Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.38

Jenny March (trans.), Sophocles, Electra.   Warminster:  Aris and Phillips, 2001.  Pp. 236.  ISBN 085668-575-5.  $59.99.  ISBN 085668-576-3.  $28.00.  

Reviewed by Vasiliki Giannopoulou, Somerville College, Oxford (
Word count: 775 words

Jenny March's (hereafter M) edition of Electra includes an introduction, a note on the edition, a bibliography, translation, commentary and an index. This book contains much well-balanced and intelligent discussion of the play, based on a very good survey of the relevant bibliography. M.'s frequent comparisons with the treatment of the myth by Aeschylus and Euripides will also be of great value to students of Greek tragedy.

M's introduction consists of two big sections, "The Myth" and "The Play". The first section treats three topics, namely the pre-dramatic tradition, the myth in Aeschylus and Euripides, and the myth in art. In the first M. concludes that the earlier tradition (Homer, Epic Cycle, Stesichorus, Simonides and Pindar) contains the main motifs of the dramatic treatment of the myth in the fifth century. Her discussion in this section is concise and to the point, and succeeds in putting the myth of the Atreidae in its pre-classical and classical context, both in literature and art -- a very welcome combination, indeed. The second section of the introduction deals with four matters, namely characters, dramatic design, a reading of the play and its date. M. argues against the darker interpretation of Electra of which the late Charles Segal was one of the most influential supporters (15-6). On this view, the positive feeling of the play is only seeming and therefore misleading. In fact, the matricide will be punished by the Furies, even though there is no sign of their actual arrival in the play. For M. this last point is a crucial argument against all dark interpretations: the fact that the matricide is presented as an act of just vengeance approved by the gods and the Chorus points to a positive interpretation (16-9). M. points out that the play ends in a state of suspension, with the killing of Aegisthus not quite accomplished. She concludes: "So the play ends with Electra too, in a sense, held, poised forever, in that transfiguring moment of joy just as she is about to receive her longed-for release after years of pain, her final deliverance" (20).

M.'s translation is designed to cater to those studying the play both in Greek and in English; it is reliable and reasonably literal. In places where M. translates more freely she often gives a literal rendering in the commentary to help those reading the Greek text.1 This aim is also fostered by the numerous grammatical observations elucidating difficult points; for example, her frequent references to Denniston's Greek Particles will be appreciated. M. does not give a translation of the corrupt line 691, but even if it is to be deleted it should be translated in brackets for the sake of Greekless readers, as is generally the practice in this series.

M. contributes a substantial commentary, often providing Homeric and tragic parallels and always paying particular attention to myth. There are small complaints to be made; it is for example not necessary for readers to be reminded three times that Pausanias travelled Greece in the second century A.D. (177, 193, 195). Although M. notes the importance of kairos in this play (for example, see her commentary on ll. 21-2 and ll. 1251-2), she does not give any information about the wider use of this concept in fifth-century literature and Trédé's good study on the subject (M. Trédé, Kairos: L' à-propos et l' occasion [Paris, 1992]) is left unmentioned. Similarly, one misses a reference to Stafford's recent study of personifications (E. Stafford, Worshipping Virtues: Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece [London and Swansea, 2000]), especially since M. acknowledges the significance of concepts such as nemesis2 and peitho in this play.3 The idea of mutability in human life is certainly "an important Sophoclean concept" (196), but not only Sophoclean; it is part of the tragic outlook on life, and is prominent in lyric poetry, Herodotus, Thucydides and Euripides.

The index of the volume is very good (with index items e.g. on audience expectation, gods, irony, recognition, and textual matters), but not as detailed or helpful as Garvie's index to his Ajax in the same series (A. F. Garvie, Sophocles: Ajax [Warminster, 1998]).

I noticed the following misaccented or unaccented words: in line 479 read "tharsos" with an acute accent above 'a'; in line 690 read "brabes" with circumflex above 'e'; on p. 217, l. 1333 read "sômata" with an acute accent above 'o'.

Apart from these typographical infelicities in the Greek, the book is well produced (but omit one 'of' on p. 208, l. 1151-9). All in all, M.'s edition achieves its purposes and serves well its target audience. It should be recommended as an excellent introduction to Sophocles' Electra.


1.   However, I think that at 561-2 "...alla s' espasen / peitho kakou pros andros..." M.'s translation ", the influence of that evil man ...lured you on" does not fully register the meaning of "espasen", literally "carried you away"; according to Kaibel "the verb describes the lack of will of a puppet that hangs on a string" (G. Kaibel, Sophokles Elektra [Leipzig und Berlin, 1911] -- my translation).
2.   See M.'s notes on l. 792 and 793. However, I find it odd that she does not point to the association between nemesis, "the goddess of retribution" (p. 191, l. 792) and "revenge / vengeance" in her commentary and index, especially since M. acknowledges that Orestes' revenge is "most certainly god-directed" (36-7n., p. 137, l. 21-2).
3.   I say this with reservation as it is not certain that Stafford's book appeared in time for M. to take it into account.

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