Review: The Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1 (3rd ed.)

Greek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: HippolytusGreek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus by David Grene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(This review is of the third edition.) I assigned this anthology for students in my Greek and Roman mythology class. My review will be in three parts: 1. The translation and paratextual apparatus. 2. The selection of texts. 3. The plays themselves.

1. The translation and paratextual apparatus

Like the series from which these translations come, The Complete Greek Tragedies, these are readable, poetic renderings by translator-poets. The original editors of the volume, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated four out of the five themselves (Grene: Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Hippolytus; Lattimore: Agamemnon) and Elizabeth Wyckoff translated the fifth play, Sophocles’ Antigone. These translations are both poetic and smooth, and they avoid the awkwardness of, for example, Fagles putting ‘Aieee!’ into people’s mouths to translate ‘Aiai!‘.

My one concern is that in this third edition, the new editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, have taken it upon themselves not only to update the introductions and notes, but the translations as well. They claim that they have made the translations more accurate. I do not have time to sit down with the second and third editions and the Greek texts, but I am skeptical about this claim, solely on the grounds that poetic meaning and poetic diction are not always properly separable, and one Greek word or phrase may have multiple English renderings (of which I’m sure Griffith and Most are aware). I fear that this is more of the humanities slipping towards a false certainty of ‘accuracy’ derived from the sciences.

Paratextually, I am not fond of endnotes in the first place. Endnotes that are marked by a symbol in the main text that requires you to hunt and hunt I like less. This, however, is the name of the game for popular level translations of the classics, as seen in Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics as well. I found the introductions just what an undergrad needs — basic information, quick, snappy not too long. Finally, I am not so fond of rendering the sung parts of the plays in italics. A fourth edition should think of something else, although I think the rubrics should be enough.

2. The selection of texts

This is a good volume for someone who wants to try out Greek tragedies or for a class like mine that is giving a taster of classical literature — Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ most famous plays are here, Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound for the former, and Oedipus the King and Antigone for the latter. I would have expected Medea or Bacchae from Euripides rather than Hippolytus. In fact, one weakness of the selection is the fact that we get only five plays; two from each playwright would have made sense. Euripides, who exists in larger quantity, gets short shrift. The only problem with selection is endemic to anthologies — we get Agamemnon but not the rest of the Oresteia, for example; but at least that’s the best play of the three.

3. The plays themselves

Agamemnon by Aeschylus begins the volume. Here you meet straight up the fact that all the action happens off-stage in a Greek tragedy. This is the story of the homecoming of the Greek general from Troy to an unjoyous reunion with his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin, Aegisthus. Machinations are afoot, and vengeance is found. Clytemnestra has the reputation of being the most evil woman in Greek literature, but if your husband sacrificed your daughter to a goddess before going off to war for ten years, then came home with a concubine, I think you’d be a bit ticked off as well. Hubris and inescapable necessity (anangke) are the themes here.

Then Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This play opens with Prometheus getting chained to a rock and then having conversations with passersby, explaining why he was chained there and what it will take to unchain him. The main theme is the power of Zeus. The confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus, it must be remembered, is between two gods. So, unlike the Romantics’ reading of the play, there is no railing against divine (in)justice here. Rather, since we are beholding ontological equals in conflict, the question of ancient Greek tyranny is much more germane than whether Olympian Zeus was a tyrant in relation to humans. Along the way, the myth of Io is also told; I’d hate to see a film version of this with a CG cow delivering Io’s lines.

Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ famous rendering of the myth of Oedipus, a story known to most of us because of Sigmund Freud. The play is a masterpiece, as demonstrated by Aristotle’s Poetics. The confrontations with Oedipus from the beginning of the play to when he blinds himself demonstrate his own unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Relentlessly, he pursues the truth, drawing the circle around himself as the murderer of Laius tighter and tighter until the moment of recognition (anagnorisis) comes, bringing the main character’s fall.

After the events of Oedipus, there is a civil war between his sons (recounted in its own way in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes, which is in Aeschylus II). When the civil war is over, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices lie dead on the battlefield before Thebes. Creon, their uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle, is now king. He decrees that Polynieces is not to be buried since he waged war against his own fatherland.

Here begins Sophocles’ Antigone. I have a soft spot for this play, since it was the first piece of classical literature I read, back in high school (the second, in the summer before Grade 12, was the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Robert Fagles). Here we see the conflict between natural/divine law on the one hand and man-made law on the other. Even though the play was written before Oedipus, Sophocles is consistent in his characterisation of Creon — a man who did not want to become king because of the worries it would create. In this play, he grows in paranoia until he breaks and relents too late to stop a triple suicide. Powerful in its portrayal of female confrontation with authority.

The volume closes with Euripides’ Hippolytus. Here the theme is love, and love gone wrong. Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite, so she makes his step-mother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. Contrary to the positive portrayal of romantic love in pop songs and Hollywood, Euripides presents us with an elemental, amoral, at times immoral force that brings destruction all around it.

All five plays are masterpieces of Greek literature.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.