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A Companion to Greek Tragedy. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. 
Edited by JUSTINA GREGORY. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005. Pp. 
xviii + 394. Paper, $44.95. ISBN 978–1–4051–7549–4.

Greek Tragedy. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. By NANCY 
RABINOWITZ. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2008. Pp. xii + 218. Cloth, 
$29.95. ISBN 978–1–4051–2161–3.

Order these texts for $40.99 and $29.07, respectively, from Amazon.com 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.03.04

Readers will welcome the release of a paperback edition of Blackwell’s 
excellent Companion to Greek Tragedy, making it accessible to the average 
student. (Contrast the astronomical $169.95 for the original hardcover.) In 
the ever-proliferating world of handbooks and introductions, this volume 
remains at the top of its class and a superb resource for anyone who wants 
an introduction to “the variety of approaches, and the lively 
controversies that characterize the study of Greek tragedy today” (p. 
xvi). Although the Companion has the look and feel of a handbook, the 
chapters take the form of short, incisive essays rather than encyclopedic 
articles. As a result, the volume is a delight to read, and the diversity 
of topics is such that even professional scholars may find material 
unfamiliar to them, such as Salvatore Di Maria’s informative discussion 
of tragic performance during the Italian Renaissance.

In keeping with its stated goal, the Companion offers a diversity of 
critical opinions, in 31 chapters grouped under four rubrics 
(“Contexts,” “Elements,” “Approaches,” “Reception”). The 
selection of authors includes many of the most influential scholars of 
tragedy today, writing on the topics they know best: Mark Griffith on 
“Authority Figures,” David Kovacs on “Text and Transmission,” and 
Peter Wilson on “Music,” to name but a few. Although the approaches of 
many of these writers will be familiar from their more specialized work, 
the essays are often more than capsule summaries. In “Tragedy’s 
Teaching,” for instance, Neil Croally both reiterates the central 
arguments of his Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Woman and the Function of 
Tragedy (Cambridge, 1994), on the educative function of tragedy, and 
responds to critics of his thesis. The volume promises to “reflect the 
international scope” of tragic scholarship (p. xvi), and although 
Anglo-American scholars predominate, the relevant non-English scholarship 
is adequately discussed and cited, and there are important contributions by 
Bernd Seidensticker and Luigi Battezzato. A “Further Reading” section 
closes each chapter; while not exhaustive surveys of the secondary 
literature, these short annotated bibliographies provide a springboard for 
exploring the major schools of thought on each chosen topic.

There are nonetheless some inevitable drawbacks in the way the Companion 
has been arranged. As a consequence of the methodological pluralism, the 
chapters sometimes have the feel of stand-alone essays rather than 
participants in a larger dialogue. An introductory chapter or a short 
preface to each Part might have helped provide a common organizing 
principle to link the individual chapters. [[1]] As it is, the rubrics 
designating the Parts offer only the loosest of organization. Part III 
(“Approaches”) is especially amorphous; it is unclear why Martin 
Cropp’s “Lost Tragedies: a Survey,” for instance, is placed here, 
alongside chapters on feminist and anthropological approaches to tragedy, 
rather than in Part II (“Contexts”). Justina Gregory has done a fine 
job of including major topics of interest, although the final Part 
(“Reception”) might have been improved via inclusion of a chapter on 
the French classical drama of Racine and Corneille.

More might also have been done to highlight the disagreements and 
divergences of opinion that inevitably arise between the volume’s roster 
of A-list contributors. Cross-referencing between chapters is not as 
thorough or consistent as it could have been, and is especially needed 
where there are significant disagreements in method. When Sourvinou-Inwood 
(in “Tragedy and Anthropology”) disputes the notion that the ancient 
audience would perceive the deus ex machina in Euripides as “an empty 
gesture of closure” (p. 300), for instance, reference to Deborah 
Roberts’ earlier chapter, in which this interpretation is defended 
(“Beginnings and Endings,” pp. 143–4), would have been helpful. Since 
most readers will not read the volume straight through from beginning to 
end, such connections would help them evaluate the different methodologies 
on display. But these are minor quibbles, and the Blackwell Companion 
remains an excellent entry point to contemporary approaches to tragedy.

*		*		*

If the Companion offers breadth and comprehensiveness, Nancy Rabinowitz’s 
breezy introduction might be described as a protreptic for the study of 
tragedy. Writing from a progressive political point of view and for a 
general audience, Rabinowitz (R.) argues that the concerns dramatized in 
Greek tragedy remain relevant to modern debates about gender, power, race 
and class. While R. is careful to emphasize the culturally specific nature 
of Athenian drama, she does not shy away from seeing a contemporary 
use-value in the questions raised on the tragic stage: “these plays enact 
morally ambiguous situations in a complicated way, which makes them useful 
as a way of thinking through difficult scenarios in our own lives” (p. 
x). R.’s book is framed, in part, as a polemic against educational 
conservatives such as William Bennett and Lynne Cheney (in her role as head 
of the NEH from 1986–93), the self-proclaimed champions of classical 
education against the threat of postmodernism. R. rightly sees the cultural 
triumphalism advocated by Cheney and Bennett as a dead-end, and in her 
readings of individual plays ably demonstrates that the tragic texts 
unsettle orthodoxies much more than they encode a timeless, humanistic 
knowledge. In self-consciously positioning her text as yet another salvo in 
the culture wars, however, R. aims her sights at what is increasingly a 
straw target. Indeed, the majority of today’s undergraduate students seem 
quite comfortable with the pluralist approaches and questions R. advocates. 
Yet R. succeeds in presenting a compelling account of tragedy’s 
continuing relevance, without over-simplifying the differences between 
ancient text and modern preoccupations, and her larger argument remains 
valuable: Greek tragedy will continue to have a vital place in the canon 
because of its essentially interrogative power.

The polemical stance of R.’s book makes it likely that it will draw 
comparisons with Rush Rehm’s Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy and the 
Modern World (London, 2003), which also sought to articulate the radical 
questions ancient performance poses for modern practices. But unlike 
Rehm’s book, which offered a sustained critique of contemporary American 
theater performance, R.’s aims are more modest, and her readings of 
specific tragedies are often open-ended in their conclusions. The format of 
the book follows a mostly conventional structure for an introductory 
volume, and accordingly provides much of the contextual information a 
reader unfamiliar with Greek tragedy will want and need. Bibliographical 
references are kept to a minimum, though sections on “Suggestions for 
further reading” close some chapters. After a brief introduction, the 
volume is divided into two parts. Part I discusses the context of ancient 
performance in Athens in chapters on generic features, the political 
context of performance, and the religious context respectively, while Part 
II offers short readings of ten separate works.

An “Introduction” sets out the kinds of questions R. advocates, 
surveying some of the most influential interpretive approaches in tragedy 
scholarship of the latter part of the 20th century: New Criticism, 
structuralism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. 
Unfortunately R.’s capsule reviews are too short to make these 
methodologies intelligible; of the difficult Lacan, R. simply states “He 
is best known for his concepts of the mirror stage and the symbolic, both 
of which can be used to decode tragedy” (p. 5). It might have been better 
to omit such name-dropping, especially since R.’s readings of individual 
plays in Part II show a greater affinity for the kind of structuralism 
associated with Vernant and Vidal-Naquet than for the other approaches 
sketched in the introduction.

R. begins Part I (“Tragedy in its Athenian context”) with a chapter on 
the culturally specific understanding of tragedy in ancient Athens and with 
a brief discussion of Aristotle’s account in the Poetics. R. wisely 
engages with Aristotle only to elucidate some of his more influential 
concepts (hamartia, peripeteia, katharsis); although these are sometimes 
glossed a bit too superficially (e.g. katharsis described as the purgation 
of the emotions, p. 17), R.’s account admirably preempts major 
misconceptions of the terms students are likely to bring with them (such as 
the notorious “tragic flaw”). On the vexed question of the 
“function” of Greek tragedy, R. introduces an important sub-theme of 
her book, that tragedy provokes both an emotional and an intellectual 
response from the audience, since emotions engage the audience in an 
ethical response to the drama. Tragedy cannot be reduced to either an 
“aesthetic” or an “educational” function tout court (pp. 18, 58).

The rest of Part I does a fine job of synthesizing current mainstream 
opinion on the contexts of performance, political ideology and religion. On 
difficult questions R. is often agnostic; concerning the shape of the 
theater during the 5th century, for instance, she simply presents the 
evidence for a round and a rectangular orchestra, and describes the effect 
the shapes would have on theatrical meaning (pp. 21–3). R.’s account, 
however, nicely emphasizes the difficulty of using context as a guide in 
the interpretation of tragedy. In summarizing the contrasting positions of 
Goldhill and Seaford (pp. 54–5), for instance, she shows how even 
scholars who offer contextual readings of tragedy can reach strikingly 
different conclusions about the role of ambiguity and closure in 

Part II includes readings of ten tragedies, all treated under four separate 
rubrics that illustrate the conflicts concerning gender, power and the 
divine that R. sees as constitutive of tragedy (“War and Empire,” 
“Family Romance and Revenge in the House of Atreus,” “Victims and 
Victimizers,” and “The King and I”). This is where R.’s book stands 
out from the most recent crop of introductory volumes, including the 
Blackwell Companion, since it demonstrates the value of a contextual 
approach to tragedy through short, incisive readings of entire plays. As a 
consequence, R. does not provide much in the way of stylistic analysis of 
each tragedian, aside from noting the effect of the Peloponnesian War on 
the thematic emphases of Euripides and late Sophocles, in contrast with 
Aeschylus (pp. 116–17). Nor does R. always delve into the canonical 
problems presented by each play; there is no discussion of the enduring 
problem of how to stage the final scene of Oedipus the King, for instance. 
Instead, she focuses on how tragedy interrogates binary cultural 
oppositions such as male/female, Greek/barbarian, and so on in a familiar 
structuralist manner, privileging interpretations that illuminate the 
fundamental ambiguity underlying these oppositions. In other ways, too, R. 
emphasizes the interrogatory nature of tragedy, which works to draw the 
audience into active engagement with the ethical dilemmas presented on 
stage. In her discussion of the ending of Hecuba, for instance, R. draws 
back from interpretive certainty about how to evaluate the heroine’s act 
of vengeance: one’s reaction “will depend in part on the performance 
… and admittedly on your personal predilections and tolerance for 
violence” (p. 146). At such points, R. frequently develops analogies 
between the concerns of individual plays and of the modern world, in order 
to bring home how complicated an audience’s response may be. R.’s 
discussion of possible Athenian reactions to Aeschylus’ Persians in the 
light of the American intervention in Iraq is particularly apt (pp. 

The Epilogue, written in collaboration with Sue Blundell, surveys modern 
performances of Greek tragedy, outlining some areas in which they have 
creatively engaged with the past to address contemporary issues. The 
chapter leans more heavily towards Anglo-American productions of tragedy 
(understandable, given the documentation available), though the authors 
have important notices on non-Western productions and on the appeal Greek 
tragedy has had for subjects of European colonization (notably in the work 
of Athol Fugard and Wole Soyinka). That R. fails to bring film adaptations 
(e.g. the Euripidean trilogy of Cacoyannis, Pasolini’s Edipo Re or Lars 
Von Trier’s Medea) into her discussion seems a missed opportunity, given 
that such media might easily be incorporated within a course on tragedy.
This is thus an engaging introduction to the subject, especially for 
instructors interested in exposing their students to the broadly contextual 
approaches R. advocates. Some readers may find R.’s repeated references 
to the contemporary world a bit too free; but she works mostly through 
suggestion, leaving it to her readers to think through the implications of 
her analogies and continue the dialectic between past and present.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[[1]] One might compare Paul Cartledge’s initial chapter “‘Deep 
plays’: theater as process in Greek civic life,” which successfully set 
the stage for the contextual approaches that followed in the Cambridge 
Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by P. Easterling (Cambridge, 1997).

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