Laura Swift, Greek Tragedy - Themes and Contexts

Laura Swift, Greek Tragedy - Themes and Contexts 9781474236836 Bloomsbury, 2016, 125 pages, £12.49

Laura Swift, Greek Tragedy - Themes and Contexts 9781474236836 Bloomsbury, 2016, 125 pages, £12.49


This book has an ambitious aim – to provide a meaningful introduction to tragedy for undergraduates and school students alike. It is basically very successful in what it seeks to achieve, providing an excellent treatment of the genre and its main writers, including reference to silly traditions (Aeschylus being killed by a dropped tortoise, anyone?) as well as more serious things, such as contemporary references made by Aristophanes to the main writers of tragedy in the Frogs and the Women of the Thesmophoria.


The chapter on Myth makes reference to an interview with Alfred Hitchcock, relating his points very clearly to audience expectations in Oedipus the King. The chapter on Heroes explains Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics quite lucidly but also questions it, on the basis that his views should have “no greater inherent authority than those of any other literary critic”. This is well argued and like so much else in the book, very clear. In fact, clarity is the main thing to note about this book: if you want a short, well-argued and comprehensible introduction to Greek tragedy, there’s not much around which you can call better than this.


There are further chapters on Gods, Contemporary Thought and Gender and the Family. In the eighth and final chapter, which treats with the Chorus, Swift is just as clear as before, explaining that modern-day questions about the role of the Chorus would have been found incomprehensible in the times that the plays first appeared: the Chorus long predated comedy and tragedy, she is correct to argue.


Swift is a bit restricted in her treatment of masks and I should have like to have seen a bit more about this topic, particularly since there are those of us who have tried (and failed) to implement these in our own, modern productions. The timeline at the end of the book is easy to use and informative, just like the rest of the book, but again, I should personally have liked to see a bit more material in the relevant dates column on aspects such as Pericles, the development of the Acropolis site and the achievements of other intellectuals and writers. I should stress, however, this is a minor quibble.


Swift has given us a complete, clear treatment of the subject matter which reads easily and well, so I recommend this to anyone who brings curiosity with them. The book may or may not be suitable as an introduction for a complete novice but as a interested person’s guide to the genre, I find it impeccable.


Julian Morgan