Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.57

Gyburg Radke, Tragik und Metatragik: Euripides' Bakchen und die moderne Literaturwissenschaft.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2003.  Pp. xiv, 361.  ISBN 3-11-018022-7.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Anastasios D. Nikolopoulos, University of Patras (
Word count: 1746 words

[The author of this review apologizes for the delay in its completion.]

Radke has produced a densely argued contribution to the study of a major work of classical literature, Euripides' Bacchae. In fact, the particular play is only a concrete example for Radke's thesis that modern and postmodern literary theories are not useful for the study of a literature that was produced and consumed under circumstances completely different from those of contemporary literature. In this sense, the book is the very antipode of the optimism expressed by S. J. Harrison that, far from being incompatible, theory and classical scholarship could cross-fertilize through 'mutual tolerance and understanding' of their practitioners.1

The particular target of Radke's attack against theory are metatheatrical interpretations of Greek Tragedy. Independently of each other, Charles Segal and Helene Foley emphasized the "metatragic" or "self-reflexive consciousness"2 in Euripides' last play. The idea that one of the major themes, if not the principal focus of interest, in Euripides' last play is dramatic art itself has been further developed by S. Goldhill and A. Bierl in different ways.3 It has also influenced the study of other plays such as Plautus' Amphitruo.4 On the other side, scepticism was voiced early, most notably by Oliver Taplin.5 His argument that metatheatricality is one of the differentiae specificae of ancient comedy is mentioned by Radke early in the book (p. 16), but is not exploited to the full, presumably because it does not exclude the possibility that ancient authors and audiences were capable of abstract reflection on dramatic creation and performance;6 Taplin merely localized it in the production and reception of specific genres, like comedy.

In Radke's opinion, the principal flaw of modern literary theories is precisely their tendency for generalization and abstract schemes.7 Worse still, these generalizations are based on elements of action isolated from their genuine context. Only narratology seems to have earned Radke's esteem, not without reservations though (see p. 43 on the distinction between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators, which is found to lack interpretative value with regard to Greek tragedy). Instead, her analysis is squarely founded on the basis of Aristotle's Poetics, a choice defended in pp. 22-28. It is characteristic of the gap separating Segal's metatragic from Radke's tragic reading of the Bacchae that the former included only a single reference to Poetics (p. 268). Radke's veneration for Aristotle's authority was obviously cultivated by the copious writings of Arbogast Schmidt (seventeen items in the bibliography).

Another tenet of modern theories that, in Radke's view, renders them unsuitable for Greek drama is their tolerance, if not encouragement, of pluralism. Unlike e.g. Foley, who thinks that "Euripides' Bacchae demands interpretation on many levels" and offers her own in order "to enrich and not to exclude the standard interpretation of" the play,8 Radke argues (p. 20) that the interpretative horizon of Greek tragedies was limited by three important factors: (a) plays were performed only once within a specific cultic context; (b) this singular performance was prepared by the author himself; and (c) the plays' plots were not creations of the authors' imagination but new versions of well-known myths. Here lies one of the problems of Radke's argument, in my view: while the role of tragic performance is emphasized with regard to the texts' semantics, following Aristotle's lead, theatrical spectacle is despised as an additional "seasoning".9 It is also notable that both Radke (p. 229) and the exponents of metatheatrical readings of the Bacchae take it for granted that the play was indeed performed at the City Dionysia; this is far from being an established fact. Both Agathon and Euripides are known to have presented plays at the court of Macedon, i.e., in a considerably different cultural milieu.10

The book is organized in four chapters of unequal length: I. Introduction; II. The Bacchae as a textbook example of a tragedy of compassion; III. Metatheatrical interpretations of the Bacchae; and IV. Ancient Tragedy and Modern Literary Theories: Overview. An essay on the concept of theatrum mundi is appended at the end, while the main body of Radke's analysis is interspersed with four Excursuses: 'Performative Turn' (pp. 8-12), 'Agave's tragedy' (pp. 65-77), 'The "laughing mask" Dionysus' (pp. 174-80), and "Compassion: its relation to fear in the Aristotelian theory of tragedy and the significance of theatrical illusion for the generation of compassion (eleos) and fear (phobos). These excurses are clearly demarcated by means of their title at the beginning and the remark [end of excursus] at the end, but not listed in the contents.

Radke's thesis that the Bacchae is an example of what Aristotle considered "the best tragedy", i.e. a dramatic representation of actions inspiring fear and pity (Poetics 1452b30-33) is argued with a combination of logical argument and textual interpretation in chapters 2 and 3. In her own view, it suffices to prove the following four points (p. 33): first, the play's tragic hero is Pentheus; second, Dionysos cannot be the play's tragic hero; third, Euripides was concerned only with character in relation to action (another Aristotelian theorem, Poetics 1350a20-25); and finally, the quintessential tragic emotions of pity and fear are related to the audience's superior knowledge. These "Teilbehauptungen" are not consistently phrased as statements by Radke. Nor is the long second chapter (pp. 31-255) articulated accordingly. Instead, it is divided into seven sections, of which only the first and the last correspond exactly to the first and the fourth of Radke's "Teilbehauptungen".

Radke's argument, as set out in the Second Chapter, can be summarized as follows: unlike Pentheus, Dionysos does not fulfil the requirements of a tragic hero: prohairesis and hamartia. For tragic emotions, and pity in particular, arise from the hero's erroneous judgement, which is made in spite of his good will and mars his good fortune. Pentheus, on the other hand, is consistently presented by Euripides as someone characterized by mental acuity, curiosity, and inner turbulence. These three traits are related to each other and to Pentheus' compulsion to keep everything under his royal authority by acting quickly and reacting vehemently to anything that might undermine it. Verse 811 is the key to the whole play, signalling the hero's peripeteia. Unless Pentheus' decision to accept Dionysos' proposal is understood as the result of rational thinking, Euripides' technique of characterization should be considered a failure. The (post)modern alternative of projecting this peripeteia on Dionysos' ambivalent nature is problematic because (a) it cannot be Euripides' intention to transform an acting character into an abstract idea, and (b) the contradicting characteristics (Greek and barbarian, mild and horrific) of the god's personality are not manifest at the same moment. Besides, instead of accepting these polar oppositions as irresolvable tensions, Euripides reveals their uncultured simplicity. Nevertheless, Radke realizes that every human action in the Bacchae cannot be explained entirely in terms of rational and conscious thinking. At least, Pentheus' murder by his mother's hand, a Euripidean innovation (p. 70), is both Agave's error of judgement (aphrosyne) and a symptom of Dionysiac ecstasy. Equally complicated are the motives for Dionysos' own actions. Radke observes that the Chorus of Bacchae, who provided the traditional title of the play, are not objective interpreters of the god's plan to punish Pentheus, not because they are intimately connected with Dionysos, but simply because they take part in the action: they have been chained and imprisoned by Pentheus (lines 443f.). Far from exhibiting Dionysos' tranquillity, the Chorus are blinded by their desire for revenge, an immoderate, undifferentiated and abstract passion, which constitutes the dark side of Dionysiac emotions. But the ultimate proof of the chorus' partiality is their tendency to think in terms of abstract concepts and polar oppositions, in other words their affinity to modern structuralism. In fact, this "impassioned form (in the negative sense) of Dionysiac enthusiasm" is "the true subject of the Bacchae", as Radke suggests in a footnote (p. 189 n. 334) -- hardly the appropriate place for such a crucial statement, but perhaps not surprising in a book with numerous and lengthy notes.11

After offering her own reading of the play, in Chapter Three Radke sets out to demonstrate that metatheatrical interpretations are not suitable for the Bacchae or any Greek tragedy. In line with the "either ... or" logic, which has prevailed in the argument so far (see pp. 28, 29, 92), Radke excludes the possibility of an interpretation that would equally address both the play's tragic essence and its metatragic meaning. To put it in another way, if the Bacchae is indeed a tragedy which inspires pity and fear through plot (and only by implication through character), i.e. through the text itself, then the metatheatrical focus on the visual and performative aspects of the play is inappropriate. In order to prove this, she addresses each of the three scenes with metatheatrical interest: Dionysos' apostrophe to himself at the end of the third episode, which casts him in the role of the play's director; the brief fourth episode with the scene of Pentheus' dressing up as a Bacchant; and finally the beginning of the third episode with the description of the palace miracles. The Leitmotiv of Radke's reading is that any metatheatrical reading would distract interpreters and spectators of the play alike from its genuine focus: the plot, i.e. the specific actions of specific characters.

No summary can do justice to an argument extending over hundreds of pages with intricate cross-references forward and backwards (almost all clearly indicated with page references).12 The conspicuously periodic style occasionally makes reading very demanding, yet the language almost unfailingly is elegant. So is the book's typography; there are a few errors in Greek spelling,13 a couple of mistaken line references (p. 58: 353f. instead of 333f., and p. 169: 1108f instead of 1118f.) and another two insignificant misprints in German (p. 150 foglendes and p. 179 Dionysios) and in English (p. 130 "makes" instead of "make" in "the very thought-process that make reality intelligible", and p. 203 "metaphor" instead of "metapher"). Clearly this is a book which everyone interested in the interpretation of ancient tragedy, and not just the Bacchae, should read. Even classicists who have applied themselves to the study of modern literary theories, like the reviewer, and are unlikely to be persuaded to constrain themselves to the concepts and tools developed by Aristotle, will benefit from Radke's brilliant defence of Aristotelian poetics (and logic) and even-tempered attack on (post)modern theories. Provided they can hold back their fear and compassion at a young scholar's quixotic struggle against the giants of (post)modern Anglo-Saxon classical studies.


1.   S. J. Harrison (ed.), Texts, Ideas and the Classics. Scholarship, Theory and Classical Literature, Oxford 2001, p. 2.
2.   Ch. Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae. Expanded Edition with a New Afterword by the Author, Princeton 1997, p. 370 (reviewed by R. Seaford, BMCR 1998.03.10); H. Foley, Ritual Irony. Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Ithaca 1985.
3.   S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 1986, pp. 265-286; A. Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie. Politische und 'metatheatralische' Aspekte im Text, Tübingen 1991 (reviewed by T. Marier, BMCR 1992.02.03).
4.   Niall W. Slater, "Amphitruo, Bacchae, and Meatheatre," Lexis 5-6 (1990), 101-125.
5.   O. Taplin, "Fifth Century Tragedy and Comedy: A Synkrisis," JHS 106 (1986) 163-74. [NB. Synkrisis is misspelled as Syncrisis by Radke both in the bibliography and on p.16 n. 38].
6.   Cf. R. Seaford's review of H. Foley, op.cit., in EMC 30 (1986) 306-10, which criticizes Foley's "over-estimation of Euripides' power of abstract reflection on the creative process" (p. 309).
7.   The relevant passages are listed in the Index not under the heading "ABSTRAKTHEIT" but "LITERATURTHEORIE aristotelische und die Abstraktheit moderner Literaturtheorien"; add p. 3 n.7 and p. 16. For theoretically minded scholars "in itself, of course, generality is fine", as R. Buxton states in his review of Foley in JHS 108 (1987) 199.
8.   Foley, op.cit., p.205 with n.1.
9.   Cf. Foley, op.cit., p. 219.
10.   E.g. A. Harder (Euripides' Kresphontes and Archelaos. Introduction, Text and Commentary, Leiden 1985, p. 127) argued that Euripides' Archelaos was performed at the Macedonian festival of Olympia in Dion. [I am grateful to Dr. V. Liapis for this reference.]
11.   For example, n. 353 (p. 204) is a concise essay on the Aristotelian concept of τὸ φιλάνθρωπον.
12.   The only notable exception is on p. 171 line 5.
13.   On p. 39 τῶν instead of τῶμ, p. 72 οὐδ instead of ουδ, p.158 instead of ̓̀, p. 162 n. 300 add final -n to ἀσθένεια, p. 213 παραχρῆμα instead of παράχρημα, and p. 285 πραγμάτων instead of πρααγμάτων.

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:29, Friday, 03 April 2009