Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Open Access
Bachelors of Arts (BA)
In one of her earliest appearances in Homer’s Iliad, Helen stands atop a parapet with the Trojan elders. She looks down on the battlefields where the men of Greece, her homeland, have been fighting those of Troy, her adoptive country, for nine years—fighting, ostensibly, to possess her. Wrapped up in this conflict are countless other desires. The soldiers below Helen fight for their own renown, for the honor of their countries, and for the symbolic value that possessing Helen confers upon not only an individual man, but upon a nation of them. In all of this, Helen remains suspended above the fray, looking down from the wall. Homer, at least, leaves her role in this conflict uncertain, refusing to resolve the matter of Helen’s culpability. But the question lingers in the background: did she do it? Did she willfully elope with Paris to Troy or was she blamelessly abducted? How much agency does Helen really have?
The Iliadic Helen, in all of her legendary beauty and, in Mihoko Suzuki’s words, “radical undecidability,” sets the stage for a series of revisions of Helen to follow (Suzuki 18). The questionably domesticated Helen of the Odyssey gives way to Virgil’s demonic Helen in the Aeneid, crouching among the ruins of Troy, who in turn leads to Geoffrey Chaucer’s ethereal Eleyne and then William Shakespeare’s lascivious Helen in Troilus and Cressida over two thousand years later. Even today, reimaginations of the Trojan narrative and its paragon of physical attractiveness continue to surface, as in Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2001) or Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018). The very ambiguity of Homer’s original Helen yields a fascination with this woman poised at the center of the Trojan conflict and yet somehow consistently hovering just above it, slightly out of reach. Many of these authors find themselves preoccupied with resolving her ambiguities through diverse methods and with varying success.
I will start by examining Helen’s classical past, beginning with her portrayal in Homer’s Iliad as the initial archetype of Helen. Having established this original image, I will look first at the ways in which Homer and other ancient Greek writers began the process of revising Helen. Homer’s Odyssey marks the beginning of the revisionist narratives, as it revises Helen’s character according to the domestic framework of this second epic. Other ancient Greek writers, such as Stesichorus, Euripides, and Herodotus, begin a tradition of doubling and splitting Helen’s character, often with the aim of purifying her reputation. Norman Austin, in his book Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom, explores this trend of the dual Helen, comprised of her innocent true self on the one hand and on the other, her evil perfect likeness, her eidolon that wreaks havoc in Troy. This division of Helen’s character persists into the Early Modern period.
In classical Latin literature and during the Middle Ages, various other authors continue to reinterpret the Trojan narrative as well as Helen herself, providing a rich background from which Shakespeare draws in writing Troilus and Cressida. Virgil’s Aeneid also attempts to resolve Helen’s ambiguities, but tends in the other direction, demonizing Homer’s nuanced woman. Ovid, in his satirical Heroides, allows Helen a voice, through which she provides perverse commentary regarding her levels of culpability and agency. In the medieval period, Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde draws from a line of romances to give us the narrative from which Shakespeare borrowed most directly.
Moving forward to the Early Modern period, I will examine Helen’s appearances not only in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, but also in Christopher Marlowe’s moralizing play Doctor Faustus, another important source for Shakespeare’s work. Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare is evident in the many lines and themes that Shakespeare borrows from Doctor Faustus, and thus Marlowe’s interpretation of Helen serves as an important element coloring my reading of Shakespeare’s Helen. Unlike those writing before them, both Marlowe and Shakespeare choose to definitively resolve the issue of Helen’s agency in leaving Greece, characterizing her arrival in Troy as a rape or nonconsensual abduction. Although they take away her agency, both authors continue to hold her responsible for the carnage at Troy, raising questions about the nature of female agency itself.
In order to discuss Helen’s agency (or lack thereof) throughout her literary appearances ranging from Homer’s Iliad (8th century BC) to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602), we must first establish a more specific understanding of the term “agency.” In her 2001 article “Language and Agency,” linguistic anthropologist Laura Ahearn aims to provide a survey of the scholarship on agency, create a skeletal definition for the concept, and emphasize the importance of looking at language and linguistic form when studying agency (Ahearn 109). In terms of this provisional definition, Ahearn suggests that “agency refers to the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (112). This theory of agency, then, stresses the importance of sociocultural mediation, which refers to the “social nature of agency and the pervasive influence of culture on human intentions, beliefs, and actions” (114). In elaborating on her definition of agency, Ahearn contrasts it with one that the field of philosophy often relies on—that is, the equation of free will and agency. Philosophers who subscribe to philosophy’s prevalent “action theory,” which distinguishes between action and event, often argue that agency requires merely a mental state or awareness of “intention,” “reason,” or “responsibility,” to name a few (114). Ahearn counters that these requirements do not go far enough. In her view, this definition proves problematic because it frequently ignores the sociocultural aspects that she considers central to determining one’s agency. Thus, in order to determine whether or not Helen has agency in a given text, or even has the possibility of agency, we must look at the social parameters established within that text. For instance, the social code that determines allocation of agency in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is influenced by both Early Modern gender politics and heroic values inherited from classical epic tradition.
Further, Helen’s decreased agency in Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s works allows for her commodification in the masculine economies of these texts. I use the term performative economies of masculinity to describe these systems of transaction involving male exchange of women, not only as objects but also as symbols, conferring abstract values upon the men participating in these sexual economies and thus constructing their masculinities. Shakespeare’s Troilus, for instance, considers Helen a “theme of honour and renown,” ascribing her worth to the abstractions that she can passively confer upon the men who possess her (II.ii.99). Women can only function as such tokens, however, when they remain within the bounds of an idealized passive femininity that considers agency a masculine trait and thus aims to deprives women of this feature. In the sexual economies of Troilus and Cressida and Doctor Faustus, Helen functions as a symbol rather than a woman. Both Shakespeare and Marlowe reduce Helen to an abstraction, an icon exchanged by men. In limiting Helen’s personal agency while simultaneously demonizing her for her sexuality, both authors grapple with the relationship between femininity and agency. Their similar portrayals of Helen highlight the crippling nature of an idealized Early Modern femininity that condemns female sexuality and demands submission to the social masculine economies of the period.
Arnone, Quinn, "The Commodification of Helen: Tracing the Phallic Economy of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida" (2020). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 1478.