BMCR 2019.09.21

Euripides. Understanding Classics

, Euripides. Understanding Classics. London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2019. x, 182. ISBN 9781848856684 $20.65.


Those of us who teach (or in my case, taught) courses on drama in translation or Greek literature eagerly welcome reliable and informative (and short) introductions to the various genres and to the individual authors. For Euripides, Conacher has long held pride of place, but in the last decade we have first Mastronarde and then McClure’s Companion, both thought-provoking studies, but not for the beginner. After three introductory chapters, Scodel’s Introduction to Greek Tragedy uses Medea, Hippolytus, Helen and Orestes as examples of the varied nature of Euripidean drama. Swift’s Greek Tragedy treats recurring tragic themes over all three tragedians taken together. Allan and I in A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama provide a thematic summary of Euripides with one-page discussions of the individual plays at the end. Recent full-length studies of Euripides in English are Morwood’s second edition and this new book by Isabelle Torrance. They approach their author in different ways: Morwood a play-by-play analysis with a short closing summary, and Torrance an introduction followed by five thematic chapters.1

This book was a pleasure to read. Torrance throughout presents the reader with densely packed information, clearly written, laced with good scholarly judgement and ample citation of recent secondary sources. Her first chapter, Introduction (1–25), fairly gives the newcomer the needed basic details: life dates and career, productions, anecdotes, reputation. I thought, however, that Euripides’ sojourn in Macedon (2–3) might have been footnoted with Scullion’s questioning of that whole story, and that the mention of the judges (6) amplified by citing Marshall and van Willigenburg.2 Very informative was her analysis of tetralogies and trilogies (8–12), particularly of recent attempts to detect thematic links among the individual plays in Aeschylus’ production of 472 and those by Euripides in 438 and 431. There is also a fine section (20–26) on ‘happy endings’ and how plays with ‘disaster averted’ can be ‘tragic’, just not in the modern sense of the term.

In chapter 2, ‘Spectacular Theatre’ (27–58) Torrance presents Euripides as ‘an imaginative dramaturg who delighted in theatricality’ (28). While he may or may not have been trained as a painter (so Life of Euripides 4), his plays present ‘a physical, visual, and aural spectacle’ (29). After discussing the physical setting, stage building, orchestra, roof, and the ‘special effects’ (crane, ekkyklema),3 she focuses on the stage building as described in Ion and Iphigeneia among the Taurians, concluding about the latter that it ‘must have been a visual feast of bronze, gold and red’ (31). But I wonder whether the stage building was so elaborately decorated since it would have to change several times during a four-play production. In 431, for instance, the royal palace of Medea becomes the cave of Philoctetes, and thereafter the hut of Dictys. Changing an elaborate set would entail a lengthy intermission and we do not know how long the interval was or how patient the audience. I am more inclined to think that the decoration of the stage-building was left more to the spectators’ imagination than to an actual ‘set’. Torrance makes good points about the appearance of gods (33–38), but the cream of the chapter is her discussion of ‘significant objects and costumes’ (38–50), where she marshals an impressive array of examples to illustrate disguise and identity, the (ab)use of dead bodies, the ‘rags’ of Euripides, important props, and letters. I can imagine this section serving as the starting point for seminars on specific aspects of ancient theatre. The chapter ends with a comprehensive and useful discussion of music and the chorus (50–58).

In her next chapter, ‘Religion and Philosophy’ (59–78), Torrance tackles the debated subject of whether Euripides was trying send any ‘message’ about the gods in his dramas. Are ‘the gods of Euripides are always vindicated in the end’ or are his plays ‘challenges to traditional religious thought’ (60)? Torrance takes a sensible line of interpretation here: ‘the arbitrary actions of the gods, forced upon a dramatic plot, do not provide satisfactory conclusions to the questions raised in the plays and must therefore be designed to prompt further audience reflection on philosophical and religious issues’ (60–61). This prevents Euripides’ plays from becoming merely theological propaganda preached to the spectators. Torrance shows how the message of a deus ex machina ‘consistently fails to address the concerns raised in the play’ (61). In the case of Suppliant Women (63) she could have added the uncomfortable situation of having Adrastus and Theseus come to an amicable agreement at 1165–82, only to have it overturned by Athena—‘get it in writing’. Euripides’ characters seem, like Xenophanes, to have no problem with the existence of gods, only with the traditional manner in which they are presented. Hence the famous one-liners: ‘if gods do something shameful, they are not gods’ (F 286b.7), ‘you gods should be wiser than men’ ( Hippolytus 120), ‘gods should not be like mortals in their anger ( Bacchae 1348), or Heracles’ dismissal of traditional myths as ‘the lying tales of poets’ ( Heracles 1340–46). Torrance points out also that Euripides introduced new theological ideas into his plays: Hecuba’s strange speech at Trojan Women 884–9, Theonoe’s concept of the afterlife at Helen 860–2, and the frequency with which Aither appears in the plays and fragments (68–70).

In chapter 4, ‘Rhetoric and Relevance’ (79–94), Torrance rightly stresses the theatricality of oratory and the rhetoric of tragedy. The Greeks liked watching and hearing public exchanges of words in debate. This chapter deals first with the agon, so-called in several places almost to the point of a metatheatricality like the (in)famous ‘where are the messengers?’ at Electra 758. I am not sure that the second speaker ‘wins’ the debate (81), since, as Torrance herself admits, Lloyd concluded that the agon does not decide the subsequent action of a tragedy in the way that it does in comedy. She does agree with Conacher that the issues of the agon resonate within the tragedy itself.4. She makes the good point that Euripides’ characters (and the words that they speak) cross the lines of class. Aristophanes says it best when his ‘Euripides’ claims at Frogs 954, 959, ‘I taught these people to speak . . . by introducing ordinary matters with which they were familiar’.

Torrance begins chapter 5, ‘Literary Sophistication’ (95–115), with the assumption that ‘a relatively high level of theatrical sophistication’ existed among the original spectators, from reading books, remembering performances, and participating in the dramatic choruses (96). A ‘significant metapoetic marker’ (99) here is kainos (‘new’), and the bulk of her chapter discusses how Euripides re-works Homer and Aeschylus to create innovations in his drama. Torrance provides sensitive and persuasive close-text readings of Andromache, Trojan Women, Elektra and Cyclops to show just how cleverly Euripides has recast material from Homer. I have two concerns about her relation of plays to their contemporary background. First she assumes (100) that behind Trojan Women lies the recent Athenian capture of Melos, but the timeline is too tight and Kovacs’ new study has called that assumption into serious question—the opening screen text of Cacoiannis’s 1971 film has much to answer for here.5 Second she prefers a late date for Cyclops, either 412 or 408, which allows the satyr-drama to reflect the failure of the expedition to Sicily in 415–413. But other dates are possible. Arrowsmith compared the blinding of Polymnestor in Hecuba and proposed a date ca. 425, a time when Athenian forces were active in Sicily.6 I would suggest the 430s when Cratinus’ Odysses (probably 439-437), Callias’ Cyclopes (434) and Euripides’ Philoctetes (431) were produced. Given the reaction of the proboulos ‘be quiet, do not remind me’, at Lysistrata 590 to the claim that ‘we women give birth and send our sons out as hoplites’, I cannot see that setting a humorous drama on the slopes of Mount Etna would be well received so soon after the disaster in Sicily.

In the final chapter, ‘Conflicts: Ancient and Modern’ (117–43), Torrance tries to do two things: study three themes of conflict in Euripides’ dramas (men/women, gods/mortals, warfare) and present later reception of these themes. I am not sure that this combination works, as she herself admits that ‘regardless of the incisive nature of later adaptions, then, it is always worthwhile returning to the originals’ (143). She cites mainly later dramatic versions, although operas are included on a few occasions (also in chapter 1), also two films by Cacoiannis and at least one novel. Given the recent surge in historical novels set in ancient Greece, it would be worth considering if any of Euripides’ tragedies have influenced historical fictions. Mary Renault’s two celebrated Theseus novels, The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962), present material based on three Euripidean plays: Medea’s escape to Athens with both her sons still alive, Suppliant Women where Theseus intervenes successfully at Thebes, but without the fierce battle described by Euripides, and where he and Hippolyta must spend the night in the royal bedchamber of Oedipus and his wife/mother, and Hippolytus where Renault follows the version of the lost first Hippolytus, gives Hippolytus a step-brother, and despatches Phaedra in a surprising yet dramatically convincing manner.

I missed in this study any consideration of Euripides and Athens, both militarily and politically. For critics of the late 1960s the Peloponnesian War became Vietnam, Athens became America, and Euripides a hostile critic of the establishment. One undergraduate I taught in the 1970s observed that two wartime atrocities even bore similar names, Melos and My Lai. But a close reading of the plays has shown that Euripides was an Athenian patriot—note his strong characters such as Theseus, Demophon, and Erechtheus—and at Trojan Women 218–9 the first choice of captive women is ‘the holy god-favoured land of Theseus’. So when we hear the messenger say of Theseus at Suppliant Women 726–9 ‘this is the sort of man to elect as general ( stratêgon who is valiant in terrible situations and hates an insolent rabble’, another messenger at Orestes 866–956 describe a meeting of the Argive assembly which could just as well be that at Athens, and Erechtheus at F 362 give instructions on kingship to his heir, we may infer that his characters have something to say politically to Athens of his time.

Students and instructors, not just in Classics, will find this an excellent and reliable book that provides a fine introduction to Euripides’ dramatic themes. For more about individual plays Conacher or Morwood can be consulted with profit. Torrance’s enthusiasm for her subject shines throughout the volume, which ends with this memorable summary: ‘Pyrotechnics, live sheep, wild dancing, cross-dressing, human sacrifice, murder, mutilation, dismemberment, suicide, psychosis, flying gods, possessed prophets, exotic settings, hair’s breadth escapes—Euripidean drama has it all’ (146).


1. Conacher, D. J. 1967. Euripidean Drama. Toronto; Mastronarde, D. 2010. The Art of Euripides. Cambridge; Scodel, R. 2010. An Introduction to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge; Storey, I. C. & A. L. Allan. 2014. A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, second edition. Malden MA; Swift, L. 2016. Greek Tragedy. Themes and Contexts. London; Morwood, J. 2016. The Plays of Euripides, second edition. London; McClure, L. (ed.). 2017. A Companion to Euripides. Malden MA.

2. Scullion, S. 2003. ‘Euripides and Macedon, or The Silence of the Frogs’, CQ 53: 389–400; Marshall, C. W. & S. van Willigenburg, ‘Judging Athenian Dramatic Competitions, JHS 124: 90–107.

3. Torrance accepts a low stage before the stage-building, but see the strong counter-argument by Rehm, R. 1988. ‘The Staging of Suppliant Scenes’. GRBS 19: 263–307. Also did the centre of the orchestra contain a working altar or was it a focal point adaptable for any dramatic use?

4. Conacher, D. J. 1981. ‘Rhetoric and Relevance in Euripidean Drama’. AJPh 102: 3–25; Lloyd, M. 1992. The Agon in Euripides. Oxford.

5. Kovacs, D. 2018. Euripides Troades. Oxford: 8–16.

6. Arrowsmith, W. 1952. Euripides II. Chicago: 2–3.