Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 22.
Sophie Mills, Euripides: Hippolytus. London: Duckworth, 2002. Pp. 160. ISBN 0-7156-2974-3. UK£10.99.
University of Auckland
This volume is one of the three to which, so far, the Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series extends. The aim is clearly the student market, although it is unlikely even at this price that many southern hemisphere students would buy their own copy. Here we have two introductory chapters on Euripides, Athenian tragedy, and the Hippolytus myth, then chapters presenting in turn a plot summary, an essay defining Mills' own interpretation, a survey of the scholarship, and a resumé of subsequent treatments of the myth -- all according to the series' template.
Such a book invites comparison with other sources from which students might seek the information it brings together, as well as evaluation of its representation of, and its own contribution to, the scholarly debates it joins. The initial chapters here involve a commendable feat of compression, although they are disjointed owing to sudden changes of topic, and the question lingers as to how easily a novice could absorb so many points, or see the importance of each. Chapter 1, 'Euripides and his World' (pp. 7-18), covers the tragedian's biography and his distinctive approach to tragedy, then switches to Greek attitudes to women in literature and life, to intellectual life and the sophists, and so to the Hippolytus myth in tragedy, which prefigures one subject of Chapter 2, 'Tragedy and the Hippolytus Story' (pp. 19-35). Here tragedy is explained as an Athenian institution and an art form, then Aristotle's Poetics is invoked to foreshadow the interpretive stance that Hippolytus is 'recognisable as a human being with recognisable failings from which he incurs a suffering which is excessive but comprehensible to the audience' (p. 26), a view Anne Michelini has previously explored.[] Then the treatment of the myth elsewhere in Greek literature is used to highlight the distinctive features of this play, although perhaps the reader would be better served by having read the following plot summary first (if not the play!).
This latter (Chapter 3, 'A Summary of the Play, pp. 36- 47), is deftly nuanced, indicating many lines of interpretive penetration. Yet the book's procedure here precludes the possibility of digression to explain, for example, the stark claim, '[Phaedra] is still onstage as Hippolytus bursts out and confronts the nurse (601ff.)' (p. 41). Does she thereafter remain or leave? Mills (loc. cit.) subsequently claims 'although he is aware of Phaedra (cf. 907), he cannot directly address such a polluting presence'. But is she there? Verse 907, H(\N A)RTI/WS E)/LEIPON, is suggestive, but not dispositive: some scholars have argued that she must not be present to hear Hippolytus' confirmation that he will keep his oath not to reveal Phaedra's love of him to Theseus (vv. 657f.; cf. p.65, and at n. 13 the brief dismissal of Smith, and no mention of Kovacs[]).
Chapter 4, 'The Major Themes of the Play' (pp. 48-83), is central to the aim of the book. Mills argues that Euripides deliberately makes all the major characters morally ambiguous (pp. 48-53). She presents what I take to be a decisive rebuttal of the secularising interpretation, inspired originally by psychotherapy, which reduces the gods in this play to dramatised psychic factors: this cannot account for Aphrodite's instigation of Phaedra's love, which is out of character, while Theseus' fatal cursing of Hippolytus requires objective divine agency (Poseidon) to be effective (pp. 51f., elaborated on pp. 102-105). Nevertheless, pp. 53-61 (on Phaedra) include the claim that we should compare her, in her initial scene, with 'a modern writer's portrayal of someone whose subconscious lurks beneath her stated desires and subverts them' (p. 55). Well yes, this is relevant to the anapaests in which she expresses, while mad, the desires her waking mind suppresses, but it seems tendentious, if not a contradiction of the earlier point, for Mills to apply it to Phaedra's conscious and principled capitulation to the nurse's supplication for an explanation of her mistress' condition. It seems to me, at least, that what is portrayed here is a clash between two circumstantially inconsistent moral principles. Mills analyses Phaedra's great speech (vv. 373-430, pp. 55-58) as the basis of her own evaluation of her, but does not comment on the peculiar abstractness of the reflections she voices in a very personal situation. Phaedra's problem is diagnosed as 'externally based morality' (p. 60) -- failure to distinguish appearance from reality.
The nurse comes in for a qualified rehabilitation (pp. 61-64). While her compromising seems immoral and foolish in her, it might have been intelligent and virtuous in Phaedra, Hippolytus, or Theseus. Her speeches are sophistic masterpieces, yet her motive is loyalty to Phaedra. As mentioned above, Mills makes the case for Hippolytus' arrogance and downfall as archetypical of the tragic hero; he is an exclusivist and perfectionist (pp. 64-73). In her discussion of Theseus (pp. 74-77) Mills' interpretive theme of morally ambiguous characterisation is again prominent, but there is no evaluation of the final scene between the dying Hippolytus and Theseus, and the section 'Gods and Men' (pp. 77-79) contains only general discussion, adopting Kovacs' view of the gods as traditional realities in spite of Euripides' modernism (yet there is no mention of Kovacs' argument that our estimation of human morality depends crucially on that final scene).[] The chapter closes with sections on the generic role of the chorus (pp. 79-81) and Euripides' thematic devices and sophistic themes (pp. 81-83). I observe that these point towards, but do not account for, his intentions or achievements.
Chapter 5, 'Critical Views of Euripides and Hippolytus' (pp. 84-108), provides first a brief history of scholarship, then discusses characterisation and moral evaluation all over again, with references to an extensive range of criticism and deft summaries of types of positions taken and issues discussed. Extensive engagement with these is limited to a rejection of Kovacs' defence of the principal characters (pp. 89-91). Mills criticises Kovacs' failure to acknowledge the wrongness of Phaedra's false denunciation, and to explain Hippolytus' destruction (her own view is that it was for overweening arrogance, p. 91). But she takes little account of Kovacs' overall view of the tragic in Euripides -- not cosmic moralism, but religious humanism -- and his argument that Phaedra's 'externally based morality' is unexceptional for the time, especially given her social position.[] Mills also criticises Hannah Roisman's controversial re-evaluation of the characters' motives,[] appositely I think, for a failure to take into account ancient literary conventions (p. 94). I suspect that overall this compressed chapter would not much help a student to come to understand the issues raised, but could at least be useful as a guide to further reading. It also seems to me a mistake to have divorced it from Mills' presentation of her own views, which inevitably govern the approach to the scholarship, while elements of her own position need to be evaluated one by one alongside the alternatives.
The final chapter -- a catalogue of subsequent plays, novels, films and operas based on the myth with some summary -- is only very loosely connected to the foregoing. Owing to the historical influence of Seneca's Phaedra (already the subject of another volume in the series) and of later innovations, and in addition because of a lack of analysis here, it is hard to see any particular train of Euripidean influence. Probably Tony Harrison's Phaedra Britannica should have been included,[] notwithstanding Mills' apology for excluding, for example, Brien Friel's Living Quarters, as not close enough imitation (p. 124 with n. 15).
Overall, this relatively conveniently packaged handbook might be useful for students new to tragedy and starting with the Hippolytus, or a general reader in the same position, but only if they were prepared to follow up some of the references and reflect on the text themselves. Mills' own take on the play and her discussion of other views constitutes a stimulating starting point.
[] A. N. Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (Madison 1987) with Chapter 9 on the Hippolytus.
[] W. D. Smith, 'Staging in the Central Scene of the Hippolytus', TAPA 91 (1960) 162-77, and David Kovacs, The Heroic Muse: Studies in the Hippolytus and Hecuba of Euripides (Baltimore 1987) 54, with nn. 67 and 68 for further references.
[] Kovacs (1987) 70 and Chapter 2, Section C, 'Gods and Men in the Hippolytus', pp. 71-77, esp. p.77.
[] Kovacs (1987) 25, 59f.
[] Hannah Roisman, Nothing is What It Seems (Lanham 1999).
[] Tony Harrison, Phaedra Britannica, in his Theatre Works 1973-85 (Harmondsworth 1975) 68- 124.