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Origin and adaptation of the medieval Theban narrative from Gildas to Shakespeare

Jason R Gildow, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The classical literary tale of Thebes traces its origins and narratives to the Thebaid region of Upper Egypt and the Theban culture and language that flourished there in the Middle Kingdom period, ca 1500 BC, when the Theban scribal recension of the Books of the Dead were written. This tradition became known to the Greeks of the Alexandrian age who became acquainted with the Theban tradition through the Theban reliquary list at Edfu, a contemporary name for ancient Thebes, The Theban story of the dismembered foot of Osiris enshrined at Edfu as the symbolic “foot of Egypt” inspired the Greek epic and dramatic tales of Oedipus, a Greek transliteration of Edfu, who was the king of Grecian Thebes with a wounded foot. This epic and dramatic tradition of Thebes came into European literature through the Latin translations and adaptations of the Greek source texts, first in the Old French of the Plantagenet court, and next in the Middle English of Chaucer and Lydgate. However, the image of Thebes also came into English literature through the scribal tradition of Eusebius who linked Christianity with the Egyptian theological tradition from Thebes. This view was brought into English theology through the monk Gildas, and it was imitated by the scribes of the chronicle tradition such as Bede, Wace, and Layamon who followed him. My work has been to identify the previously-unseen entrance of the Theban narrative into medieval theology, chronicle, and romance, as well as to provide a historical model for these developments through the five chapters and historical stages of my text that begins with the origin of British literature with Gildas and develops through the scribes associated with the Plantagenet court who brought the narrative of Thebes to the English writers Chaucer, Lydgate, and Shakespeare, whose adaptations of the Theban myth I have analyzed one at a time, in historical order, through the final three chapters of my text.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|British and Irish literature|Classical studies

Recommended Citation

Gildow, Jason R, "Origin and adaptation of the medieval Theban narrative from Gildas to Shakespeare" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3142080.