Go back to the Virgil page for more texts and other resources.

The Prologue to the Aeneid in Milton and Shakespeare

Analysis of allusions to the Prologue of Virgil's Aeneid in literature.

One of the most striking things that the reader sees when first picking up the {Aeneid} is how it begins. Virgil pulls the reader right into his epic story. It is here, before the action of the poem really begins, that the stage is set. It is the overall structure Virgil?s Prologue ({Aeneid }I. 1-49) that occupies our attention here and how John Milton and William Shakespeare later employed that basic structure. Here is the majestic opening lines of the Aeneid as rendered in English by John Dryden:

[q]?Arms, and the man I sing, who, forced by Fate,
And haughty Juno?s unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labours, both by sea and land he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destined town;
His banished gods restored to rites divine;
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
O muse! The causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provoked, and whence her hate;
For what offence the queen of heaven began
to persecute so brave so just a man;
Involved his life in endless cares,
Exposed to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heavenly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe? ? [1][/q]

Note how without naming them Virgil introduces the main characters Aeneas, ?the man I sing? and Juno ?the queen of heaven?, asks questions about the motivations of the gods and paints a quick portrait of the entire poem. Here we learn of the inescapable destiny of the Trojans: they will establish the Roman race, ?the long glories of majestic Rome.? While there is no doubt as to how it all ends, Virgil succeeds in causing the reader to wonder, ?Well, how is that destiny achieved?? Furthermore, the succeeding lines of the poem which list Juno?s reasons for hating the Trojans cause us to doubt that the Trojans could possibly be successful with such an enraged goddess pursuing them. Thus we are torn between certain knowledge that Aeneas and the Trojans will succeed and uncertainty because of their great foe. Virgil, of course, knew he was setting it up this way as indicated by the following lines:

[q]?Such time such toil, required the Roman name,
Such length of labour for so vast a frame.? [2][/q]

Put another way, establishing the Roman race had to be a harrowing enterprise considering the magnificent result. While some may hesitate to second Virgil?s claim of greatness for Rome, how can we doubt that conclusion? It is the Rome of Virgil that still reverberates with us today.
This brilliant pattern for framing the story right at the outset was not lost on subsequent writers who were influenced by Virgil?s Prologue in their own great works.

[b]Milton and the Prologue[/b]

John Milton relied on the {Aeneid} as a model for his great epic, {Paradise Lost}. Anyone familiar with the Aeneid can quickly see the similarities between Virgil?s magnum opus and Milton?s. The very style Milton uses is Virgilian in its tone. Perhaps to make this clear to one and all, Milton even gave Paradise Lost the same number of books (twelve) as the Aeneid. The Prologue to the {Aeneid} is another example of Virgil?s vast influence on the work of Milton. This is how {Paradise Lost} begins:

[q]?Of Man?s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of the Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav?nly Muse?? [3] [/q]

In this brief excerpt, we see many elements of the prologue of the Aeneid. Here are some commonalties between the Aeneid and the Paradise Lost Prologues:

? Both summarize what is going to happen in the respective poems.
? Both passages mention men they do not name: Virgil?s ?just? man is Aeneas; Milton?s ?one greater Man? is Jesus Christ.
? Both passages invoke the Muses.
? Both passages note a better future time: Virgil: ?the long glories of majestic Rome?; Milton: ?and regain the blissful seat.?

These are not the only similarities between Milton?s Prologue and the {Aeneid} Prologue. For example, the descriptions of Juno and Satan are similar. That Juno relents from her hatred of the Trojans at the end of the {Aeneid} does not mean her hatred at the outset is any less fierce than that of Satan after he is banished from Heaven. Virgil describes Juno as ?haughty?, a key characteristic of Satan whose downfall was the result of pride. Milton says of Satan: ?his Pride/had cast him out from
Heav?n.? 4 Juno seeks the destruction of the Trojans as surely as Satan pursues the destruction, through sin, of mankind.
Thus we can see, that Milton was certainly inspired by Virgil?s Prologue when writing his Prologue for Paradise Lost. That being said, can we see evidence that Virgil?s Prologue was used elsewhere in Milton?s great poem?
Yes, in fact we can. In Book VI of Milton?s poem, he gives a description of the Battle in Heaven that resulted in the fall of Satan and his minions to the Dark Abyss. In reference to those fallen angels Milton asks, ?In heav?nly Spirits could such perverseness dwell?? 5 This is very similar to a quote from the Aeneid Prologue in which Virgil says of Juno: ?Can Heav?nly Minds such high resentment show;/Or exercise their Spight in Human Woe?? 6 It is through these examples that we can clearly see that Milton was strongly influenced by the example of Virgil and his Prologue to the Aeneid.

[b]Shakespeare and the Prologue[/b]

William Shakespeare certainly had the {Aeneid} Prologue in mind when he wrote his own Prologue for {Romeo & Juliet}. The scene is set in Verona, Italy.

[q]Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Where misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents rage,
Which, but their children?s end, naught could
Is now the two hours traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.? [7][/q]

The similarities between Shakespeare?s Prologue and that of the {Aeneid} are many and perhaps the reader has already noted some of them. First, the overall purpose of the Prologues is the same. Both Virgil and Shakespeare give a quick, conclusive synopsis of the whole story and how it will end. In this case we learn that the families of Romeo & Juliet hate each other, ?From ancient grudge? and these two lovers will ?bury their parents strife? with their tragic deaths. 8
Secondly, there is also mention of many people without using their names. Just as Virgil does not use the name of Aeneas when first mentioning the ?just? man, so Shakespeare does not name the ?pair of star-crossed lovers? (Romeo & Juliet) or their family names, ?Two households, both alike in dignity? (the Capulets and the Montagues). 9
Lastly, when Romeo is exiled for killing Juliet?s cousin Tybalt, he takes refuge in Mantua, Italy where Virgil was born. This choice of towns can hardly be considered an accident and must be attributed to Shakespeare?s knowledge of Virgil?s life. Of all possible cities it seems unlikely, given the other evidence of Virgil?s influence in the Prologue, that the use of Mantua was a coincidence.
This essay does not pretend to list all of the places in their works that Milton and Shakespeare can be seen to be influenced by Virgil. It has been noted elsewhere that Virgil?s true importance to literature cannot be calculated. We did not pretend to so vast a task, rather we hope that this essay has given the reader a taste of how much, even the greatest writers of English, owe to the man from Mantua.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us