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Shakespeare & Beyond

Introducing Shakespeare and Greek Myths: Theseus and Hippolyta

Not much is known with certainty about Shakespeare’s life, opinions, or personal interests, but there are some things we can be fairly confident about—namely, some of his reading material. Scholars have identified Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s The liues of the noble Grecians and Romanes, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Homer’s Iliad as among the likely sources of Shakespeare’s work. His classical education as a schoolboy would have further exposed him—like much of his audience—to stories of wayward gods, goddesses, nymphs, and heroes that could then be referenced to great poetic effect within the plays. In many cases, the same myth is told differently in different sources, providing a variety of versions to choose from.

In this new “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series of posts, we take time to explore some of the Greek mythological figures that get a shout-out from Shakespeare’s stage—beginning with Theseus and Hippolyta.

Desmond Bing (Demetrius), Kim Wong (Helena), Betsy Mugavero (Hermia), Adam Wesley Brown (Lysander), Eric Hissom (Theseus), and Caroline Stefanie Clay (Hippolyta) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Folger Theatre, 2016. Teresa Wood.

While many figures from Greek mythology are referenced in Shakespeare’s works, Theseus and Hippolyta are notable for their inclusion as fully formed characters in not one but two of the plays. Their impending wedding is the driving force behind much of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot, and Hippolyta’s sister, Emilia, is a central character in The Two Noble Kinsmen. But who are these royal figures, and what backstories do they bring with them?

The son of some combination of King Aegeus, Aethra, princess of Troezen, and the god Poseidon, Theseus was raised by his mother far from his homeland of Athens. To claim his birthright, he returned to Athens via a dangerous, labor-filled route, defeating six adversaries and beginning his career as a Grecian hero. Upon arrival, he aroused the ire of Aegeus’s then-wife, Medea—yes, that Medea—who attempted to poison him. Aegeus recognized Theseus and thwarted Madea’s plan, reuniting father and son.

Theseus, detail from Plutarch. Liues of the noble Grecians and Romanes. London, 1579.

All this is quite impressive, but Theseus really came into his own when he defeated the minotaur.

SUFFOLK: O, wert thou for myself! But, Suffolk, stay.
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth.
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.
—Henry VI, Part 1, 5.3.192

A fearsome half-bull-half-man, the minotaur was kept in a labyrinth on Crete, and feasted on the young Athenians sent there each year by Aegeus. Tired of losing his country’s best and brightest, Theseus volunteered to go fight the minotaur himself, promising that he would swap his ship’s sails from black to white if he returned successful.


[…] 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 […]

Circe: A transformative enchantress - Shakespeare & Beyond — October 22, 2021