What is Ethopoeia?

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Ethopoeia (etymologically from Greek comb. “ethos – character,” and “poeia – representation,” literally signifies “impersonation” or “character making”) is an imaginary speech constructed to describe or simulate the character of a person, as though he was the one speaking.

This is a technique from a progymnasmataOpens in new window that trains students to speak in the character of a (real or fictitious) person .

Ethopoeia, the ancient Greek term for the creation of character, focuses attention on the constructions we make from the least clue that suggests the presence of another mind; it also reminds us that these attributions are not of rationality alone but of full human character.

Ethopoeia is considered a drama-based type pedagogyOpens in new window, which formed a central component of the humanist grammar school curriuculumOpens in new window. Also known as “impersonation” or “character making,” ethopoeia is one step in the progymnasmata, “the system of teaching prose composition and elementary rhetoric practiced in European schools from the Hellenistic periodOpens in new window until early modern times.” A person studying this trope is prone to respond to such prompt as: “What words would Hecuba say upon the ruin of Troy?” by composing a speech exploring characterization and emotion.

The characterization of ethopoeia is of three divisions: the pathetical, the ethical, and the mixed.

  • Pathetical concerns those showing emotion in everything; for example, “what words Hecuba might say when Troy was destroyed.”
  • Ethical concerns those that only introduce character; for example, “what words a man from inland might say on first seeing the sea.”
  • Mixed deals with those having both character and pathos; for example, “what words Achilles might say over the body of Patroclus when planning to continue war”; for the plan shows character, the fallen friend pathos.

To paraphrase David S. Thompson views, perfoming monologic characterization often proved a crucial and formative experience for early modern English schoolboys like Christopher MarloweOpens in new window.

The humanist grammar school curriuculum trained them in what Lynn EnterlineOpens in new window names “habits of alterity,” producing skills like those of the early modern actor, “who was admired for producing ‘the signs’ of certain passions ‘on demand’ — in other words, ‘manifestations of an emotion that he fully embodies, but at the same time is not really his own.’” — (David S. Thompson, Theatre Symposium, Vol. 23: Theatre and Youth)

A Classic Example

Hypereides, when speaking on behalf of Lycurgus, made use of ethopoeia:

  1. “What will those say who come to his tomb? ‘He lived temperately; and when appointed to administer money he found funds; he built the theater, the Odeon, the dockyards, trieremes, harbors.’ This is the man our city dishonored, and it imprisoned his sons.”
Important Hint! 

Note that the characterization is usually elaborated in a style that is clear, concise, fresh, pure, free from any inversion and figure. Instead of headings, there is a division into the three periods of time: present, past, and future.

An exercise in characterization:

  1. “What words Niobe might say when her children lie dead”: How great is the change in my fortune! – childless now, once seeming blessed with children. Abundance has turned into want and I who earlier seemed the mother of many children am now not the mother of one! As a result, I ought not to have given birth to start with, rather than giving birth to tears. Those deprived are more unfortunate than those not having given birth; for what has once been experienced give pain when taken away. Alas, I have a fate much like that of my parent. I was begotten by Tantalus, who was banished from the gods after he had feasted with them, and descended as I am from Tantalus, I confirm the relationship by my misfortunes. I had an acquaintance with Leto and because of it I fare badly and the connection led to the loss of my children. Connection with a goddess brings me in the end to misfortune.
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