Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.01

Casey Dué, The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy.   Austin, TX:  University of Texas Press, 2006.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 0-292-70946-3.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by W. Tyson Hausdoerffer, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 2896 words

A central project of tragic scholarship in recent decades has been to account for the prominence of socially marginal figures such as females, barbarians, and slaves in Greek tragedy. In particular, scholars have sought to understand how Athenian audiences, comprising primarily male citizens, might have responded to and been affected by such figures of difference. In The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy, Casey Dué makes a welcome contribution to this critical project, for she builds upon the existing scholarship in a way that allows her to articulate an admirably nuanced approach to questions surrounding the dramatic function and cultural resonance of these figures.

As the title of her book suggests, Dué focuses mostly on the laments of the captive Trojan women, who could be said to represent an extreme case of alterity for Athenian male audiences. By focusing especially on the laments of these women, Dué successfully responds to the late Nicole Loraux's call to enrich the dominant trend of political and ideological readings of Greek tragedy with an increased attention to its emotional dynamics.1 Dué's basic venture, then, is to demonstrate how tragedy draws upon the emotionally intense language and themes of traditional laments in order to encourage the Athenian audience to respond in unexpectedly sympathetic ways to the suffering of others. These complex responses, involving discomfiting mixtures of identification and distancing, of fear and pity, would ultimately work to challenge the starker differentiations of self and other typically insisted upon by civic ideology. So in Dué's view, the emotional dynamics of tragedy, far from being an apolitical dimension of the genre, are one of its most important resources for engaging in ideological and political critique. This is the key theoretical position that Dué advances, and her discussions of the function of the captive woman's lament in individual tragedies, though on some levels unsatisfying, do convincingly support it. The only real weakness of Dué's study is that it becomes somewhat less compelling in its progressively shorter and sketchier final chapters, with the last chapter in particular failing to capitalize fully upon the insights and approaches set forth in the first part of the book. Still, the bulk of this book is thorough, well argued, and impressively wide ranging. Specialists in Greek tragedy, as well as those interested in Greek literature and culture more generally, will undoubtedly find this a stimulating and suggestive work.

The book is structured so that the first part, consisting of the introduction and chapters 1-3, thoroughly lays out Dué's interpretive framework, while the second part, comprising chapters 4-6, puts that framework to the proof through an engagement with Euripides' Trojan War plays (Hecuba, the Trojan Women, and Andromache). The book is then rounded off by a brief conclusion, followed by a standard bibliography and index. Below I offer a review of each chapter's main argument, saving the minor corrections for the end.

In the introduction, Dué gets her project underway by asserting the centrality of the captive woman's lament in the Greek literary tradition. Here Dué reminds the reader of the prominence given to the Trojan women's laments for Hektor at the end of the Iliad. Focusing on this key proto-tragic moment allows Dué to put forward her overarching thesis that "the exploration of sorrow through the eyes of the enemy is at the heart of ancient Greek literary, performative, and artistic expression" (29). Dué lays further groundwork for her development of this thesis specifically in relation to tragedy by discussing the kind of influence choruses and characters of marginal social status might have had upon audiences composed of Athenian citizens. Dué adopts the view pioneered mainly by Froma Zeitlin and John Winkler that, when tragic characters and choruses assume marginal identities, the audience is encouraged to "participate in [the] crossing of boundaries as the centrality of Athens is explored by way of the margins" (25).2 Dué's working assumption throughout the book, then, is that socially marginal figures such as the captive Trojan women serve a basically didactic function in tragedy, working to promote critical reflection both on the nature of Athenian identity and, especially, on the city's wartime ideology.

In chapter 1, "Men's Songs and Women's Songs," Dué asks: "What role, if any, did women's song traditions play in the shaping of men's epic traditions (and, later, tragedy)?" (30). Building upon an interesting array of scholarship, Dué claims that women's ritual laments for heroes must have played an important role in the development of the epic tradition, for such laments set in motion the processes of commemoration that largely occupy epic poetry. But, as Dué points out, whereas the lament tradition views the death of heroes from a perspective focused on the sorrow of loss, the epic tradition mainly treats it with an eye toward the glory of the heroes' accomplishments. Thus the expressions of grief and even protest that characterize women's laments are incorporated into the epic tradition as potentially subversive elements. Dué argues that, as a result, when female characters in epic lament their fallen loved ones, the audience hears an echo of this "raw and real" grief of women from the lament tradition, and its attention is drawn to "the bitter consequences of war" (43). What is subversive about this is the way in which, in the case of the Iliad at least, the emotional dynamics of the Trojan women's laments are powerful enough -- and traditionally Greek enough -- to have created in the Greek audience "an identification with the Trojan suffering that superseded national and ethnic loyalties" (46). Having made this important point, Dué turns her attention from epic to tragedy, easily establishing that the lament tradition constitutes a fundamental source of tragedy's emotional power. Dué concludes that it is largely upon this source that tragedy draws in its efforts to challenge Athenian wartime ideology, for the captive woman's lament urges the audience to "explore the agony and consequences of war by way of the sorrow of women" (56).

Chapter 2, "Identifying with the Enemy: Love, Loss, and Longing in the Persians of Aeschylus," offers the first sustained demonstration of Dué's central claim about the subversive potential of the lament tradition in tragedy. Though it is focused not on the laments of Trojan women but rather on the language of lament used by the Persians' chorus of male elders, this is one of the stronger chapters in the book. Dué confronts the Persians' central interpretive crux: whether the play presents the Persians to the Athenian audience in a sympathetic or hostile light. Rather than choose between these options, Dué uses her particular focus on the language of lament to show that the play, while certainly casting the Persians as exotically different and even at times as reprehensibly luxurious and hubristic, also strives to suggest underlying correspondences between them and the Athenians. Taking a characteristically eclectic approach that leads her from the Iliad and Sappho to the Hellenistic poet Bion, Dué demonstrates that the language, themes, and imagery employed by the Persian chorus to lament the missing warriors are drawn from Greek women's lament traditions. Dué also reveals that these traditions include a significant erotic dimension, claiming that "the death of young warriors is an inherently erotic theme, because of the implicit loss of love and sexual union that such a death carries with it" (80). This allows Dué to make sense of the chorus's repeated references to the Persian widows' erotic yearning for their dead husbands: since such references are firmly rooted in Greek song traditions, they have the effect here of presenting the lost Persian warriors in terms similar to those in which heroic figures such as Achilles and Adonis were ritually lamented by Greek women. The result of all this, Dué persuasively argues, is to draw the Athenian audience into a partial identification with the grieving Persians, one that would have encouraged the Athenians "to reenact and reexperience the events of Salamis from the perspective of the defeated" (88). Since the remaining chapters make a similar argument concerning Athenian responses to the Trojans, this can be seen as the book's crucial preparatory chapter.

Chapter 3, "Athenians and Trojans," provides a useful transition to the second part of the book by examining how fifth-century Athenians might have imagined themselves in relation to the legendary Trojans. Here again Dué does an admirable job of bringing together disparate materials to make her argument, in this case including a number of visual depictions of the fall of Troy (or, more precisely, modern reconstructions and ancient descriptions of these mostly lost and damaged works). What Dué finds is that over the course of the fifth century the Athenians responded in shifting and ambivalent ways to representations of the fall of Troy. For example, Dué demonstrates that in the aftermath of the Persians' sack of Athens the Athenians seem to have identified at some level with the Trojans as victims of devastating, sacrilegious violence, even as they identified on a more general level with the Trojans' Achaean conquerors. Moreover, the complexity of the Athenian response to the fall of Troy only deepened as the Athenians themselves became increasingly violent in their efforts to expand and control their empire. For, as Dué convincingly argues, visual depictions of the fall of Troy, focused as they seem to have been on the sorry plight of the conquered, would have served as negative exempla for the Athenians, "warning against the excesses of brutality that often come with victory" (99), and perhaps even stimulating them to ponder some of the atrocities they themselves had committed. Dué's discussion of these visual works thus paves the way for her discussion of Euripides' Trojan War plays in the following chapters, for it suggests that this complicated kind of response to the defeated was an essential characteristic of Athenian art in general.

Chapter 4, "The Captive Woman's Lament and Her Revenge in Euripides' Hecuba," is in my view the strongest chapter in the book. What makes this chapter so effective is that here Dué uses her focus on the language of lament to tackle one of the play's central difficulties, thereby generating a fairly comprehensive reading of the play. The specific difficulty that Dué addresses is how to understand Polymestor's foretelling of Hecuba's transformation into the Cynossema, or "sign of the dog," landmark. But this question is tied to the broader problem of how the Athenian audience is being asked to respond to the suffering of the play's captive Trojan women. After a close consideration of Hecuba's and Polyxena's use of the language of lament, Dué concludes that the traditionally Greek characteristics of their laments work to win over the sympathy of both the Greek characters within the play and (partly because of their identification with those characters) the Athenian spectators outside of it. Dué thus lends support to the critical view that Hecuba's prophesied transformation is meant to be understood in sympathetic terms, that is, not as "a portrait of degradation and brutality, but the extreme of motherhood, and a symbol for sailors of endurance through suffering" (133). One wonders, though, whether these two interpretations are as mutually exclusive as Dué suggests. However, where this chapter becomes most interesting is in its final consideration of how the play, with its strong encouragement of sympathy for the conquered, might have resonated with the Athenians in the context of the Peloponnesian War. What Dué argues is not just that this experience of sympathy for the mythic conquered would have encouraged the Athenians to contemplate and pity the suffering of their own enemies but also that it would have had the more profound effect of temporarily dissolving the boundaries of difference between the various parties involved in the war, thereby allowing for a cathartic exploration of "the agony of war" in general (135). This is a compelling interpretation because it accounts for both the historically specific power of the play and, as Dué herself only implies, its enduring relevance.

It is in Chapter 5, "A River Shouting with Tears: Euripides' Trojan Women," that Dué's study loses some of its momentum. This is perhaps because her major points have already been made so well, lending this chapter a slightly redundant and predictable feel. But this is not to say that the chapter entirely lacks interest. Addressing again the question of how a tragedy focused on the suffering of the captive Trojan women would have resonated with the Athenian audience in the context of contemporary events, Dué offers a now familiar (but still plausible) answer: since the Trojan Women encourages the Athenians both to identify with the conquering Achaeans and to sympathize with the conquered Trojans, it would have urged them to confront the suffering caused by their own acts of imperial aggression (such as, just prior to the play's production, the brutal seizure of Melos). Dué's fresh point, however, is that the Athenians might also have been led to identify with (rather than simply to pity) the defeated Trojans on account of their own fear of the possible consequences of their expedition against Sicily (which was launched in that same eventful year). Dué's interpretation is thus intriguingly Aristotelian, proposing a combination of pity and fear in the Athenians' response to this play. What's more, Dué also insists (much as she did with Hecuba) that the play's real power lies in its broadly cathartic effect, in the way in which it encouraged the Athenian spectators "to transcend time and space and weep for the suffering they were witnessing on a universal level" (150). It is thus pertinent to note here that in the book's short concluding section Dué explicitly discusses the points of convergence between her understanding of tragedy's emotional dynamics and the theories put forward by both Aristotle and Gorgias.

In her brief final chapter, "The Captive Woman in the House: Euripides' Andromache," Dué chooses to focus quite narrowly on the significance of the play's unique elegiac lament since she finds that "most if not all of the themes and imagery discussed in this book come together" in it (156). In her close analysis of the lament, Dué finds that its epic resonances work "to place Andromache's suffering within the heroic realm, and to maximize the magnitude of her sorrow" (161). This of course has the effect of making Andromache a highly sympathetic figure for the Athenian audience. Since Dué sees Andromache as such a sympathetic character and views her rival, the Spartan Hermione, as "an admittedly sex-crazed murderess," she suggests "with reservations" that the play might have been understood as "an anti-Spartan play" by its original audience (162).3 But this is precisely where Dué's narrow focus disappoints and where she has missed an opportunity to offer a more complex reading of the play. For Dué does not address the fact that when Hermione returns to the stage in the second part of the play, she performs a highly emotional amoibaion with her nurse, in which she extensively employs the language and the themes of lament. But is Hermione's lament meant to be taken as sincere? If it is to be taken as sincere (which is how the nurse and the chorus seem to take it), would it not encourage the Athenian audience to sympathize (at least temporarily) with Hermione? If so, then the lament would also seem to work to blur distinctions between Athenians and Spartans, and Dué would thus find good support for her apparent desire to read the play as a challenge to Athenian wartime ideology. But if it is to be taken as insincere (i.e., as calculated by Hermione to win the sympathy of the chorus and ultimately her husband), then it would only further alienate the audience's sympathies and thus reinforce the play's anti-Spartan politics. Given the usual subtlety of Dué's analyses, it would have been interesting to see her consider these interpretive options.

I thus offer as a final comment on Dué's book the suggestion that tackling a less straightforward deployment of the language of lament (like that of Hermione) would have very usefully complicated her account of the emotional dynamics of lament in Greek tragedy. For, although her discussions of the function of lament are insightful and persuasive throughout, Dué does not explore the possibility of ironic, cynical, or otherwise insincere deployments of the language of lament. But this criticism should be taken more in the spirit of a suggestion for future research than as a complaint about this book, which worthily achieves the goals it sets out to accomplish.

The book is generally well edited and presented, but I did notice the following errors: at the start of the second paragraph on p. 54, "Ajax" refers to the play, not to the character, and so should be in italics; on p. 65 n. 27 the citation "Calame 1999" should be "Calame 1999b"; on p. 72 n. 44 the translation of Herodotus should read "before they conquered the Lydians" not "before the Lydians conquered them"; on p. 92 Dué quotes Iliad 2.546-58 in Greek but only translates 546-56 (557-58 seem out of place anyway); on p. 94 the translation of Plutarch is not properly indented; on p. 104 Dué writes that "Andromache is grasping her breast in lamentation," but her own translation of Pausanias on p. 103 indicates that it is "her boy" who is "grasping her breast"; on p. 117 n. 2 the Greek passage runs on 4 lines more than the translation.


1.   Loraux, Nicole. 2002. The Mourning Voice: An Essay on Greek Tragedy. Trans. E. Rawlinson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. (See esp. pp. 26-41.)
2.   See Winkler's and Zeitlin's individual contributions to the influential volume of essays they edited, Nothing To Do with Dionyus? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context (Princeton, 1990).
3.   Dué is reluctant to make this suggestion because she clearly wants to see tragedy neither as "political," in the sense of promoting civic ideology, nor as "apolitical," in the sense of not even engaging with the political, but rather as what Nicole Loraux calls "antipolitical," meaning that tragedy works persistently to challenge and destabilize Athenian political ideology. For Loraux's discussion of tragedy as "antipolitical," see The Mourning Voice, pp. 26-27 (cited fully in n. 1 above).

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:11, Friday, 03 April 2009