Sophocles, The Complete Plays

The Complete PlaysThe Complete Plays by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A mere seven out of 123 dramas by Sophocles have survived. (Civilization is fragile; don’t let anyone tell you differently). This Signet Classics edition collects these plays in versions translated by Paul Roche. According to Wikipedia, Roche was a second-generation Bloomsberrie, enemy to Vanessa Bell and lover of Duncan Grant. (Was it Hugh Kenner who, with a mixture of homophobic venom and campy cattiness, described Bloomsbury as a congeries of men and women all in love with Duncan Grant?) As a translator, Roche is much less devoted to Biblical fustian than earlier translators like Richard Jebb; his verse is as simple and conversational as Robert Fagles’s while also being more carefully wrought. As he tells us in his translator’s preface, he retains Sophocles’s meter by using what he rather oddly calls “Freewheeling Iambic”—i.e., essentially a form of accentual verse like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s neo-medieval “sprung rhythm,” where the poet counts the beats per line without also counting the unstressed syllables to keep a flexible but percussive regularity, as of natural speech. Roche adopts this technique, he says, to give English readers a sense of the speed of the plays in Greek, and it works well for that; but he confesses also that it is beyond his ingenuity to reproduce the density of sound in Sophocles—the alliteration, consonance, and assonance that creates magnificent textures out of what Roche assures us are common Greek words.

Roche arranges the plays in the historical-mythological order of events they describe. The volume opens with Ajax, set during the Trojan War, and ends with Antigone, the conclusion of the Theban cycle—even though Antigone is a work of Sophocles’s middle period and famously late plays, such as Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, get displaced into the middle of the volume. This is probably the least confusing way to do it for students, but I would have preferred to track the development of the playwright’s vision and sensibility. My responses to the plays themselves, in the order in which they appear in this volume:

Ajax: In this play set during the Trojan War (after the death of Achilles), the great warrior Ajax has just been vexed by Athena. Furious that the armor of Achilles has been inherited by the goddess’s favorite, Odysseus, he plots to murder Agamemnon and Meneleaus, whom he not unreasonably blames for having dragged him away from family and homeland to fight their corrupt and sordid war. But Athena tricks Ajax into murdering instead a head of cattle seized from the Trojans before it can be distributed among the Greeks. When he comes out of his illusion, the mortified and furious Ajax plots and eventually accomplishes suicide, despite the protests of his sailors (the chorus) and of his touchingly though realistically loyal captive bride Tecmessa. Following Ajax’s death, a dispute ensues between his half-brother Teucer and the Atreus brothers over whether his body should be buried (shades of Antigone); eventually the shrewd and politic Odysseus mediates among them, and the burial takes place. This is not a very action-packed play; the main interest is in its laments and debates, particularly in Ajax’s climactic curse upon the House of Atreus, Teucer’s rancor against same, and Odysseus’s amusing opening conversation with Athena. Odysseus is an ambiguous figure here, ethically dubious but pragmatic and level-headed in a play all about seeking balance; Athena, standing behind him, is even more questionable. Even more interesting than the language, though, is the mise en scène: Ajax among the slaughtered cattle in the play’s beginning; Ajax’s body impaled upon his own sword, oozing gore, onstage throughout the final third. This is a play whose superficial resolution cannot cloak its terrible assertion that if the gods will it, your life will become an abattoir. Your own hubris will certainly not be to your advantage in the situation, however.

Electra: This a protracted revenge play, poignant for its tender portrayal of its heroine, reduced to the conditions of a slave and thereby able to sympathize with the conditions of slavery. Her repeated references to herself as a nightingale, singing of her losses, is moving in itself and more moving when one considers it as a poetic trope that will resonate through the centuries—in Ovid, Shakespeare, Keats, Eliot:

ELECTRA: Shallow is one who forgets a parent’s
Pitiless end. Give me instead
The sorrowful nightingale, she who sings
Its Itys—forever distraught:
Emissary of Zeus.

The confrontation between Electra and her sister (who wants to be prudent) is a nice revisitation of the Antigone/Ismene conflict in Sophocles’s earlier play. Orestes’s fake death, reported by his older confederate to mislead the villainous Clytemnestra, is a masterpiece of action-narrative, justifying the back cover’s reference to Sophocles as a “tragic Homer.” Clytemnestra herself is too petulant to be impressive, though her self-justification (that she killed Agamemnon in revenge for his sacrifice of Iphigenia) is compelling, despite Electra’s correct reply that this does not justify adulterous murder. Not the most impressive Greek play, but worth reading for its heroine.

Philoctetes: In this drama’s backstory, the titular snakebitten warrior has been abandoned on a deserted island called Lemnos by his Greek comrades during the Trojan War because the stench of his wounded foot so disgusted them. The play begins when crafty Odysseus, along with the dead Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, land on Lemnos to retrieve Philoctetes, because an oracle has revealed that the Greeks will not defeat Troy without him. This play is notable for its particularly unpleasant portrayal of the scheming Odysseus, a figure Sophocles seems to find repellent, as he attempts to trick Philoctetes into coming back to the Greek camp. The decent Neoptolemus forges a tender relationship with the aging, injured warrior and resists Odysseus’s deceit. (As in the similarly late play of old age, Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles elegiacally portrays a youngster coming to love an older, more vulnerable person who relies on the aid and loyalty of youth.) Philoctetes’s characterization is masterly, from his sad way of asking after his former associates and lamenting the news of their deaths (including that of Achilles) to his sick old man’s querulousness, especially potent in his rage against Odysseus. He really does remind me of a Beckett character, with his unutterably sad vulnerability, his bittersweetly comic and half-impotent fury, and even his injured foot (a motif in Beckett, poet of pain, whose characters often literally “can’t go on,” because they lack the power of locomotion). But Sophocles has the gods whereas Beckett has nothing, and this play, not a tragedy at all, ends full of promise, as the 90-year-old playwright and his suffering hero look to the horizon:

Good-bye, sea-skirted isle of Lemnos:
Breeze me away on a faultless voyage
To whatever haven Fate will waft me,
To whatever purlieus the wish of my friends
And the universal god of happenings brings me.

The Women of Trachis: This one is almost Euripidean in its sympathy and complexity. It is the story of how Deianeira, trying to win back the love of her womanizing husband, the hero Hercules, after he captures a younger bride, accidentally kills him by sending him a shirt bequeathed to her by the centaur Nessus. (Nessus, unbeknownst to her, had poisoned it to revenge himself on Hercules for wounding him as he attempted to rape Deianeira.) The second half of the play, full of the very slowly dying Hercules’s complaints, is not interesting, but Deianeira’s resigned, intelligent, and forthright reflections on the fatality of love are quite moving, as is her eventual suicide:

You are talking to a woman
who is neither perverse nor ignorant
of the ways of men
and knows the inconstancy of the human heart.
Anyone who has a boxing match with Eros is a fool.
The god of love does exactly what he likes—
even with the gods.
If he rules me,
then why not another woman in the same way.

Oedipus the King: What is left to say about Oedipus? It is a masterfully constructed play, full of symbolic economy (references to eyes and vision are pervasive) and, every time I experience it, it is unbearably suspenseful in its dramatic irony. Everybody from the ancient audience to the post-Freudian reader knows Oedipus’s story before he does, rendering the play a master-class in sympathy with sublime catastrophe. Even though this play allows its spectators a god’s-eye-view, we know that we, no less than the tragic hero, are caught in the toils of fate and must one day submit. Few moments in literature are more moving than Jocasta’s farewell: “Good-bye, my poor deluded, lost and damned! / There’s nothing else that I can call you now.” (Not son, not husband.) Oedipus’s tragic flaw is a trust in himself, borne of having solved the Sphinx’s riddle without realizing its implications for all mortals. When he refers to himself, earlier in the play, as “a stranger to the story” of Laius’s murder, we know that the terrible story is in fact about him and no one else. Seeing himself as a rational foe of the monstrous (perhaps also, implicitly, the sexual, the feminine, and the deadly), he does not recognize the monstrous in himself. But the sublimity of his self-trust comes from his pursuing his investigation to the end of the line, until he finds a truth so horrifying to look upon that he must strike at the organs of perception, thereby becoming precisely the decrepit man at evening, going on three legs, referred to in the Sphinx’s riddle. I recall that Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, were able to mount their attack on the entirety of western civilization by treating Odysseus (about whom Sophocles is so ambivalent) as its founding representative—Odysseus, the polytropic man, who always wins by cheating. There would have been a hint of self-congratulation in selecting Oedipus as representative of Enlightenment, but Oedipus is the ultimate in self-scrutiny and self-criticism, as the modern west might say of itself, if only it weren’t too self-critical to praise itself. In any case, Oedipus may investigate himself and punish himself, but it does not make him (or us) any less a monster. This truth—that knowledge is its own good but no salvation—suggests the limits of any Enlightened perspective.

Oedipus at Colonus: Sophocles’s final vision, the drama of the aged Oedipus’s transfiguration, his mysterious near-assumption on the outskirts of Theseus’s Athens:

Some emissary maybe from heaven came;
or was the adamantine floor of the dead
gently reft for him with love?
The passing of this man was painless
with no trace of pain nor any loud regret.
It was of mortal exits the most marvelous.

There is loud conflict, with the blind and vulnerable Oedipus in marvelous command of language as he rebukes his enemies, including Creon and his son, Polyneices. As Roche observes, “his years of suffering have raised him to a holy dignity as the recognized vehicle of divine justice.” Drama gives way to the mysterious ritual of the play’s conclusion, an authorial prayer for grace on the lip of the grave. Meanwhile, the chorus of Athenian elders concludes, as Sophocles nears his own death and a weeping Antigone walks offstage to her fate,

Come, then, cease your crying
Keep tears from overflowing
All’s ordained past all denying.

A wisdom much out of fashion—and not actually comforting—but fortifying.

Antigone: Now this tragedy I have never quite understood. Ever since Hegel, it is famous for supposedly representing a confrontation between two viewpoints, each of which is right on its own terms. But Creon is not right on any terms. Everyone in the play agrees that his decree against burying Polyneices is impious, a slight against the gods that will invite punishment. Moreover, his ruling is impractical from a pragmatic political perspective—while a leader wants to make himself feared and respected, petty dictatorial actions against a defeated enemy seem like a confession of insecurity, a display of weakness rather than strength. As for Antigone, she may be technically correct about the familial and religious need to bury her brother, but Sophocles presents her as a heroine so death-entranced as to be positively Decadent (I imagine she is the inspiration for Wilde’s Salome). I believe some have suggested that Antigone has an incestuous desire for her brother, a carrying over of the incest motif from her father’s tragedy. But she justifies risking her life for her brother in coldly rational terms, terms so rational that they actually exclude piety (since she avers that she would not risk death to bury any other family member): if you lose a husband or a child, she says, you may marry or bear another, but you can’t find or make more siblings. Again, this is correct on a technicality, but all her emotion, all her desire, is for death itself, because what does she, who has lost so much, have to live for?

Come, tomb, my wedding chamber, come!
You sealed off habitations of the grave!
My many family dead, finished, fetched,
in a final muster to Persephone.

There is much to admire in this brief play, from the chorus’s extraordinary oration on human power and limitation to the brief but perfectly evocative roles for Haemon (a Romeo avant la lettre, as Roche points out in his introduction) and the prudent (or cowardly) Ismene. I do not think this play can bear the weight of its political interpretation—as a staging of the rival claims of family and state—since both family and state are so utterly disordered in this story of the house of Oedipus. But as a drama about human despair and perversity, about the irresistible urge some of us—the fatally stubborn Creon no less than death’s bride, Antigone—feel to take our lives to their ultimate conclusions in some spectacular gesture, it is unrivaled.



  1. Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    I happen to be a fan of both ancient literature and of most all of the surviving important Greek playwrights. So I enjoyed reading this.

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