BMCR 2008.12.12

Greek Tragedy. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World

, Greek Tragedy.. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. 1 online resource (232 pages).. ISBN 9780470693261 $74.95.

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz’s engaging introduction to Greek tragedy is the latest volume in Blackwell’s new series of “Introductions to the Classical World.” Written by “the most distinguished scholars in the field” (the list page includes Barry Powell’s Homer, Daniel Hooley’s Roman Satire, and Thomas Habinek’s Ancient Rhetoric and Oratory; ten more volumes are in preparation), the series aims to “provide concise introductions to classical culture in the broadest sense.”1 Rather than choosing to follow a traditional author-by-author, play-by-play arrangement, Rabinowitz has organized Greek Tragedy thematically, with an emphasis on two main ideas: (1) in order to understand the plays, one must first learn about their ancient performance, political, and ritual contexts; and (2) these plays raised certain troubling questions for Athenians and they allow us to ask similar questions about our own life and times. Greek Tragedy is written in an informal, appealing style—this must be the only book on the subject of tragedy that uses the word “fun” in its final sentence2—with frequent allusions (some more explicit than others) to contemporary events (e.g., the war in Iraq at 42, 47, 90, 93, 107, 138, 140, 146, and 187) and a number of questions posed directly to the reader designed to encourage comparisons between ancient and contemporary problems (e.g., at 122, discussion of Euripides’ Elektra concludes with the question, “What pressures shape today’s youth into martyrs?”). Greek Tragedy can be recommended to students who have no previous knowledge of the subject, although those wanting more systematic coverage in a more traditional format may prefer another recent Wiley-Blackwell book, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama (Ian Storey and Arlene Allen, 2005). As its Preface and Introduction suggest, Greek Tragedy is especially well-suited to those students who are skeptical about the relevance of Greek tragedy to their own lives and to those who may wonder whether an interest in tragedy (or Classics in general, 2-3) is compatible with their commitments to feminism, multiculturalism, or other progressive beliefs.

Rabinowitz’s overview of the Athenian context of Greek tragedy (11-84) is divided into three chapters (“What was Tragedy?”; “Tragedy and the Polis”; “Tragedy and Greek Religion”) and includes everything you might expect: performance practices, ancient views on tragedy, Athenian ideology, religious rituals, the festivals, etc. Rabinowitz brings a fresh perspective to familiar material by calling attention again and again to the ambiguities and challenges presented by our sources; whether discussing imperialism, tensions between inclusivity and exclusivity in Athenian civic life, traditional life-cycle events and rites of passage, or the vexed question of whether women attended the theater, Rabinowitz emphasizes the multiplicity of voices with which our sources speak and the correlated polyphony of contemporary scholarly debates on their meanings. For example, in a brief subsection entitled “Referentiality” (48-51), Rabinowitz pauses in her discussion of the physical and social setting of the performances in order to address some of the few references to contemporary events and institutions in the plays. There is, Rabinowitz points out, no easy answer to questions about what the references to the Council of the Areopagus in Eumenides amount to or how they should influence interpretation; discussing Trojan Women (produced in 415), Rabinowitz suggests that Melos must have been in everyone’s mind, but she stresses that there is still ambiguity surrounding how the play and the real world relate; when considering Oedipus Tyrannus in light of the recent plague in Athens, Rabinowitz remarks that “certain elements might have reminded the audience of their own lives” but “not every member of the audience will get the same set of allusions, nor will they respond to them in the same way” (51). The result is a basic introduction to contextual approaches that is free of simple answers—the reader will come away with a sense of some of the things classicists have done to recreate the original contexts of the plays, but also with an awareness that such an appreciation is really just the first step toward interpretation.

Part Two (85-179) contains four chapters on the following themes: war and empire; the family; violence; and relationships to power. A total of ten plays receive focused attention, but Rabinowitz emphasizes the overlapping and blurring of each of her four categories (87), and passages from other plays are introduced for contrast and comparison. Rabinowitz draws on feminist, post-colonial, and marxist approaches in these chapters, but the primary lens through which the themes are examined is structuralism, whose “matrix of binary oppositions” (4-5) is introduced early in Greek Tragedy; in particular, Rabinowitz emphasizes how productive and influential the work of Louis Gernet, J.-P. Vernant, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet has been for the study of Greek tragedy (e.g. 33, 51, 65, 71, 168). As Rabinowitz explains, structuralism’s attention to binary oppositions (e.g. male-female, city-household, human-animal, free-slave, inside-outside) and their mediation in society, myth, and poetry, not only provides a framework for producing revealing readings of the plays, it also can help us re-imagine the patterns of thought through which ancient Greek audiences may have understood them (cf. 103 et passim). This approach has its obvious limits, which are not sufficiently addressed, but it works extremely well in the highly distilled format of the short-introduction genre: Rabinowitz is able to lead the reader quickly to the central issues of a play, often with reference to key terms or ideas already brought up in the “context” chapters, and then to explore those ideas as pairs of irreconcilables in a way consistent with her overall emphasis on the ambivalences, ambiguities, and unresolved problems tragedy poses to ancient and modern audiences alike. For example, in her discussion of Persians (85-95), Rabinowitz emphasizes the ways in which the barbaros-Greek dualism (already developed at 40) becomes intertwined with the female-male polarity through the feminization of the Persians (90-91); this leads to consideration of how the ancient audience could have responded. Two alternatives are presented: Athenians may have experienced a kind of vicarious grief or they may have ignored the cautionary tale against empire and displaced the folly onto the Persians. In a pattern repeated throughout Greek Tragedy, the section on Persians concludes with reflections on how the audience today might take the play: again, two alternatives are put forward, a “securely distant” reading or an openness to seeing the Persians’“irreligious desire for conquest” (94) as comparable to the presence of the U.S. and U.K. in Iraq (94-95).

An epilogue on modern performances of Greek tragedy (180-198), written with Sue Blundell, focuses primarily on the UK and US theater, but also touches on productions by Ariane Mnouchkine, Tadashi Suziki, and Yukio Ninagawa, and adaptations by Wole Soyinka and Seamus Heaney, among others. The emphasis is on adaptations of canonical texts (especially in recent decades) as forms of resistance or critique of the dominant order.

Readers with a background in Classics will find nits to pick here and there. There is some question as to whether current undergraduates, most of whom were young children in the 1990s, will appreciate the allusions to the Culture Wars (now entering their fifth decade) that frame Greek Tragedy (1-2 ff. and 180ff.), featuring figures such as William Bennet and Lynne Cheney. But Greek Tragedy is especially likely to raise the antennae of those who find that the emphasis on original performance-context limits appreciation of the literary dimensions of the plays. Rabinowitz’s presentation gives what some may find to be an unwarranted primacy to cultural or historical “realities” at the expense of what makes each play distinctive. A traditional structuralist framework, which provides an essentially timeless mega-system of human behavior, can compound this problem, making it seem as though the purpose of Greek tragedy is to typify this or that pre-existing aspect of Athenian life.

Greek Tragedy is attractively produced, with a striking image of Medea’s escape from Corinth (from a Lucanian calyx-krater in the Cleveland Museum of Art) set against a glossy-black background. It includes seven illustrations; an index; suggestions for further reading at the end of chapters 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8; and a bibliography. I found only one error (“Epebes” 66).


1. Blackwell Publishing Online

2. “That is the fun of working with the far distant past” (198).