Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.10


Justina Gregory, Euripides and the Instruction of the Athenians. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Pp. 208. ISBN 0-472-10230-3. $34.50.


Reviewed by Martin J. Cropp, University of Calgary.

Justina Gregory's book contains revised and enlarged versions of previously published articles on Alcestis, Heracles and Troades along with new discussions of Hippolytus and Hecuba. There is also a unifying thesis, "that the plays of Euripides, like those of his fellow tragedians, were intended for civic instruction, and that the tragedians' most urgent task was to reconcile traditional aristocratic values with the democratic order," while Euripides' distinctive contribution was the "'democratization' of tragedy.... It is not merely that Euripides gives faces and voices to a whole spectrum of humanity.... More fundamental is his demonstration that certain political categories reverberate at a level far deeper than the political" (185). The plays discussed are all to some extent the carriers of "a democratic ideology" (11), shaping community values and discourse and suggesting revised formulations of old virtues and moral/political attitudes.

The results are not completely successful. On the whole G.'s method is of a traditional or even conservative kind, isolating thematic motifs and re-examining much-discussed 'problems' in order to identify a univocal tendance in each play. This is a limited approach, but G. does not claim to be giving a comprehensive critical account and much of what she says at the level of detail is serviceable. It is the grander claim that the plays have a specifically political-ideological intention (as opposed to a simply moralistic one with inevitable socio-political implications) which leads to difficulty and seems to some extent unnecessarily superimposed on the basic structure of G.'s detailed readings.

G. reads Alcestis, for example, as an admonition about the proper acceptance of death and mortality, stressing death's necessity, inevitability and unpredictability in agreement with the archaic mythical and gnomic tradition. Apollo's disruption of the normal course of death results in disruptions of the normal course of life, overturnings of values, and a 'life not worth living' for Admetus. Alcestis' death is a kind of non-death, which for G. accounts for the ambiguities in her farewell scene; its apparent nobility she thinks is devalued by textual ambivalences which present it as both voluntary and inevitable, its mode as alternatively sacrifice or disease or suicide. Similarly Admetus' projected life in mourning is a kind of non-life in a Hades-like home with no joy of sex or conviviality. The thematic purpose of ambivalence and inversion accounts for other aspects of the play which have caused critical difficulty: for example, the quarrel with Pheres is not intended to characterise Admetus but expresses the topsy-turviness of the inversion imposed by Apollo, which called on the father to sacrifice himself for the son. From the demoralising consequences of all this Admetus is rescued by Heracles, the bon vivant and confronter of Necessity par excellence, who reasserts the traditional recognition of mortality and forces a return to normal human values, triggered significantly enough by Admetus' own inability to abandon the social virtue of hospitality. By undoing what Apollo did Heracles offers "a silent corrective of Apollo's initial intervention" (43).

Much of this reading is attractive; the correction by the mortal Heracles of a god whose very immortality makes him uncomprehending of the human point of view is exactly in line with Euripides' scepticism elsewhere about divine 'control' of human affairs (compare, not least, Apollo in Electra and Ion). At some of its more original points the reading seems forced in order to match G.'s thematic claim, especially in her view of the devaluation of Alcestis' sacrifice and in her claim that the ending of the play invites us to reflect that Admetus will now after all die at his "appointed time", so that Thanatos is in some sense the final winner as he should be according to the natural order. (If this is a thematically important point, why is it so inexplicit in the text?) Least convincing, however, is the final, political step in G.'s exposition. According to this, Euripides presents Thanatos as an egalitarian who will in the end treat Admetus like everyone else, just as the Athenian democracy insisted on egalitarianism by limiting funerary expenses and providing communal burial for its war dead. The outcome of the play then implies that "death's egalitarian dispositions are not only preferable to any alternative arrangement, but actually essential to a meaningful life" (45). To recognise 'death the leveller' as an important idea in the play is one thing. To connect this with a political agenda or with the democratisation of archaic ideas seems unnecessary and not justified by the rudimentary historical basis which G. offers. Neither restrictions on funeral expenditure nor the communal burial of war-dead necessarily embody the systematic egalitarianism which G.'s argument requires ("a common impulse to avoid preferential treatment in death for any Athenian", 45); so even the existence of an Athenian democratic 'politics of death' to which a contribution by Euripides might have been appropriate in 438 B.C. is not well established by G.

The treatment of Hippolytus raises similar doubts. G. rightly regards sophrosyne as a fundamental theme in the play. The behaviour which Hippolytus displays as sophrosyne is actually one-sided and excessively rigid; the Nurse by contrast suggests that sophrosyne lies in abandoning all standards; aidos and eukleia, concomitants of sophrosyne, are the objects of Phaedra's obsessive concern. G. goes beyond this in attaching great importance to the political connotations of sophrosyne for Euripides' audience. The aristocratic/oligarchic position expressed by Hippolytus in 1013-20 is not incidental but pervasively characteristic of him. Hippolytus and Phaedra define virtue in an 'aristocratic' way as self-centered and self-regarding, and the limitations of this are shown by the self-destructiveness of their behaviour and by the recognition, at the end of the play, of syngnome as an essential ingredient of a more 'democratic' sophrosyne. The story thus becomes "paradigmatic for a society that needed to purge the ideology of moderation of its oligarchic associations in order to adapt it to its own purposes" (54).

The question here is one of emphasis: how strong is the text's demand for this political reading? Unfortunately much depends on G.'s highly questionable interpretation of Hippolytus' enigmatic words in 1034-5, esôphronêse d' ouk echousa sôphronein, hêmeis d' echontes ou kalôs echrômetha. G. takes these out of context as a commendation of Phaedra's sophrosyne, "contrasting her hard-won victory over her passion with his inability to turn his virtuous qualities to good purpose.... He seems here to acknowledge that rectitude is not purely innate and cannot be achieved simply through renunciation.... Hippolytus' words suggest that sophrosyne is no longer to be envisaged as a static virtue, no longer defined in terms of aristocratic quietism an d renunciation. It has thus been made compatible with the vital, energetic temper of imperial Athens..." (75). But in fact these lines are the conclusion of a defence-speech in which Hippolytus shows no lack of confidence in his own virtue and has just hinted heavily at Phaedra's guilt by saying that if she were alive to give evidence Theseus would easily see who was kakos (1023-4) and that her suicide was caused by fear of something that he is not at liberty to identify (1032-3). His concluding couplet has to be understood accordingly (as for example by Barrett): the only way in which Phaedra could exercise sophrosyne was by killing herself, while Hippolytus in exercising his (more genuine) sophrosyne has brought trouble upon himself. G.'s account of rigidity and passion yielding to understanding and humaner feelings in the exodos is largely convincing at the level of personal morality, but without the lynch-pin of an explicit rejection of his sophrosyne by Hippolytus the suggestion that values are being redefined, and redefined in an implicitly political way, fails.

G.'s reading of Heracles is on the whole familiar and plausible. The ruin of Heracles brings him down from a position which is heroic, self-sufficient and accompanied by intimations of immortality. His rehabilitation depends on his recognising his human status and human ties; he opts for Amphitryon rather than Zeus as his 'true' father and for the recognition of the civilised world, in particular Athens, as consolation for his humiliation and loss. For G. these remedies involve (or at least "may involve") "a reshaping of traditional understandings" of the content of eugeneia. "Heracles has turned away from the aristocratic value system with its emphasis on individual glory and solitary accomplishment" (148). Here one must ask for some better definition of "aristocratic" than G. offers, for she seems to use it interchangeably with "heroic" which is not, however, a political term. What Heracles relinquishes at the end of the play is the self-sufficiency of the heroic (superhuman, close-to-immortal) being. In suggesting that this resignation implies rejecting aristocratic in favour of democratic standards of eugeneia, G. appeals mainly to the arguments about hope and about Heracles' achievements which Amphitryon conducts with Megara and Lycus respectively in the first half of the play, along with the resumption of these themes in the exodos. For G. (not alone, admittedly) the dispute over hope turns on opposing definitions of eugeneia, Megara making the "aristocratic" claim that eugeneia demands her pessimism, Amphitryon responding with a "revisionist" claim in favour of optimism. But this is too broad (G. even claims that "Fatalism is for her [Megara] an article of faith, almost an obligation", 125, and that for her "death is the only honourable course for those in trouble", 126). What Megara argues is that in these circumstances resignation is required because she can see no possible hope of rescue and thinks the family are certain to die anyway, with or without further humiliation. Amphitryon disputes not the inference but the premiss because he still thinks that something might turn up. In doing so he appeals (amongst other things) to the principle that an agathos will trust in hope (lines 105-6). Despite the claims of G. and others, this is not non-traditional or revisionist. G. mentions Bond's note on line 105 without observing that Bond's parallels for hope as a benefit include Pindar, Isth. 8. 15, chrê d' agathan elpid' andri melein, which is hardly in a revisionist context. (The whole of Isth. 8. 1-15 is in fact a useful guide to evaluating Amphitryon's position.)

As for Amphitryon's defence of Heracles' achievements and his use of the bow, G. reasonably maintains (130, 147) that this emphasises in Heracles a self-sufficiency which is broken by his disaster and replaced by his accepting human interdependency in the exodos. But her alignment of this with a shift from aristocratic to democratic values requires her to assume (on p. 130) that the bow is an aristocratic weapon, that the solitude of Heracles' labours is characteristic of aristocratic individualism, and that neglect of the possibilities of philia is an aristocratic trait (this prompted by the further false assumption that during his labours Heracles "has failed to forge a network of personal relationships that might benefit his family in their need": but see 55-6, 127-130, 261-7, 275-8, etc.). All this is rather far from the realities of archaic Greek society.

G. has better success with Hecuba since political elements are more integral to the action and discourse of this play, which she takes, along with Troades, to be concerned with "moral questions associated with disparities in power" (86), questions posed so as to make Euripides' Athenian audience reflect on their own use and abuse of 'imperial' power. The play's insistent interplay of public or political with private or personal morality and corruption does support this thesis -- though how this is related to G.'s general claim that the plays express a democratic ideology remains a little unclear, unless 'democratic' simply means 'humane'. Hecuba's descent into revenge is seen by G. as giving the play its rhythm, not through a purely negative abandonment of morality by the abused and demoralised but rather through the exhaustion of all other avenues of resistance to (or management of) their plight by the conquered and enslaved. In her revenge sympathy for Hecuba is maintained (G. argues) by the totally negative characterisation of Polymestor, by the justice of his punishment, and (a debatable point) by the fact that the winds arise for the Greeks' homeward voyage not after Polyxena's death but after Polymestor's punishment. G. also argues interestingly against reading degraded barbarism into Hecuba's use of Cassandra's sexual charis (106-7) and into her transformation into a dog (110-1: G. suggests the associations of this are with revenge and the Erinyes, so that the kynos sema becomes a symbol of the continuing power of retribution; but the fact is that Polymestor presents it as a humiliation comparable with the murders of Cassandra and Agamemnon). Thus Hecuba evokes the same kind of sympathy for the defeated as does Troades, and delivers the same kind of warning about the vindication of the oppressed.

In G.'s view Troades likewise centers through Hecuba on the Trojan captives' choice of an appropriate response to their situation while putting a less wholly bleak construction on it than many critics have suggested. In the later play it is the women's ability to use discourse (logos) to regulate and mitigate their suffering that G. sees as the positive element, a mode of consolation (no more) achieved by the rituals of lamentation, by reflections on the possession of a happy past, by the formulation of hopes for the future, by Andromache's satisfaction in cursing the Greeks for killing her son, and Hecuba's in demonstrating the guilt of Helen. While this capacity of discourse to make consoling sense of human suffering is a property of the poet's art, it is also something which he imparts to the characters in his play: "as Hecuba speaks [at 1240-5, of the renown of Troy which will live on] the boundaries between her present and her future, between the world of the play and the world of the audience, waver and then dissolve" (177). This is a point well taken, albeit loosely tied once again (through the importance of rhetoric in democracies, and the impact and theories of Gorgias) to the book's thesis concerning democratic ideology. It is indeed possible to feel that the ability of the Trojan women to sing, talk and analyse is a kind of power, a factor in their surviving and remaining human as they move off to face their various futures. But it is pressed too hard and too unilaterally. When Andromache argues that even dumb animals resent separation from their yoke-fellows (Tro. 669-672) G. takes this as a recognition of the value of human logos (166). Unwilling to see the agon as showing the uselessness of argument, G. comments: "But if Hecuba prevails in words only, that is less a comment on the hollowness of logos than on the insufficiency of a causal framework that would make an individual responsible for the entire war" (174).

G.'s main thesis could hardly be established successfully without more rigorous attention to historical factors and to the question of Euripides' relationship to the tragic tradition, matters which are cursorily treated in her Introduction in order to justify the presumption that Euripides fulfilled his poetic role as a "source of wisdom" (8) in much the same way as Aeschylus and Sophocles. One also wonders about the claim that the five plays studied "illustrate a spectrum of Euripides' political thought" (12): do Orestes and Bacchae, for example, promote a democratised morality in a way which can be happily accommodated within this spectrum? On the whole, G.'s readings of individual plays, which are often sensitive in detail and were well represented in her previously published articles, seem more endangered than enhanced by her determination to marshal them under the banner of a general theory.