What are the consequences of reading Shakespeare’s allusions to classical heroes through vernacular adaptations rather than through classical texts? This essay reframes the debate about which classical sources Shakespeare consulted, arguing that he encountered Aeneas and Theseus primarily through vernacular authors. Vernacular literature’s depictions of the mythic founders of Rome and Athens foreground classical heroes’ treachery and duplicity and minimize their roles as progenitors of empire and culture. Shakespeare’s quotation strategies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream follow Marlowe and Nashe’s model in Dido, Queen of Carthage by looking to Chaucer as the poetic authority for classical myth. Like Chaucer, both playwrights foreground the destruction left in empire’s wake. A Midsummer Night’s Dream imagines a retelling of Dido’s story that privileges her authority over an interloping male hero. In the asinine Bottom, Shakespeare offers an antidote to the exploitative model of heroism embodied in Theseus and Aeneas through a mock-heroic retelling of Aeneas’s most renowned crime.

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