BMCR 1998.05.07

98.5.07, Playing the Other. Essays on Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature

, Playing the other : gender and society in classical Greek literature. Women in culture and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. xx, 474 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780226979212.

The title Playing the Other does a remarkable job of naming the thematics of Zeitlin’s career. Early in her introduction she admits that her scholarly work has been driven by “… an enduring desire to see matters otherwise” (1), and one hallmark of her analysis is a penchant for taking the received opinion on a text and either inverting it or compelling it to say more. Zeitlin likes to play with ideas in an effort to “uncover … ‘secrets’ in the text” (1), and she studies the play between the concepts that structure a text, such as myth and ritual, or conventions of performance and generic paradigms, for she sees within this creative tension the fundamental project of tragedy: an examination of social rules that may call them into question but ends up confirming them (3). Zeitlin has played the other throughout the twenty years spanned by these essays.

Zeitlin’s own explanation for the title—that it emphasizes both “representation as the key element” to understanding the role of the feminine in texts written by men and the “continual play with gender categories” to be found in them (15)—helps account for her choice of essays. These two issues certainly give the book a coherent enough theme, were it simply meant to be the usual “collected works.” But this book has a more ambitious aim; Zeitlin is offering more than an archaeology of her thinking on feminist and dramatic issues, although her introduction gives a brief summary of that development. As an entirety, this collection is meant to advance a particular meaning for ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as models of identity in Athenian society, and to offer evidence that tragedy, in these terms, is feminine. One sign of this ambition is the fact that Zeitlin has revised the essays well beyond the usual practice of others in similar circumstances, making stylistic changes and adding, sometimes substantially, to her original arguments. These additions, as far as I could tell, are always flagged for the reader, thus preserving their origins as articles that were intended to stand on their own. Nevertheless, Zeitlin expends considerable effort on amalgamating the essays in this collection into something like an organic whole. It’s worth asking, then, the question that concerns the rest of this review-is there a whole here that is greater than the individual essays’ contributions?

The nine essays in this collection include some of Zeitlin’s most familiar work; eight of them have been published before. The first three essays are meant to establish the foundational paradigms or representations of the female in Greek literature. “Figuring Fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey” (first published in 1995), and “Signifying Difference: The Case of Hesiod’s Pandora” are the newest in the collection, the latter appearing here for the first time. The third, “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in Aeschylus’Oresteia,” is perhaps Zeitlin’s best known, first published in 1978. There then follow four further essays on specific Aeschylean and Euripidean tragedies: “The Politics of Eros in the Danaid Trilogy of Aeschylus” (1992); “The Body’s Revenge: Dionysus and Tragic Action in Euripides’Hekabe” (1991); “The Power of Aphrodite: Eros and the Boundaries of the Self in Euripides’Hippolytus” (1985); and “Mysteries of Identities and Designs of the Self in Euripides’Ion” (1989). These are paired as discussions of what prove to be crucial sites for the operation of opposing feminine and masculine constructions: the woman’s body as her story; the boy’s self-hood as his. Finally, two more theoretical essays close the book: “Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama” (1985); and “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’Thesmophoriazousae” (1981).

The short answer to the question of whether such a selection of essays works as an organic whole is, yes—in retrospect. They end up cohering around the controversial proposition that tragic drama “plays the other” because it is an inherently feminine genre. Zeitlin uses “feminine” here as a term which is synonymous neither with biological sex nor with the strictly gendered role of female versus male. Instead, “feminine” signifies a construction of categories that can be abstracted from an entire system of codes, whether physical or psychological, social and ethical or epistemological, and that are set in opposition to a parallel, “masculine” construction (237). Both are means by which a culture organizes itself and maintains its structures of male authority (9), and things are feminized or masculinized according to their adherence to these constructions. Thus to mistake Zeitlin’s claim as only another way of articulating Athenian tragedy’s preoccupation with strong female characters is to underestimate the significance of her argument. Tragedy and the female are kindred-feminine-creatures because both are mimetic. In tragedy women serve as the educating mirror of the male (363); but tragedy itself also serves that function, as well as sharing other “feminine” characteristics. These include: preoccupation with the body; a paradoxical relationship with the outwardly transparent dichotomy of inside/outside; and a propensity to “plot,” that is, to devise contrivances to advance action (349). I found this proposition convincing, particularly in this setting. The crucial eighth essay, “Playing the Other,” had already set the claim out some twelve years ago, but now, in the context of other discussions on such disparate literary and dramatic texts, Zeitlin’s argument is more compelling—more fleshed out, as it were. At the same time, the other essays take on a new richness of meaning when read in this light.

Nevertheless, to get to the theoretical contextualization that is the heart of the matter, the reader must bear with the initially looser coherence of the first seven essays around issues of how male-authored texts represent the female as a means of speculating about gender roles. It becomes clear only after that eighth essay, and thus in retrospect, how the earlier essays each contribute to the overarching thesis, which is left for the reader to articulate. Zeitlin thus respected the integrity of each essay as an originally free-standing piece, but at times I wished she had taken this opportunity to shorten some of them. Her method of pressing common sites of interpretation further is a delicate operation, and while these essays bear witness to the glorious successes she often enjoys, they also contain places where the yield is not sufficient to warrant the detailed discussion or where the text is pressed perhaps too far. 1

The essay on the Hippolytus, however, admirably illustrates how Zeitlin’s overarching thesis emerges. As a free-standing interpretation, this is one of the weaker essays in the book. It is difficult to recall what its impact was when it first appeared in 1985. Now, its claim to be the most sustained discussion about the thematics of binding, voice and body, inside versus outside, seem odd and dated (225, note 14), especially since Zeitlin omits in this revision any reference to Barbara Goff’s book on the play and pays only scant attention to Nancy Rabinowitz’ studies. 2 In light of this subsequent work, I read the essay with impatience, wondering why it was one of the least revised (except for stylistic improvements). This is the essay in which Zeitlin first argues that the exploration and realization of selfhood and identity are the provenance of the masculine; the feminine, however strongly instantiated in powerful female figures, catalyzes and mirrors the male’s awareness without enjoying its own self-realization. To sustain this claim about this play, however, Zeitlin has to put great emphasis upon the final scene of reconciliation between Theseus and his son as the telos of the play, an emphasis with which not all critics would agree, since it tends to undervalue Phaedra’s suffering and final fate except as a didactic mirror for the males (see Rabinowitz, 1993, 165-9).

When contextualized with the notion of “playing the other,” however, this essay becomes a remarkable companion piece to the central theoretical essay. It can be no accident that these two studies first appeared in close proximity (1985). The interactions of Phaedra as the feminine other with Hippolytus as the masculine self become Zeitlin’s strongest evidence for the essentially feminine character of tragedy. In particular, her discussion of Phaedra’s final threat—that she will make Hippolytus suffer the same disease as she (730f)—clarifies her larger claims about the character of tragic drama. At the most straightforward level, Phaedra’s words presage her intent to make Hippolytus feel her physical pain and humiliation. Zeitlin argues for further layers: the lying note will project onto Hippolytus the violent lust actually felt by Phaedra and thereby make him play her role and, in a kind of intertextual game, make him play the role that the wanton Phaedra had played in Euripides’ first version of the tragedy. When Hippolytus is forced into Phaedra’s role as the wanton seducer, however, he experiences the differentiation between self and other that his virginity had heretofore prevented, as he helplessly watches Theseus react to the other version of himself created by Phaedra’s note. Such a differentiation, however, is fundamentally feminine, since the feminine must always assume a role that is in opposition to and yet also a mirror of the masculine self. Thus, at the most abstract level, Phaedra’s “disease” is more than pain and beyond eros—it is the necessity of any instantiation of the feminine to imitate.

Zeitlin studies this necessity beginning with the pregnant phrase dustropos harmonia, the chorus’ succinct description of woman’s nature as a harmony that is out of harmony with itself (161f). Zeitlin sees the force of this phrase as first relevant to the woman’s body, but eventually to the larger intellectual and psychological realm: the feminine is a “discordant harmony” (Zeitlin’s translation of the phrase)—exactly what the masculine constructs and nothing like itself, and thus everywhere playing another role. This line of reasoning is strengthened by our awareness that, for the original audience, underlying Phaedra’s role in this play as the wife desperately trying to maintain her honor is the wanton Phaedra from the earlier version, a constant reminder of just how artificial either version is (221).

But this is woman as mimesis, and Euripides knows it. In perhaps the most theatrical gesture of all, when Hippolytus is forced to play the role of the wanton, he enacts the (male) audience’s experience of tragedy itself, since tragic drama imitates the other for the masculine; that is, the things that are most different from it and that, by those differences, confirm and celebrate its identity. Zeitlin shrewdly remarks that Phaedra forces Hippolytus, by her lying note, to “fall into narrative,” that is, from his splendid, timeless self-containment as virgin, to experience the flow and force of time and story (233). This experience is essentially feminine and theatrical: he becomes painfully aware of his body; he confuses the interior and exterior places in the play, as to which is safer for him; he contrives to keep a secret; but he does this badly, because, after all, he is a male imitating a female. In the context of this entire book, Zeitlin might also have argued that Hippolytus is forced to “fall into” dramatic action—into the feminine disease of mimesis that is the fate of both the woman and of tragedy itself: “playing the other” is the genre of dustropos harmonia.

The first five essays in the book focus upon women or goddesses in specific epic and tragic texts, and thus do not provide the same sort of direct evidence for tragic action as the feminine with which the masculine audience must interact, if only as spectators. Nevertheless, they do contribute to Zeitlin’s thesis by examining how the female is represented, since from these models it is a short step to the claim that representation, or mimesis, itself is feminine. Of these five, the new essay on Pandora proves crucial to the overall argument.

Zeitlin discusses the myth, as it is retold in both Hesiodic texts, from a number of perspectives, but her most intriguing strategy emphasizes how the texts denature Pandora. That is, the first human woman is utterly unlike the female divinities and natural forces that fruitfully multiply and bestow blessings. Instead, Pandora is a creation, and no reference whatsoever is made in either version to her potential for motherhood. “This strategy displaces the undeniable powers of the female upward to the gods, allows for the ‘deification’ of the female and feminine attributes, while repressing any validating alternatives [such as reproduction] to the mortal woman” (83). What is crucial about this insight in retrospect is the realization that woman herself actually has to imitate the feminine because the paradigm disassociates her from any “innate” self. Put differently, woman, as an instantiation of the feminine, does not simply play the other for the masculine as part of a gigantic cultural dance; instead, that mimesis is necessitated by her need to imitate the divine and natural beings that are truly feminine. For mortal woman, only mimesis, that unnatural and deceptive imitation of the other as his mirror, is natural.

The closing theoretical essays, “Playing the Other,” and “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’Thesmophoriazousae,” remind us of Plato’s characterization of mimesis as unnatural and deceptive, and Zeitlin’s association of tragedy and the feminine gives another clear model for why Plato would be so antagonistic to tragic drama (371). But what about comedy? Zeitlin’s final essay restates her arguments for equating the feminine with mimesis using the romances of Euripides as well as the Thesmophoriazousae. The essay is a good companion piece to “Playing the Other,” but I wanted Zeitlin to go further. She argues that comic drama can make a travesty of the whole mimetic project, at least as it appears in tragedy, and that Aristophanes pursues this travesty for much the same reason that Plato articulates his opposition to mimetic poetry in general: a defense of the male self-identity, in Aristophanes’ case by exposing the degree to which Euripides is “feminized” (399, 415; she makes this argument explicitly, however, in “Playing the Other” 366). Yet if she is right that tragedy itself is a kind of dustropos harmonia, comedy seems not to be; it is not in the least uncomfortable about itself and the illusions it chooses to create or mock. If Zeitlin is making a further distinction between tragic and comic mimesis, could she go on to argue for the latter as a mimesis of an entirely different sort—one that is fundamentally masculine in its action?

1. Her methods are wonderful in reinterpreting the Hekabe, for instance; the essay on Penelope mainly adds to the current discussion by its focus on the artifact of the bed; the essay on the Ion seems to me to press the significance of the decorations in Ion’s birthday tent too far.

2. Barbara Goff, The Noose of Words (Cambridge, England, 1990). Nancy Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled (Ithaca, 1993); Zeitlin cites only one of Rabinowitz’ earlier articles on the play (in Helios for 1987, omitting the one in Arethusa, 1986), and does not mention her book.