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Tradition and Innovation in Fourth-Century Tragedy

Almut Fries

University of Oxford, The Queen's College

Thoughtful preservation of traditional elements is not commonly associated with fourth-century tragedy. Aristotle speaks of development, often implying decline, while modern scholars have either believed his verdict (and the image created in Ar. Frogs) or highlighted the innovative power of post-classical tragedians like Astydamas II and Carcinus II (Taplin 2009; 2014: 147-53; cf. already Webster 1954). Yet the only complete play which very probably belongs to the fourth century, the pseudo-Euripidean Rhesus, consciously combines progressive elements with archaisms, such as the deeply integrated role of the chorus (anticipating Arist. Poet. 1456a25-7; Fries 2014: 40) and a very low trimeter resolution rate (ca. 8 %). On the reasonable assumption that Rhesus was not unique in that respect, I explore our remains of fourth-century tragedy for similar tensions between tradition and innovation, both within plays and across the genre. The focus lies on the choice of myth, plot structure, metre, style and the treatment of the chorus, and due allowance is made for the constraints that arise from the fragmentary state of the evidence and its sometimes insecure attribution to the period.

Aristotle (Poet. 1453a17-22) confirms that the tragedians of the fourth century largely dramatised the same myths as their fifth-century colleagues. In some cases one can see that they looked back to old plays, of increasingly ‘classical’ status, while also finding new ways to tell the story. Carcinus’ Medea (TrGF I2 70 F 1e + West 2013 ~ 2007), where the heroine tried to save her children, is an obvious example. Another one is Astydamas’ Hector (TrGF I2 60 FF 1h-2a). If the plot is rightly reconstructed as consisting of a sequence of scenes in which Hector has to test his resolve to fight Achilles against a Messenger, Priam and Andromache, followed by a report of his death and perhaps a lament (Snell 1971: 143-52; cf. Thum 2005: 217-18; Liapis 2016: 67-77), its structure resembled that of some early Aeschylean war-plays, notably Seven against Thebes and Myrmidons (the first play of Aeschylus’ Iliadic Achilles-trilogy). Striking innovation would come in with Taplin’s suggestion (2009: 259-62; 2014: 149) that Cassandra’s vision of Hector’s death in TrGF II Adespota F 649 replaced the ordinary messenger speech attributed to Astydamas’ Hector as F 2a (see, however, Liapis 2016: 77-84).

Metrically, most earlier post-classical tragedians maintained the freedom of the late-Euripidean iambic trimeter (some figures in West 1982: 85-6). Yet the fragments variously attributed to Critias (TrGF I2 43) and Euripides are an exception. Their low resolution rate (ca. 10 %) certainly militates against assigning the ‘atheistic’ Sisyphus-speech (F 19) to Euripides’ satyr-play Sisyphus of 415 BC. In verbal expression personal traits similarly override general trends. Euripides and ‘Critias’ are stylistically all but indistinguishable, but the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Chaeremon or the Rhesus-poet stand out clearly from the 'tragic koine' in which they are embedded.

Finally, the chorus: there is no reason to believe in Aristotle’s linear account of its decline (Poet. 1456a27-32), as Jackson (2014) has shown. Textual evidence is extremely sparse (e.g. TrGF II Adesp. F 662.8), but choruses integral to their plays will have been familiar from classical revivals, and it is noteworthy that the alleged inventor of the embolimon, Agathon, is presented by Aristophanes (Thesm. 101-29) as composing a lyric chorus-actor dialogue (cf. Jackson 2014: 67). There is also continued evidence of play-titles in the plural, some of which presumably refer to the chorus (e.g. Agathon, Mysians; Dicaeogenes, Cyprians).

It is evident that the poet of Rhesus was not the only fourth-century tragedian to engage creatively with the conventions of the genre. In studying the scanty remains of their work, continuity is as important to look for as innovation because the latter only shines in the light of the former, and together they give a truer picture of a playwright’s individuality and the artistic spectrum during a period that was emphatically not ‘the end of an era’.

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Traditions and Innovations in Literature

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