In the Heroides or Letters of the Heroines, the Roman poet Ovid composed a series of dramatic letters in elegiac verse, alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter. “Elegy,” writes one of Ovid’s heroines, “is the weeping strain,” and indeed the mood of most of these letters is that of sadness. Most of the heroines have been rejected by famous heroes: Dido by Aeneas, Ariadne by Theseus, Hypsipyle by Jason, Oenone by Paris. Some are apprehensive of coming death either for themselves or for their lovers; Canace, Dejanira, Sappho, and Dido are about to commit suicide. Medea is about to kill the new wife of Jason and her own two children.
Almost all of the heroines are in hopeless, pitiful situations, caught at a turning point in their lives. However, in these turning points there is conflict, both internal and among several people, a reminder that Ovid was also a dramatist, though his play Medea (probably before 8 b.c.e.) is no longer extant. The letters are the ancestors of the familiar dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and also of the interior monologue as it was used by James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoevski, for in their writing the heroines reveal their inmost thoughts. Moreover, what the heroine says usually sets the scene for the reader: Through reminiscence, she tells the events of the past that led up to her present woe. Sometimes Ovid transports the reader directly into the mind of the heroine, as she shifts rapidly from one association to another, or from a past memory to the present. In telling the different stories dramatically, Ovid remains in the background, almost out of sight.
The Heroides have inspired different generations of English poets, from Geoffrey Chaucer, who felt deep sympathy for Canace, and his contemporary John Gower to John Donne,...
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Most epic, drama, myth, and history of the classical period focuses on the stories of men and their exploits, but in the Heroides, Ovid finds the feminine point of view that is often missing from these stories. The epistolary format is really another way to present a soliloquy or monologue, in this case of a secondary character whom Ovid depicts, thus adding to, not supplanting, the reader’s understanding of the original story. In this collection of letters, the women whose names are familiar but whose perspectives have been given little consideration by the reader—or, for that matter, by the hero—present their thoughts and feelings at a moment of emotional turmoil or crisis.
Readers of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) are familiar with the famous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, when Agamemnon seizes Achilles’ war prize, the girl Briseis. She is treated as chattel, passed between the men like an inanimate object with no regard whatever for her feelings as a human being. In Homer’s story, Achilles is furious at losing her to Agamemnon, not so much because he cares for her personally but because he has been insulted and humiliated by Agamemnon’s action. In Briseis’ letter to Achilles in the Heroides, she even comments that he gave her up with no apparent reluctance and wishes that he had at least shown some resistance, whereby she would know that he had feelings for her. In Homer, when Agamemnon’s envoys offer Achilles great riches and the return of Briseis if he will rejoin the battle, Achilles refuses; in Ovid, Briseis sees his refusal as a rejection of her and asks what she has done to earn his disfavor. She has heard that he has threatened to sail for Greece and is distraught; she asks to whom she is now to be left. When she refers to her husband and brothers who were killed in the battle when she was taken captive, the reader understands her clinging to Achilles, her captor. She has been left with nothing: no homeland, no family, no security. Achilles represents at least a future for her. Thus, Ovid shows a complex human being who was, in the Iliad, a flat figure.
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