Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of time,
Why are not all the Gods at thy command,
And heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine Daughters sing when thou art sad,
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face,
And Venus’ Swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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