Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.02

Anne Pippin Burnett, Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998.  Pp. xviii,306.  ISBN 0-520-21096-4.  $42.00.  

Reviewed by John Gibert, University of Colorado at Boulder (
Word count: 3566 words

This is a learned and sophisticated book, written in the elegant and forceful prose students of Greek poetry have come to expect from Anne Pippin Burnett (B.), whose previous books include Catastrophe Survived: Euripides' Plays of Mixed Reversal (Oxford, 1971), Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (Harvard, 1983), and The Art of Bacchylides (Harvard, 1985). The work under review originated as the 1994 Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley. B. states her provocative thesis clearly in the Preface: "Revenge was not suited to the purposes of Attic tragedy (though it made good satyr-drama), and yet its characteristic passion -- anger -- cried out for poet and actor, while its plots and deceptions and disguises invited a kind of metatheater. The Attic dramatists could not resist, and as they applied a tragic sensibility to this essentially reassuring and secular fiction, they contrived certain disruptive dodges that have persisted through the intervening centuries of Western drama. Revenges that failed or were interrupted made their appearance, as did ghosts, commanding divinities, skewed ceremonies, and female agents who took the place of males. In addition, motifs such as kin-killing, madness, incest, cannibalism, and dismemberment were attached to the justice-bringing tale by way of disorderly decoration. These have made the theater of revenge what it is, but this very continuity of superficial generic characteristics has masked an ethical and moral breach between the Attic revenge plays and those more familiar to moderns. In later contexts, Stoic or Christian, these baroque structures and distorted embellishments served to label all revenge as unnatural and morally perverse. In Athens, on the other hand, they had a precisely opposite function, for there they brought the necessary taste of Dionysiac dissolution and terror to a fictional action that was ordinarily considered just and admirable" (xvii-xviii).

The title could mislead: eight of the book's ten chapters are devoted to interpreting nine surviving plays and one lost play composed in the fifth century B.C.E. by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Two preliminary chapters lay a foundation for these readings. In the first, which contains the only detailed discussion of later tragedy (including nine pages on Seneca's Thyestes), B. considers the influence of Greek philosophy and Christianity on the notions of revenge that lie behind Senecan tragedy and (mainly English) Renaissance drama, respectively. She urges us not to bring to the study of Attic tragedy moral attitudes that would not have been shared by Greeks of the classical period. In the second chapter, she looks to archaic poetry (the Odyssey and Pindar) and Athenian society (the law-courts and the mythology of the tyrannicides) as sources of attitudes toward revenge current in the time of the three great tragedians. She concludes that the return of evil for evil was not only accepted as the right thing to do but was in effect celebrated as a founding and regulatory principle of order at all levels of the universe.

B. next sketches an avowedly imaginative theory of the origins of Greek tragedy in an effort to establish that its original audience expected it to plumb the depths of chaos, anarchy, and inversion. That audience typically came away, she argues, not with "fresh information or altered ethical standards," but having "vicariously experienced the impermanence of all social structures and the baleful vigor of unsocialized man" (72). B. now describes the essential problem of dramatizing revenge in a Greek tragedy: it required that an essentially moral and orderly event be located in a context in which disorder and disruption were necessary to the genre's proper effects. She demonstrates that revenge posed no problem for, indeed suited perfectly, the emotional demands of satyr play, and she illustrates this through a study of Euripides' Cyclops. She follows this with a section on Sophocles' Ajax, to which I shall return.

In the rest of the book, B. discusses all the surviving Greek plays one would expect to find in a comprehensive study of Attic revenge tragedy (punishment by a god being assigned to a different category). First come Aeschylus' Choephoroe and Sophocles' Electra (chapters 4 and 5). B. argues that despite the advantage of divided loyalties built into it, the Orestes myth is beset with dramaturgical problems to which the poets found creative solutions. The two plays treated in chapter 6, Euripides' Children of Heracles and Hecuba, partly illustrate the main thesis, in that the miscasting of old women in the active male role of revenger brings irregularity to the plot, but B. adds that "neither of their retaliations could have stood alone as the single praxis of a tragedy because both were not only crudely just but also emotionally easy to perform" (177). This chapter thus prepares for the ones on Sophocles' Tereus and Euripides' Medea, which mark a climax of what B. calls chaos attacking the innate stability of the vengeance plot, because in them a mother defies her own maternity to wreak revenge. The final two chapters, on Euripides' Electra and Orestes, introduce a kind of decadence. Revenge was still a basically heroic action, but the old dramaturgical problem, that it was "too orderly and too close to justice for the Dionysiac purpose," gave way to a new one as war-time changes in Athenian society caused it to become "too banal in its evident disruptiveness" (226).

Such is B.'s project in outline. Her readings of individual plays are wide-ranging and intelligent; though they inevitably contain much to disagree with, they always repay close study. B. has an enviable command of the entire corpus of Greek literature; in particular, few writers on Greek tragedy draw on archaic lyric poetry as effectively as she does. She has also done rather more than she did in Catastrophe Survived to situate her readings firmly in the social context of fifth-century Athens. Throughout the book, she provides thoroughly documented surveys of Greek beliefs concerning such things as oaths, curses, sacrifice, and marriage. These, however, are for the most part uncontroversial, unlike her uncompromising position on the morality of revenge.

B. is hardly the first scholar to caution against imposing Stoic, Christian, or contemporary liberal values on ancient Greek texts. While it is true that the influence of doctrines that "label all revenge as unnatural and morally perverse" has been great and often pernicious, it is a considerable exaggeration to suggest that such a view represents the unquestioned consensus among classical scholars. B.'s work was well advanced before she could consult Judith Mossman's Wild Justice: A Study of Euripides' Hecuba (with which she generally agrees), but similar voices have been heard before. Related ethical issues have been examined with all the sensitivity and rigor one could want, for example by Mary Whitlock Blundell in Helping Friends and Harming Enemies and by Douglas Cairns in Aidos. Blundell and Cairns, however, see ethical complexity as a characteristic, deliberately sought effect of the tragic genre. Similarly Mossman, who is generally sympathetic to Hecuba despite some qualms about the blinding of Polymestor (as opposed to the expected and just, if severe, killing of his children): "My feeling is that we should not expect to be able to give our total approbation or condemnation to the actions of a major tragic heroine like Hecuba: if we think we can we are probably over-simplifying the case" (203). B., by contrast, refuses to discuss shades of morality, with one interesting exception to be discussed shortly. Her interest is all in the dramatic economy of emotions and (other) effects.

There is an irony here. The interpretations of Catastrophe Survived, like those of the present book, start from dramaturgical problems said to inhere in certain plot types. The method was and is fruitful, but many critics felt that in the 1971 book B. got the morality and theodicy wrong. For example, she held the deaths of Megara and her children in Euripides' Heracles to be largely deserved because Megara's abandonment of her place of refuge at Zeus' altar showed a lack of faith. The punishment seems out of all proportion to the offense, and critics declared the belief that god punishes lack of faith un-Greek. Comparable objections can be made to her stern judgment of Creusa in Ion and others. This time, B. has been careful to locate her view of revenge within influential Greek traditions. The question now is whether she exaggerates their influence and ignores evidence of a wider range of sentiment.

B. herself was more receptive to the view she now rejects in her 1973 article "Medea and the Tragedy of Revenge" (CP 68, 1973, 1-24). Here, as in Catastrophe Survived, she identifies human vengeance as the material "for one of the six favorite plots of Attic tragedy" (1). But she discerns two difficulties in dramatizing it in its simple form. First a moral one, that "the deed that is publicly forbidden is publicly performed," and second a dramaturgical one, that the passive victim rather than the active protagonist undergoes reversal. For these and other reasons, the simple vengeance plot became "paradoxically both too criminal and too just to engage a sophisticated sympathy" (2). When B. repeatedly described the revenger as a kind of criminal, she did not mean that laws prohibiting private vengeance were out of step with what people really felt about revenge. On the contrary, she made clear her belief that revenge had become a moral problem for a refined fifth-century audience, and further that one of the ways tragic poets satisfied sophisticated theatrical taste was by drawing even greater attention to this problem, for example by giving a "dubious ethical quality" to the revenger. (Contrast Revenge 33: "what is missing in the Greek plays is the sense of criminal error.") Another (obvious) possibility was to dramatize revenge against a kinsman, for "then the conditions making for difficulty in decision were admirably present, since the deed was simultaneously demanded and countermanded by the very same code" (5). This remains true in Revenge, except that whereas "code" suggests ethics, B. now writes that Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra in Choephoroe, for example, "must remain viscerally appalling, while it is yet in this particular instance not ethically repellent" (111).

B. did not apply her observations about morality to Medea, for she held that in this play Euripides shocks us "by seeming to turn his back upon all of these elegant mitigations and embracing the rudeness of a simple archaic revenge" (9). He made this palatable to the audience of 431, she argued, in two ways: by "giving the world of his stage an ugly and formless depravity, so that specific crimes of repayment can suggest order and even beauty in their dread appropriateness to such a society" (23); and by seeing fit "to provide a punishment for his agent of punishment" (because killing her children punishes Medea herself as much as Jason). The twin conclusions that Medea represents "order and even beauty" and that it is fitting that the one who punishes is punished conflict with the view B. now holds of Dionysiac disorder as the goal of tragedy and of the revenger as deserving no punishment qua revenger. So B. says nothing of her earlier interpretation of this play, either in chapter 8 (where, as we have seen, Medea marks a climax before the decadence of Electra and Orestes) or in her appendix on Medea's monologue. (There is an insignificant citation in the Preface.)

It is no criticism to observe that B. has arrived at an interpretation of Medea different from one she proposed over 25 years ago.1 Yet in other ways I found the chapter on this play perhaps the least satisfying of the book. B. tilts at a straw man, a supposed consensus that Medea is motivated exclusively by sexual jealousy and that "the dramatic action is not so much tragic as melodramatic" (194). I came away sure of only one major point in her own argument, namely that the right of seeking revenge on Jason is opposed by the wrong of doing it through her children. No one could disagree with that, and it is compatible with B.'s own earlier view, except that she now speaks of order and disorder rather than right and wrong and has dropped the conclusions about "order and even beauty" and punishment.

In general, B.'s earlier "elegant mitigations" strongly resemble what she now calls "disorderly decorations," except of course that moral ambivalence is no longer among them. She deals harshly with scholars who argue for such ambivalence in certain cases of non-familial revenge, for example Alcmena's revenge on Eurystheus against the wishes of her Athenian benefactors in Euripides' Children of Heracles, Hecuba's horrific revenge on Polymestor after persuading Agamemnon not to interfere by appealing to his gratitude for the enjoyment of Cassandra's sexual favors in Euripides' Hecuba, and Orestes' revenge on Aegisthus in the midst of a sacrificial ritual in Euripides' Electra. She assumes, unfairly I think, that such views are motivated solely by moral attitudes derived from later philosophy and Christianity. But even if that were true, if B. is wrong about revenge and it was possible for Greeks to doubt its righteousness in certain instances, scholars are right to look for such effects according to her own demand for Dionysiac disorder.

Ajax, the first Greek tragedy B. discusses, is a kind of test case which "displays the extreme measures needed if a justice-bearing return upon an injurious enemy was to be rendered awesome and disorderly" (80). The play has seemed to many critics to have an archaic flavor, not least perhaps because of attitudes some of its characters hold towards revenge. But recall that B. is not mining the text for ethical attitudes; she is studying the emotional economy of whole plays that dramatize revenge. Ajax would seem to be unpromising material for this purpose since his vengeance was, as B. says, "traditionally ill-conceived and unsuccessful" (80). She continues, "The poet well understands, however, that the divinely authored collapse of an unjust revenge would be just as orderly and promising, just as little able to disturb and confound an audience, as the success of its opposite" (80). B.'s solution to this peculiar version of the dramaturgical problem of revenge is complicated indeed. To begin with, Sophocles achieves some of the required Dionysiac disorder by "motifs of guaranteed chaos-value -- madness, mayhem, suicide -- and these he exploits by actually putting them on stage" (80). Beyond that, his strategy is to cause "confusion to undermine even the initial negations, so that the hero's failure is after all not absolute, the scheme's injustice is qualified, and the inimical divinity is replaced by imponderable daimonic allies of another sort. Evaluations are proposed and discarded, events are viewed from several standpoints, and ambivalence invades every part of the hero's disastrous retaliation. Then, when the audience has been rendered incapable of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction, an alternate revenge, strangely conceived and dubiously successful, is substituted for the initial attempt, and the drama comes to its end with a celebration of a heroic rage that cannot be classified either as legitimate or as illegitimate and that was after all not quite misspent" (80). By "imponderable daimonic allies of another sort" B. means the forces invoked in the hero's withering curse of the Atreidai in his last speech, which contributes to the "alternate revenge, strangely conceived and dubiously successful." For B., it is important that Ajax' death is not merely retrospective, the necessary but "denigrating and repudiating reflection upon the earlier revenge attempt" (85). Rather, it is the hero's only chosen action, and ennobling. And because of this the curse can transform the death into a renewed revenge (86), one that is now better suited to tragedy.

Two strands of this complex argument are revealing. First, B. deploys moral ambivalence in just this one case. The justice-bearing aspect of just revenge is for her so powerful that it qualifies even the injustice of Ajax' attack: she is more willing to see him as partly justified than, say, Orestes as partly unjustified. What she writes here of evaluations proposed and discarded, multiple standpoints, and so on is as atypical of her as it is typical of most critical discourse on ethics in literature. Second, while many critics have tried to find something ennobling in Ajax' deception speech and in his suicide precisely as a kind of repudiation or propitiation, B. insists that the curse, which they ignore or play down, is fatal to all such readings. She therefore dispenses with the deception speech, a typical avenger's scheme, as briefly as possible, lavishes attention (8 pages of it) on the curse, and argues that the latter is the key to understanding Ajax' after all not entirely unsuccessful revenge.

In ways like this, B. is often refreshingly original, if not entirely convincing. Where she sometimes seems to me to become quite arbitrary is in her precise calculations of emotional effects. I will give two examples. In her chapter on Sophocles' Electra, B. first argues that Electra's inactive passion has to be united with Orestes' passionless readiness to act on the Delphic imperative. This original split followed by union (which takes place in the urn scene, well described by B. over several pages) is "the play's solution to the central dramaturgical problems of the Orestes tale" (127). But she believes that Electra's and Orestes' revenge, because it is motivated only by the original crime which it exactly matches, ends in success, cleanses rather than pollutes, and is morally orderly. She writes, "Anyone who looks squarely at this text will find a unified drama wherein the quality of high tragedy is threatened only by a strong promise of imminent order" (139). The "patriarchal ethos of the Odyssey version" of Orestes' revenge is maintained by "two adroit checks upon the overwhelming horror of the matricide," namely Apollo's command and the impression that Orestes, once reunited with Electra, acts more from grief and love than from anger and vindictiveness. Yet these checks are in turn balanced by the obligatory disorderly effects, "two unquenchable sources of unease" that keep Sophocles from falling into "antitragic complacency": a horrifying Electra (whom B. calls "absurd, monstrous, uncanny, useless ... herself a glimpse of chaos," 141) and the Delphic sponsor Apollo, who is "doubly and abysmally disturbing."

In this play, then, dramaturgical problems lead to checks whose dangers are offset by sources of unease. B.'s analysis of Sophocles' lost Tereus is similar. The play told the tale of the Athenian princess Procne, her Thracian husband Tereus, and Procne's sister Philomela, who was first raped and then maimed by Tereus. Philomela communicated her sufferings to her sister in a weaving, and Procne exacted her revenge by first killing the sons she had borne Tereus and then cooking them and serving them to their father. There is plenty of chaos here to attack the innate stability of the revenge plot, and since we have only very scanty fragments to combine with the one or possibly two bare plot summaries that survive, one wonders how B. will say more than that here is another story much like Medea's, with a more savage initial crime and a correspondingly more savage return. She begins in the familiar fashion by detecting two dangers in dramatizing this story. They are (183) the tale's "naive horror" (the cutting out of Philomela's tongue) and its "too wondrous resolution" (the transformation of the principals into birds). Horror, then, if it is naive, does not provide guaranteed chaos-value -- or perhaps it is a case of too much of a good thing. In any event, the solution B. finds is that "the maiming of Philomela ... paradoxically resulted in a work of art [the weaving] around which Sophocles made his tragedy" (187). She attaches considerable importance to this; at the very end of the chapter, she writes that the emotions that drove Procne to her terrible revenge were "detached and pure because they were inspired by a work of art" (191). Meanwhile, the danger of the "too wondrous resolution" is counteracted by cannibalism, in this myth a "motif of choice, which means that it must have been the source of important tragic effects" (187). The effects are "disgust and revulsion ... but also awe"; because Tereus gains a "colossal negative stature," he can compel the attention of the gods and be transformed (189). Thus physical cruelty is balanced by art, metamorphosis by cannibalism, and B. contends that it is only this combination that enabled the play to produce the effects proper to tragedy.

If Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy does not achieve the influence of Catastrophe Survived, it will not, I think, be because the kind of formal analysis B. practices so well has outlived its usefulness, but because the revenge plays, for all their richness of texture, often seem to lack the problems the method is best able to solve. The plays of mixed reversal are bewilderingly varied in action and bedeviling in their tone. B.'s perceptive analyses against a background of plot typology remain enormously helpful. Some of her readings of the comparatively simple revenge plays are just too subtle to depend on this method alone. Moreover, some of the complexity follows from her insistence, which I find finally unconvincing, that fifth-century Greeks saw almost all revenge as just and admirable. Still, anyone who reads this book will profit from it, as the author brings erudition and keen insight to countless individual issues in several of the most important Greek tragedies.


1.   Catastrophe Survived offers a third view in nuce. While B. there identified the same two problems as belonging to the revenge action, she wrote that Medea solves the second one, that "of making the unchanged agent more interesting than the victim" (9 n. 8). She called the solution "demonization of the principal" and added that it was "also used in the final action of the Hecuba," a view she now strongly opposes.

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