BMCR 2017.07.45

Greek Tragedy: Themes and Contexts. Classical World

, Greek Tragedy: Themes and Contexts. Classical World. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. xi, 125. ISBN 9781474236836. $25.95 (pb).


What is Greek tragedy? How are we to understand and study it today? Laura Swift’s Greek Tragedy: Themes and Contexts offers a clear and brief answer to undergraduate and advanced school pupils who are seeking a more thorough grounding in the topic. Swift offers general yet often nuanced discussion of the salient elements of Greek tragedy, expertly weaving in multiple examples from a wide range of plays. As such, the book is an effective springboard for more engaged study of tragedy, offering a succinct thematic overview for beginners without privileging particular plays or emphasizing the larger historical context.

Since we are living in a time marked by a plethora of companions and handbooks to a variety of important topics such as ancient Greek tragedy, I have attempted to assess the merits of this book as a self-contained introduction for keen students without much prior knowledge. When I was an undergraduate at the turn of the twenty-first century my main such sources were The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy edited by Pat Easterling, Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, and Charles Segal’s Interpreting Greek Tragedy, all of which, while excellent and still relevant, comprised lengthy and serious reading, averaging between 300 and 400 pages. By contrast, today’s undergraduate has a wealth of options. Besides the various companions both to Greek Tragedy and to individual dramatists published by Wiley-Blackwell and Brill, she may consult three further subject-specific introductions published in the last decade: Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz’s Greek Tragedy (Blackwell, 2008), Ruth Scodel’s An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge, 2010) and Rush Rehm’s Understanding Greek Tragic Theatre (2 nd edition, Routledge, 2017).1 All three books offer a systematic overview of tragedy in two general parts,2 the first exploring the social, historical, and religious context of fifth-century Athens and the second providing readings of individual plays. There are several differences, of course: Rabinowitz, for example, selects specific plays that respond to particular themes (e.g. ‘war and empire’, ‘victims and victimizers’); Scodel offers an additional chapter on ‘approaches’ to the plays that surveys the wide range of critical approaches and methodologies from ritualism and structuralism to New Historicism and narratology; Rehm highlights the performance context by including detailed discussion of the fifth-century theatre of Dionysus and the various conventions of the Athenian stage. Remarkably, these books pack a great deal of information into fewer and fewer pages: excluding bibliography and indices, these range from 198 and 195 pages of text (Rabinowitz, Scodel) to 163 pages (Rehm).

Swift’s book, the newest addition to these tragic introductions, is even shorter. Unlike these others, it does not contain readings of individual plays; rather its focus is on providing a thematic overview of the topic. Examples from extant plays are instead invoked in order to support the general examination of a given theme. There is also little explanation of the larger historical context in the main narrative of the book, and tragedy’s religious and political framework is similarly kept to a bare minimum. Swift’s aim, then, is to explain ‘what is distinctive about Greek tragedy, what defines it as a genre and what its particular preoccupations are’ (x). I believe that this direct approach, coupled with the book’s brevity, will appeal greatly to today’s students as their first port of call on the topic.

Chapters 1 (‘Tragedy as a Genre’) and 2 (‘Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides’) provide the main overview of the fifth-century particulars of Greek tragedy. The first chapter discusses the expectations of ancient Athenian audiences and who formed that audience. In twelve pages, Swift explains the festival context, tragedy’s formal features, conventions and origins, as well as generic definitions and expectations. The emphasis in this whirlwind account is the diverse nature of the genre as an art form. Remarkably, Swift does away with the historical overview that typically accompanies such an account, stating simply that that tragedy flourished alongside democracy, ‘during the time that Athens grew to be the mistress of a large empire and a cultural magnet for the Greek world’ (2). The second chapter gives an account of tragedy’s main three playwrights, focusing on the most prominent elements of each poet’s style and the expectations of the fifth-century viewing audience when confronted with a new play. Here, Swift rightly attempts to debunk the main stereotypes associated with the three as they correlate with the following simplistic evolutionary model for the genre, which sadly still abounds in secondary literature: ‘Aeschylus (reactionary and sombre) marks its origins, Sophocles (classic and restrained) its high point, and Euripides (newfangled and shocking) its development and decline’ (14). In her discussion, she provides a brief overview of what is known about each poet’s outputs (e.g. number of victories) and particular elements associated with each: namely, Aeschylus’ use of connected trilogies, which allow extended use of metaphor and language throughout all three plays, Sophocles’ preference for dialogic prologues and emphasis on a central hero, and Euripides’ experimentations with mythical narratives and musical structures. Though she warns against using only the surviving plays as evidence, her account of each tragedian is naturally based on the extant theatrical works.

The meat of Greek tragedy, i.e. the elements that are specifically associated with the ancient formulation of the genre, is the concern of chapters 3–5, ‘Myth’, ‘Heroes’, and ‘The Gods’. The chapter on myth explains the appeal of mythical plots—which Swift neatly correlates with fanfiction today—by demonstrating ways in which tragedians created suspense despite the audience’s familiarity with myths. She also explores the flexible nature of mythical accounts with a detailed account of mythological innovation in the Oresteia myth and the Electra plays. ‘Heroes’ is unsurprisingly dominated by discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics, with sections devoted to inspecting tragedy’s diverse cast of heroes in order to underline the fact that Aristotle’s notions are not always applicable. The subsequent chapter on the gods examines the behaviour of the divine in tragedy and how this corresponds to Greek conceptions of immortals in daily life and practice. Significant attention is paid to Euripides, given the abundance of divine appearances in his extant plays.

The manner in which tragedy engages with fifth-century intellectual and conceptual concerns serves as the focus for chapter 6, ‘Contemporary Thought’, and chapter 7, ‘Gender and the Family’. Chapter 6 begins with an overview of the intellectual climate in Athens, and then outlines three areas that Swift sees as central to fifth-century thought: ‘ nomos and physis ’, ‘Greeks and foreigners’, and ‘rhetoric and speech’. In this chapter she demonstrates the manner in which tragedians explore ideas related to each of these areas in individual plays. Building on this exploration of tragedy’s intellectual concerns, chapter 7 investigates the centrality of women and familial conflict in tragedy. Swift begins by briefly contextualising women’s status in fifth-century Athens, before turning her attention to ‘bad wives’ such as Clytemnestra and Medea, and the dysfunctional families of Hippolytus and Oedipus.

The book concludes with a consideration of the chorus. As elsewhere in the book, the chapter kicks off with contextual information, this time on the prevalence of choruses in ancient Greek life, and proceeds to a discussion of their tragic manifestation. The section on choral odes contains the first and only extended quotations of tragic material (specifically, the Antigone’s ‘Ode to Man’ and the ‘Athens ode’ in Medea), which are followed by judicious explications de texte. While the discussion is unsurprisingly rich and nuanced, given Swift’s expertise on the topic, I am intrigued as to why she decided to leave a consideration of the chorus to the very end of the book, a decision that effectively marginalises the most distinctive feature of ancient Greek tragedy. Structurally it would have made more sense to include this chapter near chapters 3–5, and certainly before chapters 6 and 7. A four page ‘Chronology’ of predominantly dramatic events follows this final chapter, as does a brief glossary and ‘Suggestions for Further Reading.’

Though some might argue otherwise, we classicists are generally historicist creatures, so we may struggle to assign to our students a book that generally downplays the larger historical framework in which tragedy flourished. The Peloponnesian War is, for example, mentioned only once in the main narrative of the book, with its start and end dates additionally listed in the chronology. One might wonder whether it is possible for pupils to gain a proper appreciation of Sophocles’ and Euripides’ later plays without this knowledge. Nevertheless, I believe the book holds value for students who seek to learn more about the main concerns of tragedy as a genre, especially if they wish to do so quickly and relatively cheaply. For a small book it packs a hefty punch, with a clear and engaging style that should be accessible to a wide audience.


1. The reader may wish to consult previous reviews of these books: BMCR 2008.12.12, BMCR 2011.06.45.

2. Scodel’s book is the only one that is not explicitly divided in this bipartite manner.