Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.10


Michael Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. vii, 145. $45.00. ISBN 0-19-814778-3.


Reviewed by Michael Halleran, University of Washington.

Many studies over the years have isolated and examined several of the distinctive formal elements of Greek tragedy. W. Schadewaldt investigated certain kinds of speeches in tragedy (Monolog und Selbstgespräch), W. Kranz its choral songs (Stasimon), W. Nestle its openings (Der Struktur des Eingangs); and others have written about messenger speeches (most recently, in Euripides, I. de Jong), stichomythia and the like. The agon has not been neglected in these studies. J. Duchemin wrote her comprehensive L'AGON dans la tragédie grecque in 1945 (revised 1968) and several dissertation have also appeared on the topic. Lloyd's focus differs from Duchemin's in several ways: he has a narrower interpretation of what defines an agon; he confines his treatment to the plays of Euripides; and, whereas Duchemin sought to collect the characteristics of the agon (her treatment is arranged by topics more than by plays), Lloyd seeks primarily to explain the character and function of each agon within its play. It is this final difference that makes Lloyd's book worthwhile.

There are seven chapters, followed by a brief conclusion, bibliography and index. The first two set the stage for the discussion ("The Nature and Function of the Agon," "Rhetoric and Euripides' Agones"), the next five treat the agones (only thirteen by Lloyd's count) in the plays in a roughly chronological fashion, with most attention paid to the contests in Electra, Troades, and Orestes. Each chapter conveniently concludes with a brief summary of its major points.

In the first Chapter, Lloyd sets out his case for considering thirteen, and only thirteen, scenes in Euripides as agones. Without ever offering a precise definition, he includes in his category those scenes containing a pair of opposing hostile speeches of substantial and roughly equal length, separated by a brief (two to three lines) comment by the chorus, typically followed by an angry exchange and often preceded by some material as well. Even the thirteen included examples offer variations on this basic pattern (as one would expect), but several other possible cases are excluded. The three broadest categories of exclusion are "near-agones," suppliant scenes, and epideixis scenes. While Lloyd can (and, at some point, must) draw the boundaries of his discussion, I would prefer to see a more inclusive definition of the agon. As Bond (ed.) says ad Her. 140-251, one of the explicitly excluded scenes, "this is an unusual A)GW/N scene, though it can hardly be called anything else." To assign it and other comparable scenes to the category "epideixis scenes" suggests a greater distinction than there really is. At the least Lloyd should explain more fully the substantive differences between the excluded scenes and those included. I also wonder about some other scenes that are not even mentioned. How, e.g., does the scene between Phaedra and her Nurse (Hipp. 373-524) differ significantly from, say, the accepted agon between Hippolytus and Theseus later in the play? In terms of length and structure it meets the test. Phaedra makes a substantial argument for the choice she has made (to take her own life) and the Nurse, after recovering from her shock, and buffered by the chorus' response, replies with her own arguments against Phaedra's position. Dialogue, including some stichomythia, then follows. Is it simply the lack of hostility that makes this scene something other than an agon? If so, is this enough? This first Chapter does, however, make a good corrective observation on the order of speakers. What determines the order is not strength of argument or degree of sympathy the speaker possesses (the person with the stronger argument or greater sympathy going second); rather, following the practice of the courtroom, the "plaintiff" speaks first. Lloyd also makes some general observations about agones in Euripides, which he supports in the subsequent chapters: they rarely accomplish anything for either participant, but rather deepen the conflict; they are often detached from the immediate context; and typically they deal with a conflict central to the drama.

Euripides' use of rhetoric and the similarities of his characters' arguments to those of the orators are considered in Chapter Two. Aware of the lack of contemporary sources, Lloyd is still able to offer a solid treatment of these topics. One could have hoped for more on legal terms employed in the agones (handled cursorily on p. 34), but Lloyd records many parallels with the orators. The book concludes with this statement: "The speeches in Thucydides afford the best parallel for these scenes in which the glories and the limitations of human reason are analysed in the context of tragic conflict." It is unfortunate then that we are not given more on this best parallel. While Lloyd refers to Thucydides and especially to the work by his supervisor, Colin Macleod, on this author, the full potential implicit in the concluding comment is never realized.

In treating the individual agones, Lloyd has several interests. First and foremost is to explain how the agon scene fits into the play. He also spends much time describing the structure of the speeches and examining the arguments presented for validity and persuasiveness. In cases such as that of El. or Or., where earlier treatments of the myth and the antagonists' arguments are at hand, he explores the distinctly Euripidean version of the arguments. In these discussions he also reveals his philological concerns, considering in both the text and the notes textual problems in these scenes. The treatments are quite uneven in length. (Med. surprisingly receives only two pages, while Hipp. is covered in eight, Or. in seventeen), but, in general, Lloyd is helpful in his discussions and does a creditable job of tying the agon scene into the larger dramatic structure. Lloyd sees little development in Euripides' practice in shaping his agones. They are found in most of the plays, from the earliest (Alc.) to the latest (IA.), with the same basic structure. He does detect a greater degree of rhetorical influence in the plays of the 420s, and suggests that in the earlier plays, unlike in the later ones, the rhetorical sophistication of the speakers is related, in some degree, to their character.

The index, regretably, is unsatisfactory. A book that is destined to be consulted more than read (and this is no criticism of the work) should have a very full index, especially an index locorum, to allow the reader to track down the passages of greatest interest. Lloyd draws parallels to other plays throughout the book, but the reader relying simply on the index will discover only some of Lloyd's treatments of the material. The sparse index makes this useful book less useful than it could be.