Reviving The Statue: Early Modern Representations of the Myth of Niobe, from Golding to Shakespeare
Depicted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Niobe is a woman who turns to a weeping stone in grief when her fourteen children are all murdered as punishment for her boasting. This essay explores the presence of this rather overlooked myth in early modern literature. The first half traces a shift in interpretations of the story where an outspoken woman suffers from the staggering vindictiveness of a cruel goddess, into a ‘Christianised’ narrative which seems to applaud the humiliation of Niobe by a male force. In the second half, it is argued that John Donne and William Shakespeare, in ‘Twicknam Garden’, Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale, evoke the myth, with the problematic undertones it carries, to subvert it. Though similar metamorphoses are suggested each time, these texts ‘de-petrify’ the statue, letting the women go free, and critiquing (to various extents) the male characters who have such restrictive views. As well as being an original, detailed exploration of the reception of Niobe in early modern England, the essay finds that, particularly with regard to the story of gender it presents, the myth may have impacted the work of some of the major writers of the period.