Herakles: Punished Again!


by Euripides, translated from the Greek and adapted by Peter Meineck, directed by Desiree Sanchez
Brooklyn Academy of Music, March 27–30, 2013
De Agostini Picture Library/The Bridgeman Art Library
Antonio Canova: Hercules Firing Arrows at His Children, 1799


For Aristotle in the Poetics, the most important element of drama is plot, “the arrangement of incidents”: plot more than character, plot more than theme, plot more than diction. What makes a good tragic plot? After impatiently dismissing what he calls “episodic” plots (“the worst…the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”), Aristotle goes on to speak about the kinds of plots he likes. These, he says, evolve organically—subject to the “law of probability or necessity”—and can be either “simple” or “complex.” A simple plot straightforwardly traces a character’s “change of fortune,” metabasis. Such changes could be from happiness to misery or vice versa: of the extant corpus of thirty-three tragedies that survive from Athenian antiquity, a number have “happy” endings—metabases that turn out well, that look “up,” as it were. Another, more familiar technical term from antiquity for the climactic change of fortune in a play is katastrophe: literally, a “downward turn.”

In Aristotle’s complex plot, the change of fortune is accompanied by either (or, preferably, both) of two elements: anagnorisis, an unexpected “recognition” by one character of another, and peripeteia, a “reversal.” “Recognition” is straightforward. As an example, he cites the heart-stopping passage in Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians in which Iphigenia, trapped far from her Greek home, dictates a homesick letter to a young man who’s returning to Greece, unaware that he is her long-lost brother, Orestes; as she tells him what to write he is made aware of her identity, and a beautiful reunion takes place.

By “reversal,” our first drama critic meant something quite specific: not “reversal of fortune” (as peripeteia is sometimes rendered) but “reversal of intention,” in which an action planned by a character turns out to have a result that—either horribly or triumphantly, depending on which way the metabasis goes—is the exact opposite of what he had intended. (So, for instance, a messenger in Sophocles’ Oedipus, seeking to alleviate the king’s fear that he might marry his mother—who, Oedipus thinks at this point, is the queen of Corinth—informs him that he was, in fact, adopted; a piece of information that eventually leads to the revelation that Oedipus’s biological mother was Jocasta—his wife.) For Aristotle, even the most surprising tragic recognitions and reversals had to seem “probable or necessary,” too. It goes without saying that he didn’t think much of the deus ex machina.

Of the three canonical Athenian tragedians, no one fooled around with plot more than Euripides did: suggestively twisting the story lines of received myth (it is he who had Medea kill her children), opening up new spaces in canonical legends, blithely deploying the deus ex machina as one might fling a bedspread over an unmade bed. And no Euripidean play has a plot that looks more…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.