Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.25

Justina Gregory, Euripides: Hecuba. American Philological Association Textbook Series no. 14.   Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1999.  Pp. 218.  ISBN 0-7885-0612-9.  $29.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-7885-0611-0.  $15.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lisa Rengo George, Arizona State University (
Word count: 1385 words

With her new edition of Euripides' Hecuba, Justina Gregory has produced a welcome and unfortunately rare commodity: an admirably clear, impeccably researched student text that will be as useful to the scholar as it is to the undergraduate undertaking to read a Greek tragedy for the first time. The book is divided into seven sections: a brief preface, a 26 page introduction, the Greek text of the play, an extensive commentary, an appendix on lyric meters, abbreviations and bibliography, and an index.

The introduction is thorough and well-organized and includes a summary of the play and sections on the original context of the drama and its possible date, its literary antecedents and Euripidean innovations, problems of interpretation, and a note on the Greek text used. Gregory manages to make the scholarly arguments on thorny issues, such as the dating of the play and the interpretative difficulties inherent in Hecuba's act of violence against Polymestor and his sons, accessible to the neophyte without oversimplifying them and without stinting on scholarly references. A student new to the play and interested in obtaining an informed background to it need only skip the learned footnotes, while a scholar will find Gregory's notes to be a useful and concise collection of the most relevant secondary material on the play. Occasionally, however, Gregory includes notes that will aid the reader unfamiliar with the intricacies of scholarly argument, such as her explanatory note on the significance of "the consistent rise in the rate of resolution [of Euripides' iambic trimeters] from the early plays to the late" (xii): "That is, there is a steadily increasing tendency on the part of the poet to replace a long syllable in a princeps position with two shorts" (xii, n. 4). Small considerations such as this ensure that a student will be able to follow the arguments without getting bogged down in academic minutiae.

In the section on problems of interpretation, Gregory rightly observes, "the assessment of these violent acts [the murder of Polydorus, the sacrifice of Polyxena, and the blinding of Polymestor and murder of his young sons] constitutes the central interpretative problem of the play" (xxiii). Rather than view Hecuba's vengeful attack on Polymestor as the culmination of senseless violence propagated by the long war, Gregory invites her readers to make a distinction among these brutal acts, and offers a careful examination of Polyxena's sacrifice, the role of the winds in delaying the Greek fleet in Thrace, the metamorphosis of Hecuba and the significance of Hecuba's grave, Cynossema, ("Bitch's Tomb"). By noting the discrepancies in the account of Polyxena's sacrifice, Gregory concludes that it was "the product not of superhuman demand but of human decision. Not only is the sacrifice not dictated by the gods, it may even contravene religious norms. Hecuba states as much (260-61) and Euripides builds support for her contention through the motif of the adverse winds" (xxix). Since it is a convention of Greek epic and drama that adverse (or absent) winds signal divine displeasure, the fact that the Greeks are stalled in Thrace is a noteworthy event, usually credited to the ghost of Achilles, since both Polydorus and the Chorus state that this ghost "stopped" the Greek ships (using the Greek verbs κατέσχ' [38] and ἔσχε [111]). Thus this delay has been viewed as a bookend to the start of the expedition to Troy, when the wrath of Artemis stalls the Greek fleet at Aulis. Gregory, however, demonstrates that it is outside the conventional boundaries to attribute power to control the winds, the sole province of the gods, to the ghost of a hero; rather, the appearance of the spirit of Achilles must have so terrified the Greeks that they turned back to shore, and therefore the winds changed after the sacrifice of Polyxena and not before it (xxxi). When the winds turn favorable again after Hecuba's attack on Polymestor and his sons, it seems to indicate that "the gods who disapproved of the Greeks' sacrificial offering seem to take a positive view of the Trojan queen's revenge" (xxxi).

Gregory sees Hecuba's metamorphosis into a dog not as symbolic of Hecuba's moral degeneration, as others have interpreted it, but as representative of her fiercely protective nature as a mother, and she offers two pertinent examples of the dog as a symbol of devoted motherhood: a simile from Odyssey 20.14-15 in which Odysseus' heart is compared to a mother dog protecting her weak pups, and an epitaph by Antipater of Sidon in which the depiction of a bitch on a woman's tomb signifies her role as a caring mother to her children (xxxiv). At the beginning of the introduction, Gregory draws parallels between the mythical events of the Trojan War and the all too real and disturbing historical events in Greece during the 420's BCE (the probable period of Hecuba), such as the insurrection of Mytilene in 427 and the revolt of Scione in 423 (xiv-xv): a play that depicts a city destroyed, its men slaughtered and its women and children enslaved, and the bloody revenge of one of those wronged women would have resonated strongly for Euripides' Athenian audience. Gregory concludes that the "τέκμαρ [sign] of Cynossema," the tomb at the end of the Thracian peninsula, "serves to draw together the heroic age and the fifth century, delivering a warning that is relevant to both... It puts the mighty on notice that abuse of power is not without consequences, for the victims' suffering may, as in the case of Hecuba, be transformed into terrible retribution" (xxxvi). Gregory's reading of the play is refreshing and feels right, but at the same time it allows the reader to approach the text with a balanced view of the other most important critical positions clearly in mind.

Gregory's Greek text of Hecuba is uncluttered by an apparatus criticus, as is suitable for a student edition, though she does address textual issues in her commentary: readers interested in viewing the app. crit. are directed both to James Diggle's authoritative Oxford edition and to David Kovacs' Loeb Classical Library text. The font and layout make for a pleasantly readable text. The commentary offers much both to the inexperienced reader of the Greek and the scholar: Gregory's more extensive scholarly observations are cleverly separated from the reader's hints for translation by brackets, and students will easily be able to pass over them. The line number or numbers are printed in boldface type, as are the Greek words and phrases commented upon in each paragraph; it would have been easier and more convenient for the student using the commentary, however, if each individual Greek word or phrase had been separated into its own paragraph, though perhaps the limitations of space prevented such an arrangement. Gregory supplies helpful suggestions and plentiful references to grammatical constructions with notes keyed to Smyth's grammar, and her commentary is especially useful in helping the student understand the mysteries and nuances of Greek particles and idiomatic phrases, which inexperienced readers often omit from ignorance or frustration. For instance, a note on line 284 tells the student "καί γάρ is the regular formula linking an example to the general truth that it illustrates (Fraenkel on A. Ag. 1040)" (80). While much of Gregory's learned commentary may go over the heads of intermediate students, particularly her careful attention to meter and its significance, the more advanced student will appreciate her diligence in pointing out the metrical changes. Even in these sorts of notes, however, Gregory offers something to the less proficient reader: for example, in a section devoted to "lyric laments and lyric dialogue (154-215)", she points out that "anapests interspersed with dochmiacs" is "a strongly emotional meter" (66), which allows a student who is reading the Greek without scanning it to get a sense of the complexity and significance of the plethora of meters at the poet's disposal. An appendix on lyric meters is most helpful for more advanced undergraduates and graduate students as well as for scholars. The addition of a Greek-English lexicon would be invaluable and most appreciated in future editions.

Gregory's Hecuba manages to be both erudite and accessible, as practical for the student as for the scholar. With the publication of this edition, the Hecuba, which has seldom been used in American undergraduate classrooms, may become as popular as Plato's Apology.

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