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by Archaeology Newsroom

Plurality of Discourses in Euripides’ Ion

This paper discusses a general problem in Euripidean poetics starting from a feature of the Ion. In that play there is a curious juxtaposition of contrasting pairs that run through the very core of the play. Euripides has arranged the plot-construction in a series of doublets, which, I argue, express the very substance of the play itself, as is shown by the fact that, beyond these individual structural repetitions, the thematics of the play as a whole is characterized by doubling and repetition at every level. Also, more profoundly, this arrangement in doublets is a way of representing reality; the dramatist wants to signal the co-existence of different perspectives of vision, without supplying a clear-cut answer. In the Ion, Euripides is ultimately inquiring into the nature of the Athenian civic ideology and the value and limitations of the Athenian achievement. In the gradually deepening and ultimately overwhelming crisis of the Peloponnesian War, Euripides is asking how Athens became what it was and what it has to remember about itself, if it is to continue to survive. The arrangement in doublets is related to but is not identical with another feature of Euripidean drama, namely the assignment to his characters of speeches that seem to betray consciousness of contemporary rhetorical techniques, beyond what is to be expected of these legendary characters. This Euripidean practice of offering contrasting speeches on a single important issue has often been remarked upon by scholars who have connected it with the sophistic interest in rhetoric which is so conspicuous a feature of the Athenian culture in Euripides’ day. For this sophistic context, the plurality of discourses is necessarily linked with the un-knowability of reality. For Euripides, on the other hand, I suggest matters are different. For the dramatist, truth is not unattainable, but can only be approximated via this very plurality of discourses. Here I explore some concepts of Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory for indicating how Euripides is different both from his tragic colleagues and from his sophistic contemporaries. Euripidean truth is not contradictory or ambiguous; it requires two or more voices and his plays precisely “embody” this dialogical vision of truth.