Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.2


M. S. Silk, Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. ix, 556. $90.00. ISBN 0-19-814951-4.


Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, Classics, University of Washington, mrh@u.washington.edu.

As some readers will recall and as this collection's editor reminds us, in July 1993, King's College London hosted a conference with some thirty speakers and two hundred delegates from twenty countries and six continents. The topic of this conference was "Tragedy and 'The Tragic'," and the collection under review represents almost all of the conference's papers (and four that were not delivered there). Michael Silk, the volume's editor, offers a general introduction to the entire collection (eleven pages) and briefer ones for each of its three sub-divisions ("Greek Tragedy: Readings;" "Greek Tragedy: Contexts;" "Greek Tragedy and 'Tragedy as a Whole': Perspectives and Definitions"). One is impressed immediately not simply by the size (560+ pages) and scope of the volume (an eclectic set of papers under the rather generous rubric) but also by the variety of the contributors. Included are both very well known scholars (e.g. Claude Calame, Pat Easterling, Helene Foley, Simon Goldhill, Charles Segal) along with others less well established in the field. Nor is the focus exclusively on the ancient Greek world -- Shakespeare and modern Irish drama are explored to bring some interesting cross-cultural perspectives. Finally, and perhaps most fruitfully, many of the papers were conceived and are here published as pairs -- presentation and comment -- which allows for a greater sense of dialogic engagement with the materials and (at least for this reader) some sense of the interchanges that the conference in 1993 provided. My chief reservation, however, stems in part from this very format, and it holds for many (although by no means all) publications of proceedings: the informality of oral presentation, even when bolstered by revisions and footnotes, does not allow for as full a discussion of the issues as one might wish. And the shorter papers delivered in response, while often very suggestive, at times have the space to do little more than adumbrate their points of disagreement. Secondly, many of the articles contribute to our reading of specific plays or issues, but, overall, the collection does not embrace sufficiently the second half of its title, "the tragic." In many of the papers a discussion of the tragic comes as a coda, sometimes rather inorganically connected to what precedes; in only a few is the issue addressed more fully. This, however, does not detract from the excellence of many of the essays. In what follows, I offer a very brief survey of all the papers; by necessity my comments will be few.

Although it failed to take first prize at the City Dionysia, Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus has often served as a paradigm of Greek tragedy and the tragic, and so it is appropriate that this collection begins with two papers on it. In his essay, "Vision, Blindness, and Mask: The Radicalization of the Emotions in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex," Claude Calame focuses on issues of spectacle (with reference to Aristotle's Poetics) and the importance of vision and visual knowledge in the play's language and actions. This leads him to a discussion of the "blind mask" which the actor playing Oedipus presumably wears when he emerges from the skene after the self-blinding. For Calame this self-blinding is a "gesture that calls into question the very foundation of tragic 'discourse,' the convention of masked representation as performed at the cult of Dionysus Eleuthereus" (28). A concluding section seeks parallels between the power of the logos in Gorgias and the power of spectacle in Sophocles. Richard Buxton, in his response, "What Can You Rely on in Oedipus Rex?," takes exception -- rightly -- with Calame's "hyper-subtle" metatheatrical interpretation of the blind mask, finding it unpersuasive, especially considering our lack of knowledge about the precise characteristics of such a mask and the seemingly forced distinction Calame wishes to make between the blind Oedipus and other blind figures in drama. But Buxton does not dwell on this; rather he picks up and develops some of the play's connections between visibility and language. He points to the play's synaesthetic language linking sight and visibility with knowledge and language, and also, while acknowledging the important visual dimensions of the play, stresses its significant linguistic effects, which continue, if changed, even after Oedipus has blinded himself. In conclusion, Buxton pays attention to the powerful visual dimension in the final physical separation of polluted father/brother and daughters/sisters.

Helene Foley, in "Antigone as Moral Agent," explores the "complex interrelation between female moral capacity and female social roles that conditions, and is articulated in, such choice" (49). Looking at how Antigone's three explanations for her decision to bury her brother differ in regard to their intended audiences, Foley shows how, from this perspective, Antigone's defense of her actions makes more sense and how her much discussed argument on the special reason for burying her brother seems less difficult to match with the Antigone we see elsewhere in the play. She properly emphasizes Antigone's status -- virgin princess of Thebes -- to explain how the audience would plausibly recognize her social status as a factor in her moral choices. Antigone's arguments are not meant as timeless universal standards but rather as ones that make sense for the culturally defined character she is. Foley then shifts her focus to Creon to contrast his beliefs in universal arguments, without attention to emotions or the particulars of the case, with Antigone's. In conclusion, Foley engages Carol Gilligan's now famous discussion of differences in male and female moral judgments. She does not try to force Antigone neatly into Gilligan's paradigm for female moral thinking (she won't fit), but rather suggests that the "critical strategy" offered by Gilligan -- a challenge to the notion that the elite male view is normative -- can produce light for future discussions of choice in Greek tragedy. In his response to Foley's paper, Michael Trapp raises two chief reservations. First, he finds Antigone's "speech" to the chorus (891-928) not so much an attempt at persuasion before a new audience as a lament in the face of the cruelty of her own untimely and unfair death. Secondly, he questions the extent to which one can infer from modern parallels the social obligations for burying a male relative faced by a surviving female character in a fifth-century Athenian drama. In the last section of his paper, Trapp extends Foley's observations about the play's questioning Creon's male and public morality. He suggests that "the Antigone becomes an illustration of how tragedy 'problematizes' not just civic discourse, but moral discourse in general, by revealing the fragility and fallibility of the available 'technologies of preservation' (80).

Euripides' so-called romances -- IT, Ion, Helen, Antiope, etc. -- have invited through the years many interpretative questions over their generic affiliations. Although (or perhaps because) they were produced as tragoidiai, they are hard to pin down. Their tone is often uncertain, shifts in mood are frequent. It is these plays, not Hippolytus or Trojan Women, that more greatly influenced later comedy. In "Shifts of Mood and Concepts of Time in Euripides' Ion," Kevin Lee explores how the different characters' (especially Ion's and Creusa's) differing attitudes about time are connected to some of the drama's shifts in mood. Surveying the play, Lee highlights Ion's rootedness in the present (appropriate for someone whose past is so unknown) and contrasts this with Creusa's constant looking back to the past, when as a young virgin she was raped by Apollo and forced to give up her newborn son. While Apollo, with Hermes' and the priestess' help, is trying to move events forward, Creusa revisits the past, nearly thwarting the god's plans in the process. Lee offers not just a fine discussion of shifting attitudes towards time in this play but an avenue for further explorations along these lines in other plays. Geoffrey Arnott does not reply to Lee's arguments, with which he is in fundamental agreement; instead he focuses on the realism of this play. This realism includes the attention paid to Ion's mundane temple chores and the detailed descriptions of the temple reliefs and the celebratory "birthday party's" tapestry. Arnott draws an interesting suggestion from Euripides' "obsession at times" with realistic details: "If that claim [concerning the realism of many nineteenth-century French novels] holds for Euripides too, his realism may be interpreted partly as a reaction, in late fifth-century Athens, against an obsolescent aristocratic value system, or as an iconoclastic attempt to break down the traditional symbols of myth" (116).

In her essay on the unity of the Oresteia, A. Maria van Erp Taalman Kip's argues that the "true dividing line" in the trilogy runs not, as is typically imagined, between Choephori and Eumenides, but between Agamemnon and Choephori. This is an interesting argument, even if I find it unpersuasive. Central to her enterprise is dismissing potential references to Iphigenia's sacrifice in the second and third plays of the trilogy. It is true that the impressive role given to this pivotal event in the first play is not repeated in the second two, and I would agree with van Erp Taalman Kip that the trilogy refocuses our attention more towards Clytemnestra's wrongdoings. But in a trilogy so remarkable in its rich re-echoing images, it is dangerous to ignore the reminders of the sacrifice. I would also maintain that the sacrifice of Iphigenia, so powerful in its presentation in Agamemnon, never really leaves the audience and forms part of the backdrop of the celebration at the end of Eumenides (a point which, differently articulated, Garvie also makes in his response). In the latter part of her essay, van Erp Taalman Kip engages the larger issue of the "tragic," finding the concept "unmanageable" and the plays themselves too diverse for single categorization. A. S. Garvie's response presents the case for the more commonly held view that the first two plays show a greater connection to each other and it is the third play that moves in different directions. Garvie points to the kindred images found in the first two plays, absent or altered in the third. More fully, he contrasts the morally ambiguous and often doubly determined actions in the first two plays with the more morally clear and simple ones of the third. While I am not convinced that the moral ambiguity vanishes in the third play, I do agree that there is no easy dividing line after the first.

A final set of papers rounds out the first part of this collection. Charles Segal offers a rich and varied discussion of "Catharsis, Audience and Closure in Greek Tragedy." He begins by extending Aristotle's idea of catharsis to the "public participation in the release of emotion in the theatre" (150). He sees catharsis as concerned with emotions especially as manifested in tears, although the emotions might be "clarified" by the intellect. Segal then turns to consider the conclusion of a few plays to see how ritual and closure can involve the audience in this larger public catharsis. In Hippolytus, e.g., he suggests that the concluding choral lamentation, following the establishment of the dying man's cult, seeks to include the spectators. He also notes that in this play and in others there is a tension between the emotional resolution that produces a catharsis and the more intellectual and abstract engagement that works against closure. Segal moves on to interpret Aristotle's theory by suggesting that the "emotions of pity and fear are 'cleansed', that is, purified, made cleaner, in the sense that we feel them vicariously for others" (164). He concludes by considering in this vein the end of Oedipus Tyrannus. P. E. Easterling makes many valuable comments on Segal's paper. Although she finds his working definition of the term "cleansing release" useful, she expresses doubts about the connection of catharsis to feeling vicariously for others (180 n.1). Easterling also observes that shared weeping in a ritual context applies to the ending of relatively few plays and that in the plays both ritual and closure are not always easy to locate precisely. She offers an alternative model, a "model within which these scenes of communal grief can be comfortably accommodated. This is the idea of witnessing, which is always a significant function of a watching audience assembled in one place" (177). The two Oedipus plays, Antigone, Prometheus, and Ajax are considered from this perspective. In passing, Easterling also makes this perhaps obvious, but important, observation: "Indeed, there is much to be said for not separating the different levels of response, as Segal is tempted to do, into 'the living moment of the theatrical experience' and the intellectual reflection on the play as a whole" (178).

The collection's second division of papers begins with Oliver Taplin on "Comedy and Tragedy," not, as he makes plain, a rehash of his 1986 article, but a look at the topic in three different areas -- chorus, gods and closure. In contrast to comic choruses, with their bold and varied members, the tragic choruses, Taplin observes, come from a narrow range of possibilities. "The chorus is thus not unlike the tragic mask, serious but blank, with simple indicators of gender and age, waiting for the tragedy to be witnesses" (194). Gods in comedy tend to be very much human (e.g., Dionysus feels the pain of flogging as much as Xanthias does), while those of tragedy are alien, overwhelming, yet "undeniably 'there'" (Taplin quoting John Gould), driven, typically, to the peripheries of the action. Closure, a concern in many of the collection's pieces, is stickier. Taplin rightly avoids the happy-unhappy polarity and accepts (as a generalization) a distinction based on degree of closure -- comedy tending towards closed, tidy endings, with tragedy leaving things more open-ended. At several points in this essay, Taplin points to Eumenides, with various connections to comedy, as an interesting exception. He and Peter Wilson have published their novel interpretation of the end of this play elsewhere (PCPS 39 [1993] 169-80). Bernard Gredley responds to Taplin's piece with an examination of two plays in particular, Bacchae and Frogs. In a nice phrase, Gredley contrasts Dionysus' "opportunistic flexibility" in Frogs with the rigid purposefulness of tragic gods, which produces a sense of inevitability. Whereas Taplin, opposing John Herington's argument of comic influence on Aeschylus, views the similarities between Eumenides and Old Comedy as the latter's picking up on the former, Gredley prefers to see a period, lasting perhaps several decades, when "tragedy and comedy were less sharply differentiated than might, on the evidence of the plays, have been thought" (209). He concludes by addressing the issue of metatheatricality in these two genres, but takes exception with Taplin's reading of Aeschylus' return to Athens at the end of Frogs as a "metaphoric counter-bid by comedy for civic respectability" (212).

In "Tragedy and Collective Experience," one of the most interesting pieces in the collection, John Gould explores the intriguing question of the role of the chorus in consideration of its frequent "marginal" status. He takes issue with the "Vernant model" of seeing the chorus as the collective representation of the citizen body, and, in light of its marginal status, questions the common privileging of its utterances as an authoritative voice. He argues that the "otherness" of the chorus "resides indeed in its giving collective expression to an experience alternative, even opposed, to that of the 'heroic' figures who most often dominate the world of the play; however, they express, not the values of the polis, but far more often the experience of the excluded, the oppressed, and the vulnerable" (224). Simon Goldhill begins his response by accepting three basic points in Gould's argument -- the criticism of the "Vernant model," the chorus's "social and ritual rooting," and the considerable variety in choral personae -- and then goes on to challenge Gould's central tenet about the chorus not having a special authoritative voice. Near the end of his response, Goldhill offers this formulation: "It is, in short, the tension between authoritative, ritual, mythic utterance and specific, marginal, partial utterance that gives the chorus its special voice in tragedy" (254).

You cannot have a collection on tragedy without some discussion of this genre's connection to Dionysus. Rainier Friedrich offers a critique of finding Dionysus central to the genre in "Everything to Do with Dionysos?," while Richard Seaford replies in "Something to Do with Dionysos." Friedrich seeks to combat four attempts at "reinscribing" Dionysus into tragedy, those of Nietzsche, the "Cambridge School," and structuralist and post-structuralist "correctors." Having waged those battles, he goes on to take the ritual out of drama, arguing against those who view tragedy as in some fundamental sense a ritual (as opposed to a dramatic form derived from a ritual). Although Seaford agrees with Friedrich on the "fetishization" of "anti-structure" in post-modern readings, he has, as is well known from his previously published work, a different view on Dionysus and tragedy. He sees tragedy as inherently Dionysiac and intimately tied-up with sustaining a democratic polis.

The polis returns as a concern in the next three essays, appearing in the title of the first of them, Edith Hall's piece, "Is there a Polis in Aristotle's Poetics?". Hall points to three striking silences in Aristotle's notoriously peculiar treatise on poetry, namely the absence of a discussion of the political nature of tragedy's production; the neglect of the many Athenocentric plays; the "civic-didactic" function of tragedy for its audience, i.e. its citizens. Since, as Hall points out, Aristotle shows his awareness of a civic dimension to tragedy in other of his works, she concludes that this exclusion was the "product, rather, of a more subconscious, intuitive, prefigurative grasp of the cultural requirements of the future and of the directions in which tragedy needed to move" (305).

P. J. Wilson discusses "Tragic Rhetoric: The Use of Tragedy and the Tragic in the Fourth Century." Wilson shows how in the fourth century orators and politicians use fifth-century tragedy as a model for exemplary political behavior (the famous case of Lycurgus quoting in extenso Praxithea's patriotic speech from Euripides' Erechtheus serves as a good example). He points out that, extracted from their original political, cultural and dramatic contexts, speeches and tales from earlier plays could be manipulated to glorify an "ideal" Athens, now lost, and to urge contemporary citizens towards those ideals. Wilson also explores how from the late fifth century on "the line between theatre and politics became increasingly blurred. As a civic space the theatre itself had come to be used for more narrowly 'political' purposes at significant moments" (321).

Stephen Halliwell, in "Plato's Repudiation of the Tragic," begins with an awareness that Aristotle's Poetics had no place for what we might call "the tragic" and instead goes back to Plato for the seeds of an understanding of what we mean by this term. The tragic, in Halliwell's reading and in Unamuno's phrase, includes a "whole conception of life." It recognizes the external contingencies of fate, fortune and the gods, while affirming the source for happiness in the individual's choices for good and evil. In Halliwell's reading of Plato, tragedy seems inimical to philosophy not so much because of the harm it can do but because of the competing -- and pessimistic -- world view it offers.

The third group of papers is, as the editor notes, the most diverse. Three of them present comparative analyses of some aspects of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare -- Robin N. Mitchell-Boyask's "Dramatic Scapegoating: On the Uses and Abuses of Girard and Shakespearean Criticism"; Michael Ewans' "Patterns of Tragedy in Sophokles and Shakespeare"; and Silk's "Tragic Language: The Greek Tragedians and Shakespeare." Mitchell-Boyask offers a modification of Rene Girard's theory of scapegoating, arguing that "because the characters in a play engage our sympathy once they have become scapegoats, the play reveals the reality of victimage" (429). In his discussion he pursues a very sensible "character-in-action" model, which allows for the audience's engagement with the characters' suffering, while at the same time stopping short of inviting full involvement. Ewans begins his essay with a reinterpretation of Hector's words at Iliad 6.489, E)PH\N TA\ PRW=TA GE/NHTAI, which he translates "once it has first taken shape." He finds that this interpretation conforms to both the narrative of the Iliad itself and the common pattern found in earlier tragedy, in which mortals do not simply live out a life determined at birth but are active participants in accepting their lives as they take shape, a shape frequently influenced by the gods and nature. Prophecies and oracles, as in Trachiniae and OT, often offer the mechanism for the characters' realizing the larger patterns to which their lives cohere. Apropos of Oedipus saying to the herdsman, "And I'm on the verge of hearing something terrible; but I must hear" (OT 1170), Ewans remarks that "in that 'must' lies all the force of the tragedy. What Oidipous accepts is not the externally imposed necessity, but a now irresistible human compulsion to know" (445). Among Shakespearean plays, he focuses on Macbeth and Hamlet.

The collection's longest piece (49 pp.) is Silk's; it is also one of the most stimulating. Silk seeks to discuss the nature of tragic language, looking at both Greek and Shakespearean examples. Stylistic elevation and intensity are necessary but not sufficient characteristics of tragic language. Silk concisely asserts that tragedy is "propelled by a small set of irreducible determinants of which three seem to be of special importance: compulsion, excess, and identity. In concrete linguistic terms, tragedy tends to foreground must and too, and the name "(465). From this deceptively simple starting point, he explores many passages in both the Greek and Elizabethan dramas, repeatedly showing how these three foci shape the language of the tragic stage. It is very often the (re)configuration of these determinants that animates the drama.

If mythos is the soul of tragedy, irony must be its lifeblood. Not all tragedies go in for it as heavily as Oedipus Tyrannus, but they all thrive on foregrounding the contrast language creates between and among characters and between characters and audience. Irony is, unsurprisingly, also difficult to define, or perhaps one should say to encompass, so Protean is it. Thomas Rosenmeyer offers a highly literate and at times delightful taxonomy in "Ironies in Serious Drama." He distinguishes four basic categories of irony -- "forensic irony" (the irony of attack and defense), "blind irony" (revealing something without being aware of doing so), "structural irony" (arising not so much from individual characters but from the situation or plot), and "Fiktionsironie" (the irony of skewed orders of reality). Rosenmeyer's discussion is bolstered by a knowledge of literature that few can match. But it is certainly the appendix with nearly eighty types of irony listed, named and elaborated by example that will make this essay memorable. The names are drawn from Greek myth (Apollo, Creon), European literature (Yorick, Rosencrantz), and even contemporary figures (Gregory, after Gregory Vlastos, and Henry, named after a former United States Secretary of State). In his response, "Tragic and Homeric Ironies," N. J. Lowe focuses on Greek material to explore the tragic in ironies. He offers an interesting definition of the tragic: "'the tragic' is the fifth century's reading of Homer, generalized across the entire corpus of myths, concentrated by filtration from diegesis to mimesis, and subsequently fixed by the cultural canonization of fifth-century tragedy itself" (525). He then explores the ways in which the transformation of epic into drama, with the loss of an authoritative narrative voice, creates and invites ironies. The particular example of the multiple layers in the opening of Sophocles' Ajax provides an excellent test case.

Fiona Macintosh expands the scope of the collection in "Tragic Last Words: The Big Speech and the Lament in Ancient Greek and Modern Irish Tragic Drama." The "big speech" is that delivered by a main character facing death. Macintosh sees similarities in the Greek and Irish material in their use of highly stylized thought and language. The remarkable fact of last words in these plays is that they are not remarkable. Death, the great universal, reduces (or perhaps one should say elevates) characters to familiar thoughts and laments. Macintosh suggests that the paradox of tragic pleasure might well be found in the "repetition, recall, and recognition" (423) inherent in such familiar -- even hackneyed -- words in the face of the great weight of death.

Emotion is also the concern of Ismene Lada's "Emotion and Meaning in Tragic Performance." She takes as her starting point Brecht's "epic theater" with the thesis that "although Greek theatre justifies Brecht's conception of the 'Aristotelian' auditorium as a space where 'everyone feels', emotion within the Greek dramatic frame is a privileged way of attaining understanding, self-realization, and socio-cultural self-definition" (398; italics Lada's). The Brechtian dichotomy of emotion and intellection would seem prima facie false, and Lada's discussion, drawing chiefly on metatheatrical references in Frogs, makes clear that in Greek tragedy there is no easy separating the emotions and the intellect. It is Aristotle, not Plato, who better understands both the workings and social value of viewing tragedy.

In addition to the paired essays on Antigone by Foley and Trapp, there is also Emese Mogyorodi's "Tragic Freedom and Fate in Sophocles' Antigone: Notes on the Role of the 'Ancient Evils' in 'the Tragic'." Her focus is very different from the other two, as she is interested in locating the role of the "ancient evils" in Antigone's tragedy. The essence of her view is this: "Antigone's fate is tragic in a decisive sense whose meaning is determined precisely by the way she relates herself to the contingency (the external fatedness) represented by the family doom" (360). While I would not accept quite this formulation, I am in sympathy with the approach. It does away with the "false alternative" of fate vs. free will and makes greater sense out of the way in which the play uses the family's doom as part of the explanation of Antigone's tragic actions. That same doom hovers above Ismene too, but she and her sister are not the same person and respond to the evils in different ways.

Bernd Seidensticker brings together Aristotle's notion of peripeteia and Peter Szondi's "tragic dialectic" to look at Euripides, in "Peripeteia and Tragic Dialectic in Euripidean Tragedy." He interprets Aristotle's definition of peripeteia to mean a switch of "actions [not events] to the contrary" and finds common ground between Aristotle and Szondi to formulate this view of "dialectic:" "any reversal that appears to arise paradoxically, yet naturally and inevitably, out of the nature of the dramatis personae or out of their intentions, plans, or actions" (381). Armed with this definition, Seidensticker looks at two groups of Euripidean dramas. He finds the reversals in Troades, Hecuba, and Heracles not dialectical in that they come from outside causes. The reversals, however, in Medea, Hippolytus, and Bacchae, arise from the internal workings of the characters and their situations. This leads to the general conclusion that Aristotle had in fact more of a sense of a "philosophy of tragedy" than typically conceded by Szondi and many others. While I agree with this conclusion and in general with his observations about the dynamics of the plays he discusses, I think the internal/external distinction between these two sets of plays is less clear -- and less useful -- than Seidensticker maintains.

George Steiner's essay, "Tragedy, Pure and Simple," concludes the volume. Throughout his career Steiner has taken a more global perspective on tragedy, and in this essay he offers that larger view. Larger, but also narrower. Steiner's definition of tragedy (in its "pure or absolute mode") is a "dramatic representation, enactment, or generation of a highly specific world-view ... summarized in the adage ... 'It is best not to be born, next best to die young'" (535-6). Unsurprisingly, very few plays satisfy this definition of tragedy. Among the ones that survive from ancient Greece, Hecuba and Trojan Women come close but only Antigone and Bacchae, it seems, makes the cut. From Shakespeare, King Lear almost makes it but it is Timon of Athens that takes the prize. After that, some of Racine, Büchner's Wozzeck, and some Beckett. While I appreciate this essay's boldness, it is hard to see the value in a definition that is so rigid as to exclude almost all of what the European tradition has accepted as tragedy. Tragedy is not nihilistic, and not even an extremely narrow definition can make it so.

The late Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, earned temporary -- and unfair -- notoriety for saying, apropos of what constitutes pornography, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." The same might be said of the tragic. It is devilishly difficult to propose a definition that will win large acceptance, but we seem to know it when we see (and read) it. This collection offers many stimulating essays on tragedy and, to a smaller extent, the tragic. It will open up and enliven many future discussions.