Word of the Day: Philomel

October 15, 2011 in Essay, Word of the Day

This is an article on the daughter of Pandion I and Zeuxippe, raped by her sister Procne’s husband, Tereus, in the Thracian woods and transformed, along with Procne, into a bird. It is not an article about a little-known string instrument. The former we now write ‘Philomela’, the latter ‘Philomel’, but Shakespeare, bound by poetic rhythm, frequently adopts ‘Philomel’ as a name for the woman who was not only raped, but also had her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law, and whose story has been told or referenced by Ovid, Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney and many more, as well as ten times by Shakespeare.

The name Philomela, although Ovid thought that it came from the Greek for ‘lover of song’, actually seems to mean lover of fruit, lover of apples (one thinks of Paris’s choice) and lover of sheep. These bucolic references recur in Shakespeare’s sweetest evocation of the Philomel story, the songs chanted by Titania’s fairy attendants in the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby:
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good-night, with lullaby.

Of course, no mention of Philomel could ever be completely without menace, and, despite the fairies’ wishes, Oberon soon appears to charm his lady into humiliating infatuation with an ass. Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde has a roughly similar scene, when Criseyde, not long before she and Troilus consummate their love in the night, whiles away nightfall listening to the nightingale, the bird into which tradition holds Philomela was transformed, as it sings “ayein the mone shene, / […] a lay / Of love, that made hir fresh and gay”. Of course, Criseyde’s misfortunate is both further off and much more grave than the recumbant Titania’s, yet still both scenes portray the two halves of the Philomela story: the evil dealt to a woman at the hands of a man, and the beauty of the bird’s song that charms and testifies to the tragedy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself hellenophile and here rephrasing a common Ancient Greek sentiment, wrote that “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.” The words come from his Julian and Maddalo, a poem heavy with the poet’s own introspection, yet they also play out the shape of the Philomela story: great suffering and beautiful song. Shakespeare’s sonnet 102 draws a parallel between the sonneteer and the songbird (here called ‘Philomel’), since “like her, I sometime hold my tongue: / Because I would not dull you with my song.” Being Shakespeare, this is something of a new twist: the silence of the nightingale is the interest of the amorous sonneteer; the lack of music both the promise of future, better, sounds, and the repudiation of a link between song and suffering. This contrasts with Raleigh’s poem (written in response to one by Christopher Marlowe), where the silence of the nightingale is, if anything, more terrifying than her song, being a sign of “cares to come”.

Yet Shakespeare does not shy away from this menace either: his Lucrece, herself a victim of rape, sings “her nightly sorrow” like the nightingale in The Rape of Lucrece, and then, not soon after, curses the joyful morning chorus and instead invites Philomel’s avian to warble an accompaniment to her grief. Elsewhere, Iachimo, the villain of Cymbeline, notes with glee that Imogen, the woman whose love for Posthumus he will misrepresent, read before sleeping “The tale of Tereus” and “that the leaf’s turn’d down / Where Philomel gave up”. Whether evil man or female victim, the Greek myth serves to sharpen the emotion of the scene. The danger, of course, is that things may seem too pat, the identification between Greek heroine and Shakespearean character too neat, and the art thus fatally blunting the articulation of sorrow felt or sorrows still to fall.

This point brings us to Titus Andonicus, where an early-career Shakespeare is, even more than elsewhere, interested in the limits and techniques of his writing. Specifically, the playwright seems to be measuring himself against the Latin poet Ovid, whom he would have studied at length in school and whose version of the Philomela story he would consequently know. It is to this chapter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that a tongueless Lavinia turns to tell her family about what the young Goths have done to her; yet, as her father Titus himself remarks, Lavinia is in a state “worst than Philomel”. Titus’ brother Marcus is even clearer, bursting into an uncomfortably long speech before the mangled woman to say that her agressor “hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sew’d than Philomel”, Ovid’s heroine communicating her plight in a tapestry sent to her sister Procne.

If we add all this emphasis on Lavinia suffering more than Philomela to poets’ connections between suffering and song embodied in the nightingale trope, a few observations can be made. What pushes Shakespeare’s Lavinia beyond the Ovidian pale is a particularly obvious wound: Philomela’s rape and the cutting of her tongue are not immediately visible injuries, whereas the loss of Lavinia’s hands is. In this respect Shakespeare surpasses Ovid in a dimension offered to him as a playwright and not to Ovid or other writers of poems: the actor’s physical body on the stage. Even the rudimentary stagecraft of an Elizabethan stage could bind and bloody hands, and Lavinia’s appearance on a stage without these appendages makes for a theatrical spectacle as much as a poetical one. In a very specific, dark sense of the term, Lavinia is Shakespeare’s transformation of Philomela, her metamorphosis marked right before the spectator’s eyes.

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