Tragic plots, wrote Aristotle, should have a beginning, middle, and end (Poetics §7). Euripidean drama puts surprising pressure on this seemingly obvious claim. In Euripides, as in all tragedy, the story’s end is known in advance. But the means by which it is reached are so indirect and adventitious that for much of the play we are uncertain where we are headed and whether we will actually get there. This non-alignment of means and ends produces dramatic suspense, of course, but I argue that it also has ideological effects: the “open structure” (as Mastronarde terms it) of Euripidean plotting induces a longing for closure and a commitment to the ideological entailments of the play’s resolution.
These entailments are particularly clear in Euripides’ Ion, for here the end is nothing less than the foundation of Athens’ civic and imperial identity. The play stages Ion’s assumption of his role as forebear of Athens’ autochthonous lineage and Ionian hegemony. This telos is heavily overdetermined, both dramatically (Hermes announces it in the prologue) and ideologically. But that telos is reached through sheer tukhê: a circuitous tale of abandoned babies, mistaken identities, and failed murder plots. The play’s tension between dramatic means and ideological ends reveals the contingency of Athens’ civic and imperial ideology, as numerous scholars have argued, exposing Athens’ national saga as a tale of violence and deception and its imperial power a matter of chance, not divine necessity.
Such a reading of Ion tells only half the story, however, for it fails to consider how the play works to create a psychic attachment to the very ideologies it critiques. It does this by yoking these political ideologies to the emotionally charged plot line of separation and reunion between a bereft mother and her long-lost son. This intimate anagnôrisis is the narrative engine of the play and Euripides deploys all of tragedy’s resources to heighten the pathos. Ion’s cries for the mother he never knew (563-65) and Kreousa’s lyric lamentations for her lost infant (859-922, 961-63) are reinforced by the play’s uncommon plot structure. Usually in Euripides’ plays of recognition and intrigue the recognition precedes the intrigue (compare, e.g., Helen), but in Ion the recognition is delayed and comes only after Kreousa and Ion, in their ignorance, have reached a murderous pitch of hostility. This delay turns the anagnôrisis into the play’s telos, not a means toward the end but the end itself, and the longer it is deferred the more we come to fear that we may, in fact, never reach it. This plot structure transforms Athens’ autochthonous and imperial identity from a point of certainty, which lets us enjoy the ironies of the early scenes in complacent anticipation of a happy ending, into an object of anxiety and desire, as the play’s endless deferrals make us long for a resolution that, when it finally comes, seems both miraculous and inevitable.
In this way the play leads its audience to accept as a happy necessity a telos that it has itself shown to be purely contingent. If, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, this paradox is at the heart of ideological belief, then the Ion is ideological not only in its content, but in its very structure: its skillful manipulation of the relation between beginning, middle, and end makes a contested political ideology seem as simple as a mother’s love and as longed-for as a happy ending.