BMCR 2008.07.15

Euripide. Fra tragedia, mito e filosofia. FRECCE, 51

, Euripide : fra tragedia, mito e filosofia. Frecce ; 51. Roma: Carocci, 2007. 323 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9788843042678. €25.50 (pb).

Another book on Euripides? Yes, but one with a broad agenda. The threefold reference in the title (tragedy, i.e. the theatrical aspect; myth, i.e. the background and its transformation on stage,; and philosophy, i.e. the philosophical questions Euripides’ drama raises) reveals the novelty of Susanetti’s essay. According to the publisher’s description, the book is intended not only for classic scholars, but also “for non specialists of antiquity […], for those who are passionate about theater and philosophy”, i.e. for an enlightened audience, who (re)discovers the importance of Greek, and especially of Euripidean tragedy, in order to think about themes such as the particular mission of the theater in an age of crisis, when the citizens “have lost the certainty of truth”, so that the characters on stage “do not recognize themselves in the stories assigned to them by the myth”. The focus of this book is therefore not strictly philological, but expands to include an examination of Euripidean tragedy in the framework of the history of ideas. Perhaps this explains why there are no footnotes, and the bibliography (up to 2006) is placed at the end (315-323). All the Greek words are transliterated, and the Greek citations translated into Italian. Although these choices facilitate the task of the non-specialist reader, the lack of precise references in the interpretations of the individual plays and the absence of an index are often frustrating for those who are more knowledgeable.

Professor of Greek literature in the University of Padua, Susanetti has studied Euripides,1 but has also done work in both myth2 and philosophy. His previous favorite themes — simulacra, the indistinct limits between reality and imagination, and the interpretation of dreams and visions — are prominent in the present analysis of Euripides in ways that will also prove valuable to those interested in the reception of Greek theater.

The study is organized into ten chapters, nine of which are devoted to individual plays in their chronological order. 1, Alcestis; 2, Medea, Hippolytus; 3, Hecuba; 4, Heraclidae, Heracles; 5, Troades, Helen, with a brief account of Orestes; 6, Iphigenia in Tauris; 7, Ion; 8, Supplices, Phoenissae; 9, Bacchae. The tenth, “Piety: Epilog with the Muse”, examines the spurious (?) Rhesus. Although there are no separate entries for Andromache, Electra, Iphigenia in Aulis and the satyric drama Cyclops, they are alluded to in comparisons with the other plays. It is somewhat odd that the table of contents does not mention the plays in each chapter, nor do the titles or subtitles offer this information. Nevertheless, this peculiarity is not annoying, because the choice of suggestive or even of striking titles is a way to catch the reader’s attention.

The first chapter, “La mascera e la morte” (13-42) compares the Admetus of the Alcestis and the Orestes of the Eumenides. In both cases, Apollo subjects the chthonic powers to his will and saves the life of the hero. However, this happy result is not to Admetus’ advantage. The feminine element surpasses the male one: this is not a mere “family” question but raises more general reflections on the notion of power in the context of private and public affairs. Alcestis, like the Homeric Patroclus, becomes the double of the hero, an interesting and rather provocative interpretation, which presents the married couple as a homoerotic one — Alcestis as the adult lover, and Admetus as the young beloved. Alcestis’ sacrifice, according to Plato’s Symposium, proves the superiority of erotic desire to philia, but in Euripides, she shows no sentimental attachment to a person, but rather to an object, her conjugal bed, and a place, her thalamos. The woman’s sacrifice is an opportunity to examine the ontological status of the heroine: more than one character wonders whether Alcestis “is” or “is not” alive, while Admetus’ answers are not really clear. Platonic intertextuality helps to explain the difference between theater and philosophy: on stage, the problematic of existence or non-existence is not an echo of the Orphic ideas of the immortal soul but a prelude to Alcestis’ (bodily) resurrection. Nevertheless, we can find here the idea of a simulacrum in Admetus’ allusion to the statue which will take Alcestis’ place in the conjugal bed.

Susanetti interprets Alcestis’ resurrection as her “second marriage” with Admetus. Alcestis is considered to be a “mask”, an apparition with an unreal identity. Poetry becomes an “Orphic” art, because it has a magic power to bring mortals back to life, but no real capacity to change the form and nature of human beings. Alcestis’ final silence, due to the demands of dramatic economy, is regarded as a proof of failure in some modern rewritings of the play.

The title of chapter 2, “Pensare e uccidere”, highlights the twofold personality of Medea (43-59), an intellectual who is at the same time a murderess, not a sophron woman but one who defends her role in marriage and childbirth, although these are only conventional social and material concerns, Despite her desire to contravene feminine social standards and to embrace male heroic values, Medea appropriates traditional misogynist topics without any critical consideration. Susanetti regards Medea’s contradictions and intellectual power as a proof of her “philosophical” or “sophistical” preoccupation concerning the integration of new knowledge in the city: Medea, like the Dionysus of the Bacchae, represents the novelty which causes serious trouble to the old-fashioned political order. For Susanetti this trouble also has supernatural origins, because of Medea’s final disinvolvement with human nature at the end. Susanetti underlines the medical aspect of Medea’s psychology and presents the Galenic reference to her (PHP 3, 3,16) as an example of the “prevalence of the emotive over the rational element”. It would have been of great benefit to the reader interested in the medical interpretations of Greek drama to have mentioned Jackie Pigeaud’s study “Tragique et maladie de l’âme”,3 which discusses Medea, Phaedra and Heracles, all characters in plays examined by Susanetti. A comparison with Seneca’s Medea would also have been useful.

Concerning Hippolytus (60-79), Susanetti highlights the hero’s elitism, his aristocratic ideals, his appeal to an absolute purity as a way to communicate with the deity and as an “anticipation” of the Platonic vision of desire. Phaedra’s love phantasms represent therefore a threat to the gendered order of things: she is an “intellectual”, like Medea, not a victim of delirium; her words reveal the failure of the Socratic ideal of knowledge regarded as a protection against evil. However, Phaedra is not the only “intellectual” of the play: her Nurse has the rhetorical ability and the “immorality” of a sophist. Her arguments are based on the mythological narratives about divine adulteries, the stories one can find “in the libraries”, which become a means of moral corruption. According to Susanetti, there are three “libraries” in the play: Hippolytus’ Orphic purity, the nurse’s “pornographic” mythological stories, and Phaedra’s letter, where erotic desire can only be fulfilled through a compromising literary production. Concerning the death of female characters in Euripides, (Phaedra, but also Alcestis, Polyxena and Macaria), Susanetti’s analysis could have taken into account Nicole Loraux’s study4 on a specific feminine way to die and on the connection between marriage and death.

The “misfortune” referred to in the title of chapter 3 “La recita della sventura” (81-111) is the common fate of almost all the heroes in Hecuba. The dramatic action is determined by the two ghosts’ desire for funeral honours (Polydorus’ and Achilles’), and by the interconnection of sleep (i.e. nightmare) and wakefulness, which provides another nightmare, the discovery of Polydorus’ body. Susanetti insists on the mimetic and artistic aspects of the action: Hecuba facing Agamemnon presents herself as an incarnation of Tukhe and would rather be one of Daedalus’ animated statues; Agamemnon plays the role of the audience in a scene she had concocted for him; Polyxena’s beauty before her sacrifice is compared to a “statue”, a simulacrum of erotic desire and a spectacle of the highest degree of nobility, which transforms the crime perpetrated by the Greeks into a masterpiece. Susanetti also focuses on the persuasion theme, regarded through the prism of gender opposition. The male characters possess political and military power; the female ones are all Trojan captives; the sophistic peitho praised by Hecuba has reached a deadlock. Susanetti compares the two avengers, Hecuba and Medea, the former being less sure of her success than the latter, both deliberating with their internal selves, both claiming virtue and pride. Hecuba’s revenge is also compared to the bacchic sparagmos : first, it was Polymestor who killed Hecuba’s son and cut his body into pieces; then, Polymestor’s sons are killed by the Trojan women, and finally a “piece” of Polymestor’s body, his eyesight, is taken away by Hecuba herself. The bacchic ritual is a means of transition to a world of “bestiality and wildness, without any possibility of return or re-integration” to the human world, because Polymestor will never recover his sight. On the other hand, when he prophesies Hecuba’s metamorphosis into a bitch, he points out a twofold failure, because the Trojan queen will also lose her human nature without any possibility of return. Susanetti points out the different result of the bitch motif in Euripides and in the Oresteia, where a new political order is the result of the bitches’ (Erinyes’) revenge, while Hecuba’s action is mere bloodshed. This is perhaps because the world of Hecuba is considered to be a rather “atheistic” one, where even kharis is a matter of “trade”, an “exchange” of goods between fellows or the sexual pleasure which Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra provides to Agamemnon, who therefore must “repay her for this favor” by facilitating the revenge. Comparison with the Shakespearean Margaret completes the image of the queen as a paradigm of feminine duplicity and of tragic failure.

“The dreamed saviour” (title of chapter 4) is Heracles: in the Heraclidae (113-126) his family is threatened by Eurystheus and has taken refuge in Athens, where law protects suppliants, and Heracles has definitely left the world of mortals; in the Heracles (127-144) the hero is absent but has not definitely disappeared, and his family, threatened by Lycus, lacks any protection. Susanetti highlights the political stakes of the opposition between the Argive herald on the one hand and Iolaus and the Athenian king Demophon on the other: a realistic view of politics vs. an idealistic one (cf. Iolaus’ praise for Athens). This “propagandistic” image of a perfect city contrasts with the imperialistic Athens of historiography (Thucydides). Macaria’s decision of self-sacrifice shifts the spectator’s admiration from Athens, whose sovereign is incapable of rescuing the suppliants, to a foreign young girl who does not hesitate to die in order to save her kin and the city of Athens. However, in contrast with Menoeceus (Phoenissae), Iphigenia (Iph. in Aulis) and Polyxena (Hecuba), there is no posthumous reference to Macaria: Susanetti alludes to a possible textual corruption (without further discussion) but suggests that Euripides might have opted for this “strategy”, in order to emphasize that, from an Athenian point of view, the only goal of the sacrifice is the salvation of the community, not the praise of virginal nobility. This slightly tarnished image of Athens appears again when Eurystheus prophesies that his tomb will protect Athens against the suppliants’ future attack. The theme of the return of the Heraclidae underlines the vicious circle of violence and the illusion of liberty in a democratic city that allows its present or future enemies (Eurystheus and Alcmena) to kill each other, despite the divine laws which ought to protect a prisoner of war like Eurystheus.

Lycus’ violent critique of Heraclean heroism in the Heracles justifies his attempt on the life of the hero’s descendants. This attack has a dramatic purpose: Heracles “divorces his heroic character”, so the audience is prepared to regard him as a mere human being. The only possibility of rescue of Heracles’ family is a magic appeal to the spirit of the dead hero, as in the Aeschylean Persae and Choephoroi. But Heracles is not a simple dream: he really returns to life at the very moment when Megara invokes him and when it is still possible to protect his family. This resurrection of past heroism transforms the dream into a nightmare because it leads Heracles to ruin. According to Susanetti, there is no real Heracles on stage, only a simulacrum of the hero he used to be. As a human being, Heracles, who renounces the idea of suicide thanks to Theseus’ friendship, will henceforth live an “anonymous” life.

The “theological controversies” (title of chapter 5) are first of all a debate between Athena and Poseidon: in the Prologue of The Trojan Women, their preference for Greeks over Trojans or vice versa is only a matter of chance. According to Susanetti, the gods’ agreement only anticipates the ruin of the victorious Greek army (in the play), just as the Athenians’ reprisals against Melos (in reality) anticipate their ruin in Sicily. In such a play of powerlessness of the main characters, and of ineffectiveness of the gods, Cassandra is the only one who can still do something: she announces that she will kill Agamemnon, notwithstanding the myth which attributes this murder to Clytemnesta and Aegisthus. But her action is a mere illusion. Like the other Trojan women, Cassandra becomes a pathetic figure, whose words express a “macabre beatitude”.

Helen is a perfect example of the simulacra question, because of the parallel existence of a “real” and innocent woman, and of an eidolon, the guilty Helen of Troy. When Teucer first meets the “real” Helen in Egypt, he thinks of a mimema. For him, autopsy is the only sure criterion of truth. Although this assertion reminds us of the philosophical question of perception of visible or invisible things, the answer can only be found in the stage play between what one “sees” and what one’s mind “perceives”. Menelaus also wonders whether a world of different “things” with the same “name” can ever exist. Even when he recognizes the real Helen, there is no other certainty about truth than his own logos saphes. According to Susanetti, Theonoe’s choice, which could be regarded as a “double” of Paris’ choice at the beginning of the Trojan war, is the very proof of the relativity of all human affairs: although she is merely a seer, she must play a goddess’ role and make a decision about the fate of Menelaus and Helen. The Olympians are thus relegated to a position of secondary importance, and divination is not the result of divine inspiration but of human negotiation. Helen’s return home is compared to that of Demeter, whose description by the Chorus is very close to Cybele and associated with the Dionysiac ritual of maddened ecstasy. Susanetti underlines the fact that the Chorus regards Helen’s punishment as a result of her beauty and of her pride, which prevented her from observing the Dionysiac ritual, and proposes to see here a possible allusion to Alcibiades’ famous beauty. The modern continuation of Helen’s and Menelaus’ story insists on the futility of beauty.

Like Helen, Iphigenia (185-219) is “a prisoner of opinion” (chapter 6), of her public image which is different from her true nature. Iphigenia in Tauris is another play of simulacra and uncertainties. Hesiodic intertextuality reminds us of two other alternatives to Iphigenia’s story: the substitution of an eidolon, not a deer, for Iphigenia on the altar and the subsequent transformation of Agamemnon’s daughter into Artemis Enodia or Hecate. The question of the nature of the sacrificial victim (a virgin, her simulacrum, or a deer?) is significant because Iphigenia occupies an ambiguous position between life and death. Susanetti alludes to the literary topos of “apparent death” often used in Greek romance and underlines the difference between a romantic hero and a tragic one like Iphigenia. Susanetti points out two contradictions: firstly, Iphigenia feels as if she has always remained a Greek and a member of her own family, but until now there was no Greek willing to transmit her written message to the addressee, Orestes; she thus remains “a prisoner” of her supposed death. This lettre morte is another simulacrum of a real message, until the play changes it to a true story, the recognition of Orestes and the project of returning home. Secondly, dreams and oracles, supposed to communicate divine truth to mortals, are nullified by reality: Orestes is alive, sister and brother must now leave Tauris and invent a new life. Susanetti compares the nostos of Orestes and Iphigenia to the Homeric Nekuia : like Odysseus, the heroes want to return to life and home; like Odysseus, they find help by means of rediscovering their ancient narratives, the very roots of their past, but the Euripidean version allows no return to this past. The happy ending and rescue is another simulacrum: Orestes must carry away Artemis’ xoanon to Athens, Iphigenia will be a priestess in Brauron. They have no choice, unlike modern rewritings of their narrative, where Iphigenia makes a personal decision to stay in Tauris.

Ion, discussed in chapter 7 “Fantasmi mitici”(221-250), is another play of the quest for identity and of a happy ending. In the Prologue, Hermes sets forth the young man’s future as an Athenian and a heir of king Xouthos. But this arrangement neither conforms to Athenian autochthony, Xouthos being a stranger, nor is it satisfactory regarding the transmission of family rights and legitimacy, because Ion is not Xouthos’ son. Ion, who does not know his real identity, asks Creusa to relate the ancient Athenian stories. Susanetti establishes a parallel between ancient stories and the quest for personal identity: the stories of Creusa concerning Athenian autochthony have an emotional value for herself and for Ion, the young man without any “biography” or personal narrative, who can endorse any narrative. Intertextuality is essential in order to understand the evolution of the play and the role of the gods. Compared with the Apollo of the Bacchae, the Delphic god here is not an avenger; he hides himself and feels ashamed, because of his “illegal” behavior, the rape of Creusa. Comparison with the divine law in the Sophoclean Antigone underlines the difference between eternal and ephemeral commitments. Comparison between Ion’s and Oedipus’ exposition puts forward the different role of Tukhe in each case and the different nature of each character: Oedipus is an “incarnation of the Anaxagorean man” believing in progress and power; Ion, on the contrary, reluctant to acquire political power, creates a compromise between myth and politics. His is an ironic reversal of Oedipus’ grandeur. His secluded life, his longing for purity and his piety reminds us of Hippolytus, although Ion presents himself as a humble servant of Apollo, far from the aristocratic pride of Theseus’ son. Susanetti examines the initiation motif in the third episodion, which foreshadows Ion’s establishment as a heir of Xouthos. This “fiction of genealogy and identity” is finally compared with two modern plays, by T. S. Eliot and Oscar Wilde.

The “bodies” referred to in the title of chapter 8 (“I corpi alla terra, le storie in biblioteca”) are the corpses of the Argives fallen in the war against Thebes. Susanetti’s discussion of the Suppliant Women (251-266) focuses on the re-elaboration of a theme related in the Aeschylean Eleusinians and in the Sophoclean Antigone: Creon’s order denying funeral to Polynices and his Argive allies. The Argive mothers reclaim their sons’ bodies, invoking the Greek law according to which all human beings deserve burial and asking for Theseus’ mediation. According to Susanetti, this mediation is possible in Euripides because the Athenian king is not related to Oedipus’ family and country. He therefore can express his own conception of punishment, based on the dichotomy between body and soul: to refuse burial is not a means of punishment of the enemies, because corpses are nothing but mere matter, as the soul has vanished. Epigraphic testimony confirms the separation of body (corpse, whose place is the earth) and soul (whose place is the ether), the only real identity of a human being, according to Plato. Susanetti also focuses on the feminine element in this play, in comparison with Sophocles: it is a woman, Aethra, who intercedes with Theseus for the rights of the dead warriors, even without being personally involved, like Antigone; it is a man, Theseus, who personally takes care of the bodies before burial, accomplishing a feminine task and substituting his “male agape” for Antigone’s “sisterly philia“; finally, it is another woman, Evadne, whose suicide on her husband’s pyre defies the traditional prohibition of the corporeal union of woman and man. Susanetti also examines the political aspect of the play: Thebes is a “mirror wherein Athens is reflected”; in this way, the play is able to criticize Athens’ own regime.

The virgin discussed in pp. 267-274 is Antigone in the Phoenissae, who contrasts with the imperturbable young girl in Sophocles and conforms to the standards of her gender. However, the Euripidean Antigone changes her attitude and goes beyond even her Sophoclean image: she refuses marriage and will become a maenad devoted to lamenting for the dead. Susanetti alludes to the controversy over the authenticity of the Exodos of the Phoenissae, without further analysis because he focuses on Antigone’s change on stage, the most important Euripidean transformation of her mythical image. Susanetti regards this change, which concerns not only Antigone, but also Eteocles, Polynices, Jocasta and Oedipus, as an incessant new beginning of their narrative: the theater thus returns to its primary source, myth, and is somehow “once again absorbed” by it. Menoeceus’ self-sacrifice, compared to Iphigenia’s, is considered to be the “ultimate luminous fetish” in a context of general absurdity and of “capitulation” of heroic and political values.

According to Susanetti, the Dionysus of the Bacchae, discussed in chapter 9 “La ferocia della seduzione” (275-308), is a stranger in Thebes, but at the same time a blood relation; he is similar to Pentheus as far as his youth or rhetorical ability are concerned, and can be regarded as the legitimate heir of the throne. However, the Pentheus-Dionysus conflict is not a mere theomakhia or a kinship affair: in the Bacchae, the dominant point is the relation of the two protagonists with the feminine element, their phantasms, and therefore their deviation from the male standard. Despite the interpretation of the Pentheus-Dionysus couple as a homoerotic one because of their physical contact in the dressing scene, Dionysus’ final goal is not only to make the Theban king lose his reason but also to acquire political power. Pentheus is an ideal prey, because he is a tyrant, whose repression of the rebellion of the Bacchae aims at avoiding the political and sexual troubles stemming from Dionysiac subversive power. Susanetti also discusses the “metatheatrical” aspect of Pentheus, regarded as a character in a “play” written and directed by Dionysus. Pentheus’ dressing up as a woman is therefore a counter-initiation, because Dionysus leads Pentheus to ruin by means of interference between religion and theater and of transgressing gender limits. Comparison with Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai points out the different function of female dress in comedy and in tragedy.

Susanetti also examines the ambiguity of Dionysus, in connection with the notion of ancestral law: is Dionysus an “ancestral” deity or a new daimon ? Tiresias’ intervention is intended to ask this question: first, the seer criticizes the sophistic attitude towards deity (considered by Susanetti as an allusion to Protagoras’ relativistic convictions on the gods’ existence); secondly, he puts forward this sophistic (utilitarian) conception, in order to defend the traditional role of Demeter and Dionysus; thirdly, he rationalizes the ancient myths about Dionysus and proposes his own interpretation of the god’s birth, introducing a parallel existence of a fictitious Dionysus, a simulacrum molded from ether by Zeus. Tiresias’ final praise of the “new god”, his own and Cadmus’ change of dress and their desire to follow the god despite their old age do not end up in a miraculous rejuvenation, as it is the case of Iolaus in the Heraclidae, but wrap them up in a “grotesque haze of irreality and mirage”.

Political and religious stakes are interwoven: even when the Chorus sings a “manifesto of felicity” (vv. 370-431), not only for propagandistic purposes but also in order to reconcile law and nature and to oppose the divine image of eternity to sophistic relativity, Pentheus appears not only as an impious gegenes who revolts against a celestial deity, but also as an enemy of joy and happiness, as a conservative facing an innovator. At the end of the play, Dionysus acts as a new ruler who requires the banishment of all his predecessors: Pentheus’ power and Thebes as a political entity are annihilated.

With regard to the Rhesus (chapter 10, 309-314), Susanetti exposes the framework of the play and refers to the debate about its authenticity without in-depth analysis. His purpose is to examine Rhesus “as a part of the Euripidean disconstructive project, where no character fulfills his goal”.

This book is carefully produced. I have found only two typographical errors (173: “iranica” for “ironica”; 292: “qundi” for “quindi”), but a bibliographical inaccuracy p. 315: Susanetti’s work about Hecuba is not to be found in AIV 153, 2004-05, but in AIV 164, 2005-06, 153-167, under the title “Simulacri della sventura: per una rilettura dell’Ecuba euripidea”. A better spaced out presentation of the bibliography would have been welcome; the use of the Année Philologique abbreviations for periodicals would have saved space.

I hope that this interesting book will reach its target reader, and will also be useful for scholars and postgraduate students, in order to deepen their study of Euripidean tragedy.


1. Medea (1997); Alcestis (2001); Hippolytus (2005).

2. Favole antiche: Mito greco e tradizione letteraria europea, Roma, 2005. Reviewed in BMCR 2006.01.17.

3. La maladie de l’âme: étude sur la relation de l’âme et du corps dans la tradition médico-philosophique antique, Paris, 1989, 375-439.

4. Façons tragiques de tuer une femme, Paris, 1985.