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.
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, Madea—yes, that Madea—who attempted to poison him. Aegeus recognized Theseus and thwarted Madea’s plan, reuniting father and son.
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.
With the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, who supplied him with a string (or, depending on the source, a thread or jewels) to aid his way, Theseus was able to kill the minotaur and find his way back through the maze. In one version, Theseus fled Crete with Ariadne, but then abandoned her on the island of Naxos at the command of the god Dionysus. In another, he just abandoned her. In either case, her treatment was a poor thank you for her service.
JULIA: And at that time I made her weep agood,
For I did play a lamentable part;
Madam, ’twas Ariadne, passioning
For Theseus’ perjury and unjust flight,
Which I so lively acted with my tears
That my poor mistress, movèd therewithal,
Wept bitterly; and would I might be dead
If I in thought felt not her very sorrow.
—The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 4.4.174
Whether distraught over having to leave Ariadne, or distracted by thoughts of his first meal back at home, Theseus failed to change his sails from black to white. When Aegeus saw the black sails and thought his son had been killed, he responded by throwing himself into the sea, now known as the Aegean Sea.
Ariadne was not the only maiden to lose out badly in her encounter with Theseus. While heroic in his accomplishments in battle, as a romantic partner he left a lot to be desired. He moved from woman to woman quickly, even finding time (according to Shakespeare) to dally with the queen of the fairies:
OBERON: How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst not thou lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravishèd,
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.76
When the action of Midsummer begins, Theseus seems to have put those days behind him in favor of settling down with Hippolyta, queen of a fearsome group of warrior women known as the Amazons.
SECOND QUEEN: Honored Hippolyta,
Most dreaded Amazonian, that hast slain
The scythe-tusked boar; that with thy arm, as strong
As it is white, wast near to make the male
To thy sex captive, but that this thy lord,
Born to uphold creation in that honor
First nature styled it in, shrunk thee into
The bound thou wast o’erflowing, at once subduing
Thy force and thy affection
—The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1.1.87
Hippolyta’s story has many versions, but central to them all is her role in the 12 Labors of Hercules. Hercules’s ninth task was to procure Hippolyta’s war belt (also referred to as a girdle), which he accomplished. The classical story goes that Hippolyta granted it to him willingly, but it diverges as to whether she survived the encounter or was accidentally killed by her own forces in a battle stirred up by the goddess Hera.
Assuming, as in Shakespeare’s plays, that Hippolyta survived, and she and Theseus got together…well, that’s a whole other choose-your-own-adventure.
THESEUS: Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries,
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.17
Was Theseus with Hercules during his ninth labor, and met Hippolyta then? Did Hercules abduct her on behalf of Theseus? Did Theseus woo or abduct her at another time? Or did Theseus never marry Hippolyta, but married her sister Antiope? Depending on the source you consult, any of these could be possible.
What emerges from all these variations is that Theseus married and may have abducted a high-ranking Amazon, that it led to a war between the Amazons and Athenians, that Theseus had a son named Hippolytus, named for either his mother or aunt, and that the Amazons were a force to be reckoned with. This last point is one that Shakespeare drove home time and time again, with references to the Amazons as fierce females scattered throughout his plays, including Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 3, King John, and Timon of Athens.
Unlike many in Shakespeare’s original audiences, we may not instantly recognize Theseus and Hippolyta from their mythological histories, but luckily Shakespeare provided us with rich characters who stand on their own. Sometimes loving, sometimes quarrelsome, they set the tone for their two plays, counterpointing and commenting on the love stories of the A-plot, and adding a rich, subtle layer to these complex texts.
⇉ Related: In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta may also portray Oberon and Titania; check out this post on “double-casting” to see how that can add an element of meta-narrative to the production.