Homer’s Women: Reflections

Homer’s Women: Reflections

[This post originally appeared on the By Jove Theatre Blog]

In January 2018, I began teaching a course on the Homeric poems in translation at UCL. The course was designed around a lecture and seminar per week; the students learned about the background and reception of the poems in the lecture with my colleague, then were split into two groups to study the books of the Iliad in detail. The course requires a large amount of reading and interpretation of the original poem in translation, but the richness of the reception history of both poems, as well as the London location, also made the course ripe for bringing in additional materials, including films and exhibitions. But perhaps one of the most evocative aspects of the poems is their orality, which cannot often be captured in class. As a result, I decided that teaching the class presented an opportunity to produce a performance with By Jove that would both augment the learning experience of my students and allow us as a company to explore some of the themes that we found particularly interesting in the poems.

It should come as no surprise that I envisioned the performance as a way to explore the female characters, primarily the mortal female characters, in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. When we think about the protagonists of these stories, we usually think of Achilles, Agamemnon, Hektor, Odysseus. The (speaking) female characters that we encounter are almost all entirely dependent on these men, in terms of both their characters and their narratives. Many of them exist to wait for men and their actions. Andromache waits for Hektor to win or to die, knowing that her own fate is tied up in his. Hecuba and the other Trojan women do much the same. Helen waits to be rescued, or not – to end up with one man or the other, with no apparent will in the matter. Penelope may be the patron saint of waiting for a man. Others seem to exist purely to further a male narrative – Nausikaa, that helpful princess, exists in the Odyssey purely to facilitate Odysseus’ progress – her story begins and ends with him. Even women with divinity in their blood exist (in a narrative sense) only to be helpers of (male) heroes – Thetis in particular – and though Circe and Kalypso would rather hinder Odysseus’ progress, both end up guiding him forward.

As a result, Homer’s women are negative space around male heroes. The narrative pushes them towards and shapes them around men, so that they barely exist without them. In this performance, we want to explore what happens when we focus only on that negative space – when we remove the men, the narrative, even the poet? What happens when we hear the words that Homer puts in these women’s mouths in isolation? When we read between the lines of what they say and don’t say? When we go beyond paradigms in search of people? Without men, who are these women?

I worked on the development of the performance with three members of By Jove – SJ Brady, Sinead Costelloe, and Wendy Haines. We began by taking extracts of the poems that contained the women’s dialogue, and separated it out from the rest of the narrative. We used Richmond Lattimore’s translation of both poems, for the benefit of its poetic language and having the same translator for both poems. We selected those characters who we felt we could fit together into a mini-narrative for the performance, and whose characterisation in the original poems showed the most nuance and space for development in a new version, settling on Helen, Andromache, Kalypso, Penelope, Thetis, and Circe. If we had had more time for development, or had chosen a slightly different frame, we would also have included Hecuba and Nausikaa.

In our development discussion, we settled on the concept that as Circe acts as an instruction-giver or guide to Odysseus, she would have the same role for our audience during the performance, guiding them from one character to the next. The performance would take the structure of a prologue, followed by five character ‘monologues’ divided by Circe’s interludes. The interludes consisted of passages lifted from the original poems matched in some way to the themes of the following monologue, finished off by a triplet composed of lines from elsewhere in the poem naming the upcoming character. Each of the women’s narratives was a new piece of poetry adapted from the original text, with more or less resemblance to it. Each performer delivering a monologue wrote it herself.

The performance sparked a lively and interesting discussion in the Q & A afterwards, both about our methods and choices in writing and about the ways in which our work allowed reflections on the original poems. We were particularly struck by how rich the speeches of these women were when lifted out of the clamour of battle and men’s voices, and how little we had to step outside of the poem in order to bring them to life. For myself, too, as a first time performer, I found the experience of memorising and reciting lines of Homer especially evocative. In my section on Thetis, I chose to recite the names of 33 Nereids that Homer includes in the original poem, and this long recitation took on an almost ritual quality for me. I felt somehow like a spiritual descendant of the original oral poets who composed the poem, and also felt like I had tapped into an aspect of these poems that cannot be accessed by simply reading them on the page.

All in all, I was extremely pleased with the final performance, and found the experience as a whole both artistically rewarding and academically stimulating. I hope to be able to develop the piece further for a future performance.


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