Saturday, April 07, 2012


As part of his Classical Studies program, Karl is reading Homer’s Iliad. In studying commentaries about the work, he mentioned that he keeps bumping up against the term teichoscopy.

The two roots contained in the word teichoscopy may be translated as “viewing from the wall.” The word and the action are found in the Iliad’s Book 3, lines 121 to 244. Helen sits beside Priam on the wall tower, and as he asks her to identify each warrior in the distance, she names them one by one and characterizes them.

This is a dramatic device. The actors in ancient Greek dramas could sit on the stage in full view of the audience and pretend to describe distant events happening simultaneously, but out of sight of the audience. It added immediacy and dramatic impact, a distant precursor to the long-defunct TV show, You Are There.

You can see how economical this is when battles are involved. Instead of a cast of thousands clashing and bleeding on a tiny stage, one or two people can narrate what they are allegedly seeing, and evoke the spectacle by engaging the audience’s imagination.

For instance, in Julius Caesar, Pindarus ascends a hill and tells Cassius what he sees:

Titinius is enclosed round about

With horsemen, that make to him on the spur;

Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.

Now, Titinius! Now some light. O, he lights too.

He's ta'en.

And, hark! they shout for joy.

An alternative device is to have a breathless messenger appear after the action is over, and listen while he narrates what happened a short time ago. Information is quickly disseminated, but it lacks immediacy and is somewhat passive. Shakespeare used the device in Julius Caesar when Brutus’ man Strato reports on his death to Octavius.

The conquerors can but make a fire of him;

For Brutus only overcame himself,

And no man else hath honour by his death.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I held the sword, and he did run on it.

The device is used in Shakespeare again when a messenger reports to Macbeth in Dunsinane Castle:

Gracious my lord,

I should report that which I say I saw,

But know not how to do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,

I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought,

The wood began to move.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Let me endure your wrath, if't be not so:

Within this three mile may you see it coming;

I say, a moving grove.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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