BMCR 2004.10.24

Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Euripides

, Euripides. Oxford readings in classical studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. viii, 411 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0198721854. $27.50 (pb).

Anyone who has used one of the expanding series of Oxford Readings in Classical Studies will appreciate their usefulness. Speaking as one who hopes to co-edit a volume in the series, I can testify to the difficulty of meeting the editorial remit: to provide ‘students and scholars with a representative selection of the best and most influential articles on a particular author, work, or subject.’ ‘Best’ and ‘most influential’ are not necessarily co-extensive categories: each is open to substantial debate (though influence is perhaps less debatable than quality), and, with an author like Euripides, the task of making any selection, let alone a ‘representative’ one, must be well-nigh impossible. I won’t here raise the question — raised in earlier BMCR reviews of volumes in this series — of what assumptions lie behind the idea of a canon of articles ‘we all should read’. But everyone who has worked on or taught Euripides would or could make a different selection, either in whole or in part, from this one. I do not intend to propose my own to challenge, or — as it would instead turn out — to supplement, M.’s. Nor will I review the articles included, all of which have indeed stood the test of time (and many of which have already been reviewed in their own right). Instead, I intend simply to indicate the nature of the collection, and to give some overall appreciation of the kind of Euripides who emerges from M.’s covers.

These ‘Readings,’ whose original publications range from 1960 to 1990, comprise: Karl Reinhardt, ‘The Intellectual Crisis in Euripides’, R. P. Winnington-Ingram, ‘Euripides: Poietes Sophos‘, C. Collard, ‘Formal Debates in Euripides’ Drama’, D. J. Conacher, ‘Rhetoric and Relevance in Euripidean Drama’, M. R. Lefkowitz, ‘”Impiety” and “Atheism” in Euripides’ Dramas’, H. P. Stahl, ‘On “Extra-Dramatic” Communication of Characters in Euripides’, P. Pucci, ‘Euripides: The Monument and the Sacrifice’, R. G. A. Buxton, ‘Euripides’ Alkestis : Five Aspects of an Interpretation’, P. E. Easterling, ‘The Infanticide in Euripides’ Medea‘, R. P. Winnington-Ingram, ‘Hippolytus: A Study in Causation’, M. Heath, ‘”Iure principem locum tenet”: Euripides’ Hecuba‘, F. I. Zeitlin, ‘The Argive Festival of Hera and Euripides’ Electra‘, J. de Romilly, ‘The Rejection of Suicide in the Heracles of Euripides’, D. J. Mastronarde, ‘Iconography and Imagery in Euripides’ Ion‘, F. I. Zeitlin, ‘The Closet of Masks: Role-Playing and Myth-Making in the Orestes of Euripides’, H. P. Foley, ‘The Masque of Dionysus’, I. J. F. de Jong, ‘Three Off-Stage Characters in Euripides’. The biggest surprise is perhaps the lack of anything by Charles Segal; but his work is so well represented in other collections of articles on tragedy, and is so pervasively influential on and influenced by the material represented here, that its absence is not particularly felt. Many of the articles were first published in somewhat out-of-the-way journals or edited volumes (references on pp410-11); a few have already been anthologized; only five are currently accessible (to those with access to a subscribing institution) on JSTOR. In our own case, we are as yet unsure how many ‘readily available’ pieces to include (and, indeed, what ‘readily’ might be construed to mean in that phrase); M. has made a nicely balanced selection, bringing Continental, British, and American material together in a variegated but coherent group.

In the ‘Introduction: Euripides in the Twenty-first Century,’ M. provides an overview of the elements of modern Euripidean scholarship represented by her ‘Readings’. Despite a strong start with a focus on the reception and re-evaluation of the playwright at the end of the 20th century, M. does not give us what Stephen Harrison provided in Oxford readings in Vergil’s Aeneid, i.e., a survey of scholarship in the round over the last century. That is a pity, as M. is well equipped to give us such a survey, and has herself made a substantial contribution to the recent resurgence of interest in and respect for Euripides. Instead, M. concentrates on the articles between these two covers and on their methodologies, ably weaving their various approaches together to bring out the force of Aristotle’s description of Euripides as tragikotatos.

And what kind of Euripides is this? One who is a master craftsman (Collard, Stahl) and a man of his time (Reinhardt, Winnington-Ingram, Lefkowtiz), a rhetorician whose technique invites multiple perspectives and readings (Conacher, Zeitlin); a playwright fascinated by ritual, especially by sacrifice (Pucci, Foley, Zeitlin), whose plays richly repay attention to structure and dramaturgy (Buxton, Easterling). He is a poet who raises fascinating questions about the divine (Lefkowitz, Winnington-Ingram), the degree and nature of realism (Zeitlin, Mastronarde) and the heroic (de Romilly); and one whose plays have generated remarkably divergent responses, the disentangling of which can bring us [back] in new ways to an ancient text (Heath, de Jong).

Most striking, perhaps, about this selection is the degree to which the authors of this Euripides find him in his own historical, ritual, and literary context. There is plenty of hors-texte in this collection, which leans overwhelmingly toward the historicizing and the formal, despite the intense playfulness of Zeitlin on the Orestes (one of my favorites of all her pieces on Euripides) and the schematizing modernism of de Jong on the narratology of messenger speeches. M. remarks (pp7-8) that ‘The rather sterile criterion of relevance is not so often used in recent criticism as it once was: richness of discourse and theme and polysemy of language have more pride of place; essays … which seek to account for what is in the text rather than reject it because it does not seem to fit, have contributed greatly to this change and therefore to the reputation of Euripides.’ True, and welcome. But what seems missing from this late-20th century/mid-5th century Euripides is irony — différance — the rustle of language. I, at any rate, came away from the collection missing it.