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Reweaving Philomela’s Tongue

Aislinn Melchior

University of Puget Sound

This paper might be considered a continuation of Daniel Libatique’s excellent discussion in San Diego of “Ovid in the #MeToo Era,” (a connection that is resonating e.g. Colby and Barker), but my paper most relates to his close-reading of Ovid’s Philomela episode. My own work probes some of the same issues and hopes to get them in front of audiences who may not know Ovid, or may only know him from other popularizations of his work. After seeing a production of Mary Zimmerman’s Tony nominated Metamorphoses, I noted how many of the tales she recounted owed more to Edith Hamilton’s versions than to the complex and intertextual world of Ovid. The problem with this is that rape - as McCarter has noted with translations -- is elided or becomes blurred with notions of seduction.  Indeed, her play’s failings may have less to do with Zimmerman’s intentions than with the translations she chose to work from. 

The first act explores what, in my view, Ovid is trying to accomplish with his epic, and how Ovid’s depiction of Venus, and her actions in Met. V in particular, launches “a broader assault upon Roman imperial ideology” (Johnson).  Ovid’s questioning of divine morality is an accusation of those who are more powerful and shows how imperialism manifests not merely in the provinces, but in the treatment of all who are weaker (something that this country now is manifesting even within its own borders).  Ovid’s raped women vividly show how power seeks to crush dissent and stifles creativity just as Ovid is stifled under the princeps.

The second act focuses on female pain and protest, starting with Arachne being cautioned by a timorous nymph (in a scene reminiscent of Antigone’s discussions with Ismene in Sophocles’ tragedy), a celebratory reimagining of the sparagma in Euripides’ Bacchae, and the “rapture” of Caesar.  Interspersed are modern poems on trauma and emotional annihilation that show the intersection of the psychic states of those who have been raped with their transformed analogues. 

This paper will close with a two-person performance of one of the final scenes of the play featuring Procne and Philomela as they weave a revenge that literally entangles them in red yarn.  In the Met’s telling of their revenge,The Bacchae is recast with Aunt Philomela triumphantly carrying her nephew’s head rather than his mother. The recognition scene is not the mother awakening from her Bacchic furor, but the father learning he has eaten his son. His feasting (...inque suam sua viscera congerit alvum) suggests impregnation by word choice (alvum) as well as framing – though he is not mother but tomb (bustum). Genders are inverted, but where life should be there is death. As the sisters plan and become ever more ensnared, what had first represented Philomela’s weaving or her voice, now becomes a bloody web of spilled entrails. The third wall is broken as the actresses break character to argue about whether it was a feminist act of justice or an imitation of the toxic male drive for revenge. The question – whether it is possible for these sisters to act outside the patriarchal structures that have injured them --  is similar to the deeper structural questions posed by Marder. 

It is my hope that the performance will raise questions and stir discussion and perhaps provide a deeper understanding of and sympathy with the multiple and contrary impulses that can animate survivors.  The goals of the project are unapologetically feminist and popularizing. 

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