- Wild Justice: A Study of Euripides’ Hecuba
Judith Mossman’s monograph on Euripides’ Hecuba deserves its accolades. It is well-written, well-argued, and shows a quality sometimes lacking in today’s publish-or-perish world, scholarly integrity. Sceptical of the theses she seeks to refute, Mossman nevertheless adopts no arrogant poses, but carefully weighs the merits of each position before casting it aside. Having found questions in a vast array of comparative and critical material, she meticulously develops answers from the ancient evidence itself, comprehensively drawing into one orbit not just classical Greek poetry and Attic tragedies, but also a variety of prose works, both early and late. In no way arbitrary, her comment avoids easy solutions garnered from contemporary fields of thought and faces even intractable textual problems head-on. With its sights high, the book never wanders wide of the mark, claiming neither too much nor too little. Nor does it pretend to [End Page 134] a fashionable last word on its subject, preferring rather to advance a tradition of interpretation so that those who later raise objections will happily find themselves engaged in a dialogue with its author in the common search for new insights.
Dr. Mossman’s obvious admiration for Hecuba is affirmed by the play’s history as a select text in the Byzantine manuscript tradition, and, as she demonstrates in her “Epilogue” (210–43), by the esteem accorded it in subsequent ages, especially the Renaissance, which considered it an ancient type of the then popular revenge tragedy. As I lack the background, however, to judge her winning treatment of Hecuba’s Renaissance heritage, I shall confine my remarks here to her presentation of the play’s internal dramatic excellence. This I found to be well conceived, thorough, and convincing.
The opening chapters on antecedent myth, the structural unity of spoken dialogue with conjectured stage spectacle, and the dramatic integration of the chorus serve as a suitable warm-up for the more controversial topics of the later chapters. Of these preliminary exercises I was most taken by Mossman’s reconstruction of the play’s original staging and its possible effect on the contemporary audience (chapter 2). It was a good idea to pay attention to this experiential dimension at the outset. By doing so the author alerts her readers not only to the natural indeterminacy of dramatic texts, but also to the enormous gap between our literary readings of ancient plays and our perusal of them as vehicles for performances, ancient or otherwise. Mossman plays this critical game well. What she says is lucid and enlivening. Nevertheless, the heart of her discussion lies elsewhere, in the chapters on Euripides’ “rhetoric as a characterizing force” (94), Polyxena’s heroic sacrificial death, and the justice of Hecuba’s savage revenge.
In these chapters Mossman successfully takes up the cudgel, first against the rhetorical formalists who argue that characters in Greek tragedies are often poorly motivated, inconsistent, generalized types that have been created largely without regard to individualizing details of the plot, a view sometimes wrongly attributed to Aristotle (see especially the excursus on Aristotle, 138–41); she then counters Nicole Loraux’s post-Freudian, feminist belief in the erotic nature of Polyxena’s sacrifice (Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, tr. Anthony Forster [Harvard 1987; orig. publ. Paris 1985] 56–61); and finally she argues against the many who, like Martha Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness [Cambridge 1986] 408, 414–16) claim that in the play’s second half Hecuba degenerates into subhuman brutality.
As regards character development, Mossman contends that what we see in ancient drama is never a change of ethos, but the interplay of ethos and events and the delineation of “successive emotions which arise in response to successive situations” (102). As in the rhetorical handbooks, speeches must be judged by their appropriateness to type of both speaker and addressee and to the specifics of the individual case. Using these ancient principles, Mossman reviews the speeches of the play and, by means of their opposing and...