Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 33.

Hanna M. Roisman, Nothing is as it seems: The Tragedy of the Implicit in Euripides' Hippolytus. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. Pp. XVI + 211. ISBN 0-8476-9093-8. US$24.95.

Elke Steinmeyer
University of Natal, Durban

In her recent study of this well-known Euripidean tragedy, Roisman invites us to a rather unusual reading of the play in search of its 'implicit messages' (p. xi). She makes us aware that we should not automatically take Euripides' words 'at face value' (p. xvii), but be alert to his 'covert messages' (p. xiv). Following earlier work of A. W. Verrall and Philip Vellacott,[[1]] she postulates that Euripides, while composing the plot of his tragedies, catered for at least two audiences: the ordinary one, which would take things on stage literally, and a more sophisticated one, which would be able to understand hidden allusions or subtle arrière-pensées. Roisman insists that she 'does not subscribe to any particular theory' (p. xvi, note 5; see also p. xi); however, she concedes some links between her own method and the 'atomistic approach', which favours the importance of rhetoric instead of 'psychologizing' (p. xiv and p. xv, note 2) for the interpretation of Euripidean tragedy. Given her emphasis on the interaction between the playwright and the 'outer' audience (the ancient spectators and contemporary readers) on the one hand, and the 'inner' audience (the characters on stage) on the other, she also regards her method as being similar to deconstruction, 'which renounces the author's intention and attitude in favour of the reader's individual interpretation and understanding' (p. xvi, note 5; see also pp. 179 and 182) -- the latter an assumption that I do not find convincing.[[2]]

In the main six chapters, Roisman guides us through Euripides' play, opening our eyes and arousing our minds to the implications, ambiguities and double-entendres in the text and shedding new light on the meaning of Euripides' words. She starts off (Chapter 1, pp. 1-26) by analysing what we know about Euripides' first (now lost) version of the myth, the Hippolytos Veiled, in order to find out the reason for its failure with the Athenian public. She assumes that it was not the sexual element (Phaidra making a pass at Hippolytos) but rather a political one (plans Phaidra might have concocted for Hippolytos to usurp the throne by killing Theseus) which put off the Athenians, although she does not exclude the possibility of Phaidra having had sexual intercourse with her stepson.

Turning now to Euripides' second version (Chapters 2 to 6, pp. 27-165), the Hippolytos Garlanded, Roisman carefully analyses the key speeches of the play, with a special focus on the sexual connotations and allusions in the vocabulary used. Consequently, the title of Roisman's book, 'Nothing is as it seems', proves to be true in the literal sense of the words; almost nothing indeed is anymore what it seemed before. Despite her claim that her 'aim has not been to invalidate or replace previous readings', but rather 'to offer a new interpretation of this fascinating play' (p. xi), Roisman takes up many established views, turns them upside down and offers us fairly new insights on the dramatis personae. Bearing in mind Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's critical judgement of Phaedra being 'a woman who is unconcerned about committing adultery and afraid only of getting caught' (p. 17),[[3]] Roisman goes further and describes her as 'a master rhetorician' (pp. xiiif.) and 'a skilled tactician' (p. 177). In her view, Phaedra is not at all suffering from an involuntary passion, but has 'methodically' (p. 51) planned her actions and words in a perfectly rational and calculating manner over a long period of time in order to convince the women of the chorus of her moral integrity and to manipulate the Nurse 'to serve as a go-between' (p. 59) between her and the object of her desire: Hippolytos. Only after her clever strategy has failed, does Phaidra -- who has trapped herself -- decide to commit suicide in a last attempt to preserve her good reputation and to take vengeance on Hippolytos at the same time.[[4]] Hippolytos himself is no longer the typical representative of misogyny, but rather 'fearful not of sex as such but of sex out of wedlock' (p. 18) and 'unfortunately so far has had no opportunity to know . . . the kind of woman with whom [he] might have felt comfortable' (p. 34), whose 'chastity . . . is no more than suppressed sexual passion' (p. 97). For Roisman, he is the tragic hero of the play,[[5]] who has desperately tried all his life to overcome his acute shame at being illegitimate and to win the acceptance and affection of his father -- in vain, as the ending shows. He dies in disillusion about Theseus, who is only interested in superficial forgiveness, and about Artemis, who lets him down in his last moments. In his portrait of Theseus, Euripides has omitted the traditional aspect of his philandering and has modelled him after the character of Admetos in the Alcestis as a faithful, but 'self-absorbed, self-interested, cold and even cruel' husband and father (p. 125). The nurse on the other hand is seen by Roisman in a more positive and differentiated manner as somebody who acts in good faith out of full devotion to her mistress without realising the extent to which she is abused by Phaidra.

In the concluding chapter, Roisman expands her approach to the whole plot of the play. The conflicts between the different characters symbolize for her the struggle between rationality and irrationality, represented by Artemis, Phaidra and Hippolytos on the one side, and by Aphrodite and Theseus on the other, resulting in the total defeat of the rational that 'is doomed to failure . . . in this play' (p. 170). In addition, Hippolytos's destiny mirrors the current debate in Athens in Euripides' time on the Periclean law about the role and rights of illegitimate children.[[6]]

As stated above, Roisman's approach is not as new 'as it seems'. If we compare it with the similar 'Two-Voices-Theory' that has been developed as a tool of interpretation for Virgil's Aeneid since the early sixties (and has subsequently been applied also to other authors, such as Horace),[[7]] the obvious question arises: While it is very understandable that Virgil worked with a 'public' and a 'private' voice in order not only to praise, but also to criticise Augustus in a subversive manner, what was the purpose of Euripides' 'hidden agenda' (p. 176)? Did he become cautious after the failure of his first Hippolytos Veiled? Did he simply want to flex his artistic talent or challenge the intellectual circles in Athens? Roisman offers possible answers: First, she underlines the different meanings of the term emphasis (pp. 1-6). While it means for us to draw special and direct attention to something, it was the exact opposite for the ancient authors: an indirect hint was considered to be more efficient than a blunt utterance. Second, according to Roisman, Euripides did not compose his second version as a sort of palinode (his main characters are pretty much the same in both plays) but he presented them in a more easily digestible way for the audience by replacing 'the explicit statements of the earlier version with implicit ones' (p. 109). 'Le monde ne marche que par le malentendu' proclaims Charles Baudelaire in his poem Mon coeur mis à nu. Voilà!

But this brings up the next obvious question: if we accept the hypothesis about Euripides's 'unspoken doctrine', what about the existing interpretations of other Euripidean tragedies? Was Hippolytos just a test case for Euripides? Or have we misconceived Euripides's intentions thus far? Is Roisman's book the first step in unveiling Euripides' real message? Let future generations of scholars decide.

Roisman discusses an impressive amount of secondary literature (the comprehensive bibliography covers 121 years of English, German and French scholarship) in a clearly structured way and concludes the book with two small, but useful indices. Her style is precise, to the point, and pleasant to read. This monograph provides a convincing and thought-provoking interpretation and should be a 'must' for everyone who is seriously interested in Euripidean tragedy. It fully deserves its own place within the canon of other long established views. The author states in her preface: 'If mine [i.e. my study] contributes to our understanding of this formidable play or raises new questions and suggests new answers, I will have reached my goal' (p. xi). She has undoubtedly done so.


[[1]] A. W. Verrall, Euripides the Rationalist: a study in the History of Art and Religion (Cambridge 1895); Philip Vellacott, Ironic Drama: a study of Euripides' Method and Meaning (Cambridge 1975).

[[2]] Already in an earlier review of the book, Leah Himmelhoch pointed out 'significant methodological problems' in greater detail (BMCR 99.9.16).

[[3]] Cf. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Analecta Euripidea (Hildesheim 1875) and Hippolytos (Berlin 1891).

[[4]] For a radically opposite view of Phaidra's character see Jens Holzhausen, Eros und Aidos in Phaidra's Monolog: Euripides Hippolytos 373-430 (Mainzer Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur 1995) 1: 'Für Phaidra sind die tatsächliche Gesinnung und die Wirkung nach außen untrennbar miteinander verbunden' (p. 10; see also p. 15 note 44).

[[5]] For Roisman's discussion about the main charcter of the play, see p. 167f. and n. 1.

[[6]] According to this law of 451/0 B.C., only persons, both of whose parents were Athenian citizens, were entitled to Athenian citizenship.

[[7]] A. Parry, 'The Two Voices of Virgil's Aeneid', Arion 2 (1963) 66-80. The theory has been applied to Horace by R.O.A.M. Lyne, Horace: Behind the Public Poetry (New Haven 1995). Interestingly enough, the very last paragraph of the book is entitled 'Two Voices' (pp. 182-84), which is derived from the Hippolytos itself (cf. v. 928).