Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.35

Kjeld Matthiessen (ed.), Euripides. Hekabe. Griechische Dramen.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2008.  Pp. x, 294.  ISBN 9783110188097.  $71.00.  

Reviewed by Justina Gregory, Smith College (
Word count: 1643 words

No fewer than three commentaries on Hekabe were published between 1991 and 2005.1 This new edition and commentary may thus seem a late arrival at the feast, but in fact Matthiessen has been engaged with the play for more than forty years. Upon the appearance of Studien zur Textüberlieferung der Hekabe des Euripides (Heidelberg, 1974) Matthiessen's research on the play's manuscript tradition entered the bloodstream, so to speak, of Euripidean studies and has been circulating there ever since; notably, Diggle's Oxford Classical Text of the play (1984) draws on Matthiessen's collations. Furthermore, Matthiessen summarized his interpretation of the play in Die Tragödien des Euripides (Munich, 2002). Euripideans will therefore encounter in this volume a mixture of the familiar and the fresh.

Matthiessen's Hekabe inaugurates a series of translated and annotated editions of Greek tragedy, published by de Gruyter under the editorial oversight of Jens Holzhausen and Bernd Seidensticker and evidently conceived as a German counterpart to the Aris and Phillips series of bilingual (Greek/ English or Latin/ English) texts. The double-paged layout is designed to eliminate paging back and forth between text and notes. On the left side appears a line-by-line prose translation reflecting the Greek as closely as possible. Beneath the translation is printed as much Greek text as the facing commentary will accommodate, and beneath the Greek text appears a selective apparatus criticus written in German that also offers linguistic and grammatical pointers for students reading the play in Greek. On the right side is a more wide-ranging commentary intended to be accessible to readers without Greek. Ancillary matter includes a translation of the play's two hypotheses, a list of textual divergences from Diggle, and a selective bibliography. Regrettably, there are no metrical schemes and no indices.

The double-paged format has the advantage of providing a great deal of information and instruction at a glance. The drawback is that the text is broken up into distractingly small segments; moreover, the distinction between the left and right commentaries is not consistently observed. At 783, for example, Euripides uses a causal genitive, and the right commentary lists five additional Euripidean examples of this construction-- examples that will hardly interest the notional audience. The format entails the risk that general readers may feel overwhelmed by the amount of detail bearing on the Greek text, even as scholars feel shortchanged.

Matthiessen's 45-page introduction covers Euripides' biography and the play's mythical background, structure and production, while also paying careful attention to interpretative issues. The account of Euripides' career reaches the traditional conclusion (p. 3) that the poet's relatively few victories (as compared to Sophocles') testify to Athenian reservations about his work. One could object that an alternate interpretation is possible: that the three finalists chosen by the eponymous archon to compete at the City Dionysia had already survived a rigorous selection process, and that to be guaranteed funding, production, and exposure for one's plays was an accomplishment more significant than winning first prize.

The introduction gives particular attention to the vexed question of the play's unity. Hekabe notoriously contains two distinct actions, and Matthiessen notes its episodic nature according to Aristotle's criteria (p. 12), even as he acknowledges that the fourth-century, prescriptive Poetics is not the ideal guide to fifth-century tragedy. Matthiessen regards the play as unified both by the corpse of Polydoros, which provides a tangible transition from the first part to the second) and by the figure of Hekabe herself (p. 41). He sees the two actions as unevenly weighted (p. 13), with Hekabe's vengeance on Polymestor occupying more lines and affecting the spectators more powerfully than the sacrifice of Polyxene; the ancient spectators, in his view, would not have been disturbed by the young woman's death but would have accepted human sacrifice as a given of the myth. This interpretation does not give sufficient attention to the doubts cast on Polyxene's sacrifice within the play. It is not the case, as Matthiessen claims (p. 16), that Hekabe alone objects to her daughter's fate; when the chorus leader summarizes the debate in the Greek assembly, it becomes clear that sentiments for and against the sacrifice were "about equal" (ἴσαι πως, 131) until Odysseus intervened to sway the crowd. The anachronistic references to fifth-century procedures that cluster around the sacrifice of Polyxene--the allusion at 287-88, for example, to the possibility of reconsidering a decision previously voted by the assembly--would surely have encouraged the spectators to regard the sacrifice from the perspective of their own time. Polyxene's death would thus have been more disturbing to the ancient spectators than Matthiessen acknowledges--a conclusion he should in fact welcome as contributing to the overarching tragic effect (which he emphasizes, p. 41) of the play.

I have no quarrel with Matthiessen's interpretation of the Polymestor-action. As he observes (p. 20), the king of Thrace is presented from the outset as a consummate villain, and his small sons are not sufficiently characterized (by being allowed to speak for themselves or by having other characters comment on their youthful innocence, two pathos-inducing techniques exploited by Euripides in Medea) for the audience to experience their deaths as wrenching. I also find much to applaud in Matthiessen's account of the main character. Reacting against critical assessments of Hekabe as a monster of vengeance whose prophesied transformation at the end of the play into "a dog with burning eyes" (1265) symbolizes her loss of humanity, Matthiessen stresses her consistency from beginning to end of the play: the same energy that leads her to argue strenuously with Odysseus on Polyxene's behalf (251-95) and to express the wish that Helen could share her daughter's fate (441-43) manifests itself in her vengeance on Polymestor. Matthiessen does not regard Hekabe's shift from suffering to vengeful action as anomalous, for he can point to other Euripidean female protagonists who undergo the same transformation: Medea, Alkmene, Phaidra (p. 23). He emphasizes what an accomplishment it is for Hekabe to gain Agamemnon's even partial cooperation in her scheme of vengeance, suggests that her revenge would have struck contemporary spectators as problematic only insofar as she is a woman and a slave, and interprets her death as both victory and liberation. If there is anything lacking in his account of the central character, it is that he underplays the psychic cost of her suffering and loss as revealed at the end of the play. "Too long a sacrifice/ will make a stone of the heart," says Yeats in "Easter 1916;" few characters in ancient literature illustrate this outcome as powerfully as Euripides' Hekabe.

As a textual critic Matthiessen is steadfastly conservative; repeatedly he rejects emendations or re-orderings championed by Diggle. At 824, does Hekabe worry that it will be "useless" (κενόν, as per the manuscripts) or "irrelevant" (ξένον, Nauck's emendation, adopted by Diggle)? for her to mention Agamemnon's sexual relationship with Kassandra? Matthiessen opts for the former, noting that the emendation does not improve the sense. At 1162 the Trojan women who have warmly welcomed Polymestor abruptly seize and immobilize him; do they act in the manner "of enemies" (πολεμίων, as per the manuscripts) or "of octopuses" (πολυπόδων, Verrall's emendation, adopted by Diggle)? Again Matthiessen opts for the manuscript reading, citing Euripidean parallels to justify his choice. He retains the traditional ordering of the lines at 415-20 and defends the general reflections at 599-602 and 831-32--all excellent decisions in my view (it's to be expected that I would think so, since they coincide with the choices I made in my own edition). Sometimes to be sure, he defends the indefensible (that is, he opts for readings I rejected): the awkward double comparison involving ὁποῖα and ὅπως at 398, for example, or (at 974-75) Hekabe's self-contradictory explanation of why she cannot look Polymestor in the eye. At other times Matthiessen seems excessively laissez-faire, as when he assumes despite striking metrical parallels that there is no responsion between Hecuba's monody (154-74) and Polyxene's (197-210). Matthiessen's textual choices are carefully considered, however, and he usually (though not invariably) explains his reasoning. His Hekabe is less tidy and stylish than Diggle's, but it may well be closer to what Euripides wrote.

Matthiessen's learning and experience are in evidence throughout. On easy terms with the entire classical tradition, he cites Scaliger from 1561 as readily as Hose from 2008.2 His approach is refreshingly relaxed; rather than belabor every detail he is content to let some problems remain unresolved, as when he comments (in connection with the chorus' puzzling description of reflections in a mirror at 925) that he "prefer[s] to let the expression stand, in all its mysteriousness." He has a preference for straightforwardness that extends even to punctuation; at 875, for example, he decides against the dashes that would mark τηάρσει as parenthetical. Common sense and suspicion of what he deems over-subtlety is a hallmark of his method. In the introduction he evinces skepticism that some of the secondary themes detected by critics (Schlesier3 on Dionysiac elements, for example, or Kovacs and Gregory4 on the role of the winds) are relevant or significant. In the commentary itself he warns (on 1017 ff. and 1267 f.) against attempts to see inside characters' minds or reconstruct their histories. He expresses doubt (e.g. on 1003f.) that the spectators would have been capable of recalling prior allusions or putting together the verbal patterns detected by ingenious critics--but surely this is to underestimate the sensitivity to language of the fifth-century spectators, denizens of a culture that was still primarily oral. Matthiessen's consistent and laudable aim is to reconstruct the perspective of the contemporary spectator, but as happens to many a critic, that reconstructed perspective coincides with the critic's own insights and limitations.

This is not the major edition of the play Euripideans have been waiting for; that, according to Matthiessen (p. 45), is still to come. In the meantime this commentary will ensure that Hekabe continues to receive the attention it deserves.


1.   C. Collard, Hecuba (Warminster, 1991); J. Gregory, Hecuba (Atlanta, 1999); K. Synodinou, Hekabe (Athens, 2005).
2.   J. C. Scaliger, Poetices Libri Septem (Lyon, 1561); M. Hose, Euripides, Der Dichter der Leidenschaften (Munich, 2008).
3.   R. Schlesier, "Die Bakchen des Hades," Metis 3 (1988) 111-35.
4.   D. Kovacs, Euripidea Altera (Leiden, 1996) 63-64; J. Gregory, Hecuba (Atlanta, 1999) xxix-xxxi.

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