To fully understand Sidney’s “The Nightingale,” it is helpful to spend more time analyzing the story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. While Sidney’s version of the myth absolves Tereus of some fault, Ovid focuses more on Tereus’ evil character, and on the more dire consequences of the sequence of events he puts into motion by raping Philomela. From the beginning of the story, there are ill omens around Procne and Tereus’ wedding: “…all night long the screeching owl aloof,/ with barrelful notes, sate brooding o’er the roof.” Importantly, the ill omen is itself a mournful bird.
Five years after marrying Procne and becoming father to a son, Itys, Tereus develops an intense lust for Philomela. Philomela and Procne’s father, Pandion, lets Tereus take Philomela to visit Procne, but begs him to protect her. Tereus agrees, but from the very start, “the coals of burning lust” are “fired” in his breast. Despite the fact that raping Philomela is incestous, he proceeds. After the rape, Ovid compares Philomela to a: “tim’rous dove” who “beholds her shining plumes besmear’d with gore” after she has escape from a hawk. She proceeds to berate and upbraid Tereus, telling him that her “mournful voice the pitying rocks shall move.” In retaliation, he cuts out her tongue and hides her away, pretending she has died.
When Procne receives a tapestry from Philomela, she learns the truth, and she meets with her sister. Then, angry, she takes revenge on her husband by boiling their son Itys and feeding him to Tereus. Philomela flings Itys’ head at Tereus. As Tereus chases the two women, they turn into birds.
In Sidney’s “The Nightingale,” Philomela has only one cause for pain: her rape. However, in the Metamorphoses, we see many other causes: Philomela loses her virtue, commits incest, and suffers rape all in one blow. Then, she loses her sister. Eventually, she loses her nephew. We also learn from the poem that she is attached to her father, Pandion; her transformation into a bird sends him to an early grave. The original myth suggests that rape is much more than a cause for lament: it is a force that can tear a person and a family apart forever.