BMCR 1990.02.07

Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus

, The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides' Hippolytos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. xiv, 140 pages. ISBN 0521033233 $37.50.

To de drama tôn prôtôn. The verdict of Aristophanes of Byzantium on Euripides’Hippolytus has remained. Grube called it “perhaps the greatest of all the extant plays” and many contemporary critics would support his claim. So it is appropriate that this play has received considerable scholarly attention. In recent years especially scores of articles have been written on it and in the last three years it has been the exclusive focus of two books, and the partial focus of two others. Barbara Goff’s contribution is the most recent of the lengthier studies. She claims at the outset that her reading of the play “differs significantly from other available treatments, both in detail and overall allegiances” (ix). While this claim could be challenged (the work shares many similarities both in approach and in some of its detailed observations with Zeitlin especially and also, e.g., with Segal, Foley, and Goldhill), it is clear at once that Goff is not writing a “traditional” account of the play. Influenced by a variety of anthropological and post-structuralist approaches, she offers a detailed reading of the play.

In this play, language is the thing. The importance in Hippolytus of language, of the opposition between speech and silence, has been frequently observed (most notably by Knox in 1952), and this is central to Goff’s book. She begins, in Chapter One (“Speech and Silence”), by describing the ways in which the play explores the relations of speech to gender and power: “The relation between speech and silence is set up by the play as an opposition analogous to that operating on a social and sexual level between male and female, on a spatial level between exterior and interior, and on a dramatic level between revelation and concealment” (2). More particularly she discusses the role of the oikos in the play, the recurrent images of revelation and concealment, and the force and function of the “gaze”, in, e.g., the onset of passion, the scrutiny of witnesses and accusers, and the image of the young maiden’s mirror. The second and third chapters are concerned with the relationship of language to desire and violence. In Goff’s view, not only can the play be read as a “series of articulations of desire and of attempts to silence it” (32), but it reveals desire as a generator of speech, of narrative. She also argues for the “power of silenced desire to distort and displace speech” (35), especially in Phaedra’s so-called delirium scene and also in the agon between Theseus and Hippolytus. Goff goes on to discuss sophrosune and sophia in the play and the “other world” wishes of Hippolytus (for motherless procreation) and Theseus (for two voices). Then she examines the ambiguities of pharmakon in the Nurse’s stichomythia with Phaedra, suggesting that the word is a metaphor for persuasion itself, for the “self-consciously evasive possibilities of language” (49). In Goff’s view, speech and desire can be seen as types of violence, and the third chapter looks at violence. In this chapter the