December 3, 2016

Daphne, Polyxena, and a long conversation

Daphne, Polyxena, and a long conversation

A correspondent got me to thinking about the long literary discussion and Those Trojan Girls.

The Trojan Women, you’ll remember, concerns the aftermath of the Trojan War. Specifically, what’s going to happen to the widows and daughters of Troy’s vanquished heroes? They will, of course, now be divided up as slaves and servants of the victorious Greeks.

In Seneca’s version (~54CE), Queen Hecuba’s youngest daughter is allotted to Achilles. The allotment of slaves to Achilles had previously caused a bit of trouble and unhappiness: that’s the Illiad. We are not going to stir that up again, nor sir, not even though Achilles is dead. So Polyxena will be executed on Achilles grave. It is the very definition of pathetic.

I think this can also be read as a response to the male gaze in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (<17/18 CE). There, Daphne carelessly or thoughtlessly lets herself be seen undressed, and in the end must turn herself into a tree. Daphne is the original blonde horror victim to which Buffy The Vampire Slayer responds. But Seneca is emphatic to note that Polyxena takes care, even as the priests sacrifice her, to make sure that her clothes remain demurely arranged; as a teenager she comprehends the male gaze and as an independent, strong feminist she takes steps, even in this most extreme of situations, to hold it together.

This isn’t what happens to my Polyxena in Those Trojan Girls, but I’d not thought about this particular bit of literary repartee before.