Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.47

Thomas A. Schmitz (ed.), Sophokles. Elektra. Griechische Dramen.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. ix, 271.  ISBN 9783110188240.  $70.00.  


Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (patrick.finglass@nottingham.ac.uk)

Sophocles’ Electra has long been in need of a good commentary. This new edition provides a fine introduction, text, translation, and commentary which students of the play will find most useful.

After a one-page ‘Vorwort der Herausgeber’ explaining the aims of the series (to make Greek tragedy accessible to people with little or no Greek), there follows a two-page ‘Vorwort’ by the author, which sets the edition in the context of scholarship on the play; rightly he begins this brief survey with the 1849 edition by Schneidewin, the first truly modern Sophoclean commentator and a touchstone for all subsequent work on that poet. The thirty-eight page ‘Einführung’ is divided into eight sections: ‘Elektra und der Atridenmythos’, ‘Griechische Mythen’, ‘Der Elektramythos vor der Tragödie’, ‘Der Mythos bei Aischylos und Sophokles’, ‘Zweimal Elektra: Sophokles und Euripides’, ‘Die Elektra des Sophokles’, ‘Elektra in der modernen Rezeption’, ‘Zur Überlieferung des Textes’. The text then follows, with an accompanying translation, and commentary: at nearly two hundred pages, this is the heart of the volume. Bringing up the rear are a list of distinctive textual choices found in this edition, metrical analyses, and a ‘Literaturverzeichnis’ containing well over four hundred items.

Schmitz’s introduction is helpful throughout. The first section, ‘Elektra und der Atridenmythos’, gives a brief account of the basic details of the myth, accompanied by a family tree; the second, ‘Griechische Mythen’, some reflections on the nature of Greek myth and its place within ancient literature and society. These discussions underline Schmitz’s desire to make his book accessible to people unfamiliar with Greek tragedy. The next section, ‘Der Elektramythos vor der Tragödie’, looks briefly (in under two pages) at Homer’s treatment of the story, as well as those of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, Xanthus, Stesichorus, and Pindar. Just a bit more here would have been welcome: appreciating the originality of the presentation of the myth in tragedy does require attention to the archaic period. In particular, the absence of any treatment of the myth in the visual arts (beyond a couple of bibliographical references) is a shortcoming; we have so little material from this period that no-one can afford to concentrate on one type of evidence to the exclusion of others.

With section four, ‘Der Mythos bei Aischylos und Sophokles’, we reach tragedy itself. Schmitz raises the important question of how many of Sophocles’ audience would have seen Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, either at its first performance or in reperformance; on the latter subject Anna Lamari’s article ‘Aeschylus and the Beginning of Tragic Reperformances’ (TC 7 (2015) 189–206) was presumably too late for him to consult. He goes on to identify similarities between Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers and Sophocles’ Electra, enough to show that the former was an important influence on the latter and would have been present in the minds of the spectators as they watched Sophocles’ play; but then he ponders the differences, which would have been all the more apparent given the links between the dramas already pointed out. Section five, ‘Zweimal Elektra: Sophokles und Euripides’ wisely compares the Sophoclean and Euripidean plays without attempting to settle the question of their relative dating, a question probably insoluble on present evidence. Then (in ‘Die Elektra des Sophokles’) comes a detailed consideration of Sophocles’ drama on its own: a table setting out which characters are present for which scenes is followed by a plot summary and an account of how the roles were divided among the three actors. This section concludes with a discussion of major lines of interpretation from scholars over the years, and the metatheatrical elements that the play contains. ‘Elektra in der modernen Rezeption’ (section seven) examines the reception of the play from 1570 to 2006 (the extensive ancient reception of the play, however, goes unmentioned); finally, ‘Zur Überlieferung des Textes’ gives a brief account of how the play made it from Sophocles’ time to ours.

The text, apparatus, translation, and commentary follow. On each double-page spread, the translation is found on the top left, with the Greek underneath, and the apparatus (if there is one) at the bottom of the page; the right-hand page is devoted to the commentary. In a review of a previous volume in this series (see BMCR 2013.05.16) I commented on the drawbacks of this layout; but this has been improved in the present volume, in that the Greek text is in a slightly larger font, and the apparatus is generally dispensed with. Schmitz is a thoughtful editor of the text. His approach is on the whole intelligently conservative; he is not afraid to argue in favour of the paradosis even when other modern editors have generally printed a conjecture, yet he is willing to emend when he thinks that intervention is required. Such decisions are duly explained in the apparatus under the text, but he rightly makes no attempt to construct a full apparatus giving the manuscript evidence for each textual variant; that kind of detail is not what Schmitz’s intended readership requires. The facing commentary deals intelligently with matters of literary interpretation and staging, making good reference to the secondary literature but never merely directing readers to it in place of giving an analysis in the commentary itself.

The metrical analyses that close the volume are introduced by an account of the relevant metres, a feature which those new to metre will appreciate. The thorough but not overburdened ‘Literaturverzeichnis’ should be a first port of call for anyone interested in the bibliography to this drama. I did wonder, however, about the absence of a list of abbreviations: how many readers who need the kind of guidance that Schmitz rightly offers in this book will be able to track down what ‘MW’, ‘PMG’, and ‘GEF’ mean, for example? Moreover, referring readers to a scholarly Loeb edition, such as Most’s Hesiod or Campbell’s Greek lyric, would be a better idea than directing them towards editions of fragmentary texts that lack a translation. But this was the only place where better consideration of the target audience was in order; in general the book is extremely well targeted.

Schmitz’s book can thus be warmly recommended. For any undergraduate class that can read German, his edition is well ahead of the competition; and graduate students wishing to improve their understanding of tragedy and German simultaneously could do a lot worse than to work their way through this useful product of unpretentious labour.

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