Shakespeare meets Demeter
There are many myths concerning the Goddess Demeter and her exploits. Like all of the Greek or Roman gods and goddesses, Demeter’s myths were retold countless times through the ages changing ever so slightly with each reinterpretation. While she plays only a small part, Demeter’s role in Shakespeare’s The Tempest gives insight to why the myths were used, how they were changed, and why they were changed.
In the sixteenth century when Shakespeare was born, Latin remained the international language of Europe. Businessmen, doctors, and clergy used the language in everyday speech. Latin was the staple of a young boys education and the major source of literature. As a schoolboy, Shakespeare was schooled in Plautus, Virgil, and especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His readings would influence his future plays such as Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid is exhibited, and finally The Tempest along with many others. Shakespeare had several reasons for including the Roman myths in his pieces. One, they had inspired his writing and imagination as a young boy. Two, since Latin literature was popular at the time, his audience would connect more with a play exhibiting familiar characters from their school days. Another reason for using the myths was the historical connection. The British Isles had once been a part of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare uses the gods, goddesses, and myths of old to bring that historical connection to life. He establishes a connection between the ancient empire and the British Empire. This connection establishes the glory and honor of the Roman Empire as a part of the British Empire. Therefore, the myths were used to connect the play to the audience; and so, connect the populace to the ancient world and its ideals.
Yet, why did Shakespeare use this particular myth about Demeter? The Tempest relates a story of suspense and comedy including the love story of two children. Why did Shakespeare use this myth of Demeter instead of using the more appropriate goddess of love, Aphrodite? The answer lies both with Shakespeare and with the ancient ideals of Demeter. Demeter was the goddess of the grain and fertility. Ovid describes her in the fifth book of his work Metamorphoses saying, “Ceres first turned the earth with the curved plough; she first gave corn and crops to bless the land; she first gave laws; all things are Ceres gifts” (109). Ovid tells the reader that humans have a lot to thank Ceres for. Without her guidance man would not have agriculture and food; moreover, the laws that bind our nations would not exist. In The Tempest, both of the lovers are the children of Dukes. One is the duke of Milan, while the other had his dukedom stolen from him. Shakespeare is reminding his audience of the power of the law and that Prospero is the proper duke. More importantly, Shakespeare gives us his own reason for not including Aphrodite and Cupid in the play. Iris speaks to Demeter in the fourth act, first scene, telling her:
I met her deity [Aphrodite]
Cutting the clouds towards Paphos and her son
Dove-drawn with her. Here thought they to have done
Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,
Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid
Till Hymen's torch be lighted: but vain;
Mar's hot minion is returned again;
Her waspish-headed son has broke his arrows,
Swears he will shoot no more but play with sparrows
And be a boy right out. (101-110)
Shakespeare points out that, while Aphrodite and Cupid had been involved in the relationship between the lovers, both gods had given up over them long before and were running back home. Shakespeare uses Iris to create an alibi for the missing gods of love. In doing so, he stresses the importance of Demeter’s position in the tale and her reason for showing up. Shakespeare goes so far as to claim that Cupid has altogether given up his trade. Iris also tells the audience exactly why Demeter is featured here. She informs Demeter of “a contract of love to celebrate; and some donation freely to estate on the blest lovers” (4.1.91-93). In other words, Demeter is there to sanctify and bless the union of two lovers. Why? As goddess of fertility, Demeter has the job of blessing unions to be fruitful when it comes to children. So the reason for including Demeter is to reinforce the laws of old and strengthen a marriage, which Aphrodite, a goddess of love and desire, would not perform.
While Shakespeare does use the myth to portray Demeter accurately, he changes the myth itself significantly. The major difference between Shakespeare and the ancient myth concerning the rape of Persephone is who exactly was the cause of the catastrophe. In the ancient myths of the rape of Persephone, Hades merely sees the lovely goddess out picking flowers and falls in love with her. It is Zeus who actually allows Hades to kidnap Persephone bringing down Demeter’s wrath. Homer relates the tale in his Hymn to Demeter saying “her [Demeter] slender-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus [Hades] seizede, and loud-thundering, far-seeing Zeus granted it without the knowledge of Demeter” (2-4). Since Zeus is the father of Persephone, his granting of the girl to Hades is perfectly legal, but the fact that he does it without Demeter’s knowledge gives a hint that maybe this was not right. Later, Homer hints that Zeus may have been a part of the actual kidnapping saying, “the narcissus which Gaia made grow as a trick for the blushing maiden, pleasing the one who receives many [Hades], by the will of Zeus” (8-9). These lines lead the reader to believe that Zeus helped in the rape.
On the other hand, Shakespeare declares that it was Aphrodite and her son that led to the rape of Persephone. In fact, Shakespeare makes a point out of the fact that Demeter scorns Aphrodite and Cupid for their part in the rape. Demeter outright tells Iris “since they [Aphrodite and Cupid] did plot the means that dusky Dis my daughter got, her and her blind son’s scandal’d company I have forsworn” (4.1.96-99). In other words, Demeter does not wish to be in near the two gods. She blames them both for the loss of her daughter to ‘dusky Dis’ or Hades. If the two gods are with Juno when she arrives, then Demeter will refuse to stay and listen to the request of the queen goddess. This corresponds with earlier evidence about the disappearance of Aphrodite and her son to show that Shakespeare is purposely playing out this negative relationship between Demeter and the love goddess.
Another way the myths differ comes in the form of Iris herself. In The Tempest, Demeter comes at Iris’ beckoning and listens to her message. Yet, the myths portray Demeter in a different light, as unwilling to listen to any messenger of the other Olympian gods. After Demeter has discovered where her daughter has been taken, she stopped all things from growing and would not step foot on Mount Olympus. In Hymn to Demeter, Zeus sends Iris to speak to her and “she [Iris] addressed her [Demeter] with winged words, ‘Demeter, father Zeus, who has unfailing knowledge, calls you to join the race of the gods who are forever. So come, do not let my message from Zeus be unaccomplished.’ Thus she spoke, begging, but the other’s heart was not persuaded” (320-324). According to Homer, Demeter is uninfluenced by the messages of other gods, but in The Tempest she comes to Iris and actually does what Iris asks. The difference between Shakespeare’s version of the myth and the ancient myths lies in the way Demeter reacts to other gods; particularly, how he focuses on the negative relationship between Demeter and Aphrodite.
Finally, the message Shakespeare wants to send relies on the changes he makes to the myths about Demeter. That message has a lot to do with the relationship between Demeter and Aphrodite. It is interesting to note that in the one place love and matrimony are mentioned in the play, the goddess of love is missing; moreover, the goddess of fertility dislikes Aphrodite. Is Shakespeare trying to say that love does not belong in a marriage, or does he have a more moral message in mind for his audience? Iris refers to the young couple as lovers, and when speaking to Demeter declares that “here they thought [Aphrodite and Cupid] to have done some wanton charm upon this man and maid, whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid till Hymen’s torch be lighted” (4.1.103-106). So Aphrodite and Cupid tried to get the young lovers into bed with each other before their wedding vows could be completed. Shakespeare is not telling his audience to forego love, but actually to practice abstinence; moreover, the goddess of desire and sexual pleasure has no part in the marriage blessing. Shakespeare shows Demeter and this young couple as a model for his audience. Do not marry for sex and do not have sex before marriage. Shakespeare changes the myth to bring this message to the stage hoping to influence his audience.
Over the ages, the myths of Demeter have not changed much in substance, but they have changed in purpose. The purpose of the original myth was to explain the passing of the seasons. The new myth forged by Shakespeare seeks to proclaim a moral message to the masses. Yet the myth does not stop there, Demeter lives on in the works and myths of the new age, bringing new messages to new audiences.