Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.40

Robin Mitchell-Boyask (ed.), Approaches to Teaching the Dramas of Euripides.   New York:  Modern Language Association of America, 2002.  Pp. xiv + 256.  ISBN 0-87352-769-0.  $37.50 (hb).  ISBN 0-87352-770-4.  $18.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David J. Schenker, University of Missouri (
Word count: 1444 words

This is a practical volume, a tool designed for a specific purpose, or at least to address a particular need. So, does it get the job done? Yes, and in a timely fashion (not too long, and most of it a quick read) and well within budget. There is something of use here for all teachers of Euripides, whether "beginning instructors and nonspecialists" (the primary audience) or "more-established teachers and scholars"; whether your students are novices reading one play in a Great Books survey or graduate students in a Euripides seminar. To that large group of instructors, particularly those of you teaching Euripides this term (trying to put together tomorrow's class?), my advice, in the spirit of practicality, is that you stop reading this review now and go get the book. Take from it what you need -- it is eminently (and designedly) stealable from. And use it with confidence: though none of us will agree with its every sweeping statement about Euripides, or have the nerve to try every approach suggested, nothing in this volume is outrageous or wrong.

Those of you still with me comprise a small group. My own experience, as well as anecdotal evidence from discussions with colleagues, confirms what Mitchell-Boyask says about the place of Euripides in the curriculum today: he's hot, and getting hotter, not only in Classics courses, but in an increasing variety of humanistic and social scientific venues. There is a place for arguing about the value of grinding ever-newer lenses for seeing Euripides, but not here. The fact is that Euripides is indeed congenial to many current academic trends; his plays are turning up in a widening gyre of academic departments and disciplines; and it doesn't hurt that students seem to take to the stuff, too. Thus it is that we sometimes find "our" plays in the hands of those who might not know quite what to do with them. Hence, the primary need for this volume. For classicists teaching these courses, the book might serve only as a compendium of pedagogical possibilities, conveniently collected with up-to-date references; and that's a big help. But for our colleagues in related disciplines, especially those coming to Euripides for the first or second time, this volume clearly and cogently introduces the information they need.

The MLA series (Approaches to Teaching World Literature) dictates, to a certain extent, the form: an introductory section by the editor called "Materials," followed by "Approaches," consisting of essays contributed on a wide range of techniques and problems.

In "Materials," Boyask-Mitchell compresses into 30 pages information about available texts and translations, recommended readings and other resources (on film, computer, etc.) for both students and instructors, and an epilogue on the role of women in Euripides. In effect, this amounts to a richly annotated bibliography, informed not only by the editor's insights but by the comments and suggestions of some 34 Greek drama instructors (listed near the back of the book) who have been surveyed by the editor. Many of the areas covered here (such as translations, film versions, and the role of women) receive more detailed treatment in the essays that follow.

The essays in the "Approaches" section are all brief (16 essays in 165 pages, divided into four subsections, with a brief introduction by the editor) and easily accessible. In a project of this sort, overlap is inevitable, and is especially notable here in discussions of the cultural, intellectual, and political context of the plays, the realities of and potentials for stage production, and the role and status of women. Not everyone will benefit from every essay, but every essay has something to offer someone. I list them here in the order they appear in the book, adding only some few explanatory comments about the content of each.

Practical and Theoretical Considerations: An Overview

"Euripides in Translation," by Deborah H. Roberts. A thematic survey of translations through the ages, with theoretical comment on the practice of translation, concluding with a consideration of some translations of Euripides now available.

"Modern Views of Euripides," by Ann M. Michelini. A brief summary of parts of her well-received book,1 updated with a look at scholarship on Euripides in the last two decades and three pages of annotated bibliography, arranged by play.


"Moving Icons: Teaching Euripides in Film," by Marianne McDonald. An extensive and creative list of films relevant to the study of Euripides, with arguments for the value of taking class time to show and talk about such films.

"Performing Euripides," by Mary-Kay Gamel. A variety of ways to include "performance studies" in the teaching of Euripides: from focusing on ancient performance conditions to critiquing film and stage versions, in-class performance and direction of passages, with immediately usable suggestions throughout.

"Euripidean Stagecraft," by Michael R. Halleran. A brief overview of some of the central features of ancient stage production; most welcome are the references to particular scenes, illustrations of the many ways these theatrical realities are essential to our understanding of the plays.

Specific Classroom Approaches

"Outlining Your Own Greek Drama: A Creative Project," by Adele J. Haft. A detailed description (handout included) of a project that requires students to write and perform their own tragedies. Lots of room for fun, creativity, and poetry here; and based on enough close technical consideration of ancient "models" to satisfy even the stuffiest of us.

"The Importance of Debate in Euripides -- and of Debating Euripides," by Gary S. Meltzer. An appreciation of the role of debate within Euripidean plays, with particular attention to the intellectual controversies of late fifth-century Athens, underlies the success of classroom debates (sample prompt included) about Euripidean plays.

"Teaching Euripides, Teaching Mythology: Ideology and the Hero," by Paul Allen Miller. A model for teaching "how myth functions in society" by considering different versions, by Aeschylus and Euripides, of the same basic narrative, in this example the story of the house of Atreus.2

Specific Plays and Issues

"The Poetics in Euripides' Green Room?" by Dale Grote. Parts of Aristotle's Poetics (plus a transcription of one of "Aristotle's" lectures on poetry), summarized and annotated, toward the end of helping students construct a definition of tragedy (and feel less hostility toward the philosopher).

"At Home and Not at Home: Euripides as a Comic Character," by Laura McClure. The use of Aristophanes (especially his "Euripides plays": Acharnians, Frogs, and Thesmophoriazusae -- referred to here as The Poet and the Women) as a starting point for considering ancient views of several aspects of Euripidean tragedy.

"Myth and Allusion in Sophocles's Women of Trachis and Euripides's Herakles," by Mark W. Padilla. How, and with what effect, playwrights creatively adapted their plays from the traditional mythic material. Exemplified here by two tragic treatments of the Heracles story. "The Art of the Deal: Teaching Folktale Types and Motifs in Euripides's Alcestis," by Monica Silveira Cyrino. A reading of the play that emphasizes the dramatic tension between the inevitability of death (a tragic view) and the possibility of tricking or defeating death (a common folktale motif).

"Women and the Medea," by Laurel Bowman. The character of Medea as illumination (per exemplum negativum) of the status and role of women in fifth-century Athens, and vice-versa; useful reminders about how to read Medea in her cultural context.

"Hecuba and the Political Dimension of Greek Tragedy," by Justina Gregory. A reading of Hecuba that exemplifies the ability of tragedy both to uphold and to question "the city's values." In particular, anachronistic intrusions of fifth-century Athens into the Homeric world of the play sharpen audience awareness of both time periods.

"On Reading Euripides' Hippolytus," by Ian Storey, Martin Boyne, and Arlene Allan. A collection of approaches to the play, from the traditional to the "more controversial," each with annotated bibliography.

"Teaching Euripides' Bacchae," by Stephen Esposito. A "diachronic literary analysis" of the play, followed, more briefly, by good comments about the progression of both chorus and Dionysus toward increasing violence, anger, and (excessive?) retribution.

A final note, foreshadowed by my scare quotes in paragraph two above. Whose texts are these anyway? The appearance of Euripides further and further afield from his old home in Classics means, most importantly, that more people are reading Euripides, and that can only be good news for Classicists. This volume, and those like it, is an outstretched hand to those on the margins wanting in; but more than a gesture, it offers real help where it's needed most, in the classroom. I am grateful that the MLA has seen fit to engage in this project, and to engage Classicists to see it through. Those of us in the APA, especially as we turn our attention increasingly to outreach, might take some pointers.3


1.   Ann N. Michelini. Euripides and the Tragic Tradition. Madison: U of Wisconsin P. 1987. Several of the other essays also derive from larger works; since all are noted in the volume, I won't cite them all here.
2.   The brevity of this essay, and its focus on Euripides, might give the unfortunate impression that Homer and Aeschylus are interesting in a mythology class only as the stolidly conservative foils for the brilliance of Euripides. While the general outlines of the model presented here are certainly useful, even novices, in my experience, appreciate the subtle questionings and reappraisals of heroic values in the Homeric epics, and they are quick to recognize the less than "triumphant" aspects of the end of the Oresteia.
3.   It's a pleasure to read such a clean book; I found only one typo: on p. 26, line 14, Webster's book treats the "lost" plays, not the "last" ones.

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