Shakespeare's Myths

Shakespeare’s Cupid sources — Shakespeare’s Cupid-Surrogates — Cupid-Iconography and the Devaluation of Love


Despite many allusions to Cupid, Shakespeare’s engagement with this deity is surprisingly limited, both in terms of his material presence and the range of interpretations he invites.


Although Cupid featured in more than seventy plays and masques between 1500 and 1660, he appears on the Shakespearean stage only once, in Act I Scene ii of Timon of Athens — a scene now ascribed to Thomas Middleton. This absence is partly explained by Shakespeare’s lack of engagement with the court masque in which Cupid(s) often played a central role, but it also represents a break with theatrical tradition: Cupid recurs frequently in Lyly’s romantic comedies, such as Gallathea and Sappho and Phao, and in classical-themed tragedies such as Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. Even in the more agnostic atmosphere of Shakespeare’s late plays with their spectacular use of the deus ex machina, we are invited to believe in Jupiter and Diana but not Cupid. Similarly, Shakespeare’s “failure” to write any epithalamic verse contributes to the love-god’s insignificance in his poetic canon. Unlike the sonnet sequences of Watson, Sidney, Spenser and Greville, which are interwoven with Cupids, Shakespeare’s Sonnets confines him to the last two “Anacreontic” poems, with only brief allusions to Love’s iconography in a preceding five.


This sense of limitation extends to the kinds of Cupid we find in Shakespeare. The Neoplatonic and Christian Eros, celebrated by Spenser, Jonson and Lady Mary Wroth, is absent from Shakespeare’s work. Where characters describe Cupid, he is invariably profane and absurd: “This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy/ This Signior Junior, giant dwarf, Dan Cupid … / Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, III.i.174-76). As Kate Chedgzoy has observed: ‘if … the literature and art of the period represented two versions of Cupid, signifying illicit and divine love, Shakespeare seems to have been interested only in the first of these’ (141). His Cupid is not only secular but bawdy: in Love’s Labour’s Lost he is the ‘prince of plackets, king of codpieces’ (III.i.179); in Much Ado About Nothing, the sign outside a brothel (I.i.234-37). We may glimpse a more transcendent vision in Helena’s insistence that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind …’ (I.i.234), yet A Midsummer Night’s Dream goes out of its way to make desire a visual hallucination (Demetrius arguably never regains his sight) and although this play owes something to Apuleius’ tale of Cupid and Psyche which defends erotic love and sublimates Cupid, Shakespeare’s approach is profoundly debasing — transforming the love-god into the domestic English fairy, Puck.


In fact, Shakespeare’s work reveals a sustained aversion to Cupid, a disdain that is bound up with ideas about theatrical artifice and romantic self-delusion. But perhaps most intriguing is Shakespeare’s acknowledgment of and resistance to the subversiveness of desire through Cupid. As Catherine Belsey has argued, the Renaissance love-god was characterised by his ability to escape ‘the prohibitions that constrain grown-up behaviour. He seems to know nothing about propriety or morality: the love he stands for is playful, irresponsible; it seeks pleasure without consideration for the consequences’ (‘Cleopatra’s Seduction’, 52). It is this Cupid that Shakespeare imagines but that his work must often condemn and/or expel in order to preserve an idealizing fantasy of romantic love. The following analysis begins by establishing some of Shakespeare’s more populist sources for Cupid, before considering his appropriation of particular narratives; his deployment of Cupid-surrogates; and his use of Cupid-iconography to reveal the undesirability of eros.


Shakespeare’s Cupid sources


Although Cupid appeared regularly in some of Shakespeare’s favourite books (including those he name-checks on the stage: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Tottel’s Miscellany), the dramatist seems also to have thought of Cupid in aural and visual terms. His misdeeds were a staple topic for songs, ranging from the more sophisticated lyrics of William Byrd (Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589)) to the ballads sung at weddings and other festivals, in alehouses and taverns. It was through the performance of ballads on stage that Cupid-mythology may have been most accessible. The same Cupid song, “Cupid is Venus’ only joy”, occurs in no less than three Middleton works: Masque of Cupids, More Dissemblers Besides Women and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and disseminates the idea of Cupid as wanton and immoral, even hinting at an incestuous relationship with Venus. There are at least three Cupid songs in the Shakespearean canon: one for Sylvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV.ii.45-47), which deploys the familiar sonnet conceit of Cupid taking up residence in the beloved’s eyes; one requested by Helen to be sung by Pandarus (III.i.106-16), which identifies Cupid as the cause of venereal disease as well as sexual pleasure; and an abortive effort by Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (V.ii.25-28), presenting an abject lover praying to Cupid, which plagiarises a ballad called “The god of love”. Finally, in Romeo and Juliet, a Cupid ballad is alluded to when Mercutio identifies the love-god as “he that shot so trim / When King Cophetua loved the beggar maid” (II.i.13-14). This is a direct quotation from “A Song of a Beggar and a King” as it was published in Richard Johnson’s A Crowne Garland of Goulden Roses (1612) (“The blinded boy that shoots so trim, / from heaven down so high: / He drew a dart and shot at him, / in place where he did lie”) emphasizing Love’s contempt for distinctions of birth and social class.


At the same time, Cupid was an irresistible visual phenomenon in early modern England, appearing in tapestries, jewellery, paintings, painted cloths, emblems and broadsides pasted up “in the shops of artificers & cottages of poore husbandmen” (Nicholas Bownd, The Doctrine of the Sabbath Plainely Layde Forth [London, 1595], p. 242). Shakespeare’s engagement with this visual Cupid is suggested by characters’ frequent allusions to having seen him. For example, Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra, “O’erpicturing that Venus where we see/ The fancy outwork nature” (II.ii.207-08), seems to draw on Italian Renaissance painting, and this source might extend to the “pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids” (209) who accompany her. Perhaps Shakespeare knew Titian’s work (from a patron’s collection or the prints for sale in London booksellers) in which Cupid not only served to intensify Venus’ attractions through his own beauty, but was an erotic object for the goddess (see Belsey, “Cleopatra’s Seduction”). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena’s allusion to “winged Cupid painted blind” (I.i.235) implies a wider range of possible sources including emblems and book illustrations, but perhaps most intriguing is Oberon’s insistence that he “saw” Cupid when his servant, Puck, could not (II.i.155, 161). Given that the speech’s imagery of Arion on the dolphin’s back and fireworks derives from royal entertainments, Oberon may be alluding to a contemporary pageant which featured Cupid, perhaps not unlike Thomas Churchyard’s Shew of Chastity, performed for Elizabeth during her progress at Norwich in 1578, in which Cupid’s bow and arrows were offered to the Queen.


Nevertheless, if Shakespeare’s Cupid allusions suggest a wide-ranging cultural awareness of that deity, knowledge of particular narratives also informs his work. Most pervasive is Cupid’s defeat by Chastity. This provides the theme for Sonnets 153 and 154, based on a brief epigram by Marianus Scholasticus in the Greek Anthology IV, xix, 35, in which, whilst Cupid is sleeping, nymphs quench the flame of desire by dipping his brand in a pool of water. The hot bath thereby created is not only associated with sexual consummation but with the cure for venereal disease (see Hutton, “Analogues”). Petrarch’s Trionfo della Pudicizia, in which the poet watches Chaste Laura repel Cupid’s arrow, clearly informs Oberon’s vision in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


Oberon (to Puck): That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,

Flying between the cold moon and the earth

Cupid, all armed. A certain aim he took

At a fair vestal, thronèd by the west,

And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow

As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.

But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft

Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon. (II.i.155-62)


Shakespeare’s imagery is closer to the Italian than to Lord Morley’s English translation (1554), suggesting that he may have read Petrarch in the original:  


Ché giá in fredda onestate erano estinti

i dorati suoi strali accesi in fiamma

d’amorosa beltate e’ n piacer tinti. (67-69)


[For now his gilded shafts, lit with the flame / Of amorous beauty, and in pleasure dipped, / Were by the coldness of her honour quenched]


But if A Midsummer Night’s Dream claims to follow the Trionfo della Pudicizia in its reversal of the love-juice (“Dian’s bud o’er Cupid’s flower/ Hath such force and blessed power”, IV.i.72-3), its conclusion seems more to resemble the Trionfo dell’Amore, given that the play ends with three weddings, including that of the Amazon, Hippolyta. Furthermore, rather than leave Cupid’s power diminished or destroyed, as in Petrarch, Shakespeare extends the arrow’s trajectory to the “little western flower―/ Before, milk-white; now, purple with love’s wound” (II.i.166-67). Thus, Chastity provokes desire, in the sense that it calls upon Cupid to take aim at it, but it also creates desire through the pansy’s ability to “make or man or woman madly dote” (171). Thus, Shakespeare invokes Cupid’s defeat only to insist upon his ultimate triumph.


This sleight of hand is repeated in The Tempest by means of another Cupid narrative. In Book V of the Metamorphoses, Venus commands Cupid to shoot an arrow at Pluto, causing the latter to abduct and rape Proserpine. In Prospero’s masque, staged for the newly-betrothed Ferdinand and Miranda, Ceres explains her desire to avoid Venus and Cupid: “Since they did plot/ The means that dusky Dis my daughter got,/ Her and her blind boy’s scandalled company/ I have forsworn” (IV.i.88-91). Iris reassures her that the threat of illicit lust (and therefore the presence of Venus and Cupid) has been repelled by the lovers’ chastity. And yet, critics have often been struck by the masque’s strong wish-fulfilment, describing it as Prospero’s “antidote to premarital sexuality” (Johnson, 690) or as his “belated patriarchal attempt to wrest back control of marriage and the erotic from his teenage daughter”, given that Miranda’s hand-fast in Act III Scene i might already have been considered a valid wedding ceremony (Chedgzoy, 149). Outside the masque, the influence of Venus and Cupid remains strong, as testified by Caliban’s attempt to rape Miranda. His motive to “people … /This isle with Calibans” (I.ii.352-53) recalls Venus’ aim to extend her dominion into the underworld by subduing Pluto. More generally, the desire imposed by Cupid is revealed through Caliban to be degrading and violent, but it cannot be wholly denied, as when thoughts of Caliban intrude upon the masque. Maurice Hunt reads Prospero’s final reconciliation with his servant as “Shakespeare’s negative comment on the desire to banish Cupid not only from courtship but from social intercourse generally. In the sense that lust is a perversion of erotic love, Caliban compels Prospero to acknowledge this thing of darkness — blind Cupid” (66).


The irresistible but degrading effects of Love are also staged in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whilst Shakespeare was consulting The Golden Ass for Bottom’s metamorphosis, he was clearly distracted by Cupid and Psyche in Books IV-VI. Here, Venus commands Cupid to punish Psyche by making her “fall in love with the most miserable creature living, the most poor, the most crooked, and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness” (Adlington, 52). This punishment is adapted by Oberon: “The next thing then [Titania] waking looks upon― / Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape— / She shall pursue it with the soul of love” (II.i.179-82). But where in the myth the object of Psyche’s passion turns out to be Love himself, thus elevating the mortal through her passion for a deity, in Shakespeare’s play the “monster” is half-man, half-beast and a “rude mechanical” (III.ii.6, 9) at that, resulting in a union whose humiliation undermines the authority of the fairy queen. Moreover, Bottom (who is the only character transfigured by love) pointedly fails to comprehend his dream.   


Finally, if Shakespeare’s Cupid testifies to the weakness of mortal flesh, he is also capable of handing out death. The narrative of “De Morte & Amore”, popularised by Andrea Alciati’s Emblemata (1531) and Geoffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblemes (1586), tells how a winged, blindfolded and arrow-wielding Cupid and Death encountered one another and accidentally exchanged arrows so that Death made old people lovesick and Cupid murdered the young. There is an explicit allusion to this tale in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis where the goddess is outraged at Adonis’ murder: “Love’s golden arrow at him should have fled,/ And not death’s ebon dart to strike him dead” (947-48), but it also occurs at a more structural level in Romeo and Juliet where the transformation of the wedding-bed into the death-bed suggests the confusion of Love and Death, not just through the image of Death as bridegroom (which also owes something to Cupid and Psyche) but the less familiar assumption that Love kills. As the Prince summarises at the end of the play: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (V.iii.291-92).


Shakespeare’s Cupid-Surrogates


To consider Cupid as a character in Shakespeare’s work is to be struck by his absence ― an effect partly achieved by his ruthless excision from the source material. For example, in the Metamorphoses Book X, the deity’s accidental wounding of Venus makes her fall in love with Adonis, but Shakespeare’s poem begins in medias res, never offering an explanation for Venus’ passion and limiting its Cupid allusions to trivia such as the reason Adonis has dimples (243-46). It is Venus who almost wholly engrosses the identity of “Love” and who renders eros tragic after Adonis’ loss. Similarly, Troilus and Cressida begins after Troilus has fallen in love and thus eschews Chaucer’s detailed description of how Cupid revenged the protagonist’s slanders against him; the agent of tragedy in Chaucer’s Troilus becomes the subject of a bawdy ballad in Shakespeare’s play. Nevertheless, the memory of Cupid could not be banished from the Shakespearean stage entirely. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, characters bear witness to Cupid’s influence as though he were an actor just offstage. For example, Biron describes the King’s capitulation to love: “Shot, by heaven! Proceed, sweet Cupid, thou hast thumped him with thy bird-bolt under the left pap” (IV.iii.21-22), reminding us that Cupid had often fired arrows on stage (see Thomas Preston’s Cambyses), sometimes after a descent (see Lyly’s Sappho and Phao), and we might speculate that Biron looks up into the heavens when he makes this comment. Moreover, the power vacuum created by Cupid’s absence inspires the creation of Cupid-surrogates. In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero and Don Pedro self-consciously usurp Cupid’s role in arranging the infatuation of Beatrice and Benedick: “If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods” (II.i.360-62). His agency is more ambiguous in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the play’s “marvellous syncretism” (Kott, 46) includes the translation of Cupid into Puck. The latter’s delight when he accidentally places love-juice on the wrong Athenian’s eyes recalls Cupid’s deliberate toying, while his assertion: “Cupid is a knavish lad/ Thus to make poor females mad” (III.iii.28-29) both distances Puck from his classical forebear and more closely aligns them. Nor is Puck the only Cupid-surrogate to be found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon wields Cupid’s power by means of love-in-idleness to create the misalliance between Titania and Bottom. Meanwhile, the Indian boy recalls Cupid’s youthful subjection to an overbearing female and the need for him to escape matriarchal rule, as attested to in Cupid and Psyche (McPeek, 74).


One of the most intriguing features of these Cupid-surrogates is the way in which they illuminate desire’s power to disrupt hierarchies of age and gender. As a minor deity, a mere boy, subject to his mother’s authority and yet regarded as the oldest and most powerful of the gods, Cupid is a much-discussed paradox in Renaissance poetry, and, as Chedgzoy has shown, frequently alluded to by Shakespearean characters on the brink of adult sexuality. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica’s disguising as a boy to elope with Lorenzo makes her think of Cupid ( for he embodies the wilful desire which leads her to defy parental authority. More fundamentally, Cupid’s pleasure in disguise, “[his] mobile identities and manipulation of erotic play” can be seen to “blur the boundaries between child and adult subjectivity, and thereby expose the uncertain foundations of the normative power structures underpinning the family and upholding the distinction between adults and children” (Chedgzoy, 143). Finally, the famously desirable Cupid registers Jessica’s awareness of eliciting homoerotic lust in her boyish guise, a danger incurred by all of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines. For example, Rosalind and Viola perform the work of Cupid by inspiring passion in Orlando and Phoebe, Orsino and Olivia, and they are themselves subjected to desire in the process. Interestingly, the idea that for a girl to play the part of Cupid might render her unchaste informs Middleton’s The Nice Valour (1622), where the brother of a pregnant girl thus disguised warns: “There is no tamp’ring with these Cupids long;/ The mere conceit with womankind works strong” (V.i.9-10). However, the main effect of Rosalind and Viola’s masculine beauty (like that of Cupid) is to challenge romantic comedy’s drive towards heterosexual coupling by releasing homoerotic desire.


For Alan Lewis, Cupid is central to Shakespeare’s sense that “a phantom sodomy accompanies desire … describ[ing] the phantasized repetition or displacement of lack that haunts the predominant narrative of a transcendent romantic eros” (186). In Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cupid’s presence at the inception of desire and his arrow-wielding make him an obvious figure for the “sodomic wounding of the masculine subject” (182), as suggested by Mercutio’s observation that Romeo has had “the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft” (II.iii.14-15), with its puns on “butt-shaft” and “heart”/arse. Similarly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Cupidean Puck’s insistence that “those things do best please me/ That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.120-21) ― “preposterous” again suggesting a sodomitic pun — identifies him as a figure for the “polymorphous perversity that must be sacrificed for the constitution and maintenance of normative, adult gender identity, which is why he returns as the subject’s double, a figure for what he has sacrificed to enter the symbolic” (213, fn 101).


But if Lewis asserts Shakespeare’s proto-Lacanian use of Cupid, critics have not always agreed on the dramatist’s willingness to accept the subversive potential of Cupid. In a recent study of Shakespeare’s approach to sexuality, David Bevington has shown how often he omits the more salacious details of his sources, observing that “Generally … young men and women in the romantic comedies find comfort and safety in acceding to established codes of sexual behaviour” (41). This approach seems to extend to his use of Eros. Chedgzoy argues that “Shakespeare’s Cupid is an anti-marital force … too disruptive of normative social hierarchies to facilitate the reintegration of erotic desire with patriarchal imperatives through the institution of marriage” (148-9). But if this explains why Shakespeare often found it necessary to limit Cupid’s physical presence in the plays, his use of Cupid-iconography not only retains this transgressive charge but becomes the locus for Shakespeare’s most cynical questioning of the value of love.


Cupid-Iconography and the Devaluation of Love


Cupid-iconography may be used neutrally to describe the lover’s state: both Julia and Romeo long for Cupid’s wings to traverse the distance between themselves and the beloved (II.vii.9-11, II.i.108-09), suggesting the lover’s impatience to achieve his/her desire and how the rest of the world and its concerns fall away. Yet, by far the majority of allusions to Cupid-iconography serve to denigrate erotic love. For example, the notion of Cupid’s blindness recurs frequently in the witty banter of Shakespeare’s friends and lovers, but it had a more tragic origin, invented by the medieval period to castigate the sin of lust (Panofsky, “Blind Love”). In Shakespeare’s work, it exposes the lover’s failure to judge his/her own foolish, scandalous or immoral actions, but also the damaging consequences of looking with another’s eyes. In the later sonnets where the speaker blames himself for his ongoing attraction to a treacherous and unchaste woman, he berates Cupid: “Thou blind fool love, what dost thou to mine eyes/ That they behold and see not what they see?” (137.1-2); “O me what eyes hath love put in my head / Which have no correspondence with true sight” (148.1-2). Here, Shakespeare deliberately distinguishes his idea of desire and Cupid from the Neoplatonic conception disseminated by Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, where Pietro Bembo calls on the god of love to “purge with the shining beams of thy light our eyes from misty ignorance” (Book IV, 322). Shakespeare’s lovers (usually male) often find themselves in the opposite situation of being enraptured by a beauty which they know to be false, or of transferring their affections from one beloved to another without reason. The problem is partly that they are looking with the eyes of another, not just Cupid (though it is described in these terms — Romeo insists that Cupid lent him counsel “and I lent him eyes”, II.i.122-23), but those of an admired friend and rival. This is most obviously the case in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Proteus’ shifting of his affections from Julia to Sylvia is a response to his respect for Valentine’s judgment and his desire to imitate him (II.iv.194). Hence, allusions to Cupid’s blindness and the exchange of eyes become an important index in Shakespeare’s work to what René Girard has described as the triangulation of desire: “In the birth of desire the third person is always present’ (Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1976), 21).   


Another negative attribute of Shakespeare’s Cupid is his boyishness. This is sometimes invoked to explain the lover’s inappropriate frivolity (Loves Labours Lost, V.ii.752-53) or his lack of conscience (Sonnet 151), but it becomes a more serious affair in the case of the soldier. Othello tries to distance himself from the stereotype of the besotted bridegroom thus: 


... when light-winged toys

Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness

My speculative and officed instruments,

That my disports corrupt and taint my business,

Let housewives make a skillet of my helm … (I.iii.268-72)


In a lost painting, described by Lucian, of the marriage of Alexander and Roxana, cupids played with the great general’s armour, and this description may have inspired Boccaccio’s Venus and Mars (c. 1485, National Gallery, London). A similar threat of emasculation haunts Antony and Cleopatra, and it is hardly coincidental that the servant required to “unarm” Antony after his defeat is named Eros (IV.xv.35), suggesting the dismantling of military identity by a playful Love. For these men, the identification with Cupid is one they resist, not only because he threatens a loss of self-mastery but because his immature body symbolises castration: fresh from the wars, Benedick imagines being punished for falling in love by having his eyes plucked out (I.i.234-35). Moreover, the immaturity of Cupid’s penis is implied by mocking allusions to “bird-bolts” ― blunt arrows used by boys to fire at birds (see Love’s Labour’s Lost, IV.iii.21-22 and Much Ado, I.i.40), and the possibility of an adult lover falling victim to such a feeble arrow also invokes the threat of sodomy, as when Armado complains that “Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules’ club …” (Loves Labours Lost, I.ii.167-68). 


In a notable exception to this rule, Cupid imagery is lustily embraced by Henry V, apparently secure in his sexual prowess after defeating the French at Agincourt. Here, Cupid’s blindness and nakedness provide the focus for one of the most bawdy passages in the Shakespearean canon. The King has successfully won Katherine’s consent to their marriage but he confesses to Burgundy that he lacks the rhetorical prowess to “conjure up the spirit of love in her that he will appear in his true likeness” (V.ii.285-87). Burgundy demurs:


Pardon the frankness of my mirth, if I answer you for that. If you would conjure in her, you must make a circle; if conjure up love in her in his true likeness, he must appear naked and blind. Can you blame her then, being a maid yet rosed over with the virgin crimson of modesty, if she deny the appearance of a naked blind boy in her naked seeing self? It were, my lord, a hard condition for a maid to consign to. 

King Harry: Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces. (V.ii.289-98)


Burgundy debases the spirit of love by translating the icon of Cupid into purely sexual terms. Drawing a circle means to open the vagina, thence to penetrate it with love, “naked and blind” signifying the penis in the dark (T. W. Craik, King Henry V Arden 3, 1995). Where history plays rarely invoke Cupid (part of their eschewal of romantic themes), here the allusion exposes Henry V’s relentless equation of military and sexual violence. Cupid’s piercing arrow becomes the penis’ physical force, echoing the more explicit threat of rape before Harfleur.


Finally, Cupid arouses suspicion and even hostility in Shakespeare for being both artful and artificial. Romeo and Juliet is particularly vocal on the poetic and theatrical cliché which Cupid has become. For example, Mercutio mocks the lover’s tendency to compose rhymes invoking the aid of the love-gods: ‘Speak to my gossip Venus one fair word / One nickname for her purblind son and heir,/ Young Adam Cupid” (II.i.11-13). Within the play, this kind of imagery is already associated with Romeo’s superficial passion for Rosaline and his ineffectual attempts to woo her: “She’ll not be hit / With Cupid’s arrow … From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharmed” (I.i.205-06, 208). Moreover, in Act I Scene iv, Benvolio rejects the idea of Cupid as the Prologue to their masking:


The date is out of such prolixity.

We’ll have no Cupid hoodwinked with a scarf,

Bearing a Tartar’s painted bow of lath,

Scaring the ladies like a crow-keeper (3-6)


Cupid effectively presides over the Capulet ball anyway, given that it is here that Romeo and Juliet conceive a destructive passion for one another in defiance of their families. Nevertheless, this meta-theatrical moment seems to suggest Shakespeare’s impatience not just with Cupid as the prologue to a masque (as seen in Cynthia’s Revels and Timon of Athens) but his inadequate representation on any stage. Not only does the painted property which represents his bow deprive it of any force, Benvolio finds the convention of Cupid “hoodwinked with a scarf” ridiculous. If Cupid is blind then the blindfold is obsolete, but worse it becomes theatrically absurd when in Preston’s Cambyses the blindfolded actor has to be led onto the stage (“Enter VENUS leading out her son, CUPID, blind ...” (SD 842). There is also in the term “hoodwinked” an allusion to the deceit more generally practised by Cupid, whose theatrical representation is part of a larger abuse. 


Cupid-iconography often serves as a kind of costume for the lover, with Romeo required to “borrow Cupid’s wings” (I.iv.17) or Antipholus of Syracuse urged to “Muffle your false love with some show of blindness” (III.ii.8). But the appropriation of the idea of Cupid is more serious. In Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragedy Cupid’s Revenge (1608), the princess Hidaspes outlaws the worship of Cupid on the basis that, from motives of “self-pleasing bold lasciviousness”, man “framde to himselfe/ A god, whom he pretended to obey … [and] for a name/ He call’d him Cupid” (I.i.51, 59-62). Shakespeare’s Valentine, Biron and Romeo frequently invoke this deity as a pretext for reckless, ignoble or hypocritical behaviour. More unusually, in All’s Well that Ends Well, Helen justifies her fantasy of marriage to Bertram on the basis that Cupid sponsors unequal matches every day: “Love [were] no god, that would not extend his might only where qualities were level’ (I.iii.109-11). In the scene where she is allowed to choose her husband, Cupid is obviously dispensed with, and yet Helen insists upon his influence: “Love make your fortunes”, “Which great Love grant …” (II.iii.83, 86), perhaps because only divine intervention will win her the heart of the recalcitrant Bertram. Nevertheless, the play strongly denies that there is any such simple solution as Cupid.


To conclude, the absence of Cupid on the Shakespearean stage is most obviously part of an attempt to depict erotic love as a more interiorised, psychological phenomenon. Although Cupid remains very much entrenched within the language of desire and the way in which lovers think about their passion, to give him any more reality than this is to revert to an old-fashioned set of conventions that Shakespeare’s plays and poetry repeatedly reject. Hence, it is that Benedick must break off from his clichéd ballad, “The god of love”, in order to formulate a more prosaic but also more convincing expression of love to Beatrice: “Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme. I have tried” (V.iii.33-34). He loves her “against [his] will” (61), not because of Cupid, but because of the chemistry between them which both attracts and repels without the use of arrows. Nevertheless, if Shakespeare was in some sense inevitably bound by the idea, imagery and literature of Cupid, he makes intriguing use of it, not so much to reinforce an illusion of love as to challenge the romanticisation of eros. His Cupid exposes the hypocrisy and the self-delusion of the lover; at the same time, he reveals some of the more dangerous and undesirable consequences of erotic passion. In this respect, whilst Shakespeare’s use of Cupid may be limited in comparison with his contemporaries, it is also distinctive and insightful.  


How to cite

Jane Kingsley-Smith. “Cupid.”  2011.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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