The Madness of Epic: Reading Insanity from Homer to Statius

By Debra Hershkowitz | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Mad call I it; for to define true Madnesse, What is't, but to be nothing else but mad.

( Shakespeare, Hamlet, 11. ii. 98-9)

When Vergil's Trojan women try to set fire to the ships, Ascanius desperately asks, quis furor iste nouus? ('What strange madness is this'?, Aen. 5. 670). Ovid's Pentheus, learning of the new rites being celebrated by the Thebans, demands to know, quis furor, anguigenae, proles Mauortia, uestras | attonuit mentes? ('What madness, offspring of serpents, offspring of Mars, has struck your minds'?, Met. 3. 531-2). Lucan's possessed matrona, during her prophetic vision of the upcoming civil war, asks, quis furor hie, o Phoebe, doce, quo tela manusque I Romanae miscent acies bellumque sine hoste este ('What madness is this, Phoebus, tell me, why Roman battle-lines mix weapons and hands, why there is war without an enemy', BC 1. 681-2). In her failed attempt to prevent her sons, mutual fratricide, Statius' Jocasta puts it most simply: quis furor? ('What is this madness'?, Theb. 11. 329). In each case the question is more than rhetorical: it seeks to determine or define the nature of the madness which has suddenly arisen, to understand that which cannot be understood. By its very repetition it calls attention to the fact that in each case the furor in question' is different: the Trojan women have been inspired by Iris, working on behalf of Juno, to their destructive deed; the newly made Bacchants are in the sway of Dionysiac frenzy; Caesar, Pompey, and their armies display the peculiarly Roman madness of civil strife; Jocasta's sons display the peculiarly Theban madness of the house of Oedipus. The changing nature of epic madness ensures that the basic question quis furor? never becomes redundant. This study does not try to answer the question; rather, its aim is to explore the reasons why it can -- and, in fact, must -- be asked again and again, and how the continuing and variable presence of madness in epic exerts its force on the texts' poetics.

The first chapter of this book serves as a general introduction to

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