Based for the most part on Ovid's Metamorphoses, epyllia retell stories of the dalliances of gods and mortals, most often concerning the transformation of beautiful youths. This short-lived genre flourished and died in England in the 1590s. It was produced mainly by and for the young men of the Inns of Court, where the ambitious came to study law and to sample the pleasures London had to offer. Jim Ellis provides detailed readings of fifteen examples of the epyllion, considering the poems in their cultural milieu and arguing that these myths of the transformations of young men are at the same time stories of sexual, social, and political metamorphoses.
Examining both the most famous (Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Marlowe's Hero and Leander) and some of the more obscure examples of the genre (Hiren, the Fair Greek and The Metamorphosis of Tabacco), Ellis moves from considering fantasies of selfhood, through erotic relations with others, to literary affiliation, political relations, and finally to international issues such as exploration, settlement, and trade. Offering a revisionist account of the genre of the epyllion, Ellis transforms theories of sexuality, literature, and politics of the Elizabethan age, making an erudite and intriguing contribution to the field.