Academic journal article Helios

Ventriloquizing Rape in Menander's Epitrepontes

Academic journal article Helios

Ventriloquizing Rape in Menander's Epitrepontes

Article excerpt

Menander's Epitrepontes offers a variant of New Comedy's "rape motif," (1) insofar as its action is generated by the sexual violation and resultant pregnancy, both occurring prior to dramatic time, of a citizen woman who will turn out unwittingly (if, in the end, happily) to have married her rapist. Critical discussion surrounding these plots has dealt with the fundamental question of semantics, that is, how to evaluate attitudes towards an act--rape--for which the ancient Greeks (or Romans, for that matter) had no direct and unambiguous linguistic expression. (2) Edward Harris (2006, 297-32) argues that the interest of modern critics in rape per se is misguided and anachronistic, since the ancient freeborn Greek evaluated sexual assault primarily on the basis of the perpetrator's intent and on the consequences of the act for the honor of the victim's family: Did the assailant act out of desire, or was he willfully abusing his power over the victim, that is, was the assailant committing hubris?

While conceding that poets were not indifferent to the suffering of sexual assault victims, Harris offers ample evidence to suggest that such an assault, which we refer to as rape, was legally condemned only when it was understood as an act of hubris against the victim's male kin; for Harris (2006, 330), sexual assault was not acknowledged as an insult against someone whom we would call the rape victim. (3) Rosanna Omitowoju's (2002) study on the terminology of sexual violence in Athenian forensic oratory and New Comedy has emphasized other semantic groups (e.g., bia and its cognates) important for the regulation of rape, (4) but also stresses the relatively insignificant role that a woman's consent plays in defining sexual crimes. Similarly, Vincent Rosivach's (1998) study of the attitudes towards rape expressed in New Comedy tends to read the genre's treatment of sexual violence in opposition to that of tragedy, particularly Euripides' successful, now fragmentary, Auge. (5) Rosivach (1998, 44) notes that Menander and his Roman successors focus overwhelmingly on the emotional maturation and contentment of the young male lover, rather than on the suffering experienced by female victims of sexual assault.

One problem with such evaluations of evidence, however, lies in the tendency to privilege the dominant, usually masculine point of view offered in generic enterprises ranging from New Comedy to history and oratory, rather than listening carefully for the muted (but still audible) voices of more peripheral characters. (6) Cultural anthropology has long recognized the complex overlay of signals, human intention, interaction, and specific context which determine what description an action should be given. While social 'norms' as indicated through, e.g., legal texts are surely part of that overlay, they do not constitute its totality. Cultural phenomena, when approached as contextualized symbolic actions to be interpreted, cannot be reduced to any single ontological status. As such, legal definitions of hubris cannot adequately describe the myriad of exchanges that take place between a sexual assailant and the resisting victim of that assault. While a full account of these signals, what Clifford Geertz (1973) calls "thick description," does not survive intact in any single ancient text, its traces are surely evident in poetic descriptions of sexual violence. For Geertz, the study of cultural productions is a study of signs. Using Gilbert Ryle's famous attempt to distinguish the twitch of an eye from a conspiratorial wink or a parody of a wink, Geertz recommends a densely contextualized interpretive approach for understanding the simplest of gestures to the most recherche artistic performance (a Beethoven quartet): "The thing to ask is what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said" (1973, 10). (7)

Following this line of argument, we may attempt to understand rape as a cultural phenomenon by the "enlargement of the universe of human discourse" (Geertz 1973, 14), (8) rather than the reduction of it; in other words, we may ask "What is getting said? …

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