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  • Edmund Spenser, George Turberville, and Isabella Whitney Read Ovid's Heroides
  • M. L. Stapleton

In the Heroides, perhaps the ancient world's most prominent example of literary transvestism, Ovid adopts the personae of legendary women who lament the amatory crimes of the men they love. It may have been some of the first poetry in Latin that Spenser encountered, as it was for many schoolboys from the twelfth century onward, in accordance with its traditional pedagogical status, admirably documented by Ralph Hexter.1 Since it was part of Eton's Erasmian curriculum as early as 1528, its familiarity and centrality to Spenser, whom Richard Mulcaster inculcated with a similar humanism at the Merchant Taylors' School, should not surprise.2 It served as a primary text for beginning Latin students in England through the nineteenth century. For early modern readers, it also served as a celebrated exemplum of the potential for inventive excellence by an ancient author in his juvenile endeavors, another reason why the burgeoning New Poet would probably have read it. To Spenser and his innumerable poetical predecessors who sought to work meaningful improvisations on the traditions they wished to embody in their work, Ovid's cadre of mythical heroines (Lat. herois, -ides) exemplified doubly literate women-those [End Page 487] who wrote, since the genre was understood to be epistolary-and those who spoke persuasively, since the form utilized the suasoria, which the author had himself used in his formal education, as the Elder Seneca reports (Controversiae 2.2.9-11).3

Some contemporary readers may be offended by the heroines' obsession with the men who wronged them and their apparent lack of interest in defining a subjectivity independent of them. Ovid's creations may well have been designed for masculine consumption and approval, since Roman men and their Elizabethan successors found emotional, poetical women erotic.4 This phenomenon may have reinforced the already pernicious cultural hegemony against women. Yet such projections of current theory into the past could certainly be rejected as anachronistic, as well as beside the point. For Ovid's Medea and Penelope are neither pinup material nor hapless satellites of Jason and Ulysses. Rather, they seem to be anguished portraits of women revealing themselves in all emotions squalid and otherwise, in a form ultimately less epistolary than rhetorical and performative, precedents for Elizabethan soliloquies and nineteenth-century dramatic monologues, as some commentators assert.5


The cynic may well object that no such extended complaint in explicit letter form exists in Spenser. Indeed, the only real missive by a woman [End Page 488] in The Faerie Queene is merely that, not an impassioned rhetorical performance. Duessa's duplicitous message meant to destroy Redcrosse and humiliate him in front of Una's mother and father (1.12.26-28) ends with the witch's signature, which tellingly does not rhyme and lies outside the stanza to which it serves as postscript. If the Heroides was so important to Spenser, why should he not include a feminine verse epistle anywhere else in his work? Three explanations come immediately to mind. He often ethically corrects his pagan predecessors elsewhere in his canon. Perhaps he implicitly critiques Ovid's form by savaging it in the mouth of one of his least redeemable characters. Conversely, it may be that he especially champions women's literacy, because even Duessa can write. Yet it would be most accurate to say that there is no place for an extended Heroides-type letter in his work, and that his habit is to internalize, reconfigure, and emulate his predecessors whether he approves of them or not, because there are many such impassioned speeches in The Faerie Queene that closely resemble many of the epistles of Ovid's heroines, such as Britomart's Petrarchan paraphrase at the sea (3.4.8-10), Scudamour's lament for Amoret in the House of Busirane (3.11.9-11), Florimell's complaint for Marinell (4.12.6-11), or even Una's narrative of woe to Arthur (1.7.41-51).

Such speeches (with the exception of Scudamour's) help Spenser make a woman, rhetorically speaking. He was surely cognizant of Ovid's ultimate example of the male...


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pp. 487-519
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