Monday, October 31, 2016


Emily Allen-Hornblower, From Agent to Spectator: Witnessing the Aftermath in Ancient Greek Epic and Tragedy. Trends in Classics—Supplementary Volumes, 30. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. viii, 336. ISBN 9783110439069. $112.00.

Reviewed by Kirk Ormand, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a splendid book.1 Emily Allen-Hornblower has written a lucid study of a particular narrative situation in the Iliad and Greek tragedy (especially Sophocles) that is clearly and carefully focused. Within the limits defined by her method, moreover, the study presents broad, compelling interpretations of several works, articulating in new terms the way that those works create psychologically coherent characters and manipulate the audience's sympathies towards those characters.

The notion of an internal audience is one that has been familiar to scholars in the field for some decades now, particularly when dealing with dramatic genres; the dual role of the chorus as both a (collective) character and an internal audience for the events on stage has received important attention recently.2 While Allen-Hornblower is familiar with this recent work, her focus is more specialized: she analyzes the development of those main characters who, in the course of a work, reflect back on their own actions. Her method is, then, narratological: she is concerned with the way that the characters' self-assessment directs and manipulates the external audience's reading, both of events and of the characters. But at the same time, Allen-Hornblower's interests are fundamentally humanist. These moments of self-reflection become, for Allen-Hornblower, a key to understanding the character's motivations, flaws, and emotional makeup, often with a view towards human helplessness in the face of traumatic events.

The following summary touches only on the main points of Allen-Hornblower's argument; along the way, she brings in numerous other texts and passages as comparanda, which I pass over in the interests of space. In the first of four long chapters, Allen-Hornblower treats the curious case of the death of Patroclus. Allen-Hornblower argues effectively for seeing this episode as unique: in every other death of a major character in the Iliad we not only witness the death, but we witness an onlooker witnessing the death, either a human companion or, in some important cases, a sympathetic divinity. The experience of these onlookers is key, in that they express regret over their inability to save the falling hero, thereby creating an additional level of pathos for the reader (or listener). In Patroclus' death alone, the hero dies alone; no divinity debates whether or not to save him and, of particular significance, Achilles is deliberately not there, and does not see his companion die. Allen-Hornblower builds this case carefully and elegantly, with numerous comparisons. From there, the argument takes a somewhat more speculative direction: building on the earlier work of Mueller and Martin,3 Allen-Hornblower suggests that the famous apostrophes to Patroclus (in the voice of the narrator) echo Achilles' concerns, and become a kind of representative of Achilles' absent observation. This is tricky: Allen-Hornblower would have the narrator's voice both call to mind Achilles as an observer, and underscore the fact that he is not there to observe (esp. 78). Not every reader will be convinced by this reading, but Allen-Hornblower provides, in any case, a compelling explication of the way that a significant shift from the usual pattern evokes the audience's sympathy for the hero in this most notable of deaths.

Turning next to Sophocles' Trachiniae, Allen-Hornblower demonstrates the ways in which this play makes Deianeira, almost obsessively, a watcher of her own actions and their consequences. She not only narrates moments from her life before the play, she observes the arrival of Iole and reflects on what this will mean for her in Heracles' household; after she has sent the poisoned robe to Heracles, she sees the tuft of wool that she used to anoint the robe dissolve, allowing her to see in advance, as it were, what will happen to Heracles; in hearing Hyllus' narrative of his father's death, she observes the event again, while the external audience watches her for a reaction that never quite comes. Deianeira is the agent-turned-spectator par excellence. The point of this repeated narrative circumstance, for Allen-Hornblower, is one that largely lines up with the humanist readings of a previous generation: Deianeira is exemplary of the theme of "late learning," articulated so effectively by Whitman.4 But more than that, Allen-Hornblower sees Deianeira as entirely innocent of evil intent: her actions are without exception well-intentioned and her sympathy for Iole (among others) make her profoundly sympathetic to the external audience. ("Her character is deeply compassionate, reasonable, and moderate," 101.) At only one point does Deianeira slip, and here Allen-Hornblower's analysis is particularly incisive: at 582–3 Deianeira, about to put her disastrous plan into action, states explicitly, "May I not know about bold crimes, and may I not learn about them; I hate the women who dare them." As Allen-Hornblower argues, Deianeira's wish for ignorance here is a form of declared innocence, but even so "the wish not to know is uncharacteristic; it reeks of wishful thinking and weak resolution," (122, emphasis in original).

Allen-Hornblower next turns her attention to a specific narrative situation in tragedy, those moments when a character who has murdered another becomes the "messenger" who relays the narrative of that event. After discussing Clytmnestra's murder of Agamemnon in Aeschylus, this third chapter focuses specifically on the three "Electra plays," and engages in an enlightening discussion of Orestes' and Electra's willingness—or failure—to become spectators of their own murder of Clytemnestra. In both Aeschylus' Choephoroi and Sophocles' Electra, Allen-Hornblower shows that the characters go to some lengths to avoid looking at the body of their mother, and their narratives of the event remain centered on the political situation. In Euripides' version, by contrast, the siblings return with obsessive attention to the body of their mother (figured as such, rather than in political terms), and it is this act of observation that results in their psychological crisis as they recount the murder. The distinction that Allen-Hornblower draws here builds on established interpretations, but the emphasis on Orestes and Electra as self-aware spectators brings Euripides' psychological drama into sharp focus.

A chapter on Sophocles' Philoctetes rounds out the book. Here again, Allen-Hornblower's analysis tends to confirm what earlier readings of the play have contended: that the drama presents us with a story of the moral development of Neoptolemos, who learns nobility and honor through his sympathy for Philoctetes. What is new about Allen-Hornblower's reading is, again, the emphasis on Neoptolemos' close observation of the elder hero's agonies. Odysseus, who in this play rarely strikes readers as sympathetic, is notable in that he "…never looks upon Philoctetes' suffering directly," (279). The book closes with a brief meditation on the extra-textual future for Neoptolemos, and the likely understanding that he will go on to murder Priam, a suppliant on the altar of Zeus; here, Allen-Hornblower argues, "Sophocles reminds his audience of how easily a man can lose sight of the humanity of others when caught up in the heat of action and the pleasure of victory" (310).

A few words are in order about Allen-Hornblower's general approach. As I have mentioned, the book is informed by a humanist outlook that hearkens back to the work of Whitman, Knox, Winnington-Ingram, Dodds, and numerous other scholars (many of whom are generously cited). We read, e.g., that "Every one of Deinaeira's interactions…is exemplary for its profound humanity" (107); "Only then…do [Orestes and Electra] grasp the full moral and human cost of having avenged their father" (245); "The status of helpless observer…is…a poetic instantiation of the very nature of the human condition" (248). That is to say that this is a profound, literary reading; Allen-Hornblower is not concerned, for the most part, with the kinds of political and social-historical readings of tragedy that have characterized much work from the last twenty years or so. For Allen-Hornblower, the humanity that these characters and scenes exemplify is a condition of helplessness—of watching a person (or fictional character) undergo tragic circumstances, and being unable to change those circumstances. To be sure, it is refreshing to read a work that deals seriously and empathetically with the large issues raised by these texts. Even so, it is perhaps worth pointing out that this notion of the human condition is one that these texts (i.e. the Iliad and Greek tragedies) have fostered. If we find Deianeira an exemplar of the human condition, it is in part because in the West we have defined the human condition through the act of reading the tragedies of Sophocles, and taking them to be essential.

Finally, some readers might be surprised to find that Allen-Hornblower does not provide a comprehensive theory of the relation between the internal spectators and the external audience. Allen-Hornblower states specifically that she will not focus on that dynamic, though it does come up frequently in the course of particular interpretations (4). Rather, her concern is with the different poetic effects that the ancient authors produce by rendering major characters spectators of their own actions. Allen-Hornblower correctly notes that these effects are many and varied: our response to Deianeira's self-observation is, and should be, different from our reaction to Clytemnestra's narration of killing her husband. The strength of Allen-Hornblower's reading, then, is that she treats each act of self-reflection in context, rather than attempting to force each internal spectator into a prescribed model of interpretation.

In sum, Allen-Hornblower has produced a perceptive and cogent reading, one that takes on the fundamental problems of meaning produced by these texts. She demonstrates in new ways the mechanisms of spectatorship though which Homer and the tragedians evoke a range of emotional and ethical responses to the performance and observation of terrible events. She does so, moreover, in style that is admirable for its clarity and elegance of expression.

The book has been carefully produced and edited. I have only two quibbles: first, a separate index locorum would have been of considerable help to scholars, though mentions of ancient works are listed in the general index. And second, the publisher has made the odd choice of having footnotes numbered consecutively, rather than restarting at 1 with each chapter; by the time we reach n. 825, this seems unnecessarily cumbersome. This curious procedure should, one presumes, be attributed to the Press, and not the author.


1.   Full disclosure: I have had several friendly conversations with Allen-Hornblower at conferences, and am thanked in the acknowledgements to this book.
2.   See, e.g. Gagné, R. and M. Hoppman (eds.), Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, (Cambridge, 2013); Kitzinger, R., The Choruses of Sophokles' Antigone and Philoktetes: A Dance of Words (Boston, 2008).
3.   Martin, R., The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca, NY, 1989); Mueller, M., The Iliad (London, 1984).
4.   Whitman, C., Sophocles: A Study in Heroic Humanism (Cambridge, MA, 1951).

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