BMCR 1995.08.03

Euripides, Phoenissae

, Phoenissae. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries 29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. viii, 673 pages. ISBN 9780521410717 $90.00.

Two decades of work on Phoenissae by Donald Mastronarde culminate in this volume, which was preceded by Studies in Euripides’ Phoinissai (diss. Toronto, 1974), The Textual Tradition of Euripides’ Phoinissai (Berkeley, 1982, with J.M. Bremer), and a highly informative Teubner edition (1988). The scale of this work is not unmatched by the play’s difficulties of text and interpretation. As one of the Byzantine Triad Phoen. is represented in some 115 medieval manuscripts, and M. lists 34 papyri with ancient text-fragments or testimonia, more than for any other Greek tragedy except Orestes. Some think (though M. does not) that the structure of the play Euripides wrote has been marred by substantial interpolations. Commentaries have been rare: nothing in English between A.C. Pearson and J.U. Powell (1909, 1911) and Elizabeth Craik (1988), all useful in their own terms but not approaching the scale of M.’s. The obstacles have tended to discourage study of the play as drama, poetry or cultural product. This book will do a great deal to assist it, and the consistently high quality of M.’s scholarship will make it an indispensable basis for all future work.

M.’s Introduction runs to 52 pages with sections on the play’s structure and tragic character, its date and companion plays, features of the original production, the Thebaid myth, the relevance to Phoen. of the story of Chrysippus, the problem of interpolation, and the text. Text and Apparatus follow, not here accompanied by the hypotheses, running commentary on stage action, or separate citations of testimonia which M. provided in the Teubner edition. The 500-page Commentary is on a scale which accommodates extensive dramatic and thematic analyses (especially in synoptic comments on each section of the play and on several subsections, speeches, etc.) as well as full discussion of textual, metrical, lexical, syntactic and stylistic matters and of the problems of interpolation. The volume closes with a brief Appendix on the poetic topography of Thebes (including a sketch-map), a ten-page Bibliography, and Indexes of Passages, Subjects and Greek words.

The Introduction includes an account of M.’s general view of the play and some parameters for historical and literary interpretation. Like other recent critics he is concerned to understand Phoen. in its own terms, seeing its ‘open’ form as purposefully diverging from the fierce concentration on individuals which characterises ‘classic’ Tragedy. Euripides dramatises the working out of the destinies of the city of Thebes and of the Labdacid family as a dense historical texture within which are woven the morally and rationally imperfect actions of individuals, hampered by lack of insight and driven by conflicting obligations towards self, kin and homeland. The structure of the play separates the city, which survives, from its doomed royal family whose members are dead or outcast by the end. (It might be noted that the legend of the Epigoni and the ultimate destruction of Thebes are unadvertised in this play—by contrast with, e.g., Eur. Supplices—just as there is no focus on the consequences for the Argive side and no Ismene to dilute the finality of the play’s ending.) In discussing the mythical background (Introd. IV-V), M. usefully stresses the limits of our knowledge of the oral and epic traditions about Thebes while showing how recognition of the choices or innovations made by Euripides can illuminate the play. Most notably, Euripides has made the fraternal quarrel thoroughly ambivalent by allowing Polynices the justification of having been double-crossed over the (perhaps invented) agreement to share the kingship, by giving Polynices a sympathetic scene with his mother in a (probably invented) secret visit to Thebes, by stressing Jocasta’s love for both her sons but also her recognition of their shared foolishness, by detaching the final duel from the city’s repulse of the Argive onslaught, and by attributing the salvation of the city not to Eteocles but to the self-sacrificing figure of Menoeceus (also an invented motif in this mythical context, as M. persuasively argues against those who recognise it in the death of Creon’s son Megareus, Soph. Ant. 1303). M. remains sceptical of attempts to identify the other plays of Pho.‘s trilogy, including the collocation of Oenomaus, Chrysippus and Phoen. in a thematically coherent trilogy.

M. has retained almost completely the text of the Teubner edition, listing only a handful of corrections and minor changes on p. 51. The Apparatus has, besides needed corrections, a reduced volume of information and a simplified way of citing the manuscripts. Most of the Teubner’s sigla for families and sub-families are omitted, leaving only the group-designations for all of the up to 34 mss. cited (Omega) or almost all (Omega dotted), all veteres (omega) or almost all (omega dotted), all recentiores (rho) or some ( r), three ‘Moschopoulean’ mss. (chi) or two of these ( x), six Thoman-Triclinian mss. (zeta) or some of these ( z). (M. has abandoned the association of AMt with chi, which gave group Xi in the Teubner edition, while still sensing some common background: p. 50 n.1). Papyrus readings are not specifically cited where they agree with the mss. in a reading accepted by M. (p. 52). The result is pleasingly neat and comprehensible, and can be supplemented as needed from the Teubner and from James Diggle’s new Oxford text (1993).

Inevitably M.’s text will be compared with Diggle’s (the two editors have corresponded regularly: p. viii), which was preceded by textual notes in SIFC 7 (1989) 196-206 and a review of the Teubner text in CR 40 (1990) 6-11, and influenced by C. Willink’s argument (discussed below) for identifying a series of interpolations concerning Antigone, Haemon and Polynices’ burial, PCPS 216 (1990) 182-201. Useful comments on the text also appeared in M.L. West’s review of the Teubner edition, CP 85 (1990), 311-7. While retaining the Teubner text in all essentials M. airs doubts and conflicts of opinion in the Commentary. This sometimes results in an impression of inconclusiveness or virtual change of mind, but this openness is wholly understandable given the difficult and controversial nature of the text; there is much that has to be recognised as unsettled. M. consciously leans towards non-interventionism as an editor, whereas Diggle handles the text more aggressively. The two editions together present a striking contrast, but they also set very instructively the limits within which the criticism of this text should now be carried on. My inexhaustive comparison found differences at about 175 points ranging from punctuation to passages excised; M. deletes 64 lines including the last 30, Diggle 446 lines including the last 185 and all of M.’s deletions; M. obelises 16 times, all at points where D. obelises, emends or deletes, and D. exceeds this even on top of his other interventions; M. prints the/a transmitted text at over 40 places where D. prints an emendation, and follows the majority of mss. at least 15 times where D. prefers a variant. These numbers do however exaggerate the reality insofar as both editors constantly recognise difficulties while M.’s threshold for intervention is the higher and his willingness to give the benefit of the doubt the greater. D. athetises all of the conclusion of the play (1582-1766) while allowing that it may include some Euripidean verses, whereas M. leaves all but four verses of 1582-1736 unathetised while identifying (pp. 593, 628) other problems suggestive of interpolation. Although I am often finally persuaded by D.’s choices against M.’s (when I feel ready to make up my mind at all), decision is always assisted by M.’s alertness to the problems and scrupulous reviewing of arguments on both sides.

The problems of interpolation in this play and the history of their study are helpfully discussed by M. in his Introduction, pp. 39-49. They are such that it might well be useful to employ a three-level notation (authentic / suspect / inauthentic: green / yellow / red?) like Diggle’s four-level notation for IA which Euripides left incomplete. (Craik indeed does so in her edition of Pho., but not to the same effect since unlike M. she believes that Euripides’ own text of this play is in principle irrecoverable.) Small-scale and isolated problems are too numerous to be reviewed here, though some are mentioned in my notes below. Against suspicions of large-scale interpolation M. defends the text systematically, seeking in general to show that the suspected passages are not in conflict with the dramatic design of the play but are on the contrary characteristic of it, and that difficulties of language, style and coherence have been exaggerated by critics seeking to discredit whole passages although they may sometimes justify minor surgery. The least endangered of the seven such passages (or groups of passages) under suspicion, and the only one retained by Diggle, is the Teichoskopia (88-201) in which Antigone views the invading army from the palace-roof in a lyric conversation with an old retainer. This is convincingly defended and explained in terms of dramatic purpose by M. (pp. 168-173), and I have nothing to add here, nor on the Messenger’s description of the attacking champions (1104-40) which will remain suspect though M. continues to give it the benefit of the doubt (cf. Phoenix 32 [1978] 105-128: he is now “more willing than before to concede that the style is less interesting and impressive than Eur.’s best work”, p. 456). M.’s arguments against the deletion (largely Fraenkel’s) of Tiresias’s explanation to Creon of Oedipus’s history and the effect of his curse on his sons (868-880, 886-890) are persuasive at least in the point that the length of the speech serves the purpose of suspense and that something of the kind is needed where 868-880 stands since a direct transition from 867 to 881 is too abrupt. M.’s similar defence of 886-890 I find less cogent, and it remains possible that the admitted difficulties within 868-880 indicate some reworking or other corruption there.

M.’s very careful discussion of Creon’s arrival before the Messenger-scene and his presence during it (1308ff.: pp. 512-5) convincingly refutes several of the reasons which have been used to justify eliminating him here, and shows conclusively that in the text as it stands Creon is not to be supposed to have brought Menoeceus’s body with him. But I am still left with an irreducible residue of doubt over the Messenger’s not addressing Creon, Creon’s not responding to the Messenger’s report, and his silence for more than 200 lines between 1356 and 1583. As usual, M. gives full recognition to these difficulties, but he concludes that Creon “is important enough to be brought in to reveal his grief [over Menoeceus], to mouth pieties about the treatment of the dead [which M. regards as ironic preparation for Creon’s later refusal of burial to Polynices], and to greet the [Messenger’s] news as a further burden of woe, but not important enough to be addressed within the rhesis or to be allowed to react to it prior to the entrance of Antigone or to join in or interrupt Antigone’s lyric lament” (p. 514). This rather delicate balancing act may be tenable, but two considerations not discussed by M. may make it still more insecure: (1) The identity of the Chorus in this play, as virtual outsiders, makes the exclusion of Creon from the body of the Messenger-scene, if he is present, all the more surprising. Supplices and Andromache, which M. compares by way of justification, are different in this respect. (2) When the Chorus ask for the Messenger’s detailed report they ask only about the deaths of the brothers, which may suggest that Euripides himself planned the revelation of Jocasta’s death as a later shock (1455ff.); the attention to Jocasta at the beginning of the scene (1318-9, 1347-53) would then be inappropriate, and Creon’s presence less needed. (Compare the complete absence of preparation for the narration of Megara’s death in HF (996ff.), where throughout the preceding scenes including the initial announcement of the ‘messenger’ only Heracles’ killing of his sons is mentioned.) [[SEE ADDENDUM AT BOTTOM OF THIS REVIEW]]

The closing scenes of the play, 1582-1766, in which Creon banishes Oedipus and bans the burial of Polynices, and Antigone protests unsuccessfully against the ban, then renounces her expected marriage with Haemon and resolves to accompany Oedipus into exile, are the most extensive of these problems, and the hardest. M. deletes 1737-66 as inconsistent with what precedes, plus a few isolated lines earlier, and thinks that 1595-1614 (Oedipus relating his life’s experience) have been reworked. He makes a persuasive case for seeing the banishment of Oedipus as an integral part of Euripides’ dramatic design (but the general mediocrity of 1584-1624 may mean that we may have even less of Euripides’ text here than M. thinks, while on the other hand 1683-1702 and 1708-36 could well be substantially sound. I cannot share M.’s benevolence towards the Oedipus-at-Colonus motif in 1703-7!). As for the motif of Polynices’ burial, M.’s main arguments are that it is not in contradiction with the exile motif since Antigone abandons the burial in order to share the exile (true), that the burial has been made an issue by 1447-50 even if 774-7 are deleted (true to some extent), and that the problem of burial is the natural culmination of Antigone’s role in the play. One might ask, however, why Euripides dramatised this conflict (in anything more than the allusive fashion of 1447-50) only to have it end in Antigone’s failing to bury the corpse, Creon’s decree apparently prevailing, and Haemon ostentatiously left with no wife and an indeterminate future; and whether Antigone’s role might not be thought to culminate sufficiently in her taking over Jocasta’s place as Oedipus’s guardian. In addition, the abrupt switches between the two motifs remain puzzling. 1639 might easily follow 1626 but is separated from it by Creon’s announcement of the burial-ban. In 1643-4 Antigone demands justification of the banishment of Oedipus, but she gets virtually no answer on this point as the debate over the burial of Polynices ensues. Oedipus at 1685 tells Antigone to “stay and be happy” when she has just said that she will kill Haemon if she is forced to marry him. And at 1697-1701 he bids farewell to his sons’ corpses without noticing that Polynices’ corpse is to be dishonored. The malaise of the Exodos does seem to me to be more deep-seated than M. allows, and possibly due to the intrusion (with some contextual adjustment) of those parts which dramatise the banning of burial for Polynices. Euripides may have included the ban, and Antigone’s renunciation of her betrothal to Haemon, but he may have handled them much more deftly, without making them a substantial issue in the action of the Exodos, and without necessarily needing an appearance by Creon.

If this were so, it would put in a slightly different light the references earlier in the play to the betrothal and the burial, especially in the speech where Eteocles announces to Creon his ‘testamentary dispositions’ concerning Antigone and Polynices. Willink has deleted 754-765 and 774-8 and argued that they are the work of the same interpolator who (on this view) introduced these topics into the Exodos for the sake of mythological orthodoxy. He also suggests that 690-6 are an interpolation containing preparation for the ‘testamentary dispositions’, and that 944-6 are an interpolation consequent on the false introduction of Haemon into the play. These last two points are not so essential (see below on 944-6). As for Eteocles’ speech, Willink’s argument that the topics of betrothal and burial stand or fall here and in the Exodos together holds true if we must choose for or against their presence in the text as they stand—i.e., with dramatic prominence, and linked by references back from the Exodos (1587-8, 1646) to the earlier speech. But one can easily see how they might stand in the Exodos in the less prominent way I have suggested (which might satisfy M.’s insistence on their thematic appropriateness) while falling from Eteocles’ speech as I am inclined to think they must (although M.’s reservations about this deserve very careful consideration).

I have concentrated on the major problems of interpolation because it is these above all that hamper interpretation of the play. I hope this will not obscure the fact that M.’s Commentary as a whole is extremely rich—and impossible to appreciate fully except through continued use. What follows is merely an assortment of comments and suggestions on points where I have so far found something to add.

The book is finely produced, and I have noticed only very minor errors: p. 51 ὀδοντοφυα) (read -ᾶ p. 605 ταλαίπορόν (read -πωρ). In Erechtheus F 360.18 (50.18 Austin, cited in 998 n.) it is better to read ὕπερ δοῦναι. The Bibliography oddly omits the article on Phoen. by Elizabeth Rawson ( GRBS 11 [1990], 109-127) lauded by M. on p. 4 n. 4.

In my review of Mastronarde’s Phoenissae I carelessly argued as if the couplet 1354-5 introducing the Messenger’s account of the fatal duel necessarily belongs to the Chorus. On the contrary, the transmitted text gives it to Creon along with 1352-3. The reassignment to the Chorus is part of the case made by di Benedetto and Fraenkel for eliminating Creon’s part in this scene—a case not accepted by Mastronarde. The possibility that Euripides planned the scene so as to mention Jocasta’s suicide only at 1427ff. remains interesting in my opinion, although Fraenkel’s argument does not extend quite so far (see Zu den Phoenissen 83-84).