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Nestor seems like a minor character in The Iliad, but he actually plays a significant role in the development of the epic’s plot. What are some of the ways in which the aged king propels the action of the story? What effect does he have on the epic as a whole?
In his role as storyteller and counselor to the Achaean forces, Nestor often provides motivation for The Iliad’s plot. He convinces the Achaean army to build fortifications around its ships—fortifications that serve as a locus for much of the future confrontation between the two armies. He proposes the spy mission on which Odysseus and Diomedes kill Dolon and a number of Thracian soldiers. Furthermore, it is Nestor who convinces Agamemnon to send an embassy to Achilles, begging him to return to battle. Although this mission ultimately fails, it provides Homer with the occasion to develop the character of Achilles, giving an important context to his decision to abandon the war effort. Finally, Nestor proposes to have Patroclus fight in Achilles’ place wearing his armor. This scheme proves the turning point for the entire epic.
What is the role of women in The Iliad? Does the poem contain any strong female characters, or do the acts and deeds of males dominate the work?
The Iliad certainly contains strong female characters. Athena and Hera rank among the most powerful forces in the book. Even the other male gods cannot stand up to them, and Ares, supposedly the god of war, must cede to Athena’s superior might on two occasions. Moreover, Athena and Hera are more than just assertive and forceful. They are cunning, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued. By using her womanly assets and a little trickery, Hera incapacitates even Zeus, the king of gods and men.
In the mortal sphere, however, The Iliad has little to offer in the way of strong female figures. Very few women enter the story at all, and the women who do appear usually fall into one of two categories: property, such as Chryseis and Briseis, or interlocutors for male characters, such as Helen and Andromache. Homer uses Helen to reveal the cowardly underside of Paris’s character and to spotlight the Achaean commanders when she describes them to Priam on the Trojan ramparts. Andromache helps to make Hector a sympathetic character and provides the stimulus for his speech in Book 6 about the fate of Troy. Thus, the significance of both women lies not in themselves but in the ways they illuminate the men around them. The two may seem to be important characters because of the high status they enjoy relative to other women, but compared to The Iliad’s warriors they are little more than props.
What role does fate play in the emotional and psychological effect of The Iliad? Why does Homer make his characters aware of their impending dooms?
Homer’s original audience would already have been intimately familiar with the story The Iliad tells. Making his characters cognizant of their fates merely puts them on par with the epic’s audience. In deciding to make his characters knowledgeable about their own futures, he loses the effect of dramatic irony, in which the audience watches characters stumble toward ends that it alone knows in advance. But Homer doesn’t sacrifice drama; in fact, this technique renders the characters more compelling. They do not fall to ruin out of ignorance, but instead become tragic figures who go knowingly to their doom because they have no real choice. In the case of Hector and Achilles, their willing submission to a fate they recognize but cannot evade renders them not only tragic but emphatically heroic.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Iliad!