Thursday, 5 July 2018

Medea and Other Plays, by Euripides

I read this some time ago (maybe 15 years now) and reacquainted myself with this excellent little book recently. My edition is the Penguin version, translated by Philip Vellacott. The plays included are Medea, Hecabe, Electra, and Heracles.

Each play is a tragedy, the collective lesson of which appears to be that fate is cruel and you’re probably going to be vengefully murdered by a close friend or relative.

The plays are all very short. Despite there being four included, the page count (including the introduction and endnotes) is scarcely above 200 pages. This makes each play more or less a premise developed within a scene. However, this is done in an excellent fashion.

Euripides is extremely good at eliciting sympathy for someone’s unjustified plight, and then making one wonder whether the consequences of their anger are worse than the causes (to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius). The sense of human tragedy is not eroded one iota by the long time that has passed since the playwright’s lifetime in the 5th century BC. If anything, that prolonged period highlights the unchanging essence of human nature, of tragedy, cruelty, the will to revenge and the irresistible twisting of fate.

The plays all feature characters of some note in Greek myths, but for anyone not up on that the premise is clearly laid out so foreknowledge is not required.

I tend to go for history over literature, but this is a very good quartet of plays. If I didn’t already have a to-read pile I’d probably be looking at buying some more of Euripides’ works.

Downsides are few but clear. Endnotes remain the work of Satan, and they’re (rather oddly) not even flagged up in the text with small numbers or asterisks.

All in all, an excellent book.


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