BMCR 2009.05.34

Gender and Communication in Euripides’ Plays: Between Song and Silence. Mnemosyne: Supplements; 296

, Gender and Communication in Euripides' Plays: Between Song and Silence. Mnemosyne: Supplements; 296. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008. 263. ISBN 9789004168800. $142.00.

Gender, communication, Euripides, song and silence: the title of Chong-Gossard’s book has the virtue of highlighting precisely the key terms and concepts of his work. In a largely successful endeavour, Chong-Gossard attempts to show what it is that — in the case of Euripides — characters communicate by singing or by being silent, and how Euripidean men and women differ in this respect. The book is the eventual product of Chong-Gossard’s 1999 dissertation, written in Michigan under the auspices of Ruth Scodel. A few of the better sections have appeared elsewhere in article-form,1 which is not to say that the remaining material is merely inferior padding (it isn’t). Though most obviously valuable as a contribution to the fast-growing field of study into gender-specific language in Greek tragedy, the work’s real achievement is that it invites a reconsideration of what actors’ song expresses in Euripides (on silences, readers will find less that is ‘new’).

The book falls roughly into two parts (song and silence) of two chapters each, preceded by an introduction, and followed by a single briefer chapter and a conclusion. The introduction (1-24) offers, apart from a cursory status quaestionis,2 a methodological framework for the rest of the book. Here, Chong-Gossard makes much of the term ‘space’, going so far as to say that “the basis of [the book’s] inquiry is a definition of space as communication” (21): the idea is that whenever people talk to each other they create a ‘space’ that connects them, which can be ‘gendered’ if one sex is excluded from the conversation (e.g. when a woman confides a secret to a female chorus). Disproportionate emphasis is placed on this concept, however: it becomes useful as a way of looking at tragic conversation really only in the last chapter, and Chong-Gossard is occupied for much of the book with communication between men and women, rather than the gender-exclusive conversations which he stresses initially.

The introduction, then, is oddly irrelevant for chapters 2 (‘Song as Knowledge: Recognition Duets’, 25-63) and 3 (‘Why Am I Singing? Resistance and Other Semantics of Lyric’, 65-112); yet it is here that the true meat of the book is found. Chong-Gossard’s core argument is that the way in which female song has traditionally been interpreted by scholars (as a highly emotional form of expression) is insufficient. He proposes that we move “beyond standard analyses that equate female lyric with exaggerated emotion,” (3) and instead focus on “what lyric accomplishes, or what purpose it serves in the dramatic situations” (35). The questions that we should ask, according to Chong-Gossard, are “what does a Euripidean woman communicate when she sings?”, and “how do Euripidean men’s songs differ in what they communicate and when they occur?” (111). This is a worthy project, and Chong-Gossard does an admirable job of answering his own questions.

Chapter 2 is concerned with the epirrhematic‘recognition duets’ of IT, Hel., Ion, Hyps., and Soph. El.. In the case of the Euripidean plays, Chong-Gossard convincingly argues that the traditional view contrasting an irrational, emotional female (singing lyrics) with a rational, restrained male (speaking trimeters) is defective: rather, according to Chong-Gossard, lyric should be seen as a mode of expression which allows women to communicate private knowledge about their past physical experiences (rape, abduction, etc.) to men in a persuasive fashion. In the case of Hel.,3 for example, Helen’s lyrics explain her private history to Menelaus, who needs to be convinced of her chastity before their eventual mutual rescue can be accomplished; similarly, Creusa must share with Ion the story of her rape in order to convince him of his divine parentage (Chong-Gossard has good remarks on p. 69 on the differences between Creusa’s two lyrical narrations of the rape).

In the third chapter, Chong-Gossard adds three further ‘semantics’ of female lyric: ‘resistance’ (e.g. Electra’s monody and amoibaion with the chorus in Eur. El., Hypsipyle’s exchange with the chorus of Hyps.), ‘transition’ (Hecuba at Hec. 683-723 and Hermione at Andr. 825-65), and ‘interrogation’ (e.g. Hecuba at Tro. 235-92, Antigone in the teichoscopia at Pho. 88-201). ‘Transition’ seems to me hardly to qualify as a ‘semantic’ (Chong-Gossard is perhaps making too much of the fact that Hecuba and Hermione sing at moments of transition in the plays), but Chong-Gossard otherwise consistently provides useful insights into what women’s song ‘does’ in these various plays. He ends with a section on male lyrics, arguing that men’s song expresses a “crisis or condition that is potentially ‘demasculinizing’ for them” (112), such as excessive grief (exemplified by Amphitryon in HF, Theseus in Hipp.).

All in all, these two chapters offer a useful lens through which to look at male and female actors’ lyric in Euripides, though I am not instantly convinced by Chong-Gossard’s claim that all lyrical passages not discussed in the book could “easily be fit into the new paradigm suggested” (111). Choral lyric, as announced in Chong-Gossard’s introduction (22-3), is also left entirely undiscussed, and it is a shame that Chong-Gossard gives no indication if he sees any similarities between the lyric voices of actors and choruses. But these are the gripes of a reviewer who trusts that this author would have very useful things to say on those points as well.

The next two chapters (ch. 3, ‘Silence I: Gendered Categories’, 113-154; ch. 4, ‘Silence II: Solidarity and Complicity’, 155-203) deal with a phenomenon which has received much attention in the past few years, and Chong-Gossard rightly mentions that much of what he says overlaps with the recent work on silence of (among others) Montiglio and Stockert.4 Chong-Gossard deals, broadly speaking, with three categories of ‘silence’: first, the actual non-speaking kind, of characters whose first words come more than a hundred lines after their first appearance (sometimes called ‘Aeschylean silence’). Though Aeschylus’ Cassandra is the obvious prototype, the Euripidean examples are all male: Adrastus in Supp., Orestes in his name-play, and Menoeceus in Pho.. Chong-Gossard points out that unlike ‘silent’ Euripidean women, these male characters are not deliberately withholding personal secrets or vital information; instead, Chong-Gossard argues, they are silent only “until Euripides has provided the proper ‘moment'” for them to utter important speeches (117). This is no doubt true, but should not obscure the dramatic significance of these silences: Adrastus is temporarily mute because it underlines his status as grieving suppliant, Orestes because it marks his troubled sleep, Cassandra’s silence expresses her noble resistance to Clytemnestra (Chong-Gossard is not unaware of these aspects, but gives them little weight). The second type of silence (as marked by the Greek terms σιγή, σιγάω, σιωπή, σιωπάω) is not characterized by lack of speech, but by the deliberate refusal to give up a certain piece of information: Chong-Gossard here gives thoughtful readings of Phaedra and Creusa, and the social constraints which compel them to keep their dark and personal secrets concealed. Such torturous secrets of women are then contrasted with the ruses of men, who on occasion wish to keep knowledge hidden until a politically appropriate time (e.g. Xuthus in Ion, Agamemnon in IT). Chong-Gossard’s third kind of silence (covered in chapter 4) is that of female choruses (in Med., Hipp., IT., Hel., Ion, and IA) who keep secrets for others (or, in the case of the chorus in Ion, let the cat out of the bag), and that of two virgins (Hippolytus and Theonoe) who take an oath not to reveal a secret. As for the female choruses, Chong-Gossard shows that female solidarity is the all-powerful factor driving the behaviour of fellow captives, neighbours, etc., an impulse stronger than the social control of ‘good gossip’ which women might be expected to exert on each other. Chong-Gossard’s discussion of Hippolytus and Theonoe, which rounds off the chapter, includes interesting observations on the different implications of male and female virginity.

The final chapter (‘Women Out of Place’, 205-40) deals with Euripidean women who intrude upon a ‘male space’, where they are not expected to speak. Some of these women (notably ‘Macaria’ in Heracl. and Aethra in Supp.) explicitly apologize for speaking: Chong-Gossard neatly analyzes these apologies as both necessary pro forma pleas for the forbearance of men, and rhetorical devices providing their words with legitimacy. The situation is entirely different in the case of Evadne in Supp. and Clytemnestra and Iphigenia in IA : the awkwardness of these women’s presence in a male environment is, according to Chong-Gossard, deliberately thematized by Euripides. In the case of Evadne, Chong-Gossard details how her extraneousness leads to all kinds of confusion on the part of her father Iphis; in the case of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra, Chong-Gossard discusses the constant renegotiation of female propriety which these women have to do in the Greek camp.

It is worth mentioning a few general merits of Chong-Gossard’s book. First, more than other works on gender-specific language in tragedy I have seen, Chong-Gossard is consistently attuned to differences between the three tragedians in their treatment of women and gendered speech. That women in Euripides are portrayed differently than their Aeschylean and Sophoclean counterparts is well-established, but Chong-Gossard offers many nuanced observations on how these distinctions affect the language of Euripides’ characters (e.g. at 54-7, 104-5, 107, 114 n.4, 153, 201-2). Chong-Gossard is also careful not to treat the entire Euripidean oeuvre as a monolith, but makes allowances for developments in Euripides’ career and other differences between his plays (e.g. at 110, 142, 180). Secondly, Chong-Gossard pays ample attention to fragmentary plays: Hypsipyle in particular receives a full treatment (51-4, 96-8), but there are also discussions of Antiope (105-6), Cretans (148-9) and other lost plays. Finally, Chong-Gossard devotes a good amount of space to discussions of Euripidean men (scholars working on language conditioned by gender sometimes seem to forget that there are two).

I have some complaints as well, apart from such unavoidable differences over the interpretation of individual scenes and plays as any reader will have (I find myself in the minority, for example, which thinks that the Euripidean Electra — treated very harshly by Chong-Gossard — should be given a bit of a break by scholars; see Cropp’s commentary (Warminster, 1988) for some needed nuance). Many of the problems can be summed up by a general feeling that the book is an erstwhile dissertation which still needed one more ‘pass’ of revision and tightening. I have already mentioned above that the introduction does not seem entirely integrated with the rest of the book. Chong-Gossard can also be frustratingly repetitive, literally copying whole sentences three or four times, and his liberal quotations of other scholars are not always to the point. Finally, Chong-Gossard can take his claims too far (at least for this reviewer): we read too often that certain things “cannot be communicated in mere trimeters”, and there are several places where song is said to ‘mean’ more than I think it can (for example at 103, where Chong-Gossard claims that Antigone’s lyric in Pho.“is indicative … of her youthful incapacity to recognize the approaching forces for the disaster they are.”

The book has also not been produced without imperfections: a number of mistakes have escaped the prying eyes of proofreaders, and there is an annoying inconsistency in the printing of transliterated and/or untransliterated Greek.5

In spite of these misgivings, the book should become required reading for anyone working on gender-specific communication in Greek tragedy. It is to be hoped that it will find a wider readership as well, especially those interested in what it means for an actor to sing in Euripides. The unqualified equation of lyric with emotion, for all its popularity and digestibility, is restrictive and ignores a whole range of communicative functions performed by actors’ song. For those looking to gain a fuller understanding of those functions, Chong-Gossard has provided a good place to start.


1. ‘Song and the Solitary Self: Euripidean women who resist comfort’, Phoenix 57 (2003) 209-231; ‘The Silence of the Virgins: comparing Euripides’ Hippolytus and Theonoe‘, Antichthon 38 (2004) 10-30; ‘Female Song and Female Knowledge in the Recognition Duets of Euripides’, Greek Drama III: Essays in Honour of Kevin Lee (London, 2006) 27-48.

2. In Chong-Gossard’s survey of literature on gender-specific language, I missed the important contribution of A. Willi, The Languages of Aristophanes (Oxford, 2003) ch. 6 (also absent from the bibliography).

3. Chong-Gossard does not always engage convincingly (for my taste) with linguistic and textual issues. He includes a sizeable footnote on the problems of Hel. 625-97 (43 n. 29), but fails to mention that the choices an editor makes here have real consequences for his argument. (Incidentally, the autobiographical nature of female lyric identified by Chong-Gossard should, in my view, settle the attribution of Hel. 638-40 (clearly Helen’s), and if we indeed let go of the traditional division between the emotional female and the rational male, editors (and Chong-Gossard!) should think twice before taking Hel. 654-5 from Menelaus, or IT 832-3 from Orestes.) I do not see what is relevant about the textual issues mentioned at 44, 198 n. 33 and 199 n. 35.

4. S. Montiglio, Silence in the Land of Logos (Princeton, 2000); W. Stockert, ‘Zum Schweigen in den Tragödien des Euripides’, in A. Timonen et al. (eds.), The Language of Silence, vol. 2 (Vammala, 2004) 35-47.

5. The translation “Why did you mean by that?” on p. 100 surely cannot be right, and also on p. 162 something seems to have gone wrong in the translation. On p. 151, read “Creusa” for “Cresua”; on p. 162, “those same experiences make” for “those same experience makes”; on p. 163, delete the comma after “women of Corinth sang” and read “seriously limited” for “serious limited”; on p. 183 n. 10, read “section” for “chapter”; on p. 213 “Evadne” for “Evande”; on p. 245 n. 2, “Schlegels” for “Schelgels”. I also suspect that Chong-Gossard meant Hermione when he names “Andromache” on p. 111. Longer Greek quotations are printed in Greek alphabet, while Greek cited in the body text and footnotes is usually transliterated (why?), but there are deviations at 17 n. 24, 18, 20, 110, 115 n. 6, 155, 165 n. 4, 225, 229 n.32, and probably at other places I have missed.