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4 Plays: Ajax / Electra / Philoctetes /…

4 Plays: Ajax / Electra / Philoctetes / Women of Trachis

by Sophocles

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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57. Sophocles II : Ajax; The Women of Trachis; Electra; Philoctetes (The Complete Greek Tragedies)
translated: 1957
format: 255 page paperback (20th printing of a 1969 edition, printed in 1989)
acquired: May
read: Aug 31 - Sep 5
rating: 4 stars

There is something special about Sophocles relative to the other two preserved tragedy playwrights. David Grene says he is "the most modern, the nearest to us, of three Greek tragedians". What I think sets him apart is the power of the language itself. I know I'm reading this in translation, but Sophocles manages to make striking notes with short phrases, over and over again through his plays.

These four range quite a wide spectrum of his styles. The Women of Trachis stands out as being unusually wordy. It's considered immature, and it was the one I liked the least, although it has it's memorable aspects. The other three are each a masterwork in some way.

Ajax ~440 bce, translated by John Moore

When Achilles died, his armor was supposed to go to the best warrior. But Odysseus manipulated the process and won the armor. Ajax, truly the best warrior, committed suicide in humiliation. The manner in how he does this varies in different stories and Sophocles could chose his preferred version for the drama.

In this version Ajax sets out to kill Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus, but Athena plays a trick on his mind. Instead of attaching the men, he attacks sheep, thinking they are these men. He captures and tortures them, gloats and kills them and then passes out. Upon awaking, he is fully humiliated. The play is about how he bears it.

I found Ajax, the character, magnificent. He must come to terms with what he has actually done, and what to do about it, and about his wife, and son and brother, Teucer. He rocks with grief, then, feeling he has no choice but to kill himself, must give his family an affectionate goodbye, while concealing it from them, their servants, and the entire audience.

In the Homeric story, Ajax may well represent the most ancient aspects of Greek history. His full-bodied shield is antiquated even for the supposed time period of the bronze age Trojan War, and also for weaponry used within the epic. He is a relic from an older time, preserved. He is an archetype, silent both in his stoicism and because he in some ways defies words. I like to think Sophocles knew this, even if he didn't have the word "archetype" within his vocabulary, and that he captures elements of this here.

Unfortunately, we lose Ajax halfway through the play, and the play must go on without its best character.

The Women of Trachis ~450 bce, translated by Michael Jameson

In the tradition, apparently, Deianira, long suffering wife of Heracles, has had enough when Heracles falls for his captive, the young Iole. She sends him a poisoned gift. Sophocles' twist is to make her innocent. She intends to send him a potion from long ago that would make Heracles only love her and no one else. She doesn't realize it's actually poison. Sophocles does some interesting things with Heracles too. The play seemed wordy to me, and lacked the magical lines Sophocles creates in his other plays. And, being a Greek tragedy, it was a bit over the top with the melodrama. Not my favorite, obviously.

Electra ~409 bce, translated by David Grene

Electra is a brilliant, if understated play, with little action. Grene appreciates this in his intro and translation. He wasn't able to create the same magic Anne Carson does with her translation, and I don't think he felt and understood Electra the character as well as Carson does. But, still, this play has a lot of life in his translation too. (I reviewed Anne Carson's translation HERE)

Philoctetes 409 bce, translated by David Grene

This was a great play to end with. It is interesting and curious. Philoctetes, a master bowman from the Iliad who uses Heracles's bow, was bitten by a snake in the foot. Then he was dumped alone on the island of Lemnos by the Greek leadership - namely Agamemnon, Menelaus and, Odysseus. But the prophecy says that Philoctetes and his bow are needed to defeat Troy. He has to come back and fight for those who punished him.

In the play it's Odysseus and a young Neoptolemus, son of dead Achilles, are sent to bring him to Troy. Odysseus plays a hard game, opening the play by manipulating the still pure and honorable Neoptolemus. He knows it must be Neoptolemus who convinces Philoctetes to join, through is own apparent integrity and honor. "It is you who must help me," he tells him, and then advises him to "Say what you will against me; do not spare anything."

Things mostly go as planned. Neoptolemus wins the elder Philoctetes over completely, but the respect is mutual. Odysseus sets the trap, captures the bow and waits for Philoctetes to finally give in, but Neoptolemus undermines it all, returning the bow to Philoctetes. It's only when Heracles himself appears, in god form, that Philoctetes relents and comes to Troy.

Odysseus controls everyone ruthlessly, never letting on about his true plans. But his machinations don't capture the audience as much as Philoctetes does. It's hard not to like this desperate, and rather disgusting and unkempt survivor. The conversation between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus is moving. When Philoctetes is betrayed he reveals that he has no god to turn to. They are all against him. "Caverns and headlands, dens of wild creatures, you jutting broken crags, to you I raise my cry—there is no one else that I can speak to—" And, later, screaming at Odysseus "Hateful creature, what things you can invent! You plead the Gods to screen your actions and make the Gods out liars." This is Sophocles quietly damning the Gods himself.

A last note about his play. These plays were restricted to three actors and a chorus. When Heracles appears, Neoptolemus is on stage with Philoctetes. Which means the actor who plays Heracles is the same one who plays Odysseus and the audience would know this. So, was it Heracles, or, wink wink, was it really Odysseus putting in his last trick?

This collection finishes my incomplete run through these tragedies. I read all of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and most of Euripides. Of three playwrights, Sophocles was easily my favorite. I see him as the gem, the full master of language, creating living breathing experiences within the restrictive constraints of the form. ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Sep 6, 2016 |
Women of Trachis:

The translation I read is extremely crisp and modern-feeling, but other translations I looked at online have much of the same feel to them, so some of that has to come from the original. I love that this play is almost entirely told by a woman, Deianeira, and a chorus (the titular Women of Trachis), and the usual hero, Heracles, doesn't come in until the final section of the play (and isn't all that heroic when he does arrive). And the tragedy, my God, the tragedy! This is one that everyone should read, and one that I'm definitely going to read again.

[full review here: http://spacebeer.blogspot.com/2014/12/women-of-trachis-by-sophocles-circa-430.ht... ] ( )
1 vote kristykay22 | Dec 17, 2014 |
Edition: // Descr: v, 254 p. 20.5 cm. // Series: The Complete Greek Tragedies Call No. { 882 S6 12 } Edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore. // //
  ColgateClassics | Oct 26, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sophoclesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Grene, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grene, DavidEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grene, DavidEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jameson, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lattimore, RichmondEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, John AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watling, E. F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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DEÏANIRA: An old saying goes: 'You can never know for sure / Whether a mortal's life has been good or bad / Until his death.'
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Editions containing Ajax; Electra; Philoctetes; and Women of Trachis include:

Grene and Lattimore's Complete Greek Tragedies V. 4 (Sophocles II)
Penguin Classics' Electra and other plays
Penn Greek Drama Series Vol 1
Methuen Classical Greek Dramatists Sophocles II
Vier tragedies
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226307867, Paperback)

"These authoritative translations consign all other complete collections to the wastebasket."—Robert Brustein, The New Republic

"This is it. No qualifications. Go out and buy it everybody."—Kenneth Rexroth, The Nation

"The translations deliberately avoid the highly wrought and affectedly poetic; their idiom is contemporary....They have life and speed and suppleness of phrase."—Times Education Supplement

"These translations belong to our time. A keen poetic sensibility repeatedly quickens them; and without this inner fire the most academically flawless rendering is dead."—Warren D. Anderson, American Oxonian

"The critical commentaries and the versions themselves...are fresh, unpretentious, above all, functional."—Commonweal

"Grene is one of the great translators."—Conor Cruise O'Brien, London Sunday Times

"Richmond Lattimore is that rara avis in our age, the classical scholar who is at the same time an accomplished poet."—Dudley Fitts, New York Times Book Review

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:20 -0400)

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Provides translation of four Greek dramas by Sophocles.

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