The poem is based on the myth of Philomela and Tereus. In the original version, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue, and is transformed into a nightingale. How closely is this myth replicated in this poem? Why does the speaker compare himself to Philomela?
The poem is written from the perspective of Philomela, who is already transformed into a nightingale. Following the original source, she is described as lamenting the crime that has been committed against her. The poem, while using the myth, shifts the power relations. While the original myth depicts Philomela as the victim, who is literally robbed of her ability to express her anguish, the poem by Sidney changes the story. In his version, the nightingale is able to express her pain in song; Tereus has not succeeded in silencing her. Furthermore, he uses the myth as a starting point to argue that men are the ones unable to express their pain and suffering: the speaker rather than Philomela is the one who has his tongue cut out (not literally, but due to societal expectations).
How are the gender roles of 16th century Britain depicted in the poem "The Nightingale"?
In 16th century Britain, gender roles were clear cut. Men had to be stoic and earn the income, while women were kept in the house and were expected to experience strong emotions. This expression of emotion was (and still is) often described as a nuisance. Sidney was raised mainly by women; his father was not part of his life. It has been argued that Sidney originally wanted to make a comment on the different way society looks at men and women, showing that it is damaging when men are unable to express their emotions. However, in doing so, the poem seems to elevate the speaker and Tereus' lust over Philomela and women's right to bodily autonomy and safety. From a modern perspective, it minimizes rape.