): Roman name of the Greek hero Heracles. He was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal. Hercules was famous for his his completion of twelve seemingly impossible labors, including slaying a lion and killing a nine-headed monster.
Hermes (Henry V, 3.7.9): Messenger god in Greek mythology. His Roman name was Mercury.
Helicons (Henry 4 Part 2, 5.3.67): Another name for the Nine Muses.
Hero (As You Like It, 4.1.40): See Leander.
Hesperides (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.288): In Greek mythology, nymphs who guard a tree that bears golden apples. The earth goddess Gaea had given the tree to Hera (Roman name: Juno) as a wedding gift when she married Zeus (Roman name: Jupiter), king of the gods. The Greek poet Hesiod said there were three Hesperides: Aegle, Erytheia, and Hespere. The garden in which the tree grew also was known as the Hersperides.
Hydra (Henry V, 1.1.38): Serpent with nine heads. Hercules killed it as one of his twelve labors.
Hymen (Hamlet, 3.2.102): God of marriage.
Hymenaeus (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.338): Roman name for Hymen, the Greek god of marriage.
Hyperion (Hamlet, 1.2.144): Father of the Titan sun god, Helios.
Hyrcanian beast (Hamlet, 2.2.304): Tiger known for being especially fierce. When Aeneas abandoned Dido, she condemned him as heartless, saying that he was nursed by Hyrcanian tigers.
Icarus (Henry VI Part III, 5.6.20-23): See Daedalus.
Ilion (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.661): Another name for Troy.
Ilium (Hamlet, 2.2.327): Another name for Troy.
Iris (The Tempest, 6.2.71): Goddess of the rainbow. In the Trojan War, she was also a messenger goddess.
Ixion (King Lear, 4.7.53-56). A king of Thessaly, Greece, who attempted to seduce Hera (Roman name, Juno), the queen of the Olympian gods and the wife of Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter). Zeus punished him by binding him to a continually turning wheel in the underworld. In King Lear, Shakespeare does not mention Ixion by name but alludes to his punishment in the following lines.
You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave:Janus (Othello, 1.2.38): Roman god of beginnings and endings and of doorways, arches, gateways, entrances, etc. He is pictured as having two faces: one on the front of his head and one on the back.
Jason (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.232): Greek hero who risks many perils to retrieve the Golden Fleece, a coat of golden wool sheared from a ram called Chrysomallus. The fleece hangs on a tree in a grove in the far-off land of Colchis, on the Black Sea. Anyone could easily seize and run off with it save for one thing: It is guarded by a dragon that never sleeps. With a crew of hearty adventurers, Jason sails to Colchis, overcoming many perils on the way. With the help of Medea, a sorceress, he overcomes additional perils and retrieves the fleece.
Jove (Antony and Cleopatra, 1.2.122): Roman name for Zeus, king of the gods. Click here for more information.
Juno (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.13.44): Roman name for Hera, queen of the Olympian gods. Click here for more information.
Jupiter (1.2.45): Roman name for Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. Click here for more information.
Laertes (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.394): Father of Odysseus (Roman name: Ulysses), the wily Greek who devised the Trojan horse.
Laertes' Son (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.394): Odysseus (Ulysses).
Leander (As You Like It, 4.1.40): Leander, a youth of Abydos (a town on the Asian side of present-day Turkey), fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Hero lived in a tower on the European side of Turkey. Every night, Leander would swim across a narrow strait called the Dardanelles to visit her. However, on one trip he drowned. Hero then plunged to her death from the tower.
Leda (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.223): A queen of Sparta and mother of Helen of Troy. (See The Trojan War: The Cause of the War.)
Lethe (Twelfth Night, 4.1.44): River of forgetfulness in the Underworld. Its water erases the memory of anyone who drinks it.
Lichas or Lychas (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.10.69): Servant of Herculus Nessus.
Lucina (Cymbeline, 5.4.47): In Roman myth, another for Juno (Greek name: Hera) when she was spoken of as the goddess of childbirth.
Luna (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.2.23): Another name for Diana, the Roman name for the goddess of the moon. Her Greek name was Artemis.
Lucrece: Title character of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, a long narrative poem.
Margarelon (Troilus and Cressida, 5.5.11): Trojan warrior and bastard son of King Priam.
Mars (Troilus and Cressida, 5.3.62): Roman name for Ares, the Greek god of war.
Medea (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.18): Sorceress who helps Jason retrieve the Golden Fleece and later marries him.
Meleager (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 3.5.18): Killer of the feared Calydonian boar. When he was born, the Fates decreed that his lifespan would end when a log burning in the family hearth was consumed by the fire. His mother, Althaea, then put out the fire and hid the log. Years later, after an argument with his mother's brother, Plexippus, Meleager killed Plexippus. Enraged, his mother returned the log to the hearth and allowed the fire to consume it. Meleager died.
Menelaus (Henry VI Part III, 1.1.131): A Greek general in the Trojan War.
Mercury (Troilus and Cressida, 2.2.48): Roman name for Hermes, the Greek messenger god.
Merops (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.1.146): King of Ethiopa and the father of Phaeton by adoption.
Midas (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.96): King of Phrygia. Dionysus (Bachus) bestowed on him the power to turn to gold everything he touched.
Minerva (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.87): Roman name for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war.
Minos (Henry VI Part III, 5.6.20-23): See Daedalus.
Minotaur (Henry VI Part I, 5.3.201): See Daedalus.
Myrmidon (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.386): Allusion to Achilles, who was a Myrmidon. Myrmidons were warlike people who lived in Thessaly, Greece. They went to war against Troy under the leadership of Achilles.
Naiads or Naiades (The Tempest, 6.1.137): Nymphs (beautiful nature maidens) who lived in lakes, springs, rivers, and fountains.
Narcissus (Venus and Adonis, 161): Handsome youth who rejected the love of others. Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, punished him by leading him to a pool of water. When he saw his image reflected in the water, he fell in love with it. So enthralled with it was he that he never left the pool. Eventually, he pined away and died.
nectar (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2.4.169): The drink of the Olympian gods.
Nemean Lion (Hamlet, 1.4.94): Large, fierce lion killed by Hercules as one of this twelve labors.
Nemesis (Henry VI Part I, 4.7.83): Goddess of vengeance.
Neoptolemus (Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.163): Son of Achilles. When the Greeks conquered Troy, he killed the Trojan king, Priam.
Neptune (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.7.131): Roman name for Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
Nereids or Nereides (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.239): Nymphs (beautiful nature maidens) of the sea who sometimes aided sailors caught in raging storms.
Nessus (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.10.67): Centaur who attempted to rape Deianeira, the bride of Hercules. From a distance, Hercules saw what was happening and shot an arrow that fatally wounded Nessus. Before dying, Nessus asked Deianeira to dip a shirt in his blood. If Hercules wore the shirt, he would remain ever faithful to Deianeira, Nessus told her. She did as he asked and gave the shirt to Lichas, the servant of Hercules. Lichas then gave it to Hercules. When Hercules put it on, the blood burned him, causing excruciating agony, and Hercules killed himself.
Nestor (Henry VI Part III, 3,2,192): In Homer's Iliad, an elderly Greek who, with his sons, participated in the Trojan War. He was famous for his oratorical skills.
Ninus (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 3.1.47): Legendary founder of the Assyrian city of Nineveh.
Niobe (Troilus and Cressida, 5.10.23): Woman who bragged to the goddess Leto that she had six sons and six daughters. Leto had only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Diana (Artemis). Because of Niobe's boastfulness, Apollo killed her sons, Diana killed her daughters, and Jupiter (Zeus) turned her into a mass of stone on Mount Sipylus (in present-day Turkey). The block of stone cried tears ceaselessly as Niobe wept for her dead children.
Odysseus (Henry VI Part III, 3.2.193): See Ulysses.
Olympus (Othello, 2.1.188): Mountain abode of the chief Olympian Gods.
Orpheus (Henry VIII, 3.1.5): Musician of such extraordinary skill that when he sang and played the lyre, even rocks and trees began to dance.
Ossa (Hamlet, 5.1.169): Mountain in northeastern Greece. A tale tells of two Giants that placed Mount Pelion on Ossa to reach Mount Olympus.
Pallas (Titus Andronicus, 4.1.69): Alternate name for Athena (Roman name, Minerva), the goddess of wisdom and war.
Pandarus (Twelfth Night, 3.1.51): In Greek mythology, a Lycian who takes part in the Trojan War. He acts as a go-between in a love affair between Troilus and Cressida. The English word panderer (procurer, pimp) is derived from the name Pandarus.
Pandion (The Passionate Pilgrim, 395): Legendary king of Athens.
Parca (Henry V, 5.1.9): Any of three goddesses of fate in Roman mythology. Their names were Nona, Decima, and Morta.
Paris (Henry VI Part I, 5.5.106): See Trojan War, Cause.
Pegasus (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.44): Winged horse of Perseus, slayer of the snake-haired monster Medusa. The horse was born from the blood of the beheaded Medusa.
Pelion (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.116): See Ossa.
Pelops (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 4.2.21): Son of Tantalus. Tantalus killed him as served his remains as a meal to the gods. The gods restored Pelops to life.
Penelope (Coriolanus, 1.3.49): Loyal wife of Odysseus (Ulysses).
Penthesilea (Twelfth Night, 2.4.156): In Greek mythology, the queen of the Amazons.
Perigouna (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.82): Beautiful daughter of a bandit killed by Theseus. After she hid from Theseus, she revealed herself after he guaranteed her safety. She gave birth to Theseus's male heir. She is also known by three other names: Perigune, Perigenia and Perigone.
Perseus (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.44): Hero who beheaded Medusa, one of three sisters whose gaze could turn a human into stone. Each sister's hair was made of intertwining snakes.
Phaethon (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.1.146): Son of Helios, a Titan god of the sun. One day, Phaethon attempted to drive his father's sun chariot across the sky. Unable to control it, the chariot veered toward earth, threatening to set the world on fire. To save the world, Zeus struck and killed Phaeton with a lightning bolt.
Philomel (Titus Andronicus, 2.4.46): Another name for a nightingale. Philomel is derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovers what they did, he chases them with an axe. The gods then turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
Philemon (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.1.35): In Greek mythology, a peasant who—with his wife, Baucis—lived in a humble cottage in Phrygia. Disguised as mortals, Zeus and Hermes visited them and were received with great warmth. Zeus rewarded them by transforming their cottage into a temple.
Phoebe (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.329): Another name for Diana (Artemis), the Greek goddess of the hunt; also referred to as Phebe.
Phoebus (Hamlet, 3.2.102): Apollo as the sun god.
Phoenix (Henry VI Part I, 4.7.99): Bird that lived five hundred years, then died in a fire after the sun ignited an Arabian tree on which the phoenix was perched. The tree was located near Heliopolis, Egypt. From the ashes, the phoenix rose to new life.
Pigmies (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.1.114): A race of dwarfs in Greek mythology.
Pluto (Coriolanus, 1.4.46): Roman name for Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld.
Plutus (Timon of Athens, 1.1.301): God of wealth.
Polydamas (Troilus and Cressida, 10): Powerful warrior who fought for Troy in the Trojan War.
Priam (Hamlet, 2.2.303): King of Troy during the Trojan War.
Priapus (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, 4.6.4): God of males' power to father children.
Procne (Titus Andronicus, 5.2.203): Athenian princess. See Philomel.
Promethean fire (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.251): In Greek mythology, the Titan god Prometheus was a benefactor of man. He stole fire from heaven and gave it to humankind.
Prosperpine (Troilus and Cressida, 2.1.21): Roman name for Persephone, the Greek goddess of the Underworld.
Proteus (Henry VI Part III, 3.2.96): Minor sea god who could change his shape at will.
Pygmalion (Measure for Measure, 3.2.29): King of Cyprus. He fell in love with a statue he sculpted. Venus (Aphrodite) brought it to life as Galatea.
Pyramus (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.237): The lover of Thisbe. Pyramus and Thisbe, both Babylonians, were the subject of a story by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) in his long poem Metamorphoses. When Pyramus thinks a lion has killed Thisbe, he kills himself. Thisbe is still alive, however. But when she discovers the body of Pyramus, she also kills herself.
Pyrrhus (Hamlet, 2.2.304): Son of Achilles and one of the soldiers hidden in the Trojan horse.
Queen of Troy (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.141): Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy during the Trojan War.
Rhesus (Henry VI Part 3, 4.2.23): Thracian king who entered the Trojan War in its tenth year on the side of Troy. Because an oracle said that Troy would defeat the Greek if the horses of Rhesus drank from the nearby River Xanthus, the Greek warriors Odysseus (Roman name, Ulysses) and Diomedes stole the horses. Thrace was a region made up of parts of modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey.
Saturn (Cymbeline, 2.5.14): Roman name for Cronus, king of the Titan gods before the Olympians displaced them. Cronus was a god of agriculture.
satyr (Hamlet, 1.2.144): Minor deity that inhabited the forests. It had horns and pointed ears, the head and trunk of a man, and the legs of a goat. It was a follower of the god of wine, Dionysus (Roman name: Bacchus), and engaged in merrymaking and lechery.
Sagittary (Troilus and Cressida, 5.5.18): Sagittarius, the name of a centaur (a creature that was half-man and half-horse) that was changed into a constellation of stars. Before becoming a constellation, the centaur was known as Chiron. He assisted the Trojans in the Trojan War.
Scylla and Charybdis (Merchant of Venice, 3.5.7): On his return home from the Trojan War, the Greek hero Odysseus (Roman name, Ulysses)—the designer of the Trojan Horse—had to navigate his boat through a perilous strait. On a rock on one side was a six-headed monster, Scylla; opposite the rock, near the shore on the other side, was a whirlpool created when a sea monster, Charybdis, gulped water. When the ship passed between the twin perils, Scylla stretched its necks down and devoured six of the crewmen. Over the years, writers have often alluded to Scylla and Charybdis to describe a dilemma.
Sibyl or Sibylla (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.59): Legendary prophetess who was extremely old.
Sinon (Henry VI Part III, 3.2.193): See the fifth paragraph under The Trojan War.
Siren (Comedy of Errors, 3.2.49): Any of a group of sea nymphs on an island that sang a song so beautiful that it seduced sailors to turn their ships toward the island. The ships crashed on rocks. If there were survivors, they listened to the sirens until they starved to death. On his return home from the Trojan War, Odysseus (Ulysses) and his men passed the island without incident. Forewarned of the danger posed by the sirens, Odysseus had ordered his men to plug their ears with wax. He himself listened to the siren song after directing his crew to tie him to a mast so that he would not be tempted to jump overboard and swim to the island.
Stygian (Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.10): Having to do with the river Styx in the Underworld.
Styx (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.93): River in Hades.
Sphinx (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.289): Winged monster that was part woman and part lion. Outside Thebes, Greece, she poised herself on a high rock and asked all passersby this riddle: what travels on all fours in the morning, twos at midday, and threes in the evening? She killed and consumed any traveler unable to provide the correct answer. For a long time, no one could enter or leave the city, because no one knew the answer. One day, she posed the question to a traveler named Oedipus. He gave the correct answer: man. He explained that a man crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two legs in adulthood and middle age, and travels on threes--two legs and a cane--in old age. The sphinx then destroyed herself. The grateful people of Thebes made Oedipus their king.
Tantalus (Venus and Adonis, 659): King of Sipylus, Lydia. He was a favorite of the gods until he attempted to deceive them by serving them a "feast" consisting of the remains of his son, Pelops, whom he had killed. For his offense, they condemned him to eternal punishment in Hades. There, Tantalus thirsted for water that always receded when he tried to drink it and desired fruit on a tree branch that was always out of reach.
Tarquin (Titus Andronicus, 3.1.307): See Lucrece.
Tartar (Twelfth Night, 2.5.92): Tartarus, which was part of Hades (hell).
Telamon (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.11.4): Another name for Ajax, who was the son of Telamon, king of Salamis.
Tellus (Hamlet, 3.2.103): Roman name for Gaea, the Greek goddess of the earth.
Tereus (Titus Andronicus, 2.4.44): See Philomel.
Theseus (The Two Gentleman of Verona, 4.4.130): Greek hero who killed the minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The minotaur inhabited the Labyrinth, an extensive maze constructed in Crete for its king, Minos, by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus. Minos had it built to send young Greek men and women into the Labyrinth to be killed by the minotaur in retribution for the killing of his son by the Greeks. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is the King of Athens.
Thetis (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.41): Sea goddess who was the mother of Achilles.
Thisbe (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 3.2.22): See Pyramus.
Titan (Venus and Adonis, 177): An allusion to the Titan sun god Helios in the early literature of the Greeks. The Greeks later identified the sun god as Apollo, an Olympian.
Thracian tyrant (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.143): Polymnestor. After he killed Hecuba's son Polydorus, Hecuba gained revenge by killing his two sons and blinding him.
Triton (Coriolanus, 3.1.117): Sea god who was the son of Poseidon. He had the head and upper body of a man, with a fish tail for the lower body. He used a conch shell as a trumpet.
Troilus: Title character in Troilus and Cressida.
Troy (Richard II, 5.1.14): Walled city of in northwestern Anatolia, a region that is part of modern-day Turkey. Anatolia is west of Greece (across the Aegean Sea) and north of Egypt (across the Mediterranean Sea). In archeological digs between 1870 and 1890, German-born American archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) appeared to prove that the ancient city of Troy was a fact, not a myth, as many had thought. However, the story of the Trojan War—as passed down to Homer, who wrote about the war in The Iliad—was a mixture of fact, legend, and myth.
Typhon (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.163): Monster with one hundred dragon heads.
Ulysses (Henry VI Part III, 3.2.193): Roman name of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, Greece, and one of the heroes of the Trojan War. It was Odysseus who designed the gigantic wooden horse that the Greeks presented as a gift to the their enemy, the Trojans, at a gate of their city, Troy. Believing that the Greeks had decided to withdraw from the long and wearisome war, the Trojans pulled the wooden horse inside the walls of Troy. They viewed the horse as a goodwill offering of the departing Greeks. In fact, it was a weapon of war, concealing Greek soldiers in its belly. At night, these soldiers descended through a trap door and opened the gates of Troy to the rest of the Greek army hiding outside. Surprising the sleeping Trojans, the Greeks easily conquered and burned the city. Odysseus became the main character of Homer's great epic, The Odyssey, which recounted the perilous journey of Odysseus and his men while they were returning to Greece from Troy. In world literature, this journey—or odyssey—has come to symbolize every human being's journey through life.
unicorn (Julius Caesar, 2.1.222): Mythological creature resembling a horse with a horn growing from its forehead. References to it occur in the myths of Mesopotamia, China, India, and Greece.
Venus (Much Ado About Nothing, 4.1.54): Roman name for Aphrodite, goddess of love. Venus was a title character in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, a long poem.
Vestals (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, 4.5.4): Vestal virgins. See Goddess of the Home and Hearth.
Vulcan (Hamlet, 3.2.48 ): Roman name for Hephaestus, the god of fire and the forge who made armor in his smithy on Mount Olympus.
Ancient mythological or legendary figures have speaking roles in the following Shakespeare works: