The Classical Quarterly (New Series)


Ovid's Canace: Dramatic Irony in Heroides 11*

Gareth Williamsa1

a1 Churchill College, Cambridge

Heroides 11 has long enjoyed a favourable reputation among critics, largely because Ovid appears to show a tactful restraint in his description of Canace's last moments and to refrain, for once in the Heroides, from descending into what Jacobson terms ‘nauseating mawkishness’. Despite appearances, however, Ovid's wit is not entirely extinguished in this poem, for a devastating irony accompanies the certainty of Canace's imminent death. My objective is to demonstrate the nature of this irony by adopting a methodological approach which owes much to Kennedy's analysis of Heroides 1 in the light of the later books of the Odyssey. Kennedy's argument – that without knowing it Penelope is about to give her letter to its intended addressee – is based on two premises which are postulated by the epistolary mode of the poem. The first is that we are to imagine Ovid's heroines writing at a specific moment within a dramatic context; the second is that they have a specific motive for writing at that moment. In Kennedy's hands, this approach assumes the privileged position of the reader of Heroides 1 who, through access to the Odyssey, is alive to the ironies which Ovid's Penelope cannot realize. I propose to establish a similarly privileged position for the reader of Heroides 11, a position from which Canace's death can be seen to be both ill-timed and unnecessary. The key to identifying the ironic circumstances of Canace's death lies in reconstructing the background to the Canace and Macareus myth and the possible precedents which Ovid drew on in his treatment of the story. The situation is more complex than in the case of Heroides 1, however, since the literary sources familiar to Ovid and his readers have, in this instance, largely been lost to us and can only be reconstructed from fragmentary evidence.


* I owe a debt of thanks to Dr R. Hunter, Dr J. Henderson, Dr N. Hopkinson, Professor M. D. Reeve and Dr B. Harries for help at various stages in the preparation of this paper. All quotations follow the text of A. Palmer, P. Ovidi Nasonis Heroides (Oxford, 1898).