To "Crossing the Stages" Home Page

Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Jennifer Clarke Kosak
Department of Classics
Emory University

The Power of Touch: The Semantics of Therapy in Greek Tragedy

This paper explores the conventions of therapeutic gestures in Greek tragedy and argues that scenes involving therapeutic touch are informed by Greek notions of power and sexuality in the fifth century B.C.E. In the paper, I examine a number of scenes in Greek tragedy in which a healthy character touches a sick character in an effort to soothe or assist the sufferer; the investigation reveals that tragic care-givers and patients are normally members of the same household and furthermore that therapeutic touch rarely occurs between persons of equal status. Moreover, evidence from comedy and from the Hippocratic Corpus suggests that touch as a prominent form of therapy was a convention of tragedy. Awareness of these tragic conventions is particularly important for our understanding of scenes involving two males: in scenes where touch takes place between two males who hold positions of equal status in society, the status of both characters is subject to verbal revision, so that one character becomes in some way socially subordinate to the other.

The paper proceeds by tracing a pattern of physical contact occurring in a number of "sickness scenes" in tragedies such as Hippolytos, Orestes, and Trachiniai. In these scenes, a care-giver, admitted to that position by virtue of kinship (Elektra in Orestes, Hyllos in Trachiniai) or station in the household (the Old Man in Trachiniai, the Nurse in Hippolytos), asks how he or she can help the sufferer; furthermore, Elektra specifically suggests touch as a form of therapy. In the case of Orestes and Hippolytos, the sufferer immediately responds by asking to be touched; in Trachiniai, there is a longer stage of discussion before the touching is accepted. The paper demonstrates that, while therapeutic touch directed at a female character may occasion comment, therapeutic touch between males, in particular exogenous male touch, is subject to intense discussion and negotiation. The paper will consider briefly five pairs of characters who touch: Theseus and Herakles in Herakles (1394-1402), Hyllos and Herakles in Trachiniai (1004-25), Elektra and Orestes in Orestes (218-35), Pylades and Orestes in Orestes (791-806) and Neoptolemos and Philoktetes in Philoktetes (730-826; 865-95). I will argue that the evidence from these scenes reveals that a man who is touched may: 1) admit or demonstrate his own emasculation (e.g., Herakles in Trachiniai); 2) define the relationship between himself and the care-giver as one of father and son (e.g., Herakles in Herakles); or 3) demonstrate a problematic or perverse sense of morality (e.g., Orestes in Orestes). The care-giver in most of these scenes already has or is verbally assigned a status that is either greater or lesser than that of the patient. The negotiations over status engendered by the need for therapy are particularly subtle in Orestes and Philoktetes, and the paper will conclude with a close examination of the implications of therapeutic touch in these plays. Here, I will argue that in the sickness scene of Philoktetes, the standard gesture of therapeutic touch is deliberately avoided so as to avoid any reduction in the social status of Philoktetes; whereas the negotiation and performance of therapeutic gestures by Orestes and Pylades underscore the problematic nature of their designs and suggest the effeminacy of Orestes.

To top of this page
To "Crossing the Stages" Home Page


These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:34 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.