SOPHOCLES: The Study of His Theater in Its Political and Social Context

Jacques Jouanna, tr. by Steven Rendall

Princeton (2018) h/b 896pp £43 (ISBN 9780691172071)

 This is a magnum opus indeed. J. is clearly steeped in every aspect of Sophocles’ life and work and in the wealth of both ancient and modern scholarship on the subject. First published in French in 2008, an English translation is only now available. J. deals in depth both with Sophocles life as an Athenian politician and with his writings. He adopts a thematic approach to the latter, using quotations from the extant plays extensively to illustrate his chosen topics. He concludes with an examination of how Sophocles’ works were preserved and their subsequent influence on playwrights up to the modern day. Almost half of the volume comprises appendices and notes, including detailed summaries of the extant plays and a meticulous survey of the fragments and of the evidence for other plays and for Sophocles’ life. Exhaustive footnotes accompany each chapter, along with more than 40 pages of relevant bibliography, appropriately divided into pertinent sections. 

J. intends ‘to resituate the man and work in his own time’ and to guide readers ‘through the multiple aspects of his political and religious activity within the city of Athens, and through the multiple facets of his theatrical work resituated in the everyday political, religious, and intellectual life of his age, while at the same time respecting the autonomy of artistic creation.’

Unusually, he takes as his starting point Ion of Chios’ record of Sophocles’ visit to Chios in 441/40 BC (preserved in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae), explaining that this captures the dramatist’s intellect, wit, military nous and fondness for boys. His subsequent comprehensive account of Sophocles’ life is placed firmly in its historical and political context and linked to his plays. He concludes Part 1 with a thorough examination of the Festivals of Dionysus at Athens and of the responses to Sophocles’ death. 

Part 2 focuses on the plays themselves. J. chooses broad themes, such as how myth was used in tragedy, the physical space of the theatre, the use of spectacle, time, action, character and the role of gods. He examines both ancient and modern theories, weighs the evidence and suggests conclusions, always focusing closely on the texts of the plays. For example, J. laments the loss of several plays which would elucidate our understanding of the Alcmeon myth. He explores how all three great tragedians developed myths in innovative ways and stresses the importance of the links to the foundation of places, families and cults. In his detailed account of the physical aspects of the Theatre of Dionysus, J. tackles issues such as whether or not women were present in the audience; he cites Plato’s Gorgias and infers that possibly a few women attended. Adducing modern archaeological evidence, he also postulates that in the 5th century the orchestra space and seating were rectilinear and not round and that there was a semi-raised stage separating actors from the chorus. 

Drawing from the texts, J. discusses the particular qualities needed by an actor, referring to Sophocles’ own small voice which cut him out, and considers how the parts in different plays would have been allocated. The texts are likewise analysed in depth as J. considers the differing uses of speech and song. He reviews the full definition of tragedy given by Aristotle in his Poetics and explains how this has distorted later perceptions of Greek tragedy, especially in the prominence given by the philosopher to action rather than spectacle. In his substantial exposition on characters, J. points out that the oft-quoted remark that Sophocles ‘portrayed people as they ought to be’ was specifically a riposte to the accusation that the tragedian’s characters lacked realism, and he explores Sophocles’ use of humble characters such as the old slave woman at the start of the Woman of Trachis. J. astutely points out how in Sophocles’ plays not only do the gods know and see everything, but sometimes, as in the Philoctetes and Electra, the audience knows more than the characters and full rein can be given to dramatic irony.

J.’s book will give both classicists and general readers hours of pleasure. It is encyclopaedic, detailed, fascinating, readable and tremendous value for money.

Marion Gibbs

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