BMCR 2024.02.33

Ovid’s tragic heroines: gender abjection and generic code-switching

, Ovid's tragic heroines: gender abjection and generic code-switching. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023. Pp. xi, 213. ISBN 9781501770357.



It has been established that Ovidian poetry entails several theatrical and performative features, which are drawn primarily from the tragic genre.[1] Ovid’s inclination towards dramatic patterns goes along with the intrinsic theatricality of Roman culture, and its incorporation and assimilation of Greek tragedy;[2] at the same time, the occurrence of dramatic elements within other poetic genres (such as epic and elegy) is a result of Ovid’s generic code-switching – the so-called Kreuzung der Gattungen.[3] Within Ovidian poetry, fluidity of generic patterns may coexist and interact with the representation of non-normative gender dynamics and roles. In her thought-provoking book, Jessica Westerhold combines these elements to explore how the ‘tragic’ figures of Phaedra and Medea,[4] along with their reception(s) in Ovidian poetry, exemplify forms of (gender) abjection that places them beyond social norms.

In the Introduction, Westerhold sets her methodological and theoretical framework. To demonstrate how Ovid has tragedy destabilize gender dynamics through the figures of Phaedra and Medea, Westerhold builds upon Segal’s notion of mythological megatext.[5] The megatext is a shared language of myth and a system of symbols, whereby characters become paradigms for certain attitudes and concepts, as well as mythological plots. As a part of the megatext, mythological characters articulate a symbolic meaning, which works effectively when it is shared between the speaker (the poet or poetic persona) and the addressee (namely, the knowledgeable reader). Building upon Feeney,[6] Westerhold points out that Phaedra and Medea were recognized as tragic characters by Roman audiences, who could appreciate their broader significance as vectors of a certain megatext. In Ovid’s poetry, Phaedra and Medea both develop and manipulate their tragic megatext, and resituate it into (apparently) non-tragic genres, namely didactic elegy (Ars Amatoria), epistolary elegy (Heroides), and epic (Metamorphoses), thereby redefining their mythological tradition. Alongside drawing on Segal’s megatext, Westerhold explores Ovid’s representations of Phaedra and Medea through modern theories, particularly Kristeva’s notion of abjection and Judith Butler’s reconceptualization of gender as a performative and citational (that is, repetitive) act.[7] In Westerhold’s study, Phaedra and Medea thus exemplify how the meaning connected to their tragic legacy affects their presence and reception within Ovid’s poetry, which can give space to different voices and identities. Ovidian instances of Phaedra and Medea, along with other female characters that draw on their mythological megatext, generate forms of abjection of gender and genre that are deviant from Roman social rules and literary norms.

In Chapter 1, Westerhold examines how Phaedra and Medea’s megatext influences catalogic lists of mythological women within Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. The tragic megatext allows these women to embody the abject at the margins of society, thereby articulating what is contrary to Augustan norms, with particular reference to Augustus’ family policy, condemning adulteries, illegitimate unions, and unruly sexual behavior. For instance, in the catalog at Ars 1.283–340, the poet parallels women’s sexuality to that of animals, thus suggesting that women’s sexual desire places them beyond the category of ‘human’. Abject women, such as Pasiphae, build upon tragic patterns (including Dionysiac motifs) to violate gender roles. Indeed, Pasiphae can neither discern gender hierarchies nor the borders between humans and beasts, thus collapsing normative relationships and positing a threat to Roman family and state. In another list (Ars 2.381–408), Clytemnestra exemplifies the motif of enraged women, which builds upon Medea’s tragic megatext. Comparable to beasts due to their anger, women like Clytemnestra perform an agentic role that does not belong to them, thereby producing gender role reversals and threatening normative masculinity. The megatext of Medea and Phaedra suggests that these abject women featured in the Ars Amatoria are what a Roman matrona – and Roman society at large – should reject. As the Roman male needs to master his sexuality to keep traditional gender and social roles, so Ovid masters his poetic form: he only temporarily allows the tragic element to subsequently deny it, thereby restoring gender and generic norms.

Chapter 2 further develops the arguments of the previous chapter to explore Phaedra’s (Her. 4) and Byblis’ (Met. 9) self-construction as abject through their tragic megatext. Building upon Kristeva’s theorizations, Westerhold argues that Phaedra and Byblis articulate the “thetic stage”, that is, when a subject differentiates from the flux of categories that characterizes the chora.[8] In other words, Phaedra and Byblis exploit the polysemy of (Ovid’s) poetic language to reshape their mythological narrative. By repositioning herself as an elegiac speaker, whose poetry is dictated by Amor (cf. Her. 4.9-10), Phaedra tries to reshape herself as a mythological character, with the hope that Hippolytus would accept her elegiac connotation as a lover and puella over the tragic one as an incestuous and abject woman. Yet, Ovid’s “transvestite ventriloquism” does not allow Phaedra to escape her tragic reputation,[9] as references to her tragic megatext undermine her attempt at constructing a new, elegiac thesis (to put it in Kristeva’s words). Phaedra’s failure to re-establish generic norms confirms her status as an abject woman, which in turn articulates the dangers of escaping gender roles. The episode of Byblis represents a reception of Phaedra’s tragic megatext, as confirmed by the intertextual parallels between Her. 4 and Met. 9.439–665. Byblis seeks to depart her (and Phaedra’s) tragic posture by presenting herself as an elegiac writer, as well as reconceptualizing kinship relations and familial roles. At the beginning of her tale, Byblis is set as an example for girls to love “what is permitted” (concessum; cf. Met. 9.454), so that her incestuous relationship appears legitimate. Concurrently, by recalling tragic patterns (such as Dionysiac motifs), Byblis confirms her belonging to the category of abject women that is embodied by the tragic versions of Phaedra (and Medea). As an abject woman, Byblis positions herself antithetically to Caunus, who represents Apollonian values and normative masculinity. By populating their discourse with tragic patterns, Ovid frustrates Phaedra’s and Byblis’ efforts to create a thetic moment, where they depart from traditional symbols and words. While it should be perceived as erotic elegy, their poetry is received by their audience as pertaining to abject women in tragedy, that is, as a monstrum.

Focusing on Her. 6 and Met. 6, Chapter 3 explores Hypsipyle’s and Procne’s reception of Medea’s tragic model. As she knows that Medea’s ira goes far beyond the norm, the Heroidean Hypsipyle keeps herself distant from her tragic megatext, depicting Medea as what she is not. By presenting herself as a normative subject, and akin to the standard of a Roman (Augustan) matrona, Hypsipyle shows her awareness of Medea’s abjection, which would lead to a gender role reversal, and accordingly to Jason’s failure to fulfill ideals of masculinity. While Hypsipyle articulates the unexpressed potential of being a Medea-like – and accordingly a tragic – figure, the episode of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus in Met. 6 prominently features tragic patterns. On the one hand, Tereus fails to perform masculine ideals due to his ethnicity (cf. his Thracian origins), as well as his incapability to understand the features of the tragic genre in which his tale is (re)situated. On the other hand, both Philomela and Procne embody and, to some extent, manipulate several tragic patterns. As Philomela receives the violence perpetrated by Tereus, she recalls sacrificial maidens from tragedy (such as Iphigenia). While setting up her revenge, Procne embraces three tragic models: Agave, who is evoked by her Maenadic attitudes; Thyestes, who is prominent in Tereus’ cannibalistic meal; and Medea, who also commits infanticide. By focusing on women’s tragic ira, Ovid demonstrates the gravity of the tragic code, which threatens both literary genres and normative gender dynamics.

In the Conclusion, Westerhold points out that the abject status of Phaedra and Medea serves to identify what is normal in terms of gender, familial, as well as social relationships. In his more ‘autobiographical’ exile poetry, Ovid is eager to depart from Phaedra’s and Medea’s tragic models, presenting himself as the epic male hero, who deserves and ultimately achieves homecoming. While this reading can be ascribed to what has been defined as pessimistic (or resisting) readings of Ovid’s poetry,[10] Westerhold allows space for some more positive developments, as she concludes by saying (p. 134): “Ovid’s poetry and his abject subjects have the power to introduce new meanings for the paradigms of female sexuality, regardless of his (or Augustus’s) intention. His poetry does not belong to him. For that matter, it no longer belongs to his first Roman readers. As Ovid himself predicts at the close of the Metamorphoses, ‘he,’ wearing the many guises of his narrators, from the poet-praeceptor to the lovesick Phaedra, lives ‘on the lips of the people’ (ore populi, Met. 15.873)”.

This monograph is a very welcome addition to the study of generic code-switching and gender dynamics within Ovidian poetry. Through her innovative engagement with the notion of mythological megatext, as well as Kristeva’s theories on abjection and Butler’s conceptualization of gender as a performance, Westerhold sheds new light on the intersections between genre and gender in Ovid’s poetry. This book underscores the polyphony, and polysemy, of Ovid’s poetic production, along with its complex interplay with previous models. In sum, Westerhold successfully shows how Ovid has Phaedra and Medea complicate generic boundaries and gender roles, thus threatening Augustus’ social and cultural policy.



[1] See, for example, D. Curley, Tragedy in Ovid: Theater, Metatheater, and the Transformation of a Genre (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[2] For Roman interest in Greek drama, see I. Gildenhard, “Buskins and SPQR: Roman Receptions of Greek Tragedy”, in I. Gildenhard and M. Revermann, eds., Beyond the Fifth Century: Interactions with Greek Tragedy from the Fourth Century BCE to the Middle Ages (De Gruyter, 2010), 151–186; D. Feeney, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[3] For Ovid’s poetry as “Kreuzung der Gattungen”, see W. Kroll, Studien zum Verständnis der römischen Literatur (Metzler Verlag, 1924).

[4] As Westerhold clarifies (pp. 4–5), her use of the term “tragic” refers specifically to the tragic genre, and is not to be understood in its “vernacular sense, that is, mournful, pathetic, or disastrous”.

[5] See C. Segal, Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text (Cornell University Press, 1986).

[6] D. Feeney, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[7] See J. Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection; translated by Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia University Press, 1982); J. Butler, Bodies That Matter (Routledge, 1993).

[8] J. Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language; translated by Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia University Press, 1984).

[9] E. Harvey, Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts (Routledge, 1992).

[10] For an overview, see A. Sharrock, “Gender and Transformation: Reading, Women, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses”, in A. Sharrock, D. Möller, and M. Malm, eds., Metamorphic Readings: Transformation, Language, and Gender in the Interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Oxford University Press, 2020), 33–53.