Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.03

Isabelle Torrance, Metapoetry in Euripides.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 365.  ISBN 9780199657834.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Jan Haywood, University of Leicester (


An impressive and multifarious arsenal of metapoetic techniques, rather than some kind of oblique tragicomic perspective, is what lends Euripides’ tragic works their oft-noted originality. This is the central argument that drives Isabelle Torrance’s detailed new study of Euripidean poetics, the successor of a 2004 doctoral thesis on Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians. The overall aim of the work is to demonstrate the full extent of Euripides’ sophisticated literary self-consciousness—what Torrance labels his metapoetic persona—particularly discernable in his highly reflexive engagement with mythic tradition, and his works’ distinctive and strategic dialogue with earlier Aeschylean and Sophoclean versions of established mythoi. It is the very pervasiveness of these metapoetic elements in Euripidean tragedy (see more below) that separates his dramatic oeuvre from that of other tragedians, who, as Chapter 5 illustrates briefly (see esp. 268–75), likewise displayed (to a much lesser degree) some of the metapoetic strategies that are explored throughout this study. Torrance’s Euripides expects his audience to appreciate these extensive literary techniques, and to participate in the various metapoetic activities that recur throughout his extant plays.

There is some discussion of contemporary theories of allusivity and intertextuality in the concise introduction. However, the bulk of this study eschews an elaborate theoretical architecture in favour of a close, philological reading of various Euripidean plays. Chapter One explores Euripides’ engagement with Aeschylus’ Oresteia in Electra, Iphigenia among the Taurians, and Orestes.1 Torrance argues that Euripidean allusions to the earlier playwright are not primarily intended as barbed and mocking (as they are often read),2 but as complex, metapoetic reflections on his place in the poetic canon and the difficulty of producing a tragic drama. The analysis begins with the Electra, which puts the highly literary recognition scene under the microscope, questioning the realism of Aeschylean recognition tokens in order that Euripides’ poetry might offer something new. From here Torrance shows how Iphigenia among the Taurians revisits the conclusion of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, offering a “proleptic and elleptic [sic] continuation of Aeschylean events” (p. 35). Euripides’ play submits that not all of the Furies are persuaded by the Areopagites’ acquittal of Orestes, adding details pertaining to Orestes’ reception in Athens and the aetiology of the Choes festival, in order to present an alternative, more effective civic and theological resolution to the story. In the final section of the chapter there is a particularly insightful discussion of Euripides’ use of the term metabolē (“change”) (pp. 44–5), which fits into a broader analysis of Euripides’ distinctly intertextual Orestes. Torrance proposes that this drama “can be read as a series of reversed Oresteia plots” (p. 46), in which Euripides “produces an intricate web-like structure of Oresteia remakes” (p. 47).

Chapter 2 explores the manner in which Euripides exploits popular knowledge of contemporary artistic media (painting, sculpture, architecture), as well as other tragic performances. Here the reader is encouraged to see how Euripidean ekphraseis respond to and challenge the intertextual models they are drawn from; contrary to Aeschylean ekphraseis in Seven and the fragmentary Theōroi, Euripides invites his audience to participate in the hermeneutics of ekphrastic imagery. There is an investigation into the temple architecture in Ion and Iphigenia among the Taurians, as well as an in-depth review of Euripides’ quasi-Homeric catalogue of ships in Iphigenia at Aulis—this latter passage presenting a series of ship emblems (designated as sēmata) that are in dialogue with the epic tradition and closely tied with the drama’s interest in (rejected) marriage and courtship marred by violence. The majority of the chapter centres on illustrating how Euripides’ Phoenician Women radically rewrites Aeschylus’ shield ekphraseis in Seven. Euripides treats Aeschylean images as actual characters and inscribes animate Aeschylean characters and their attributes into his own shield ekphraseis (pp. 94ff.). The analysis in this section is somewhat nuanced, and the reader will welcome the helpful line-drawings of certain Aeschylean and Euripidean warriors’ shields. The discussion yields a number of interesting ideas, for instance on the inversion of Aeschylus’s aptly named Polyneices (“much-strife”), whom Euripides recasts as more sympathetic than his brother Eteocles (p. 98f.). In general Torrance suggests that Euripides’ ekphraseis demonstrate a deep concern regarding issues of “linguistic correctness and thematic appropriateness, particularly in the relation to the sources they evoke” (pp. 65–6). But Euripides does not always respond to earlier poetic ekphraseis in a combative manner, for Torrance finds that there is no discourse on appropriateness in Euripides’ reconfigurations of Iliadic paradigms and ekphraseis—a pointed contrast with the much more tense and agonistic recontestations of ekphrastic language and imagery in Aeschylus.

From here the focus shifts away from intertextual correspondences between Euripides and earlier tragedians and epic poets, towards Euripides’ self-conscious display of the role he plays in myth-creation (mythpoiēsis). Chapter 3 sets out to illustrate how “Euripides exploits the motif of writing in a new way . . . [since] writing in Euripides is associated self-consciously and metapoetically with plot construction and authorial control” (p. 135).3 A brief analysis of the scant references to writing in Aeschylus and Sophocles (both authors who favour oral modes of discourse) demonstrates that the concept of writing functions altogether differently for these earlier tragedians, serving more narrowly as a metaphor for memory. Thus in the three major tragedians’ (fragmentary) Palamedes plays, Torrance shows how it is Euripides—the only playwright to associate Palamedes with the invention of writing—who makes writing central to the direction of the plot. Palamedes’ brother Oeax hopes to avenge his brother’s death, communicating with his father Nauplius with inscribed oars. Euripides’ elaborate dialogue with writing in Palamedes in turn stands as a complex reflection on the construction of tragic narrative. Similarly, the use of writing in the revised Hippolytus, Iphigenia among the Taurians and Iphigenia at Aulis extends further this picture of Euripides’ use of writing as a metaphor for the difficulties of plot construction and rewriting established mythoi — preoccupations that recur throughout this study. The wider ramifications of this interplay are considered in the final section of the chapter, where Torrance broaches the complex issue of audience engagement and literacy levels. This largely reiterates the argument of Torrance’s earlier article: Euripides’ plays and the tragedian’s elaborate metapoetic persona together suggest an engaged and sophisticated response from his audience, even if that audience is not as narrowly élite as previously assumed.

The penultimate chapter centres on Euripides’ Trojan war plays, developing the familiar pattern of Euripides acting as rival and critic of earlier tragedy, whilst simultaneously appealing to epic authority (p. 190). The fragmentary Philoctetes revises various aspects of the Aeschylean version, whilst appealing to a number of epic motifs (e.g. Athena appearing in a dream to Odysseus) that are then transposed into new contexts. Euripides’ Andromache is similarly read as a rival of Sophocles’ Hermione (or Phthian Women) and a continuation of Homer’s heroine. Like various other Euripidean tragedies, Andromache is interpreted as a metapoetic reflection on poetic novelty, notably through Euripides’ use of the imagery of doubling. Perhaps most overtly of all, Euripides’ Hecuba rivals earlier tragic models, and is brimming with metapoetic techniques; for instance, Euripides doubles the misery experienced by the Trojan Hecuba in Sophocles’ Polyxena, slaying not one but two of her children (Polyxena and Polydorus—the latter murder ostensibly a Euripidean invention). Another metapoetic term considered here is kainos (“new”), since this term is exploited by Euripides in his Trojan Women (first performed in 415 BCE) to refer to a novel perspective: the defeated Trojans. The change of focalisation from victor to vanquished, particularly at a time of war, encourages the audience to reconsider the violence of recent historical events (p. 233). In the final section, the highly metapoetic satyr-drama Cyclops is analysed against the backdrop of Odyssey 9. Unlike much of this study, here Torrance accepts that Euripides changes significant details of the earlier Homeric episode, ultimately encouraging an Athenian audience to reflect on the “arrogant Greek [who] ventures into a territory where he is poorly equipped to deal with the threats he faces” (p. 263).

In the final chapter, Metapoetry in Euripides widens its gaze, exploring both the use of metapoetic language and techniques amongst other tragedians, as well as the generic boundaries between Old Comedy and Tragedy. What seems to make Euripides unique is the “overwhelming pervasiveness of metapoetic elements in combinations not present in other tragedians” (p. 300). Alongside this metapoetic agenda, Euripides can also be singled out for his tendency to criticise earlier tragic playwrights, whilst appealing to the authority of earlier epic paradigms. The discussion on the interstices between Old Comedy and Tragedy in this chapter is particularly effective, and Torrance reflects well on the difficulty of detecting a comedic passage in a tragic work (something not always clear in a comedic work, either). For Torrance, this discrepancy only reinforces the greater suitability of analysing Euripides through the lens of metapoetry. Other readers may posit that the appearance of comic elements in a tragedy is more typical than the author allows, but it is certainly clear that Euripides’ work is full of language and imagery that encourages audience members to reflect on the playwright’s technique (p. 287f.).

The tone throughout is memorable and lively; there are a range of finer points that are clarified by the author. For example, contra Natanblut (2005), it is clear that Euripides’ shield emblems are consonant with earlier mythic traditions (p. 129, n. 224). It is to Torrance’s credit that such points are typically handled with balance, even if just occasionally the reader detects a lack of consistency and/or clarity. For instance, IT 40–1 is athetised (p. 42, n. 114), since these lines are “problematic and unnecessarily reveal that Iphigenia does not sacrifice the victims herself, a fact which is best concealed until 620–4”. But what makes these lines problematic? And should this proleptic revelation at the beginning of the drama not lead us to question ever harder what the poet is doing, rather than simply excising it as a later interpolation? (Indeed, such a view is mirrored elsewhere in this study. While some scholars have judged the elaborate catalogue of ships in the parodos of Iphigenia at Aulis to be an interpolation, the author insists that “It is not my intention to become embroiled in a discussion on issues of textual authenticity”, later remarking that even if not authentic, “the catalogue of ships nevertheless features the same kind of literary techniques we have observed in other Euripidean tragedies”, p. 83.)

Metapoetry in Euripides provides many rich and challenging readings of individual Euripidean texts, and persuasively shows how a close reading of Euripides’ oeuvre reflects a proclivity for innovation and a playful relationship with (a largely Athenian) audience. This audience is repeatedly encouraged to muse on the appropriateness of certain established mythoi, though some readers may not be fully persuaded by the view that Euripides is less inclined to challenge Homeric/epic authority than that of earlier tragedians. Nevertheless, what resounds most clearly from this study is that Euripides’ voice is an exceptional one—one that betrays a profound understanding on the dynamics of poetic creation and the re-configuration of myth into new contexts.4


1.   A revised version of “In the Footprints of Aeschylus: Recognition, Allusion and Metapoetics in Euripides”, AJP 132: 177–204.
2.   On this point, Torrance might well have directed the reader to M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (London, 1987), pp. 49–64, who offers a salutary discussion on how Euripides is less polemical than many tend to assume. Heath shows how Euripides works within established mythological paradigms, whilst acknowledging Euripides’ experimental and innovative style.
3.   A revised version of “Writing and Self-Conscious Mythopoiēsis in Euripides”, CCJ 56: 213–58.
4.   The book has been very well edited and contains only the odd minor typographical error.

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