BMCR 1994.08.09

1994.08.09, Segal, Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow

, Euripides and the poetics of sorrow : art, gender, and commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. xiii, 317 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780822313601. $45.00.

This book is a collection of previously published articles. Several major themes draw these studies together: the way that Euripides’ tragedy reflects self-consciously on its own discourse and defines its place in a poetic tradition and the way that issues of gender are used to “question traditional values and the familiar definitions of male heroism” (p. 4). Ritual and lamentation play a significant role in defining Euripides’ attempts to control an audience’s response to his plays and to reach emotional closure. At the same time, tragedy divides the worlds of men and women, then intermingles them with disastrous effects that leave serious issues unresolved in the concluding scenes. Women are driven to problematic actions by their passionate concern for family, but the male characters fail to affirm fully heroic or communal values in response. In Hippolytus and Hecuba, “the resulting justice, as is often the case in Greek tragedy, is retributive rather than restorative.” (p. 229)

Of the three chapters on Alcestis, the first explores the play’s self-conscious manipulation of genre issues, the shift from a tragic beginning to the play’s concluding rescue of Alcestis from death. The statue of Alcestis that Admetus proposes to place in his bed to assuage his loss of his wife plays a critical role in defining the play’s self-reflexivity: “the statue mediates between art and ritual … and helps to locate the play itself in the shifting ground between rite and mimetic art.” (p. 45) In the end, the play “refuses to have an ending. For that nonending to come about, however, the play must break out of the female-dominated house to the realm of male generosity and hospitality, male heroism, and ultimately, the male-dominated civic art of the theater.” (p. 47) Yet Alcestis’ silence, her unpaid dues to the world of the dead, undercut the “comic” closure of the symbolic wedding reenacted in the closing scenes as Heracles gives Admetus back his bride.

The second chapter on Alcestis deals first with the play’s unusual representation of an “ordinary” death on stage and with the problems raised by Admetus’ process of grieving for his wife. Public lamentation by a male figure is problematic in an Attic context, and Admetus’ grief threatens to feminize him. Segal argues that Admetus learns something from grieving for his wife, but this learning process is cut short by the play’s conclusion. The third chapter expands on the play’s partial gender reversals. Alcestis’ heroic death confines Admetus in the more feminine domestic realm; his reacquisition of male identity through meeting the obligations of hospitality requires him to betray his wife.

Failed communication between male and female worlds is central to the three chapters on Hippolytus. Seeing and hearing prove unreliable modes of acquiring knowledge. Female speech, writing, and passion violate the silence and invisibility required of the chaste wife and disrupt the “discourse of truth between males” (p. 99); but this discourse is reestablished by Artemis in the final scene between Hippolytus and Theseus. Nevertheless, although the once alienated Hippolytus is restored to the city by becoming “a common grief for all the citizens” (1462), the cult for young women on the verge of marriage that will be established in his honor continues to link him to a feminine world.

In Hecuba, the barbarian women, Hecuba and especially Polyxena, establish a position of moral superiority relative to the expedient Greeks in the play’s earlier scenes. Although Hecuba ultimately becomes bestial and morally corrupt in her pursuit of a bloody revenge against the treacherous barbarian Polymestor, the Greeks brutally sacrifice Polyxena and collude with Hecuba’s revenge. Thus, “in watching these savage, brutal barbarians,” the Greeks “were really watching themselves.” (190) In this play “standards of public policy in the assembly confront standards of private justice in the law courts.” (211) Segal views the play as “a devastating critique of a world that has lost touch with basic moral values and a language that could articulate them” (p. 210). Finally, the relative absence of the gods in this tragedy (there are some hints of their presence in acquistion of burial for the ghostly Polydorus, the suspension of the winds, and the concluding prophecy of Polymestor) stresses human responsibility for the tragic outcome.

Because these chapters were originally published as separate articles, there is, despite revision, a good deal of repetition from one chapter to the next. This, and the relentlessly detailed documentation of Segal’s points, makes the book slow reading at times. At the same time, these detailed, often rich close readings are considerably more original than the interpretations offered in the book as a whole. The chapter on “Law and Universals” in the Hecuba, for example, adopts the position of many critics that the play traces the moral degradation of the heroine and exposes contradictions in contemporary Greek rhetoric and morality. Yet the close reading of terms such as nomos, the detailed exposure of contradictions in the characters’ arguments, and the balanced assessment of Hecuba’s violence in the context of the Greeks’ own amoral expediency, offer a more complex and nuanced reading than that of Segal’s predecessors. I was disappointed, however, that he did not discuss the provocative reading of these same moral issues by Martha Nussbaum. 1 Similarly, in the discussions of Hippolytus, Segal expands on Knox’s and Zeitlin’s treatment of speech, silence, signs, writing, and in Zeitlin’s case, the relation of these issues to gender in the play. 2 (Originality would have been difficult in any case. Segal himself had already written seven previous articles on this play, as well as general discussions of speech and writing in tragedy). The expansion, however, demonstrates the complex and pervasive deployment of these themes. There is nothing new in the way that Segal frames his analysis of gender polarities in tragedy. Gender and tragic space, for example, has been a pervasive topic of late. Aristophanes himself stressed the dangers posed by female passion to public order and discourse in Euripides. Yet Segal’s readings have the virtue of presenting a balanced picture of the issues by stressing in detail the male as well as the female contribution to the breakdown of gender boundaries in these plays.

The close reading that constitutes this book’s virtues also characterizes its limits. These plays were, at least originally, first and foremost designed as performances in a particular social and historical context. Segal tends to over-emphasize verbal correspondences that occur at widely-spaced intervals as the basis of his interpretations. The folding and unfolding of Hippolytus’ hands and Phaedra’s tablets are a case in point (pp. 117-18). Hippolytus unfolds his hands to the gods (1190-93); his hands cannot be unfolded from his reins (1236); Phaedra’s tablet unfolds to reveal hidden secrets (864). The unfolding of the tablet is thematically critical, since the play stresses the dangerous revelation of what should be kept secret; the unfoldings of Hippolytus’ hands have a different and uncertain thematic importance.

Segal can also overwork the possible connections between images. He builds an entire chapter on the ability of clothing to “conceal the true form beneath its folds” and represent “the dignity that violence can strip away.” (165) Yet does the image of the suppliant Odysseus concealing his hand in Hecuba’s robes relate in significant ways to hiding or transience? (p. 166) And is this concealment comparable to Odysseus’ attempt to prevent Polyxena from supplicating him by concealing his hand in his robes? The two gestures are pointedly symmetrical, but have different implications. It is as hard to see a relation between this use of clothing to conceal and the deceptive use of robes by the Trojan women to conceal gold or weapons, as it is to attribute any consistent importance in the dramatic deployment of clothing imagery to the fact that the women are the makers of clothing in Greek culture. The chapter is entitled “Golden Armor and Servile Robes.” Segal argues that Trojan gold, in motivating both the death of Polydorus and the deception of Polymestor, is like clothing implicated in tragic transitions (“the degeneration of tragic values” [p. 160]). Yet the single link between gold and clothing in the play occurs in the description of Achilles’ golden armor, which, as Segal points out, represents not transience or concealment but divinity and heroic permanence.

Finally, Segal’s treatment of lamentation might have been considerably different if he had been able to profit from recent anthropologically and historically-oriented studies of the subject, which raise questions about the ability of lamentation to perform the resolving acts of closure that Segal attributes to it. 3 As these studies show, lament may assist the mourner (or the audience) in coming to terms with death, but it can also raise unsettling questions about heroic and military values, perpetuate grief, and foment revenge and passion. In Hecuba, for example, it is no accident that Hecuba inaugurates simultaneously her lament for the dead Polydorus and her revenge (864-87): “Alas, my son, my son, I begin a bacchic lament, having learnt just now of your evils from a spirit of revenge.”

  • [1] The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge 1986. [2] B. M. W. Knox, Yale Classical Studies 13 (1952) 3-31 = Word and Action. Baltimore 1979: 205-30 and F. I. Zeitlin, “The Power of Aphrodite: Eros and the Boundaries of the Self in the Hippolytus,” in P. Burian, ed., Directions in Euripidean Criticism: A Collection of Essays. Durham, N.C. 1985: 52-111, 189-208. [3] A. Caraveli, “The Bitter Wounding; the Lament as Social Protest in Rural Greece,” in J. Dubisch, ed., Gender and Power in Rural Greece, Princeton 1986: 169-84; N. C. Serematakis, The Last Word. Women, Death and Divination in Inner Mani, Chicago 1991; G. Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Lament in Greek Literature, New York and London 1992; and H. P. Foley, “The Politics of Tragic Lamentation,” in A.H. Sommerstein, S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, and B. Zimmermann, eds., Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, Bari 1993: 101-43.