I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend who is in the midst of a Greek tragedy extravaganza. She’s been reading The Iliad and read part of this book in line with it. What caught my interest was her description of Euripides’ Helen, which explores the idea that perhaps Helen was not in Troy*. Perhaps the woman in Troy was a facsimile of her. If this was the case, what kind of life would the real Helen be living tucked away in a far-off land, knowing that a war was being fought over her but never knowing the specifics? I was intrigued.
I’d never read Euripides, and I have a solid lay knowledge of Greek myth but I am certainly no classicist. This volume of four of Euripides’ surviving tragedies is perfectly interpretable for someone like me with an interest and passing knowledge of the subject at hand but no expertise. Drawing from their feminist traditions, the authors root each of the plays firmly in the socio-cultural context in which they developed: the book begins with an in-depth historical survey of Athens and Athenian life at the time Euripides was writing his plays, and a more specific and detailed historical analysis is presented as an introduction for each of the four plays (Alcestis, Medea, Helen and Iphigenia at Aulis). I was expecting the introductions to be dry, and to be either pitched too low or too high for me in terms of content, but the introductions are well-organized, and therefore clear and easily navigable, well-written, and comprehensive in terms of the depth and breadth of information presented.
The translations of the plays themselves were obviously done with care. They read well, and they read easily. There seemed to be little attempt to ‘prettify’ the language, to make the dialogue stately and stuffy, which I appreciated. The text of the plays read simply and clearly on their own, but each play is extensively footnoted with additional information which fills the reader in on references or pieces of context which we may have missed. I, myself, compulsively read footnotes when the tiny superscript number interrupt the flow of text, which meant I was flipping back and forth between the play and the appendices of the book several times per page, which was kind of annoying, but if you are the kind who can pass over a footnote without your curiosity getting the better of you then this won’t present a problem to you–the footnotes are interesting, but you can follow the plot of the play easily without them.
The feminist analysis of each play was fascinating. The authors’ introductions provide the context for both the plays themselves, but also social constructions of gender in ancient Athens. The fact that women characters in Greek drama were played by male actors is pointed to more than once; each of these four lead female characters can be interpreted and understood through multiple lenses at once. Their prominence breaks boundaries since Athenian women were largely sequestered, but given that they are written by a male playwright and portrayed by make actors, how much of a hidden women’s narrative are they really part of? The lead characters themselves present a range of idealized female archetypes: Alcestis as the self-sacrificing best iteration of womanhood; Medea as the aggressive and selfish wronged bride; Helen as the ‘bad’ woman, the unfaithful whore (who is paradoxically actually faithful); and Iphigenia, a young and naive woman who sacrifices her innocence for the goals of the men around her. While each of these plays present some crystallization of either good or bad womanhood according to ancient Athenian customs, Euripides writes each as a smart, commanding strong presence, and each has a deeply unique and individual voice.
I highly recommend this book. As I read it, I found myself retelling each of the plays with urgency and gusto to anyone who would listen (and you would be surprised how many people would willingly listen to me do that; I have patient friends). It’s also pushed me to read or revisit retellings of Greek myths, specifically Weight, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia.
*YOU GUYS I AM THINKING OF TRANSLATING THIS IDEA OF THE IDEA OF HELEN STARTING A WAR WITHOUT ACTUALLY BEING INVOLVED IN IT INTO SCIENCE FICTION TO EXPLORE THE CHANGING NATURE OF NEWS AND COMMUNICATION. So stay tuned for that.