Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Launch Guest Post by Fiona Forsyth, Author of Poetic Justice

1 December 2023

Book Launch Guest Post by Fiona Forsyth, Author of Poetic Justice

New from Amazon UK 

9 CE: Rome’s celebrated love poet Ovid finds himself in exile, courtesy of an irate Emperor, in the far-flung town of Tomis. Appalled at being banished to a barbarous region at the very edge of the Empire, Ovid soon discovers that he has a far more urgent - and potentially perilous - issue to address. A killer is at large in Tomis.

Shakespeare and Ovid

Ben Jonson May have sneered that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek” but I think he was being unfair! Maybe Shakespeare did not go to University, but all the evidence points to a very good Classical education. Not only are some plays very definitely set in the ancient world – Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar for example - Shakespeare’s plays reflect the classical authors whose works were the staples of any educated Elizabethan. After all, Queen Elizabeth I herself at the age of twelve translated Katherine Parr’s published Prayers and Meditations from English into Latin, French and Italian.

Binding probably embroidered by Elizabeth as a cover for her trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: British Library from its digital collections. (Catalogue entry: Royal MS 7 D X)

There was a grammar school in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, the King’s New School, and it seems likely that he would have attended. It was only a short walk down the road from the family home, and it was relatively cheap to attend, though it is thought young William may have had to leave early when his father got into financial difficulties. Any pupil at such a grammar school would have received an education in Latin exhaustive enough to be the equivalent of a modern day Classics degree. Popular authors studied were Cicero, Sallustius, Vergil, Horace - and Ovid. 

Ovid was a poet of immense versatility and wit. He lived from 43 BCE to (probably) 17 CE, breaking into the literature scene with love poems the Amores, and going onto more serious poems such as the Fasti, in which he aimed to cover the major religious festivals of the Roman calendar in verse. Of particular interest to Shakespearian scholars is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its myriad tales of transformation. The work was popular enough to be published in an English translation before Shakespeare was born A fascinating aside is that the Bodleian Library in Oxford has a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed at Venice in 1502, with a signature ‘Wm Sh’ on the title page. It even has the added note ‘This little Booke of Ovid was given to me by W Hall who sayd it was once Will . Shaksperes. T N 1682.’ It would be lovely if this could be absolutely proven to have belonged to Shakespeare, but certainly during his lifetime he would have encountered Arthur Golding’s famous translation of 1567.

Title page of The XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso: Entituled, Metamorphosis … Translated out of Latin into English meeter by Arthvr Golding.

Shakespeare’s work makes it clear that he was familiar with Ovid. To give just a couple of examples, the story of his narrative poem Venus and Adonis comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in Cymbeline, before going to sleep, Imogen reads the same book. 

“She hath been reading late
The tale of Tereus; here the leaf’s turn’d down
Where Philomel gave up.”

Cymbeline Act 2 Scene 2

This passage shows that Shakespeare expected at least some of his audience to be familiar with the myths retold by Ovid, and indeed, Shakespeare’s debt to Ovid was noted in 1598 when Francis Meres wrote in his Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury: “The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.” 

In 2017, the 2000th anniversary of the poet’s death, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a celebration of Ovid, in particular his work Metamorphoses, because he had influenced Shakespeare so much. Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director at the time said “Ovid was probably Shakespeare’s greatest inspiration and his stories are sprinkled throughout his plays, most prominently the comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe performed to much hilarity by Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Typhoo Tea produced these cards of “Characters From Shakespeare”. Bottom gets a Metamorphosis of his own!

Ovid, I think, would have taken it in his stride to be so admired by our country’s greatest poet. He was never a modest man, and this is how his Metamorphoses ends:

I shall be carried above the stars, my name will be forever.
Wherever the power of Rome spreads over conquered lands,
People will recite me, my fame lasting through the years, and
If the prophecies of poets are true - I shall live.

There is an echo of this in one of Shakespeare’s most famous works. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare the to a summer’s day?”) ends with this couplet.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Fiona Forsyth 

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About the Author

After reading Classics at Oxford, Fiona Forsyth taught at a boys’ public school for 25 years. A move abroad gave her the chance to write and now she is back home, writing books firmly set in the political upheavals of Rome in the 1st centuries BC/AD.  Find out more at Fiona's website and find her on Twitter @for_fi

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