Scholia Reviews 2 (1993): 5

Ann Norris Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Pp. xvi + 384. US$32.75.

F.M. Dunn
Northwestern University

Like Proteus, Euripides assumes a bewildering variety of guises in the hands of his interpreters. To Aristotle he seemed ‘the most tragic of poets’ (Poet. 1453 a.30), while Satyrus said he perfected the features of New Comedy (POxy. ix.1176, fr.39, col.7); the women of Aristophanes denounced him as a misogynist (Thesm. 383-432), while modern suffragists hail him as an advocate for women’s rights; and the atheist who, in the Thesmophoriazusae, ‘taught men that there are no gods’ (450-51), according to some modern critics, endorsed conservative piety. These contradictory responses to the plays of Euripides seem to reflect contradictions in the plays themselves–contradictions which scholars now tend to regard as evidence, not of poor writing, but of irony or duplicity or polyphony. Yet if we agree to respect the many shapes of our Protean poet, it would seem that no single description of him is truly right–or wrong. In Euripides and the Tragic Tradition, Michelini offers a general interpretation of Euripidean drama as a reaction against the norms of tragedy: the ironies and contradictions in his plays reflect a conflict between the tragic tradition of which Euripides was a part, and his challenge to the assumptions embodied in that tradition. This way out of the impasse argues that the plays present not a particular argument or a coherent point of view, but a conflict over values traditionally embodied in tragedy.

Part I, ‘Toward Interpretation,’ describes the confused situation of Euripidean criticism and sets forth the author’s view of the confrontation between Euripides and his tradition. After a detailed survey of scholarship from the Schlegels to Whitman (Chap. 1), Michelini describes the norm of fifth-century tragedy represented by Sophocles (Chap. 2), the themes of Euripides which shocked the audience by violating this norm (Chap. 3), the formal style which allows abrupt shifts in tone and diminishes organic unity (Chap. 4), and Euripides’ sophistic rejection of tragic norms (Chap. 5). Part II, ‘Four Plays,’ applies these observations to the interpretation of selected works. The Hecuba reverses tragic aesthetics with its disjointed structure, cynical rhetoric and ugly revenge (Chap. 6); the Electra deflates the tragic mode of ‘high mimetic’ with its domestic and comic detail (Chap. 7); the Heracles reveals that traditional and contemporary ideas of man and hero cannot be reconciled (Chap. 8); and in the Hippolytus the traditional tragic structure fails to provide a tragic hero (Chap. 9). Finally, there are four brief appendices (on use of the term ‘melodrama;’ on interpretations of the Alcestis; on lyrics in the Hecuba; and on dating the Electra) and an exhaustive bibliography.

Michelini’s interpretation is based chiefly upon the contrast between Sophocles and Euripides, and the wholesale rejection by Euripides of his rival’s approach to tragedy: ‘Euripidean drama can be defined in virtually every aspect by the rubric ‘non-Sophoclean” (p.64). This thesis is supported by the review of scholarship, which shows that critics usually fail to understand Euripides when they judge him by Sophoclean standards (Chap. 1), and by a description of the remarkable success and popularity of Sophocles, who thus established a norm for Athenian tragedy (Chap. 2). If we find provocative themes or disjointed structure in Euripidean tragedy, we may regard these as a rejection of Sophocles’ decorous and organic style (Chaps 3 and 4). Although emphasis upon the contrast between the two tragedians ‘necessarily produces a somewhat flattened view of Sophokles’ (p. xiii), it allows a sympathetic description of unconventional features in Euripides. Less convincing is the insistence that such features are always a reaction against Sophocles: if the Hecuba questions received notions about physis, this is because ‘Sophokles used traditional ideology about physis to support a rebirth of the concerns and tone of heroic epic’ (p.140); and if we cannot prove the priority of Sophocles’ Electra, we must nevertheless consider ‘the response of the Euripidean Elektra to Sophoclean drama as a whole’ (p.337). Michelini thus attributes the peculiar qualities of Euripidean drama not to the poet’s personality, nor to cultural or historical circumstances, but to the anxiety of influence: once Sophocles had perfected the form of tragedy, ‘the attempt to renew his art form and to reshape it in his own image, the attempt of every great artist in every period, forced upon Euripides a deviation from the established norm’ (p.99). Unfortunately, this attempt to vindicate the playwright also implies poor sportsmanship: Euripides chose to dismantle the tragic norm because he was no match for Sophocles.

The discussion of individual plays illustrates the tension between traditional and non-traditional, or Sophoclean and anti-Sophoclean, elements in four different examples. This tension is most obvious in the Electra, which seems to challenge earlier versions of the legend, and in the Heracles, which juxtaposes heroic and non-heroic values; more subtle are the interpretations of the Hecuba as an ugly reversal of tragic aesthetics, and of the Hippolytus as an exceptional union of Euripidean irony with Sophoclean form. Although Michelini gives passing endorsement to structural criticism (p.121), her approach is practical rather than theoretical, and ranges from a struc- tural emphasis upon opposites (heroic/anti-heroic, spoudaion/geloion) to a post- structural view of tragedy subverting itself. A good example of the former is the discussion of Heracles as a ‘modern hero.’ Michelini shows that although Heracles is Euripides’ most heroic protagonist, his comic associations, his non-heroic bow, his civilizing exploits and his interest in domestic values, allow the hero to embody conflicting cultural values. A good example of the latter is Michelini’s discussion of the Polyxena scene in the Hecuba (pp. 158-70). Rather than viewing the young woman’s sacrifice as a noble foil to the cynical plots of the other characters, she argues that the artificial sentimentality of Polyxena’s gestures exposes the emptiness of the heroic model. Structural oppositions can sometimes lead to oversimplification. Valuable observations on the comic or ‘low mimetic’ tone of the opening scenes of the Electra, for example (pp. 182-206), lead to an emphasis upon the general contrast between comic and heroic roles, largely neglecting the moral issues of the play. The portrait of Euripides the anti-traditionalist can likewise be overly negative. The useful discussion of inverted values in the Hecuba, for example (Chap. 6), leads to the conclusion that ‘like the Sophistic itself, the play is both false and valid, empty and futile, yet filled with a demonic energy–spoude–that is itself a celebration of the aspirations that it mocks’ (p.180). Does it follow that the play is an intellectual excercise in nihilism? As Reckford reminds us, ‘the analysis of ideas should always bring us back in the end: back to Hecuba, back to the horrid shore of Thrace, and back to those basic human feelings and concerns which are … our necessary lot’. Michelini’s analysis of these plays is illuminating and challenging, but the wealth of valuable observations tends to reveal important antitheses without developing a broader interpretation of the drama.

Euripides and the Tragic Tradition asks all the right questions. It forces us to confront the many contradictions in Euripides’ work; it demonstrates the differences between the literary assumptions of Sophocles and Euripides; and it challenges us to respond to Euripidean drama with sophistication and sensitivity. If Michelini fails to fashion a clear portrait of the Protean poet, she helps us to understand why the ancient world hated and loved him more than any other playwright.