As an age of exploration and discovery, the Renaissance was awash in the marvelous: the wonders of nature itself, of the strange practices and customs of newly discovered worlds, of the individual's fantastic imaginings, and of the characters and strange creatures brought into the public consciousness through the period's immersion in classical mythology. Shakespeare's plays offer us a window into this imaginative world of the Renaissance. Images depicting these strange creatures, stories, and characters help us to understand the imaginative context of the plays and the world in which they were written.
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
This image from Lycosthenes' appropriately entitled Prodigiorum (of Prodigies or Wonders) depicts one of the strange sights Othello encountered in his travels. Tales of these and other marvelous beings comprise the whole of the "witchcraft" with which Othello confesses to having captured Desdemona's heart. Surprisingly, the same set of images - cannibals, anthropophagi, and men with heads beneath their shoulders - appears in the play and on a single page of the Prodigiorum.
. . . Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.
The Tempest (3.3.26-29)
In The Tempest, Sebastian wryly recalls this aviary wonder to express amazement at the "strange shapes" bringing in a mysterious banquet to him and his shipwrecked mates. No sooner do several of the crew take up the invitation to eat and drink than Ariel appears to them as a harpy, a mythological creature with the face and breasts of a woman and the wings and talons of a bird, and makes the food and drink vanish. This incident is modeled on stories from the Argonautica and Aeneid of harpies destroying or devouring the food of starving travelers. The passage quoted here is actually a rather striking stage direction.
He shall present Hercules in minority. His enter and exit shall be
strangling a snake.
Love's Labor's Lost (5.1.133-135)
Classical mythology constitutes the single most important body of material that Shakespeare drew upon in constructing his plays. Whether used for comic, ironic, or tragic effect, Shakespeare's many allusions to mythology introduce us to words and images that significantly enlarge the scope and widen our perspective of the plays. Hercules was a mythological character of whom Shakespeare made frequent use. In this image, the hero is depicted as a child, strangling the two snakes sent to destroy him. Shakespeare's recurring use of images of Hercules reminds us that mythological characters were part of the common currency of language in his day.
Leander the good swimmer.
Much Ado About Nothing (5.2.30-31)
In Greek mythology, Leander was a famous lover who drowned while swimming across the Hellespont to see his sweetheart Hero. In Much Ado About Nothing Benedick claims that Leander's suffering as a lover is nothing as compared to Benedick's own where Beatrice is concerned. Shakespeare's characters frequently refer to Leander's exploits as a standard measure of romantic devotion.
. . . fair St. George
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons.
Richard III (5.3.371-372)
While Shakespeare's allusions to mythology are most often classical, at times he drew upon non-classical myths and native folklore, calling up memories of the legendary King Arthur or heroic St. George. King Richard, as he prepares for the battle at Bosworth Field, calls upon England's patron saint and dragon slayer, asking for an infusion of the dragon's courage ("spleen") for himself and his men.