Understanding and Relating “Daphne and Apollo” to Renaissance Literature

By Molly M.

There have been many instances of transformation within Renaissance literature. One well known example occurs is in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Katherine’s psychological change within the play derives from Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo. Within The Metamorphoses, humans were often transformed either into animal or vegetative forms, both causing the loss of a human body. As Tzachi Zamir points out, “The loss of a human body […] brings out the body’s singular significance for those what are changed and for those with whom they communicate” (Zamir 439). Daphne’s transformation into a tree shows the positive and negative effects of human transformation.

According to Zamir, the transformation of a person into a tree “results from an attempt to avoid intercourse’ (Zamir 444). This uncovers the reason behind Daphne’s transformation. Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo is relatively straightforward, as “the arrows of Cupid, belittled by Phoebus, simultaneously incite the god to pursue Daphne and the nymph to flee, until appeals to her father Peneus change Daphne into the laurel tree” (Wills 143).

In Ovid’s stories “physical metamorphosis becomes an example of proper female behavior” (Liu 7). This is why when a woman in transformed within an Ovidian tale then the transformation is permanent. Aileen Lui argues that, “in cases when the girl herself is transformed of tries to resist the sexual advance, she faces exclusion from society” (Liu 7). When Daphne begs her father to alter her body to avoid the advances of the god Apollo, she ends up removing herself from human society. Once her transformation is complete she will no longer be able to possess her human body again. Her “active rejection of the god’s sexual advances, therefore, directly condemns her to an eternity of Otherness and utter lack of agency” (Liu 8).

Because Daphne’s transformation was in an attempt to defend herself from Apollo, her figure was “kept as close to living human beings as possible, while being removed from the sensible experience that could render them vulnerable to pain or undesired sex” (Zamir 444). So while she lost her status and agency as a human she still possess the somewhat appearance of a human. It would seem that the keeping of her appearance did not completely deter Apollo. Although he could not rape her, as she was in the form of a tree, she was still vulnerable to his touch and caress.

This tale allows us to see the benefits and consequences that came with human transformation. If it were not for the tales such as those contained within Ovid’s Metamorphoses many of the concepts that fall within the plays of Shakespeare and his affiliates would not exist. That is why reading and understanding these tales is so important when reading or studying Renaissance literature.

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Liu, Aileen Y. “‘Am Not I Your Rosalind?’: Ovidian Identity and Transformation in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.” Scribd. 1 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

Wills, Jeffrey. “Callimachean Models for Ovid’s ‘Apollo-Daphne'” Materiali E Discussioni per L’analisi Dei Testi Classici 24 (1990): 143-56.

Zamir, Tzachi. “Talking Trees.” New Literary History: A Journal Of Theory And Interpretation 42.3 (2011): 439-453.

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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

One response to “Understanding and Relating “Daphne and Apollo” to Renaissance Literature

  • performinghumanity

    Notably, Daphne isn’t just subjected to Apollo’s caresses (a strange molestation, if she still has any sentience). She’s also objectified and re-appropriated since he turns her into a wearable garland symbolizing his poetic and athletic potencies. Without a voice, he re-narrates the use of her body.

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