British Renaissance Models of Helen of Troy

Hi everyone! My name is Quinn, and I am currently a junior at William & Mary pursuing an English major with a Linguistics minor. I’m so excited to start diving into research for my honors project that I’ll be working on during the next year or so. My project considers femininity and agency in British Renaissance models of Helen of Troy, particularly during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). Although I had read Homer’s Odyssey in high school, I was not particularly interested in the Classics until I took a seminar class in the English Department that closely analyzed the Trojan War story through texts ranging from Homer’s Iliad, dated around 8th century BC, to Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novel The Penelopiad. Through this class and our exploration of the longevity of the Troy narrative, I became acutely interested in the woman at the center of this story, Helen of Troy. Helen initially appears in Classical texts such as the Iliad and Odyssey as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, in which she acquires a reputation as a wanton woman, lustful and deviant. With revived interest in the Classics informing the literature of the British Renaissance, I will explore images of Helen in canonical works like William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602) as well as more subversive feminist texts like such as the works of sixteenth-century poet Isabella Whitney. As I look at these works, I will investigate the role of Classical versions of Helen as informants and examine the complex relationship between femininity and agency that characterizes Helen of Troy.

Not only will I be reading and incorporating critical literary articles into my thesis to understand the field of scholarship surrounding these issues, but I will also take a unique perspective in incorporating my Linguistics minor into my analysis of the texts in question. I will be working with scholarly sources regarding Discourse Analysis, which explores how the linguistic choices that we make both display and influence how we think about ideas and concepts that we write or talk about. In terms of this project, incorporating Discourse Analysis will allow me to look at the disparate degrees of agency that various authors afford Helen, as I will be able to examine the implications of syntactical constructions (such as the passive voice) that illustrate additional implicit readings of Helen of Troy’s status. During the upcoming summer as an Honors Fellow, I will also be using my funding from the Charles Center to travel to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in order to view early editions of Troilus and Cressida, and will also go to New York to see a production of the play and get a better sense of what it looks like on stage. My aim with this research is to get a better understanding of the roots of femininity and agency in our literary canon by examining the story of the Classical woman around whom so much literature is rooted. I can’t wait to delve deeper into my research this summer and get to know even more about this topic that I love so much. I’m excited to keep you all updated on the process!

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