Theses Doctoral

Somatic Landscapes: Affects, Percepts, and Materialities in Select Tragedies of Euripides

Combatti, Maria

This study explores how in central plays of Euripides – namely, Alcestis, Hippolytus, Helen, and Bacchae – bodies, landscapes, and objects (both seen on stage and described in speeches, dialogues, and choral odes) serve as media for assessing affective states, materializing the characters’ feelings and sensations and hence enabling the audience to vividly perceive them.

My focus is grounded in the ancient conceptions of bodies and the senses in material from the Pre-Socratic and the Hippocratic writings, including theories about how the surrounding environment influences bodily types. It is also underpinned by theoretical perspectives that have come to prominence in recent research in ancient literature and culture. First, it draws on insights from phenomenology, aesthetics, and affective theory that in ancient drama highlight embodiment, synaesthesia, and the circulation of affects among characters and spectators. Second, it engages with works inspired by the new materialisms, which have produced a new attention to the mutual and symbiotic relationship between humans and nonhuman entities. Finally, it is based on the “enactive” approach to cognition, which makes a compelling case for visualization (e.g., spectators’ imagination of the things sung, spoken, or narrated) as grounded in the active, embodied structure of experience.

Building on such theories, I posit that Euripides’ plays illustrate how the characters’ feelings and emotions combine with sensory indicators (sight, taste, smell, and touch), so that they operate as visible marks of states usually conceived of as inner. These states are, I suggest, exteriorized not only on bodies but also in their surroundings, such that landscapes as mapped onto the dramatic stage and objects with which the characters interact function as supplements to embodied affective manifestations. In addition to onstage action, I focus on how Euripides’ language triggers a strong resonance in the spectators’ imagination. In this regard, my argument takes up the insights of ancient critics such as Longinus, who has praised Euripides’ ability to generate “emotion” (τὸ παθητικόν) and “excitement” (τὸ συγκεκινημένον) in the audience through “visualization” (φαντασία) and “vividness” (ἐνάργεια). Thus, I examine how references to onstage performance and visualizing language interact, giving the spectators a full picture of the dramatic action.

In Alcestis, I explore how embodiment, sensorial phenomena, and physical interactions put the characters’ feelings of pain and grief on prominent display, eliciting the audience’s sensory reaction. In Hippolytus, I examine how the characters’ emotions blend into the surroundings, such that forms, colors, and textures of landscape and objects allow the spectators to perceive inner states more forcefully. In Helen, I investigate how material and nonhuman things, such as rivers, plants, costumes, weapons, statues, ships connect to the characters as parts of an affective entanglement that heightens the experiential appeal of the characters’ feelings and sensations. In the Bacchae, I regard Dionysus’ action as an affective force that spreads throughout the world of the play, cracks, and mutates things, including human and animal bodies, natural elements, and objects. This action creates an enmeshment between things, which is embodied by the thyrsus topped with Pentheus’ head (mask) that gives the spectators a keen sense of the multiple, productive, and transformative nature of Dionysus’ power.

In conclusion, this study argues that bodies, landscapes, and objects represent the privileged sites for exploring the affective exchange between the characters and the audience, refining our understanding of the intensity, impact, and reception of the Euripidean theater.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worman, Nancy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 24, 2020