BMCR 2006.10.25

Euripides: The Bacchae and Other Plays. With an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford

John Davie, Euripides: The Bacchae and Other Plays. With an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. London: Penguin, 2005. lxiv, 360. $12.00.

This volume, comprising Phoenician Women, Orestes, Bacchae, Iphigeneia at Aulis and Rhesus is the fourth and last in the series of collaborations by John Davie (D.) and Richard Rutherford (R.), which replace the old Penguin translations by Philip Vellacott. It easily measures up to the high standards set by its predecessors. Along with translations, D. and R. provide a general introduction, a chronological table, note on the text and translator’s note, substantial interpretative notes on each of the plays, bibliography and glossary of mythological and geographical names. Their text is based on Diggle’s OCT, but they tend to include in their text lines and passages which he condemns. Given the extreme difficulties with interpolations in some of these plays — especially the Phoenician Women and Iphigenia at Aulis — they have sensibly decided to translate the entire extant texts while making clear all their difficulties in abundant endnotes. Similarly, the two authors make no attempt to complete the lacunae at the end of the Bacchae, but offer some well-informed notes on its likely content. Over all, this is an excellent edition of Euripides’ last plays, which offers a thoroughly readable translation along with ample interpretative and bibliographical help. Its nearest rival is the Oxford World’s Classics series, whose arrangement of the plays is thematic rather than chronological and distributes Euripides’ late plays over two volumes: Iphigenia among the Taurians; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis; Rhesus translated and edited by James Morwood (M.) with an introduction by Edith Hall (H.) and Orestes and Other Plays (Ion, Orestes, Phoenician Women and Suppliant Women with introduction by Edith Hall, translation by Robin Waterfield (W.) and notes by James Morwood.

R.’s 45-page general introduction (much of it already contained in the earlier volumes) effectively places Euripides in his intellectual context and offers an accurate but succinct summary of the conditions of the Athenian theatre. A particular strength of this introduction is its combination of conciseness and a breadth that goes beyond mere clichés about Greek tragedy. I would strongly recommend this introduction to any undergraduate who needed a general framework for understanding Athenian tragedy and the characteristics of the three great tragedians. Another real strength of the volume is its generous bibliographical help and the sure command its authors have over all relevant and most helpful treatments of various issues. The thumbnail sketch of Aeschylus’ life seemed particularly well done to me, and the sketch of Euripides, while perhaps covering more familiar territory — ultimately it endorses Dodds’ description of Euripides as an irrationalist — is intelligent and thorough. The characterisation of Euripides as an innovator is no surprise: new to me was the acute observation that since a middle-aged man could have seen more than 200 tragedies between 480 and 430, Euripides’ innovations were perhaps not merely a product of his own sensibility but rather a response to audience demand. R.’s portrait of Euripides is above all balanced: R. gives due weight to his strong interest in intellectual and rhetorical matters (xxvii), yet also warns against exaggerating this dimension of Euripides at the expense of a full appreciation of the intense emotions inherent in Euripidean tragedy (xxxiii).

Section IV of the introduction is new to the series and concentrates more specifically on late Euripides. R. discusses the historical context of the four demonstrably late plays (and the Rhesus, on whose context he is agnostic) and outlines certain notable tendencies in Euripides’ last plays (with the partial exception of the Bacchae), such as increased length and complexity and choruses who cannot advise or debate with the protagonists but rather tend towards their other traditional role as narrators of the mythical past. The introduction concludes with some brief remarks on Euripides’ huge posthumous influence.

Pages liii-lv offer a chronological table running from Thespis’ first tragic competition c. 535 to the death of Socrates in 399, which sets the dates of tragedies alongside important historical events in Greece. This is a useful quick guide, although to say that radical democracy was established at Athens in c.462 without even mentioning the earlier Cleisthenic reforms seemed to me a little misleading. It would also have been useful if the authors had made it clear, perhaps through using a different typeface, which plays in their list are extant and which lost.

Each play is equipped with a very helpful introduction which contextualises it in its literary and mythical background and outlines Euripides’ particular innovations in the myth. Where necessary, very detailed summaries of the myths are offered: thus for example, the introduction to the Phoenician Women, summarises all the narrative of the royal house of Thebes starting with Io. Notes are extremely abundant, clear and informative, and again, any undergraduate who made full use of them would acquire an excellent grounding in the issues fundamental to these plays. Pages 336-343 contain a partly annotated bibliography, which includes all the standard texts and editions of the plays translated, other translations and a reliable list of important secondary literature on tragedy in general and the specific plays. The last item in the book is a full glossary of mythological and geographical names (344-360).

Unlike Vellacott, D. opts to translate in prose on the grounds that Vellacott’s verse created (lxii) “a certain stateliness that reflected the dignity of the original but often resulted in the kind of English which could only exist on the printed page.” D.’s aim, by contrast, has been to create a more relaxed version of Euripides which conforms more closely to how people speak and conveys Euripides’ psychological insight and interest in creating realistic individuals. For the lyric passages, D. has attempted a somewhat higher style and these are helpfully italicised in his text: this convention is particularly useful in passages such as Phoen. 103ff. in which Antigone’s lyric meter contrasts with the trimeter of the servant.

D. is generally successful in doing what he claims to do in his introduction. His translations are typically idiomatic, accurate and very suitable for modern dramatic performance. They do tend towards the informal rather than the formal so that on occasion, for this reader, some striking words or phrases seem a little flattened out. I offer a few representative examples but should stress that these in no way detract from my appreciation of his achievement. Phoen. 328 translates ὀμματοστερές simply as “blind”, which feels a little flat (compare W.’s “eyeless in the palace”). Phoen. 1608 translates δυσδαίμον as “through heaven’s perversity”, but surely the adjective has more of a direct reference to Oedipus’ own supremely terrible family destiny: it occurs thrice more in tragedy, at Septem 827, Ant. 274 and OT 1302, and refers each time to Oedipus’ family, and I prefer W.’s “a wretched victim of fate.” Neither D. nor M. always replicates Euripides’ own wordplay: there is no attempt at the wordplay on θύοιμι‐θυμούμενος ( Ba. 794) or the puns on πένθος at Ba. 367, 1244 (although both offer an explanatory note for 367). For Ba. 502 παρ’ ἐμοί D. offers “near me” but M.’s “He is where I am” renders Euripides’ ambiguity more effectively. Ba. 955 κρύψῃ σὺ κρύψιν ἥν σε κρυφθῆναι χρεών is rendered by D. as, “You will get all the concealment you should find” in contrast to M.’s, “You will be hidden as you should be hidden,” or (my favourite) Esposito’s1 emphatic, “You will be hidden in a hiding place perfect for hiding.” For 972’s δεινὸς σὺ δεινὸς, D. offers, “You are formidable, formidable,” but M.’s “You are an amazing man, truly amazing” seems superior in catching the sense of strangeness and wonder behind Euripides’ adjective. On the other hand, for 1197’s, περισσάν. περισσῶς D.’s “No ordinary prey. No ordinary killing” seemed to me better than M.’s “A strange quarry. And strangely caught.”

Both the Penguin and Oxford translations turn Euripides’ Greek poetry into idiomatic English prose in an accurate and readable manner. As the examples above should show, sometimes one scores over the other, but in general the translations of both series can be thoroughly recommended. The real difference between the two volumes lies in the breadth and orientation of the notes and introduction. H.’s introductions are typically shorter than those of R. and concentrate more on specific thematic aspects of the plays — for example the political aspects of the Phoenician Women and Orestes and their relationship to contemporary political and social developments in Athens. H. also offers considerably more material on tragic performance and on the reception of Euripides. In general, M.’s notes are less extensive than those of R. and many seem to be geared towards a somewhat less knowledgeable audience than those of R. Sometimes important details are not noted by M.: for example, R. offers an excellent note on Dionysus’ apparent disappearance at Ba. 1351 while M. does not even mention that his departure at this point is controversial. R.’s endnotes are keyed simply to numbers in the text, a system which I found rather more user-friendly than M.’s, which use a system of obeli for textual problems and asterisks for other notes, for which one then has to hunt among the endnotes for the exact line number. On individual plays, M. offers more bibliography than R. gives — for example, R. cites six items on the Phoenician Women compared with M.’s 18. More is not necessarily better: some of what M. includes is not particularly easy to obtain, and he cites more material in French and German. The look of R.’s seemed to me cleaner and easier to use for its presumed audience of undergraduates and interested general readers.

In sum, Davie and Rutherford can be whole-heartedly recommended, although the Oxford World’s Classics series has a slightly different focus and is also well worth retaining on one’s book shelves. For a thorough and detailed treatment, particularly of the mythological and literary backgrounds of the plays, R. and D. win out. For a slightly breezier approach, more geared to social and political issues and the reception of Euripides, the Oxford World’s Classics volume remains important. Fortunately, the commendably modest price of each means that one can afford to buy and use both.


1. Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae, ed. Stephen Esposito (Focus, 2002).