Ovid, and modern adaptations of the Classics


Image of Procne and Philomela.

I was having a conversation with somebody about how you use a Classics degree in ‘real life’. He suggested ‘be JK Rowling’. But if you can’t make millions of pounds out of writing spells using your amo amas amat, being a theatre director has got me some lovely mileage out of mine. I specialised in ancient performance studies during my Classics degree, and in my career so far I have looked a lot at reception of classical literature and mythology in contemporary playwriting.

Feathers is based on a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid is probably my favourite Roman poet. He was destined for a career in rhetoric and the law, but Seneca the Elder says he was a bit too emotional and not argumentative enough to be a really good rhetorician. He quit his job to become a poet, which his dad didn’t approve of, and got to hang out with Propertius and Horace and other poets – maybe like a Roman Rive Gauche (my Classics professors are probably shuddering at such a clumsy comparison, but emotion vs. argument eh). In one of the great mysteries of literary history he was exiled by Augustus to the Black Sea. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – a poem and a mistake. I reckon it was because of shagging. Or at least, that was Augustus’ excuse for getting rid of him.

The Metamorphoses was arguably Ovid’s most ambitious work – a 15-book poem of nearly 12,000 verses mentioning almost 250 different Greek and Roman myths, all tied together in a loose historical framework linked by geography, themes or contrasts, with the overarching theme of mythological transformations. Amazing stuff. Artistic figures throughout history, especially in the Renaissance, thought so too. Chaucer used the story of Midas in The Wife of Bath’s tale from The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare used Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titian painted Diana and Callisto, and Diana and Actaeon. Dryden and Pope translated some of it. It influenced Milton, Spenser and Dante.

The myth which Feathers is inspired by appears in book VI – the story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela. Love, betrayal, violence, sisters, family. It’s a powerful story. (Shakespeare borrowed it too.) The actual events in mythology are often fantastical – we know that people don’t really turn into trees or animals or geological landforms now. But what’s always been fascinating to me about stories from mythology is that the underlying emotional responses and conflicts are still so relatable. Humans are humans, and humans are messy. Ovid lived from 43BC to around 17AD. I do wonder how much we’ve changed since then.


Image: Elizabeth Jane Gardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons