Session Five Abstracts

Panel A – Challenges to Orthodoxy? Ancient Women in Early Modernity

  • Abigail Richards, Durham: Return to the Bower: Spenser, Homer and Milton’s akratic ‘Comus’

Abstract: In this paper I read Milton’s 1634 masque, Comus,  in light of a key textual, and critical aporia in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.  I suggest that the relationship between Spenser’s Circean character Acrasia to the philosophical notion of akrasia is deeply vexed, and that the destruction of the Bower of Bliss in Book Two of the Faerie Queene sidesteps a moral quandary that problematises any neat synthesis of Spenser’s protestant ethics with the poetics of the epic form in which he writes.  If, as I argue, for Spenser the notion of true akrasia and the Christian virtue of temperance prove ultimately irreconcilable, Milton’s masque at Ludlow insists by contrast on the necessity of akratic potentiality for the conditioning of temperance in the figure of the Lady.  Reinvoking the bower and Acrasia’s Circean heritage enables Milton to stage a drama of the will that draws upon contemporary political, religious and poetic concerns.  This is mediated through an allusive mythology that stretches beyond the Christianised allegorical readings of the Ovidian, or Virgilian Circe most prevalent in the humanist tradition to expose the character’s roots in a more complex, and ambivalent Homeric narrative.  It is the Homeric Circe, I argue, who haunts the margins and holds the centre of Milton’s masque, offering the greatest scope for akratic survival.


  • Rachael Bowie, Newcastle: The Presentation of Cleopatra in Plutarch and Shakespeare: An analysis of Literary Transmission from Ancient Rome to Sixteenth-Century England

Abstract: I propose an investigation into the challenge to orthodox perceptions of women in the ancient world, which is evident in Shakespeare’s characterisation of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. A close verbal analysis of Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch’s Life of Antony, would provide material on which to analysis the necessity of Shakespeare’s reinvention of Cleopatra in relation to the orthodox perceptions of sixteenth-century England. This analysis would involve the study of the nature of transmission through multiple translations and languages, each reflecting the linguistic nuances and cultural prejudices of their own era. The proposed paper would also involve a study into the ambiguities which any ‘chain of reception’ inevitably produces.

Shakespeare’s engagement with ancient sources in Antony and Cleopatra is considered greater than any other classically based play in Shakespeare’s corpus, as documented by Bullough in the authoritative work, Shakespeare’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources Volume V (1957), to which any study of this topic would be indebted Kahn’s more recent influential work, Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women (1997), would formulate part of my study into altering perceptions of female characterisation. In order to understand fully the extent to which Shakespeare’s use of sources impacted on a sixteenth-century audience it will be necessary to pose the following questions: were their orthodox perceptions which influenced Shakespeare’s reproduction or audience reception, and if so how did Shakespeare challenge these perceptions? The outcome of this work would be a contribution to translation studies and the current strands of scholarship concerning classical tradition and feminist readings of Shakespearean literature.


  • Harriet Lander, Nottingham: Constructing Sappho: ‘Biography’ in English translation paratexts and British eighteenth-century erotica

Abstract: The way in which a poet’s life and actions are written about and understood can radically change the way their poetry is read. Likewise, the writing produced by a poet can alter the way in which we can understand their biographies and the stories that are told about them.

Sappho was no different. By taking two very different forms of writing about Sappho’s sexuality, my paper will assess the disparity between how she was written about in the small biographies, ‘Lives’ which accompanied the first English translations of her work in the early- and mid-eighteenth century, alongside the erotic pamphlet ‘The Sappho-an’. The biographies cover a period from 1713 to 1760, and are by George Sewell, John Addison and Francis Fawkes. These show how the life of Sappho, and explicitly her sexuality, was viewed through the eyes of someone working closely with her poetry or translating it. The anonymously-authored ‘Sappho-an’ from 1749 is not fettered by the weight of Sappho’s poetic text and re-imagines her in an entirely different, and more sexual, setting.

The tension between the ways in which these different genres discuss aspects of Sappho’s sexuality and sensuality creates a figure of the poet that is at once chaste but promiscuous, hetero- but homosexual, ‘real’ and yet mythologised. Alongside these conflicting ideas about the poet, there are also themes which create a wider idea of Sappho and her persona that can be found in both these types of writing, such as pedagogy and deep sensuality.

By re-thinking the ways in which Sappho’s persona was constructed through these two different genres, modern readers are able to gain an insight into the reasons why authors and contemporary readers made their decisions about Sappho’s life and how they each created their own, individual ideas of who Sappho was and what she loved.


Panel B – Reception in Antiquity

  • Marion Pragt, Leiden University: Anchoring Identity in Antiquity: Founding Figures in the Works of Philo and Plutarch

Abstract: The United States House of Representatives is adorned with marble sculptures of lawgivers form throughout history, indicating the desire of the leaders of a modern state to see themselves as descendants of a long and distinct line of legislators. Among those portrayed are two of the founding fathers of Jewish and Spartan law: Moses and Lycurgus. This paper will explore the reception of these founding figures in the works of the Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator Philo (c. 20 BCE-50 CE) and the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE). Although both authors are not normally studied together, this paper will show their lives and works actually offer great comparative potential.

Charles Martindale’s claim that ‘meaning is always realized at the point of reception’ (Martindale, 2006) wiil be used to understand the meanings Philo and Plutarch ascribed to the lives of Moses and Lycurgus in their works. Plutarch is often understood as an early exponent of the classicism that would become prominent in the second and third centuries CE in the literature of the Second Sophistic (Goldhill 2001, Whitmarsh, 2005). It will be argued in this paper that a similar interest in the Jewish past governs Philo’s works and that as such, Philo and Plutarch used the ancient figures of Moses and Lycurgus as anchors for the construction of Jewish and Greek identity in their own times. From this perspective, the paper will show how and why Philo and Plutarch at the same time affirmed yet also challenged ‘orthodox’ views of Moses and Lycurgus.

Through this case study on the reception of Moses and Lycurgus between orthodoxy and dissent, the paper will explore how Philo and Plutarch participated in and shaped Jewish and Greek culture as the world they lived in was becoming increasingly Roman.


  • Cíntia Martins Sanches, São Paulo State University (Brazil) and King’s College: The Horatian and Aristotelian principles and the dissent on tragedian Seneca

Abstract: The Aristotle’s Poetica and the Horace’s Ars Poetica are very famous in Antiquity since they showed the similarities and differences between the existing genres and the intrinsic characteristics of all these genres. Not all ancient texts, however, present the same particularity depicted by these authors. Facing the conservative principles of such two Poetica mentioned, Seneca the Younger, in his tragic work, comes out as one of the possible innovative authors, considering he “disobeys” sundry rules proposed by Aristotle and Horace. In fact, Seneca may not have been the first one to break new ground in this regard, since other Latin authors wrote tragedies before him, which have not come to the present time. The fact is, however, that Seneca dramas mix metres of lyrical and elegiac poetry, contain philosophical axioms, do not faithfully follow the law of the three units, present scenes in which deaths occur before the public eyes, mix literary genres, generate intense discussion of if they were written for staging or declamation. We highlight that most of the literary value of Seneca’s tragedies is the use of these procedures and the expressive effect that each of them is able to save. These characteristics are indispensable to the history of world theatre, and not only by the literary value of Seneca’s texts, but also by how much they influenced the writing of other tragedies in the most different times and countries. This study, thus, tries to compare the particularity of the tragic genre showed in the Poetica of Aristotle and Horace with some dissent found in Seneca’s dramas comparing to those principles.


  • James Cook, Royal Holloway Brothers in Arms: Thersites and Odysseus in Sophocles’ ‘Philoctetes’

Abstract: The character Thersites is perhaps the most noteworthy figure of dissent depicted in Homer; he was supposedly a major character in the Aethiopis  a lost poem in the Epic cycle surviving only in Proclus’ Chrestomachy – as well as a subject of many visual representations in art.   He is in many ways a disrupting force, appearing at crucial moments of both the plot of the Iliad and Sophocles’ Philoctetes.  In the case of the latter, Thersites takes on his disruptive role without actually appearing in the flesh at all.

This paper aims to examine Sophocles’ portrayal and use of the figure of Thersites.  I will explore the way in which Thersites becomes conflated with Odysseus in the Philoctetes, and how this misidentification forms a challenge to orthodox conceptions of heroism.  Perhaps the most distinctive element of Thersites’ brief appearance in Sophocles’ play is the moment when he and Odysseus are misidentified at line 438-44, and I will argue that this episode serves to lower Odysseus to the level of a Thersites.

While existing scholarship commenting on the misidentification of Thersites for Odysseus tends to focus on it as a contrived ploy and part of Odysseus’ and Neoptolemus’ deception of Philoctetes, I will instead contend that its major function is to point out the dangers of eloquent speech and the dangers of the Sophistic movement of Sophocles’ own time.


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