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Why did the Athenians call the dramatic actor hypokritês? This question has drawn significant attention for more than one hundred years, but it has not yet received a satisfactory answer. Scholars on all sides agree that, whatever its meaning, the label hypokritês must refer to the defining nature of the actor’s doings on stage at least during the beginning phases of Attic drama. Views that explained it with reference to a secondary facet of his work would be implausible. I will make clear below that this point of agreement, though true, turns out to be trivial. But even quite apart from suggesting a new way forward, there is value in reviewing this zêtêma briefly, because it demonstrates the difficulty of applying synchronic and diachronic analysis to evolving cultural institutions.

To date, the preferred approach to the question has been etymological. Methodologically, this seems unexceptionable. The word features the preverb ὑπό and the verb κρίνεσθαι. Great industry has gone into determining the precise semantic implications of ὑπό. Does it point to acting under the influence of an external agent (Else)? To accompaniment and substitution (Koller)? To acting with immediacy of sequence (Curtius)? Or perhaps to acting in a manner that openly expresses what was earlier hidden out of view (Schwyzer & Lesky)? Comparatively little time has been spent on κρίνεσθαι. One side of the debate tacitly assumes that, whatever the obscure path that led to this semantic development, the Ionic meaning ‘to answer’ of ὑποκρίνεσθαι —or, in its place, the Attic ἀποκρίνεσθαι, also ‘to answer’—readily proves that κρίνεσθαι could be used in connection with ‘to answer’. Alternatively, these scholars marshal a number of ancient statements about the meaning of hypokritês that support its relation to ‘to answer’; these are deemed sufficient to settle the use of κρίνεσθαι in this connection. The investigation then need only focus on the implications of ὑπό: whom does the actor ‘answer’? Is his acting conceptualized as an answer because of the manner of his speaking (Curtius) or because he speaks ‘in response’ to another (Else)?

Opposing scholars note that, given its attested use in the oldest sources, κρίνω/κρίνομαι cannot mean anything other than ‘to separate’, ‘to pick’, ‘to decide’ or ‘to judge’, from which the transferred sense ‘to pick/judge the meaning’ issues: in other words, ‘to interpret or expound’. For these scholars the implication of ὑπό is straightforward. Greek attests ὑπό in contexts that entail hidden meaning and call for disclosure or decoding (e.g. ὑπόνοια and ὑπομιμνήσκω). Archaic literature, including Homer, seems clearly to support ‘to interpret’, as one can readily see from Iliad 12.228 and Odyssey 15.170, 19.535, 19.555. Iliad 7.407 and Odyssey 2.111, it is true, prove that the meaning ‘to answer’ (or something like it) was already exampled in the Homeric poems. But whereas the meaning ‘to interpret’ for κρίνεσθαι is unproblematic, and a development from ‘to interpret [an oracle]’ to ‘to answer [a query]’ is eminently conceivable, the original meaning ‘to answer’ in connection with κρίνεσθαι is impossible and there is no plausible semantic path from ‘to separate’ or ‘to decide’ to ‘to answer’. One would have to invoke an improbable psychology that arrives at an answer as the outcome of separating a proposition from a mass of thought (or some such logic). But this is hardly the ordinary meaning of ‘to answer’ and, insofar as it involves careful reflection, such a psychological process might be better characterized as ‘reaching a judgment’—a meaning that suits, rather, those who resist equating dramatic ὑποκρίνεσθαι and ‘to answer’.

Supporters of this equation counter in turn that, even in those Homeric instances where the interpretation of an omen is in view, it is the rendering of the interpretation as a solemn answer that motivates ὑποκρίνομαι, not the interpretive act itself. I cannot review now the many twists and turns of this debate, but I hope that enough has been said to exhibit the basic outlines of the arguments for and against ‘to interpret’ and ‘to answer’.

What I wish to focus on here is the tacit assumption shared by both camps that the answer to this zêtêma is to be found in a sort of “synchronic diachrony”: the etymological investigation of the constituent parts of the word in question—verb and preverb—out of which issues the semantic bifurcation of ‘to interpret’ and ‘to answer’. All assume that one of these meanings is supported by both etymology and attested usage, and that the other is an accidental, near synchronic derivative; and that hypokritês follows unproblematically from the correct choice. This is what I mean by the oxymoron “synchronic diachrony”: the “diachrony” refers to the semantic archaeology of etymological analysis; “synchronic” to the notion that, as far as the antiquity of their origin, both meanings are near contemporaneous and substantially on a par because both are attested in Homer.

This presumptive synchrony is a distortion of fact. A corrective is found in a thoroughgoing diachronic perspective that combines etymological analysis and a consideration of archaic Greek performance practices, epic and dramatic. In fact, ὑποκρίνομαι as ‘to answer [solemnly vel sim.]’ must significantly postdate ‘to interpret’—surely the latter is its original meaning—and neither explains the actor’s designation as hypokritês. ‘To answer’ makes the actor subservient to some other dramatic agent: either to the chorus or, as Else argued, to the ‘messenger’ of tragedy. But the back-and-forth suggested by ‘to answer’ hardly seems central enough to the actor qua actor to make this the plausible differentia that called for hypokritês, not to mention that the historical introduction of the actor was reportedly tied to the addition of a tragic prologue and a rhêsis, neither of which seems to have involved the requisite dialogue. And to make the messenger primary and the actor derivative seems a historically unsupported inversion of dramatic priority and too clever by half. ‘To interpret’, on the other hand, suggests that, when the word hypokritês was first applied to the actor in the late sixth and early fifth centuries, the dramatic plot was felt to be obscure or problematic enough to call for the introduction of a figure—the actor—that would offer an ‘interpretation’ or ‘explanation’ of it. This is an implausible scenario, whether the actor is thought to render an interpretation of a plot predetermined by a divinity or (even more improbable) one conceived by the poet. To this meaning one may also object that, whereas the prologue can reasonably be thought to set the stage—and, to that extent, to aid the understanding of the audience—it is primarily through the chorus that the poet conveys reaction and reflection. The chorus, not the actor, might be said to carry out a (weak) version of hypokrisis understood not as ‘delivery’ but as ‘interpretation’.

The way out of this impasse, I suggest, is to grant the rhapsode the title hypokritês in its original (sacral) interpretive function, i.e. as the mediating agent of the speech of the Muses and mediating revealer of the will of Zeus (βουλὴ Διός). After centuries of the rhapsode as the preeminent solo archaic performer, hypokritês came to be associated with the pragmatics of his delivery—his “stage presence”, so to speak—and it was emulatively applied to the budding trade of dramatic acting. The thematic kinship between epic and tragedy and the mimetic character of Homeric speeches facilitated this application. In other words, by the late sixth century, the notion of ‘performer’ was preeminent in the rhapsodic use and application of ὑποκριτής, and ὑποκρίνομαι was used simply for ‘to perform’. The original meanings of ‘[inspired] interpreter’ and ‘to interpret [inspired communication]’ could still be activated by an appropriate context (as Plato later proves), but it would not necessarily have been an overriding association in the mind of the average festival-goer. Therefore, the meaning responsible for the reuse of hypokritês to designate the dramatic actor was neither ‘to interpret’ nor ‘to answer’ but simply ‘to perform’.

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