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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Horrors of the Unseen: Depictions of Violence in the Iliad and Greek Tragedy

  • Author(s): Hernandez, Aleah Hernandez
  • Advisor(s): Giannopoulou, Zina
  • Porter, James
  • et al.

In the Poetics, Aristotle states that “pathos is a destructive or painful deed, such as deaths on stage, excessive suffering, wounding and things of this sort” (1452b). Yet despite the philosopher’s assertion about the possibility of death and wounding on stage, the extant corpus of Greek tragedy presents onstage violence and death as rare occurrences, and scholars, in turn, have taken the infrequency of these phenomena as a sign of theatrical convention. This dissertation seeks to complicate the idea of this convention and to make a case for narrated tragic violence as the conscious preservation and refinement of narrated Homeric violence.

I contend that visualization, narration and space are the basic characteristics of a narrated scene of violence in epic and in tragedy. The convergence of these characteristics creates a locus violentus—a visualized, narrative space which heightens the effects of violence by bringing listeners into close, imaginative proximity with the details of violent acts. I maintain that the locus violentus forms a sort of “poetics of violence”: it offers a paradigmatic structure of narrated violence whose origins can be found in scenes of violence in the Iliad and whose influence continues to be seen in scenes of violence in tragedy. To support these claims, I begin with an analysis of Iliadic battle scenes, which illustrates the form and function of the locus. Next, I take the foundational form of the epic locus and use it as the blueprint for the tragic locus. Through an examination of the characteristics of tragedy, I find that the tragic locus consists of five essential characteristics—violence, narration, visualization, space and suspense—and three supplementary characteristics—similes, metaphors and the presentation of the victim. The essential and the supplementary characteristics yield the theoretical apparatus and affective scope for the tragic locus. Finally, I advance two case studies of, respectively, the minimal and the maximal tragic locus. These case studies show that narrated violence is not simply a convention but a potent means of enhancing the audience’s cognitive engagement with the scene in which violence is enacted.

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