Is Femininity As Much Of A Threat In "Paradise Lost" As It Is In "The Aeneid"?

3203 words - 13 pages

When Virgil and Milton wrote their epic poems, they were both writing for societies which plainly did not believe in equality of the sexes. The seventeenth century poet, John Milton, takes the attitude common to the time period while portraying Eve - the only female character in the whole of Paradise Lost: the belief that women were weak, inferior and even soulless. Likewise, Virgil's portrayal of the women in the Aeneid as temptresses, manipulators, interferers is in agreement with how ancient Roman society viewed women. Both Virgil and Milton inextricably link femininity with emotional instability (Greek word furor) by showing how the women allow themselves to be overcome with emotions which can bring about the downfall of not just the men around them, but ultimately even whole nations.

Both Virgil and Milton portray femininity and women as a threat to the divine higher order of things by showing women as unable to appreciate the larger picture outside their own domestic or personal concerns. For example, in the Aeneid, it is Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who out of all the battles and conflicts faced by Aeneas, posed to the biggest threat to his divinely-assigned objective of founding a new Troy. Like Calypso detains Odysseus in Homer's epic, Dido detains Aeneas from his nostos to his "ancient mother" (II, 433) of Italy, but unlike Calypso, after Dido is abandoned by Aeneas she becomes distraught; she denounces Aeneas in violent rhetoric and curses his descendents before finally committing suicide. Therefore, Virgil demonstrates how women have a potent and dangerous resource of emotions, which can ambush even the most pious of men. Indeed, Dido's emotional penetrate the "duty-bound" (III, 545) Aeneas who "sighed his heart out, shaken still with love of her" (III, 549-50). Therefore, Virgil portrays Dido as a threat to Aeneas destiny and the future of Rome itself.

Similarly, Virgil uses the character of Amata to demonstrate how women are more concerned with maintaining their own domestic stability and happiness than achieving the larger `greater good'. Despite the soothsayer's interpretation of Lavinia's hair catching fire ("Propose no Latin alliance for your daughter" (VII, 125-28)), Amata is adamant that Lavinia should still marry Turnus. Indeed, Virgil describes Amata as:

"Burning already at the Trojans' coming,

The plans for Turnus' marriage broken off,

Amata tossed and turned with womanly

Anxiety and anger" (VII, 472-75).

Amata pleads furiously with Latinus, warning that it was a stranger who "carried Helen off to Troy's far city" (VII, 503). Later in Book XII Amata pleads with Turnus to "refrain from single combat with the Trojans" (XII, 87) before she is so driven by despair by the fact that she cannot be mother-in-law to Turnus and kills herself. Thus Virgil describes how women threaten the gods' fates by their refusal to accept destiny when it comes into conflict with their own plans for their future.


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