Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Nurse's saucy reply: Hippolytus scene II continued

The regal speech of Phaedra in scene II of Hippolytus captures the queen in her moment of resolve. Earlier, with the Nurse, she was raving of wild hunts and kills. Once the secret burden is uttered, Phaedra collects herself, ponders her options, and delivers her speech with poise to the women of Troezen.

The Nurse then returns and the entire tone of the scene changes. If we had any doubts that the Nurse is a "low" character (apart from her servant status, "crone" qualities, lack of a proper name, etc.), her erratic behavior is another clue. Earlier, upon learning Phaedra's secret, the Nurse declared her intention to jump off a cliff. Moments before that she had been confidently speaking of the mixing bowl of Sophrosyne, diluted enough to handle any crisis, including love.

She now returns, speaking in a jumpy, colloquial style, with yet another perspective. She's had time to reflect on her earlier intention to end it all, she says, and now has a better idea:
You are in love: why is that so strange? It is a condition you share with many. [440] Will you, because of love, destroy your own life? Those who are in love today or shall be tomorrow get little profit, then, if they must die for it.
Where Phaedra had spoken of "a life's shipwreck," the Nurse says, in Grene's translation,
                              The tide of love,
at its full surge, is not withstandable.
Is the Nurse's language really reaching so high? Her blunt literalness makes complete sense without having to resort to figuration:
Κύπρις γὰρ οὐ φορητὸν ἢν πολλὴ ῥυῇ, τὸν μὲν εἴκονθ᾽
Cypris, if she streams upon us in great force, cannot be endured. (Kovacs)
When the Nurse then speaks of sex and procreation, she cites "old writings" and those who bother with the Muses. Her examples of wisely dealing with overpowering eros -- Semele and Cephalus -- seem like the learned citations in the mouths of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals while undermining her point. Euripides' audience, like the bard's, would relish the ironies.

The contrasting styles of the two women say much about how they think, where they "are coming from." The queen has offered a philosophic deliberation; she began with elaborate address and proceeded from generalities to the particulars of her situation, before reaching a firm resolve on the side of honorable motherhood and a free, strong Athens.

The Nurse is of the commons, and her arguments appeal to pragmatic problem solving. She laces her words with sarcasm:
ἐρᾷς: τί τοῦτο θαῦμασὺν πολλοῖς βροτῶν You are in love - is that a wonder? It is a condition you share with many.
Or, more colloquially: "What's the big deal? Join the crowd."

So there is the interplay, here, of a royal tragic figure with a commoner. Their lexical "attire" reflects their station and their orientation -- their values, assumptions about the world, and readiness to "go with the flow." But other oppositions are bundled in -- the one and the many, the philosophic claims of knowledge of the Good:
Phaedra: Only one thing, they say, competes in value with life, the possession of a heart [γνώμην - judgment, purpose, resolve] blameless and good. 426-7
versus the seeming logic -- the slippery rhetorical enthymemes of the sophist, whose strictly pragmatic techniques promise to serve anyone to attain any end. ("This is one of the wise principles mortals follow --" the Nurse says -- "dishonorable deeds should keep to the dark.")

The dialogue is operating from much the same dichotomy found in Plato's dialogues between his philosopher and any number of sophists. On the one hand, a quest for real knowledge mirroring the Good; on the other, any argument, well deployed, that persuades the crowd that the speaker is right.

Phaedra's reply with its political forewarning could almost be taken from the critique of poets in the Republic:
This is the thing that destroys the well-governed cities and houses of mortal men: words that are too skilfully spoken! Words to delight the ear—that is not at all what you must speak, but rather such advice as brings a good name [εὐκλεὴς]!
The Nurse's saucy comeback smacks of the Aristophanic world of ribald comedy:
[490] Why this high and haughty tone? Noble-sounding words are not what you need but the man!
τί σεμνομυθεῖς; οὐ λόγων εὐσχημόνων
δεῖ σ᾽, ἀλλὰ τἀνδρός.
With each accusing the other's manner of speech, the argument has moved from substance (logos) to metalanguage, to critiques of style (lexis). The oppositions at work -- knowledge vs technique, nature vs art, elegant words vs. carnal realities -- are now fleshed out. (It is interesting that Phaedra offers a dichotomy between pretty words and εὐκλεὴς -- good name (or fame) -- some would find a distinction without a difference.) The chorus will mutter about how each has something worth saying.

Underlying all these oppositions is a contested question: What, when all is said and done, do we know of ourselves?

The Nurse says to the Queen:
οὐ γὰρ ἄλλο πλὴν ὕβρις 475
τάδ᾽ ἐστί, κρείσσω δαιμόνων εἶναι θέλειν,
It is hubris, nothing else, to try to best the gods.
Nothing in our binary schemes quite helps here. We are left in mid-air, juggling the comicality of the Nurse's character against the common sense of her insight. At root is the essentially contested question of human nature. Are we to struggle with the Gods or are we their slaves? Our lives and human world are forged in how we answer.

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