BMCR 2021.09.05

Female characters in fragmentary Greek tragedy

, , Female characters in fragmentary Greek tragedy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xv, 280. ISBN 9781108495141 $99.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book, which grew out of a conference at the University of Nottingham in 2016, makes a compelling case for integrating the study of tragic fragments more fully into scholarship on thematic topics in Greek tragedy.[1] As Finglass and Coo point out in the introduction to the volume, the past two decades of scholarly endeavor have made the fragmentary tragedies increasingly accessible to scholars and students through the publication of editions, commentaries, and translations. Despite the availability of these resources, scholarship on tragedy does not always (or even often) include the fragments in explorations of larger themes, including the study of women. The twelve essays in this volume strive to demonstrate what can be achieved with an integrated approach to women in tragedy that treats the fragments not merely as isolated puzzles, but as glimpses of performances in conversation with other works in the tragic corpus. Collectively, these chapters make clear that debates about female characters in tragedy can be both enriched and disrupted by analysis of fragmentary drama.

The editors identify their goals as twofold: “both to reveal new ways of reading and interpreting [the fragments], and to show how these plays might prompt a reevaluation of the kinds of questions and approaches that are current in tragic scholarship” (8). They divide the volume into two parts, the first part on “themes,” in which chapters are included that survey a theme across several fragmentary and complete tragedies, and the second on “plays,” in which chapters focus on a single fragmentary play. Yet to understand how these chapters prompt a reevaluation of scholarly questions and approaches to women in tragedy, I think it’s useful to group them according to the major debates in which they participate. I have identified four major debates in the study of women in tragedy that these chapters contribute to: female agency (the largest focus of enquiry represented in this volume), civic ideology, gender and performance, and canonicity. For each debate, I will discuss how the arguments of individual chapters contribute to or challenge the assumptions that are current in these areas of scholarship on women in tragedy. The four categories that I have identified are not rigid and often overlap; likewise, some chapters address multiple debates or employ multiple approaches. Nonetheless, this schematic approach will help illustrate, I hope, how these chapters intervene in scholarship on women in tragedy.

Much scholarship on tragic women has focused on how to interpret the transgressive female acts at the core of the most well-known tragedies.[2] Many of the essays in this volume engage with questions about female agency, although only two are framed explicitly in this way (Battezzato and Chong-Gossard). The chapters by Fiona McHardy and Patrick Finglass approach the topic of female agency by exploring the representation of women as perpetrators and victims of violence. McHardy attempts to uncover the impetus for acts of violence performed by women against other women. The fragmentary tragedies that McHardy surveys turn the focus from elite women’s violence against enslaved women (think Agamemnon and Andromache) to violence by foster mothers or stepmothers against daughters. This theme is hardly represented in the extant plays but is explored in detail in a number of fragmentary tragedies, including Euripides’ Alcmaeon in Corinth and Antiope and Sophocles’ Tyro. Finglass, by contrast, explores the agency of victims of rape in tragedy, arguing for an elaborate conversation between Agamemnon, Women of Trachis, and Tereus about victimization and speech. In the end, Finglass concludes that Cassandra, Iole, and Philomela are all involved in punishing perpetrators: “none of them is simply a victim” (101). By bringing fragmentary tragedies into the conversation, these two chapters complicate scholarly assumptions about female agency, power, and violence formed largely through readings of the extant plays, especially Agamemnon.

Three chapters consider another aspect of female agency in tragedy: the representation of women as desiring subjects. As Alan Sommerstein’s chapter points out, Aeschylus contrasts himself with Euripides in Aristophanes’ Frogs by claiming that he never portrayed “a woman in love” (Frogs 1044). Sophocles’ extant tragedies, with the possible exception of Women of Trachis, also refrain from depicting women’s erotic desire, but Sommerstein makes the case that the fragmentary plays tell a different story. He argues that Phaedra, Oenomaus, and Women of Colchis depict women who act on their desire, complicating the image of Sophocles as a playwright uninterested in staging women in love. Helene Foley’s chapter turns the lens on Euripides’ treatment of this same theme. Notorious for his scandalous depictions of adulterous women, Euripides also staged reciprocal spousal and premarital relationships between women and men, as in Helen. Foley presents eight additional examples from fragmentary plays, but many of them, she admits, may not actually be reciprocal or consensual and often end in disaster. Three examples (Protesilaus, Andromeda, and Antigone) at least complicate the picture of eros as dangerous, while all eight suggest that what makes a suitable marriage was a matter of intense debate for Euripides’ audience. Luigi Battezzato’s chapter, finally, focuses on a single female character’s erotic desire for a bull (Pasiphae in Euripides’ Cretans) and the ethical quandaries that it provokes. Battezzato argues that Pasiphae challenges the idea that “women in love” are responsible for actions performed under the influence of the gods by relying on an appeal to the fragmentation of self. All three chapters thus widen awareness of the range of issues and scenarios that tragedy explores as a consequence of women’s actions as desiring subjects.

Chapters by Lyndsay Coo and James H. Kim On Chong-Gossard analyze the interconnectedness of actions undertaken by female characters in tragedy. Coo engages with feminist political theory and its interest in Sophocles’ Antigone as a text about sisterhood and political action. Coo’s revelatory readings of Sophocles’ Tereus and Euripides’ Erechtheus demonstrate that both plays depict sisterhood as a spur to radical political action. Whereas Antigone forecloses the possibility of sisters acting because they are sisters, these fragmentary plays dramatize just such a motivation and its consequences for the oikos and polis. Chong-Gossard’s chapter argues that not all female acts in tragedy constitute perversions or transgressions of the social order. Through an analysis of Euripides’ Hypsipyle, Chong-Gossard demonstrates that this play explores interconnected female acts involving clemency or endurance, thereby expanding expectations of female acts in tragedy. These two chapters are exemplary for proposing new readings of the fragmentary plays while also enlarging upon existing scholarly debates about female agency in tragedy.

Another major area of research since the 1990s focuses on tragedy’s relationship to Athenian civic ideology.[3] While Coo’s analysis of Erechtheus also touches on this topic, Robert Cowan’s chapter on the perversion of the martial mother ideal in Sophocles’ Eurypylus confronts it directly. Identifying Aethra in Euripides’ Suppliant Women as embodying what is expected of citizen women by official discourse of the Athenian polis, Cowan argues that most “bad mothers” in tragedy invert this ideal by, for instance, refusing to send their sons into battle. In Eurypylus, however, Eriphyle perverts the ideal by choosing to send her son into battle, but for the wrong reasons and in a way that does not result in the salvation of the city. This chapter’s discussion of the differences between inversion and perversion of civic ideals for women contributes a nuanced perspective to an ongoing conversation about tragedy’s engagement with civic ideology.

Recently scholars have turned with renewed interest to how analysis of performance elements beyond the text, such as music, dance, and stagecraft, can enrich discussions of gender in tragedy.[4] Three chapters in this book engage with performance analysis, but with different goals. Niall Slater’s chapter on Europa, for instance, analyzes linguistic and performance choices (e.g., potential use of the mechane) to argue for a later date (420s) and different authorship (not Aeschylus) from those normally associated with this play. The chapters by Anna Uhlig and Caleb Simone explore the intersections of performance space, music, dance, and gender. Taking an “exuberantly speculative” (105) approach to the paltry fragments of Aeschylus’ Achilleis trilogy, Uhlig offers a provocative analysis of how this trilogy encodes gender in theatrical space by inverting Iliadic gender roles and transforming Homeric ekphrasis into choral spectacle. I found this chapter one of the richest for imagining new approaches to the study of gender in fragmentary tragedy. Caleb Simone’s chapter on Hypsipyle analyzes the musical form of Hypsipyle’s monody, arguing that her song evokes Orphic kitharoidia, an eastern Aegean musical form relevant to the cult of Dionysus Melpomenos in Athens. In addition to suggesting cultic links, Simone shows that the song elicits a certain effect in its listeners, as Hypsipyle’s synaesthetic performance imbues her audiences with desire for this new musical form.

All of the chapters in this volume challenge scholarly assumptions about the tragic genre by demonstrating how arbitrary are judgments and characterizations based only on complete plays. No chapter, however, does so as effectively as Matthew Wright’s final chapter on Medea, which demonstrates that Euripides’ version of the Medea story was only one among many Medea stories performed on the fifth- and fourth-century tragic stage. Wright argues against the assumption that Euripides’ Medea is the distinctive, quintessential Medea, pointing out that there is no evidence to show that this was the case in the fifth or even fourth centuries. By analyzing testimonia and fragments of tragedy not just from the big three tragedians, but also from lesser-known figures, Wright challenges the canon-making impulse that has given Euripides’ Medea so much power in modern narratives about gender and tragedy.

In reflecting on the whole, I can say without hesitation that these essays reveal new ways of reading fragmentary tragedy. They also broaden familiar scholarly debates on female agency, gender and civic ideology, and gender in performance by drawing attention to plays often left out of these conversations. I was surprised, however, by how few chapters explicitly engage with feminist theory, and I can imagine the volume being enriched by the critical perspectives of queer theory and critical race theory as well. Feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory provide further tools for resisting the reinscription of the xenophobic, racist, classist, misogynistic, and patriarchal discourses of the source texts, while also potentially opening up new debates on gender in tragedy. Even so, this volume demonstrates how incomplete any discussion of women in tragedy is that does not take into account the rich corpus of fragmentary material. As a result, these chapters will, I hope, inspire scholars and students to read and analyze the fragments alongside the complete plays in “exuberantly speculative” ways, to borrow Anna Uhlig’s phrase, thereby pushing conversations about gender and tragedy into new, as yet unimagined directions.

Authors and Titles

1. Lyndsay Coo and P. J. Finglass, Introduction
2. Fiona McHardy, Female Violence towards Women and Girls in Greek Tragedy
3. Lyndsay Coo, Greek Tragedy and the Theatre of Sisterhood
4. Alan H. Sommerstein, Women in Love in the Fragmentary Plays of Sophocles
5. Helene P. Foley, Heterosexual Bonding in the Fragments of Euripides
6. P. J. Finglass, Suffering in Silence: Victims of Rape on the Tragic Stage
7. Anna Uhlig, Dancing on the Plain of the Sea: Gender and Theatrical Space in Aeschylus’ Achilleis Trilogy
8. Niall W. Slater, Europa Revisited: An Experiment in Characterisation
9. Robert Cowan, When Mothers Turn Bad: The Perversion of the Maternal Ideal in Sophocles’ Eurypylus
10. Caleb Simone, The Music One Desires: Hypsipyle and Aristophanes’ ‘Muse of Euripides’
11. Luigi Battezzato, Fragmented Self and Fragmented Responsibility: Pasiphae in Euripides’ Cretans
12. James H. Kim On Chong-Gossard, Female Agency in Euripides’ Hypsipyle
13. Matthew Wright, Making Medea Medea


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I presented a paper at this conference, but decided not to contribute to this volume.

[2] See, for instance, Helene Foley’s Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (2001, Princeton).

[3] See, for example, the essays collected in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama and its Social Context, edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin (1990, Princeton).

[4] See Sarah Nooter’s When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy (2012, Cambridge), C. W. Marshall’s The Structure and Performance of Euripides’ Helen (2014, Cambridge), and Naomi A. Weiss’ The Music of Tragedy: Performance and Imagination in Euripidean Theater (2017, Berkeley and Los Angeles), among others.