BMCR 2020.07.41

Euripides. Troades

David Kovacs, Euripides. Troades. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiii, 370 p.. ISBN 9780199296156 $124.95.

In his preface to this text and commentary on Euripides’ Troades, David Kovacs clearly states his goal in producing it: the volume at hand is “an effort to hear what is in the text”. He goes on to comment that it also contains “fuller detail than any previous commentary on the play”. While there may be small disagreements with some of the conclusions Kovacs reaches as part of his primary task, no one could argue that he has not accomplished the second. Kovacs’ Troades is a nearly encylopedic treatment of both the text and content of Euripides’ play, with in-depth considerations of production, metre, theme, and textual criticism, among others.

The introduction focuses primarily on three issues, each of which receives very thorough treatments: the date of the play’s original production, its staging, and its relation to the other plays in its trilogy (the fragmentary Alexandros and Palamedes). All three segments are helpful overviews of not just the issues themselves, but the history of scholarship on each topic. The first of these is of course relevant to interpretations of the play in its historical context, since Troades is a play especially empathetic to those on the losing side in war and was performed at the City Dionysia of 416/5, only a few months after the Athenians had sacked Melos and shortly before the Sicilian Expedition. Kovacs, as he does with nearly all of the issues he addresses related to this play, provides a comprehensive account of the scholarship on the topic, dismissing both chronology and anti-war sentiment as arguments for a Euripidean commentary on Athenian foreign policy. Kovacs’ point here is well-made, as he dismantles a set of fragile assumptions regarding the ‘message’ of the play that had come to be taken for granted in the 20th century. One does, however, get the sense that Kovacs is eager to counter any possible argument in favour of Melian allegory, as a few tendentious ideas that are not required to support Kovacs’ larger argument (e.g. that the Astyanax storyline has no point of comparison in 5th-century Athenian history, p. 14) get attention in this section.

The section that covers staging is also richly grounded in the applicable scholarship, addressing props, role assignments, and use of the eisodoi and how this use could enhance the visual impact of performance. This is an excellent incorporation in a commentary, and throughout the entire text Kovacs encourages the reader to connect staging, theme, language as part of his holistic study of the play. In this section, however, it can be hard to determine whether he is addressing specialists or neophytes (e.g. explaining what the skēnē is, p.18).

Kovacs spends much of the rest of the introduction contextualizing Troades with its companion plays, Alexandros and Palamedes. The reconstruction of Alexandros is particularly helpful for considering the trilogy as a whole, with its thorough consideration of Cassandra (pp. 30-34), who reappears with Hecuba in Troades. Connections between all three plays are explored as overarching themes like banes mistaken for blessings are combined with more granular considerations of individual characters and scene-types. In keeping with Kovacs’ meticulous approach, even the accompanying satyr play, Sisyphus, receives thorough treatment, despite its remnants consisting of a very fragmentary hypothesis and a two-line fragment. This is followed by a brief outline of each segment of Troades, tying them into the themes Kovacs has identified earlier. A rundown of the manuscript history of the play and a very brief discussion of reception close out the introduction.

The text of the play, including the hypothesis, receives careful attention, as the extensive apparatus criticus reveals. Many of Kovacs’ editorial choices also receive further notice in the commentary itself, with careful consideration of the history of textual criticism of this play. The volume also includes two appendices discussing conjectures at ll. 95-7 and l. 638 at length, which tie into the larger thematic discussions from the introduction.

The commentary follows the introduction in being richly detailed. Kovacs’ practice throughout is to provide a lengthy headnote for each section and metrical analysis for each of the lyric passages. As nearly every line receives some comment, it would be impossible to take up each of Kovacs’ choices here, so instead I will address the overall strengths of the commentary. Often when one turns to a commentary, it can be found lacking in one aspect of interpretation or another, depending on the reader’s needs. This is not the case here. Kovacs’ commentary contains an especially robust set of both tragic and literary contextualizations; those connecting to other parts of the Trojan Cycle, especially to fragmentary works like Stesichorus’ Iliupersis, are most welcome. Staging elements for each scene are included, alongside considerations of characterization and in-depth philological analysis. Relevant and historical scholarship is consulted throughout, with one notable absence. For a work that deals with this level of detail from a play that is saturated with lament and focused on the voices of women, there is little to address the intersection of that genre of expression and gender that has guided several important analyses of Troades (e.g., Dué 2006).  Nonetheless, there is something for nearly every reader here.

The all-embracing nature of this commentary means, however, that almost nothing in the play is unworthy of discussion, so the odd note has been included that may seem a bit too obvious or too literal in its interpretation. I was dismayed to see throwaway comments on Ganymede taking the “female” role in sexual encounters (p. 258 on l. 821) and on standards of beauty in “third-world countries” (p. 290 on Menelaus’ comments on Helen’s weight in ll. 1049-50) included. One would hope that comments of that nature that are not required to support the author’s argument would have been addressed at some point in the editorial process of a volume published in 2018.

Due to the wide-ranging approach of this text and commentary, I would happily assign portions of the introduction to undergraduates, while other segments will be valuable to advanced textual critics. In its detailed approach to text and theme, Kovacs’ commentary is a useful resource for any scholar working on Troades.