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Arethusa 35.2 (2002) 315-337

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Medea Hypokrites

Michelle zerba

Hypokrites: an answerer; I. an interpreter or expounder (of riddles, of oracles, of dreams); II. 1. of an actor, one who plays a part on the stage (Attic); 2. of an orator, one who delivers, recites, declaims; 3. a rhapsodist; 4. a pretender, dissimulator, hypocrite.

Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon


The locution Medea hypokrites is not likely to have circulated in classical Greece. In the fifth century, the term hypokrites had come to designate an actor on the Greek stage, typically an actor who took a prominent role in the dialogue. 1 It therefore would have been used of the individual who may have been Euripides' chief tragic actor, a certain Cephisophon, but it was not used of the character whom he played. 2 The origin of the Greek term for actor has [End Page 315] been disputed for some time. 3 Lexicographers and grammarians such as Photius, Hesychius, Pollux, and Apollonius trace the meaning back to the verb hypokrinesthai, meaning "to answer," a sense commonly found in Herodotus, though only infrequently in Attic. 4 The actor, according to this view, is a hypokrites insofar as he "answers" the chorus. Thespis was the first to do so, to face the choral group in dialogue; he was the first actor, and we know he made use of masks. But another early meaning of hypokrinesthai, "to interpret," found in Homer, complicates the picture. Plato glosses this meaning in the Timaeus when he observes that, in contrast to the mantis, who is out of his wits with inspiration, the hypokrites interprets "words and enigmatic signs" (72a-b); by analogy, the actor is the hypokrites who interprets the words of the text composed by the dramatist, as the orator is the one who interprets the law or public policy. 5 Though the meaning of hypokrites as orator is attested only in late texts, Aristotle uses the term hypokrisis in Book Three of the Rhetoric for the art of rhetorical delivery, which he regards as an extension of the art of stage-acting. The evolution of the word to mean "dissembler" or "pretender" stems from the actor's assumption of another identity, his playing the part of another. The pejorative sense is already apparent in Plato's debunking of the class of poets and rhapsodes, who are, psychically speaking, a mere jumble of voices, a confusion of personalities without a steady moral center, and hence the arch counterexamples to the ideal personalities Plato seeks to cultivate in his Republic. 6

There seems to be no way of resolving the dispute about which sense of the word is primary in the field of drama, though recent critics, following Pickard-Cambridge's tentative preference, have favored the meaning "interpreter." 7 My argument in this essay does not depend on choosing one meaning over another nor on resolving the split by merging the meanings into a synthesis, though both senses will circulate as possibilities for interpretation in the discussion that follows. Rather, my chief claim is that [End Page 316] Euripides' Medea invites us to entertain the reversibility of the terms "actor" and "character." Though the Greek actor certainly stimulated in his audience "a lively interplay between belief and incredulity, between emotional proximity and distance," there is ample evidence that he identified with his role in such a way as to elicit a significant degree of identification from the audience. 8 This is so despite the obvious and constant reminder of theatricality in the mask, which, in any case, was an item in the Dionysiac repertoire that facilitated the assumption of multiple identities and the loss of personality in ritual performances celebrating the god (Easterling 1997). If the actor, then, is someone whose sympathetic response allows him to enter into a character, then we may legitimately regard Medea as a character who enters into the actor—or rather into "actorliness" more generically. To put it another way, if the personality of the actor disappears in the role he plays, then Medea is the character as actor par excellence, the character who loses her identity...