Printer Friendly

The Agon in Euripides.

Everyone familiar with Euripidean drama expects to hear a contest of words between two opposing characters. In this book Michael Lloyd has isolated thirteen such speeches within twelve of Euripides' extant plays and analyzed these within the context of the individual plays. He begins by defining the basic elements of a Euripidean agon (its length, its balance, its influence on the drama's structure) and excluding from the term short statements (e.g., Jason's twenty-eight-line speech at Med. 1322-50), supplication, and epideixis scenes. As he moves on to describe the function of the agon, he puts forth what will be the most surprising information to result from this detailed study, namely that "the agon in Euripides rarely achieves anything" (15) - an especially unexpected claim since, also, "the agon does, indeed, normally expound the central conflict of the play" (17). Early on, then, the reader's interest is aroused to learn how Lloyd will reconcile these two claims, both with each other and with the more usual understanding of an agon, that is, that one side in the verbal contest must win.

The book is a revision of Lloyd's dissertation, and much about it, even in its present form, reveals that origin. I have found his more recent articles, in G&R (1985) and Phoenix (1986), to be better written. Chapter 2, "Rhetoric and Euripides' Agones," tells us little that is new, either in the review of rhetoric itself and its practice in fifth-century B.C. Athens, or in the discussion of the possible relationship between Euripides' plays and the contemporary Athenian law courts and assembly. This is a unit necessary for a dissertation, but not, perhaps, for the book. At other points, Lloyd's writing and grammar are rather stilted, and there are some inconsistencies, such as the argument (apparently) against the anachronism of Tyndareus' speech at Or. 494-506 on page 115 and for its importance on page 117. There are several typographical errors; the two most notable occur in the listing of agones on page 3: the agon of Helen is 1109-1292, that of Electra is 998-1138. These are small details, although somewhat surprising in a book published by Oxford. More distressing is Lloyd's tentative stance, his reluctance to assert rather than suggest the conclusions he has drawn. Perhaps he wishes to stress the ambiguity that underscores much of Euripidean drama - and no one would argue that these plays are without ambiguity - but the very good summation paragraphs that close each discussion are frequently left more speculative than his own analysis should require.

The most interesting and innovative discovery that Lloyd has made is that those familiar agones really have little bearing on the plots of the dramas. Indeed, they are carefully, if subtly, removed from the action so that the outcome of the debate has no effect upon the play's action. Theseus has already activated the curse against Hippolytus before his son appears, and thus we listen to his carefully phrased defense speech knowing that he cannot be saved. As Lloyd affirms, "His use of sophisticated rhetoric, and its inability to save him, reflect the pattern of the whole play" (50). He does not say what he understands this pattern to be, or how it does so; this book is for readers who are well acquainted with Euripidean drama. Again, he points out, in reference to Electra, that Clytemnestra's death has been effectively determined before the agon with her daughter (El. 998-1138): thus the debate is a portrayal of the play's central conflict, and is "not significant as the words of the characters at a particular moment" (69).

Orestes presents, according to Lloyd, "the most subtle and complex of all Euripides' agones" (113). The agon here is not, as might be expected, at the law court, but springs up when Tyndareus intrudes upon Orestes' supplication of Menelaus (470-629). The outcome of this conflict of words will have an effect on the trial, but it is structurally removed from the report of events at the law court. Tyndareus' speech, Lloyd accurately points out, reflects the social and political dimension which is such a striking feature of the way in which the myth is treated in this play" (117). He also points out the obvious inconsistencies in Orestes' arguments, inconsistencies based upon the contradictory nature of his deed/crime - although it should be noted, contra Lloyd (123), that Orestes' changing attitudes, at least in the agon proper, are in response to Tyndareus' charges and not here "provoked in Orestes by the various persons with whom he converses." The result of this agon is to intensify the antagonism between Tyndareus and Orestes, and thus it might seem to influence the outcome of the Argive assembly; Lloyd asserts, however, that the verdict of death by stoning had been favored even before Orestes and Tyndareus come into the verbal conflict.

Probably the most dramatically exciting agon is that between Helen and Hecuba in Troades. Lloyd carefully denies any direct influence on Euripides from Gorgias' Helen, then directs his attention to this unusual scene. Both women are rhetorically expert, both are permitted to offer the best possible cases. Helen speaks first, a reversal of the usual order of the law court agon, but "this irregularity in forensic practice has a powerful tragic effect in that Helen must plead for her life against a charge which has not yet been formally expressed" (101). Here her defense depends on the literal truth of the Judgment of Paris myth, while she uses fifth-century rhetorical style to argue her case; "the clash between style and content is central to the paradoxical effect of her speech" (104). Hecuba, Lloyd argues accurately, offers a speech that depends on an idealistic view of the gods that is neither consistent with the myth and the play's divinities nor her own unorthodox view of Zeus put forth earlier in the play (884-88). This inconsistency is not resolved, he affirms, but it adds weight to his claim that Euripides' agones are detached from the play's action, here Menelaus' treatment of Helen: "The agon, which deals in a profound way with the significance of the Trojan War, is too important to be tied down to the comparatively trivial question of whether Helen will be punished" (112).

Throughout his individual analyses, Lloyd finds a basic similarity between the verbal conflicts in all the plays from earliest to most late. He points out again and again that Euripides' agones are so placed that the outcome of the action does not depend upon them, and thus compels the reader to ask why this should be so. In his concluding chapter he provides an answer. The agon functions to express the conflicting issues of the drama; it is one of several possible ways to express dramatic conflict: "The point of the agon is to depict the main conflict of the play, and not to represent the expression of that conflict on a particular occasion" (132). This is a significant interpretation of these typical Euripidean scenes. We might like to tie them more closely with the plots of the plays, but their detachment from the flow of action renders Lloyd's view worthy of consideration.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hartigan, Karelisa
Publication:American Journal of Philology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Previous Article:Sons of the Gods, Children of Earth: Ideology and Literary Form in Ancient Greece.
Next Article:Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters