January Conference 1999
: ANCIENT & MODERN
Spring Before It Is Sprung:
visual and non-verbal aspects of power struggle in Aeschylus'
Michelakis, University of Oxford, U.K.
is the first play of a lost trilogy about Achilles, called for
Together with the Nereids and the Phrygians or
Ransom of Hector, the Myrmidons gave in dramatic
form a great deal of the story of the Iliad. As the fragments
of the play suggest, the Myrmidons starts in medias
res with the Chorus of the Myrmidons pleading with the seated
and veiled Achilles (Ar. Frogs 911-13) to help the Achaeans,
and reproaching him with treachery (fr.131 in anapaests; frr.132
and 132a in lyric). It seems that, despite the efforts of the
Chorus, Achilles maintains his silence for some time, and breaks
it only when Phoenix addresses him (fr.132b), perhaps towards
the middle of the play. In a dialogue with an interlocutor,
Achilles stresses the pointlessness of the threat by the Achaeans
to stone him, since he is irreplaceable, and claims his superiority
over the leader of the army, Agamemnon (fr. 132c). The Trojans
set fire to the Greek ships (frr. 133 and 134), a fact which
makes Achilles accept Patroclus' participation in the battle
and brings about Patroclus' death. Achilles laments over the
body of his friend and beloved (frr. 134a-139), and asks for
new weapons (fr. 140) to take revenge against Hector.
Leaving aside the
socio-political issues involved in the decision of the Achaeans
to stone Achilles and the homosexual relation between Achilles
and Patroclus, this paper focuses on another important theme
of the play, namely Achilles' immobility and silence.
My aim is twofold: first, to argue for the importance of non-linguistic
and visual structures for the articulation of meaning on the
tragic stage of the early fifth century bc; second, to show
ways in which contemporary vase painters and late fifth-century
comedy, while pursuing their own interests, can help us reconstruct
the visual and non-linguistic conventions upon which Aeschylus
draws in his tragedy.
During the first
half of the fifth century Athenian painters take a sudden interest
in the Presbeia scene, a scene which consists of the central
figures of Achilles and Odysseus, often surrounded by other
figures who do not always occur in the Presbeia of the ninth
book of the Iliad (e.g. Diomedes). The chronological
and geographical limitations of the theme, its diffusion in
a wide range of vase types (skyphoi, krateres,
stamnoi, lekythoi, hydriai, pelikai,
oinochoai and kylikes), and its thematic dissociation
from the Presbeia of the Iliad suggest that the relation
between vase paintings and contemporary drama cannot be overlooked.
Rather, they invite some reflection on the behavioural norms
that both iconography and drama appropriate in order to articulate
visually Achilles' anger and stubbornness.
At the centre of
the Presbeia scene Achilles is seated on a stool, wrapped with
his mantle which at times covers not only his body but also
his head; he fixes his eyes on the ground; he has his right
hand against his forehead or chin, and the left arm under the
mantle, either on his legs or under his right arm, as a prop.
Odysseus, on the other hand, is sometimes seated, with his hands
around his knee, sometimes leaning against a staff; he wears
the clothes of a traveller, and looks at Achilles, occasionally
stretching his right arm forward, a gesture suggestive of his
attempt to make Achilles engage in dialogue with him.
between Achilles and Odysseus results in a striking visual contrast
between them. This is not only because the scene illustrates
a situation in which communication fails; it is also because
the gestures, movement, posture and elevation of the two figures
challenge the conventions for the visual (spatial and behavioural)
expression of power. Odysseus' dependent position is at odds
with his spatial superiority over Achilles when he is standing,
with his relaxed pose when he is seated, with the movement of
his arms, and with the direction of his eyes, which are fixed
on Achilles. Achilles' superiority, on the other hand, is paradoxically
articulated by means of his immobility and covering with the
mantle, his assumption of an uncomfortable sitting position,
'bent over like someone in physical pain' as Shapiro puts it,
and his lowering of his eyes.
In vase paintings
of the Presbeia scene, the visual articulation of the contrast
between Achilles and Odysseus challenges the conventions of
the visual expression of power in the posture of interlocutors.
The pictorial evidence, with its unequal distribution of power
between Achilles and Odysseus, helps us reconstruct those scenes
in the Myrmidons where the representatives of the army
try in vain to make Achilles engage in dialogue with them. Furthermore,
it enables us to visualise the initial scene of the play where
Achilles encounters the Chorus. Long before formal representatives
of the army arrive and an attempt at negotiation and compromise
such as that of the ninth book of the Iliad takes place,
the contrast between the two sides is clearly articulated by
the Myrmidons' plea to Achilles. Achilles is an individual,
seated at the centre of the stage, mantled and silent. The Myrmidons,
on the other hand, are a group; they walk into the acting area
and surround Achilles, addressing him (fa
fr. 131.1, fqiît' 'Acilleà fr. 132.1, ¥nax
'Acilleà fr. 132a8.4)
and reproaching him with treachery (põropin fr. 131.3,
m¾ prodîj fr. 132a8.5; cf. prodos
an fr. 132c20)
and cowardice (kakandr
ai fr. 132a4.I.2). The trilogy starts
not with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon (which
antedates the plot), but rather with the non-Iliadic conflict
between Achilles and the collective body of the army, thematically
articulated by means of the reproach of treachery and the threat
of stoning, and visually illustrated with the encirclement of
Achilles by the sub-group of his Myrmidons.
Even if the Myrmidons are well disposed towards their leader
and approach him in the hope of reaching a compromise, Achilles'
rejection of their pleas makes their active role at the beginning
of the play parallel to the energetic role assumed off-stage
by the Achaeans.
Let us now return
to the pictorial evidence to examine other ways in which it
helps us understand Aeschylus' stagecraft. In vase paintings,
mantled figures feature in various contexts broadly associated
with abnormal emotional states or with the failure of communication.
In early fifth-century scenes of the arming of Achilles, in
which Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus, as well as in
funerary scenes in which male or female figures mourn at the
tomb, the act of covering oneself with a mantle denotes grief.
In erotic scenes in which wrapped-up boys reject advances made
to them by youths, and in Dionysiac scenes where the seated
and wrapped women initially ignore the satyrs who invite them
to be drawn in by their enchanting music, the use of a mantle
denotes indifference, resistance and hostility.
The Achilles of the Presbeia scene illustrates very effectively
the motif of the mantled figure as he both expresses his distress
and frustrates the possibility of social interaction.
Even if the vase
paintings of the Presbeia scene are not directly influenced
by the first performance of Aeschylus' Myrmidons, they
still point to a behavioural convention which enables us to
visualise the posture of the mantled and bent-over Achilles,
a posture which articulates visually his emotions and his rejection
of attempts at dialogue and compromise. In fact, the Achilles
of the Myrmidons must be a step further towards the extremes
than the Achilles of the vase painters. In contrast to the Achilles
of iconography, whose face and eyes remain visible, the Aeschylean
Achilles totally rejects the possibility of being on view. As
Euripides comments in the Frogs: 'He [Aeschylus] would
begin by making some solitary figure, say Achilles or Niobe,
sit down with their head covered, not letting them show their
face [...] and not making even this much of a sound' (911-13).
The actor who plays Achilles in the Myrmidons is seated,
mantled and hides his prosopon. He either covers his
mask with his hand or lowers his whole head, so that only the
top of the head is visible to the spectators. In either case
Achilles' face is not visible.
I would suggest, is a codified expression of distress and anger
not only in the grammar of iconography, but also in the grammar
of theatre performance. Achilles assumes an uncomfortable sitting
position, held with a curved spine. The position which the shrouded
Achilles occupies at the centre of the stage is one of precarious
balance, which prepares for his subsequent outburst. Achilles'
immobility and silence, his death-like state, conceal a nucleus
of tensions. Under normal circumstances, thymos, located in
the breast, has the tendency to go upwards - this is how the
Euripidean Achilles argues in the Iphigenia at Aulis
(ØyhlÒfrwn moi qumÕj aretai prÒsw,
919); and in Theophrastus the passionate and brave men hold
their spinal column erect.
The effort of the Aeschylean Achilles, then, to suppress his
anger engages his postural muscles, and transforms his body
into a spring before it is sprung.
The shrouded figure
of Achilles challenges not only the visual articulation of authority
and meaning, but also the linguistic one. This becomes clear
both with Achilles' prolonged silence and, subsequently, with
his verbal explosion. In Greek literature silence is usually
imposed on those who are in an inferior position, either individuals,
or groups. In the Myrmidons
it is not silence which is equivalent to impotency, but language.
Unlike, say, in the Homeric assemblies, where silence is an
undesirable reaction, 'le résultat d'une contrainte ou
la réaction non souhaitée'
manifesting somebody else's power, in Aeschylus it is a self-conscious
decision, a weapon against those who attempt to impose their
will on Achilles.
and disruptive silence of the Aeschylean Achilles is one of
the focal points of Aristophanes' parody of Aeschylus in the
Frogs. In fact, the behaviour and individual characteristics
of the Aristophanic Aeschylus are modelled on the character-traits
of the Aeschylean Achilles for over four hundred lines, from
his entrance at 830 down to the parody of his lyrics at 1261-1300.
Long before Euripides attacks Aeschylus for his silent characters,
'a mere pretence of drama', as he says at 908-913, which shows
that Aeschylus is exploitative and a cheat, Aeschylus features
as an angry and silent Achilles. When he first enters the stage
together with Euripides he remains mute for over 10 lines, a
silence remarked upon by Dionysus and commented upon by Euripides:
'dio: Why are you keeping so quiet, Aeschylus? You hear what
he says. eur: He'll be all disdainful and aloof to begin with,
the same hocus-pocus act he always used to put on in his tragedies'
not simply point to Aeschylus' provocative use of silence; he
also seeks to reinstate the normative association of silence
with powerlessness and inferiority. When the theatre critic
Euripides has convinced the spectator Dionysus that the silences
of the Aeschylean characters show Aeschylus' unseemly pride,
silence becomes a weapon of which Aeschylus loses control, a
stratagem by which the roles are inverted, the deceived spectator
taking his revenge on the haughty poet. Aeschylus' displeasure
at Euripides' criticisms prompts Dionysus to dismiss his passive
role. 'Alas', Aeschylus exclaims at 926. 'Be quiet' Dionysus
replies. And he continues in the next line: 'Stop gnashing your
teeth.' At the beginning of the formal agon between Aeschylus
and Euripides, Aeschylus is under double attack: one of his
own dramatic techniques is turned against him by Dionysus at
the very moment when it is heavily criticised by Euripides.
For some time, or,
as Euripides says in the Frogs 914-15, during the time
'the chorus would fire off four strings of lyrics', the action
in the Myrmidons focuses on a figure who, despite his
dramatic importance, refuses to 'perform' in front of, and for
the sake of, collective bodies - the Chorus, the army of the
Achaeans and the citizens of Athens. Shrouded like a dead man
or a mourner or a sexually immature boy or a woman who has not
yet been initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus, Achilles
hides - both protects and denies - the physicality of his body,
and imposes on himself a death-like state (cf. fr.132c.6: brotosin
atrÕn pÒnwn, 'physician of sufferings
for men', i.e. death).
body appears to hold within itself the key to power, satisfaction
and meaning. It is a metaphor for, as well as the source of,
the play's narrative. The
Chorus and the dramatic characters lay siege to this body, they
try to penetrate Achilles' mantle, and to make the hero put
himself at their service. Their failure to possess Achilles'
body equals their failure to master the text's symbolic meaning.
When they finally decide to stone Achilles, they attempt to
annihilate the physicality of the individual they fail to possess.
Yet, as Achilles himself remarks in one of the fragments which
succeed his silence, without him the cause of the Achaeans is
lost (fr. 132c.1-4). Without Achilles' body the narrative of
the play is threatened with a premature closure.
The moment when
Achilles finally breaks his silence takes the form of a sudden
release of energy, of an uncontrollable verbal explosion. To
put it in the manner of the Aristophanic Euripides (Frogs
923-26), 'And then, when he had finished with that drivel and
the play was already half over he would utter a dozen of oxhide
words with crests and beetling brows, fearsome bogy-faced things
that the audience had never heard of.'
Achilles' utterances are reminiscent of Cassandra's incomprehensible
utterances in the Agamemnon when she first opens her
mouth some three hundred lines after her entrance (1072-73),
as well as of the terrible threats that the Sophoclean Ajax
utters against Tecmessa when he finally breaks the long silence
which follows his realisation of his madness (Soph. Ajax
311-14). Achilles' breaking of his silence, like the silence
itself, challenges the linguistic structure of the Myrmidons
and the claim of language to meaning and authority.
It is not surprising,
then, that Achilles' verbal explosion becomes Aristophanes'
target in the Frogs. First of all, the Aristophanic Aeschylus
who has remained silent upon his initial entrance onto the stage
suddenly bursts into three lines of long compound words (840-43).
Later, when Dionysus forces the furious Aeschylus to stay silent,
Aeschylus' fidgeting and gnashing of his teeth serve as non-linguistic
evidence for his inability to control himself (922 and 927).
Finally, when the Chorus exhort the Aeschylus-Achilles to react
to Euripides' challenge anew, they use the metaphors of the
over-spirited team of horses and of the mighty wind to suggest
self-control and moderation, from fear that Aeschylus might
easily pass from silence to an uncontrollable manifestation
of his anger (992-1003). Verbal explosions, like silences, are
first introduced by the character of Aeschylus-Achilles and
are then parodied by the other characters.
In the Myrmidons,
the coiled and silent Achilles who dismisses any contact with
those around him assumes a death-like status which threatens
the narrative of the play with a premature closure. One after
the other, the representatives of the army approach Achilles
and exercise on him all their argumentative force in an attempt
to make him speak and put his body at their service. The tension
results in Achilles' uncontrollable verbal explosion. The powerful
individual first refuses to perform in front of, and for the
sake of, collective bodies (the audience, the Achaeans) and
then bursts into incomprehensible utterances. Achilles' immobility
and silence, and his subsequent outburst challenge the claim
of language to power and authority but also behavioural and
spatial norms which are well documented in iconography and which
are reinstated by Aristophanes in the Frogs.
The visual dimension
of the confrontation between Achilles and the representatives
of the army is illustrated by early fifth-century vase paintings
which depict the Presbeia scene. The striking contrast between
the powerful Achilles who is seated in silence and the powerless
figures around him who stand and/or talk enables us to catch
a glimpse of the techniques at hand for the articulation of
the confrontation on the tragic stage. By the end of the fifth
century, the dramatic techniques employed by Aeschylus for the
portrayal of Achilles are parodied by Aristophanes in the Frogs.
The Aeschylean Achilles serves as a tragic model for the comic
figure of the Aristophanic Aeschylus. Aristophanes' preoccupation
with the silence and subsequent outburst of the Aeschylus-Achilles
not only provides evidence for the early reception of Aeschylus'
stagecraft and techniques of characterisation; it also allows
us to evaluate the importance of visual and non-linguistic structures
for the articulation of meaning on the stage of early fifth-century
to contents page
I am grateful to
Pat Easterling for her generous advice. I would also like to
thank those who attended the oral presentation of this paper
at the Open University for helpful criticism.
The trilogy and the title Achilleis are not attested
in ancient sources. They are however widely accepted by modern
scholars; see the relevant literature in S. Radt, Tragicorum
Graecorum Fragmenta, Vol. 3. Aeschylus (Göttingen 1985)
113. For reconstructions of the Achilleis see W. Schadewaldt,
'Aischylos' Achilleis' in id. Hellas und Hesperien
(Zurich 1970) 308-54 [=Hermes 71 (1936) 25-69]; H. J.
Mette, Der Verlorene Aischylos (Berlin 1963) 112-21;
V. di Benedetto, 'Il silenzio di Achille nei Mirmidoni
di Eschilo' Maia 19 (1967) 373-86; B. Döhle, 'Die
Achilleis des Aischylos in ihrer Auswirkung auf die attische
Vasenmalerei des 5. Jahrhunderts' Klio 49 (1967) 63-149;
B. Snell, Szenen aus griechischen Dramen (Berlin 1971)
1-24; O. Taplin, 'Aeschylean Silences and Silences in Aeschylus'
HSCPh 76 (1972) 57-97; A. Kossatz-Deissmann, Dramen
des Aischylos auf westgriechischen Vasen (Mainz 1978) 10-32;
A. H. Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy (Bari 1996) 338-48.
I hope to undertake a full-scale examination of Aeschylus' Myrmidons
on a different occasion.
On the debate over the relation between vase paintings and Aeschylus
see Döhle, Achilleis; Taplin, 'Aeschylean silences'
70-71; Kossatz-Deissmann, Dramen 10-13; 'Achilleus' LIMC
I.1 (1981) 113-14. For a full list of the relevant vase paintings
see Döhle, Achilleis 99-108; Kossatz-Deissmann 'Achilleus'
nos 439-454. On the more general question of the influence of
classical drama on vase paintings, see most recently J. R. Green,
'On Seeing and Depicting the Theatre in Classical Athens' GRBS
32 (1991) 15-50; Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London
H. A. Shapiro, Myth Into Art. Poet and Painter in Classical
Greece (London 1994) 19. Sitting and silence relate to impotence,
whereas standing and speaking relate to power: O. Longo, 'Silenzio
verbale e silenzio gestuale nella Grecia antica. Alla riscoperta
di un codice culturale' Orpheus 6 (1985) 245; S. Montiglio,
'La menace du silence pour le héros de l'Iliade'
Métis 8 (1993) 173, 175-76 with n. 42; R. Sennett,
Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilization
(London 1994) 49-50. Standing relates to warrior ethos:
J. N. Bremmer 'Walking, Standing, and Sitting in Ancient Greek
Culture' in J. Bremmer & H. Roodenburg (edd.), A Cultural
History of Gesture. From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford
1991) 24-25. Cf. n. 12 below.
I use the text edited by Radt, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta.
This is a conjecture based on Harpocr. 259.10 Dindorf propepwkÒtej:
¢nt toà prodedwkoÒtej. k metafor©j
d lgetai. Dhmosqnhj Øpr Kthsifîntoj
(18.296). n ¢rcÁi tîn MurmidÒnwn
AscÚloj 't£de - lis
aj' [=fr. 131.1-4
The tension between Achilles and his Myrmidons is hinted at
only once in the Iliad, in 16.200-7.
Longo, 'Silenzio verbale' 246-47. For the dissemination of the
motif in Greek art see the complementary remarks of M. Laurent,
'L' Achille voilé dans les peintures de vases grecs'
RA 32 (1898) 178-83 and G. Neumann, Gesten und Gebärden
in der griechischen Kunst (Berlin 1965) 143.
On the mantled Achilles of the scene of the arming of Achilles,
see Kossatz-Deissmann, 'Achileus' 123-25 nos 511-515, 519, 521,
524a; on the arming of Achilles scene, see most recently J.
M. Barringer, Divine Escorts. Nereids in Archaic and Classical
Greek Art (Ann Arbor 1995) 30-36. Mantled figures mourning
at the tomb: e.g. D. C. Kurtz, Athenian White Lekythoi. Patterns
and Painters (Oxford 1975) nos 29.1, 29.3, 31.1b.
Cloaked boys in courting scenes: e.g. K. J. Dover, Greek
Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass. 1989) [first ed. 1978] R637,
R791, R851; cf. the similar position of the cloaked woman of
R867. Mantled women in scenes from the initiation of a maenad:
C. Bérard & C. Bron, 'Satyr Revels' in C. Bérard
et al. (eds.), A City of Images. Iconography and Society
in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1989 [first published in French
Throughout the paper I use the translation of the Frogs
by A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes' Frogs (Warminster
Erect spinal column characterises the brave man, the passionate
man, and the gentle man: Ps.-Arist. Physiogn. 807a33,
808a20, and 808a27 respectively; as a characteristic of freemen
(as opposed to slaves): Arist. Pol. 1254b27-34; Theogn.
535-36; as a characteristic of man (as opposed to animals):
e.g. Arist. Parts of Animals 653a29-33; cf. n. 4 above.
Here I draw on material from theatre anthropology. The apparent
immobility of the actor conceals a nucleus of tensions and is
caused by the position of the actor's spinal column: E. Barba
& N. Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology.
The Secret Art of the Performer (London 1991) 51, 94, 232.
The immobile actor is like a spring before it is sprung: E.
Barba, The Paper Canoe. A Guide to Theatre Anthropology
(London 1995) 56.
On uses of silence in ancient Greek society see Longo, 'Silenzio
verbale'; in Homer: Montiglio, 'La menace du silence'; in tragedy:
Longo, 'Silenzio verbale' 246-49; N. C. Hourmouziades, 'oroi
a (Athens 1984) 179-227; Taplin, 'Aeschylean Silences'
Montiglio, 'La menace du silence' 162.
By the end of the fifth century the idea that a poetical work
is an expression of the poet's own nature is well established:
the relevant sources are collected and discussed by F. Muecke,
'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' CQ 32 (1982)
51-53; M. R. Lefkowitz, 'The Poet as a Hero: Fifth-Century Autobiography
and Subsequent Biographical Fiction' CQ 28 (1978) 464;
A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae (Warminster
1994) on lines 149-50.
On the death-like state as normal among mourners see R. Seaford,
Reciprocity and Ritual. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing
City-State (Oxford 1994) 86-92.
P. Brooks, Body Work. Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative
(Cambridge, Mass. 1993) 8: 'a protagonist often desires a body
[...] and that body comes to represent for the protagonist an
apparent ultimate good, since it appears to hold within itself
- as itself - the key to satisfaction, power, and meaning. On
the plane of reading, desire for knowledge of that body becomes
the desire to master the text's symbolic system, its key to
knowledge, pleasure, and the very creation of significance'
(quoted by A. M. Bowie, 'Exuvias effigiemque: Dido, Aeneas,
and the Body as Sign' in D. Montserrat (ed.), Changing Bodies,
Changing Meanings. Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity
(London 1998) 59).
If the parallels of Cassandra and Ajax which are adduced below
are valid, lines 923-26 of the Frogs refer to the breaking
of Achilles' silence, not to a narrative about the death of
Patroclus, as suggested by Sommerstein in his commentary of
the Frogs and in Aeschylean Tragedy 341.