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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

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...

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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, who imitated several of the letters in his own poetry, and Alexander Pope, who wrote one of his finest poems, “Eloisa to Abelard,” in imitation of the verse epistles.

Ovid’s “Canace to Macareus” is one of the finest short dramatic poems in classic literature. As it opens, Canace is telling her brother and lover Macareus that she has been ordered by their father, Aeolus, to kill herself as punishment for having had a child by her brother. She tells in close detail how she had become pregnant by Macareus, how her sympathetic nurse had tried unsuccessfully to induce an abortion, and finally how the newborn baby had betrayed itself by crying as the nurse was trying to carry it past Aeolus, wrapped in a bundle of sticks. Aeolus, the household tyrant, paradoxically able to control the four winds but not his own passion, is the inflexible villain of Canace’s letter. Ovid succeeds in getting his readers to sympathize with the incestuous couple and to question any sort of inflexible legal or moral code.

A poet can, however, say only so much on the theme of rejected love. Ovid sometimes seems bored with his subject matter, especially when he takes his material from another poet. When he borrows Dido from Vergil, for example, his poem becomes only a good, but obvious, imitation; and Ovid’s “Dido to Aeneas” adds almost no new detail to Vergil’s story in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.).

Although many of the letters seem sentimental or mawkish to later perception, Ovid’s power as a storyteller and dramatist is obvious, and many of the characters he depicts seem “true” or “real.” Some of the unforgettable scenes and figures in the Heroides include the indulgent nurse and the petty tyrant Aeolus in “Canace to Macareus”; Ariadne lying on the rocks of her island watching Theseus’s sails disappear in the distance; and Paris flirting with Helen at the table of her husband, Menelaus. The realism in the Heroides is psychological: What Ovid’s characters think and do seems natural even in later times. Ovid also writes sympathetically about the social outcast and the mentally sick; he shows understanding for Dido and Medea, both close to insane, and for the incestuous Canace and Phaedra.

Ovid’s verse is artificial, and he makes no effort to give his heroines an individual style or poetic voice; all sound similar. However, they retain their psychological individuality, which Ovid shows through their actions and their thoughts. Despite the fact that the poet relies on his readers’ acquaintance with the stories—he often builds his poems dramatically on allusions that have in later times become obscure and puzzling—Ovid presents the physical and psychological details of his stories with vigorous and compelling power.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

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.

The character of Medea must have been a greater challenge for Ovid because her story was so widely known and had been told magnificently by the fifth century b.c.e. Greek dramatist Euripides. The difficulty, then, was to present her in a way that did not diverge from the well-known myth and yet to capture something of her that had not been explored before. Ovid immediately captures her disordered state of mind by beginning the passage in the middle of a sentence. This suggests that her feverish thoughts have focused relentlessly on her abandonment by Jason, and anything she says or writes on the subject is indeed the continuation of an inner monologue. Like Euripides’ Medea, Ovid’s recounts the numerous deeds, both foul and fair, that she had done in the past for Jason’s sake. Unlike Euripides’ character, Ovid’s Medea says, whether sincerely or not, that her current pitiful state is her punishment for the harm that she did to others on Jason’s behalf. Whereas Euripides has portrayed her as a woman much like Achilles, a woman who will have vengeance and be remembered for it, Ovid conveys the idea that in her heart of hearts, Medea feels helpless, powerless. She recalls several examples of her magical prowess and laments that she is unable now to use magic on herself to cure her grief, bitterness, and pain. Because the reader knows that Medea will ultimately commit infanticide, she does not, finally, come across as more likable than the woman of Greek drama, but for a moment the reader can see a vulnerability in her that is not usually portrayed.

Although the letter of Hermione to Orestes concerns a marriage contract that she was forced to obey, a fascinating subplot emerges in her letter. Hermione is the daughter of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, who abandoned her husband and child to run away to Troy with her lover Paris. The main part of the letter to Orestes concerns their betrothal in childhood, which she regards as a marriage. Now, however, she has been given against her will to Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. What is revealed is the portrait of a woman whose whole life has been filled with loss: Her mother abandons her, her father leaves to fight for ten years to retrieve his wife, she is betrothed to her childhood companion but then is given to another man, who treats her unfeelingly. She begs Orestes to rescue her, but it is the poignant look at the childhood loss of her mother that is the truly memorable part of this letter. She recalls the tumult left in the wake of Helen’s betrayal of her family: She remembers tearfully asking her mother why she was leaving her, she laments never having had a mother to hold her, and finally she recalls seeing her mother at last when Helen was returned to Greece, not knowing her face but recognizing her only because of her great beauty. In her portrait, Ovid has presented a lost and lonely soul, buffeted by the egocentric, heroically proportioned figures in her life, this time both male and female.

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