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Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman's Odyssey and Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad

From: College Literature
34.2, Spring 2007
pp. 263-278 | 10.1353/lit.2007.0023

Abstract

This essay examines two contemporary rewritings of the Odyssey, Mary Zimmerman's Odyssey and Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad: both respond to the Odyssey's own representation of the creative process as feminine and reflect the reassessment of the epic by recent feminist criticism. Zimmerman telescopes the epic by focusing on female characters such as Penelope, Nausicaa, Circe, and Calypso, though she chooses not to emphasize the problematic Helen in her celebration of female creativity and agency. She updates the Odyssey by referring to the comic satire of contemporary feminist playwright Caryl Churchill. Atwood mounts a critique of the Odyssey from a perspective that foregrounds issues of class as well as gender, calling attention to the unjust fate of the executed maids and to Penelope's responsibility in their sacrifice to the interests of patriarchy and the ruling class. She presents this challenge through the dramatic form of the Greek chorus, inflected by vaudeville and burlesque, re-envisioning the maids not merely as silent victims but as energetic satirists of the dominant order.