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Staged Narrative

Poetics and the Messenger in Greek Tragedy

James Barrett

Publication Year: 2002

The messenger who reports important action that has occurred offstage is a familiar inhabitant of Greek tragedy. A messenger informs us about the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus, the madness of Heracles, the slaughter of Aigisthos, and the death of Hippolytus, among other important events. Despite its prevalence, this conventional figure remains only little understood. Combining several critical approaches—narrative theory, genre study, and rhetorical analysis—this lucid study develops a synthetic view of the messenger of Greek tragedy, showing how this role illuminates some of the genre's most persistent concerns, especially those relating to language, knowledge, and the workings of tragic theater itself.

James Barrett gives close readings of several plays including Aeschylus's Persians, Sophocles' Electra and Oedipus Tyrannus, and Euripides' Bacchae and Rhesos. He traces the literary ancestry of the tragic messenger, showing that the messenger's narrative constitutes an unexplored site of engagement with Homeric epic, and that the role illuminates fifth-century b.c. experimentation with modes of speech. Breaking new ground in the study of Athenian tragedy, Barrett deepens our understanding of many central texts and of a form of theater that highlights the fragility and limits of human knowledge, a theme explored by its use of the messenger.

Published by: University of California Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Frontispiece

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pp. iii-vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This book has been a long time in the making, and many people have lent a helping hand, knowingly and unknowingly. The initial impetus that set me on this path came from a graduate seminar at Cornell University, taught by Patricia Easterling. I thank her for sharing her inspired approach to Greek tragedy and for pointing the way. The ideas originally ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiv-xiv

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pp. xv-xxiv

The messenger of Greek tragedy is a curious figure. It is a messenger’s narrative (angelia) that informs us about the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, for example. Such narratives likewise report the madness of Herakles, the slaughter of Aigisthos, the death of Hippolytus, and the dismemberment of Pentheus ...

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pp. 1-22

Shortly after the Iliad begins it becomes virtual drama for more than 100 lines: beginning with Kalkhas’s plea to Achilles for protection (74 –83), the narrator speaks only single lines introducing the characters as they speak in turn (with the exception of one 5-line passage, 101–5).1 Following Kalkhas’s plea and Achilles’ pledge to protect him, Achilles and ...

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1. Aeschylus’s Persians: The Messenger and Epic Narrative

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pp. 23-55

Although far from satisfactory, the view of the messenger as a functional device is not entirely without merit. Even if we insist that every narrator is a focalizer and as such renders the narrative in question something both more and less than a transparent representation, we can agree that the tragic poets made practical use of the messenger along the lines indicated ...

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2. The Literary Messenger, the Tragic Messenger

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pp. 56-101

In the previous chapter I suggested that Aeschylus’s Persians makes reference to an established literary figure who predates the tragic messenger. This literary messenger appears already in Homer and is characterized by swiftness and reliability. More specifically, the messenger’s reliability appears not only as the accuracy (ajtrekevw~, at Il. 2.10, for example) ...

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3. Euripides’ Bacchae: The Spectator in the Text

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pp. 102-131

If tragic messengers make claims such as those I have identified, not all critics are seduced by them. In a study examining the various reports from Mt. Cithaeron in Euripides’ Bacchae, Richard Buxton argues against reading the narratives of Euripidean messengers as impartial or transparent accounts of the events they describe. In concluding his careful analysis ...

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4. Homer and the Art of Fiction in Sophocles’ Electra

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pp. 132-167

If Aeschylus’s Persians reveals the Homeric underpinnings of the conventional tragic messenger and if Euripides’ Bacchae displays the ideal form of spectatorship that is the province of this messenger, Sophocles’ Electra joins these two defining characteristics. The play does this as it puts on stage the only fictitious angelia in the extant tragic corpus. Any study ...

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5. Rhesos and Poetic Tradition

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pp. 168-189

The narrative practices on exhibit in the angeliai discussed in the preceding chapters are not, in fact, always adopted by tragic messengers. I have argued that the messenger makes competing, even contradictory, claims as eyewitness and narrator. The messenger’s bodily presence as eyewitness—and as dramatis persona—competes to some extent with his ...

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6. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus: Epistemology and Tragic Practice

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pp. 190-222

If Rhesos shows how a play may distort the conventional form of an angelia in the service of its thematic interests, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus offers a parallel example of how a play may profit from manipulating conventional form. The play’s second messenger, the exangelos, provides a lengthy account of Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s self-blinding. ...

Appendix: Messengers in Greek Tragedy

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pp. 223-224

Works Cited

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pp. 225-238

Index Locorum

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pp. 239-244

General Index

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pp. 245-250

Production Notes

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pp. 252-252

E-ISBN-13: 9780520927933
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520231801

Page Count: 274
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 50639533
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Staged Narrative

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Subject Headings

  • Greek drama (Tragedy) -- History and criticism.
  • Narration (Rhetoric) -- History -- To 1500.
  • Messengers in literature.
  • Rhetoric, Ancient.
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