Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Two issues dominate criticism of Ion: what genre it belongs to and who Ion’s father is. The answer to the first issue can only be that it is neither comedy nor tragedy; it is simple melodrama. After confusion and misunderstandings, the characters work out their differences and are happily reconciled. In this regard, the play is comic. The anger that the characters feel throughout so much of the play, however, establishes a mood that distracts from a comic, festive finale. For example, how can an audience desire a happy ending for Creusa after she plots to poison Ion? Her intention reveals a cruel nature that alienates an audience.
When the flock of doves dies in convulsions after sipping from the cup meant for Ion, the old slave confesses under duress, and Creusa is sentenced to die. Here again, although Ion has cause to beat the old slave in order to obtain the truth, acts of torture coarsen the tone of the play, and they work against the lighthearted tone expected in comedy.
The deception that the characters engage in also detracts from any sympathy felt for them. When Xuthus thinks that he is Ion’s father, he accepts Ion’s wish to keep their relationship secret from Creusa, even though Xuthus insists that Ion come with him to Athens. When Xuthus organizes a banquet to celebrate his honored guest—the role that Ion agrees to play—he threatens Creusa’s servants with death if they reveal the truth. Creusa does learn the truth and curses Apollo, although she does not dare to burn Apollo’s temple or to kill her husband.
The second major deception occurs at the end when the priestess materializes and asserts that Ion is, indeed, the lost son of Creusa and Apollo. To make this public knowledge, however, will rob Xuthus of his conviction that he is the biological father of Ion, and so Athena urges Creusa and Ion to enjoy their knowledge in secret. Creusa then retracts all her blasphemies against Apollo, and she thanks him for his superior wisdom. The play ends with a happiness structured upon falsehoods, and the gods are praised for this solution.
The second question concerns Ion’s father, Apollo or Xuthus? Greeks of Euripides’ day will answer this question according to how they feel about the gods. The pious answer would be that Apollo is truly the father and that Ion was raised just as Hermes explains in the prologue. This is not a difficult story to accept, given the history and reputation of the gods.
The other answer, rational and obvious to anyone skeptical of religious explanations, says that Xuthus—or some other young man—fathered the boy. For a young woman to have an illegitimate child whom she leaves in a cave to die—the same cave, perhaps, where the child is fathered—must have been possible. Apollo’s reasoning in the conclusion, then, can be interpreted this way: Creusa suffered enough for abandoning her child. What will make everyone happy? Convince her that this child is really hers, as he apparently is, and let her believe that Apollo is his father if that rationalization helps her; then, let Xuthus keep on thinking that the child is his.
In this way, youthful folly is repaired, Ion and his mother find each other, and Xuthus has the son that fulfills his aspirations. This interpretation attributes genuine benevolence to the gods; however, all three characters remain deceived: Ion and Creusa believe that Apollo is the father, and Xuthus thinks that he is Ion’s father by some nameless Delphian woman he encountered at a bacchic festival. What does this say about the gods? Are they mere cynics about the value of truth, or is it their wisdom about human affairs that makes them truly gods? Whatever answer prevails, this melodrama clearly intends to raise questions about the gods’ role, and even their existence, and this becomes one of the important themes of Ion.
Another theme that deserves comment centers on Ion’s historical destiny. Hermes announces at the beginning of the story that Ion will become the leader of the Ionic communities to the east, and at the end, Athena instructs Creusa to raise Ion as royalty so that he and his four sons will be famous. Ion’s grandsons will colonize the Asian side of the strait, and the people there will be called Ionians. The practical effect of all this manipulation is to bestow on Ion a supernatural lineage that will provide grandeur for his historic role. Contemporary readers of Ion may not be alert to this patriotic theme, but it was not overlooked by Euripides’ contemporaries.
Despite its problems of interpretation, Ion benefits from Euripides’ craftsmanship. Ion grows and matures as the bewildering reversals and revelations overtake him. It is difficult to accept Creusa when she plots to poison Ion, but the scheme does build dramatic interest as it leads up to the crisis that culminates in the priestess’s arrival, when she announces that Ion is the lost son of Apollo and Creusa. The cradle and the tokens are effective stage props, and Athena’s late appearance is a well-contrived deus ex machina. Except for the selfish and vengeful behavior of its main characters, Ion is effective in its melodramatic effects.
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