Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1.2.7


Barbara Goff, The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence and Language in Euripides' Hippolytus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. xiv, 140. $37.50. ISBN. 0-521-36397-7.


Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington

To de drama tôn prôtôn. The verdict of Aristophanes of Byzantium on Euripides' Hippolytus has remained. Grube called it "perhaps the greatest of all the extant plays" and many contemporary critics would support his claim. So it is appropriate that this play has received considerable scholarly attention. In recent years especially scores of articles have been written on it and in the last three years it has been the exclusive focus of two books, and the partial focus of two others. Barbara Goff's contribution is the most recent of the lengthier studies. She claims at the outset that her reading of the play "differs significantly from other available treatments, both in detail and overall allegiances" (ix). While this claim could be challenged (the work shares many similarities both in approach and in some of its detailed observations with Zeitlin especially and also, e.g., with Segal, Foley, and Goldhill), it is clear at once that Goff is not writing a "traditional" account of the play. Influenced by a variety of anthropological and post-structuralist approaches, she offers a detailed reading of the play.

In this play, language is the thing. The importance in Hippolytus of language, of the opposition between speech and silence, has been frequently observed (most notably by Knox in 1952), and this is central to Goff's book. She begins, in Chapter One ("Speech and Silence"), by describing the ways in which the play explores the relations of speech to gender and power: "The relation between speech and silence is set up by the play as an opposition analogous to that operating on a social and sexual level between male and female, on a spatial level between exterior and interior, and on a dramatic level between revelation and concealment" (2). More particularly she discusses the role of the oikos in the play, the recurrent images of revelation and concealment, and the force and function of the "gaze", in, e.g., the onset of passion, the scrutiny of witnesses and accusers, and the image of the young maiden's mirror. The second and third chapters are concerned with the relationship of language to desire and violence. In Goff's view, not only can the play be read as a "series of articulations of desire and of attempts to silence it" (32), but it reveals desire as a generator of speech, of narrative. She also argues for the "power of silenced desire to distort and displace speech" (35), especially in Phaedra's so-called delirium scene and also in the agon between Theseus and Hippolytus. Goff goes on to discuss sophrosune and sophia in the play and the "other world" wishes of Hippolytus (for motherless procreation) and Theseus (for two voices). Then she examines the ambiguities of pharmakon in the Nurse's stichomythia with Phaedra, suggesting that the word is a metaphor for persuasion itself, for the "self-consciously evasive possibilities of language" (49). In Goff's view, speech and desire can be seen as types of violence, and the third chapter looks at violence. In this chapter the influence of René Girard's work is most deeply felt. After describing the violence implicit in Hippolytus' meadow and in the related images of the garland and yoke, Goff, working from Girard's concept of "dissolution of differences", argues for, inter alia, the "feminization" of Hippolytus, the (near) indistinguishability of the main characters, and the substitutions both of one character for another within the play and also of scenes in this play for scenes in the first Hippolytus.

In the fourth chapter, "Imitation and Authority," Goff considers some of the ways in which the play reflects fifth-century self-consciousness about language. She focuses particularly on the instability of human language, as seen in the play's use of, e.g., the words homilia, manteia, and semnos, and on the impossibility of myths serving as univocal paradigms; this leads, by way of Phaedra's famous reflections on aidos, to a Derridean discussion of writing, with Phaedra's lying letter as the main object of inquiry. "Each discourse can also be seen to be concerned with imitation, namely, imitation between human and divine, imitation of mythical paradigms, and imitation between the spoken and the written word. Each of these relations of imitation can be read to offer and simultaneously withdraw the possibility of stability and meaning" (103). The fifth and final chapter is devoted to a topic already touched upon in the book, that of the play's own self-consciousness, as seen particularly in Artemis' establishment of a cult for Hippolytus. Following Pucci's analysis and influenced by Barthes, Goff argues for an ambiguous ending and discusses the ways in which the brides' song in the to-be-established cult of Hippolytus is like, and not like, the play itself. She also suggests that both forms of recompense promised by Artemis -- the vengeance against Aphrodite's favorite and the cult -- are ambiguous.

I have given only a bare summary of a complex book. It is not always the easiest reading, in part because of the author's assumption of shared or at least familiar methodological presuppositions, when by her own account these are unconventional. (By contrast Foley's 1985 Ritual Irony, for example, is much fuller and clearer on methodology.) Despite the occasional heavy going, the book has several things to recommend it. It offers the fullest single exploration of one of Euripides' best and most influential tragedies; it gives a good idea of the possibilities (and at times the limits) of various contemporary methodological approaches applied to a Greek tragedy; and it often makes interesting suggestions about individual passages or points of interpretation. At times, however, the author's own preoccupations lead her to miss other, important aspects of a scene. For example, in the discussion of the Nurse's persuasion of Phaedra to reveal her secret, she makes no mention of the act of supplication, which finally gets Phaedra to confess her passion (cf. 335). And in her lengthy analysis of the play's ending, Goff does not discuss the actual final words of the play (1462-6), which are germane to her argument. This omission is particularly surprising in light of Deborah Roberts' recent work on endings. There are also assertions with which I suspect many will disagree: e.g., "Theseus' action [of throwing down his garland] becomes a proleptic enactment of his son's downfall" (62); and "the dissolution of differences . . . threaten[s] to make the protagonists indistinguishable" (70). And there are some curious (smaller) statements: e.g, that the opened palace doors reveal Phaedra's "hanging body" (14), which is most unlikely in light of 786-7 and the following scenes; that Artemis must withdraw before Hippolytus and Theseus can speak to each other (90), when in fact they speak to each other starting at 1407; and that Hippolytus is dismembered (99). I noted only very few typographical errors.

The Noose of Words should be read by anyone interested in the Hippolytus, and it will have some appeal to those with a more general interest in Greek tragedy. This book will generate discussion not just about the play but also about the critical assumptions we bring to our interpretations of it.