Cupid and Psyche

Anon. (1581)

Historical Records

In Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Stephen Gosson states that a play by the name of 'Cupid and Psyche' was 'plaid at Paules' (D5v).

Theatrical Provenance


Probable Genre(s)

Romance. 'Classical legend' (Wiggins, sn 699).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The likely source is either the 1566 edition or the 1571 edition of The XI Books of the Golden Asse by Apulieus and translated by William Adlington. The story of Cupid and Psyche is covered in books four, five, and six. In Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Stephen Gosson lists 'The Golden Asse' as one of the books that had been 'ransackt to furnish the Play houses in London' (D6v).

The Cupid and Psyche story is prominent in The Golden Asse, and this work's title would signal the pejorative and spurious references to Jewish golden ass worship refuted in the first century by Josephon (Josephus Flavius). This history of the Jews was translated by Peter Morwen and publish in 1558 to be reprinted in 1561, 1567, and 1575. The refutation of golden ass worship is in Book II. It is probable that the image of a golden ass or just an ass became associated with a commonly-know libel of the Jews. This fact is mentioned in John Jewel's 'Apology' first published in English in 1562. The image of the ass, particularly a golden ass, was possibly associated with libel and more widely with spurious and ribald stories.

Of course the theme of anthropomorphic transformation found in Apuleius and presumably in the play is also prominent in Ovid and more directly in Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses in 1567, rpt.1575.

References to the Play

Stephen Gosson mentioned 'Cupid and Psyche' as an example of flawed plays in which things are 'fained, that never were'. Gosson's full comment is as follows:

But in
Playes, either those thinges are fai-
ned, that neuer were, as Cupid and
Psyche plaid at Paules; and a greate
many Cōedies more at ye Blacke fri-
ers and in euery Playe house in Lon-
don, which for breuitis sake I ouer
skippe: or if a true Historie be taken
in hand, it is made like our shadows,
longest at the rising and falling of the
Sunne, shortest of all at hie noone. (D5v). (STC (2nd ed.), 12095.)

Critical Commentary

For more on the Shakespearean connection with this play see William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, edited by Rene Weis (41). Weis references Helen Hackett’s discussion in her edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (liv-lv). See also Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare. Garber holds that 'the resemblances between Romeo and Juliet and the myth of Cupid and Psyche are both striking and fundamental' (170). Sibley suggests that a performance of an anonymous play on 26 December, 1581, one noted by Chambers, could possibly have been a reference to Cupid and Psyche (33-34).

For What It's Worth

Henry Chettle, John Day, and Thomas Dekker wrote a play (1600, also lost) entitled Cupid and Psyche (The Golden Ass). There is no evidence that the play covered here had any influence on the later play of roughly the same title. But both plays point directly to Adlington's translation of Apulieus.

The image of the ass, particularly a golden ass, was possibly associated with libel and more widely with spurious and ribald stories well before the appearance of Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream. For everything (and more) about the images of the ass in Shakespeare and during the Renaissance, see Deborah Baker Wyrick, 'The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Shakespeare echoed the theme of love at first sight (and of course the Ass) in the Cupid and Psyche story in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, and there are more than hints of this story in Romeo and Juliet.

See also this possible free association (bold letters added for emphasis) in Antony's thoughts on Lepidus in Julius Caesar.

Octavius, I have seen more days than you:
And though we lay these honours on this man,
To ease ourselves of divers slanderous loads,
He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold,
To groan and sweat under the business,
Either led or driven, as we point the way;

Works Cited

Apuleius. The XI Books of the Golden Asse. trans. William Adlington (London: Valentine Symmes, 1566, rpt. 1571). EEBO-TCP (text only). STC (2nd ed.), 718 and 719.
Garber, Marjorie. Coming of Age in Shakespeare (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 1981). Print.
Golding, Arthur. The. xv. bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis(London: William Seres, 1567, rpt. 1575, 1587, 1593). EEBO-TCP (1567 edition, text only). STC (2nd ed.), 18956
Gosson, Stephen. Plays Confuted in Five Actions. London: Thomas Gossson, 1582. EEBO-TCP (text only). STC (2nd ed.), 12095
Jewel, John. An Apology, or Answer in Defense of the Church of England" (London: Reginald Wolf, 1562.) EEBO-TCP (text only). STC (2nd ed.), 14590
Josephon. A Compendious and Most Marueilous History of the Latter Tymes of the Jewes Commune Weale. trans. Peter Morwen (London: Richard Jugge, 1558). EEBO-TCP 2 (subscription only). STC (2nd ed.), 14795.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Helen Hackett (New York: Penguin, 2005). Print.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, ed. Rene Weis (London: Metheun, 2012). Print,
Sibley, Gertrude Marian. The Lost Plays and Masques: 1500-1642 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1933). Internet Archive.
Wyrick, Deborah Baker. 'The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Shakespeare Quarterly, 33. 4 (Winter, 1982), 432-448. JSTOR

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