Did you ask a rhetorical question, Euripides?

The argument has just begun, and it isn’t long before things heat up a little. So far, one party to the argument has been keeping pretty quiet. When he does speak, he gives every appearance of doing so (I think) with a lofty hauteur, suggesting he’s waaaaaay above the trivial and silly insults put forward by his interlocutor, who’s been goading away, doing his best to touch on some raw nerves. Now, something of a breakthrough, maybe.

The following exchange takes place (935f):

‘Is it necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy?’

‘Well how about you, enemy of the gods…what did you include [in your tragedies]?’

What struck me about these lines, when I read through them with my class the other day, is the way an initial question is answered with a further question. Is there a literary term for this phenomenon? If there is, I don’t know of it.

frogs

Of course, questions are often asked in arguments, and these questions appear in a pretty big argument. They’re posed in the middle of the Frogs, Aristophanes’ 5th century BC comic play, first performed in 405. The interlocutors are two dead playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides, both legends of the stage. They are having a competition (Gk agon), presided over by the god Dionysus, as to who gets to leave Hades and be taken back up to Athens, where the citizens, we are told, are in dire need of a great tragedian.

In the above dialogue, Euripides poses the initial question, Aeschylus the second. One label that might apply to Euripides’ question, at least, is ‘rhetorical’. Arguably, the question simply answers itself: it should be obvious (both to speaker and interlocutor) that it isn’t necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy.

So, if Aeschylus (who did use a cockerel in one of his tragedies, apparently) had given this question a direct answer, he might have looked simple, perhaps, or even a bit foolish. Better to fire back at Euripides with a question of his own, assuming the front foot and going on the offensive.

Admittedly, it’s striking that this isn’t a tactic (answering a question with another question) that’s used elsewhere in the play.

Answering a question with a question, after all, is a good mode of deflection, if nothing else. And Aeschylus, perhaps, has good reason to deflect, at this stage of the agon. He’s been quiet while Euripides has been jabbing away, landing plenty of scoring shots – scoffing at the grandness and verbosity of Aeschylus’ tragic style, accusing him of being complicated where he could be simple, and pretentious where he could be straightforward. Further on, Euripides even suggests, the Aeschylean style is just not democratic.*

Answering a question with a question, in this context, makes sense.

colleagues-arguing

What most interests me about Aeschylus’ response to Euripides, however, is just how true to life it feels, still today. In the heat of an argument, when an opponent makes a powerful point, or simply one that can’t be easily denied, or that it would be odd to contest, how often do arguers still today deploy the technique that Aeschylus deploys here? Answering a question with a question.

I’ve certainly done it. But I can’t say that each time I’ve done so, it’s been because I’ve been asked a rhetorical question…as opposed to one that’s just difficult to try to deal with.

*Euripides is probably assisted in making this point by the fact that the bulk of Aeschylus’ plays were performed before the democratising reforms of Ephialtes at Athens in the mid-fifth century…. and by the fact that all of Aeschylus’ plays were performed, and indeed Aeschylus himself had died, before the slightly later reforms of Pericles. Meanwhile, Euripides wrote most of his plays in the aftermath of both of these sets of reforms.

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