If you have ever read a Shakespeare play, you have probably noticed that the archaic language often creates a barrier between the text and the modern reader. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries used colloquial phrases that have faded in meaning over time. Many of these phrases come from allusions to mythology. Anyone who was educated during the early modern time period would have been extremely familiar with Greek and Roman texts because of the humanism cultural movement. This educational philosophy looked to Greek and Roman thought for inspiration because Greek and Roman texts centered on human thoughts, feelings, and interests. Rather than focusing on divine or supernatural beings, most Greek and Roman myths present a human’s perspective when a human character is faced with divine challenges. Because the Greeks and Romans were so focused on rational thought and inquiry, most of the problems humans are presented with in the myths are solved by reasoning. As a result, the Renaissance, a period that philosophically distinguished itself from the medieval period by championing inquiry, looked to ancient epics as a model for humanity’s potential.
Students in the early modern period learned Greek and Latin in schools. While much of the population remained illiterate, this educational base made allusions to these stories part of the popular vernacular in early modern theater and literature. One-dimensional characters on a stage were given depth with a reference; audiences understood characters’ complex emotions through the myths they alluded to in their soliloquies; tragic lovers were elevated to the level of epic heroes by mapping onto Dido, Lucretia, and Persephone. Myths permeated the popular imagination and provided audiences of diverse educational and class backgrounds with a common foundation to understand what they were watching.
Because of the profound impact classical literature had on the early modern period, these stories continued to thrive through the 18th century and into the modern period. Greek and Latin continued to be taught in grammar schools in London, and the popularization of Shakespeare spread the influence of this mythos across the imperial world. With the proliferation of the stories, Greek and Roman mythology became the most established mythos in Western culture. This means that these stories pervade the popular imagination, and popular culture, which in turn means they are crucial to know as you move through the Western canon.