BMCR 2004.01.27

The Cast of Character: Style in Greek Literature

Nancy Worman, The cast of character : style in Greek literature. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xiv, 274 pages). ISBN 0292796307 $45.00.

This ambitious book consists of an introduction, conclusion, and five chapters that cover a wide variety of literary material (epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, prose) from a variety of periods (the archaic period to the fourth century) with varied success. Readers will appreciate the warning that the subtitle of the book is slightly misleading: Worman (henceforth, “W.”) does not provide a discussion of “style” in the traditional sense of the word, as will become clear in the course of this review, but rather focuses on what she calls the “cast of character,” or “the elements that make up one’s typical style, the physical and linguistic mannerisms that mark a speaker as a type conforming to a set of socially familiar categories” (1).

W. reveals her intentions and methodology in her introduction, declaring quickly that she will delve into literary representations of style in Greek literature before Plato and Aristotle and that her book “explores the beginnings of an awareness of style in archaic and classical Greek literature and assesses the tendency of poets and prose writers to treat verbal techniques and visual effects as interrelated” (3). In particular, W. focuses on depictions of Helen and Odysseus, characters “who uniquely focus ideas about the impact of the visibly persuasive character type and the impressive oral style” (3). Helen, W. argues, is a representative of an “enchanting style of self-presentation” (14) who is eventually connected to the elaborate, visual style of the sophists, whereas Odysseus represents (or embodies) a “versatile suitability” of style (14) that involves changes in both physical disguise and verbal style. These are the aspects of style on which W. concentrates in (among others) Homer, Sophocles and Euripides, and Gorgias.

The first chapter outlines the connections between verbal style and character type and is essentially a word study of κόσμος, ἦθος, and χαρακτήρ. W. begins with κόσμος and traces the use of the word from Homer to Aristotle; her conclusion is that κόσμος is used as a visual analogy that can be an indicator of what she defines in the introduction as the “cast of character.” The use of κόσμος in this sense demonstrates that there was an awareness of the importance of appearance to content beginning with Homer. W. next deals with ἦθος in much the same way, adducing a variety of (post-Homeric) evidence to show that character could have been understood from the “behaviors and bodily attitudes that can be seen, recognized, and assessed because they are habitual and thus repeatedly witnessed” (32). χαρακτήρ, on the other hand, has more immediately obvious visible connotations since its primary meaning is that of “coinage stamp” (it is, after all, formed from the same root as χαράσσω, meaning “to sharpen” or “engrave”). After establishing the visual connotations of ἦθος, χαρακτήρ, and κόσμος, W. then shows how Aristotle reacted against the understanding of character as essentially visible by asserting that ἦθος was something to be expressed through the deliberate choice of a verbal style appropriate to the character of the speaker. The chapter concludes with a brief but interesting comparison of the use of visual analogies for style and character in sophistic writers such as Prodicus (in the story of Heracles’ choice between virtue and vice in Xenophon’s Memorabilia 2.1.21-33), Alcidamas, and Isocrates to that of Plato’s rebellion against rhetoric and artificiality in, among other places, Republic 10 and the Gorgias.

W. begins her textual analysis in chapters 2 and 3, which are to be taken together (per W.’s overall understanding of style as a combination of verbal expression and physical appearance). Chapter 2 (“Oral Performance, Speech Types, and Typical Styles in Homer”) examines examples of the speeches of Odysseus and Helen in the Iliad and Odyssey whereas Chapter 3 (“Visible Types and Visualizing Styles in Archaic Poetry”) examines their visible attributes and how these attributes contribute to their overall persuasiveness. Before turning to her reading of Helen and Odysseus, W. asserts that she will pay attention not only to the descriptions of characters within the text and the internal reception of their speeches, but also to their “semiotic function within the larger literary tradition” (43).

Helen is frequently depicted as “attempting to offset her damaged image with a versatile combination of speech types” (47). W. breaks up her discussion of Helen into two parts, first examining Helen as “guest” in the Iliad (the teichoscopia and the bedroom confrontation with Aphrodite in Book 3, the encounter with Hector in Book 6, and her lament for Hector in Book 24) and then Helen as “host” in the Odyssey (in her interaction at Sparta with Telemachus in Books 4 and 15). In her discussion of the Iliad, W. shows well how Helen uses a variety of different arguments or strategies (often those appropriate to male characters, such as the flyting speech) that are suited specifically to the different internal audiences that she encounters. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, Helen creates a narrative that controls the reception of her time in Troy and depicts her as an authoritative speaker. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the number of examples and arguments precludes a fuller summary, but W. argues sensitively and sensibly in both parts.

The discussion of Odysseus is also divided up into sections corresponding to Odysseus’ role as host (loosely construed) in the Iliad and guest in the Odyssey. W. grounds her discussion of the Iliad in scenes involving Odysseus in Books 2 (the confrontation with Thersites), 9 (the famous embassy scene), and 19 (the discussion of the Greek leaders while Achilles fumes). W. concludes that in all of these scenes Odysseus is concerned primarily with maintaining “balance in social ritual, focusing especially on the primacy of fulfilling physical need and insuring fair compensation” (73). Some, however, will revolt here (and elsewhere) against the idea that “Odysseus serves an authorial function in the implementation of appropriate style” (73) but perhaps less against the notion that his style “emblematizes the notion of proportionment that underpins ideas about suitability, from his genial hosting act to his carefully balanced words” (73-74). The Odyssey portion of W.’s discussion of Odysseus centers on his use of several disguises over the course of the poem and how he “trades on likeness and probability to ensure his good reception” (75). Thus, Odysseus assumes the character of a Cretan (a suitable foreign homeland of which his audience does not have accurate knowledge) and a beggar and mentions specific details or anecdotes about “Odysseus” when it helps him persuade the internal audience, whether it be Eumaeus or Penelope. W. concludes by arguing that Odysseus in the Odyssey is a skilled and adept speaker and a source of apprehension for the internal audience about the power of rhetoric and skilled speakers in general. This apprehension “emerges in much more explicit form in the classical period, when professional orators seek to shrug off any indications of being too obviously versatile in their speaking styles, especially in relation to the representation of character type” (80-81).

Chapter 3 — by far the least satisfying of the whole book — deals with the visible attributes of Helen and Odysseus in the Iliad and the Odyssey, or “their elusive or changeable physical types matching their distracting or mutable verbal styles” (83). After discussing other archaic poetry (especially interesting is W.’s discussion of the anxiety surrounding feminine good looks in Semonides and the Pandora anecdote in Hesiod), W. turns to Odysseus and Helen. W. argues that if “both [Helen and Odysseus] are figures for the poet…they are also proto-oratorical figures, whose abilities center in part on their manipulations of visible stature…” (90). This leads to the eventual conclusion that “[t]heir corporeal styles are thus linked to plot structure, their figures signifying stylistic choices in both the narrative frames and in their own speeches” (90). Odysseus in the Iliad, W. further argues, is a representative of epic decorum against the iambic types Thersites and Dolon. In the Odyssey, however, his appearance is changed frequently to that of a baser type, leading to confrontations in disguise with the Phaeacian Euryalus in Book 8 and Antinous in Book 17 (who assume that he is low-born and therefore treat him badly); Odysseus is thus a representative in the Odyssey of “the possible disjunction between pleasing appearance and fine speech” (94). The rest of W.’s discussion handles (in widely disparate terms) the interaction between Odysseus and various goddesses (Circe, Calypso, and Ino), Telemachus, Penelope, and (more compellingly) Nausicaa. W. ends the chapter with Helen in the Iliad and Odyssey, although the discussion is quite brief in comparison with that of Odysseus (in fact, there is only one page on Helen in the Odyssey). In the Iliad, Helen is “the prize whose visible virtues may belie her true type” (102) and is frequently described as “bright” or “shining” (epithets which stress her attractive appearance). W. concludes that both Helen and Odysseus represent in Homer a nascent anxiety “about visual style and the plasticity of character type” (107).

This anxiety is better elaborated in Chapter 4 (“Verbal Masquerade and Visual Impact in Tragedy”), which deals with Helen and Odysseus in Greek tragedy after a brief tour of other fifth-century literary representations of them. W. begins by drawing a connection between sophists (and sophistic rhetoric) and the anxiety that they caused, especially in fifth-century Athenian society (it is good to remember that we are at the mercy of Athenian sources); a result of this anxiety is that in tragedy Helen and Odysseus focus “attention on the power of the impressive oral performance in situations where group or individual gain and moral concerns conflict” (111, cf. also 122). Before turning to her analysis of Helen in Euripides’ Trojan Women and Odysseus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, W. adduces various fifth-century sources on Helen (Herodotus 2.112ff. and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) and Odysseus (Pindar Nem. 7 and 8) to show that for Aeschylus and Pindar these characters had become the types for deceitfulness.

The brunt of the chapter is taken up with an analysis of Helen in the Trojan Women and Odysseus in the Philoctetes, plays which “depict most forcefully the disturbing aspects of these figures” and “show them challenging the traditional notions of moral behavior in the style that each promotes” (122). W.’s reading therefore isolates the “dangerous distraction of stylistic effect” (122) that both Helen and Odysseus embody (pardon the pun) in each play. W. argues subtly and in detail that Helen with her fine dress and the sophistic, precious argumentation that she employs in self-defense (to all of which the internal audience — Hecuba and the chorus — react with repulsion) is a representative of sophistic, especially Gorgianic, rhetoric. The immediate effect of Helen’s combination of appearance and rhetoric is also successful, even though “the play as a whole condemns Helen” (135). The discussion of the Philoctetes is more problematic because W.’s analysis is more “concerned with the stylistic techniques that Odysseus promotes and that he encourages others to use” (139) rather than those which he actively uses. Sophocles therefore presents a refracted picture of Odysseus as slippery sophist, especially through Odysseus’ encouragement of Neoptolemus to deceive Philoctetes by misrepresenting himself and his aims, actions for which Odysseus is blamed at the end by Philoctetes. Both Helen and Odysseus are thus (in W.’s reading) representatives of different kinds of persuasive style who are both condemned in the respective plays in which they appear.

The fifth and final chapter of the book (“Manipulating the Senses in Rhetorical Set Pieces”) offers readings in familiar sources (Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen and Defense of Palamedes) and some lesser-read ones (Ps.-Alcidamas’ Odysseus and the Ajax and Odysseus of Antisthenes). W. begins by outlining (for the second time) the generally negative reception of sophists and sophistic rhetoric (although the discussion, and the rest of the book, leaves out one of the most important pieces of evidence for the reception of sophistic rhetoric in fifth-century Athens: Aristophanes’ Clouds). W. then uses Sappho fr. 16 as a segue to her discussion of Gorgias’ Helen, where she argues that Helen’s “body, by virtue of its own impact on the eye and its susceptibility to that impact, is treated by Gorgias as the structuring device for the way an ornate and visualizing style achieves its effects” (165). In the fourth century, however, Isocrates in his own Encomium of Helen reduces “Gorgias’ association of her powerful beauty with stylistic impact to a blandly ornamental emblem of civic praise” (169) by ignoring questions of her guilt or innocence and focusing his attention on both Helen’s beauty and the worth of those who pursued her (e.g. Theseus).

In her discussion of Odysseus, W. returns again to Gorgias and offers a lengthy and detailed examination of the defense speech of Palamedes. Through a close reading of Palamedes’ speech, W. explicates not only the rhetorical strategy of Palamedes, but also the accusations and strategy of Odysseus’ speech against him (some might find this technique dangerous). Her conclusion is basically twofold: first, that “Odysseus’ signature techniques surface repeatedly in the strenuous response of his opponent, his [Odysseus’] bold and distracting accusations revealing the difficulties of offsetting the impact of his style” (181-182); and second, that “Gorgias…has created in Palamedes his own antitype” (181) and that as the “inventor of measuring techniques, counting devices, and possibly writing, Palamedes resembles more closely the precise and calculating sophist Prodicus” (181). The anonymous speech of Odysseus (= fr. 16) attributed to Alcidamas, on the other hand, directly shows Odysseus ascribing the sophistic characteristics associated with himself to Palamedes, that is “engaging in the tactics that can only be gleaned second-hand from Gorgias” (182). The chapter ends with a discussion of Antisthenes’ Ajax and Odysseus, where W. shows that Odysseus’ strategy (similar to the one given to Odysseus by Ps. Alcidamas), offsets Ajax’s claims to uniqueness and bravery by cleverly appropriating them and ascribing cowardice and anonymity to Ajax instead.

The book ends with a brief conclusion, 40 pages of endnotes, a bibliography, and two very thorough indices.

The book is well proofread in general, but there are a number of typographical errors in Greek, many of them in Chapter 5. The bibliography is thorough and up-to-date but omits I. De Jong’s 2001 A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey and W.’s own 1997 article entitled “The Body as Argument: Helen in Four Greek Texts” (= Classical Antiquity 16.1, 151-203) which is not cited, but mentioned on xii as being incorporated into the book’s material. The structure and arrangement of the book are generally clear and methodical, and the text is well annotated, although the constant mixing of transliterated Greek, real Greek, and translation is distracting; this is combined with an occasional tendency in the later chapters to cite Greek words and quotations vaguely (on at least one occasion words are cited in Greek which are not in the text being discussed, cf. the paragraph ending 168), which sometimes makes reading difficult when several sources are discussed in the same paragraph.

Overall, I suspect that some will not wish to make the leaps of faith that are required for W.’s arguments about “metapoetry” and “metarhetoric” (even, on 168, “meta-virtue”!). The essential problem with this study is believing that Helen and Odysseus “emblematize” what W. claims that they do; that is, whether Helen and Odysseus really do have a “far-reaching semiotic significance” (195) that stretches through centuries of different kinds of literary sources. In order to be fully persuasive, this study needs more evidence and a broader range of literary sources in which other characters emblematize other types of style (in the Conclusion [195] W. admits that “this [study] is clearly only the beginning of a discussion”). I might also note that some will disagree with W.’s occasional tendency to treat literary characters as if they were real people (cf. e.g. the comment on 182 that “Odysseus’ actual speech would have been better composed” than the one that Ps.-Alcidamas provides!), not the constructions of authors who play by their own rules in their own worlds. In addition, there are several ancient sources which could have been discussed at greater length (e.g. Sophocles’ Ajax, whose Odysseus is much more humane and “cleaner” than the one in the Philoctetes; discussion of this play is mostly confined to one section of Chapter 5) or at all (e.g. Euripides’ Helen is banished to the notes and there is no mention of Theophrastus’ Characters or of Aristophanes’ Clouds). But this does not detract from the quality of many of W.’s rhetorical analyses of individual passages or from her attempt to illustrate theories of style before Plato and Aristotle. W. works well in confined spaces with specific texts, and her close readings and stylistic commentary will be of value for scholars interested in the representations of Helen and Odysseus in a broad range of material from different periods (aided, doubtless, by W.’s very thorough index locorum in the back of the book).