Representing Penelope : an exemplar of marital chastity from antiquity to the renaissance
thesisposted on 02.03.2017, 00:37 by Amendola, Robyn Natasha
This thesis analyses the fortunes of Homer's heroine Penelope as an exemplum of wifely and female virtue in the philosophical, educational and literary texts of the Latin West, from Republican Rome to Renaissance Italy. Tracing Penelope's representations reveals both her use as a paradigm, stripped of character, and also as a complex figure. This complexity offers new ways of imagining female chastity, beyond being the responsibility of men, or as the antithesis of love and sex. It is not often realised that although derived from Greek literature, the adoption of Penelope by Classical Roman writers saw her reputation for chastity extend well into the medieval period thus reinforcing Christian values. As the defining feature of the female ideal, chastity remained an important element in women’s social roles, and underpinned female literary roles. Penelope became a convenient figure for contemplating the ideal of chastity, especially in the married woman. Her use in texts was largely limited to those educated in Latin - poets, clerics, humanists and monks - who had little or no experience of marriage. These men were the ones who predominantly perpetuated her reputation. Penelope naturally falls within the rubric of literary and textual studies, but also as a paradigm of the feminine, her representation contributes to an understanding of shifting cultural values. This is achieved by a close reading of texts, in Latin and early vernaculars, comparing the descriptions of Penelope, both to herself in other texts, and to other women. Noting both vocabulary shifts and the use of metaphorical language, which change to reflect social and literary approaches to gender, contributes to a more nuanced approach to the representation of chastity as an ideal. The complexity of images of Penelope throughout these centuries as a chaste woman, skilled in warding off suitors, adds further evidence for the insufficiency of the Eve/Mary dichotomy as the infallible template for understanding how women were perceived in medieval and Renaissance Europe.