You are here


The tense hostage scene and the threat of incineration in the rousing finale of Euripides’ Orestes depend upon two interconnected literary traditions of hostage scenes: one from tragedy, and the other, perhaps more surprisingly, from comedy. I will trace the development of hostage scenes in both Euripides and Aristophanes, arguing for a literary rivalry between the two dramatists, with Euripides responding to and appropriating Aristophanes’ parodies of the hostage scene in Euripides’ Telephus in his Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae.

Scholars have long noticed connections between Orestes and earlier tragedy. Zeitlin has famously described Orestes as a ‘palimpsest’ with a tightly interwoven set of intertextual allusions to tragedy and epic, and Wright notes Euripides’ self-referential tendencies in the Orestes. My analysis of the tragic tradition of hostage scenes is in line with these scholars’ arguments, as Euripides’ previous hostage scenes from Telephus and Andromache (309-463) resonate with the scene in his later play Orestes in character and plot. Orestes is the baby held hostage in Telephus, the savior of Hermione in Andromache, and the hostage-taker in Orestes. Menelaus is a bystander in Telephus, the hostage-taker in Andromache, and the grieved father of the hostage in Orestes. Euripides reworks his own plots and mythologies in a way that is not only open to these tragic precedents but also provides opportunities to draw upon comedy.

Euripides purposefully reacts to Aristophanic comedy by incorporating elements found in Aristophanes’ parodies into the Orestes. Aristophanes parodied the Telephus hostage scene twice, and as Platter argues, the later Thesmophoriazusae must be read against both Euripides’ play and Aristophanes’ earlier parody in Acharnians. This is true, but more attention must be paid to what is different about the parody in Thesmophoriazusae, and I submit that it is the addition of the incineration plot to the hostage scene. Aristophanes begins the Telephus parody with the same material covered in the Acharnians – the intruder pleading a rhetorical defense speech (467-519), the chorus frantically searching for the intruder (663-687), and the intruder abducting the baby (688-717).

Suddenly, Aristophanes displays his invention of incineration, marked by a bit of standard Euripidean metatheatrical coding. As Torrance has shown, Euripides constantly uses the word metabolÄ“ ‘change, reversal’ to mark a new direction the plot has taken (Bacchae 1266-7, Iphigenia in Aulis 500 and 1101, Trojan Women 615, Heracles 735, etc.). I would add that at Thesmophoriazusae 724 Aristophanes uses the related verb metaballō ‘change, reverse’ to mark his new addition of threatening to incinerate the hostage. The chorus metatheatrically remarks at 724-5, “Your luck has quickly changed (metaballō) to the bad, and heads in another direction,” and the women threaten to torch the Kinsman. The Kinsman replies at Thesmophoriazusae 730 - hyphapte kai kataithe ‘light me up and incinerate me!’

This rare set of words is linked only one other time in extant Greek literature, at Orestes 1618 and 1620, when Orestes commands Electra to light the house on fire (hyphapte) and Pylades to incinerate the battlements (kataithe) using the same imperatives as in Aristophanes. In contrast with the conflagration that destroys the Thinkery at the end of Clouds, both Thesmophoriazusae and Orestes tease the audience with an unfulfilled expectation, much like Helen’s ‘death’ in Orestes or the ‘baby’ in Thesmophoriazusae. The uncommon verbal parallel and the novel connection of an incineration plot to a hostage plot demonstrate that Euripides implemented an Aristophanic development from the Thesmophoriazusae in his Orestes. The best term for this is paracomedy, following Scharffenberger, since just as Aristophanes could appropriate elements from tragedy through paratragedy, so could Euripides appropriate elements from comedy through paracomedy. The escalation of the plots from Telephus to Acharnians to Thesmophoriazusae to Orestes is in line with recent theorizing about rivalry, as in van Wees. Orestes is not only a palimpsest, but also a signpost marking the literary competition between two dramatists in different genres.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy