Pastoral Themes during the Renaissance
The pastoral theme, very much in vogue, idealized the simple pleasures of country life in contrast to the corrupted atmosphere of the cities. Pastoral comedy, rooted in Greek mythology, was revived during the Renaissance and remained popular until the 18th century. The Italian dramaturge Torquato Tasso idealized unconditional love in a pastoral setting in his play Aminta (produced in 1573).
His contemporary in Spain, Miguel de Cervantes, wrote Don Quixote, the story of an idealist who dedicates his good deeds to a country girl called Dulcinea.
Two ancient poets in particular inspired Renaissance writers, Theocritus and Virgil.
Theocritus was born in Syracuse in 310 BC and lived in Alexandria under the Egyptian king Ptolemy II, where he was a member of the Pleiad of Alexandrian poets. Of the thirty idyllic poems, or Idylls, that reached us ten are pastorals with a lovelorn shepherd as the central character. Virgil, born 70 BC in Rome, exalted country life in his first major work of ten poems called the Bucolics.
Both poets were influenced by the story of Daphnis, the mythological shepherd from Sicily, son of a nymph, who is supposed to have invented bucolic poetry. Many versions exist about this young man who was supposedly born in a field of laurels.
Daphnis bragged that he’d never fall in love, which caused the nymph Eros and the goddess Aphrodite to retaliate and made him fall hopelessly in love with a nymph called Nais. At first he didn't’t want to admit to his passion but he was desperately unhappy. Nais accepted to be his if he swore eternal fidelity. In no time at all the manipulative Xenia gets him drunk and seduces him. The next day, inconsolable, Daphnis sang his pain around the countryside, until he fell into a stream and died.
Another totally different story relates Daphnis’ love for a woman, Thalie, who was captured by pirates:
He traveled the corners of the world and found her at the court of the king of Phrygie, where she was enslaved. King Lityerses had an bizarre welcome for newcomers to his kingdom. They had to compete to see how much wheat they could gather in one day. The king always won and the visitor was put to death. The god Heracles, Daphnis’ father, asked to take his place. The arrogant king agreed but Heracles gathered more wheat and the king was killed. Daphnis married the woman he loved and became king of Phrygie.