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Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba

Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba

by Charles Segal

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Where is the pleasure in tragedy? This question, how suffering and sorrow become the stuff of aesthetic delight, is at the center of Charles Segal's new book, which collects and expands his recent explorations of Euripides' art.
Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba, the three early plays interpreted here, are linked by common themes of violence, death,


Where is the pleasure in tragedy? This question, how suffering and sorrow become the stuff of aesthetic delight, is at the center of Charles Segal's new book, which collects and expands his recent explorations of Euripides' art.
Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba, the three early plays interpreted here, are linked by common themes of violence, death, lamentation and mourning, and by their implicit definitions of male and female roles. Segal shows how these plays draw on ancient traditions of poetic and ritual commemoration, particularly epic song, and at the same time refashion these traditions into new forms. In place of the epic muse of martial glory, Euripides, Segal argues, evokes a muse of sorrows who transforms the suffering of individuals into a "common grief for all the citizens," a community of shared feeling in the theater.
Like his predecessors in tragedy, Euripides believes death, more than any other event, exposes the deepest truth of human nature. Segal examines the revealing final moments in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba, and discusses the playwright's use of these deaths—especially those of women—to question traditional values and the familiar definitions of male heroism. Focusing on gender, the affective dimension of tragedy, and ritual mourning and commemoration, Segal develops and extends his earlier work on Greek drama. The result deepens our understanding of Euripides' art and of tragedy itself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Several interconnected themes unify this book. One is Euripides's mixture of 'mythic' elements with 'realistic' and ratiocinative ones, which produces new forms of tragic discourse. Another is Euripides's deconstruction of such comfortable oppositions as male/female and Greek/barbarian, which dissolves the barriers between actor and audience, self and 'other.' Segal develops his argument with great lucidity, patient reference to the text, broad and informed acknowledgment of the work of others, and an admirable ability to make connections between literary aperçus and the history of ideas."—Peter Burian, Duke University

"The essays are uniformly first rate; they advance the understanding of the plays in detail and in overall perspective; and they address deep, complex questions with a critical sophistication that, for this age, shows itself to be remarkably lucid and sane. I was delighted to learn new things about plays I knew very well, and to reexamine them in a new light."—Kenneth J. Reckford, University of North Carolina

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Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow

Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba

By Charles Segal

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8179-2



This book explores how Euripides' poetic imagination shaped his vision of tragedy in three plays: Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba. The first two have long been recognized as masterpieces of Greek drama and remain among the most discussed works of Greek literature. Hecuba, neglected in this century, has recently begun to regain the high esteem it enjoyed from antiquity through the sixteenth century. All three plays belong to the early phase of Euripides' maturity. The Alcestis was presented in 438 B.C., the Hippolytus in 428, and the Hecuba probably in the mid-420s. All three examine the divisions and conflicts of male and female experience. All three also experiment with the limits of the tragic form. Alcestis combines tragedy and the satyr play and, in what is still the most economical explanation for its peculiarities, was probably presented in place of the satyr play that usually followed the three tragedies at the dramatic festivals. Hippolytus not only introduces a new kind of tragic protagonist—a male virginal devotee of Artemis with mystical tendencies—but, like Alcestis, resumes Aeschylus' bold device in the Eumenides, presented thirty years earlier, framing the action by the conflict of two divine powers who appear onstage. Hecuba is the only extant tragedy to begin with a ghost; yet, after this striking opening, divinity completely disappears from the action. The play depicts the extremes of human suffering in war with a power rivaled only by Euripides' other great war play of a decade later, the Trojan Women.

In all three plays, Euripides works with an extreme self-consciousness of his dramatic art, transmuting suffering and sorrow into the paradoxical beauty of tragedy. He thereby draws on the ancient traditions of poetic and ritual commemoration, particularly epic song, but he is also conscious of refashioning these traditions through his new art, an art inspired no longer by the muse of epic martial glory but by a Muse of Sorrows.

It is not only the sad aftermath of death that this Muse of Sorrows sings. Like his predecessors in tragedy, Homer and Sophocles, Euripides knows that death more than any other event shows what a human being is. Each of the three plays brings us to or near these revealing final moments. We experience Alcestis' clarity of self-sacrifice; Phaedra's ambiguous mixture of hatred and heroism, guile and honor; Hippolytus' overwhelmed innocence and bitterness, into which a manly endurance and generosity surprisingly enter at the last; and Polyxena's change from helpless despair to a cold recognition of the lifetime of slavery that awaits her and the consequent courage of her choice. Euripides uses these deaths, especially the deaths of women, to question traditional values and the familiar definitions of male heroism.

Greek drama, unlike its modern counterpart, is a form of public discourse in a holistic society; that is, a society all of whose parts are visibly and inescapably related to one another. The chapters on the individual plays examine how tragedy explores the dynamic relations of analogy and contrast between different areas of personal and social life. To take a central nucleus of meaning in the Hippolytus, for example, the cleavage between appearance and reality is replicated in the dramatic movement between interior and exterior, the contrast between house and city, the conflict between female and male, and the clash of lying and truthful speech. Dichotomies between male and female in obviously gender-related categories like sexuality extend to less obviously gender-related categories like space and language. Phaedra's self-defense takes the form of leaving behind, inside the house, silent, closed-up tablets that have to be unfolded to the open air in order to communicate their message. Hippolytus, on the other hand, defends himself in set speeches to his father, the king of the city, in declarations that mirror the civic proceedings of the law courts and assemblies.

Euripides also exploits paradoxical mixtures and inversions of these relations. Alcestis combines the male, outward-facing obligations of guest-friendship with private mourning. Hecuba brings together primitive ritual and politics, intense maternal feeling, and questions of ethical universals. Its ending moves a mother's personal and characteristically female vengeance for her child into a public setting that reflects both a court of law and a debate on state policy.

As a form of civic discourse, Greek tragedy reflects on the ways in which its society represents itself through such collective expressions as myth, ritual, festivals, and political institutions, and through their explicit statements of civic ideals (and ideologies) in epideictic oratory or funeral eulogy. Tragedy includes and utilizes such forms of civic self-presentation. These surround the tragic performance in direct, concrete ways. Before the audience in the theater at the Greater Dionysia the tribute of the empire was displayed, talent by talent; and the young men who had been reared at public expense as recompense for the deaths of their fathers in battle were paraded forth. But tragedy has a dialectical structure lacking in civic ritual or in such monologic forms of civic discourse as the epitaphios, or funeral speech. It combines the distancing effect of myth and fiction with the agonistic model of debate and conflict. It speaks to the assembled citizens of the polis in the here and now of a time full of crises, dangers, and conflicts; but it uses a frame of remote, legendary events that enables the poet to look far beyond the passions and anxieties of the present moment. The tragedies therefore view the attitudes, practices, expectations, and latent assumptions of the assembled community not just as ideals but also as problems and sources of contradiction, not for empty praise (much as the Athenians enjoyed it) but for critical reflection. All the plays studied in this volume, I believe, were intended to stimulate this kind of serious thought.

Tragedy not only reflects on the discourse of the city and the self. It also reflects on its own discourse. Like all Greek literature, from Homer on, it is concerned with fashioning monuments of itself. Like epic poetry, it is also its own monument, for in immortalizing the stories that it records, tragedy immortalizes its own power to create works of lasting beauty for the city, and indeed for all humankind. Although the plays were intended for a single performance, the tragedians became increasingly conscious of their survival in an immortality of fame. The growing literacy of the late fifth century and the proliferation of written texts of the plays doubtless contributed to this self-conscious monumentalizing. Euripides is particularly interested in making various types of monument—temples, rituals, statues—serve as figures for the peculiar kind of commemoration that tragedy creates. By calling attention to the survival of his tale in the city's collective memory and to the community of the theater that the play itself creates, he places his work in the commemorative tradition alongside oral epic, choral lyric, civic statuary and architecture, and other public symbolic forms. But he also intimates the unsatisfactoriness or even the emptiness of those communal forms of consolation in the face of the suffering that the audience has just experienced, as he does in Hippolytus, Trojan Women, and Bacchae.

It may be, as Roland Barthes suggests, that the ultimate subject of the modern novel is love, a subject that corresponds to the novel's mode of reception if, as Barthes also suggests, reading, privacy, and desire are closely intertwined:

Of this eroticism of reading, there is perhaps no purer apologue than that episode in Proust's novel where the young Narrator shuts himself up in the Combray bathroom in order to read ...: "I went up sobbing to the very top of the house, to the room next to the schoolroom, under the roof, a little room smelling of iris, and also perfumed by a wild currant bush sprouting between the stones of the wall outside and which thrust a flowering branch through the open window. Intended for a more particular and vulgar use, this room, from which one had a view, during the day, all the way to the donjon of Roussainville-le-Pin, long served me as a refuge, doubtless because it was the only place I was allowed to lock myself in, for all those occupations of mine which required an inviolable solitude: reading, reverie, tears, and pleasure."

If privacy and desire underlie the novel's mode of reception, its special form of pleasure, and its implicit relation to its audience, then death, absence, and commemoration underlie Greek tragedy's reception, special pleasure, and relation with its audience.

One source of tragedy's paradoxical pleasure is its always precarious equilibrium between the sadness of loss and the recuperative power of art. Alongside the destructive and self-destructive forces that tragedy reveals in man and his world, works such as Bacchae, King Lear, and Hedda Gabler also imply a creative energy inherent in the act of representation. The very form and social context of tragic drama surround potentially meaningless suffering with some sense of stability and continuity. In Greek tragedy the closing public acts of mourning and ritual commemoration often imply future survivors and spectators who will hear, remember, and learn. The end of Hamlet is perhaps modern drama's most familiar example (5.2.330ff.):

Hamlet. Horatio, I am dead:
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.
Horatio. Never believe it.
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane;
Here's yet some liquor left.
Hamlet. Give me the cup. Let go. By heaven, I'll ha't.
O God! Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

The gestures here are not only those of ritual commemoration; they are also intertextual and metatheatrical in the way they imply the classical literary tradition ("antique Roman") and the living continuation of that tradition in the performance itself. The play reaches out through its literary and ritual traditions to embrace the present audience, who thus sees both the conclusion of Hamlet's "story" and its future perpetuation in Horatio's (and Shakespeare's) telling. It thereby also incorporates those who have participated in similar rituals in the past and those who will hear this "story" (via Shakespeare's play) in the future.

In Euripides such commemorative closures often contain a self-conscious reminder of the artifice and artistry within the play itself. This aesthetic self-reflexivity has often been noted, but the connections with the ritual lament and epic commemoration have not always been fully appreciated. Because it is embedded in these traditional forms of expressing sorrow, this aesthetic self-consciousness can coexist with the most powerful tragic effect and need not imply a breaking of the illusion or the dramatic frame.

In addition to ritual commemoration and aesthetic self-consciousness, I am concerned with a third feature of these plays: Euripides' awareness that the communities he depicts are divided by the sharp dichotomy between male and female experience. In all three plays gender questions and disturbs the unity of the civic institutions. Men enjoy power, privilege, and access to public life and public space, while women must find ways of compensating for their relative powerlessness, which they do with results that usually undermine the male-dominated political order with which the plays begin.

We should not assume that these plays faithfully represent the actual condition of Athenian women; they are symbolic constructions, not true-to-life depictions of real behavior or even of the range of possible behavior for women in that society. The separation of women from political life, for example, was not so absolute as the tragedies might suggest. Motherhood had its political function, particularly in the parallelism between marriage for women and war for men, in the rearing and bearing of children as future citizens of the polis, and in women's concern in time of war to help their men, knowing the fate that awaited them if their husbands, fathers, and brothers should fail to keep the enemy outside the walls. Nevertheless, tragedy's almost obsessive embodiment of danger and destruction in female characters shows that these situations of male-female conflict did preoccupy the Athenian audience. All three tragedians repeatedly project into the mythical situations of the plays and the choral odes the fears, tensions, and potential violence in marriage and in family life in general.

With its very one-sided view of male and female relations, tragedy presents anxieties that perhaps could not easily be verbalized or otherwise represented. Tragedies concerned with love and marriage, one might argue, indirectly validate the (desiderated) norm of female submission to father and husband by showing the disastrous result of "deviant" behavior. Nevertheless, in a society that limits the woman's economic and emotional autonomy by placing her disposition in marriage largely in the hands of her father or his surrogate, the tragedies also bring out the dangers of the social system; permit the repressed fears, resentments, desires, and fantasies on both sides to find expression; and then illustrate how ruinous it is to allow full rein to these passions, especially the erotic passions, which women are supposedly less able to resist.

As we shall see in more detail in the following chapters, tragedy frequently expresses these destructive sexual conflicts in spatial terms. All three of the plays studied in this volume project the unity of the city upon tangible, specific spaces in the lives of its citizens, spaces that can easily symbolize the most important institutions of the society. In Alcestis, grief for the dying queen reaches out from her domestic realm to include Admetus' entire kingdom. In Hippolytus the destructiveness of passion and its denial is played out in a three-way contrast of house, wild nature, and the political entities under Theseus' rule. The city of Athens and its Acropolis (lines 29ff.) are the background to the play's events at Troezen and to the contrast between Hippolytus' hunting grounds and the secluded women's chambers. In Hecuba the assembly and law court of the victorious Greek army contrast with the secrecy and private spaces of the crafty Trojan women.

The boundary between male space and female space is a zone whose dangers all the tragedians elaborate in subtle variations. As appears from the richest such elaboration, the tapestry scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, this is the area where male power yields to female persuasion and seduction. In Sophocles' Trachiniae the wife overcomes the great hero of exploits in remote lands by means of the robe, emanation of female guile and erotic power, sent to him from within the deep "enclosures" (muchoi) of the house. Although Deianeira is attempting to preserve her marriage, she follows the Clytaemnestra-like pattern in which the woman inside the house collaborates with a seducer who finds his way to her heart. In this case the stranger from outside is the dead Centaur Nessus, who persuaded her to accept the treacherous gift of his poisoned blood as a love charm and to store it in her chambers. In this indirect way he works within her interior realm as a coconspirator who kills the returning husband.

In Euripides' Medea, which may have been influenced by the Trachiniae, the protagonist's skillful persuasion of Creon gains her a day's grace so that she can deploy her sinister magic. Although this magic works primarily in female domestic space, it moves from the women's chambers outward to affect the future of kingdoms. Medea not only destroys her own children—her husband's successors—but also ends a dynasty and obliterates her husband's political ambitions. In the Bacchae, which plays with inversions of wild and domestic space and male and female roles, seduction takes the form of persuading the king himself to become a woman and leave his palace for the wooded mountain. There he is stripped of his power and seductively led to helplessness and death before a demonized version of maternal rage.


Excerpted from Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow by Charles Segal. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles Segal is Professor of Greek and Latin at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including Lucretius on Death and Anxiety, Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet, and Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text.

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