Stitches in Time: Penelope in Rome and Modern Britain

Homer’s Penelope is an intriguing character where more is left unsaid than said. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and has led to lots of different ideas as to what Penelope is really thinking. Many authors have assumed her voice, giving their own version of her story, although with varying degrees of success. In this post I am going to look at two different versions. One is by Ovid in 1st century AD Rome and the other is from a 20th century poem by Carol Ann Duffy. Despite Ovid’s attempt to convincingly portray her character, his representation of Penelope can be stripped away to reveal simply clever rhetoric. Brilliant as Ovid is, he cannot truly represent the female voice. For that we must turn to the recent poetry of Carol Ann Duffy.

Ovid’s Heroides is an interesting work, unique to the classics in the form of a series of imagined letters written from the heroines of epic and tragedy to their absent loves. The first of these is from Penelope to Odysseus. As in the other Heroides, Penelope begs for her husband’s return, complaining that she is bereft without him:


Penelope to the tardy Odysseus:
do not answer these lines, but come, for
Troy is dead and the daughters of Greece rejoice.
But all of Troy and Priam himself

are not worth the price I’ve paid for victory.

In Ovid Penelope does not subscribe to the epic values of Homer. For her martial glory has no value, and she hates the war in Troy for taking her husband away from her:


How often I have wished that Paris
had drowned before he reached our welcoming shores.
If he had died I would not have been
compelled now to sleep in my cold bed
complaining always of the tiresome
prospect of endless nights and days spent working
like a poor woman at my tedious loom.

Line 12 here refers to the funeral shroud that she weaves for Laertes in the Odyssey. The motif of weaving is extremely important to the many characterisations of Penelope. In Homer the shroud is an example of Penelope’s characteristic cunning, promising the suitors that she will marry one of them when it is finished, but every night unpicking her stitches so that it is never completed.

Yet here the shroud does not reveal the cunning or resourcefulness of Penelope. Instead of tricking the suitors she uses it to deceive herself, seeking through her work to lose track of the long nights suffered by lonely wives. This is symbolic in understanding Ovid’s Penelope: she is not the cunning match for her epic husband, rather she is the abandoned lover of elegiac love poetry.

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

Letters give their authors the power to convey their voices across wide distances. And yet in the Heroides Penelope only emphasises the powerlessness of the letter in comparison to speech. We see how much more effective this form of communication is in the mission of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. While Penelope complains that she has vainly sent out many letters with no reply, she reveals that her son was able to gather information by talking with Nestor, another Greek hero:


Penelope, by Spencer Stanhope (1864)

Penelope, by Spencer Stanhope (1864)

I sent Telemachus searching for you and
he returned with much information.
When he came to Nestor’s palace he was met
and told of all your wonderful deeds

There is in letters a tension between movement and stasis: the letter travels while the writer is fixed. Here we see how the male travels and socially gathers information while the woman is solitary and confined. There is a strong contrast between the powerless immobility of the female voice and the mobile effectiveness of the male.

Another interesting aspect of Penelope’s letter is the way in which she interacts with the heroic values of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad and the Odyssey both focus on very different types of heroism. The Iliad is all about a glorious death in battle, culminating in Achilles’ famous choice: should he die famously at Troy or return home and quietly grow old? The Odyssey however is all about survival and the return journey home. Penelope is essential to the fulfilment of this kind of heroism because it is she who guarantees Odysseus’ safe home-coming: by remaining faithful to Odysseus she ensures that he will be able to reclaim the throne at Ithaca.

However, in the Heroides Penelope does not acknowledge her importance in this respect. Rather she focusses exclusively on the glory Odysseus has won in Troy, on the heroism valued in the Iliad rather than the Odyssey:


Yours was the courage, while forgetting your own,
that let you set your stealthy feet
where the Thracian camp was pitched for the night and you
could slaughter so many so quickly
with only one man to help. You were careful,
I’m sure, always to think first of me!

The joke of course is that Odysseus was almost certainly not thinking of Penelope, but rather was focussed on his own military achievements. Penelope then, rather than asserting her own important role in the epic, marginalises herself. She once again emphasises her powerlessness by removing her authority in assuring the success of his Odyssean adventures.

Finally, although letters give their authors the ability to control their own self-portrait, Penelope’s is largely shaped by her addressee. The author of a persuasive letter must always work with the desires and expectations of the recipient in mind. Thus Penelope in the Heroides acts out a role that will please Odysseus in order to persuade him to return home to Ithaca. She uses every trick in the book to be desirable to him, putting him at the centre of her narrative and flattering his self-importance by showing how helpless she is without him.

These attempts at persuasion can be traced throughout the many different characters of the Heroides. The result of this is that, despite Ovid’s valiant attempts at characterisation, his woman are not real. They are, as Lindheim argues, “rhetorical exercises”. The Heroides are clever and entertaining but they bring us no closer to women in the classical world. The sad reality is that the search for a true female voice in antiquity is far from a straightforward one, and all too often is met with little more than silence.


Penelope Waiting for Odysseus, by Friedrich von Deutsch

However, now women are able to fill that gap. If you’re a fan of the Classics and particularly the female voice in the classics I would strongly recommend Carol Ann Duffy’s anthology “The World’s Wife”. It is a series of poems written from the perspective of the wives of famous male characters, so all-in-all not a vastly different project from Ovid’s Heroides. But Duffiy’s Penelope is not a construct whose existence is defined by her husband, marginalised next to her male counterpart. She is a woman who has moved on, “at the centre of this world, self-contained, absorbed, content“; a woman with her own story to tell, a woman with a voice.


At first I looked along the road
hoping to see him saunter home
among the olive trees,
a whistle for the dog
who mourned him with his warm head on my knees.
Six months of this
and then I noticed that whole days had passed
without my noticing.
I sorted cloth and scissors, needle, thread,

thinking to amuse myself, but found a lifetime’s 
industry instead.
I sewed a girl
under a single star-cross-stitch, silver silk – 
running after childhood’s bouncing ball.
I chose between three green for the grass;
a smoky pink, a shadow’s grey
to show a snapdragon gargling a bee.
I threaded walnut brown for a tree,

my thimble like an acorn
pushing up through umber soil.
Beneath the shade
I wrapped a maiden in a deep embrace
with heroism’s boy
and lost myself completely
in a wild embroidery of love, lust, loss, lessons learnt;
then watched him sail away
into the loose gold stitching of the sun.

And when the others came to take his place,
disturb my peace,
I played for time.
I wore a widow’s face, kept my head down,
did my work by day, at night unpicked it.
I knew which hour of the dark the moon
would start to fray,
I stitched it.
Grey threads and brown

pursued my needle’s leaping fish
to form a river that would never reach the sea.
I tricked it. I was picking out
the smile of a woman at the centre
of this world, self-contained, absorbed content, 
most certainly not waiting,
when I heard a far-too-late familiar tread outside the door.
I licked my scarlet thread
and aimed it surely at the middle of the
needle’s eye once more.


Lindheim, S. H. (2003) Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. University of Wisconsin Press.

Ovid translation by Harold Isbell (1990)


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