parce precor, Venus!  ‘Classic’ misogyny in Stoppard's The Invention of Love

Nancy Sultan

Illinois Wesleyan University

Classicists are always excited whenever the subjects of our discipline are treated in popular media. So, when Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love—a story about the life and times of classicist A.E. Housman—found its way to America in 2000, we all rushed to see it. We even put on our own production at the APA. But how does this play project images of our discipline to non-specialists?  I attempt to answer that question by pointing out that, because he depicts the discipline of classics through the lens of the 19th century male intellectual ethos, Stoppard is exhibiting a dark and undesirable side of the discipline—its misogyny—which he fails to condemn.

Women in this play are either invisible (“Your name is not Miss Frobisher? What is your name?”) or omnipresent dangers (parce precor Venus!).  Housman's sister Katharine appears twice in Act II, both times oozing with adulation of her brother's intellect “I wish I'd had you to teach me,” she muses, “I wouldn't be the dunce.”  In real life, however, Katharine was Housman’s close mentor and keeper of his papers.  His correspondence reveals Housman’s deep admiration for his sister’s intellect. So, by choosing, among other things, to misrepresent Katharine, Stoppard is reinforcing—not just historicizing— the misogyny of our discipline for his modern audience.

Stoppard's setting for this dream-play—”Oxford in the Golden Age”—is a place where  classics is the infamous “dead white men's club,” where masculine European intellectual virtue rules supreme, and women  (with the notable exception of Aphrodite) are abused and excluded. The playwright sets out to present two sides of Housman—the homosexual scholar and the homosexual poet—but it is the side of Housman devoted to textual criticism as “the summit of scholarship” that holds the greatest interest for Stoppard. Both of Housman's selves suffer from unfulfilled love for his school-mate Moses Jackson who, being a heterosexual, has no clue that his friend is “sweet on him.” Jackson is a scientist, and Housman, who is desperate to connect with him on some level, declares that “classical scholarship is [also] a science—we will be scientists together.” 

Enter “The Sacred Theban Band.” Audiences will take note of the constant illusion to the “boys club” of classics through the concept of the “friendship” of the Greek heroes (the Argonauts...Achilles and Patroclus, Theseus and Pirithous) which is evoked by Stoppard's Housman and his contemporaries in the play as the exemplary male virtue ethic.  Here, the Greeks teach that the only virtuous and civilized relationship is the one between  men “hot for the capture of the Golden Fleece.” Platonic “friendship” (not “spooniness,” of course, which will get you dismissed from Oxford) “binds noble men together” on a common fraternal scientific adventure—the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  This journey, of course, excludes women.

I argue that in Stoppard's  (correct) depiction of Housman's world, women are objects of desire, they inspire the “invention of love” in the poems of Catullus and Propertius, but since they can't translate Horace properly, they are out of place: “Oh dear, I hope it is not I who have made you cry,” Housman responds at the end of Act I, to a girl in his class whom he had just belittled. “ You don't mind? You don't mind when I make you cry? Oh, Miss Burton, you must try to mind a little.  Life is in the minding.” By choosing not to confront this historical exclusion , Stoppard effectively accepts and sanctions it.

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