Thursday, September 19, 2013


Martin J. Cropp, Euripides: Electra. Second edition (first published 1988). Aris and Phillips classical texts. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. vi, 281. ISBN 9781908343697. $34.00 (pb).

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

A quarter of a century after it was first published, Martin Cropp's commentary on Euripides' Electra now appears in a fully revised and updated version. This is a fine book, and everyone interested in Euripides – even if they already own the first edition – should acquire a copy.

The overall format of the book has undergone a few changes. The first edition began with a 'General Introduction to the Series' by Shirley A. Barlow, which contained short discussions of the ancient theatre, Greek tragedy, and Euripides. This has rightly been omitted from recent volumes in the collection, including this one: it was becoming rather out of date, and readers in search of introductory material on these topics now have a wealth of studies to turn to. The Bibliography has been moved from immediately after the Introduction to the expected location at the end of the volume. The cover is better designed (although with the same illustration); the font is slightly smaller, but still comfortable to read; Roman numerals for the Introduction have been banished in favour of Arabic numerals throughout.

The Introduction is divided into the same sections as before (with slight changes to some of the titles): 'A view of the play', 'Dramatic design', 'Euripides and the Oresteia tradition', 'The date of the play', 'Greek text and critical apparatus' (this last section was previously a piece separate from the Introduction entitled 'A note on the Greek text'). Cropp's revisions often show fascinating developments in his views over the years. His presentation of Clytemnestra, for example, has undergone subtle shifts. In 1988 his generally unsympathetic attitude is exemplified by the remark (p. xxxii) that 'Electra's claim that her mother would be glad to hear of Orestes' death [referring to 418-19] is as plausible here as the comparable suggestions in the Aeschylean and Sophoclean plays'. In 2013 this sentence is omitted, and the comparison with Aeschylus is used to point the reader in a quite different direction (p. 4): 'Euripides makes her a more ambivalent and vulnerable figure than [Aeschylus does] . . . Aeschylus's Clytemnestra comes to recognize the enormity of what she has done, but she never apologizes for it as Euripides' Clytemnestra does'. In the first edition, a mention of the chorus's sympathy for Clytemnestra during and after her death (cf. 1186-7) is qualified, or rather undermined, by a reference to the longing for her death that the chorus had expressed earlier (485-6); significantly, the paragraph ends with a quotation of 485-6, putting the focus on the chorus's passionate desire for the killing. Twenty-five years on this qualification has disappeared, rightly: the chorus's earlier support for the vengeance hardly tempers the bitterness of the play's conclusion.

Cropp has rethought more than his attitude to the characters. So in the first edition, the discussion of the chorus began with the not altogether enticing remark 'The Chorus of young women are another part of the mundane background' (pp. xl), and lasts for a single paragraph; in the second, we read 'The Greek tragic chorus was a complex entity, both implicated in the drama and capable of commenting on it from a more detached point of view' (pp. 14-15), an altogether more inviting statement which introduces a meatier, two-page analysis of the chorus's role. The discussion of themes and imagery originally began (p. xlii) 'Like many plays of Euripides, Electra is more discursive and dialectical, less dense in visual and verbal imagery, than its Aeschylean and Sophoclean counterparts'. This view certainly can be defended, but as the opening statement of the section 'thematic motifs' it rather has the effect of telling the reader 'move along, nothing to see here'. The second edition begins with the more effective comment 'Recurrent ideas and images reinforce the play's emotional and moral tones, especially in its sung parts' (p. 18), which is followed by a considerably lengthier and more penetrating analysis than was found in the first edition.

The Introduction is followed by the text and translation on facing pages. The first edition printed Diggle's text accompanied by a slimmed-down apparatus. The second prints Cropp's own text, in which he displays independence of judgment throughout, and his own apparatus, which manages to be detailed without deluging the reader with data. Cropp has refined his translation to make it at once more readable and more accurate. So in the second line the archaic 'whence' in the first edition has become 'from which': rightly, because the word that is being translated, ὅθεν, has nothing archaic about it. In the first edition βασιλεύει (12) was rendered 'lords it over', yet the unremarkable verb does not carry the opprobrious undertone found in the English; the second edition rightly changes the translation to simply 'rules'. The translation of θνῄσκει γυναικὸς πρὸς Κλυταιμήστρας δόλῳ | καὶ τοῦ Θυέστου παιδὸς Αἰγίσθου χερί (9-10) is given as 'his wife Clytemnestra brought about his death through her scheming, assisted by Thyestes' son Aegisthus' in the first edition, and as 'he was killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, with her guile and the violence of Thyestes' son, Aegisthus' in the second; the latter is superior, as it gets the balance between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus just right (whereas the earlier translation relegated Aegisthus to an assistant's role), and conveys the sense of χερί, a word ignored in the first edition. Comparing the two translations would be a productive exercise for anyone interested in the nuances of Euripides' text.

The Commentary has benefitted from revision, too. The note on 678 now ends with the remark 'In a Greek context the beating [sc. of the earth] is typically done by females [examples from epic and tragedy], and so probably by Electra here'; in a sentence Cropp opens up perspectives on gender and staging which were absent from the first edition. His textual discussions are sharper, too. So on 130-1, he originally supported ἀλατεύεις 'you wander' (of Orestes) against transmitted λατρεύεις 'you serve' by citing three passages in which Orestes is described as a wanderer; but that invites the response 'could Orestes not also be described as a servant or slave?' In the second edition he additionally remarks 'Orestes is not pictured as a servant or slave elsewhere in this play, and λατρεύω is not normally a transitive verb'; in a few words he strengthens the original justification and gives a further, linguistic reason for emending. Cropp's excellence as a commentator is most apparent in notes like these, which convey so much so efficiently in both textual and literary matters.

The Bibliography has been updated and expanded. This is particularly apparent in the section on Electra itself, where one and a half pages have become sixteen (in a smaller font); but the General Bibliography, owed to the General Editor of the series, Christopher Collard, is also considerably more detailed. The index is fuller and better organised, with many helpful new entries (e.g. 'commonplaces', 'ekkyklêma', 'virginity').

This is a fortunate time for Euripides' Electra: significant editions of the play by James Diggle, David Kovacs, and Giuseppina Basta Donzelli will soon be accompanied by an important OUP monograph by Evert van Emde Boas. Among these studies, Cropp's work more than holds its own, thanks to the incisiveness of his critical judgment, the accuracy and fluency of his translation, and the careful analysis in his introduction and commentary. Scholars and students alike concerned with this drama would do well to start with Cropp.

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