Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.61

Paul Hammond, The Strangeness of Tragedy.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. x, 203.  ISBN 9780199572601.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Pramit Chaudhuri, Dartmouth College (

In a recent BMCR review Ruth Scodel reminds classicists that colleagues from related fields do occasionally treat our texts, and that we have something to learn from these treatments, whether because the scholarship itself is a contribution or because we should make ourselves aware of the common ground, or lack thereof, between different disciplinary approaches .1 In this book Paul Hammond, a scholar of seventeenth-century English literature and classical reception, turns his attention to the tragic tradition from Aeschylus to Racine, devoting nine chapters (besides an introduction) to nine plays, five ancient and four early modern. Hammond's contribution is to emphasise estrangement—spatial, temporal, and linguistic—as the defining mode of the genre. The protagonist of tragedy finds him- or herself in familiar places that have come to seem oddly unfamiliar; their experience of time is different from that of others in the drama—discontinuous and non-linear; and their language becomes laden with terrible significance—ironic, portentous, and imposing a larger-than-usual hermeneutic burden on their interlocutors and audience. To this end the author makes apposite use of Freud's concept of the unheimlich (very much in vogue) throughout the book, but the focus remains on the texts of the tragedies themselves rather than any particular theoretical approach or concept. Though there aren't too many surprises here, scholars in ancient and early modern literary studies will want to consult Hammond's close readings of particular plays and to bear in mind the importance of 'estrangement' when thinking about the genre.

Books on the tragic tradition tend to fall into two categories, those that examine the inflections of a particular story—Riley on the dramatic reception of the Hercules Furens myth, for instance—and those that examine a theme running across various tragedies, such as Wilson's study of overliving.2 Hammond's work is of the latter type and as such can be considered a successful contribution to our understanding of what tragedy is. The originality of his treatment lies more in its systematic view of genre through several instantiations rather than in the idea that strangeness is an important concept for one particular play or another. That tragic protagonists' vision, language, and sense of space and time are characterised by a distancing and doubleness that the hero does not fully understand will be a familiar notion to readers of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca's Hercules Furens. But to see this estrangement enacted in language across the work of five playwrights and over a dozen tragedies drives the idea home with renewed vigour. The highlight of the study is the sustained excellence of the close readings over the course of two hundred pages, and, as the page count indicates, this is a healthily slim volume with few digressions into the many issues (and vast bibliography) that could have obscured the central theme.

Hammond does an excellent job of bringing out the 'unhomely' aspects of the tragedies he examines—Argos, Thebes, and Trézène, among other places, take on a sinister aspect and conceal dangerous truths for protagonists who might otherwise regard their 'home' as a place of unthreatening normalcy. As often with the author's observations, one might extend them to other works in the genre, such as the alienation of Pentheus from the Thebes of the Bacchae or of Titus from the Rome of Titus Andronicus. But more than tragedy's sense of discomfort and its superficial strangeness or exceptionalism—visions, witches, and even the colour of Othello's skin—Hammond is interested in the way the language of tragedy internalises its unusual milieu: tragic diction favours portentous repetitions of words, novel and jarring collocations, surprising alternations of tense, and ambiguous entities that could be either personifications or psychological phenomena. The author shows, for instance, how characters' use of words like daimon displaces responsibility and generates ambiguities over the status of supernatural agents (53-5 on the Agamemnon, 79-82 on OT). Through frequent citation of LSJ, OLD, and OED Hammond repeatedly reveals the impact on interpretation that derives from considering a word's semantic range. So, for instance, versantur at Sen. Thy. 494 can have a middle sense that confers on Atreus' hatred a certain autonomy and externality (115-16). And the uniqueness of the verbs συνέχθειν and συμφιλεῖν in Antigone's speech imply a certain uniqueness for Antigone's relationship to her (linguistic) community (98).3

As may be expected in a treatment of this scope, there are some omissions, but they do not undermine Hammond's arguments. The discussion of Antigone, one of the best among the classical chapters, does miss the ultimate reversal whereby Creon becomes the boastful, family-destroying figure associated with Polynices (and the impious Seven more generally) at the outset of the poem. But this observation only substantiates the claim at the end of the chapter that the play 'attends to the terrible strangeness of man estranged from his society, located between savage and god' (105). The point about Creon would, however, have provided a nice connection with the discussion of the impious Atreus which opens the following chapter. Hammond might also have noted that the strangeness of Seneca's Thyestes is in fact rendered in terms familiar to the Roman reader, since both Thyestes' speech on the risks of power (445 ff.) and the messenger's account of the recesses of the palace (641 ff.) draw attention to the imperial context of the play—a time of unlimited power, dynastic struggle, and grim treachery. As Gordon Braden demonstrated in his classic study, this cultural context shapes the language not only of Senecan tragedy but also of the Renaissance tradition that would be Seneca's legacy.4 But even though the author treats only one Senecan play, and has little to say about its context, he does give a sense of how Shakespeare's drama of the word and mind is indebted to the Senecan model, for instance in Macbeth's recoiling from his future as predicted by the witches (130-1).

As insightful as Hammond's analyses often are, readers may be left with the feeling that the idea of the strangeness of tragedy is rather familiar. Part of the problem is that the category of what counts as 'strange' is rather broad, including not just the more circumscribed sense of spatial and temporal dislocation felt by the protagonist but also the lack of clarity surrounding the agency of tragic characters and the influence of the divine. The latter sort of 'strangeness', discussed at length in the chapters on the Oresteia and Oedipus plays, has been such a staple of work on tragedy within Classics that readers may not feel this book adds very much to the debate. One can't help thinking that the strangeness of tragedy is in fact one of its most obvious generic markers, and the existing scholarship has perhaps caused classicists to internalise that lesson too well for this study to have much of an impact. But it is certainly helpful to articulate the character of a genre by gathering together the evidence supplied by various passages from across the tradition.

Hammond makes quite clear that his concern is the tragic protagonist, and his treatment of that theme is coherent and concise (1-11). It is a shame, however, that in all this talk of the estrangement of the protagonist there is barely any mention of the kind of estrangement that may be felt by the audience of tragedy, invited to experience their own dislocation from their familiar settings and from their regular forms of discourse as they enter into the world of the theatre and of literary language.5 Hammond also limits his scope, perfectly reasonably, to the already diverse and rich tradition from Aeschylus to Racine (12). And yet this limit seems almost deliberately to avoid the role of estrangement so critical to modern drama, in Brecht and Pinter for instance.6 Some consideration of theories of drama, even if only a cursory examination in the first chapter, might have provoked some reflection on how the audience is supposed to respond to all this oddity. Does the audience find itself at a critical distance from the strangeness of tragedy or undergoing a remarkably analogous (if less calamitous) experience? While Hammond's admirably close attention to the text makes for a refreshing reminder that these tragedies are linguistic objects, to set aside most questions of performance and audience prevents his claims about the peculiar predicament of the protagonist from taking on their full theatrical and metatheatrical significance. Here the opportunity to come at the question of the relationship between audience and dramatic character from the angle of estrangement was missed. Given the intelligence and subtlety of Hammond's readings the omission seems a greater shame.

The lack of attention to the theatrical audience is matched by the absence of any mention of the book's audience from the usual places: front flap, prologue, and the back of the dust jacket. And indeed the book seems a little uncertain of exactly who its audience is supposed to be, as pp. 68-69 illustrate. On the left-hand page Hammond writes 'another killing and the same, alter et idem, on the same spot' while on the right he explains the basic function of the dative case (and the fact that Greek verbs require no pronouns). A reader without Latin may well fail to see that the phrase 'alter et idem' simply translates what precedes; a reader with the ancient languages will find the explanations on p. 69 superfluous. More often than not the author seems to want to address a broad audience and strives to provide the background and pertinent information required, yet at the same time he places needless obstacles in the way. In this regard the occasional, seemingly pointless, name-dropping is also perplexing, e.g., 'This movement answers an implicit, Heideggerian question…' (86), where the invocation of the German philosopher is not put to any particular purpose unless one reads back from the brief discussion on the very last page of the book (199; to which there should at least have been a cross-reference on p. 86).7 This inconsistency in addressing its audience is, in microcosm, the problem of the book as a whole. It does not offer the classicist quite enough to justify a treatment that could otherwise have been tailored more successfully to a non-specialist audience. We should certainly have some sympathy with Hammond, since the task of writing to multiple audiences, which was no doubt the author's aim, is a notoriously difficult one. Nevertheless, the book would have benefited from some explicit engagement with the question of whom the author is addressing with this study.

The appearance of the book and text are generally of the quality one would expect from OUP. The proofreading is of a high standard.8 Still, some aspects of the format could have been improved. The book lacks a bibliography, always a source of frustration for one rummaging through the footnotes in search of a citation. Thankfully the short chapters and light annotation make for an easier time of it. Searching for citations would have been made simpler still, however, if there were fewer unnecessary footnotes—the line references for quotations are inexplicably relegated to the footnotes, requiring the reader to glance down the page, when they could have been accommodated in the body of the text according to normal practice. Since Hammond deals with the language of many passages in detail classicists will also miss an index locorum (which could easily have been compiled by copying and pasting the references from the footnotes). Finally, the general index, which lists only names and titles of works, would have been more useful if it had included at least a few important concepts discussed in the book.

Although conceivably appropriate as a companion to a survey course on tragedy, the specificity of the argument and the cost of the book count against such a use. This is a shame since the author's attention to the interpretive impact of textual problems, diction, and semantic range is a model of careful literary criticism. Hammond's prose is often lyrical but manages to remain clear, and there is even the occasional moment of relief amidst the serious content, as when he begins discussion of The Changeling thus: 'And then there is Alonzo's finger' (25). Undergraduates may nevertheless find the style a little too rarified and allusive, and the analysis seems directed to more advanced students and scholars. The latter, however, will appreciate the broad view of tragedy sketched here and will consult its chapters on particular plays with profit.


1.   BMCR 2010.08.59.
2.   Kathleen Riley, The Reception and Performance of Euripides' Herakles: Reasoning Madness (Oxford, 2008); Emily Wilson, Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton (Baltimore and London, 2004).
3.   Hammond is also good on μέτρον at Soph. El. 236 (65 n. 12).
4.   Gordon Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege (New Haven, 1985).
5.   Hammond touches on 'the audience's expectations' on p. 123, but we hear little else on the subject.
6.   The absence of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt in a book on the strangeness of tragedy only emphasises the exclusivity of Hammond's focus on the text rather than the audience. Recourse to modern examples or theories would not have been necessary, of course; questions of audience have been a staple of discussions within Classics for some time.
7.   And why bother to supply Sanskrit cognates (96-7, 109), which add little to semantic points that are evident from the Greek or Latin?
8.   I noticed only the following typographical errors: 'a[n] estrangement' (4), 'And[r]omache' (14), 'n.19' is missing a space (37 n. 82), πνέους' (60), 'll. 958-51' should read 'll. 948-51' (60 n. 85), 'Vernand' for 'Vernant' (62 n. 99), the punctuation of OC 1753 (91) has been printed in the wrong place. Throughout the book the Greek font doesn't appear quite as it should: accented epsilon and iota are followed by an unnecessarily lengthened space before the following letter, especially at the beginning of words (see, e.g., στω, παθες, etc. on p. 89, et passim). A quibble of a different sort: in stating that 'Cherubin' at Macbeth I.vii.22 is 'singular' (133) Hammond is oversimplifying somewhat. Although that was the usual form for the singular, the sense here requires otherwise and Shakespeare could have adopted its use as a plural form from the Te Deum; in any case at least a footnote was required to explain the difficulty.

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