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The Transformation and Adaptation of Ovid’s Pygmalion

by Elizabeth Pashley

Whistler in the Dark’s  production of Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid features several myths from Ovid’s classic Metamorphoses, as translated by Ted Hughes. It includes the tale of Pygmalion, which is about a sculptor who falls in love with his own statue.

Surrounded by cruel, wicked women, Pygmalion shuns all female interactions from his life and lives instead in solitary confinement. Yet one day he dreams of the perfect woman and decides to carve her figure in ivory. The statue looks so life-like that Pygmalion falls in love with her and wishes to marry her. Venus grants Pygmalion’s wish and the statue come to life.

This myth has been retold in many different forms, including plays, short stories, novels and films. Here are some of the most well-known (and some surprising) adaptations of Pygmalion:

The Winter’s Tale (1623) by William Shakespeare 

At the end of Shakespeare’s play, a statue of Queen Hermione comes to life and proclaims herself to be the real Hermione in a sort of deus ex machina reconciliation. While only a small part of the play involves the myth of Pygmalion, Shakespeare is notorious for using Ovid’s tales as the basis for his works, including Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet (which is based off the myth Pyramus and Thisbe, a tale that also appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

“The Birth-Mark” (1846) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s famous short story is about a philosopher and scientist who marries the perfect woman whose only flaw is a “port wine stain” birthmark on her cheek. Her husband, Aylmer, offers to concoct an elixir that will remove the birthmark and, wanting her husband’s approval, she agrees. The elixir works and for a moment, Georgiana appears flawless, but then she dies.

Coppélia (1974) choreographed by George Balanchine

This famous ballet centers around a doll created by Dr. Coppélius. A local townsgirl, Swanilda, breaks into the toy shop and, trying to hide from Dr. Coppélius, trades places with the doll. Meanwhile a townsboy, Franz, also breaks in because he has fallen in love with the beautiful life-like doll, who he thinks is real. Swanilda pretends to be the doll come to life until both Franz and Dr. Coppélius realize their error.

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