BMCR 1991.01.15

Euripides, Women, and Sexuality

, Euripides, Women, and Sexuality. New York: Routledge, 1990. x, 200. ISBN 0203402359.

Collections of essays proliferate, perhaps on no subject more than Greek tragedy. The collection under review derives from the annual seminar of the London Classical Society held in 1987, and all but one of the essays (Williamson’s) appear in print for the first time. Since so much (relatively) of Euripides survives, not all plays are well represented here, and, unsurprisingly, Medea, Hippolytus, and Bacchae receive a good deal of attention. But so do Troades, Heraclidae, the fragmentary Chrysippus, and many other of the fragmentary plays. Three of the seven essays are devoted to aspects of single plays, while the remaining four deal with several or many plays. While Anton Powell is to be commended for bringing these papers together, it is regrettable that he (or one of the contributors) did not write an introductory essay describing how the essays collectively contribute to the discussion of the topics.

In her essay “Sexual Imagery and Innuendo in Troades,” Elizabeth Craik argues that there is an extended use of sexual images and double entendres in the play. Although tragic diction, it is generally recognized, includes sexual images (e.g., OT. 420ff., Ant. 569), sexual puns or obscenities are not usually seen in it; therefore this essay raises questions about what we expect from tragic language. Craik’s specific suggestions, however, are often not very persuasive. Two examples: in the exchange between Hecuba and the chorus, κινεῖται κωπήρης χείρ (160) is said to have sexual overtones because of the associations found elsewhere of “oars” and of the verb κινέω (6); and with the geographical description by the chorus at 1096ff. Euripides “indicates the genital area with some precision” (11). Craik is aware of the difficulty of proving her suggestions and she addresses some of the general problems and issues at the outset (2), but her case would be stronger if more support could be drawn from tragedy itself (“Look for Latin etymologies on the Tiber”). The topic of sexual imagery in tragedy is potentially very interesting; perhaps Craik or someone else will take on such a broader study, to which the present essay might serve as a stimulus.

In “A Woman’s Place in Euripides’Medea,” Margaret Williamson builds on a number of contemporary strategies for viewing Greek drama and society (especially the importance of the contrast between interior and exterior spaces) and several important studies of Medea’s “heroism” to offer a helpful look at Medea’s use of language. In particular she argues that her language has much in common with that of men, and that it, like her actions, is transgressive. Near her conclusion, Williamson writes, “[Medea] now [as she enters the skene to murder her children] shares with Creon and Jason a vocabulary which has been discredited as a means of understanding the relationship central to the oikos, and her heroic language is equally inappropriate to it. It is inevitable, therefore, that the consequence of her entry into the house should be wordless violence—the murder of the children who are the most stable measure of its central relationship” (26). She ends her essay by commenting on the limits of language within the play, including in her discussion the choral self-reflections in the first stasimon.

Was Euripides a misogynist? “No,” answers Jennifer March in her essay, “Euripides the Misogynist?” March eschews the more common modes of investigating this question and looks at it from the perspective of Euripides’ innovative use of traditional mythological material, hoping thereby to illuminate his particular treatment of women. She focuses on Medea, Hippolytus, and Bacchae, three plays which show “women who do wicked deeds” and attempts to demonstrate that even in these plays Euripides creates sympathetic portraits of the women depicted. Much of March’s discussion is taken up with the slippery issue of the dramatist’s innovations. This is an important issue and March has some worthy contributions to make to it (although on Euripides’ supposed priority to Neophron, see now A. Michelini, “Neophron and Euripides’Medea 1056-80,”TAPA 119 [1989] 115-35), but I think that she sheds only a little, albeit new, light on the question posed about Euripides’ alleged misogyny.

Christopher Gill’s latest contribution to his exploration of dramatic character is “The Articulation of the Self in Euripides’Hippolytus.” This essay has two themes: “One is the way in which, in this as in other Greek tragedies, certain speeches can be read as being reflexive, as expressing or even defining the ‘self’ of the speaker… The other is the way in which these self-expressive speeches contribute to a larger pattern of articulation, through which the play’s central argument or dialectic is constructed” (76). Gill examines the uses of sophrosyne and its relatives to describe how the fabric of the drama and its characters’ self-presentation is woven by the connections between and among this and other central terms and phrase patterns. He views the ambiguities surrounding the word sophrosyne as part of a larger pattern of ambiguities, dislocations and miscommunications. And he adds many details to the discussion of how “the three figures become so closely interlocked that what is said or done represents the result of their interaction (and of the misunderstanding and miscommunication in that interaction) rather than being a direct expression of the free choice and ethical stance of any one figure” (88). He concludes with a comparison between the play and Plato’s Charmides. This is an exceptionally rich essay; suffice it to say that it should be required reading for anyone interested in the play or in dramatic characterization in tragedy.

The longest piece in the collection is William Poole’s “Male Homosexuality in Euripides” (42 pp.). Two-thirds of the essay is devoted to a survey of Euripides’ descriptions of male beauty, especially effeminate beauty, and his treatment of male friendships where there is no overt indication of a homosexual element; the rest of the piece is taken up with a discussion of the fragmentary Chrysippus, in which a homosexual relationship played a basic role. It is useful to have the material collected, even if not all of Poole’s suggested cases of homosexual overtones are convincing. (He himself is aware that often the evidence is thin and speculation plays a role.) The treatment of the Chrysippus, which could just as easily have stood alone (the preliminary survey does not really touch upon or aid it), contributes to the discussion of this play. In many places, however, in both parts of the essay, fuller references are called for. To cite but one example, he favors (and lays, in my view, too much importance on) an early dating, but makes no mention of M. Cropp and G. Flick, “Resolutions and Chronology in Euripides: the Fragmentary Tragedies,”BICS suppl. 43 (London 1985), who question assigning any date to a play of which we have so little. Finally, many will doubt the psychologizing about the playwright; see, e.g., the statements on 136 and on 149, “I cannot help wondering whether [Laius’ internal struggle in the Chrysippus, Euripides’ portrayal of male beauty and stories found in the Life and implied in the Frogs ] might not reflect a strong but reluctant attraction towards homosexual attachments on the part of the man who wrote the Chrysippus.

Anyone familiar with Richard Seaford’s recent work will be unsurprised to find that his contribution deals with aspects of marriage—”The Structural Problems of Marriage in Euripides.” Seaford surveys the Euripidean corpus (with frequent references to the other tragedians, Homer, and others), considering the paradoxical issue of the implicit threat to the oikos created by marriage, since it joins together (typically) members from two different households, with potentially conflicting claims. He treats the cases in several groupings: 1) “cases in which marriage or sexual union represents a danger to the girl’s family of origin”; 2) “cases in which the wife puts her husband above her family of origin”; 3) “cases in which the wife puts her family of origin above her family by marriage”; and 4) and 5) those cases where the “problems arise from either the man’s relationship with another woman or the woman’s relationship with another man”. Much of the material, as with Poole’s essay, is from the fragments, although Ion and Andromache, e.g., also receive appropriate attention. This is a stimulating essay, especially in the questions it raises, and begins to answer, on the connections between these topics and the social changes brought about by the evolving city-state.

The collection concludes with John Wilkins’ “The State and the Individual: Euripides’ Plays of Voluntary Sacrifice.” Wilkins briefly examines the plays of Euripides, all produced during the Peloponnesian War, which depict a voluntary sacrifice for political purposes—Heraclidae, Hecuba, Erechtheus, Phoenissae, and IA ( Phrixus B does not survive sufficiently well for discussion and the sacrifice in Alc. is for purely familial reasons). The essay’s comparisons of common elements and differences in the plays’ handling of this motif are helpful, as are the links suggested between the dramatic presentations and other texts and rituals. In the last third of the essay, devoted to the Heraclidae as the earliest of these plays, Wilkins argues for the influence of Athenian myth and ritual and suggests that the actions of the daughter of Heracles was based on the city’s kourotrophic goddesses. He also argues against an ironic interpretation of the sacrifice in the play and wonders about the now orthodox ironic interpretations of some of the other plays, especially IA. Unfortunately, the essay is rather short for the many topics it touches on, and the several interesting issues raised apropos of a general assessment of Euripides’ frequent choice of this motif (184) are not fully addressed.