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“Poor Penelope. Penelope Rich”: Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella as a Prototype for the Rewriting of the Odysseus Myth in Ulysses

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 350-356 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0054

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses, Professor MacHugh compares Stephen Dedalus to Antisthenes, “a disciple of Gorgias, the sophist,” who “wrote a book in which he took away the palm of beauty from Argive Helen and handed it to poor Penelope” (U 7.1035–36, 1038–39).1 When, in an immediate reaction to this statement, Stephen thinks, “Poor Penelope. Penelope Rich” (U 7.1040), he draws a corresponding link between “poor” Penelope, the faithful wife of the Homeric Odysseus (“ITHACANS VOW PEN IS CHAMP”—U 7.1034), and Penelope Rich, the Elizabethan gentlewoman who inspired Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet-sequence Astrophil and Stella.2 The thirty-seventh sonnet of this collection repetitively foregrounds the word “rich” in describing the unattainable Stella, who is adored by Sidney’s persona Astrophil. This figure of devotion is a poetic figure for Lady Penelope Rich, born Devereux, who, to the disappointment of Sidney, married Robert Rich, the future Earl of Warwick in 1581. Here is how the poem describes her:

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
  My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labour be:
  Listen then, Lordings, with good eare to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towardes Aurora’s Court a Nymph doth dwell,
  Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see:
  Beauties so farre from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel:
  Rich in the treasure of deserv’d renowne,
Rich in the riches of a royall hart,
Rich in those gifts which give th’eternall crowne;
Who though most rich in these and everie part,
  Which make the patents of true worldly blisse,
  Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

(Sonnet 37, 183)

In contrast to the real Penelope Rich—who had an extramarital love affair and successfully obtained a divorce from her husband—the lyrical persona of Stella is fashioned as an unattainably chaste Petrarchan damsel.

Sidney’s courtly masquerade of love presents Stella—alias Penelope Rich—as a counterpart of “poor Penelope,” the faithful wife of Odysseus. In an analogy to the Homeric myth, the 108 sonnets of the collection correspond to the number of Penelope’s suitors, which means that every single sonnet may be considered as a failed assault on her constancy. Whereas the historical Penelope Rich yielded to extramarital love, Stella resists Sidney’s lyrical “I,” Astrophil, who repeats his call for adultery 108 times, and remains faithful to her “Odyssean” spouse Robert Rich.3

Stephen’s pun on “[p]oor Penelope. Penelope Rich” in “Aeolus” therefore suggests Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella as an undiscovered prototype for Joyce’s rewriting of the Odysseus myth. Like other adaptations of the Homeric story, Sidney’s collection of 108 sonnets contributes to the intertextual framework of Ulysses. In accordance with Joyce’s mock-heroic revelation of the discrepancy between myth and reality, the horned Robert Rich becomes a counterpart of Leopold Bloom—the modern Odysseus married to an unfaithful wife. As the adulterous counterpart of the unattainable Stella fashioned by Petrarchan poetry, Molly Bloom, like Penelope Rich, is an all-too-human variant of Homer’s faithful Penelope. This parallel can be observed in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode where Stephen Dedalus blends the connection between Homer’s “[p]oor” Penelope and Sidney’s Penelope Rich with his theory on William Shakespeare. When Joyce refers to Anne Hathaway as “poor Penelope in Stratford” (U 9.649), he draws a corresponding link between her, the Homeric Penelope from Ithaca, and Sidney’s Penelope Rich. This set of allusions continues when Stephen says that, like Odysseus, Shakespeare left his home for twenty years and that, in contrast to the Homeric Penelope, Hathaway was as unfaithful to her husband as Penelope Rich was to Robert—the real-life counterpart of the early-modern Odysseus presented in Astrophil and Stella: “But all those twenty years what do you suppose poor Penelope in Stratford was doing behind the diamond panes?” and “Sweet Ann [sic], I take it, was hot in the blood” (U 9.648–50, 668–69).

In an ironic allusion to the foregrounding of the word “rich” in Sidney’s poem, Stephen Dedalus...

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