BMCR 1996.03.04

1996.3.4, Mossman, Wild Justice

, Wild justice : a study of Euripides' Hecuba. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. xiii, 283 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198147893. $55.00.

Judith Mossman has written a judicious, sane and carefully conceived book about Euripides’Hecuba, a drama whose reputation has undergone more reversals of fortune over the centuries than its protagonist. A revision of a prize-winning Oxford dissertation, Wild Justice, yields many insights into this often problematic tragedy, and both students and teachers will find this book fruitful reading. Somewhat paradoxically, my only doubts arise from the very judiciousness and sanity I generally find admirable in the author’s approach; too many of the drama’s rougher edges and disturbing aspects are explained away. We wind up with a drama that is more coherent, more assured than the one I, at least, have come to know, but this play, because of its ambiguities and, quite frankly, the emotional power it has held over virtually all scholars who have lived with it for a time, has provoked a wide range of critical reactions, most with fairly strong cases, and thus this is one case where I feel comfortable recommending a book the quality of which tempers the disagreements I have with it.

First, a brief overview of the basics. After a slightly wobbly Introduction with some misguided references to the larger world of literary studies (see below), M.’s exposition is spread over seven chapters. First, “The Raw Material” sets out the literary sources at Euripides’ disposal, with a particularly valuable stress on the Iliadic legacy, but with a less valuable downplaying of the Odyssey and Oresteia. Next, “Structure and Stagecraft,” displays the positive influence of Oliver Taplin, to whom M. is openly indebted, in delineating Euripides’ adroit manipulation of stage conventions, such as the effect of the exit of Polyxena and the entrance of the corpse of Polydorus around the stationary Hecuba. The third chapter, on the Chorus, is a fine defense not only of the Chorus’ role in this play but in Euripidean drama in general because M. is not content with accepting received wisdom about the alleged disconnection of the Euripidean chorus from the drama’s action. This is followed by “Rhetoric and Characterization,” which raises the vexed question of the importance of character in Greek tragedy. Aware that this concern with character sets off alarm bells with modern acolytes of Aristotle’s Poetics, M. carefully fortifies her position with one of the more sensible defenses of a character-centered approach to Greek tragedy that I have read recently. I shall discuss this in more detail below, along with the chapter on Hecuba’s revenge. A concluding chapter is then succeeded by a helpful Epilogue detailing the post-Euripidean Nachleben of the Hecuba legend; its interest in the play’s fortunes draws on the earlier work of Malcolm Heath. Three appendices engage a few textual questions, later reworkings of Polydorus and Polyxena (why couldn’t this be in the Epilogue?) and iconography.

Apart from an unfashionably Humanistic interest in the reception of the play, especially during the Renaissance, M.’s approach lies squarely within the Anglo-American tradition of text-immanent formalism (which is not a pejorative term in this review), and M. is a very sensitive reader of the play’s poetry and rhetoric, though there are times when I wish that M.’s admissions that, for example, the poetry of the choral odes gives “aesthetic pleasure” (93) would receive more than passing remark, or not be immediately justified by the philologist’s need to footnote a reference to pleasure in ancient poetry. In general, M. concerns her exposition not just with Euripides’ drama but with the play’s reception and the character of Hecuba in the literary tradition. She finds coherence in this approach because she believes that Euripides was intending to fashion here a Hecuba as the archetype of suffering that she becomes in subsequent incarnations. When M. ventures outside the text, it is mainly to consider sources that have influenced Euripides, especially the Iliad, but the author is not particularly interested in or downplays the significance of matters such as the drama’s relation to polis ideology, contemporary political concerns, the Peloponnesian War, or ritual. Despite gestures to the “literary and cultural background” (4) and “cultural grids” informing the play, M. focuses primarily on the literary background. Now, given that this book’s main concern is with formalistic matters, I would not find fault with M. for failing to address areas that lie outside her scope, but her introductory chapter gave me hope that its gestures towards literary theory and New Historicism would inform a study of the drama’s relationship with Athenian society. But even these initial gestures are ill-conceived, and I hope that my pointing them out does not seem captious. As a paradigm for her approach to literature, Mossman cites (7) extensively a passage from a book by Jerome McGann detailing the relationship between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” analysis, and then notes that “McGann is a prominent exponent of ‘New Historicism,’ influenced strongly by Bakhtin and the New Criticism of Leavis and his followers …” Not really. McGann is a fascinating critic, one stubbornly bestriding a number of different approaches, but one whose primary interest is Hermeneutics. Moreover, McGann is often openly critical of New Historicism, he only cites Bakhtin once and seems far more interested in Foucault. But, given the vehement attacks (occasionally hysterical, with distinctly oedipal overtones) by New Historicists on their New Critical forefathers, linking anyone involved in New Historicism to the New Criticism seems badly misplaced, to say the least. M. then compounds the problem by approvingly citing Stephen Greenblatt (8) on the relationship between formalist and historical approaches to literature. Citing Greenblatt is a bit like citing Nietzsche in that it brings with it a large amount of conceptual and associative baggage that I am not sure Mossman appreciates, especially given M.’s persistent attention to the kind of formal, instead of ideological, elements that a New Historicist would find least interesting. I have mixed feelings about raising this, for I really admire the way M. is able to use successfully studies of Shakespeare and Racine (albeit older studies) to inform her approach to Euripidean drama, but the nods to contemporary criticism do not work, and they actually foreshadow M.’s general tendency to shy away from the more disturbing political and social aspects of Euripides’ drama and its Nachleben.

As mentioned above, M.’s sensitivity to the play’s language and structure yields particularly fine chapters on the Chorus and characterization, and the latter in particular warrants more extended praise. M. fights a war here with two fronts: on one side critics who have dismissed the Hecuba for being “too rhetorical”, and, on the other, righteous Aristoteleans safeguarding Greek tragedy from importing ideas from Shakespeare on the grounds that Shakespeare was interested in a different kind of theater, even though those ideas still might be applicable in themselves and Aristotle himself might have had different ideas about drama than the dramatists themselves. The two fronts are related in that the linking of rhetoric to characterization requires that M. defend characterization as a primary goal of the poet. M. essentially pleads guilty to the charges about rhetoric, but then stands them on their head. Yes, the play is rhetorical, but that is one of its virtues, for this enables the dramatist to engage in a study of the practices of self-justification people habitually deploy. Rhetoric and characterization work closely together: (98) “stylization … is a tool of characterization, not an enemy of it.” Thus, (95) “Euripides uses rhetoric as a characterizing force which defines and motivates the people of this play; whether, and how, he uses their rhetoric to undercut their moral standing.” While I find this maxim right on the mark and skillfully developed through the examples of Agamemnon and Polymestor, I also find its author reluctant to apply it to the drama’s protagonist.

This leads me to the most contested matter in this tragedy: the morality of Hecuba’s revenge on Polymestor and his family. M. basically argues, first, that Hecuba is never the utterly passive victim who suddenly metamorphoses into a She-devil, and, second, that Greeks would not feel so uneasy about her revenge as we do. I am inclined to agree with M. about the first argument, but have real doubts about the second. About the decline in Hecuba’s character, so frequently lamented by modern scholars, M. argues (102-3) that any change in Hecuba’s character as she decides to avenge herself against Polymestor is actually a new predominance of a strand already present in her character both earlier in the play and in the literary tradition upon which Euripides draws. Here we see the value of M.’s focus (37-38) on the legacy of an Iliadic Hecuba who wants to eat the liver of the man who killed her finest son ( Iliad 24.212). M.’s reluctance to sentimentalize Hecuba before Polyxena’s death allows her to exploit properly both the Homeric Hecuba and her early proclivity to revenge in the drama, and thus M. follows the lead of Steidl.

In general, Mossman’s fruitful focus on allusions to the Iliad, at the expense of ones to the Odyssey and the Oresteia, seems designed at some level to deflect attention from currents in the drama that disagree with her reading of its meaning and affect, especially in the matter of Hecuba’s revenge, and exposes a weakness in the author’s division between form and content. Given the scholarly consensus on the importance of the Oresteia for Greek tragedy in general and a number of Euripidean dramas in particular, M.’s strong tendency to disavow any meaningful role for an Aeschylean role in this drama’s intertextuality seems strained and not particularly successful; she gives, in my opinion, unfairly short shrift to Thalmann’s recent article ( Classical Antiquity 1993) on this subject which must have reached her fairly late in the revision process. Hecuba‘s events, themes and language often seem to point directly at Aeschylus’ trilogy, and thus our attempts to make sense of this drama’s ending need to square it in relation to the Oresteia. While it is it important to recognize, as M. repeatedly stresses, that our attitudes to revenge can be very different from Euripides’ audience, it is also important not to allow such thinking to put blinders on the real anxieties about revenge circulating throughout Greek tragedy. I am not so sure that the lived experience of an audience sitting in the Theater of Dionysus allows for the kind of hair-splitting distinctions among the different levels of justifiable and unjustifiable revenge that M. at times pursues.

M. masterfully demonstrates the reasons for Hecuba’s revenge and Euripides’ manipulation of suspense while preparing his audience for its occurrence, but M. also seems so determined to explain Hecuba’s reasoning and bring the work’s dissonances back into a recognizable tonality that she runs somewhat roughshod over the much more problematic murder of Polymestor’s children. M. errs first, I think, (188) in making far too much of lack of overt condemnation by Herodotus of the revenge of Hermotimus against Panionius in Book 8, especially given Herodotus’ mastery of irony and litotes in numerous other situations. M. then stresses that the audience would have found the blinding of Polymestor more shocking than the murder of his sons, and while I agree that the blinding makes for more vivid theater, I would suggest that the mute corpses of the children would balance the blind Polymestor’s more explicit grotesqueness for sheer shock value. Ultimately, the downplaying of the death of the children, which Euripides seems to cast as a counterpart to the death of Hecuba’s offspring even at the simplest level of the identical quantity, does not ring convincingly. I agree that we must not overmoralize the ethical decline of Hecuba, but something really awful does happen to her when she chooses to kill the defenseless children of another human being, no matter how vile their father, and in this Euripides has ample precedent. Aeschylus makes his audience feel pity for the agony of Thyestes’ children, the horror of Euripides’Trojan Woman climaxes in the murder of Astyanax, and Sophocles devotes a fair amount of emotional energy to the real threats to the future welfare of Ajax’s son. Given such evidence, it would take a substantial number of clearly stated counterarguments from historical sources to dissuade me from believing that, at least in the Theater of Dionysus, paidicide stands as perhaps the ultimate outrage. What especially perplexes me is that M. continually concedes that the play’s end is “shocking,” “disturbing,” and, finally, that Hecuba is (204) “a play where the certainties of Polyxena are submerged after her death in a morass of doubt …” Strangely, M. seems to be trying to keep doubt out of her analysis of Hecuba herself. Even if Hecuba’s case is relatively straightforward as compared to, say, Orestes, then why does it make everyone, including M., so uneasy?

M.’s exploration in the Epilogue of the play’s later reception is very informative and skillfully presented, yet its main section on Renaissance attitudes to Hecuba suffers from a similar reluctance to pry beneath the social surface to explain dissonances. While it is very difficult to say with full confidence why a particular myth or text becomes more popular in one era than another, M. does not offer much explanation, beyond changes in aesthetic tastes, why Euripides’ play suddenly explodes in popularity during the Renaissance. M. does argue (234) that to Renaissance readers Hecuba’s revenge is acceptable, and even desirable, since it affirms the order of the universe as a place where the wicked are punished. Now, while this was doubtless true for a good segment of the reading population, it is also true that many Renaissance tragedians spent a great deal of energy questioning that very order and the belief of people in it; King Lear, a tragedy extraordinarily resonant with Euripides’Hecuba, springs immediately to my mind. On the continent, Hecuba may have found new favor because its world increasingly resembled the chaotic, ruthless environment delineated by Machiavelli and, later, Jacob Burckhardt in his history of that period. In this chapter M. could have made productive use of Girard’s studies of revenge tragedy to complicate the somewhat simplified vision of Renaissance drama presented there.

This said, I sincerely hope that my criticisms do not give the impression that I believe that this book has too many flaws, for I have found it to be consistently stimulating and thought-provoking. Indeed, her analysis is so replete with new insights that I have found it difficult to avoid writing an extremely long review consisting mainly of instances where my interpretations and M.’s differ (the mysterious winds and Polyxena’s sexuality, to name but two), but I have chosen to spare my reader that ordeal. Any student of this drama looking for a thoughtful, extended analysis of Euripides’Hecuba and its place in literary history will not be disappointed with Wild Justice. Its particular approach and strengths serve as a fascinating counterpart to Croally’s Euripidean Polemic, a very different recent monograph on Euripides’Trojan Women, produced by Cambridge in a similar series. The two books together show the continuing healthy range of Euripidean studies.