BMCR 2011.06.45

An Introduction to Greek Tragedy

, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. viii, 216. ISBN 780521705608. $24.99 (pb).


I like this book: it puts students and teachers facing Greek tragedy for the first time on a sound footing. I would certainly use it as a set text for an introductory course, albeit with a few not insignificant caveats, about which more later. As it is, Scodel ticks (almost) all the requisite boxes for an Introduction to Greek tragedy without descending into text-/handbook blandness. In fact, the light seasoning of polemic is one of the things I most enjoyed about this book. As the author asserts, ‘Where I have strong views, I have put them forward – the opportunity to express them was my main inducement to write the book’ (vii). Inasmuch as the primary use to which Scodel’s Introduction is likely to be put is on undergraduate reading lists, however, it seems reasonable to assess its pedagogical utility, especially given the very recent appearance of Edith Hall’s Oxford introduction, and the not-quite-so-recent appearance of Nancy Rabinowitz’s Blackwell volume.1

With respect to the telos of the work, I quote Scodel herself: ‘This book is intended for speakers of English who want or need to know about Greek tragedy. It tries to perform several jobs: to provide background information about Greek tragedy; to help its readers appreciate, enjoy, and understand the plays themselves; and to give readers an idea of what questions professional scholars have been asking about tragedy. It also seeks to dispel assumptions about tragedy that seem still to be standard in high schools’ (vii). In sum, that is, Scodel seeks to provide context, model appreciative interpretation, guide the reader through the morass of scholarship, and purify us of our Aristotelian leanings. These are all laudable aims, and the last I find especially compelling: the lamentable persistence of the ‘fatal flaw’ (in one guise or another), combined with at times wilful misinterpretation of katharsis, leaves many a student in need of some intellectual purification and many a teacher quivering in pity and fear. At times, however, Scodel wavers between making tragedy multivalent and complex and keeping it intelligible and accessible: ‘Still, we need to be aware that there is always a temptation to make an ancient drama easier for ourselves’ (p. 27); ‘I have generally used the Latin forms of Greek names, although this is not fashionable, because they look a little more familiar, and tragedy is hard enough’ (p. viii). This uncomfortable dialectic is embodied in Hippolytos, which ‘manages to be accessible without being simple’ (p. 145). The exact thrust of this assertion is not entirely clear to me, nor am I convinced that complexity and accessibility per se are mutually exclusive.

In the introductory chapter (‘Defining Tragedy’), Scodel rightly dispenses with Aristotle’s Poetics, suggesting Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ theory as a better basis for categorisation: the boundaries of tragedy are defined by other genres, and within those boundaries, variety is the name of the game. I think Scodel may sell herself and her audience short at this point, emphasising variety over particularity and throwing out the baby (genre) with the bathwater (Aristotle). I, for one, would have gladly read more—and more pointed—discussion from Scodel about what tragôidia is and is not.

Starting from the premise of poetic didacticism, the next chapter (‘Approaches’) explores to good effect what tragedy might offer us as readers and spectators. In what is for me the key passage in the book, Scodel exhorts her reader to discard altogether ‘The Story’: the false teleology promulgated by Aristophanes, Aristotle, Nietzsche, et al., whereby ‘Aeschylus is grand but primitive, Euripides clever but decadent, Sophocles perfect and serene’ (p. 17). In search of a better story, Scodel guides a whirlwind tour of tragedy’s rich critical history: ritualism, Freud, tragic tradition, structuralism, New Historicism, feminism, narratology, and philosophy, and performance. Note the recurring strain of relativism: ‘No approach is inappropriate as long as it does not exclude the possibility that the plays can continue to be powerful and meaningful’ (p. 30). I am prompted to question whether allowing tragedy to be ‘powerful and meaningful’ is a necessary and sufficient criterion for a good (‘appropriate’) reading. Alertness to the chain(s) of reception, the contingent nature of interpretation, and tragedy’s semiotic flexibility necessitates neither a relaxation of critical rigour nor an insistence on contemporary relevance.

The following two chapters (‘Origins, Festival, and Competition’ and ‘Historical and Intellectual Background’) explore further contexts for Greek tragedy. Outlining the ritualist angle, Scodel ultimately—and rightly—addresses tragedy qua theatrical genre ( à la Herington and Scullion) in its institutional context. Scodel also shares particularly useful insights into tragic rhetoric, the sophists, and nature vs. culture, inter alia.

Chapters Five through Twelve concern individual plays/trilogies, and Scodel offers a thoughtful reading of each. This is the core of the book and its most successful part. The chapter on Persai is exemplary. Pointing to Orientalism, New Historicism, and Middle East conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s, Scodel introduces the neophyte to critical history as Rezeptionsgeschichte. Audience reception plays its part also: Scodel encourages her reader to interpret Persai as drama by considering possible audience responses to it (now and in 472 B.C.). Indeed, Scodel does well to stress dramaturgy, sometimes neglected when it comes to this play. Furthermore, introducing Persai as another nostos -play descended from the Odyssey helpfully situates it in a wider literary/theatrical context. Finally, Scodel makes good use of Hall and Rosenbloom in elaborating the play’s discursive complexity: Athenian spectators could empathise with and feel superiority towards the Persians, all the while celebrating victory in the Persian Wars and considering the limits of their own naval empire.

Scodel claims an important ancillary aim as justification for including chapters on less canonical tragedies (in addition to the expected opera maiora): ‘in order to provide a broader sense of what a tragedy can be’ (p. vii). Beyond the obvious—and indispensable—selections ( Oresteia, Oidipous Tyrannos, Antigone, Medeia, and Hippolytos), one discerns a Euripidean bias in Scodel’s other choices: Persai, Helen, and Orestes. This makes for a total of two works by Aiskhylos, four by Euripides, and two ‘Theban plays’ by Sophokles. Might Helen perhaps have made way for, say, Philoktetes, leaving Orestes to vouch for the genre-bending delights of later Euripides? The final chapter (‘Tragic Moments’) is an uneven diptych, discussing first tragic tradition and then Nachleben. The first section asks, ‘How can we usefully compare the tragedians without slipping into The Story?’ (p. 186); Scodel answers with an illuminating comparison of the Elektra plays.

The comparative brevity of this book, combined with its author’s admirably unfussy modus scribendi, occasionally leads to avoidable errors and infelicities. I here note some points on which Scodel’s less-is-more approach, presumably dictated by anankê, may lead the implied/intended reader astray:

1. ‘The drama began with a prologue, which could be a monologue or a dialogue’ (p. 3). Three extant tragedies begin with an anapaestic choral entry: Persai (noted by Scodel, p. 74), Hiketides, and Rhesos.

2. ‘[T]he theater of Dionysus at Athens had room for about 15,000 spectators’ (p. 24); ‘Since dithyrambic performances were among the most important functions of the Theater of Dionysus, a circular orchestra seems somewhat more likely. But the most important thing to realize about the theater is that we really do not know’ (p. 47). This overstates the aporia, to some extent ignoring recent arguments for a rectilinear orkhêstra and a seated audience well below 10,000 spectators.2

3. ‘The sung portions, however, changed the Attic long ê to the long â characteristic of the Doric family of Greek dialects’ (p. 38). This applies not to all instances of η, but only to an Attic or epic η which was thought to have derived from an original α (see, e.g., Barrett on E. Hipp. 61–71); tragic song also uses other Doricisms. In general, I doubt the relevance of such linguistic detail to a Greekless reader.

4. Lay readers may not immediately associate Xerxes’ ‘recitative anapests’ (p. 83) with the ‘marching rhythm’ mentioned earlier at p. 74.

5. Scodel’s text and glossary denote the side entrances as parodoi; the common alternative eisodoi deserves mention.

6. ‘[ Orestes ] is, however, not an edifying play. The characters are not heroic or virtuous, and they move through a world in which people do not act out of a sense of honor or justice but in pursuit of ordinary self-interest or political partisanship. Furthermore, too much happens’ (174). This severe assessment is neither uncontroversial, nor especially helpful to newcomers, nor wholly distinct from the teleological myth (‘The Story’) which the rest of this Introduction does so much good work dispelling.

7. ‘Because Aeschylus had done this sequence [Elektra and Orestes] so effectively, Sophocles and Euripides evidently both felt a challenge to handle it very differently’ (188). Such positivist, intentionalist rhetoric contrasts with Scodel’s tenor elsewhere.

While Rabinowitz’s equally compact introduction (xii + 218 pp.) is thematically organised, theory-oriented, and focuses on context and discourse, Hall’s comprehensive study (xiv + 346 pp.) contains both thematic sections and discussions of all extant tragedies, plus Kyklops, plus fragments. Of the three, Hall’s has the most to offer—in terms of coverage, depth, and analysis—and places the highest demands on its readers; but at twice the price of the other two, it will likely need a paperback reprint to reach a wide audience. On the other hand, Rabinowitz’s sophisticated approach suits more advanced students of ancient drama, classical civilisation, or comparative literature. On balance, then, Scodel’s Introduction is well suited indeed to introductory literature-in-translation or theatre courses. Notwithstanding the concerns outlined above, it is on these grounds that I recommend it.


pp. 23–4. ‘Even though we usually sit in the dark and they sat in sunlight, our actors wear makeup and theirs wore masks, and [‘not to mention’, vel sim. ] all the other differences between their theater and ours …’
p. 60, 65. Euripides’ Suppliant Women is also referred to as Suppliants.
p. 79. Inconsistent transliteration of upsilon: hypeuthunos and euthynai.
p. 109. ‘Exultation of noble death’.
p. 193. ‘Greek tragedy was an important and direct inspiration for the invention and early development of tragedy [‘opera’?] in the circle of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi in Florence’.
p. 197. Archon is out of alphabetical order.
p. 197. ‘ Harmartia ’.
p. 199. Bakkhai and IA are dated 405–440.
p. 207. The bibliography lists McClure and McDonald between Marshall and Martindale.
passim. Inconsistent transliteration of omega and eta throughout, e.g. sophrosyne and sôphrosynê; chorêgos and orchestra; aidôs and archon.


1. E. Hall, Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); N. S. Rabinowitz, Greek Tragedy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), BMCR 2008.12.12.

2. Scodel cites R. Rehm, Greek Tragic Theatre (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 33; and D. Wiles, Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 53. Cf., e.g., J.-C. Moretti, ‘The Theater of the Sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Late Fifth-Century Athens’, ICS 24–25 (1999–2000): 377–98; E. Csapo, ‘The Men Who Built the Theatres: Theatropolai, Theatronai, and Arkhitektones ’, in P. Wilson, ed., The Greek Theatre and Festivals: Documentary Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 87–115, with ‘An Archaeological Appendix’ by H. R. Goette, pp. 116–21. On the other hand, Mitchell-Boyask’s review (BMCR 2008.05.24) suggests, ‘one could argue compellingly for around 10,000, with many more on the slope above the theater’.