- The Hidden Chorus: Echoes of Genre in Tragic Lyric by Laura A. Swift
Over the last few decades, scholarship on Greek tragedy has followed a contextually driven approach, as scholars explore tragedy’s relationship to fifth-century Athenian politics, ideology, and religious practice. In her study of the use of lyric genres in Greek tragedy, Swift tackles a more expansive subject: the broader musical and cultural context of Athenian tragedy and its relationship to choral song. Swift offers the most comprehensive account to date of the inclusion and presentation of each of the major lyric genres (such as paean and epinician) in tragedy. She also goes beyond tracing tragedy’s debt to lyric poetry, as she convincingly argues through detailed readings of individual plays and passages that Greek tragedy should be read and understood as a choral genre. This combination of expansive overview and focused readings makes Swift’s book a valuable and welcome contribution to the study of both Greek tragedy and choral lyric.
Two introductory chapters, “Understanding Lyric Genres” and “Lyric Poetry in an Athenian Context,” outline Swift’s methodology and in particular [End Page 292] illuminate the difficulty of studying any allusions to choral song, which, as she suggests, Athenians would have known from a variety of ritual and performance contexts. After a brief and somewhat cursory discussion of the problems surrounding the definition and conceptualization of lyric genres, Swift develops various categories of “generic interaction” in order to capture the range of ways in which tragedians deployed references to types of choral song. This framework is helpful in recognizing the imprint of lyric genres in tragedy given the fact that when discussing tragedy’s allusions to choral lyric, as Swift points out, “we are not dealing with faithful replications of whole pieces of lyric poetry” (27). Furthermore, the exposure Athenians would have had to lyric poetry is hard to determine; citing evidence from comedies, Swift reminds us that although there existed various jokes and parodies of lyric poetry, which suggests some familiarity with lyric material, it is not certain that all Athenians would have experienced the ritual context of a lyric performance.
The book’s strength lies in the subsequent five chapters, each focusing on a particular lyric genre: paian, epinikion, partheneion, hymenaios, and thrēnos. For each, Swift first provides an overview of the genre and its core features and then discusses some of the ways in which it is re-imagined in tragedy. Instead of structuring her study around individual tragedians, which is a common format for monographs on tragedy, Swift offers a thematic and wide-ranging focus that allows the reader to see all traces of each lyric genre throughout tragedy, no matter how small the allusion. She ends her account with a discussion of a few plays that demonstrate a strong engagement with lyric, such as Euripides’ Ion (paian) and Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women (hymenaios). Even in genres with few surviving examples and which present problems of classification, such as partheneia, she is able to identify and effectively discuss “parthenaic” motifs in choral passages discussing female transitions in Iphigenia among the Taurians and Helen.
Swift’s discussions of epinikion (ch. 4) and thrēnos (chapter 7) are especially rich, given the large number of extant examples and the wide scholarship available on each genre. Swift’s case studies for these genres, Euripides’ Heracles and Electra for the former and Aeschylus’ Persians, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Alcestis for the latter, trace the often unexpected transformations that lyric genres undergo in tragedy, which can even undermine the traditions typically associated with these. Epinician motifs, for example, are applied to Euripides’ Heracles and his madness throughout the eponymous play; as Swift demonstrates, this “highlights the inversion of athletic values, and indicates how Heracles’ physical strength is about to be turned to his disgrace” (144). Such insights on particular plays will be valuable to students of both lyric poetry and tragedy, who will also take pleasure in the comprehensive appendix...