Definitions

complete metamorphoses

Metamorphoses

[met-uh-mawr-fuh-seez]

The Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is a narrative poem in fifteen books that describes the creation and history of the world. Completed in 8 AD, it has remained one of the most popular works of mythology, being the Classical work best known to medieval writers and thus having a great deal of influence on medieval poetry.

Content

Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek myth and sometimes straying in odd directions. The poem is often called a mock-epic. It is written in dactylic hexameter, the form of the great heroic and nationalistic epic poems; both those of the ancient tradition (the Iliad and Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid). It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.

The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love — be that personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god of pure reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.

Main episodes

Inspirations and adaptations

The story of Coronis and Phoebus Apollo was adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, where it forms the basis for the Manciple's tale.

The Metamorphoses was a considerable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a clear adaptation of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses Book 4), and, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a band of amateur actors performs a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. In Titus Andronicus the story of Lavinia's rape is drawn from Tereus' rape of Philomela, and the text of Metamorphoses is used within the play to enable Titus to interpret his daughter's story. Yet, most tellingly, Shakespeare adapts, with minor changes, a passage from Book 7 of the Golding translation into an important speech in Act V of the Tempest.

Manuscript tradition

Collaborative editorial effort has been investigating the various manuscripts of Metamorphoses, some forty-five complete texts or substantial fragments, since the High Middle Ages; though early emendations made by readers based on comparisons of this popular text has resulted in contamination, so that there are no isolated manuscript traditions, the result of several centuries of critical reading is that the poet's meaning is firmly established on the basis of the manuscript tradition or restored by conjecture where the tradition is deficient. The modern critical editions are two: W. S. Anderson's, first published in 1977 in the Teubner series, and R. J. Tarrant's, published in 2004 by the Oxford Clarendon Press.

Notes

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