Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.23

Donald J. Mastronarde (ed.), Euripides: Medea. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. x, 431.  ISBN 0-521-64365-1.  $70.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-64386-4.  $26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington
Word count: 1071 words

Thirty years ago, when fresh from Chase and Philips and Plato's Crito my classmates and I concluded our introduction to ancient Greek with selections of Euripides' Medea, we had meager support. Denys Page's commentary was austere and too advanced and Bayfield's was quaint and only intermittently helpful. With these texts (and a wonderful teacher), we read most of the non-lyric sections of the play, but we struggled. Mastronarde, having demonstrated his superb command of the commentary genre in his edition of the Phoenissae (1994) as well as his ability to explain basic concepts of Greek grammar in Introduction to Attic Greek (1993), is ideally situated to produce a commentary intended "to make the play accessible in all its complication and sophistication to present-day students" (vii). It should be declared at the outset that he succeeds admirably in this goal.

This volume, the first commentary on a play of Euripides in the "Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics" series, totals 431 pages. The introduction runs over 100 pages, the commentary nearly 230, the rest of the volume taken up with Greek text, appendix, bibliography, and indices. The decision to allow this volume to be fuller than usual for this series was wise, as students will now have an extremely helpful and valuable starting point for their study of Greek tragedy. What is called the "General introduction" covers the expected territory -- Euripides's life and work, the structure, themes, and problems of the play, the circumstances of production, mythological background, the relation to Neophron's Medea (complete with that play's fragments), the play's later influence, and (briefly) the text and its history. In all these sections, Mastronarde is full in information, judicious in assessment, and clear in exposition. A student coming to Greek tragedy early in her career will learn much not only about Euripides's Medea, but also about the conventions of fifth-century Attic tragedy. One particular strength of the introductory material is its discussion of Euripidean innovation or lack thereof, which allows one to contextualize the play in its mytho-poetic traditions. On the relationship of this play to Neophron's of the same title, Mastronarde comes down (barely) on the side of Euripidean priority.

Following the General Introduction is a convenient section on "Structural Elements of Greek Tragedy." Unusually valuable (and tempting to many a student's xerox budget) are the sections "Introduction to Language and Style" (81-96) and "Introduction to Prosody and Metre" (97-108). The former covers not only the basic issues such as dialectal peculiarities and syntactical subtleties but also stylistic issues such as poetic diction, word order, and the relation between sentence and verse structures. Students will profit greatly from this overview and the equally helpful one on prosody and meter of both non-lyric and lyric verse. Mastronarde prints his own text with an abbreviated apparatus. The text differs from James Diggle's OCT text in substance in about two dozen places and in an equal number of places on matters of orthography and punctuation.

The commentary proper is very thorough. Matters of text, language, and meter receive appropriate attention. As one would expect from the author of a key study of ancient Attic stagecraft, issues of staging are given thoughtful analysis. Explanation of cultural practices (and their inversions), generic conventions, and discussion of the play's themes and broad interpretation are woven throughout the individual notes and scenes. Citations to standard reference works (Kühner-Gerth, e.g., as well as Smyth) are germane and useful. Frequent references to earlier texts, especially those providing a context for this drama, enrich the reader's interpretative framework. The commentary provides a brief prefatory overview of the key issues of each episode and choral song, valuable guides to the reader's discovery of this intricate drama. For each choral song, a metrical analysis is provided. Consistently throughout the commentary, Mastronarde offers detailed information. While he expresses his views on numerous key, and at times vexing, issues, he is more concerned with providing the reader with the tools for forming an independent judgment.

No issue in this play has generated more debate than Medea's rhesis of (in)decision (1019-80), particularly the authenticity of 1056-80 and the meaning of the concluding 1078-80. Mastronarde devotes an appendix to the question of authenticity of these lines and the interpretation of 1078-80. His conclusion on the authenticity, with which I agree, is to follow the papyrus, which omits, and Pierson, who deleted, 1062-63. On the notoriously challenging conclusion to Medea's speech, Mastronarde is less decisive, but prints dran mellon at 1078 and offers two possible interpretations of 1079.

Even in a commentary as rich and helpful as this one, there are places where opportunities for explication or observation were missed. I give a few examples. The striking alliteration in the opening lines (imitated in later authors) is unmentioned. Creon's remarkable "akratic" statement of 350 draws no comment, which is surprising in the context of Medea's commonly alleged akrasia later in the play. The homoioteleuton of 408-09 that concludes Medea's rhesis is extremely rare in Greek tragedy (unlike Shakespearean rhyming couplets to close a speech). An excellent discussion of the Aigeus scene ignores the lexical connection of the three-fold repetition of philos in the previous antistrophe and Aigeus's opening lines. In observing (on 866) that Medea feigns politeness by addressing him as Jason with her first word, it is worth noting that in the previous scene of unfeigned anger, Medea does not address him by name at all. No mention is made of the painful ambiguity of apheintai at 1002.

The effort to reach multiple audiences imagined for this commentary generates (inevitably?) some problems. Very basic information on only slightly unusual forms is repeated throughout the notes. And notes on simple crasis, e.g., appear more than a dozen times. At the same time, less seasoned readers may be confused by sophisticated discussions of textual cruces and other technical matters.

Production quality is, as typical of books in this series, very high. I noted no typographical errors and only one slip (actor prizes were first awarded in 449, not 447 [p.40]).

Any modern commentary on Medea will be measured implicitly or explicitly in comparison to Denys Page's now sixty-year-old work. While Page will continue to be valuable on specific points and contains some observations of general and lasting importance, Mastronarde's commentary will be preferred by novice and more experienced readers alike. This commentary is exemplary in its scope, insights, judgment, and clarity. I look forward eagerly to teaching with it.

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