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Letters meant for you
Transcript of Letters meant for you
The Ovidian Penelope
Readers, writers and time
Heroines are not just mythical, but literary - their stories have already been written
Heroines are resisting readers of source texts but also revisionist rewriters whose letters assume temporal priority
Implications of epistolary form:
i) distinctly female discursive mode
ii) two levels of authorship and readership
Dramatises act of communication between poet and reader (who like heroine and lover are separated spatially and temporally)
seem to present a subversive female voice, but do the analogies between Ovid and the heroines make it difficult to disaggregate the two voices?
The Homeric Penelope
Who is Penelope?
Wife of Odysseus, daughter of Ikarios (a Spartan king)
Odysseus defeated Penelope's other suitors in a foot-race devised by Ikarios
Penelope obediently followed him to Ithaca, despite Ikarios' pleas for them to stay in Sparta
They have one son, Telemachus (still a baby when the Trojan War began)
Odysseus reluctantly followed the Greek fleet, spending ten years at Troy and ten more years wandering across the Mediterranean
Penelope remained faithful to her husband (according to the majority of sources)
, at the moment of writing of her letter, she is harassed by suitors, local noblemen who have installed themselves in Odysseus' palace, ignoring Telemachus (now a young man), feasting at Odysseus' expense, and competing for Penelope's hand
A stranger arrives and Penelope gives him the letter
Penelope as prototype for the faithful wife:
How good was proved the heart that is in blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, and how well she remembered Odysseus,
her wedded husband. Thereby the fame of her virtue shall never
die away. (
Her first appearance:
The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope,
heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber,
and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace,
not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her.
When she, shining among women, came near the suitors,
she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery,
holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it.
On range of competing ancient traditions regarding Penelope, see Katz, 1991: Chapter 4.
‘Young men, my suitors now that the great Odysseus has perished,
wait, though you are eager to marry me, until I finish
this web, so that my weaving will not be useless and wasted.
This is a shroud for the hero Laertes […].’
[…] Thereafter in the daytime she would weave at her great loom,
but in the night she would have torches set by and undo it.
So for three years she was secret in her design, convincing
the Achaians, but when the fourth year came with the seasons returning,
one of the women, who knew the whole of the story, told us,
and we found her in the act of undoing her glorious weaving.
Drinkwater (2007) argues that heroines’ letters have precedent in
they send in their previous literary incarnations
Ovidian Penelope’s letter one of many she has given to strangers in the hope that they’ll get to Ulysses:
Whoever comes to our shore must hear
my questions until he thinks I am crazy;
Then I give him letters meant for you.
Letter writing campaign recalls Homeric Penelope’s multiple messages sent to deceive her suitors:
For she holds out hope to all, and makes promises to each man,
sending us messages, but her mind has other intentions. (
Kennedy (2002: 222-3) argues epistolary form adopted because letters:
i) involve writing ‘to the moment’
ii) evoke ‘spontaneity, sincerity and authenticity of emotion’
iii) are ‘discursively feminine’
Women as writers
All heroines separated from their lovers but circumstances of separation vary:
Temporary vs permanent (Penelope vs Dido)
Abandoned vs separated by outside factors (Dido vs Penelope)
In reality, women’s participation in ancient literary culture rare
Exceptions feature heavily in Ovid's poetry
(e.g. Sappho in
2.3.61-1, Corinna in
, Perilla in
Letter writing in elegy
provides advice to men and women on letter writing and its role in seduction
[…] A persuasive letter’s
The thing to lead off with […]
Your powers, avoid long words. (
A lover should pave the way with letters: make sure you detail
A trustworthy maid to act as your go-between.
[…] A girl should write hesitantly, but in everyday language –
Familiar phrases have their own appeal.
How often a hesitant lover takes fire from letters –
And how often a barbarous style
Will undo the prettiest writer! (
Key difference in style
encouragement to deceive
Women’s letter writing figured as private, intimate, risky act
Female truth vs male deception
, male deception in
seen not in letters but speech
In fact, men explicitly denied role as writer and resigned to role as reader:
Penelope to the tardy Ulysses:
do not answer these lines, but come, for
Troy is dead and the daughters of Greece rejoice.
Farrell (1998) argues for clear dichotomy in the text:
Men vs women
Speech vs writing
Deception vs truth
Do we see this played out in Penelope’s letter?
The stranger who has arrived in Ithaca is, of course, Ulysses disguised as beggar
Deception Ulysses’ defining trait:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways (
As we’ve seen, Homer’s Penelope also deceptive (and a good match for her husband)
Examples: Laertes’ shroud (
. 2.93-110); the bow and axe and the bed trick (
. 21 and 23)
Ancient reception: Cicero, Luc. 95; Seneca, Ep. 88.8; Juvenal 2.56
Ovid’s Penelope does not plan to deceive the suitors through weaving:
How often I have wished that Paris
had drowned before he reached our welcoming shores.
If he had died I would not have been
compelled now to sleep alone in my cold bed
complaining always of the tiresome
prospect of endless nights and days spent working
like a poor widow at my tedious loom.
Interpreting the revisions
This Penelope seems to uphold dichotomy maintained throughout the
(male/female; speech/writing; deception/truth)
Decouples weaving and deception for a second time:
Perhaps you describe me as simple,
and fit only for keeping your royal house,
but I pray that I am mistaken,
that my charge is as slight as a fitful breeze,
that you do not choose to stay away.
Barchiesi (1992: 23-25) and Kennedy (1984: 241) argue: we question Penelope’s account as truth, accepting Homer’s duplicitous Penelope as canonical
Farrell (1998: 326-7) counters: inherent truthfulness of women’s writing in the
should encourage us to consider taking Penelope at her word
Do we believe Penelope (1st person) or Homer (3rd person)?
Is that question answered or is it merely raised?
Which author? Which reader?
Are we as external readers mean to imagine ourselves reading the letter after the addressee or as interceptors?
Potential for irony as heroines see their stories as open; we see them as closed(and heroines struggling against a fixed destiny)
Ultimate example: We know what Penelope doesn’t: that she’s writing on the eve of her reunion with Ulysses
The affinity between the life of the writer and the life of women:
If the writing’s streaked with blotted erasures,
the poet marred his own work with his tears.
If any phrase might not seem good Latin,
it was a land of barbarians he wrote in.(Ovid,
The words you read come from stolen Briseis,
an alien who has learned some Greek.
A few of these lines are blurred by falling tears,
Tears which are as heavy as my words. (Ovid,
Distinguishing between authors and readers has implications for temporality of the letters
When we consider
Ovid as author
source text temporally anterior to the letter
(i.e. letter echoes source text)
When we consider
heroine as author
source text ‘forestalled’
by heroine (making Homer, Virgil etc. echo the heroine)
See Kennedy (2002): 226
Freezing of Penelope’s story at this moment in time (before the return of Ulysses) makes Penelope’s letter anterior to Homer
Allows the heroine to subvert the ‘timeless abstractions’ they have become (esp. in the case of the prototypical heroine like Penelope)
Is this a kind of power game?
Barchiesi, A. (1992)
P. Ovidii Nasonis Epistuale Heroidum 1-3
. Florence: Felice Le Monnier.
Drinkwater, M. (2007) ‘Which Letter? Text and Subtext in Ovid's
The American Journal of Philology
128 (3): 367-387.
Farrell, J. (1998) ‘Reading and Writing the
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology
Felson-Rubin, N. (1994)
Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics
. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Gregory, E. (1996) ‘Unravelling Penelope: The Construction of the Faithful Wife in Homer's Heroines’,
Katz, M. (1991) P
enelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey
. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kennedy, D. F. (2002) ‘Epistolarity: The
’ in P. Hardie, ed.
The Cambridge Companion to Ovid
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 217-231.
Kennedy, D. F. (1984) ‘The Epistolary Mode and the First of Ovid’s
Knox, P. (2002) ‘The
: Elegiac Voices’ in B. Weiden Boyd, ed.
Brill’s Companion to Ovid
. Leiden: Brill. 117-139.