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Grace Berg ’16 Examines Penelope's Role in Homer’s Odyssey


As more and more contemporary scholars begin to reevaluate the roles of female characters in foundational ancient texts, Grace Berg ’16 is this summer assessing scholarly reactions to reimaginings of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey through an Emerson Summer Collaborative Research Award.  Berg’s project is titled Penelope and Her Odyssey: A Reception Study, and her adviser is Barbara Gold, the Edward North Professor and chair of Classics.

Penelope, as the wife of Odysseus, has according to Berg traditionally been championed for her role as the ideal wife in a traditionally gender-normative sense, embodying virtues of loyalty and chastity. However, recent studies and scholarly inquiries have begun to raise questions about Penelope’s role in the epic tradition, her possession of agency, and her simultaneous habitation of multiple roles such as wife, mother, siren and heroine.

“A recent play by Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad, featuring the ancient Penelope aims to retell the story of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective,” said Berg. “On the whole, the (work) appears to be a feminist play - yet the play does not promote the feminist ideals its reception seems to suggest and has generated vigorous debate from feminist scholars.” Berg claims that while classicists have begun to reevaluate Penelope’s role in the Odyssey, and feminist scholars have debated the feminist authenticity of Atwood’s Penelopiad, the overlap and crossover between these two discussions has been surprisingly small.

“My project analyzes the Penelopiad from a classical perspective to reveal how the play fits into a rich history of classical reception over time,” explained Berg. “I explore how the choices Atwood makes reflect changes in our reception of ancient texts, and how the reaction to these choices, by scholars and the public alike, exposes the complexity of our relationship to these texts.” In order to track and analyze the reception of Penelope’s character over time, Berg has exploring both the Odyssey itself, as well as traditional and contemporary scholarly tacklings of the text, with special emphasis placed on the Penelopiad.

Berg said that having delved into the relevant literature for her project brought the prominence of Penelope’s character, and the prominence of the Odyssey and other ancient texts more broadly, in contemporary texts to light. “When I chose to study Penelope,” she said, “I was prepared to spend hours in Burke looking for literature on her character.” Instead Berg was forced to be highly selective with regard to which works made it into her project, such was the number of texts that dealt with the subject. “This project has reminded me how prominent ancient literature remains in contemporary thought, and how important a classical background can be in studying the reception of these stories today.”

As a classical studies major with diverse interests, Berg said that she was eager to become engaged in this course of research, as it allowed many different disciplines to come together. “A lot of my current academic interests reside within inter-field studies. This project brings together my interests in classical studies, anthropology and literary criticism.” She concluded, saying that “As a female classicist, I find it exciting to research an ancient female character and rethink our interpretations of women in the classical world.

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