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Shakespeare & Beyond

Circe: A transformative enchantress

Detail from the title page of Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished by G.S. London, 1626.

Our “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series continues with Circe, a powerful witch with a notable family tree. As the first blog post in the series explains, Shakespeare and much of his audience knew about Greek myths and he could refer to them with great effect in the plays. Many of the myths trace back to multiple sources, which present different versions of the same story. 

If you or someone you know has ever thrown up your hands while exclaiming “men are pigs!,” then the story of Circe will sound familiar to you. A minor goddess and major enchantress, Circe is associated with transformation primarily through her interactions with Odysseus. Today we explore her story and some of her famous family members.

By and large, many sources agree that Circe was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the ocean nymph Perse. Her brother, Aeëtes, was King of Colchis and guardian of the Golden Fleece, famously stolen by Jason and the Argonauts so that Jason could take the throne of Iolcus, a story which Bassanio refers to when he describes Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

BASSANIO: Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
The Merchant of Venice (1.1) 

Jason was aided by Circe’s niece Medea, and one story goes on to tell how Jason and Medea came to Circe to be absolved of the brutal murder they committed while procuring the fleece. 

Notably, Medea makes an appearance in our previous story of Theseus and Hippolyta. Another crossover with that story? Circe’s sister, Pasiphaë, was the mother of the minotaur, whom Theseus defeated.