Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.16

Hanna M. Roisman, Nothing Is As It Seems: The Tragedy of the Implicit in Euripides' Hippolytus.   Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.  Pp. xvi, 211.  ISBN 0-8476-9093-8.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Leah Himmelhoch, Wesleyan University (
Word count: 2428 words

This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield's Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches series (edited by Gregory Nagy), dedicated to encouraging both the cross-over between established disciplines within the Classics, and new approaches to Classical topics. True to this series' aim, R(oisman) presents a novel analysis of Euripides' Hippolytus. Drawing evidence from modern theatrical practice, ancient rhetorical treatises, and intertextual analysis, R. proposes that an implicit rhetorical style, i.e., deceptive or manipulative speech, could be common in Euripidean discourse. Specifically, R. suggests that Phaedra is not a devoted wife who, compelled by Aphrodite to experience an unwanted desire, suicides when her attempts to silence and restrain this desire unravel. Instead, R. reads Phaedra as "a master rhetorician ... who, through the manipulation of language, tricks the Nurse into trying to help her seduce the youth she desires" (xiii). R. further argues that the events leading to Hippolytus' death, especially Phaedra's duplicity and Theseus' irrational decision to banish and curse the innocent Hippolytus, militate against the Aristotelian concept of the tragic flaw. Finally, R. proposes that Euripides' Hippolytus can be read as a demonstration of the futility of reason before irrational forces, and a commentary on the Periclean citizenship law. R.'s analysis offers a refreshing argument against strictly positivist, explicit readings of Greek tragedy. R.'s more interesting points are often obscured, however, by significant methodological problems.

I open with a summary of R.'s unusual argument. A discussion of R.'s work follows. The book is 8 chapters long, including the Introduction (chapter titles, below), targeting a broad, (college) educated audience. Nagy's foreword and R.'s preface report that R.'s interpretive strategy stems from modern theatrical practice. When modern actors prepare their parts, they first identify the character's motivations, then determine how the character's dialogue promotes and conforms to these motivations. Although it cannot be verified whether this practice approximates the ancient actor's practice (nor does R. address this issue), nevertheless, the absence of information suggests it is worth testing the premise in a Classical context.

The Introduction: R. plans to demonstrate that Euripides intended his audience to understand the play's events by interpreting the disparity between a character's on-stage actions and motivations (tragic discourse), and those reported for the character in the external mythological tradition. That is, Euripides created gaps between his story and its external tradition to signal a tragic character's self-serving, sometimes deceptive, verbal maneuvering. This dialectic constitutes the play's implicit meaning. To support this rhetorically sensitive approach, R. appeals to Aristotle's Poetics and the critics viewing tragic dialogue as a largely rhetorical exercise1 (although, unlike these critics, who believe tragic discourse does not reveal a character's inner make-up, R. believes the playwright uses rhetoric to maintain verisimilitude, and consistency of character and plot). R. does not ascribe to any one methodology.

In Chapter 1: "The Old Phaedra", R. lays the groundwork for an implicit reading. Since Vellacott, many have argued that Euripides caters to different levels of audience understanding.2 Hence, critics grant that Euripidean texts possibly invite the audience to use its own, external knowledge to interpret on-stage events. R. suggests, however, that Euripides' plays may demand a broader application of this strategy. Aristotle's Poetics (1456a34-35) reports that dianoia, tragic thought, or discourse, is a rhetorical subject. R. therefore examines the evidence concerning ancient rhetorical preferences. The art of compact expression and allusion dates back to Homer and is common in Greek literature. Moreover, Demetrius of Phalerum and Quintilian demonstrate that ancient audiences preferred an "aesthetic of the implicit" (p. 2), i.e., deceptive, or indirect speech, in their rhetorical displays. A deceptive style was especially recommended when the speaker's aims were unsafe, or unacceptable.3 R. next submits that the Hippolytus' rhetorical style is deceptive: Critics have noted that Aphrodite's prologue does not predict the play's events with complete accuracy. The incongruity is explained, however, if we treat Aphrodite's speech as a self-serving justification of her actions. To recognize Aphrodite's self-promoting style, then, is to acknowledge the play's use of implicit strategies. R. next summarizes the external tradition to be used as the play's touch-stone. Outside sources regularly portray Phaedra as a lustful, deceitful woman, Hippolytus as an innocent victim, and Theseus as a philandering, uncaring husband. Additionally, R. argues that the Hippolytus pursues an implicit dialectic with the Hippolytus Veiled, Euripides' first treatment of the myth. R. proposes a new reconstruction of the first play: The scandal surrounding the first Phaedra would not have resulted from her assertive sexuality alone (other tragic women have been overtly sexual without scandal), but it could have arisen if she also encouraged Hippolytus to seize power by killing Theseus. (R., then, treats the external tradition as the second Phaedra's ethos, character, and her dianoia, on-stage discourse, as deceptive rhetorical display).

In Chapter 2: "Chastity and Purity", R. discusses Hippolytus' opening prayer to Artemis and later misogynistic tirade. Dismissing Aphrodite's negative portrayal of Hippolytus as slanderous, R. claims he is neither averse to sex and marriage, nor completely misogynistic. The latent sexuality evident in Hippolytus' opening prayer betrays a healthy sexual interest in Artemis, with whom he might have sex were she to materialize. Furthermore, during his misogynistic tirade, Hippolytus concedes an interest in marriage, just not with someone like Phaedra (vv. 640-41, And I hate a clever woman: not in my house may there be one with more thoughts than a woman should have4). Invoking external portrayals of lustful women, R. compares Phaedra to Hesiod's Pandora and Semonides' Drone Woman, then contrasts all three to Semonides' chaste, virtuous Bee Woman. That Hippolytus names the spring bee as the only other creature to enter Artemis' inviolate meadow (vv. 76-77) reflects his interest in marrying a woman akin to the Semonidean Bee Woman. Hippolytus' rant in 640-67, then, targets only scandalous women like Phaedra, not all women.

In Chapter 3: "Phaedra and the Nurse", R. performs a close (implicit) reading of Phaedra's delirium and initial interaction with the Nurse (vv. 176-361). R. claims that Phaedra's delirium is faked, and that her alleged ramblings are calculated to make her seem virtuous to her on-stage audience, even as they herd the Nurse into procuring Hippolytus on Phaedra's behalf. The Nurse, on the other hand, is a literal-minded, devoted servant who is unwittingly manipulated by Phaedra.

In Chapter 4: "The Meaning of Words", R. contends that, after the Chorus rebukes Phaedra for revealing her desire (vv. 362-72), Phaedra's confession, description of her failure to conceal or restrain her lust, and resolution to die (vv. 373-481), are ploys to earn the Chorus' sympathy, and spur the Nurse to action. The Nurse responds as planned, suggesting a love-charm in reaction to Phaedra's earlier, subtle introduction of the word pharmakon (vv. 388-90). Phaedra miscalculates, however, when she warns the Nurse not to divulge anything to Hippolytus. The dim Nurse, uncomfortable with the love-charm's indirect style, latches onto the idea of direct communication and approaches Hippolytus. Hippolytus' scathing outburst (which R. suggests is indirectly aimed at Phaedra, who is visible to Hippolytus), combined with the uncertainty whether he will reveal Phaedra's secret, corners Phaedra: to maintain her virtuous facade before the Chorus, she must keep her false promise of suicide. Meanwhile, the Chorus, unconvinced by Phaedra's ploys, distances itself from her and sympathizes with Hippolytus.

In Chapter 5: "Abuse of Eloquence", R. argues that Hippolytus' rejection of the Nurse's proposition (i.e., his indirect rejection of Phaedra), responds to the Hippolytus Veiled's parallel scene, wherein Phaedra directly propositions Hippolytus, who directly rejects her. "Hippolytus' rejection of the Nurse's forthright approach reflects the preference of the [Hippolytus] for the language of the implicit" (p. 112). Hippolytus' vicious misogynistic rant is reasonable given the context and does not indicate a "toughening" (p. 113) of his second characterization. Phaedra's true perfidy, however, fully surfaces when she unfairly blames the Nurse for approaching Hippolytus, and falsely accuses Hippolytus. The Chorus' refusal to prevent Phaedra's suicide, combined with their dithering inactivity when a servant shouts for help, proves their lack of sympathy for Phaedra, and is not the result of dramatic convention. They only express concern for Hippolytus.

In Chapter 6: "The Athenian Hero and His Son", R. discusses Theseus' characterization. Contrasting Theseus' lament over Phaedra with the dirges of Briseis and Achilles over Patroclus in the Iliad, and paralleling it to Admetus' unconvincing grief in Euripides' Alcestis, R. concludes that Theseus is an uncaring, self-centered, image-conscious politician. Theseus' selfishness and insecurity about his own legitimacy (as suggested by the prologue's mention of the Pallantids), motivate his quick-tempered curse against Hippolytus. That the innocent Hippolytus' rhetorically skilled defense cannot protect him from Theseus' hypocritical bias highlights the play's on-going conflict between reality and seeming and reflects poorly on the Periclean citizenship law. The unfairness of Hippolytus' demise is underscored by Artemis' belated, callous revelation of his innocence, and her willingness to perpetuate an immortal spat at mortal expense. Theseus' subsequent remorse only focuses upon obtaining absolution, whereas Hippolytus absolves Theseus out of obedience to Artemis, not out of filial love. As the play ends, only Hippolytus is free of guilt. Even the Chorus, which refused to help Phaedra or Hippolytus, is guilty.

In Chapter 7: "The Tragic", R. names Hippolytus the tragedy's hero. Yet, Hippolytus' suffering does not result from any personal hamartia, flaw, or mistake: Hippolytus' arrogant asceticism does not cause his death, nor does his rejection of Aphrodite mark him as impious, since "the play illustrates this rejection through Hippolytus' refusal of his step-mother's illicit overtures" (p. 169), which is not an immoral choice. Hippolytus was damned whether he accepted or refused. Unlike Sophocles' or Aeschylus' heroes, Euripides' heroes in his Alcestis, Bacchae, Ion, Electra, and Hippolytus, make no real choices, but suffer because of their situations. "Hippolytus' death symbolizes the powerlessness of the rational before the irrational.... If the wildness that Hippolytus loved symbolizes the irrational and the ungoverned, it is this that kills him. In his struggle to maintain chastity and attain sophrosyne, Hippolytus is the epitome of civilization and tameness.... Hippolytus is killed by what he opposes and tried to repress" (pp. 171-72). Hippolytus' bastard status contributes to his deadly situation, since it makes his claims to virtue ring false to Theseus. R. contrasts the characterization of Euripides' Hippolytus with Seneca's hypocritical Hippolytus to support reading Euripides' character as a virtuous youth. Euripides' Hippolytus was produced shortly after Pericles' death, as his citizenship law was under debate, and offers two readings: 1) for the law's detractors, it demonstrates the civic worth of a supposedly illegitimate individual; and, 2) for the law's supporters, it shows the deserved punishment of an over-reaching, pretentious bastard. Such ambiguity makes the Hippolytus a great play.

DISCUSSION: R. makes many perceptive observations concerning the Hippolytus' ambiguous characterizations, yet these observations become entangled in unverifiable conclusions, due to problematic methodological assumptions (outlined in the Introduction and Chapter 1), and some unjustified intertextual analyses (especially in Chapter 2's discussion of Hippolytus). R.'s argument is further weakened by both the noticeable absence of work on ancient culture (e.g., gender and sexuality, gender and language, and coming-of-age), and the lack of any discussion about the play's concluding marriage-cult aetiology -- material immediately relevant to the analysis.

To begin, R. never successfully establishes the existence of an implicit dialectic. True, Vellacott posits multiple levels of audience understanding. Yet, even so, Vellacott still locates the source of the play's meaning within the text whereas R. locates it entirely outside the text, somewhere between the play and the audience's (assumed) knowledge. Even if we accept R.'s implicit dialectic, however, that we do not know the complete external tradition R. invokes complicates matters. R.'s reconstructions of the mythological tradition and the Hippolytus Veiled cannot be treated as the external tradition's final word (assuming it could be distilled into one touchstone version). Moreover, given that reconstructing an interpretation depends upon knowing the interpreter's personal and cultural framework, recreating an ancient audience member's implicit reading is risky, especially since R. omits cultural material. R.'s argument for Euripides' deceptive rhetorical strategy is also problematic. I am unconvinced by arguments using Aristotle's Poetics as a prescriptive tool for analyzing 5th century tragedy because of the Poetics' later date and conformity with Aristotle's philosophical agenda (a misgiving also underlying my concerns about R.'s concluding discussion on hamartia). But, even if we concede R.'s rhetorical starting point (tragedy is largely a speech-act, after all), Demetrius (4th c. B.C.E.) and Quintilian (1st c. C.E.), are not contemporaneous with, or culturally identical to, each other, let alone 5th c. Attic tragedy. Besides, the interpretation of a deceptive speech demands both the certainty/justifiable probability that the speaker is being deceptive, and a (reliable) method of ascertaining the speaker's genuine motivations. R. fulfills neither of these stipulations: No internal evidence in the Hippolytus marks Phaedra as deliberately deceptive, nor does any direct external evidence; and, R. never explains why we should accept an ill-defined external tradition as Phaedra's genuine motivation. R. might object that deceptive styles are, by definition, hidden, and that external evidence never directly reveals them; rather, the audience connects the dots for the implicit message (p. 4). But without the initial substantiation of a deceptive strategy's presence, the defense that an implicit reading resides in the audience is solipsistic. R.'s reading needs some textual corroboration beyond simple textual ambiguity. Recognizing Aphrodite's prologue as self-serving does not negate her portrayal of Phaedra (bias can filter facts without reversing them), any more than noting ambiguous, potentially manipulative elements in Phaedra's delirium proves calculated deceit (the compulsion to express/possess something one struggles to conceal/reject would produce conflicting signals). Likewise, R. assumes a pious Hippolytus despite his express rejection of Aphrodite and her worship in vv. 88-120 (a scene R. never addresses) and a bride-hunting Hippolytus from two ambiguous lines in a lengthy misogynistic rant and the unexplained certainty that the bee of Artemis' meadow refers to Semonides' Bee Woman, i.e., Hippolytus' ideal wife. Certainly, Hippolytus does not deserve his horrible end. Yet, R.'s neglect of cultural studies conceals the threat behind Hippolytus' behavior: Hippolytus' aggressive chastity, matronymic, and devotion to outdoor pursuits mark him as a male Amazon diametrically opposed to civilization, even as they betray a recalcitrant immaturity in direct contradiction with polis values. R.'s black-and-white treatment of the Nurse and Chorus also presupposes Phaedra's guilt and Hippolytus' innocence. Only R.'s assessment of Theseus, which reasonably relates internal evidence to intertextual parallels, seems supportable. R.'s circular methodology, which, ironically, ultimately leeches the characters of complexity in its attempt to reveal subtlety of characterization, permeates and undermines the book's conclusions, distracting us from R.'s interesting exploration of how the Hippolytus' rhetoric lends its characters verisimilitude and ambiguity.


1.   Especially Dale, A. M. 1969. "Ethos and Dianoia." Collected Papers. Cambridge. 139-155, and "Creation of Dramatic Characters." Collected Papers. Cambridge. 272-280; Gould, J. 1978. "Dramatic Character in Greek Tragedy." PCPS 24: 43-67.
2.   Vellacott, P. 1975. Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides' Method and Meaning. Cambridge.
3.   For more on this argument, see Ahl, F. 1984. "The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome." AJP 105:2: 174-208, and Ahl, F. & Roisman, H. 1996. The Odyssey Re-Formed. Ithaca and London. 10-16.
4.   Halleran, M. R. 1995. Euripides Hippolytus. (Warminster) 97. Roisman does not use Halleran here, and the decision to use his translation is my own. Roisman only gives line numbers for vv. 640-41.

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