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The Statue in the Meadow and the Garments in the River: Objects and Landscape in Euripides’ Hippolytus

Maria Combatti

Columbia University

In this paper I shall show how in the Hippolytus Euripides utilizes objects and landscape to give a keen sense of the characters’ suffering and elicit the audience’s reaction to it.

Scholars of the play have studied the relationship between landscape imagery and the characters’ dramatic experience (e.g., Segal 1965 and 1979; Zeitlin 1996). Matthew Wright has observed that Euripides’ plays rely on an idealized landscape that reflects the characters’ own identity and situations (Wright 2005). Whereas these studies have concentrated on the characters’ emotions, I explore how landscape and objects, both real and imagined, trigger the affective exchange between characters and spectators by analyzing them within the framework of the enactivist theory of cognition (Thompson 2007; Grethlein and Huitink 2017) and the new materialism (Bennet, 2010; Mueller, 2016; Telò and Mueller 2018). On the one hand, the proponents of the enactivist theory suggest that perception (e.g., audience perception) is embodied (i.e. dependent upon the physical body), embedded (i.e. bound to a physical context), and enactive (i.e. dependent on interactions with the environment). On the other hand, the new materialism has produced a new attention to the ontology of objects (their vitality, agency, and sensory allure) and has converged with the affective turn, a new conception of emotions as material intensities that circulate between human and other beings, both animate and inanimate, and that in the dramatic space draw the audience in their circuit (Worman 2018).

Drawing on such insights, I argue that in the Hippolytus objects and landscape represent a material energy source that produces affects, encouraging the audience to vividly perceive the characters’ suffering. In the prologue, Aphrodite addresses the audience, identifying her universal power on “all people who dwell between the tide of Pontus and the pillars of Atlas” (3). Then, she introduces the protagonists: Hippolytus, who stays continually with Artemis in the “greenwood” (17), and Phaedra, who has fallen in love with Hippolytus and dedicated a temple to Cypris “close to the rock of Pallas (i.e. Athenian Acropolis) that looks across the land of Troezen” (30). This imagery maps the dramatic action onto landscape, enabling the audience to sense the characters’ suffering by entertaining a perceptual experience of topographical spaces. Also, the mention of the rock of Pallas arouses the spectators’ perceptual awareness of the real setting of the play, which was performed in the theater of Dionysus located at the foot of the Acropolis. Hippolytus appears on stage, where, as editors suggest, a statue of Artemis was placed symmetrically with that of Aphrodite (Barrett 1964). The young man offers a garland to the statue of Artemis (73-86), while worshipping Aphrodite’s statue from afar (102). The two statues thus are vibrant props which mirror Hippolytus’ solipsistic devotion to Artemis.

In the parodos, Euripides’ language draws the audience to visualize the distant countryside of Troezen, where the chorus receives the news of Phaedra’s sickness, while one of them is washing the “royal garments” in the river (121-128). The image of the wet garments evokes sensorial phenomena that enable the spectators to undergo an embodied experience of the described scene. A sense of wetness is also elicited by the description of Phaedra’s death, which is represented with the image of her “being waterlogged” (ὑπέραντλος οὖσα) with her misfortune (767). Phaedra’s death, which is attributed to Hippolytus, leads Theseus to condemn his son to exile, “beyond the tide of Pontus and the pillars of Atlas” (1053). This landscape image, by recalling the prologue, enables the audience to fully perceive Aphrodite’s power, by which Hippolytus dies when he is dragged by a wave on the sea shore (1201-1239).

Through this reading of the Hippolytus I suggest that objects and landscape take on an uncanny agency that exteriorizes and orients the characters’ experience, orchestrating a perceptual surrounding for the audience and allowing us contemporary readers to grasp the vivid sense of the dramatic event through vibrant materialities and specific topographies.

Session/Panel Title

Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama

Session/Paper Number

21.3

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