Frozen with Fear: Virgil's Aeneid and Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's the Second Part of King Henry VI

By Butler, George F. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Frozen with Fear: Virgil's Aeneid and Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's the Second Part of King Henry VI


Butler, George F., Philological Quarterly


In Act 4 of Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI, the Duke of Suffolk is captured after a battle at sea. The Captain of the ship plans to execute him. As Suffolk prepares to die, he says to Walter Whitmore, "Pene gelidus timor occupat artus: / 'Tis thee I fear" (2 Hen. VI 4.1.116-17); or, "Frozen fear seizes my joints almost entirely." (1) In a study of the classical background of Shakespeare's plays, J. A. K. Thomson has commented on Suffolk's exclamation:

Apparently suggested by Lucan, 1.246: "gelidus pavor occupat artus." But it is possible that our poet, like Lucan himself, had in mind certain phrases in Virgil, e.g. Aeneid, 6.54: "gelidus Teucris per dura cucurrit / ossa tremor," "a cold shuddering ran through the hard bones of the Trojans." Cf., Aeneid, 2.120. In Aeneid, 7.446, we find "subitus tremor occupat artus." It needs a certain amount of scholarship to misquote in this way, for "timor" is as good (or nearly) as "pavor." (2)

Shakespeare's editors have similarly noted the presence of Virgil, Lucan, or both in Suffolk's remark. In a gloss on the passage in the Arden edition, Andrew S. Cairncross says that Suffolk's words are "Possibly a confused and inaccurate recollection of AEneid, 7.446 (cf. 11.424): `subitus tremor occupat artus' and Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.246: `gelidos pavor occupat artus.' Cf. J. A. K. Thomson, Shakespeare and the Classics, 89-90." And in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt remarks: "Cold fear seizes my limbs almost entirely (perhaps alluding to Virgil, Aeneid 7.446; Lucan, Pharsalia 1.246; or both)." (3) As Cairncross's reference and the paucity of commentary by other editors suggests, Thomson's brief discussion may be the most thorough exposition of the classical background of Suffolk's speech. While Thomson and Shakespeare's editors have pointed to the presence of Lucan and Virgil in 4.1.116 of The Second Part of King Henry VI, they have not fully explored the intertextual relationship between the passage from the play and the relevant lines from Virgil's Aeneid. A close examination shows that Shakespeare probably did not have Lucan's poem in mind, and that he deliberately echoes Virgil to compare Suffolk with Turnus.

In Book 7 of the Aeneid, the Fury Allecto assumes the form of Calybe, the elderly priestess of Juno. She then appears to Turnus in his sleep. She tells him to burn the Trojan ships that are anchored in the Tiber, so as to persuade King Latinus to give him Lavinia as a bride. But Turnus responds by rebuking her:

   sed te victa situ verique effeta senectus,
   o mater, curis nequiquam exercet, et arma
   regum inter falsa vatem formidine ludit.
   cura tibi divum effigies et templa tueri;
   bella viri pacemque gerent, quis bella gerenda.

   (Aen. 7.440-44) (4)

[But thee, O mother, old age, enfeebled by decay and barren of truth, frets with vain distress, and amid the feuds of kings mocks thy prophetic soul with false alarms. Thy charge it is to keep the gods' images and temples; war and peace men shall wield, whose work war is.]

Allecto then reveals her true identity:

   Talibus Allecto dictis exarsit in iras.
   at iuveni oranti subitus tremor occupat artus,
   deriguere oculi: tot Erinys sibilat hydris
   tantaque se facies aperit.

   (Aen. 7.445-48)

[At such words Allecto blazed forth in fury. But even as the youth spoke, a sudden tremor seized his limbs, and his eyes were set in fear; so many are the Fury's hissing snakes, so monstrous the features that unfold themselves.]

She then triumphantly chastizes the fearful Turnus:

   en ego victa situ, quam veri effeta senectus
   arma inter regum falsa formidine ludit.
   respice ad haec: adsum dirarum ab sede sororum,
   bella manu letumque gero.

   (Aen. 7.452-55)

[Behold me, enfeebled by decay, whom old age, barren of truth, amid the feuds of kings, mocks with vain alarm! Look on this! …

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Frozen with Fear: Virgil's Aeneid and Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's the Second Part of King Henry VI
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