David Kovacs (ed.), Euripides. Volume IV: Trojan Women, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, Ion. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. viii + 520. ISBN 0-674-99574-0. UK£12.95.
David Kovacs (ed.), Euripides. Volume V: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. viii + 605. ISBN 0-674-99600-3. £14.95.
David Kovacs (ed.), Euripides. Volume VI: Bacchae, Iphigeneia at Aulis, Rhesus. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 455. ISBN 0-674-99601-1. £14.50.
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Greek drama has been well served in recent years by the Loeb series, with editions of Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Menander, as well as Euripides. The volumes reviewed here are the final three of the six volume Euripides set edited by David Kovacs, the first three having appeared in 1994, 1995, and 1998 respectively. The high standard of the earlier three volumes has been maintained, and a final solution offered to the long unusable versions of A. S. Way. Kovacs includes the Rhesus in the corpus, although he believes, in agreement with many other scholars today, that it was most probably an anonymous fourth-century work which came to replace a lost play of the same name by Euripides.
There is something in these three volumes for everyone. The reader without Greek who is looking for an accurate translation closely following the Greek original is well catered for. The reader with some Greek, who needs the translation as an aid to understanding it fully, is similarly in luck. Readers with good Greek who, for whatever reason, wish to get quickly in English to the heart of what Euripides is saying, should also definitely have these volumes on their shelves. The uncompromising Greek scholar, finally, has in them access to a reliable Greek text which can be usefully compared, for example, with Diggle's two-volume Oxford text (1981, 1984).
Kovacs's text is his own, though he has not undertaken a fresh collation of the manuscripts, and acknowledges a particular debt to Diggle. He provides an apparatus criticus (which, though simplified, will presumably be of little use to readers without Greek -- or Latin for that matter), and scholars can find, in other published sources, discussions of some of the readings which he has adopted. This is not the place to offer a critique of Kovacs's textual decisions. I should just note that he is rather free with his damning square brackets, eagerly taking over the suggestions of others before him in this regard, and contributing more of his own. Thus, for example, Trojan Women 424-26, Ion 595-606 and 621-32, Helen 20f. and 481f., and Orestes 564-71 are now made to bite the dust. He also dispenses with Phoenician Women 549-67 in its entirety. For the same play too, he washes his hands of all of 1308-53 along with 1582-1766, while admitting the possibility that some original material could still lurk among the scribblings of the second hand(s). For Kovacs too, the text of Iphigenia at Aulis as we have it is a total disaster area, reflecting in large measure the work of a fourth- century reviser, with the finishing touches supplied by a significantly post-classical nincompoop. We can, however, view Euripides' rump. One anomaly in Kovacs's procedure is that the translation of the square-bracketed Phoenician Women 1183-85 is given in a footnote, whereas in all other places such translations are incorporated in the main text.
Kovacs's translation is a tour de force. I cannot claim to have checked every single detail against the Greek text, but my overall impression is one of extreme accuracy. Moreover, although the translation is literal and follows the Greek closely, even mirroring particular metaphorical expressions, it is extremely readable and rarely comes across as artificial or stilted. A reader without Greek could thus have a pleasant experience going through it, while being confident that the Greek was closely reflected. If I pick out a few minor infelicities, this is in fact an acknowledgement of my almost complete satisfaction otherwise. Very occasionally Kovacs slips into slightly archaic English which strikes an odd note, examples here being 'unbeknownst' (Trojan Women line 40), 'do you, Phoebus, lead it' (Trojan Women 329 -- it could be argued, however, that this different register for an imperative is appropriate in a lyric passage), 'ere then' (Ion 720), and 'I know not' (Helen 631 -- this is especially surprising, since 'normal business' is quickly resumed with 'I don't fully understand', Helen 701). Then again, a few words, although not archaic, don't quite sound right in their contexts. Here, I might pick out 'I bring . . . a theme for you and me to discuss' (Trojan Women 53f., which sounds more like the words of the teacher of a literature tutorial than those of a deity), and 'ancient lady' (Helen 441, where the rest of Menelaus' language in his dialogue with the door-keeper doesn't match this exaggerated artificiality). Sometimes, too, we encounter translations which are either a little weak or which don't fully capture the flavour of the Greek. Thus 'grim voyage' (Trojan Women 75) seems a little lacking in colour for du/snoston . . . no/ston, as does 'sorrily (rushed down) a sorry road' (Ion 1226) for a/qliwj . . . a)tqli/an o(do/n. 'Made forcible love to' (Ion 10f.) doesn't pick up the idea of 'union ' in e)/zeucen, and 'let us plan' (Orestes 1098f.) doesn't spell out the emphasis on 'togetherness' in e)s koinou\j lo/gouj e)/lqwmen. Unless I've missed a trick, there seems to be something wrong with 'don't sic [sic!] on me those . . . maidens' (Orestes 255f.) for me\ 'pi/seie/ moi ta\j . . . ko/raj. And I've always thought, perhaps erroneously, that sw/fronoj d' a)pisti/aj ou)k e)/stin ou)de\n xrhsimw/teron brotoi=j (Helen 1617f.) means 'there is nothing of greater use to mortals than healthy skepticism' rather than, as Kovacs renders it, 'The best thing for a mortal man is to be sober and skeptical'.
In general, the notes accompanying the translation, explaining such things as geographical and mythological names, are judiciously chosen, concise, and crystal clear. There are, of course, a few inconsistencies. Thus in Trojan Women (p. 37), the term 'Dorian' is not explained, whereas 'Phrygians', 'Argives', 'Achaeans', and 'Danaans' have been (n. 1, p. 14). Then too, 'Phineus' and 'Amphitrite' in Iphigenia among the Taurians (p. 189) are passed over in silence, while other similar names are duly dealt with. Similarly, the name 'Chiron' is not explained in Iphigenia At Aulis (p. 185), whereas it is elsewhere, the same applying to 'Bromius' in Ion (p. 341) -- even if it is here qualified in the translation as 'the Bacchic god'.
Given that notes are kept to a minimum, the inclusion in Trojan Women of the note 'she [Hecuba] likens herself to a drone because being old she is of little use' (n. 8, p. 33) seems bizarre in the extreme. Also hard to understand is why, in Orestes p. 441), there is a note pointing out a probable allusion to Eumenides, whereas no other allusions are felt worthy of comment. At the very least, given the Eumenides reference, one might have expected notes referring Orestes line 30 to the Odyssey, Orestes 1225 to Choephori, and Orestes 1271 (where Electra panics unnecessarily) to Electra. Similarly, Phoenician Women 751f. might have been referred to Seven Against Thebes.
Another point which might have usefully been given a note is Menelaus' odd and unexpected question about Helen's weight at Trojan Women 1050, especially since Kovacs has published his views on the subject. In Phoenician Women (n. 47, p. 305) Kovacs might have mentioned the version of the myth involving several self-sacrificed daughters of Erechtheus, though it could be argued that this would have distracted attention from the parallelism with the single self-sacrifice of Menoeceus.
A reader who wishes to begin with a proper grounding in Kovacs's interpretative approach to Euripides would need to look beyond these three volumes to the very first volume in the series, where a general introduction is offered. This argues that many critics have brought to the interpretation of Euripides' plays too much information derived from the unreliable comic and biographical traditions. Kovacs is willing to accept that, once due allowance for comic exaggeration is made, the presentation of Euripides' style in Frogs may be reasonably accurate. He is much more dubious, however, about other aspects of the Aristophanic Euripides, and basically challenges even watered-down versions of the view that this tragic playwright is in some real sense shocking, outrageously innovative, unpopular, immoral, atheistic, and in the thrall of the sophists. This perspective of Kovacs's casts its long shadow over the concise introductions at the start of each play in the three volumes.
These introductions, all of which include a tidy synopsis of the play in question, vary in usefulness, the best two being those for Trojan Women and Orestes. With regard to the first of these, Kovacs begins by rejecting any direct link with the Melos massacre. He then argues that the play fulfils the expectations raised in Alexandros and Palamedes, the two lost plays which were performed along with it, where the gods will most probably, he adds, have been shown deliberately planning doom for Greeks as well as Trojans. Noting the unusual structure of Trojan Women, he suggests that all five scenes 'can be regarded as meditations on the archaic Greek themes of the deceptiveness of appearances, the unreliability of human knowledge, and the power of the gods' (p. 8). He concludes that the play is not 'nihilistic' or 'angry', its only consolation, however, being that the sufferers will be remembered by posterity. The thesis is well put, whether or not one agrees with it. The Orestes introduction (on p. 401, Kovacs should have talked in terms of three speaking actors, rather than just three actors) includes a brief mention of different interpretations which leads into a series of provocative questions. This nicely reflects the challenges of a 'baffling' play which itself raises more questions than it answers.
The introduction to Iphigenia among the Taurians is very brief and a bit short on substance, its main point being that the 'fatal' and 'happy ending' types of tragoidia are similar in that they both show 'the radical uncertainty of human life, the limitations of mortal knowledge, and man's dependence on the power of the gods' (p. 147). A reference to peripeteia isn't quite on target, and Sophocles' Oedipus the King is said to show the malignity of an Apollo itching to bring the curtain down on the cursed race of Laius. With regard to Ion, the Athenian emphasis is noted, and a tragic pattern detected of ignorant and erring mortals being rescued by divine benevolence. Kovacs places emphasis on the vast gap between humans and gods, the result being damage to humans in a world run by gods who don't understand the realities of the human condition. This description, however, doesn't even begin to address the complexities of the play and the issues raised about Apollo. The fact that the Delphic god's stated plan goes awry is mentioned, but the implications of this are not discussed. And the condemnation of the gods' immoral actions is surely much stronger than Kovacs allows for.
Of the other introductions, that for Helen is just adequate, while that for Phoenician Women identifies the 'I know not how' motif and the ironic prayer motif -- not exactly illuminating. For the Iphigenia at Aulis, we are fobbed off with the idea that human attitudes and actions have been dictated by the will of the gods. The Bacchae introduction is similarly unsatisfactory. The theological dimension is said to be consistent with that of Medea, Hippolytus, and Heracles. Pentheus is against all religion, not just the new religion of Dionysus, we are assured, and he goes to Cithaeron not as voyeur but to witness the secrets of a religion he both rejects and cannot wholly believe in. The play is 'a fable for Euripides' own day' (p. 8) in the context of a developing rationalistic strain of thought. Again, this fails to get to grips with the play's many dimensions and complexities.
To conclude. Readers new to Euripides would be given a rather one-dimensional and unsatisfactory overview through the introductions. They would, however, have a golden opportunity to enjoy the plays themselves and come to their own informed view. With regard to Kovacs's overall achievement, while I disagree with many aspects of his interpretation of Euripides, I have nothing but praise for his scholarship, and the lucidity of his writing, both as translator and commentator. These three volumes should be standard translations for many years to come.