William ALLAN, Euripides: Medea. London: Duckworth, 2002. Pp. 143. ISBN 0-7156-3187-X.
This is one of the first volumes in a new series of companions to Greek and Roman tragedy, under the general editorship of Thomas Harrison (whose article ?Herodotus and The English Patient? appeared in Classics Ireland 5 , 4863). The present reviewer is contracted to do the volume on Sophocles? Electra, and may thus be assumed to approve of the aims and style of the series. It is designed primarily for students studying drama in translation, offering accessible introductions to the background, themes, and performance history of the plays. Publishers love the word ?companion? (cf. Classics Ireland 6 , 1235), but a better description of this book might be ?critical introduction?. William Allan was educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, and now teaches at Harvard. This is already his third book on Euripides, after a full-length study of Andromache based on his doctoral thesis (Oxford University Press, 2000) and an edition of The Children of Heracles (Aris & Phillips, 2001). Those books proved him to be a sensible and competent Euripidean scholar, and this introduction to Medea has similar virtues.
Allan begins with an unwieldy chapter which combines three separate topics. First he gives a brief account of the City Dionysia, stressing the heterogeneous nature of the audience (which, he believes, included women) and questioning the fashionable view that tragedy had a didactic function. He passes up the opportunity to give a general account of Euripides, which might have been helpful in giving students some context for Medea. He proceeds to give a good discussion of the myths concerning Medea, essential background if one is to appreciate the scope and impact of Euripides? innovations. Finally, he gives (as required by the format of the series) a scene-by-scene summary of Medea. This is useful enough in itself, but it becomes irritatingly repetitive when he uses the running commentary format again in later chapters (e.g. in the separate but overlapping discussions of Aegeus on pp. 335, 62, 767, and 856).
The next three chapters deal with the central questions of gender, ethnicity, and revenge. Allan has much of value to say on these topics, although treating them separately tends to obscure the challenging connexions between them. He criticizes Edith Hall?s argument that tragedy warns against allowing women too much independence, and also Froma Zeitlin?s view that tragedians use women primarily to explore male conduct and identity. He makes good points against both scholars, but there is a hint of blandness in his conclusion that the play ?will have encouraged at least some spectators (both male and female) to reassess their preconceived notions of female autonomy and authority? (p. 65). The drastic discontinuities in Medea?s character are explained in naturalistic terms as ?emotionally plausible? (p. 53). He discusses the paradox that Medea destroys her loved ones (philoi) in the act of punishing her enemies (echthroi), but unfortunately prefers Diller?s interpretation of line 1079 as ?my anger is in charge of my plans? to the more usual ?my anger is stronger than my reason? (p. 92). It should be stressed that kreisso¯n cannot mean ?in charge of? in the sense required here, and that there is no reason why Medea should not use bouleumata to mean ?rational plans [not to kill the children]? in the same speech that she uses the word to refer to her plan to kill them. Euripides can be very casual about repeating words, but the repetition here actually draws attention to problem of rationality which is thematic in the play. Allan makes a good point at the end of this chapter that the moral problems of Medea?s behaviour are in no way alleviated by any implication that the gods approve of her revenge or that she herself has divine characteristics (p. 97). The gods themselves inflict troubling punishments in such plays as Hippolytus, Heracles, and Bacchae.
The final chapter (painfully entitled ?Multi-Medea?) gives a brief account of the Medea myth in later antiquity, and a mere two pages on the influence of Medea since the Renaissance. This is an opportunity lost, and a failure to measure up to the declared aim of the series to deal with performance history and adaptation.
The book has 25 pages of notes (245 in all) to 98 pages of text, printed inconveniently at the back. Many of these notes make quite trivial points and could well have been omitted. Others contain some of Allan?s better ideas, which would have been better in the text than buried in notes at the back. References to secondary literature should have been consolidated in the guide to further reading, which is exceptionally feeble and lists only three articles on Medea. Despite these faults of presentation, this is on the whole a sound introduction to Medea which will be of great value to students coming for the first time to this endlessly suggestive play.