Shakespeare's Myths

Priapus is only mentioned once by Shakespeare: in Pericles. Of course, Shakespeare’s authorship has not been entirely established and George Wilkins’s hand in the play (he wrote at least half of it) may well explain in itself why Priapus is seldom to be found elsewhere in the corpus: what if that sole occurrence were the result of Wilkins plagiarizing Twine’s Patterne of Paineful Adventures (1607)?

   The god is mentioned by the Bawd in a lewd context: in the 19th scene in Pericles, after she’s been told that Marina, whose virginity makes men rush to the brothel, manages to sermonize every one of them who covets her, and to talk them into repenting and confessing to church – thus preserving her maidenhood:


Bawd: Fie, fie upon her, she’s able to freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation. (xix, 12-13)


   The Bawd identifies Priapus more as a fertility god than as a symbol of lechery. This rhetorical trick denounces Marina’s prudery, which the Bawd associates with barren and frosty winter. Marina is a waste land whose earth ought to be turned over as the agrarian metaphor clearly suggests: “She shall be ploughed” (xix, 194). Marina seems to endanger humanity’s survival, which is ironical, since a brothel is not meant to people the earth; but the bawd justifies her complaint in terms of fertility, not debauchery. The Bawd later reformulates her idea in almost identical terms: 


… she would make a puritan of the devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her. (xix, 18)


   “Make a puritan” elaborates on “freeze” and Priapus reappears behind the features of a hypersexual Devil. Virtue becomes an easily transmissible, though not venereal, disease, which is to be caught through a kiss that has not even been given yet.

   One may add that the phrase “she’s able to freeze the god Priapus” is somehow illustrated in the same scene. Lysimachus has come to the brothel with a purpose in mind and his intentions are clear. Furthermore, he is identified with his virile member:


Bolt: O sir, I can be modest.

Lysimachus: That dignifies the renown of a bawd no less than it gives good report of a member* to be chaste. (xix, 45-46)

[* If, as Warren convincingly argues in his edition of the play (Oxford: OUP, 2003, 195), “member” ought to be preferred to Quarto’s “number” and to Oxford Shakespeare’s “noble”. My emphasis.]


   The reply is ironical. Modesty is not a pimp’s most obvious quality and is similarly a shortcoming when applied to a member: in other words, both should be unabashed. By extension, “modesty” suggests humility, discretion and limit: thus Bolt and “member” should not be modest for that matter. Warren adds that similar puns appear in the opening of Marston’s The Insatiate Countess, a play which is contemporary with Pericles (also notice that Marston is undoubtedly the Elizabethan/Jacobean writer who made the most of Priapus):



What should we do in this Countess’s dark hole?

She’s sullenly retired, as the turtle.

Every day has been

A black day with her since her husband died;

And what should we, unruly members, make here?

(The Insatiate Countess, I.i.1-4)


Lysimachus is precisely that Priapus whom Marina will succeed in freezing. That is what Bolt tells us:


Bolt: The nobleman would have dealt with her like a nobleman, and she sent him away as cold as a snowball, saying his prayers, too. (xix, 188-89)


Bolt’s remark confirms this reading of the scene: the expression “cold as a snowball” explicitly echoes the verb “freeze” previously used by the Bawd. The singularity of the image of the snowball may conceal a saucy meaning, in which “ball” could refer to “ballock” – particularly in Bolt’s mouth for he just swore: “…let me be gelded like a spaniel”  (xix, 175, my emphasis). Marina has truly frozen Lysimachus’ lust. “Deal with” is here a synonym for “having sexual intercourse”. The exasperated Bawd finally concludes:


Bolt, take her away, use her at thy pleasure, crack the glass of her virginity, and make the rest malleable. (xix, 190-91)


“Crack the glass” is a classic metaphor illustrating loss of virginity: not only does Marina freeze everything she touches, but she is herself a cold impenetrable virgin: both petrifying and petrified. From the bawds’ point of view, fertile Priapus’ adversary is frigid Diana, or even worse, Medusa. Dionyza actually insists on the supernatural way in which Marina attracts a man’s gaze. In fact, the injustice is such that Marina will always be praised, even after being a whore (though she kept her maidenhood intact) whereas Philoten, who is a virgin, is the one who gets endlessly insulted:



None would look on her,

But cast their gazes on Marina’s face

Whilst ours was blurted at, and held a malkin

Not worth the time of day.

(xvii, 32-35)


One can thus imagine scene xix staged in such a manner that Lysimachus would embody Priapus. Terry Hands’s 1969 Stratford staging had Marina “impaled” on Priapus’ statue, but Lysimachus could in a way embody the God – though not to “impale” Marina of course but mainly to illustrate how she “freezes” him.

   If there is another priapic figure in the play, it is Pericles himself. Lysimachus stands for the lewd side of Priapus; Pericles incarnates the agrarian Priapus. When he arrives at Tarsus, he finds a desolate land that has gone back to wilderness, and is on the verge of plunging into chaos and cannibalism. Cleon remembers his realm’s former glory, symbolized by abundance poured out of the horn of plenty:


This’ Tarsus which I have the government,

A city o’er whom plenty held full hand,

For riches strewed herself even in the streets…

(iv, 21-23)


But Pericles is a cereal bringer:


And these our ships …

Are stored with corn to make your needy bread,

And give them life whom hunger starved half dead.

(iv, 90, 93-94)  


Associated with cornucopia (he actually pulls corn out of his horn of plenty which reminds us that horn and horny share a common etymology which is somehow summed up in Priapus’ bipolarity), Pericles signifies fertility regained. This is so unexpected for the Tarsians that they will give up thanks to him as to a God of seeds:


Your grace that fed my country with your corn—

For which the people’s prayers still fall upon you—

(xiii, 18-19)


A symbol of virility as hero, father and survivor, Pericles sees his stature undermined by womanly weeping (“Be manly, and take comfort”, xi, 22), which he manages to thwart by a masculine expression of his grief: by growing a beard (which is also one of Priapus’ attributes) and refusing to cut his hair, he exposes masculine features: long hair acts as a sandglass which materializes the duration of his mourning while signifying extreme grief in a very conventional way for Elizabethan theatre.

   Priapus is thus characterized by his twofold nature, which hesitates between lust and luxuriance. Contextualizing his appearance within Pericles is one thing, but one should also try to contextualize him within the rest of the Shakespearean canon even though he does not appear explicitly elsewhere.

   Rocco Coronato’s “The Emergence of Priapism in The Two Gentlemen of Verona” paves the way for analyses tracking implicit incarnations of the god in Shakespeare’s canon. Priapus, who literally disappears behind his phallus, can easily be reduced to his penis, or metamorphosed/metonymized into it. Simultaneously, other bodily parts are often literary substitutes for sexual organs, hence a twofold transformation, from Priapus to the penis, and from the penis to “any other part belonging to a man”. In his article, Coronato studies Priapus’ metamorphosis into “the tongue and eloquence of sex”, summoning the emblem of the Langue Ailée [“winged tongue” in Claude Paradin, Devises Héroïques. Lyon: Jean de Tournes and Guillaume Gazeau, 1551] whilst analyzing lines such as “And presently all humbled kiss the rod” (TGV, I.ii.5) or “That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man / If with his tongue he cannot win a woman” (III.i.104-05). Double entendres are definitely central, and so is displacement. But at times, things are explicit: the following lines clearly summon an ithyphallic figure: “the beast-eating Clown, and next the Fool, / The Bavian, with long tail and eke long tool… ” (Henry VIII, III.v.131-32) which leads François Laroque [Shakespeare’s Festive World. Cambridge: CUP, 1991] to identify here “a priapic avatar”. From 1970 onwards, with the help of both Peter Brook’s staging and Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream has become a Priapic figure.

   Bottom’s transformation into an ass is somehow a rewriting of Priapus’ myth. Of course, we know that the main source for this episode is Apuleius’ Golden Ass (translated into English by William Adlington in 1566). That first text confirms what many critics have tried to deny: Bottom’s metamorphosis is not innocent, and if his phallus is not clearly changed into a donkey’s, this aspect is at least suggested.

   If Bottom’s song (III.i.118-29) sounds parodic (and in many respects is full of bawdy double entendres), his subsequent encounter with Titania might be considered as a new humoristic version of Priapus’ attempt to violate Lotis (a scene represented by Bellini in The Feast of the Gods). This makes sense in a play which is crammed with distorted Ovidian references, and actual or would-be rapists: Theseus “wooing” Hippolyta, I.i.16-17, and “ravishing” Perigouna, II.i.78; Demetrius threatening Helena, II.i.214-19; and Titania, after she has met the ass, evoking the moon and “every little flower” weeping and “Lamenting some enforcèd chastity”, III.i.190.

   Both Titania and Lotis have fallen asleep and both are awakened by an ass. But then again, Titania is not a nymph but a fairy, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the word “nymph” is never applied to Titania but only to Hermia and Helena — for instance when they are discovered, asleep precisely, by Theseus (IV.i.126). Sleeping nymphs are recurrent in ancient texts and widespread iconography, and do not necessarily refer to Lotis, and hence to Priapus; nonetheless, sleeping nymphs are often pictured surrounded by lecherous, malevolent satires. Let us also remember that Ovid tells us Priapus’ story twice in Fasti, once involving Lotis (1.391), the other Hestia/Vesta (6.319) — which explains why on the occasion of the latter’s feast, donkeys are thankfully crowned with flowers, a ritual which Titania reproduces:


Come, sit thee down upon this flow’ry bed,

While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,

And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,

And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.



Statues of Priapus themselves were garlanded with flowers during fertility worship ceremonies — this ritual also echoes Priapus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls (1380-82).

   Titania then gives Bottom exactly what was offered to the God during priapic rites — apricots, grapes and honey (Priapus being the god of orchards, vineyards and bees):


Feed him with apricots and dewberries,

With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;

The honeybags steal from the humble-bees…



Some consider the diet as aphrodisiac, others as laxative. But what is more striking in the menu is the variety of fruits, which are not easily found within the same season; this fruitfulness is all the more astonishing considering the apocalyptic description Titania has just made of her world (II.i.88-117). Bottom is thus the herald of fertility and an indisputable cognate with Priapus.

   The “fig” is also clearly phallic. In his article “Priape à la Renaissance — Les guirlandes de Giovanni da Udine à la Farnésine”, Philippe Morel explains that if Priapus stands for fruitfulness, fruits may conversely summon the God’s myth: the gourd penetrating a ripe fig painted by da Udine on the ceiling of the Loggia of Psyche is meant to refer to Priapus’ mythological and symbolical statuses. Priapus, says Morel, is particularly associated with figs: not only does he receive them as gifts but his effigy was traditionally carved out of fig tree wood, a detail also pointed out by Cartari.

   The fig moreover suggests an obscene gesture which further corroborates Brook’s staging. The gesture is to be found in Henry V (“The Fig of Spain”, III.ii.5), 2 Henry IV (V.iii.114-16) and 2 Henry VI (II.iii.65-66). The fig may stand for the penis as well as for female genitals (as in da Udine’s painting); it may also symbolize them both, illustrating actual intercourse. The multiple meanings of figs are famously developed in Antony and Cleopatra.

   Another fruit mentioned by Titania caught my attention: “apricots”, sometimes spelt “apricocks” (as in both the first Quarto and the first Folio) — indeed an old form of the word, which nonetheless considerably “eroticizes” the fruit. There are 82 occurrences of the term “cock” in Shakespeare’s canon, and a lot of them play on the multiple meanings of the word — even though it was less coarse then than it is nowadays. There are two occurrences in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (not counting “apricocks”) and one of them is to be found in the song Bottom sings just after his metamorphosis and before his meeting with Titania. The text tellingly evokes the “cuckoo” which worries husbands, who are afraid to be “cuckolds”. Like the cuckoo, Priapus threatens husbands: the latter, in Lampsacus, jealous of the interest their wives had in him, forced him to flee.


The ousel cock so black of hue; …

The plainsong cuckoo grey,

Whose note full many a man doth mark,

And dares not answer ‘Nay’ –

(III.i.119, 125-27)


Priapus might even appear in Hamlet, when Ophelia loses her mind and talks bawdy:


Ophelia: [sings]

By Gis, and by Saint Charity,

   Alack, and fie for shame!

Young men will do’t if they come to’t,

   By Cock, they are to blame.



“Cock” is a perverted version of “God” here, but since Ophelia explicitly talks about sexual intercourse, she sounds very rude, even blasphemous. The association of “God” and “penis” led François-Victor Hugo to translate the line: “Par Priape! ils sont à blâmer!” [“By Priapus! They are to blame…” Hamlet, ed. Germaine Landré. Paris: GF Flammarion, 1979, 340]. The association between poultry and sex is made clear by the nurse in Romeo and Juliet: “… a bump as big as a young cock’rel’s stone” (I.iii.55).

   In his article “Erotic Animal Imagery”, Jones refers to one of Dürer’s “engravings” (actually a woodcut) “The Men’s Bath” (or “The Bath House”), which illustrates the three most common meanings of the word “cock” (bird-penis-tap). What Jones does not say is that Priapus was actually sometimes represented with a crest on his head because of its erectile proprieties. A rooster’s crest is also, along with the bauble, one of the Fool’s attributes, known as the “coxcomb”.

   Devils, savages and fools share a common trait – their hyper-sexuality. Caliban experienced, just like Priapus, a failed rape: “Prospero: … I lodg’d thee / In my own cell, till thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child” (I.ii.348-50), an accusation to which Caliban tellingly answers in terms of generation and fertility: “Caliban: O ho, O ho! would’t had been done! / Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (I.iii.51-53). He is also incidentally very fond of the bottle, which clearly identifies him as a disciple of Bacchus. The fool naturally reappears in the description of the “Morris” given by Gerrold, the schoolmaster, in The Two Noble Kinsmen:


… the beast-eating Clown, and next the Fool,

The Bavian, with long tail and eke long tool…



E. K. Chambers provides the following explanations of the Fool’s various attributes: his ladle, his long tail and his long tool:


Bavian as a name for the fool, is the Dutch baviaan, ‘baboon’. His tail is to be noted; for the phallic shape sometimes given to the bladder which he carries.


The long tail and the phallic-shaped bladder that the Fool carried around drew attention to his fabled hyper-sexuality which was somewhat curiously associated with his mental debility, while at the same time making it possible for him to raise a laugh with various obscene mimes. [Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World, 126].

   The association between hyper-sexuality and debility is not that surprising and works for most of our “Priapuses”: the fool, the ass, the devilish savage… Notice that Bottom is the fool in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a part which Caliban also fulfils, along with Trinculo, in the Tempest. Very interestingly, that kind of virility is never linked with seduction: it is merely laughable. Like Priapus we may add, the fool, as Wiles notices, is “consistently denied physical satisfaction”. [Shakespeare’s Clown. Cambridge: CUP, 1987, 111]. If the fool’s manhood is enhanced during the Morris dance, it is anyway one of his most common features. In Twelfth Night, the following dialogue plays on a double entendre:


Maria: Nay, either tell me where thou hast been or I will not open my lips so wide as a bristle may enter in way of thy excuse. My lady will hang thee for thy absence.

Clown: Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours.

(Twelfth Night, I.v.1-5)


In The First Night of Twelfth Night [Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1954, 168], Leslie Hotson explains the passage as following:


Historically, the Fool and indecency cannot be parted. To make up for his mental shortcomings, Nature was commonly believed to have endowed the Fool with an excess of virility, symbolized by his bauble. “Fools please women best”. “A fool’s bauble is a lady’s playfellow”. “A foolish bed-mate, why, he hath no peer”. Priapus used to be described as that foolish god; and Mercutio’s cynical notion of Love is a great natural with his bauble.

Feste’s lascivious lapses earn him Lady Olivia’s sharp reproof — “you grow dishonest”. … His boastful pun, “He that is well hang’d [i. e., handsomely furnished or adorned with virility] in this world, needs to fear no colours [no deceptions or foes]” is taken up by Maria. [For this sense of hang’d, see the fool in Fletcher and Massinger’s Wit at several Weapons, II.ii: “When they saw how I was hang’d…”. Compare Cotgrave’s translation of Couillatris: “Well hang’d”.]

   Priapus in Shakespeare is thus referred to in two ways: through Ovid first, but also, more generally, through folklore, fertility rites and worships. At a time when these started being disparaged, Shakespeare subtly underlined Priapus’ paradoxes and gave him a place of choice, within both the microcosm of a luxurious brothel and the macrocosm of Pericles, a play praising generation, abundance, and “parentality”. Read either in bono or in malo, irrevocably paradoxical, Priapus embodies a perfect discordia concors. Pre-coital, he is a symbol of lust; post-coital, of generation… but he is never given access to pleasure. 

How to cite

Frédéric Delord. "Priapus."  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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