The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy.

Conclusion. The Tears of Pity

λόγος δυνάστης μέγας ἐστίν, ὃς σμικροτάτωι σώματι καὶ ἀφανεστάτωι θειότατα ἔργα ἀποτελεῖ· δύναται γὰρ καὶ φόβον παῦσαι καὶ λύπην ἀφελεῖν καὶ χαρὰν ἐνεργάσασθαι καὶ ἔλεον ἐπαυξῆσαι… τὴν ποίησιν ἅπασαν καὶ νομίζω καὶ ὀνομάζω λόγον ἔχοντα μέτρον· ἧς τοὺς ἀκούοντας εἰσῆλθε καὶ φρίκη περίφοβος καὶ ἔλεος πολύδακρυς καὶ πόθος φιλοπενθής, ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίων τε πραγμάτων καὶ σωμάτων εὐτυχίαις καὶ δυσπραγίαις ἴδιόν τι πάθημα διὰ τῶν λόγων ἔπαθεν ἡ ψυχή.

Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 8-9

Speech is a great power, which by means of the smallest and most invisible form effects the most divine works: it has the power to stop fear and take away grief and create joy and increase pity… I both consider and define all poetry as speech with meter. Fearful shuddering and tearful pity and longing that delights in mourning come upon its hearers, and at the actions and physical sufferings of others in good fortunes and in evil fortunes the soul experiences a suffering, through words, of its own.

Tragedy often forced Athens to confront itself. Athenian tragedy examines the policies, actions, belief structures, and values of its citizens. It does so, however, only for the duration of the performance. In the end, for all that examination and after all the suffering, these same policies, actions, belief structures, and values are often only reaffirmed for the spectators. In this way only then, might Euripides be called a “pacifist,” in that he challenged the Athenians to witness and consider the suffering that they were not only in the process of inflicting on others but also might one day experience themselves. Ultimately, though, no tragedy could have affected the course of the Peloponnesian War, and no tragedy did. Edith Hamilton found Euripides to {163|164} be a visionary precisely because no one took the message that she assumed Euripides was trying to send: “In that faraway age a man saw with perfect clarity what war was, and wrote what he saw in a play of surpassing power, and then—nothing happened.” [1]


[ back ] 1. Hamilton 1971, 1.

[ back ] 2. Vogt 1975, 21.

[ back ] 3. In saying this I do not mean to deny the profound educational and civic importance that tragedy was accorded by the Athenians themselves, on which, see e.g., Dué 2003 with further bibliography and ancient testimony there.

[ back ] 4. In Plato’s Republic Socrates argues that tragedy and comedy cannot be admitted into the ideal state because in the context of the theater people allow themselves to react emotionally (either with grief or laughter) to things to which they ordinarily would not allow themselves to react in their individual daily lives. The theater encourages the abandonment of self restraint and the spectator is easily overwhelmed by the collective emotions produced by the shared experience of viewing. See Plato, Republic 605c6-606d.

[ back ] 5. Loraux 2002.

[ back ] 6. An important exception is Segal 1993; see also Stanford 1983.

[ back ] 7. On katharsis, see Chapter 2, note 000 and note 000 below.

[ back ] 8. See also Segal 1993, 26. Segal argues that lamentation within tragedy is an emotional cue for the audience.

[ back ] 9. Cf. the anecdote in Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas 29 about Alexander, the famously cruel tyrant of Pherae. He abruptly left a performance of the Trojan Women because “he was ashamed to be seen by the citizens weeping for sufferings of Hecuba and Andromache, when he had never pitied any of the people that he had killed” (αἰσχυνόμενος τοὺς πολίτας, εἰ μηδένα πώποτε τῶν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ φονευομένων ἠλεηκώς, ἐπὶ τοῖς Ἑκάβης καὶ Ἀνδρομάχης κακοῖς ὀφθήσεται δακρύων). The anecdote again shows the connection between pity and tears. See also Flashar 1956.

[ back ] 10. See Aristotle, Rhetoric 1382b26-1383a12, 1385b11-1386b7, Janko 1987 ad Poetics 1453a4, and Konstan 2001, 49-74.

[ back ] 11. As Aristotle makes clear in the Rhetoric, however, pity can only be felt for misfortune that could happen to oneself or a loved one and seems near (see citations in note 000, above). On the distinction between “one’s own” (oikeia) and “someone else’s” (allotria) in Plato’s analysis of the emotions of tragedy see also the discussion of Rosenbloom 1995, 101-104.

[ back ] 12. On the significance of the distance (geographical, chronological, and emotional) built into the plots of Athenian dramas, a distance seemingly required for the exploration of critical civic issues, see Zeitlin 1990.

[ back ] 13. See Chapter 5.

[ back ] 14. See Chapter 4.

[ back ] 15. See especially Chapters 1 and 2.

[ back ] 16. Cf. Segal 1993, 26-27: “Such emotional participation enlarges our sympathies and so our humanity. Aristotle’s closest approximation to “humanity” in this sense is his term to philanthrôpon, and he associates it with pity and fear in one passage (1452b38) and with the tragic in general in another (1456a21). This expansion of our sensibilities in compassion for others is also part of the tragic catharsis. We can be moved to such compassion because we accept fears as our own and acknowledge that the pity and grief for the tragic protagonist’s suffering imply pity and grief for the suffering of all men and women and do, in fact, constitute a concern to ‘all the citizens’ and ‘all’ the spectators.”

[ back ] 17. This pithos is more famous for the depiction on its neck of the wooden horse. On the Mykonos pithos see Ervin 1963, Caskey (= Ervin) 1976, Hurwit 1985, 173-6, and Anderson 1997, 182-91.