Monday, March 24, 2014


Hanna M. Roisman (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy. (3 vols.). Chichester; Malden, MA: Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2013. Pp. 1808. ISBN 9781444335927. $495.00.

Reviewed by Lyndsay Coo, University of Bristol (

Version at BMCR home site

This weighty three-volume set contains 819 full entries written by 167 scholars from 20 different countries. Aimed at both non-specialist and scholar alike, the work is intended, in the words of its editor, to serve as a 'comprehensive and reliable reference that provides in readily accessible form the range of information that is required to fully understand and appreciate the tragedies' (p. lv). One might quibble over the word 'fully', but even specialists in the genre cannot fail to be impressed by the range and richness of what is on offer. The selection of authors is judicious, and the work benefits from the participation of a considerable number of distinguished experts whose work stands at the forefront of tragic research. Many contributors have recent or forthcoming monographs on the topics that they cover here: see, for example, the entries of Marco Fantuzzi on Achilles, Judith Fletcher on oaths and promises, Miriam Leonard on tragedy and modernity, Judith Mossman on women's speech, René Nünlist on scholia, Richard Rutherford on tragic language. To offer a further, very small sample of the line-up, other contributing authors include Christopher Collard ('Colloquial Language', 'Fragmentary and Lost Plays', 'Formal Debates', and several entries on Euripides), Eric Csapo and Peter Wilson ('Dramatic Festivals', 'Economic History', 'Origins and History of Tragedy', 'Records'), Pat Easterling ('Anachronism', 'hypotheseis', 'Tragic Canon'), Helene P. Foley ('Death', 'Mourning and Lamentation'), Jeffrey Henderson (on comedy and obscene language), Fiona Macintosh (on tragic reception), Christopher Pelling (on historians and tragedy) and Richard Seaford ('Wedding Ritual'). It is also good to see a wide range of junior and emerging scholars represented.

Each surviving tragedy (plus Euripides' satyric Cyclops) has a single entry which outlines its cast, plot, staging, interpretations and afterlife, with further individual entries on each character. In addition, for each of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides there are separate entries on the topics of ancient staging, characteristics of dramatic composition, dramatic innovations, gods and fate, treatment of myth, literary biography, Aristotle, textual transmission, relationship with the early philosophical tradition, translation, and reception. While the main focus is naturally on the 32 fully extant tragedies, we also find entries on the fragmentary and lost plays, Cynic tragedy, comedy, satyr-drama and Ezekiel's Exagoge. Taken together, these discussions offer a comprehensive and detailed overview, providing a wealth of information which covers both the very basic and the scholarly.

Critical approaches are well represented, with entries on, inter alia, anthropological criticism, deconstruction, feminist criticism, narratology, New Historicism, psychoanalysis, and post-structuralism. Examinations of tragic language range from detailed technical discussions of metre to examination of stylistics, rhetoric, and imagery. The big themes (e.g. hybris, knowledge, selfhood) are of course tackled, alongside investigations reflective of current critical trends, such as the senses (e.g. 'Blindness', with odour and haptics also discussed in 'Gesture and Body Language' and 'Physical Contact'). There is consideration of the relationship of tragedy to other ancient genres; of political, historical and economic contexts; of the physical theatre (performance space, set, machinery, costume, shoes, masks, props).

Reception fares particularly well. Alongside individual entries on the reception of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, other topics include the reception of tragedy in the fourth century BC, Senecan tragedy, medieval art, Hebrew translations, film and television, opera, modern philosophy, and an impressively wide range of international literatures (from Caribbean, Catalan, and Chinese to New Zealand, Norwegian, Polish, and Sub-Saharan African — to name but a selection). Of individual editors, critics and commentators throughout the ages, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Freud have their own entries. For the rest, the reader must look to the sections on scholia, transmission, Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Renaissance scholarship, and various entries covering scholarship from the eighteenth century to the present, where the usual suspects (Aristophanes of Byzantium, Demetrius Triclinius, Hegel, Jebb, Wilamowitz . . .) are all present and correct.

A few entries include or consist of catalogues which will be helpful resources to have at a glance, such as lists of all ancient actors about whom something is known ('Actors and Acting', pp. 5–6), what characters make up the chorus of each play ('Choruses', pp. 225–6),1 prominent operatic works based on tragedy (pp. 923–4), and significant objects and props ('Notional Props', pp. 896–7; 'Props', pp. 1016–21). The entry on 'Stylistic Devices' (pp. 1368–73) is also a useful handlist.

Each extended entry ends with full references and suggestions of up to three items for further reading. All references are then reproduced in an extensive bibliography spanning pp. 1495–1628. This repetition greatly increases the bulk of the encyclopedia, but it does make it more user-friendly. Almost all Greek is cited in transliteration, and everything is translated. Black and white illustrations appear sparingly but appropriately. The entries are exhaustively cross- referenced against each other, which certainly entices the reader to delve deeper into his or her exploration of the three volumes, but it also results in some visually distracting sentences where almost every word appears in small capitals, e.g. 'In EURIPIDES' MEDEA and ION, both the ATHENIAN king AEGEUS and XUTHUS, HUSBAND of CREUSA, DAUGHTER of the Athenian king Cecrops,2 visit the ORACLE of APOLLO at DELPHI . . .' (p. 217). The work is very easy to navigate, providing both a complete list of entries (pp. ix–xxx) and a comprehensive index (pp. 1629-1716). The formatting is only very occasionally awkward (e.g. the lemma 'Aeschylus: Oresteia, Suffering and Learning in' simply directs one to 'Suffering and Learning in the Oresteia).

As is appropriate in a reference work of this kind, the entries are scholarly and up-to-date but sensibly refrain from investing too deeply in any author's idiosyncratic critical stance.3 The vast majority of the content is accessible and jargon-free, in keeping with the intended wide audience. As one would expect, there is much unevenness. Some entries are outstanding, concise introductions which whet the appetite for further investigation; many are more workmanlike, while others verge on the banal by offering little more than a descriptive list of examples in which the phenomenon under discussion appears, with scant indication of how such a theme might be interpreted, and little sense of the field of study as a whole. Length of discussion does not always seem proportionate to interest and importance, and some entries abound in bibliographical references while others are noticeably lacking.

In a project such as this, overlap between contributions is inevitable (as the editor acknowledges, p. lvi), and on the whole this is unproblematic: few are going to read all three volumes from cover to cover, and in many cases it is appropriate and helpful for a subject to be treated both in a general entry (e.g. 'Family'), and then in a more focussed and specific one (e.g. 'Children', 'Parenthood'). But parts of the work do seem excessively and unnecessarily repetitive, and this could have been avoided by more rigorous selection and editing. It is invidious, in such a huge and wide- ranging work, to single out individual contributions for praise or censure, but the series of entries on nonverbal communication does seem particularly open to this charge of repetition. For example, I am not sure that 'Weeping' (which begins: 'Inarticulate sobbing sounds and clear saline liquid drops from the eye socket constitute weeping', p. 1475) really adds much to the entry on 'Tears/Crying', other than a few additional examples. 'Smile' could have been condensed and made into a subsection of 'Laughter', especially since — as the author of both entries points out — extant tragedy does not feature the verb for smiling (μειδ(ι)ᾶν) but regularly employs the language of laughter (γελᾶν). Finally, the long discussion of 'Gesture and Body Language' covers various aspects of nonverbal communication, such as chronemics, proxemics, and leakage — which are then treated again by the same author as separate entries, but without providing any new critical material or citing any recent scholarship; they simply increase the number of examples listed.

Some (but not all) of the entries on individual characters (e.g. 'Apollo') spend too much time summarising the plots of the various plays in which that figure appears, thus duplicating the information available elsewhere in the encyclopedia. The entry for each play includes a section on staging, but there are also full entries on 'Staging (Ancient)' for each tragedian. 'Performance' is of course a necessary contribution, but here it ends up as little more than a compilation and summary of information available in other entries (e.g., it contains a very short section on 'Costume and props', but could simply have directed the reader to the individual, extended entries on 'Costume' and 'Props'). Some of these repeated treatments are (perhaps unintentionally) revealing in highlighting unreconciled disagreements in current scholarship. For example, the thorny question of audience size in the fifth century is raised in a number of entries, all of which reference Csapo's work on the topic but offer diverse figures: maximum 7,000, or 8,000–9,000 ('Ancient Greek Theaters', p. 106); between 3,700–15,000 ('Ancient Greek Theaters', p. 106; 'Audiences at the Greek Tragic Plays', p. 174); 6,000 ('Theater Architecture', p. 1386; 'Theatrical Space and the Locale itself', p. 1388); or indecision, citing figures from 4,000 to 20,000 ('Performance', p. 953).

Following this complaint about excessive material it seems churlish to point to gaps, but a few omissions stand out. For example, there is an entry on the 'Ghost of Darius' but none on ghosts more generally, for which the index directs one to 'Liminality', 'Murder', and the relevant individual characters (one misses a reference here to Aeschylus' Psychagogoi). The entry on 'Virginity' is restricted to females, with no mention of Hippolytus (instead discussed under 'Celibacy') or Menoeceus. It would have been helpful to include a basic map in the front matter, especially since some 220 entries — more than a quarter of the total — are geographical, the writing of almost all of which seems to have been the unenviable task of Julie Brown. Not every place referred to in tragedy is covered, and the editor explains the criteria for inclusion: 'frequency of mention, historic or geographic significance, and potential usefulness to students and scholars' (p. lvi). There are many opaque geographical references in tragedy and the encyclopedia may be usefully consulted for their basic elucidation, although on the whole these entries are rather uninspiring.4

The range of material treated is certainly impressive, and the great majority of the extended entries provide very clear and informative outlines of their field, with useful pointers for further enquiry. Many are excellent places to which to direct students for clear and concise discussions of their subjects, and researchers will also find an abundance of helpful summaries and introductions to unfamiliar areas of scholarship. This encyclopedia is an excellent example of its genre. But it has to be admitted that the genre itself feels increasingly outmoded, when so much of the basic information that it provides is easily and freely accessible online. In light of this I doubt that any individual, whether non-specialist, student or scholar, will be willing to pay £300 to own it (or to meet the subscription fee for the forthcoming electronic version). Nonetheless, it will be a great pity if this work simply sits gathering dust on a library shelf. Significant effort has gone into its creation and compilation, and it deserves to be used and enjoyed.


1.   However, this inaccurately states that the chorus of Philoctetes consists of Philoctetes' sailors, rather than those of Neoptolemus.
2.   An error for 'Erechtheus'.
3.   There are occasional exceptions: for example, Roisman opens her discussion of Philoctetes with the statement 'It cannot be ruled out that the Merchant and Heracles were Odysseus in disguise' (p. 1309), a position for which she has argued elsewhere but which has not found widespread acceptance among critics.
4.   E.g. 'Black Sea: A large inland sea with the continent of Europe to the north and Asia to the south.' (p. 186), or 'Sicily: Little need be said about Sicily, the large island at the "toe" of Italy . . .' (p. 1247). Only on consulting the index is the reader directed towards this island's significance in the development of rhetoric, the biography of Aeschylus, etc.

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