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Furor Frustrated: Policing Women’s Anger in the Pseudo-Senecan Octavia

Mary Hamil Gilbert

Birmingham-Southern College

Misogyny, as philosopher Kate Manne defines it, requires women to be the givers of what she terms “feminine-coded goods,” such as sex, love, and children, and to shun “masculine-coded perks,” like leadership, authority, and power. Its primary function within a patriarchal society is to punish women who renounce the role of perennial giver. Octavia seems to be just this sort of deviant woman at the beginning of her eponymous play. She refuses to provide Nero with sex, children, and affection out of anger at her brother’s untimely death (108-14, 287, 537). By the end of the play, however, Octavia’s anger is replaced with a docility more suited to her gender: she dreams of becoming a nightingale who weeps alone (921-23) and obediently boards the boat Nero has prepared for her execution (969-71). What happens to her abundance of rage (dolor ira maeror miseriae luctus, 176)? This paper takes seriously the claim that anger can be an empowering emotion for women (Chemaly, Traister) and proposes to elucidate the complex web of patriarchal trappings that bind Octavia’s emotions in light of feminist writing on misogyny and suppression of women’s anger (Carson, Lorde, Manne).

The first section of this talk argues that the misogyny of Octavia’s nurse paves the way for Nero’s violence against her person. When Octavia expresses in private her desire to kill her husband (174), the nurse is quick to remind her of what society expects of women: “Nature has not given you the courage (vires) [for revenge]...instead, win your hard husband over with submission (obsequendo, 175-77).” I suggest that our modern tendency to oversimplify the systemic function of misogyny has distracted from the nurse’s complicity in the suppression of Octavia’s anger. Furthermore, a focus on the Nurse’s policing of Octavia’s transgressive behavior reveals a tendency in classical scholarship to treat misogyny on an individual level, as a characteristic of particular men, as opposed to a complex socio-political system.

The second section of this talk considers how the recent deaths of Messalina and Agrippina inform Octavia’s fluctuations between anxiety and anger. Patriarchal societies reward female obedience and raise some women up as models on the grounds that they advance patriarchal interests. However, because patriarchy defines women in terms of function, it treats women as interchangeable. Memories of domestic violence plague Octavia throughout the play (Ginsberg, Kragelund). In her opening monologue, for instance, she recalls the abused face (oraque foedo sparsa cruore, 17) of her dead mother. Because Octavia’s primary source of confidence comes from her distinguished lineage (e.g. 89), the murder of her female relatives together with the impending marriage of Poppaea to Nero shake her confidence by intimating her essential interchangeability. 

This focus on misogyny from the perspective of its victims can also elucidate the way Nero’s present treatment of Octavia effects Poppaea’s dawning dread about her own situation (690-94), the final topic of my talk. Building on the well-established link between Poppaea’s anxiety and the epiphany of Agrippina’s ghost (Boyle, Dupont, Kragelund), I argue that Poppaea’s nightmares also reveal that the public mistreatment of Agrippina and Octavia has limited her own emotional horizons. Like Octavia, Poppaea comes to suspect her own ‘functionality’ along with the uncomfortable truth that the progress of some women can intensify misogyny against others.

The swift extinguishing of Octavia’s anger, followed by the extended portrayal of Poppaea’s burgeoning terror, highlights the way misogyny can ‘catch on’ to powerful women (Beard) and instill terror in potential rebels. Even though there exist for Octavia and Poppaea models of effective, angry, (albeit less than perfect) women, this play suggests that the empowering effects of female anger were never really available to them. To the contrary, both women are best understood not merely as victims of a single, hateful man, but also as casualties of Roman society’s misogynistic backlash against women who hold power.

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Women in Rage Women in Protest...

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