Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.41

Rüdiger Bernek, Dramaturgie und Ideologie. Der politische Mythos in den Hikesiedramen des Aischylos, Sophokles und Euripides. BzA 188.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2004.  Pp. 347.  ISBN 3-598-77800-7.  €96.00.  

Reviewed by Edith Foster (
Word count: 1438 words

B. has produced a very responsible and thorough reading of five important tragedies, namely Aeschylus' Suppliants and Eumenides, Euripides' Heraclids and Suppliants, and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. Supplication of Athens (or of an Athenian leader) plays a central role in all of these tragedies except for the first, and B's basic observation is that these plays frequently employ, in one way or another, a view of Athens as a refuge of the needy and protector of Panhellenic law. His stated aim is to undertake an intertextual reading of these tragedies in order to chart the development of this politically controversial idea. "How does the accumulating ideological weight of the pattern [of the supplication tragedy] affect its literary application?" B. asks (19, my translation).

It seems to me that B's answer to this question is "in many different ways, depending on the author and the background of precedents against which he was working." This answer is predictable, but the process of uncovering it is highly informative. While B's aim is to follow the idea of Athens that emerges from these dramas, he might have stated as a secondary aim that he wished to provide line by line plot analyses with particular reference to the process of supplication. His readings of Aeschylus' Eumenides and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus are especially thorough. B. is able to keep many balls in the air at once and to produce a coherent and detailed argument that touches on some of the most important questions of the plays. An example is his analysis of the trial of Orestes in the Eumenides (pp. 113-125). B's informed, calm, and common sense reading, the culmination of a thoughtful reading of the whole play, constitutes an important synthesis of and addition to the extant literature on this contentious and important moment in Greek tragedy.

A substantial scholarly apparatus supports B's detailed plot analyses. B supplies countless relevant and well-framed scholarly footnotes, as well as a comprehensive bibliography.

Given this praise of B's scholarship, it may at first seem incongruous to suggest that B's book would be even better if he placed more trust in his native abilities. However, here's my argument: B's readings of Aeschylus and Sophocles display his admirable talent for close reading and his ability to take his priorities from the text under consideration. When he does seem to go astray, it seems to be partially the result of an over-reliance on literary theory. An example can be taken from his use of the "pattern" concept. ("Pattern" is his word, not a translation. He defines it twice, cf. 20-25 and 70.) B. frequently argues that authors, when they refer to each other's plays, are working out modulations on a "supplication pattern" set by mythological and dramatic precedents.

B's knowledge of the repeating structure of the supplication process in these tragedies leads him to useful conclusions. But the "pattern" idea can also become a problem. Thus, for instance, B. successfully shows that Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus displays a strong formal and thematic relationship to Aeschylus' Eumenides. However, he prosecutes this aim too narrowly. In his discussion of the influences on the play he omits any significant reference to the previous Oedipus plays, because they are not suppliant dramas (i.e., they do not display the pattern).

This leads him to counterintuitive suggestions. Is it possible that Athenian spectators of the Oedipus at Colonus, upon hearing the chorus's horrified reaction to the appearance of the blind and ragged Oedipus, would think first (much less only) of Aeschylus' priestess at Delphi in the Eumenides, who expressed horror at Orestes' bloody appearance at her shrine (142)? B's argument that the two scenes are similar and that they speak to an important moment of the supplication process is logical. But surely the climax of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus wreaks upon himself the disfigurement that the chorus of the Oedipus at Colonus perceives, is the obvious related text here. It seems inconceivable that Sophocles would neglect to exploit this climax, and the 20 years intervening between the production of the two plays, for their combined dramatic value. The tragedians were concerned with the supplication pattern, no doubt, but B's analysis here amounts to a claim that intertextual references to the supplication pattern were the tragedian's and the audience's main concern.

I have picked one example, I hope not unfairly, out of a long book replete with excellent interpretations. My point is that given the overall sensitivity of B's readings, the kind of reading mentioned above seems like the result of a too exclusive focus on theoretical paradigms. In general, B. focuses on literary theory and rather neglects what we know about life at Athens. Thus, although B. argues that the Athenian audience was exceptionally competent at understanding supplication stories, his description of how this came about includes no reference to politics (28-29). But since his topic involves a consideration of tragedy's role in contemporary political life at Athens, B. probably should have indicated that the Athenians were very frequently confronted with the real-life necessity to adjudicate among or about suppliants.

A brief discussion of Athenian juristic practices or of stories provided by Thucydides could have provided evidence here. We know that the Athenian audience of B's chosen tragedies heard every variety of request, from the most desperate appeals to the cleverest ploys. It is a pity that B. takes no account of this, since an outline of his audience's political situation in respect to supplication might have provided a pendant to considerations of intertextuality or the "mythical megatext" of the supplication process, many of which (as B. admits) are necessarily speculative.

These are qualified criticisms: B's analyses, which depend heavily on close reading, almost always demonstrate thoughtful insight into the plays. Furthermore, it is not that B. avoids issues of principle. Whenever B. describes the principles and problems of the process of supplication his arguments are useful and instructive: his analyses of the roles of honor and dishonor, of the exclusion and (re)integration of suppliants, of the reciprocity between suppliants and their (apparently) more powerful protectors, and so on, are all enlightening, in my opinion.

In addition to these less fundamental concerns about the balance between the author and his scholarly support, I do have one core criticism of this book. This criticism relates to B's unwillingness, hinted at above, to fulfill the promise of his book's title. B. devotes only a few remarks to the political import of the ideal Athens that emerges from Aeschylus and Sophocles. And he misses a huge chance to discuss the development of this ideal by placing Euripides at the end of the book rather than in the middle, where he belongs. B. explicitly advertises the fact that Euripides' Heraclids and Suppliants were written before Sophocles wrote the Oedipus at Colonus, and says that the Oedipus at Colonus seems to be a correction of Euripides (44). But he places the two Euripidean dramas after his treatment of Sophocles. Therefore he provides essentially no discussion of Sophocles' apparent reversal of Euripides' reappraisal of Aeschylus' favorable image of Athens. As a result, the negotiation of the Athenian ideal between the tragedians (the main focus of the book) is less visible than it should be.

Finally, B's discussions of Euripides are less detailed, and to my mind at least, less convincing, than his discussion of Aeschylus and Sophocles. This, however, can easily be forgiven. Again, it seems to me that a discussion of Euripides' attitudes towards Athens and the Aeschylean view of Athens requires some discussion of Euripides' character as a dramatist in general and also of political developments during the Peloponnesian War. It would have been a tall order to fulfill this requirement, and B. undoubtedly recognized this: his study of Euripides will be the core of another book. When he writes that book, it is to be hoped that he will trust as much as possible in his extensive native capacities and perceptiveness, and use his grasp of the scholarship as a basis for moderating and informing these capacities, rather for than leading them. In the meantime, B. has produced an admirable and useful piece of scholarship, which will become a standard reference work.

As for the physical production of the book itself, the fine volume produced by K.G. Saur will stand on my shelf until the children inherit the library. If I have one quibble with the production of this book it is with the formatting of the bibliography, which prints first names before last names even though the bibliography is arranged alphabetically by the scholars' last names. This causes the reader some inconvenience in checking references.

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