Aristotle's Poetics contains a sentence that stands out for its simplicity and evocativeness: "Sophocles said that he himself created characters such as should exist, whereas Euripides created ones such as actually do exist" (47). Its meaning appears to be self evident given that the many commentaries on the Poetics pay it scant attention. Yet what is striking about the sentence is precisely its inscrutability because it is so brief and so lacking a context. What was Sophocles's tone--contemptuous? envious? disinterestedly descriptive? And how did Euripides, if he heard of the observation, react?
The remark reverberates with issues. There is the esthetic question of whether the mission of the artist is to "imitate" the ideal or the real; the semantic question of how to define these two overused terms; the philosophical question of whether a writer is a pessimist or an optimist; and the psychological question of where does detached, principled esthetic judgment leave off and subjective personal bias begin? To what extent, in short, was the relation between those two literary titans shaped not just by philosophical-artistic differences over their common art but also by personal dislike, professional rivalry, or just plain quotidian jealousy?
What makes this dictum even more fascinating is that it is archetypal. The paradigm is that in various periods two artists flourish concurrently and, conscious of each other's presence, see themselves--or are seen by contemporaries, or come to be seen by posterity--as towering over everyone else. What, one cannot but wonder, did they think of each other?
Artists are, of course, revered by others in their field when they are safely ensconced in the past but not necessarily when they are rivals for attention. Although it was easy for, say, Hemingway to praise Shakespeare because the latter was long dead, would he have used the same language had they been contemporaries? What arouses curiosity about such confrontations is precisely the jumbling of the esthetic with the personal. We have heard much about the anxiety of influence, about how the artist is haunted by the achievements of his predecessors and mentors, but what about the anxiety caused by a kind of sibling rivalry?
As it happens, at least one such major confrontation appears in a different country during each of the traditional major phases of Western culture--Classical Greece, Medieval Germany, Renaissance England, Enlightenment France and England, Nineteenth-Century Russia, Modern America.
Analysis of the first three pairs is hampered by limited documentation. We know nothing else, for example, of what the two Greeks thought of each other. Still, one striking thing about the Sophoclean sentence is its justness as a piece of literary criticism. Certainly that is how another contemporary, Aristophanes, saw Euripides. And ever since then, scholars have remarked on the difference between the two tragedians as involving something like the ideal and the real. The iconoclastic, free-thinking Euripides was, according to the critical consensus, by far the most modern of the ancient dramatists (Ferguson 238).
The absence of evidence of personal rivalry between the two Greeks is somewhat made up for by the next pair. The two major medieval chivalric works, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, were completed nearly simultaneously in Germany in 1210. The authors' dislike of each other resulted in one of the more famous literary quarrels in medieval literature (Batts 11; Norman 57-59). Though documentation is scanty, the difference between the two men appears to have been partly social, partly esthetic, partly moral. If the aristocratic Wolfram refers often to weaponry, the bourgeois Gottfried, who shows little interest in mainstream Arthurian military and literary conventions, refers rather to musical and artistic matters(Jones 48). Their heroes are accordingly different: the martial Parzival has no formal schooling, while the sophisticated Tristan immerses himself in music and books, learns languages, and travels. …