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by Vittorio Alfieri


A tragic play set in Cyprus during an unspecified mythological time; published in Italian (as Mirra) in 1767-89, in English in 1876.


A princess intends to marry a prince in order to hide her incestuous passion for her father, which precipitates a series of calamitous events.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Born in Asti, Piedmont, in 1749, Vittorio Alfieri was the son of Count Antonio Amedeo Alfieri di Cortemilia and Monica Maillard di Tournon. Educated at the Royal Military Academy in Turin, Alfieri graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1766. During most of the following decade, Alfieri traveled widely throughout Europe, visiting France, England, Holland, and Russia. At this time, he developed his longstanding political ideals, which included a hatred of absolutism and tyranny. He also improved upon his early education, reading the works of Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Tasso, and embarked upon a career as a playwright and poet. His first tragedy, Cleopatra, was produced in Turin in 1775 and, though he discounted the work, enjoyed immediate success. After a trip to Florence to absorb the dialect, which by then had become the basis for an Italian literary language, he painstakingly switched from writing in French (still popular among Piedmontese aristocrats) to writing in Italian. Alfieri identified increasingly with the Italian libertarian ideals, drafting two treatises expressing his political views—Of Tyranny and The Prince and Letters—circa 1777. Around this time, he voluntarily forfeited his property and rights as a Piedmont citizen in response to laws decreeing that citizens must obtain permission from the government censor to publish outside Piedmont’s boundaries. Thereafter, Alfieri lived abroad, supporting himself on an annuity approximately equal to half his former revenues. An initial supporter of the French Revolution, Alfieri deplored its later excesses as tyrannical and departed France in 1792 to settle in Florence with his longtime companion, Louise de Stolberg, Countess of Albany, from whom he experienced the pain of separation several times during their relationship and her marriage to Edward Stuart, pretender to the throne of England. The marriage ended with the death of her husband in 1788, at which point she settled in with Alfieri, who was in the midst of a productive period in his life. The 1780s saw him compose a host of tragic plays, including Philip (Filippo, 1783), Agamemnon (Agamennone, 1783), and, most notably, Saul (1783) and Myrrha (Mirra, 1784-86). Acclaimed as one of Alfieri’s masterpieces, Myrrha quickly distinguished itself for its sensitive handling of a controversial and by then already age-old theme of father-daughter incest.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Myrrha and literary tradition

When Alfieri began to write his tragedy, there were already several well-known versions of the Myrrha (sometimes called Smyrna) myth. The best known was probably the one told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was Alfieri’s primary source. In Ovid’s rendition of the story, Myrrha is the daughter of King Cinyras and Queen Cenchreis of Paphos, in Cyprus. Afflicted by a supernatural curse, Myrrha burns with an incestuous passion for her father, Cinyras, rejecting all suitors in order to remain with him. One night, the guilt-ridden daughter tries to hang herself, but her old nurse prevents the suicide and presses Myrrha to reveal her torment. The lovestruck young woman finally sobs that she envies her mother, who is blessed with such a husband as Cinyras. The horrified nurse recognizes the implications of this confession but promises to help her charge gain her heart’s desire. While Queen Cenchreis is away from court to participate in a ritual honoring the harvest goddess Ceres, the nurse tells the king a young woman wishes to be his lover. Cinyras agrees to an assignation, and, under cover of darkness, the nurse brings Myrrha to her father, who unknowingly commits incest with her. After several nights, however, Cinyras becomes curious about his new lover’s identity and lights a lamp while they are in bed together. Appalled to discover he has been sleeping with his own daughter, he draws his sword to kill her, but Myrrha flees the kingdom. Now pregnant by her father and indifferent to her own survival, she wanders in the wilderness for nine months. Before giving birth, she prays to be removed from both life and death. Answering her prayers, the gods transform her into a myrrh tree that weeps fragrant tears. Its trunk splits open to deliver the baby, a beautiful boy called Adonis, who later becomes the beloved of the love goddess Venus and dies prematurely in a hunting accident.

Ovid was followed by other authors who tackled the Myrrha legend, from Italy’s Dante Alighieri to France’s Pierre Bersuire and Colard Mansion, to England’s John Dryden, William Barksted, and Henry Austin. In Dante’s Inferno, Myrrha appears with the damned, falsifying spirits in the eighth circle of Hell; Dante treats the character as wholly evil, describing her as “accursed” and “dishonored” (Dante in Simmonds, p. 62). However Bersuire and Mansion interpret Myrrha as “the blessed virgin who conceived through the father and was changed into myrrh, that is bitterness and into the fragrance of scent” (Bersuire and Mansion in Simmonds, p. 63). The reference here is to myrrh plant’s resin, which has a bitter taste but a fragrant smell.

Unlike their medieval and Renaissance counterparts, seventeenth-century poets such as Barksted and Austin avoided drawing parallels between classical myth and Christian scripture. But Barksted’s Mirrha the Mother of Adonis (1607) introduced some original touches: Myrrha’s unlawful passion for her father is attributed to her rejection of Cupid’s advances. She is associated with sin but more as a victim of dark forces than an evildoer. Henry Austin’s The Scourge of Venus (1613) departed even more dramatically from Ovid by portraying Cinyras—usually Myrrha’s dupe—as almost complicit in the incest. While in bed with his unknown lover, he seems to fantasize about such an affair: “Come kisse thy father, gentle daughter then, / And learn to sport thee in a wanton bed” (Austin in Simmonds, p. 68).

Whether Alfieri knew of the post-Ovid treatments of the Myrrha legend remains uncertain, but his rendition contributes to the evolution of the legend and character through time. Over the centuries, there seems to have been a gradual shift towards a more sympathetic view of Myrrha’s plight. In keeping with this shift, Alfieri’s tragedy departs from the original in several important respects, eliminating the Adonis subplot and changing Myrrha’s experience. In Alfieri’s version, her desire for her father goes unconsummated and, until the last moments of the play, unconfessed. The emphasis is not on the heroine’s sin and punishment, but on her emotional struggle to overcome what she knows to be an unlawful passion and to spare her family’s from the knowledge of her sinful yearnings.

The goddess of love

Although he introduced some important changes in Myrrha, Alfieri retained the original legend’s setting and social elements, including the worship of Venus. Originally a Roman goddess of nature and fertility, Venus had by then developed into the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of erotic love.

The island of Cyprus, in the northeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, was Venus’s principal cult center; the goddess figures largely in many Cypriot myths. In one important legend, related by Hesiod, Venus sprang fully formed from sea foam fertilized by the severed genitals of the sky god, Uranus, and came ashore at Cyprus. Represented as beautiful and passionate, she had love affairs not only with fellow gods but with mortals too, often bearing the latter children who became heroes—like Aeneas, legendary founder of Rome. She also bore several children to Mars, the god of war, including Cupid, himself a god of love.

Although Venus could be encouraging towards young lovers, she could also be ruthless and cruel to those who spurned her or to women whose beauty was compared to her own. In another famous myth, Venus charged her son Cupid to wound Psyche, a princess whose loveliness was causing many to neglect their worship of the love goddess. She directed Cupid to make the princess fall in love with someone unsuitable; instead, he wounded himself and became enamored of Psyche. After many trials and tribulations, frequently caused by Venus, Cupid and Psyche were married and the latter was granted immortality.

Venus also figures heavily in several versions of the Myrrha myth. Cenchreis, Myrrha’s mother, is said to have boasted about her daughter’s beauty, provoking Venus to afflict Myrrha with an incestuous passion for her own father, Cinyras. Alfieri employs this version of the myth in his tragedy, deflecting blame from Myrrha herself. In a pivotal scene, Queen Cenchreis confesses to her husband that she has twice offended Venus, first by withholding tribute, then by boasting that her daughter’s beauty surpassed that of the goddess:

Lo, from that day
Henceforward, Myrrha lost her peace; her life,
Her beauty, like frail wax before the fire,
Slowly consumed; and nothing in our hands
From that time seem’d to prosper.

(Alfieri, Myrrha, p. 343)

Marriage in imperial Rome

The mythical setting of Myrrha complicates attempts to place its institutions within a definite historical context. However, since Alfieri was working from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a logical supposition is that Ovid (43b.c.e.-C. 17c.e.) had his own era in mind while composing his long narrative poem.

Ovid’s lifespan coincides with the founding of imperial Rome and the reign of Augustus (27b.c.e.-14c.e.). During this period, marriages could be arranged, contracted, and dissolved with remarkable ease, especially among the upper classes. Parents of a prospective bride and groom could negotiate a match when their offspring were just children. Indeed, a Roman maiden from a wealthy, propertied family’s might be only ten years old when her marriage was contracted, and most Roman women were married by their early twenties. For the most part, the bride had little say in the matter: her father would arrange the match, perhaps after some consultation with her mother, and negotiations proceeded with the prospective groom or, if he himself was a child, with his older male relations.


c. 470 B.C.E Pindar’s Pythian Odes

c. 1st century C.E . Hyginus’s Fables

c. 8 C.E Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book X

c. 100 C.E Plutarch’s Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans

c. 100-200 C.E Apollodorus’s Library

c. 1307-21 Dante’s The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Canto XXX

c. 1342-50 Pierre Sersuire’s Ovidius moralizatus

1484 Colard Mansion’s French adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, la Bible des poetes, metamorphoze

1607 William Barksted’s Mirrha the Mother of Adonis: Or Lustes Prodigies

1613 Henry Austin’s The Scourge of Venus

1700 Dryden’s English translation of Ovid’s “Cinyras and Myrrha” (from Fables, Ancient and Modern)

1787-89 Vittorio Alfieri’s Myrrha

After marriage, the bride joined her husband’s family’s; he acquired the legal control and jurisdiction over her that her father had previously held. At best, it was hoped that husband and wife would develop a strong bond based on mutual respect and affection and the birth of legitimate children, preferably sons. Indeed, procreation was regarded as the main purpose of any marriage; husbands could divorce wives who disappointed them by proving infertile.

By contrast, the Myrrha of Ovid’s poem and Alfieri’s play has an unusual degree of freedom when it comes to marital choice. In Metamorphoses, Cinyras,“whom an abundance of worthy / suitors had left undecided,” consults Myrrha as to which suitor she might prefer (Ovid, bk. 10, lines 438-39). Similarly Alfieri’s Myrrha is also permitted to choose her prospective husband, as Queen Cenchreis reveals:

The most illustrious, powerful potentates Of Greece and Asia, all in rivalry, From the wide-spreading rumor of her beauty, To Cyprus flock’d: and as respected us, She was the perfect mistress of her choice.

(Myrrha, p. 318)

Moreover, when Myrrha appears discontented with her choice, her parents are willing to let her break off her betrothal, rather than see her unhappily married.


That Myrrha’s parents would have taken into consideration her preferences for a spouse coincides with a rise in women’s status in Alfieri’s s day, Also called the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment era gave rise to vigorous debate on education for women and on their potential for contributing to Italian society, as reflected in an article in the magazine II Caffé; (1764-66). The article, “Defence of Women” by Carlo Sebastiano Franci, advocated intellectual and moral instruction for women in order to maximize the contribution they could make to society. Although men produced articles and journals like these, the mid-to lateeighteenth century saw the introduction of the first Italian women’s magazines (e.g., Europa letteraria (1768-73), which addressed cultural issues as well as fashion. Thus, the role of the ideal female was broadening in Alfieri’s day, though her place as family caregiver and homemaker remained primary, and marital love continued to be defined in practical terms. The emotional bond between a wife and husband, though called “love”, generally signified not a passionate bond but a mix of Christian charity, fidelity, and endurance.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

The play opens with a conversation between Cenchreis, Queen of Cyprus, and Eurycleia, the faithful nurse of Cenchreis’s daughter, the princess Myrrha. Now a young woman, Myrrha is soon to wed Pereus, prince of Epirus. Myrrha’s behavior is causing her family’s concern: Eurycleia reports that her charge is suffering some great distress of mind that causes bouts of weeping and sleepless nights, during which Myrrha begs for death to release her from her torment. The nurse has been unable to convince Myrrha to speak of her malady. Cenchreis and Eurycleia suspect Myrrha does not love Pereus but are mystified because he is an estimable young man, whom Myrrha herself chose as her consort. Cenchreis bids Eurycleia to return to Myrrha’s side and watch over her. The queen then speaks to her husband, Cinyras, who has also noticed their daughter’s unhappiness. Both agree that their only beloved child should not be forced to marry against her will.

In the second act, Cinyras questions Pereus, his future son-in-law, regarding Myrrha’s feelings about the upcoming marriage. Pereus confesses that while he is devoted to Myrrha, he is unsure that she returns his love. Her conduct confuses him; first, she wishes to hasten their wedding, then, just as abruptly, she wishes to postpone the ceremony. Nor does she offer a reason for her actions. Rather than make Myrrha unhappy, Pereus resolves to release her from their betrothal if she so wishes. Cinyras commends the young man’s nobility and summons Myrrha to speak privately to her betrothed, then withdraws.

Alone with Myrrha, Pereus begs her to tell him how he has displeased her and promises to leave her sight if she dislikes him. Myrrha continues to vacillate. Finally, she insists that she will marry Pereus, on the condition that they depart Cyprus forever the day after the ceremony. The prince, still fearing he will be the cause of his beloved’s destruction, urges her to break their betrothal.

Now alone, Myrrha encounters Eurycleia, who reveals that she has visited the temple of Venus to ask her pity on Myrrha. However, the goddess rejected Eurycleia’s offering of incense and seemed to order her departure from the temple. In despair, Myrrha asks her nurse to help her commit suicide; shocked, Eurycleia refuses. A resigned Myrrha then declares that she will marry Pereus but that she expects to die of heart-break soon after the wedding.

In act 3, Myrrha meets with her parents, who continue to express concern over her obvious misery. Myrrha admits that she suffers great anguish but still refuses to disclose the reason. She tells her parents that, while she does not love Pereus as he loves her, she is aware of his many virtues and intends to fulfill her vows to him. She also reveals that she wishes to leave Cyprus permanently the day after the marriage. Indeed, she feels that her own salvation lies in her departure from her homeland. Although distraught at the prospect of parting from their daughter, Cinyras and Cenchreis finally consent to the departure. Myrrha then withdraws to prepare for her wedding.

Queen Cenchreis confesses to Cinyras that she feels responsible for Myrrha’s condition. She reveals that some years earlier, intoxicated with her own happiness as a wife and mother, she with-held a tribute of incense intended for Venus and then boasted that Myrrha’s beauty attracted more worshippers to Cyprus than Venus herself. Cenchreis fears that her own pride brought the wrath of Venus down upon her daughter’s head. Cinyras reproaches his wife for her boast and for not telling him of her offense so that he could attempt to appease the goddess’s anger. The king now believes that Myrrha’s one hope of happiness depends upon her leaving Cyprus. He manages to convince the still-apprehensive Pereus that Myrrha does care for him and remains committed to their nuptials.

In act 4, Myrrha declares herself ready for the ceremony and tries to comfort Eurycleia, who laments her charge’s imminent departure from Cyprus. Myrrha regrets that she cannot take Eurycleia with her but feels she must leave all reminders of her old life behind. Pereus enters and Myrrha assures him that she is ready to marry him and endeavor to be his loving wife.

The royal family’s and their subjects gather for the ceremony. The priests and choruses began to chant hymns, praising the betrothed pair and asking for Venus’s blessings upon both, especially the bride. In the middle of their oration, however, Myrrha cries out that she sees the Furies all around her, and the ceremony breaks up in horror. Distressed by his bride’s ravings and convinced that she abhors him, Pereus releases her from their contract and runs off. Cinyras dismisses the guests and berates his now-swooning daughter for her cruelty to Pereus, claiming that she has disgraced her parents.

Regaining consciousness, Myrrha finds her mother tending to her. She begs Cenchreis for a sword so that she may end her wretched life. When a horrified Cenchreis refuses to let her child destroy herself, Myrrha wildly accuses her mother of being the cause of all her woe by giving birth to her. Grief-stricken, Cenchreis offers to escort her daughter to her quarters, all the while entreating Myrrha to confide in her.

Act 5 begins with Cinyras lamenting his discovery of Pereus’s corpse: the prince has committed suicide in his grief over Myrrha. Cinyras is determined to discover the cause of his daughter’s irrational behavior. When Myrrha enters, Cinyras informs her of Pereus’s death and reproaches her for it, demanding that she explain herself. The king voices the belief that Myrrha secretly loves another and tells her that he will consent to her marrying that other man if she will simply reveal his identity. Horrified, Myrrha tries at first to deny her father’s charge but admits at last, “I love, yes; since thou forcest me to say it; / I desperately love, and love in vain. / But, who’s the object of that hopeless passion, / No r thou, nor any one, shall ever know “(Myrrha”, p. 361). Cinyras remains adamant, however, and continues to press her on the subject. Again, Myrrha tries to avoid answering, but finally breaks down and reveals her jealousy of Cenchreis and her incestuous passion for Cinyras himself: “O happy is my mother! … she, at least, / Press’d in thy arms … may breathe … her last sigh” (Myrrha, p. 362). No sooner has Cinyras realized the implications of this confession than Myrrha seizes his dagger and fatally stabs herself.

Full of pity and rage, Cinyras rejects Myrrha, reveals her guilty secret to a bewildered Cenchreis, and then drags his wife off, leaving their dying daughter alone with Eurycleia. With her last breaths, Myrrha reproaches her nurse for not killing her before she confessed her unnatural love to Cinyras, thereby increasing her guilt and her parents’ anguish.

Forbidden passion

The challenge of how to portray Myrrha’s incestuous desire for her father preoccupied Alfieri from the start. He had initially considered such a theme ill-suited to the heroic tragedies that were his preferred genre. In his memoirs, however, Alfieri writes, “I had read in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the animated and sublime address of Myrrha to her nurse. It had melted me into tears and suddenly inspired me with the idea of a tragedy” (Alfieri, Memoirs, p. 238).

In adapting Ovid’s story, Alfieri made significant changes. The most important of these were to the character of Myrrha herself. Describing his heroine as “much more unfortunate than culpable,” Alfieri omitted the last part of the myth: Myrrha’s seduction of Cinyras and the incestuous conception of Adonis (Memoirs, p. 238). Instead, Myrrha’s unnatural love goes unconsummated and, for most of the play, undiscovered. For the entire first act, Myrrha remains offstage while her family’s discusses her unhappiness and speculates as to its cause. Moreover, on appearing, Myrrha continually refuses to reveal the cause of her suffering, wishing alternately to commit suicide or to marry and leave Cyprus forever.


According to Alfieri’s Memoirs, It was the “sublime address” of Ovid’s Myrrha to her nurse that inspired him with the idea for his tragedy. In the following passages from Metamorphoses, a distraught Myrrha tries to avoid confessing her incestuous love for her father, but her nurse’s pleas and her own passion finally compel her to reveal her terrible secret:

Myrrha in frenzy leapt up / and threw herself onto the bed, pressing her face in the pillows:/ “leave me, i beg you” she said. “Avoid my wretched dishonor; / leave me or cease to a&k me the cause of my sorrow:/what you attempt to uncover is sinful and wicked!”… She lifted her head with her eyes full of tears spilling over, onto the breast of her nurse and repeatedly tired to / speak out but repeatedly stopped herself short of confession /, hiding her shame-colored face in the folds of her garments, / until she finally yielded, blurting her secret; / “Q mother” she cried, “so fortunate you with your husband” / and said no more but groaned.

(Ovid, bk. 10, lines 495-99, 505-11)

Alfieri also expanded the roles of Myrrha’s parents and invented the character of Pereus, a noble young prince whom Myrrha pledges to marry in the hope of overcoming her unlawful passion for her father. Additionally, the playwright chose not to make Myrrha’s nurse, Eurycleia, a confidante and conspirator in Cinyras’s seduction but to portray her as another helpless bystander to her charge’s tragedy. He aims thus to “save the virtue of Eurycleia and prolong the innocence of Myrrha” (Introduction, Myrrha, p. 314). The result is a pathos that emerges in Myrrha’s final rebuke: “When I asked it … of thee, … thou … O Eurycleia,…then… shouldest… have given to my hands … the sword: I had died … guiltless; … guilty … now … I die” (Myrrha, p. 364). Coaxed into confessing her dark secret, Myrrha commits suicide and dies in disgrace, rejected by all but Eurycleia.

The unsparing harshness of Alfieri’s play recalls that of the classical tragedies, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, that were his major inspiration. Incest was a recurring theme in classical mythology; within the Olympic pantheon, the gods married their own siblings. However, mortals who committed incestuous acts, even unwittingly, were severely punished. Within ancient Greek and Roman society, incest was considered an unnatural abomination. In the following dialogue between two philosophers, Athenian and Megillus, the former condemns incest between siblings or, worse, between father and child.

Athenian: The desire for this sort of pleasure [incest] is stifled by a few words?

Migillus: What words do you mean?

Athenian: The doctrine that “these acts are absolutely unholy, an abomination in the sight of the gods, and at that nothing is more revolting.” We refrain from them because we never hear them spoken of in any other way. From the day of our birth each of us encounters a complete unanimity of opinion wherever we go; we find it not only in comedies but often in the high seriousness of tragedy too. … We watch these characters dying promptly by their own hand as a penalty for their crimes.

(Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 49)

Sources and literary context

While the primary source of inspiration for Alfieri’s Myrrha was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the playwright also had access to other versions of the myth, including those attributed to Apollodorus, Plutarch, and Hyginus. All three variants contend that Myrrha’s mother offended Venus by boasting of her daughter’s beauty, so Venus cursed Myrrha with forbidden love for her father. Alfieri further exculpates his Myrrha from blame by utilizing this element. Although the dramatist did not know how receptive audiences would be to a play that dealt with the theme of incest, he was pleased with his tragedy and thought it would show to great effect on the stage.

Alfieri’s play evokes comparisons too with works by seventeenth-century playwrights, such as the French dramatists Pierre Corneille (1606-84) and Jean Racine (1639-99). In particular, Racine’s Phedre (1677) is similarly drawn from classical myth and also features a title character struggling against an unnatural passion: Phedre, wife of Theseus, desires her stepson, Hippolytus. Alfieri’s keen, probing exploration of his characters’ psyches is considered unique for a playwright of the eighteenth century and has led some scholars and critics to classify him as a forerunner of the Romantic movement that would supplant Neoclassicism in the nineteenth century.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Between Neoclassicism and Romanticism

During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, most European nations were caught up in the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement emphasizing the ability of people to govern themselves and to reason independently of divine revelation. The precepts of the Enlightenment attracted a particularly strong following in France and England. Like their French and English counterparts, the Italian intellectual elite (aristocrats, upper clergy, artists, and scholars) participated in this movement. Some founded societies dedicated to the study of subjects like science and mathematics. Others published and circulated gazettes discussing the latest ideas and discoveries garnering attention throughout Europe. In the arts, many writers and painters adopted the simple, harmonious style and elevated subject matter found in the works of classical Greece and Rome.

As a dramatist of the late eighteenth century, Alfieri occupies an unusual position between these Neoclassicists and the Romantics who were to succeed them in the early 1800s. On one hand, the protagonists of Alfieri’s plays tended to be heroic, larger than life figures, drawn from such sources as classical myth, the Bible, and contemporary history. As befitted the subjects of high tragedy, his heroes and heroines were caught up in life-altering situations and spoke in appropriately poetic language. On the other hand, Alfieri explored not only his characters’ thought processes but also their individual emotional states, a trademark of the Romantics, who emphasized emotional spontaneity, subjective experience, and nature over reason, objective experience, and Neoclassical art.

Of all Alfieri’s plays, Myrrha may best illustrate his anticipation of the Romantic sensibility. Drawn from classical myth, Alfieri’s Myrrha is a princess famed for her beauty and virtue—a suitable tragic heroine, on the surface. But much of the play’s “action” is internal, focusing upon Myrrha’s moodiness, melancholy, and unspoken sorrows. When she is absent, the other characters discuss her emotional state; when she is present, she reveals her innermost feelings and subjective experience in a manner Franco Betti describes as “unthinkable in a classical context” (Betti, p. 86). On being questioned by her betrothed about her melancholy on the eve of their wedding, Myrrha thus defends herself: “pensiveness / is oft a second nature; ill could one / Who feels its potent sway, explain the cause” (Myrrha, p. 329).

Reception and impact

Early information about Myrrha’s production history tends to be sketchy. Apparently, the tragedy was performed in Alfieri’s lifetime, with Madame Pollandi in the title role, and was accounted successful, despite its controversial subject matter. According to biographer Edward Copping, Myrrha was “taken up years afterwards by [the actress] La Marchionni at the suggestion of [the writer and literary patron] Madame de Stael” (Copping, p. 116). No less a personage than the British poet Lord Byron attended this 1819 production. Reportedly, Byron—who had himself touched on the subject of incest in his closet drama, Manfred —was so overcome by Alfieri’s play that he fainted.

The work also influenced other important Romantic writers. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, at the request of her husband, Percy Shelley, worked on translating Myrrha in 1818. The following year, she wrote her novella, Matilda, which concerns a father’s desire for his daughter. Told from Matilda’s perspective, the novella includes a line of dialogue that applauds the play: “I thought Myrrha the best of Alfieri’s tragedies” (Shelley in Bennett and Curan, p. 20). A couple of scholars make reference to the positive reception accorded the play in Shelley’s England 30 years after it was written: “Taken at face value, it is no more than an innocent observation Mathilda ’chanced to say’ … a reading supported by the fact that she is expressing a common literary preference of the day. On closer inspection, though, the remarks suggests her secret complicity with, even encouragement of, her father’s passion” (Bennett and Curran, p. 68). In this version of the Myrrha myth, the father drowns himself, and by the story’s end, his daughter is close to death. William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s own father, though he appreciated aspects of the novella’s style, viewed its content as “disgusting and detestable” (Godwin in Shelley, p. 3). Matilda would not be published until 1959. In fact, Spanish readers reacted much the same. The plot, said a poet (Manuel de Cabanyes) from Catalonia in Spain, “is as repulsive to the ordinary reader as a story could well be … the skill, however, with which the plot is worked up to the climax … so that the interest never once flags, is very considerable”; in Madrid and in Paris the play was performed successfully (Cabanyes in Peers, p. 130).

In his memoirs, printed posthumously in 1804, Alfieri wrote of the challenges he had faced while composing Myrrha: “I perceived that it was necessary to display, by action alone, what is related in Ovid, and that the heroine must execute her purpose without divulging it” (Memoirs, p. 238). Alfieri also realized how difficult it would be to preserve, over the course of five acts, “the terrible fluctuation of Myrrha’s soul” (Memoirs, p. 238). Nonetheless, the challenge spurred him on; others, he said, would have “to decide how far I have succeeded in overcoming [this difficulty]” (Memoirs, p. 238). Certainly Alfieri gave Myrrha’s story new poignancy and relevance for an impending literary age; as critic Franco Betti states rhetorically, “Who more than Myrrha foreshadows the typical heroine of Romantic literature?” (Betti, p. 86).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Alfieri, Vittorio. Memoirs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

_____. Myrrha. In The Tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri. Vol. 2. Trans. E. A. Bowring. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1876.

Bennett, Betty T., and Stuart Curran, eds. Mary Shelley in Her Times. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Betti, Franco. Vittorio Alfieri. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Copping, Edward. Alfieri and Goldoni. London: Addey, 1857.

Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Peers, Allison E. “The Vogue of Alfieri in Spain.” Hispanic Review 1, no. 2 (April 1933): 122-40.

Schoenberg, Thomas J., and Lawrence J. Trudeau, eds. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 101. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002.

Shelley, Mary. Matilda. The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley. Vol. 2. Ed. Pamela Clemit. London: Pickering, 1996.

Simmonds, James D. Milton Studies XIV. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.