Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.42

Markus Dubischar, Die Agonszenen bei Euripides: Untersuchungen zu ausgewählten Dramen.   Stuttgart and Weimar:  J. B. Metzler Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 455.  ISBN 3-476-45259-X.  EUR 34.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by William Allan, Harvard University (

In this book, a revised version of his 1999 Greifswald dissertation, Markus Dubischar [D.] offers the most detailed study to date of agon-scenes in Euripides. Since, with the exception of Iphigenia in Tauris, each of Euripides' eighteen surviving plays contains at least one agon, a new assessment of this distinctively Euripidean form is welcome. D.'s study is rigorously focused on the texts and more systematic than any previous treatment of the topic. He provides a full annotated catalogue of all Euripidean agon-scenes, and also proposes a new typology of the agon itself: whereas previous treatments have tended to focus on such issues as the number and identity of the speakers (e.g. is there a third figure present to act as judge?), or the location of the agon (e.g. does it take place at an altar?), D.'s three-fold division of Abrechnungsagon ('agon of reckoning'), Beratungsagon ('agon of consultation'), and Hikesieagon ('agon of supplication') is based reasonably on the character and purpose of the arguments themselves.

First, a broad outline. The book consists of two parts: Part 1 (Chapters 1-3) presents an overview of previous scholarship (23-43), a new definition of what constitutes an agon-scene and its different types (44-65), and finally a catalogue of all extant agons (66-82). Part 2 (Chapters 4-8) makes up the bulk of the book and focuses on the eight agons (Alc. 614-740, Med. 446-626, El. 998-1146, Hec. 1109-1292, Tro. 860-1059, Phoen. 446-527, IA 303-414a, Hipp. 902-1101) which D. attributes to the category 'agons of reckoning' (Abrechnungsagone). D. ends (385-415) by summarizing his conclusions. Besides the list of works cited, there is a full Index Locorum (435-55).

Now to the individual chapters. D.'s opening discussion of previous work on Euripides' agon-scenes (Chapter 1) not only demonstrates the originality of his own approach, but also shows how scholars of the past two centuries have variously reacted to the marked rhetorical sophistication of the plays, from nineteenth-century views of Euripides as an uncritical follower of sophistic rhetorical techniques to more nuanced treatments of Euripidean rhetoric in the last fifty years, especially in the studies of Duchemin, Conacher, Lloyd, and Scodel.1 Moving from rhetoric to dramatic technique, D. follows the example of Strohm and Collard and repudiates the charge that the agon format is a sign of a schematic drama-by-numbers method.2 On the contrary, as D.'s own work shows, the agon-scenes display great variation both in their structure and in their significance for the interpretation of the play as a whole.

How many agon-scenes are there? Obviously, it depends how one defines an agon. With a broad definition, Duchemin counts 26 agon-scenes; with a narrower one, Lloyd counts only 13. In his second chapter D. proposes a very broad definition indeed (53-5): an agon is a scene dominated by two parties whose speeches articulate their opposing viewpoints; the scene consists of competing speeches with choral comments, while the introduction and conclusion of the scene are built up from smaller speeches, stichomythia, distichomythia, and antilabe. Using this definition, whose essential and characteristic feature is the opposition of two substantial speeches, D. identifies 31 agon-scenes in the surviving plays of Euripides.

The second part of Chapter 2 is then devoted to showing how these 31 agons can, with few exceptions, be seen to centre upon three distinct themes: reckoning, consultation, and supplication. In the Abrechnungsagon ('agon of reckoning') two figures, whom D. calls the ἀδικούμενος and the ἀδικήσας, argue over a wrong allegedly inflicted on the former by the latter. This type of agon is then subdivided into three subgroups: (a) the simple agon of reckoning (Admetus versus Pheres, Medea versus Jason, Electra versus Clytemnestra), (b) the agon of reckoning before a judge (Hecuba versus Polymestor before Agamemnon, Hecuba versus Helen before Menelaus), and (c) the prospective agon (Polynices asks Eteocles to allow him to share power, Menelaus asks Agamemnon to keep to his agreement to sacrifice Iphigenia). As the final agon of this group, D. locates the dispute between Theseus and Hippolytus (Hipp. 902-1101) as a 'Zwischenform' between the simple type and the one involving a judge, since here Theseus is both the allegedly wronged party and the judge of Hippolytus' guilt. It is this group of eight agon-scenes (listed in paragraph two above) that D. examines in minute detail in the second part of the book.

In the Beratungsagon ('agon of consultation'), by contrast, the two figures who face one another take the roles of ἁμαρτάνων and παραινέτης, with the latter trying to persuade the former to abandon a specific plan of action. A further distinction is made here between (a) consolatory (Heracles and Admetus, Alc. 1006-1158; the Nurse and Phaedra, Hipp. 373-524; Theseus and Heracles, Her. 1214-1426; Xuthus and Ion, Ion 569-675) and (b) critical types (Jocasta rebukes Eteocles and Polynices, Phoen. 446-637; Teiresias and Cadmus criticize Pentheus, Bacch. 215-369).

Finally, in the so-called Hikesieagon ('agon of supplication') the roles are generally clear-cut (suppliant, enemy, and saviour), but the permutations are more complex; indeed, D. distinguishes no fewer than five separate types here: (a) the simple agon of supplication between ἱκέτης and ἐχθρός before the σωτήρ (Iolaus and 'Copreus' before Demophon, Hcld. 120-287), (b) the agon between suppliant and enemy before the arrival of the saviour (Andromache and Hermione, Andr. 147-272; Andromache and Menelaus, Andr. 309-463; Amphitryon and Lycus, Her. 140-251), (c) the agon between suppliant and saviour before the arrival of the enemy (Adrastus and Theseus, Suppl. 87-262; Aethra and Theseus, Suppl. 286-364; Hecuba and Agamemnon, Hec. 726-904; Orestes and Menelaus, Or. 356-455, 632-728), (d) the agon between enemy and saviour in the presence of the suppliant (Menelaus and Peleus in the presence of Andromache, Andr. 545-765; the Theban herald and Theseus in the presence of Adrastus, Suppl. 381-597), and (e) the agon between suppliant and enemy/saviour (Hecuba and Odysseus, Hec. 216-440; Odysseus and Polyphemus, Cycl. 203-355; Helen and Menelaus with Theonoe, Hel. 865-1031; Clytemnestra and Iphigenia with Agamemnon, IA 1098-1275). D.'s three-fold division thus accounts for 28 agon-scenes, but he has three 'special cases' to add. Two are combinations of the reckoning and supplication agon: in Hcld. 928-1052, Alcmene, the former victim, turns killer, while Eurystheus, her former persecutor, becomes a suppliant; in Or. 456-631, Tyndareus is hostile to the suppliant Orestes, but at the same time represents the family of the murdered Clytemnestra. The third case combines features of consultation and supplication: in IA 440-542, Menelaus advises Agamemnon to abandon his plan of sacrifice and pleads for her life in the manner of a suppliant.

As will be clear by now, D.'s treatment is highly systematic, but even in the lengthy catalogue of Chapter 3 it manages to avoid being a mere list of formal conventions. For in each case D. illustrates the connections between the issues debated in the agon-scene and the wider dramatic situation. As a result, the claim that such 'lust for debate' (81) is out of place in tragedy is conclusively refuted. To illustrate the importance of the agon for the interpretation of the play as a whole, D. focuses in Chapters 4-8 on the first group of agon-scenes (Abrechnungsagone). These chapters handle in turn the composition of the scenes (Ch. 4), their incorporation within the drama (Ch. 5) and thematic significance (Ch. 6), their effect on the audience's store of knowledge (Ch. 7), and finally their importance for what D. calls 'die Steuerung der Rezeptionsperspektive' (Ch. 8, 187ff.), an idea borrowed from the dramatic theory of Manfred Pfister to refer to the viewpoint of the audience ('Zuschauerperspektive'), as opposed to that of the figures inside the play ('Figurenperspektive').

The most valuable part of the discussion is the final section of the last chapter (8.2.2, 284-384), where D. gives a brief commentary on each of the eight Abrechnungsagone, showing how Euripides repeatedly uses the agon-scene to unsettle the audience with new information. The audience is brought to realize that the conflict before them is far more complex than it had first seemed and that they cannot so easily distinguish the good from the bad. Typically, this new information leads the audience either to see the wronged party (Admetus, Polynices) in a more critical light or to view the persecutor (Jason, Clytemnestra, Polymestor) more sympathetically. In Trojan Women, by contrast, Helen says nothing in the agon to make her more sympathetic, but her 'defeat' by Hecuba is undermined by the audience's extra-dramatic knowledge that Menelaus will not kill her when they return to Greece. The agon-scene thus accentuates the injustice of Helen's eventual victory. In IA both Agamemnon and Menelaus are tarnished by egotism, while the agon-scene of Hippolytus shows an arrogant but innocent man prevented from defending himself openly by his own pious determination to keep his oath.

Despite its many excellent points of detail, the book has two main problems. Firstly, its length: there is too much repetition, particularly in Chapters 4-7, and D. often takes a long time to get to the point. Whereas Part 1 (Chapters 1-3) is clear, rigorous, and concise, Part 2 could have been restructured and shortened considerably. For example, do we need to be told four times (69, 293, 371, 414) that Hippolytus is unique insofar as the issue is not the evaluation of an act but rather who committed it? The 'methodische Vorbemerkungen' at the start of Chapter 8 (8.1, 187-233) are particularly longwinded, especially in their criticisms of 'ironists' like Vellacott. The second problem is related to the first: because D. lavishes so much space on his first group of agons, he has no space to discuss the other two at any length. The brief sections on the Beratungsagone and Hikesieagone in Chapter 3 (72-3, 76-8) make some very interesting points (e.g. in Beratungsagone of the consolatory type there is always a change of mind, whereas the advisers of the critical agons never manage to persuade), and it is a shame that D. has not extended his discussion of agon-scenes in Euripides to include them more fully.

Nevertheless, this is a clearly written, stimulating, and persuasive book from which I learned a great deal. There are few factual errors3 and the list of works cited will provide all those interested in Euripidean rhetoric with an invaluable resource.4 Finally, as D. rightly says (415), the agon-scenes are not only fundamental for the interpretation of the plays but are also directly relevant to the modern spectator or reader, since the 'constellations of conflict' which they embody have their counterparts today, and so allow us better to understand 'manch prekäre, unschöne Situation der Gegenwart'.


1.   J. Duchemin, L'Ἀγών dans la tragédie grecque. Paris, 1945; 2nd ed. 1968. D. J. Conacher, 'Rhetoric and Relevance in Euripidean Drama', AJP 102 (1981): 3-25. M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides. Oxford, 1992. R. Scodel, 'Verbal Performance and Euripidean Rhetoric', ICS 24-5 (1999-2000): 129-44.
2.   H. Strohm, Euripides: Interpretationen zur dramatischen Form. Munich, 1957. C. Collard, 'Formal Debates in Euripides' Drama', G & R 22 (1975): 58-71.
3.   164 n. 28: By an oversight the destruction of Hippolytus is said to be the aim of Artemis. 156: Hecuba is misplaced in the title of section 6.1. 272 n. 91: read 'Lloyd' for 'Llyod'.
4.   Surprisingly, D. does not mention the important article by S. Halliwell, 'Between Public and Private: Tragedy and the Athenian Experience of Rhetoric', 121-41 in C. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian. Oxford, 1997.

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