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‘An alien people clutching their Gods’?: Shakespeare’s Ancient Religions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Peter Holland
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

CULTURAL DRIFT AND THE LOST ANIMA

Last year my Latin class and I were reading Ovid and came upon Pyramus’ suicide: demisit in ilia ferrum (Met. 4.119): ‘he plunged the ferrum (iron, sword, knife) into his ilia’. Where, among the multiple dictionary possibilities for ilia, does Pyramus stab himself? ‘Entrails’, said one student cheerfully. (Golding had ‘guts’ by the way.) ‘Chest’ and ‘breast’ received solid support. I was a little uncomfortable; ilia actually are lower. But it was supposed to be a suicide and our conventions of self-stabbing support that location. The heart beneath has some sentimental resonance. And what about poetic licence, anyway? The pectoral group found themselves in the good company of the most brilliant English translator, Ted Hughes, and the most inept, that of Peter Quince and Nick Bottom: ‘With bloody, blameful blade – / He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast’ (MND, 5.1.145–6). No one, thankfully, wanted ‘stomach’, ‘abdomen’, or ‘diaphragm’, anatomically the more correct equivalents. Finally, pointing to a dictionary entry, Katelyn, a sophomore, ended the discussion: ‘It’s the groin! He’s a lover, isn’t he?’

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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 31 - 45
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2001

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