BMCR 2023.04.04

Caracterización y cortesía en Eurípides

, Caracterización y cortesía en Eurípides. Zaragoza: Libros Pórtico, 2022. Pp. 297. ISBN 9788479562137

This thoroughly argued book studies the distribution of politeness strategies in a series of Euripidean supplication scenes from the point of view of linguistical characterisation. Sandra Rodríguez Piedrabuena opens a new, promising path in the study of tragic language. Indeed, others have tried to use politeness theory and characterisation in the study of tragedy, and failed because of what the author incisively calls an “impressionistic” approach. Rodríguez Piedrabuena overcomes this difficulty by clarifying her scope, method, and reasons in detail, and by sticking scrupulously to her set of rules.

The book is divided into two parts. The shorter first part (chapters 1-3) defines the main theoretical concepts, the corpus of texts to be studied, and the details of the methodology, thus preparing the ground for the actual study which occupies the second part (chapters 4-6). Chapter one presents the key concepts of characterisation while chapter two defines the criteria behind the selection of the corpus of supplication scenes. Chapter three presents politeness theories and its potential application to Euripides’ tragedies: here, Rodríguez Piedrabuena presents the key concepts of Brown and Levinson’s theory[1], based on the notion of face (a person’s social image). As she explains, factors such as the difference in power, the degree of familiarity and their combination can influence the conversational strategy chosen by the speaker in order to protect their own face while avoiding a threat to the addressee’s, that is to say, in order to avoid a Face Threatening Act (FTA). (Im)politeness strategies are therefore employed when avoiding, or engaging in, FTAs. The largest share of the second part is occupied by chapter 4, which contains the book’s core: in it, Rodríguez Piedrabuena applies politeness theory (springing from Brown and Levinson’s work, but also considering later publications in the field) to her corpus. In chapter 5, she uses the conclusions extracted from the previous chapter to draw a comparative analysis of each supplication scene. Finally, the very synthetic chapter 6 wraps up the study with some final considerations in light of the previous sections.

In chapter one, Rodríguez Piedrabuena begins by dismantling the old, persisting confusion between the concepts of ἦθος and χαρακτήρ. While the former refers to a person’s disposition, thus pertaining to an inward dimension, the second is originally a common name for an engraved relief, and—in a figurative sense—indicates a feature which is recognisable from the outside and identifies its bearer as pertaining to a certain category. The author refers to Euripidean passages which present this meaning of the word. The later semantic shift of χαρακτήρ towards a more individualised notion of personality is the reason for the widespread tendency to analyse dramatic characters from the point of view of ἦθος. Rodríguez Piedrabuena, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that the starting point of her work will be an interpretation of characters as types, rather than actual individuals with idiosyncrasies and unique identities. She presents an overview of the “atomistic” and “psychological” perspective on characterisation in tragedy, the former basically denying the possibility of studying characters in a text which is divided into episodes, the latter analysing tragic characters under the point of view of ἦθος. As Rodríguez Piedrabuena points out, she is not the first to believe that this dichotomy can, and should, be left behind. She then goes on to present the main characterisation mechanisms, which can be defined as a series of pairs: internal and external, direct and indirect, explicit and implicit characterisation. The author presents and analyses a series of definitions and arguments by others. Here, her work could perhaps have benefited in terms of accessibility if she had avoided explicitly quoting as vast a number of studies as she did, which leads to a certain detriment of her own argumentation’s unity, and the contents of most quotations could easily have been incorporated in the body of her text. Nevertheless, she does manage to make a compelling case for the need to approach characterisation in tragedy under the scope of each character’s own language, and for the use of a systematic methodology which will be introduced and explained in detail later.

In chapter two, Rodríguez Piedrabuena presents the corpus on which she intends to focus. The author chooses to analyse scenes which have enough common elements to allow a comparison. They consist of a suppliant (ἱκέτης), an enemy figure who embodies a threat faced by the suppliant (ἐχθρός), both addressing a supplicandus (σωτήρ) who can accept or refuse assistance (triangular supplication). If the figure of σωτήρ and that of ἐχθρός coincide (or rather, the same character can become one or the other depending on whether the supplication is accepted or rejected), then the supplication is bilateral. These can occur in a public/sacred context as well as in a domestic one. Starting from previously existing catalogues of supplication scenes, Rodríguez Piedrabuena defines the following corpus: Heracl. 55-287, Supp. 110-597, Or. 380-724, Andr. 515-746, Hec. 218-443 and Hec. 726-863.

Chapter 3 contains a short presentation of the key concepts of politeness theory. This is particularly valuable for readers who are not acquainted with this field, and it is short and synthetic enough not to sound redundant for those who do know something about it. This is a particularly positive aspect of Rodríguez Piedrabuena’s book, as it makes it not only a valuable instrument for scholars applying politeness theory to Greek literature, but also for those who work on Euripides from other perspectives, and might need to gain some further insight on the language of characters involved in supplication scenes. In addition to presenting the concept of Face-Threatening Acts and defining some key supplication strategies, the author gives a brief but effective overview of NVivo, a software for qualitative data analysis, which she uses as an ancillary tool.

Part one ends after a hundred pages (almost one third of the book). It is indeed a significant length for a section which, all in all, serves a fundamentally introductory purpose to the bulk of the actual work, which is mainly contained in the next chapter. Nevertheless, it is necessary in order for the following part to be grounded on clearly defined concepts and undisputable data.

In Chapter 4, Rodríguez Piedrabuena begins by drawing a fundamental divide between accepted and rejected supplications, and by observing that the former are usually structured so that the actual supplication follows the argumentation, while the opposite order is a more common feature in rejected supplications. She goes on to analyse politeness and impoliteness strategies within the corpus: specifically, her work concerns hedges and anti-hedges, meaning those particles, words or phrases that are meant to (respectively) mitigate or exasperate a statement. The chapter is divided into subsections dedicated each to each (anti-)hedge, which the author first defines, referring to previous scholarship, and then applies to relevant passages of the corpus. Throughout the chapter, the reader begins to see the conclusions which are then explicitly drawn in the two final chapters. The analysis of (im)politeness strategies is as rigorous and exhaustive as it is clear and logically structured.

The analysis of supplication scenes in chapter 5 allows a comprehensive view of what had resulted from the work on single strategies. What emerges is sometimes quite surprising: for instance, supplicandi who refuse assistance do so by refraining from an abundant use of impoliteness and employ an array of politeness strategies; that is particularly true in the case of characters interpreted as scheming politicians (Odysseus in Hec. and Menelaus in Or.), whose diplomacy can be judged, thanks to Rodríguez Piedrabuena’s analysis, no longer in impressionistic terms, but starting from verifiable data based on the language they employ: in other words, we all perceived them as sly and insufferable, now we know why.

A particularly convincing feature of this chapter is how the supplication scene in Children of Heracles is shown to be a prototypical triangular supplication, with each character’s language connotating him as a type, according to the notion of χαρακτήρ argued in chapter one: thus, the elevated use of politeness strategies makes Iolaus a standard suppliant, whereas the use of impoliteness characterises Copreus’ role as enemy, and Demophon is connotated as a moderate supplicandus, employing impoliteness strategies to a limited degree. Rodríguez Piedrabuena compares the other scenes in the corpus against this standard. For example, she highlights how the characters in Suppliant Women present a progression from type to individual, with Theseus’ youth determining an increased use of impoliteness compared to the supplicandus in Children of Heracles, and Adrastus’ supplication failing because of his excessive impoliteness and scarce use of politeness strategies.

It is precisely this aspect which may be this book’s greatest contribution to Euripidean studies: Rodríguez Piedrabuena challenges the idea that unsuccessful supplications fail simply because of the supplicandus’ unwillingness, the suppliant’s personal qualities, or due to plot necessities; she argues that what determines the supplication’s outcome is mainly the suppliant’s use of politeness and impoliteness strategies. Thus, all unsuccessful suppliants employ impoliteness strategies, while none of the successful ones do. For instance, Hecuba’s first supplication to Odysseus (Hec. 218-443), which is unsuccessful, contains anti-hedges of various kinds, and even insults: these she leaves behind in her next plea to Agamemnon (Hec. 726-863), which, if not entirely successful, at least results in the Greek king not stopping her from enacting her revenge plan. This does not mean that other factors are not relevant to the outcome of a supplication, but the fact that there is an exact correspondence between impoliteness and failure can hardly be overlooked.

Rodríguez Piedrabuena’s book is a most welcome addition not only to characterisation and politeness studies applied to ancient drama, but more broadly to the research of anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Euripides’ language and its role in the construction of complex, multi-faceted characters, as well as its relation to the progress of the plots, in which the role of the spoken word plays a pivotal role which can never be overemphasised.



[1] Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: CUP.