BMCR 1990.01.08

Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature

, Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. vii, 270 pages. ISBN 0198140584.

Christopher Pelling has gathered a series of essays which focuses on the mix of self-consciousness, introspection, decision-making and responsibility, description, understanding, and individualism in a variety of genres in Greek literature. These essays concentrate on the themes of characterization and individuality rather than the natures of the various genres in which they are included; thus he and his co-authors seek to provoke thought and to suggest wider implications through the cross-connections thereby suggested; indices at the end of the book encourage such comparisons. The breadth and depth of discussion probably could not have been achieved by any one contributor; Pelling is to be congratulated on organizing a group of distinguished critics to pursue a single conception with such discipline. A quick sketch of each essay can do no more than indicate the range of authors and genres discussed in this highly illuminating series of essays.

Christopher Gill develops his earlier thoughts on the distinction between character and personality through an analysis of Ajax’s Deception Speech, the chorus’ report of Agamemnon’s decision to kill Iphigeneia from Agamemnon, the decision of Eteocles in The Seven, and the internal debate of Medea. He is continually conscious that characters understand themselves differently from those who hear them and that one must combine “character” and “personality” to come to a full understanding of each crucial moment. He promises a longer study suggesting that terms such as “agency and passivity” and “conflicts of value” be added to the complex mixture of characterization within a literary work.

Stephen Halliwell adds to this view the traditional categories through which the Greeks have sought to understand and evaluate the working of the human character. He analyses the scene of complex emotions struggling within the individual at Odyssey 20.5-55 and then Isocrates’ biographical encomium of Evagoras. By studying two such different presentations of character, he shows the continuity of overtly ethical terms by which characters are evaluated from Homer through the 4th century. He ends by outlining the varied potencies—psychological, social, natural, and divine—which intersect and become entangled in determining the individual nature of any one character. Given the strength of traditional categories of praise and blame, it is always a problem to establish characters as the source of their own motivations rather than the exemplars of qualities which are not uniquely theirs.

Oliver Taplin then gives an analysis of Agamemnon’s character as presented by Homer in which he attempts to minimize the understandably negative judgments of Achilles. He evaluates individual passages of the Iliad against the norms of contemporary society and of the poem itself to determine Homer’s assessment of his character. For example, Agamemnon though seemingly honored by Achilles at the end of Book 23 is never reinstated in the poem: in this scene, “the contest is minor; the prize is cheap…Agamemnon does not speak a word…the truth is that the Iliad almost fades Agamemnon out, once he is no longer the object of Achilles’ anger” (p. 78). Taplin closes his argument with this statement: “characterization in Homer is not a self-sufficient element which can be extracted by itself. It is indivisible from critical interpretation in all its aspects” (p. 82).

P. E. Easterling argues for a more dynamic involvement by spectators in assessing characterization within a play; she chooses Antigone as her example. There is more to this play than the determination of character portraits; through the words of Antigone, Ismene, Creon and Haemon spectators are led to make new constructions which always lead to larger questions. Character and action are intimately intertwined; the inwardness of the fictive characters makes a continual appeal to the spectator.

Simon Goldhill in what appears a negative article explores the weaknesses in a variety of previous treatments of characterization. He illustrates his arguments from a variety of dramatic scenes in the course of which he implies a series of approaches, each of which will have to be developed in the future. This is a large agenda but does promise a new kind of reading which will account for cross-cultural differences in important categories of description, for the importance of the literary tradition, for the areas of ambiguity and general ignorance which are implicit in each speaker’s view, and the contribution of the teller to the tale.

Jasper Griffin’s contribution is more focussed than the other, more theoretical arguments in the volume. He distinguishes between the technique of the revised Hippolytus and that of the Iphigeneia at Aulis. His analysis of Euripides’ sensitivity to “workings of the human heart” is subtle; but his description of the IA as a play in which “we contemplate and experience a kaleidoscopic succession of emotions, only loosely attached to particular persons” not only ignores the rather tight criteria suggested by his colleagues in this conference but also seems peculiarly uninformative when it all comes down to this statement: “Some plays, for particular reasons, will exploit it (the knowledge of the workings of the human heart) particularly; it is not impossible for us to see how and why this happens” (149).

Michael Silk discusses the characters of Aristophanes on the basis of an analogy between character and image. These “imagistic characters” evoke reality through discontinuity, inversion, or reversal. Unexpected behavior is their prerogative but not always—because they are inconsistently inconsistent. In fact, he identifies a whole pattern of reversals, inversions, and oppositions at the root of Aristophanic comedy, thus concluding: “The inconstancies of behaviour which the people of Aristophanes exhibit are acceptable because they presuppose Aristophanic ‘norms’ of discontinuity both on the level of character and elsewhere” (p. 171).

“The Role of the Interlocutor in Plato’s Dialogues” is the title of Lucinda Coventry’s discussion of characterization in a form other than drama. She insists that Socrates is consistent in his position but continually varies his response. Even in the characterization of the interlocutor one finds the fundamental Platonic contrast between dialectic and rhetoric: “Consideration of others, both in life and in discourse, is, Plato suggests, unavoidable; but it may take the form of a fruitful, voluntary interaction or of a reluctant dependence according to whether it is chosen as part of the life of philosophy or results ironically from a vain attempt to live independently of philosophy’s demands” (p. 184). She concludes with an analysis of Phaedrus’ characterization as a significant part of Plato’s art, “combining with other elements to reflect and express his deepest convictions” (196).

D. A. Russell in his discussion on “Ethos in Oratory and Rhetoric” illustrates the various devices in characterizing speakers and subjects employed by Attic orators and their successors. He analyses five examples and unites all by showing that the speakers at all times are dealing with “the tensions and malice of everyday life” and consequently had developed a series of character types as well as a carefully planned technique for presenting them. All speakers are in a situation where they will naturally speak in terms of realism and good humor in using ethos to seek conciliation and to characterize other parties.

Christopher Pelling closes the series of papers with “Childhood and Personality in Greek Biography,” in which he notes a relative lack of childhood stories in the ancient biographies of political figures compared to those of cultural figures. He analyses Plutarch showing that he has a considerable interest in personality, but that understanding was only one thing among several which Plutarch was doing and was not always given highest priority. He further points out that in ancient biography there was less of an adult personality to understand than one finds in modern biographies. Plutarch has an integral conception of characterization; the traits which a character has in adult life do not call into question those which are there from the beginning.