Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.30

 


John Gibert, Change of Mind in Greek Tragedy. Hypomnemata Heft 108. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 1995. Pp. 286. ISBN 3-525-25208-0.

 


 

Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary, mcropp@acs.ucalgary.ca.

Drama presents imaginary people speaking, deciding and acting, but a dramatist can never supply a complete set of the imaginary mental processes which would underlie their discourse, decisions and actions if they were real people. The job of supplying anything of this kind may be done with more or less skill and more or less understanding of human motivation. Moreover, dramatists have other axes to grind besides doing this, and plots (especially myth-based plots) have a momentum of their own. As audience and readers are free to impute personalities to the imaginary people whom drama constructs in ten thousand words of text, the scope for misreading is considerable, and critical discipline is needed. The pitfalls so far as Greek tragedy is concerned have been an issue at least since Tycho von Wilamowitz wrote on Sophocles' dramatic technique, and especially during the last forty years in a continuing series of discussions by Dale, Lesky, Garton, Easterling, Gould, Gill, Goldhill and others.

John Gibert's monograph (originating in a 1991 Harvard dissertation) explores the limits of reading for character in tragedy, and aims to describe the alternative factors that may be at work when tragedy portrays decision and action. G. concentrates on a usefully definable kind of decision, 'change of mind' -- that is, a switch within the drama from one intention to another (or occasionally from one attitude towards a chosen course of action to another). The impetus for this comes from Bernard Knox's well-known article on second thoughts in Greek tragedy, but G. aims to be more systematic and comprehensive than Knox, and less susceptible to a preoccupation with heroic tempers. (An appendix argues convincingly that there is much more in common between Sophocles and Euripides than Knox allowed.) G. also confines his study to the literary dynamics of mind-change, as opposed to what the dramatic texts may reflect and tell us about the historical realities of Greek mentality and behaviour.

Greek tragedy was generically inclined to highlight decision-making, so one can expect indications of mindedness for decisions that carry weight. But we need (G. argues) to recognise both these and the other, formal features of plot and text which can motivate action and shape expectation and so contribute to the process of convincing and meaningful dramatisation. G. categorises the formal features as 'Motif', contrasting them with a pair of character-based factors, 'Motive' ("a character's own stated reasons for acting") and 'Motivation' ("anything which would be understood as a motive if it were actually stated by a character, but is not and must therefore be attributed by a more or less conscious process"). 'Motif' principally includes established patterns of mythical and dramatic narrative ('story-patterns'), thematic elements within a play, and the mythical and poetic traditions relevant to a play. In Ch. 2 G. offers a rather thorough survey of mind-changes in tragedy, from the purely incidental to those weighty enough to attract dramatic focus and raise legitimate questions about the mindedness of the character whose direction changes. When Heracles in Heracles agrees to Amphitryon's suggestion that he should ambush Lycus rather than confront him directly, the dramatic purpose may be merely to implement the ensuing scenes (offstage murder, madness within the house), so perhaps we should not try to relate his decision to his "normal" thought or behaviour. On the other hand, Theonoe's decision in Helen to betray her brother's trust in helping the refugees to escape is weighty enough to need, and get, motivation in terms of her own predisposition to make the kind of decision that she makes. G. subdivides his catalogue by story-pattern (intrigue, happy ending, secrets, divine intervention, supplication accepted, punishment revoked), and works from simple cases towards those where Motif and Motive/Motivation interact in more complex and possibly conflicting ways that demand careful interpretation. Longer discussions include Hecuba winning Agamemnon's consent to her revenge-plot (pp. 68-70), Medea's famous and controversial monologue (79-84), Phaedra revealing her secret (in contrast with Hippolytus keeping his: 92-96), Theseus accepting supplication from the mothers of the Seven (99-103), and Creon revoking his death-sentence on Antigone (105-9).

In Ch. 3 G. proceeds to fuller examinations of four mind-changes which are crucial as dramatic resolutions, and in which resistance to change is dramatised at length; the process of mind-change (often involving a debate on heroic values) has become a dramatic subject in its own right. The conversion of the Eumenides is discussed as a unique (extant) case of choral mind-change. Ajax's penultimate speech is classed by G. as a mind-change in the sense that, while Ajax's intention to kill himself remains unchanged (and he does not intend to deceive), he is seeing his situation and the logic of his suicide in a new light. Heracles' renunciation of suicide in Heracles is shown to be dramatically and morally preconditioned by motifs earlier in the play such as hoplite solidarity, the role of ponos in the Labours, and the inevitability of old age and death, which contribute to the sense of Heracles' acceptance of his plight as a recognition that "heroism is not for this world" (143). In Philoctetes, G. describes the limitations of understanding Neoptolemus's progress as a young man's 'finding himself' (or defining himself by reference to his heroic father), and suggests that it is subordinated, in terms of plot-momentum and the play's moral significance, to Philoctetes' ultimate decision to go to Troy. (In each of these three heroic cases, G.'s analysis focuses on the moral dimensions of the hero's dilemma, and the morally exemplary nature of its resolution, and perhaps underplays the heroes' movements towards actual heroic status, though this impression may be due mainly to the conciseness of his discussions.)

G.'s discussion as a whole is targeted on Ion (Ch. 4) and Iphigenia at Aulis (Ch. 5), both late plays of Euripides, both contrived essentially around an intricate series of changes of intention and attitude. G. argues subtly that the 'opening up' of Creusa in her monody and in the plotting against Ion can be read in terms of Motif as prefiguring the ultimate exposure of Ion's real condition, so that Euripides' portrayal of Creusa comprehends but also transcends her individual psychology. G. follows Yunis in seeing the detachment of Ion from Apollo and Delphi in favour of Athens as the play's objective, and argues that this detachment crowns a sequence of mind-changes which trace a development in Ion's attitude to Apollo: Ion reaches the point of insisting on examining Apollo about the truth of his paternity (1546-8) and then desists on Athena's instructions (1606-8), but with a lack of enthusiasm which confirms that his original naive trust in Apollo's honesty and authority has been lost, or rather is being appropriately transferred to Athena. (This analysis perhaps falters at one point. When Ion doubts that Apollo is his father, it is Creusa's honesty that he questions (1523-7). When he rejects her guess that Apollo has concealed the truth in order to assist him, he does not say that the justification is inadequate if true, but that Creusa's assurance and her guess (n.b. 1539) are not enough to convince him. OU)X W(=DE FAU/LWS AU)/T' E)GW\ METE/RXOMAI, "I will not pursue these matters so lightly/superficially", 1546: FAU/LWS as in HF 89.)

G. finally addresses Iphigenia in Aulis, a test case in characterisation ever since Aristotle's complaint that the suppliant Iphigenia in no way resembles the Iphigenia who later chooses death so nobly. G. again traces a sequence of mind-changes (Agamemnon's second letter, Menelaus's renunciation, Agamemnon's abandonment of his resistance, and his later proclamation of Panhellenic objectives) culminating in Iphigenia's own self-sacrificing decision. G. shows how difficult it is to arrive at a convincing reading of these changes if one relies on character as a key. On his analysis the sequence has more to do with establishing a pattern of mind-change into which Iphigenia's decision will fit, and with predetermining (by Motif) what will eventually give this decision its significance and effectiveness as a happy and glorious exhibition of piety and rectitude. G. does not rule out the possibility of an ironic reading of all this, but in any case sees consistency of character as in some degree sacrificed to the requirements of implementing this exemplary story in a dramatically striking way.

In all, this is a stimulating discussion which offers a useful method of reading for dramatically 'moving' forces other than the interior personality in tragedy, and for assessing the interactions between these and character-portrayal. G. has something suggestive to say about almost every extant tragedy of Sophocles and Euripides, and several of Aeschylus. This breadth of scope, and his method of categorising the mass of instances by story-pattern, make for a rather fragmented exposition so that G.'s nuances are sometimes difficult to grasp and it is sometimes hard to see how he would fit his observations within an overall interpretation of a play. But the many pointers to interpretation that he offers within a clearly stated methodological framework will be of value and should be considered in conjunction with recent discussions of Greek concepts of personality in relation to ethical decision-making in tragedy (notably now Christopher Gill in Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy, Oxford, 1996).