Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.29

Milagros Quijada Sagredo (ed.), Estudios sobre Tragedia Griega: Eurípides, el teatro griego de finales del siglo V a.C. y su influencia posterior.   Madrid:  Ediciones Clásicas, 2011.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 9788478827312.  (pb).  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

[Titles and authors are listed at the end of the review.]

The ten articles in this collection primarily look at late fifth-century tragedy in terms of the evolution of the genre and its intertextual relationships within a system of theatrical and literary genres (p. 7). Euripides is the most prominent author, though two articles focus on Sophocles. The last two articles consider the influence of tragedy on Herodas and Heliodorus. Six are in Spanish, three in English, and one in German, by seven different scholars; each has an abstract in English. There is a brief (3 pages) prologue by the editor, and an index locorum. Individual chapters have their own separate bibliographies.

The first article is "Der Tod der Tragödie: Über den Bedeutungsverlust einer literarischen Gattung am Ende des 5. Jhdts.," by Martin Hose. Hose argues that tragedy was always interested in philosophical and psychological questions. Late in the fifth century, however, technical prose developed and was adopted as a better vehicle for philosophical discussion, thus displacing tragedy from its analytical and political function and reducing it to a mere aesthetic exercise. Even though playwrights, especially Euripides, took up the new ways of thinking (p. 21-23), their medium was not able to encompass the kinds of analysis possible in prose (p. 27). Observers from Aristophanes to Nietzsche have suggested that Euripides killed off tragedy (p. 11-12), but Hose argues that it died not because of Euripides but despite his best efforts to develop the "new anthropological thought" (p. 22) in the traditional medium.

Next come two articles by Milagros Quijada Sagredo, the editor of the volume. The first, "El Euripídes tardío y los límites de la tragedia," considers the later plays of Euripides, defined as those that follow Trojan Women,, in terms of their surprising realism, their relationship with comedy, and their formal and technical innovations. For example, Trojan Women has the plot of an old-fashioned "catastrophe play," but its dialogue uses contemporary rhetoric, leading to a surprising "polytonality" (p. 34). Phoenician Women, too, though it draws from the well-known Theban story, experiments with narrative techniques (p. 35, an observation that is not followed up). Some of these plays, especially Ion, Helen, and Iphigenia in Tauris, have been called "comedies," or at least plays using "comic elements"; Quijada Sagredo gives a good overview of this line of scholarship over the last 100 years or so (p. 39-41). Calling these plays "comedy," however, seems to contradict the sharp distinction Plato and Aristotle draw between tragedy and comedy (p. 41): is Euripides actually going beyond the bounds of his genre? Quijada Sagredo argues that, although there probably was a traditional difference between the tone, style, and characterization appropriate to tragedy and comedy, this difference did not become a "rigid orthodoxy" until later (p. 45-46). Moreover, even the idea of (theatrical) genre we find in Aristotle's Poetics is more flexible than the models imposed by critics in Late Antiquity and Neoclassicism (p. 44-45).

Quijada Sagredo's second contribution, the third chapter of the book, is a close reading of a single play: "Las seis versiones de la historia de Creusa en el Ión de Euripídes." In this play, we hear six times how Creusa came to have a child and give it up: Hermes tells the story in the prologue, Athena fills in details in her appearance ex machina at the end of the play, and Creusa herself tells versions of the story four times to different internal audiences, twice in stichomythia and once in song. Each version takes a different point of view. The play of internal narrators, internal audiences, and varying perspectives is thus an essential theme of the play (p. 70), as the different versions of the story modify our interpretation of what actually happened to Creusa and of who the characters actually are (p. 50-51). Of course in any tragedy the significant facts are mediated, even problematized, by the way the characters present them (p. 69), but in Ion the single story, told and re-told, is the primary action, foregrounded in the play (p. 69). The treatment of stichomythia is particularly good here.

The fourth piece, by Maria do Céu Fialho, is "Novelesque elements in Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris." Fialho points out that some elements of the plot of this play anticipate both the plot of Apollonius's Argonautica (p. 74-75) and the plot elements that become standard in later novels (p. 81). The idea that Iphigenia does not die at Aulis but is replaced by a deer is not, of course, invented for this play (as Fialho points out, p. 73, it occurs in the Cypria), but her sojourn in a far-away barbarian land, her brother's shipwreck, and the various oracles all strike Fialho as more at home in Hellenistic epic and the Greek novel than in the epic cycle (p. 74), though similar elements do occur in the Odyssey. The other new feature of the play is the characters' attitude: Fialho calls Orestes "existentially tired" (p. 78), and she speaks of the characters' "despair" as they recognize how their lives are affected by chance (p. 81) and by the gods (p. 76); nonetheless, both the play and the later novels end with a successful homecoming.

Two articles by M. Carmen Encinas Reguero about Sophocles come next. The first, "Los límites del dolos en el Filoctetes de Sófocles," is one of the best papers in the book. Encinas Reguero argues that the scene with the merchant, early in the play after Neoptolemus has first interacted with Philoctetes, and the appearance of Heracles at the end are not in fact as irrelevant or superfluous as they are sometimes taken to be (p. 85). She contrasts Electra, a play that also involves deception: the pedagogue as false messenger deceives not only Clytemnestra, as he intends to, but also Electra – but not the audience, for they know that Orestes is alive (p. 87). In Philoctetes, on the other hand, the merchant, who is a type of false messenger, deceives not only Philoctetes but also the audience. Encinas Reguero points out that the merchant's language is subtly different from a real messenger's, since he does not use verbs of seeing and rarely uses any first-person verbs at all (p. 92). Messengers normally talk about what they have seen themselves, but the merchant does not bring clear, certain news; he comes rather to produce confusion. Encinas Reguero argues (p. 100) that Sophocles intends to raise doubt in the audience's mind, not only with this scene but with the later confusion about whether the oracle requires Philoctetes himself to go to Troy, or only his bow. Thus even though the audience know the story, they are left unsure until the end of the play. Indeed, she suggests, following Seth Schein, that Electra is deliberately a "problematic play" and Philoctetes goes one step further in the same direction (p. 102). This paper accounts nicely for some of the difficult features of Philoctetes.

The second paper by Encinas Reguero is also the second Sophoclean paper, "Exhibicionismo retórico y transformación narrativa en Edipo en Colono." This play, in which most of the action comes in the form of dialogue, is a study in the practical application of rhetoric (p. 105-106). Characters regularly call attention to their own argumentation, and the longer speeches are carefully constructed, often in ring form (p. 108). Standard techniques like the argument from probability or the reductio ad absurdum are frequent (p. 109-110). Speakers treat their listeners as jurors of their arguments (p. 112). And nearly all the long speeches are intended to persuade, rather than to narrate, explain, or justify. There is no messenger speech until the very end of the play, and when it does occur it is atypical (p. 106), because it does not prompt anyone to action (p. 119). Before this, the closest thing to a messenger speech is Ismene's report of conditions in Thebes and the newest oracle about Oedipus; the long speech in which Polynices catalogs his allies is also a sort of narrative (and this very catalog comes in a messenger speech in other Theban plays), but not a messenger speech (p. 119). Moreover, although the messenger was present, he did not see the final disappearance of Oedipus, so does not speak with a messenger's usual authority: in fact, instead of saying what has actually happened, all he can say is what did not happen (p. 121). In this play, then, argumentative speeches (and strategic silences: p. 127) take the place of narrative ones, involving the audience as they are tempted to take sides. Certainly Oedipus at Colonus is a particularly "talky" play, but Encinas Reguero may emphasize its rhetorical character too much, and I do not agree with her conclusion that Oedipus is "actually a metaphor for Athens" (p. 128).

The seventh article is by far the longest in the volume, weighing in at 70 pages; its title is "El Rumor como motivo literaria en la tragedia," by Máximo Brioso Sánchez. Rumor appears occasionally as a motif in epic, but according to Brioso Sánchez it is more important in tragedy. One way characters on stage learn what has happened off stage is through reliable reports, from messengers for example, but they may also receive unreliable reports, among which Brioso Sánchez distinguishes dreams, oracles, and rumors as sources of information (p. 136). The discussion of words for "rumor" is good: there is no precise word in Greek with the same range as English or Spanish "rumor" (p. 145). Thus Brioso Sánchez must figure out exactly which references to off-stage events actually count as rumors; these are catalogued briskly at the end of the paper (p. 170-190). Indeed, the paper spends so long discussing antecedents in epic and the general theory of literary rumor that it barely gets into tragedy. This whole rich discussion might better have been presented at greater length as a book.

With the next article the focus broadens to include comedy. Maria de Fátima Silva in "The Foreigner living in Athens: A dramatic type character of the last quarter of the 5th century B.C." argues that comedy takes up the idea of the metic as a stock character (and a stock insult) in the latter part of the fifth century, using them as both exotic and ridiculous elements (p. 209). The primary example in extant comedy is the Scythian guard in Thesmophoriazusae; Silva analyzes this scene in detail, with excellent notes on his accent (p. 209-215). She then suggests that the Phrygian slave in Euripides' Orestes is a parody of the comic character, perhaps also subtly alluding to the parody of Euripides in the Aristophanic scene (p. 215). Her analysis of the tragic scene points out the parallels: in both scenes, a barbarian has a job to do, someone makes "advances on a beautiful lady" (the Scythian approaches the dancing girl for sex, Orestes approaches Helen for revenge), a prisoner must be guarded, and the barbarian speaks in an unusual way (p. 216-217). The language is not quite the same: the Scythian in Aristophanes speaks in dialect, while Euripides's Phrygian is simply labelled as "barbarian," though, as Silva points out, both foreign characters use animal metaphors. Although some of these possible parallels are more convincing than others, on balance she makes a good case.

The ninth article is "Herodas' Rhetoric of Proverbs," by José Antonio Fernández Delgado. Here, tragedy is not particularly relevant, but New Comedy is. Fernández Delgado catalogues all the gnomic phrases or proverbial expressions in the Mimiamboi, citing other uses of the same or similar phrases elsewhere in classical Greek. Many of these poems end with a proverb, almost like an epigram (p. 228), but most of the proverbs in the collection are in the dialogue, where they help characterize the speakers (p. 230). The catalogue will be a useful foundation for further study.

Finally, Brioso Sánchez returns with "Euripídes en Heliodoro: La carta de Fedra in Hipólito y el episodio de Cnemón en Etiópicas." He argues that the plot of Hippolytus is a closer model for the story in the novel than the similar story of Bellerophon in the Iliad, primarily because Thisbe, like Phaedra, writes a letter that is found on her body, though Thisbe's is not a suicide note (p. 247). He also points out the theatrical language in Knemon's story and in the main narrative.

In summary, this book will be useful not only to scholars of tragedy, but to readers of epic, comedy, mime, and the novel as well.

Titles and authors

Prólogo, Milagros Quijada Sagredo
Der Tod der Tragödie: Über den Bedeutungsverlust einer literarischen Gattung am Ende des 5. Jhdts.," Martin Hose
El Euripídes tardío y los límites de la tragedia, Milagros Quijada Sagredo
Las seis versiones de la historia de Creusa en el Ión de Euripídes, Milagros Quijada Sagredo
Novelesque elements in Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris, Maria do Céu Fialho
Los límites del dolos en el Filoctetes de Sófocles, M. Carmen Encinas Reguero
Exhibicionismo retórico y transformación narrativa en Edipo en Colono, M. Carmen Encinas Reguero
El Rumor como motivo literaria en la tragedia, Máximo Brioso Sánchez
The Foreigner living in Athens: A dramatic type character of the last quarter of the 5th century B.C., Maria de Fátima Silva
Herodas' Rhetoric of Proverbs, José Antonio Fernández Delgado
Euripídes en Heliodoro: La carta de Fedra in Hipólito y el episodio de Cnemón en Etiópicas, Máximo Brioso Sánchez
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