Welcome to my Nightmare: the Charioteer's Dream in the Rhesos

Mary Ebbott

College of the Holy Cross

The death of Rhesos in the tragedy named for him is reported in a messenger speech by his charioteer. What the charioteer describes, however, is not the actual murder of Rhesos but rather a nightmare that he had, and he can only inform the Trojans that he found Rhesos and other Thracians dying and the horses being stolen as he awoke (Rhesos 779–798). In this paper I argue that the nightmare itself as well as its details are interperformative responses to the same episode in Iliad 10. Barrett (2002) has argued that the Rhesos fails in its challenge to the Iliadic version of Rhesos's story, and that the charioteer's messenger-speech is emblematic of that failure. Taking a different approach to the nightmare in particular, I will suggest the response to and re-use of these Homeric elements reveal differences between tragic and epic narration and visualization through poetic language.

In the Iliad when Diomedes kills Rhesos as his final victim, he is described in a short but striking metaphor as standing at Rhesos's sleeping head as a bad dream (kakon onar, Iliad 10.496–497), with no marker of a simile per se, such as hôs, used. In the Rhesos that metaphor of Diomedes' presence becomes the charioteer's own experience of the events: indeed, his bad dream is all he can report as an "eye-witness," a basic function of a tragic messenger. Yet the details of the charioteer's dream—in it he sees wolves attacking the horses—are themselves reminiscent of Homeric similes in which warriors are compared to animals as they fight, kill, and die on the battlefield. The distinction between tenor and vehicle becomes blurred when the nightmare rouses the charioteer for action, only to find that the dream has come true but on two levels: the horses themselves are being driven off, and the wolves in his dream have become men who have also killed his companions. The horses in the dream are the horses that Odysseus and Diomedes steal, but they also act as a metonym for Rhesos, their owner who is identified by them. Thus the Iliadic metaphor of a dream has become an actual dream, but one filled with metaphor, metonymy, and simile that recall other kinds of Homeric language. It is in this reversal of elements of poetic language that we can see how tragic narration asks its audience to visualize events off-stage in a way different from Homeric narrative methods of visualizing what happens "onstage," as it were.

The Rhesos is often either actively maligned or simply neglected because of doubts about its authorship and a general sense of bewilderment about how to understand its content and structure. I will not argue one way or the other about Euripides' authorship, but instead I will suggest that the play does offer interesting uses of visualizing language within dramatic performance—even as the action happens in the dark.

Time requested: 15 minutes

Barrett, James. 2002. Staged Narrative. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bond, Robin Sparks. 1996. "Homeric Echoes in Rhesus." AJP 117: 255–273.

Burnett, Anne Pippen. 1985. "Rhesus: Are Smiles Allowed?" 13–51 in Directions in Euripidean Criticism. ed. Peter Burian. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


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