BMCR 2013.05.07

The Use of Anonymous Characters in Greek Tragedy: The Shaping of Heroes. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 344

, The Use of Anonymous Characters in Greek Tragedy: The Shaping of Heroes. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 344. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012. xii, 178. ISBN 9789004229037. $129.00.


Yoon studies “anonymous subordinates, who fully accept their dependence and whose only will is their master’s” (5). She clearly states her thesis, implied in the subtitle, at the start: “the anonymous character can be used to develop the most interesting facets of a poet’s interpretation of a traditional hero” (3). This user-friendly book gains our confidence through its sensitive close readings of a range of Greek tragedies.

Chapter 1 assigns anonymous characters to one of four groups: personal servants, including nurses and tutors; other servants, including heralds; priests; and children. Yoon offers general statements about the contributions each class of characters tends to make. Scenes with nurses and tutors, for instance, bring out “childlike qualities” in the hero (13). An audience may see the traits of his master reflected in a herald, but the master himself may subsequently challenge any preconceptions we have acquired as result.

Chapter 2, which makes up the bulk of the book, investigates individual cases. I cite a representative sample. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon the Watchman’s speech offers “an initially positive image of the absent protagonist” (42), while the nature of the Herald’s pronouncements brings out “the unilateral optimistic formality of Agamemnon’s first speech” (51). In Antigone, Sophocles “uses the Watchman to provoke specific reactions from Creon that reveal crucial information about his character and prepare the audience for his role in the rest of the play” (59). In Electra, the Old Tutor serves “as a neutral backdrop against which Euripides can develop his heroes, demonstrating the complex interactions of Electra’s expectations with Orestes’ incongruous speech and actions” (77). Euripides has the Nurse in Hippolytus and the Old Tutor in Ion perform “crucial but unsavory acts” (85); this “partially relieves the heroines of their responsibility for these deeds, presenting them to the audience in a much more sympathetic light than would otherwise be possible” (85-6). In the chapter’s final section, Yoon argues that “Euripides exploits the identity of an anonymous character…to lay the foundations for an innovation in [a] hero’s presentation” (98). For instance, in Electra, the Autourgos functions “to ground the play and its heroine in the commonplace world of rural life” (104-5). The odious Herald in Heracleidae primes us to expect the worst from his master Eurystheus, but Eurystheus turns out to be “a dignified, practical man” (113). In Supplices and Aegyptioi, Aeschylus may have provided an earlier example of this tactic.

Building on these findings, Chapter 3 looks at three plays that “explore the boundaries between anonymity and naming” (121). The Persian Queen in Persae may have a large role, but her namelessness is consistent with the fact that “she is dramatically dependent on her son Xerxes, and that Aeschylus gives her no word, action, or motive that does not direct the audience’s attention to him” (124). Her main function is “to prepare for her son’s entry,” and when Xerxes arrives, “there is no further need for his mother’s representation” (129). In Choephoroi, Aeschylus names the nurse Cilissa in order to distinguish her from the nurse of myth (Arsinoë or Laodameia) who saves Orestes: “The name immediately conveys to an ancient audience that she is not an enslaved noble who defied her mistress to rescue her master, but a passive and unassuming slave who continues to obey the established power in spite of her personal loyalties” (131). Lastly, in Euripides’s Ion, the hero’s naming “plays a significant role in his acceptance of his transformation from a devoted slave to a self-aware, autonomous prince” (134).

Chapter 4 offers three comparanda for Greek tragedy’s handling of anonymous characters. Homer and Hesiod are seen to “draw upon the generalizing and allegorical potential of namelessness”, but “they do not make significant use of anonymous characters” (146). By not naming Thesmophoriazusae ’s In-law, Aristophanes can portray him as both subordinate to Euripides and possessed of the same “dramatic autonomy enjoyed by anonymous slaves” in other Aristophanic comedies (152). Finally, later tragedians took over the anonymous characters of Greek tragedy but did not put them to the same use. For instance, in his Phaedra, Seneca “gives the Nurse a range of functions, but they are largely independent of Phaedra’s presentation” (154).

The Conclusion reminds us that anonymous characters can differ greatly in, for instance, their contribution to the plot or their portrayal. It then asks how the poet manages to make an anonymous character so un memorable, pointing to three characteristics: “relatively low social status (or weakness), an aversion to direct conflict or contrast with any major character, and complete subordination to a particular named hero” (158).

Yoon’s book will be of value to students of Greek tragedy. Those interested in narratological matters will benefit as well. For the question arises, How does a playwright, or any author for that matter, make a minor character out of a character? Yoon’s study explores this component of the storyteller’s project, although it does so most explicitly only in the Conclusion: I refer the reader to the quotation from page 158 in the previous paragraph. In addition to the techniques noted in that quotation, the book also points to moments of compression, thematization, and caricature (although Yoon does not use those first two terms) – that is, to techniques that critics have shown to be instrumental in the construction of minor characters in other literatures, such as the realist novel.1 Note, then, that Yoon’s book intersects with the study of minor characters and, therefore, the study of characters and characterization more broadly in fields beyond Classics. Yet, this intersection is accidental. The implied reader of this book is a classicist: Greek passages are not translated into English, and there is scarcely any engagement with scholarship on character or characterization that is not by classicists. I fear that this useful book will not receive the wide readership outside Classics that it deserves. We can resolve to spread the word. ​


1. See A. Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, 2003).