Tag: Sophocles

64. Electra by Sophocles (405 BC)

64. Electra by Sophocles (405 BC)

Plot: The background of this story has Agamemnon returning from the siege of Troy only to fall victim to his murderous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The boy child Orestes was smuggled away before he too can be killed, thanks to his sister Electra.

This play starts years later, with Electra a half-starved and ragged dressed prisoner in what was once her father’s house, praying for Orestes’ return as a grown man to exact their revenge. He does indeed return, but sends a false message ahead of him to say that he has been killed in a chariot race, to dull any suspicions. Electra hears the story, and believing it to be true, unsuccessfully tries to convince her sister Chrysothemis to help her kill their mother and her lover themselves, and “never to shame, by life ingloriously bought  an honourable name”. Forced to act alone, she is delayed by the arrival of Orestes and his friend Pylades pretending to carry the ashes of her brother. Eventually Orestes reveals his true identity to Electra, and the long awaited revenge begins.

The final of the four plays in the Penguin edition Electra and other plays (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts: Sophocles’ last surviving play took  me back again to the story of Electra,  also told in Aeschylus’ Choephori (The Libation Bearers). Sophocles makes Electra a very strong character, with her grief and long-nursed hatred of her mother (especially compared with her sister Chryosthemis’ docile acceptance) and her strong argument of marital infidelity that trumps Clytemnestra’s claims of seeking revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. He paints a far more black-and-white picture of the history and events of this story than the other tragedians, and there is little sympathy for Clytemnestra and none for Aegisthus.

This version seems to end on a happy note for the children of Agamemnon, but the beating of the Furies’ wings will soon be heard by Orestes.

So goodbye, Sophocles, and thanks for bringing the third character onto the stage and moving us from dialogue to drama.

Personal rating:  Better than Aeschylus’ version but not as interesting as Euripides’ sequel to these events, also entitled Electra. Maybe a 5.

Also in that year: Athens defeats the Spartans in a naval battle at Arginusae, but it may prove too little too late.

Next: The Bacchae by Euripides




63. Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (406 BC)

63. Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (406 BC)

Plot : Exiled Oedipus, aged and blinded, and supported only by his younger daughter Antigone, finally reaches Colonus, an outlying village near Athens, seeking refuge in his dying days. After being granted friendship and protection from King Theseus, he is then warned by his other daughter Ismene that a new prophecy has been announced, and that only Oedipus’ patronage, (and possession of his earthly remains after his death) will allow an aspirant to succeed to the throne of Thebes.  Creon and Polynices both separately track down Oedipus, falsely claiming they only want Oedipus to return to live in comfort in Thebes, but meaning to imprison him on the borderlands, where they will gain the advantage foretold by the Oracle but not pollute the city or antagonize the population.

Failing to convince Oedipus to return willingly, Creon abducts both Antigone and Ismene, but Theseus  and his men force their return, setting up bad blood between the two cities. Polynices is sent packing by Oedipus with the curse that his attempt to win Thebes by force will end with his own death and that of his brother Eteocles at each other’ hands. Oedipus then dies in quite mysterious and divinely  provided circumstances, with only Theseus as witness.

I read the Penguin Black Classic The Theban Plays translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 9780140440034)

My thoughts : Like a Wimbledon rally, the Greek plays keep ricocheting back and forth between the curses of the Atreus and Oedipus families. While Oedipus at Colonus is perhaps not the strongest of Sophocles’ plays, it wraps up the tale and provides poor Oedipus with some dignity and a pain free death.Much is also made of Athens as the home of justice.

The order of events is somewhat different than the Euripidean Phoencian Women, with the banishment of Oedipus occurring long before the  attack on Thebes by Polynices and his armies, and Antigone intending to return to Thebes after her father’s death to try and stop his curse from leading to the death of both her brothers  – the woman’s a saint!

And I feel a little less manly (or a little more Egyptian) after reading Oedipus’ angry reaction to the failure of his sons to seek him out and care for him as his daughters have.

Oedipus : What then? They ape Egyptian manners, do they, where men keep house and do embroidery while wives go out to earn the daily bread?”                                               page 81.

Favourite lines/passages :

The Chorus of Colonus citizens make their village sound like a paradise on Earth

“Here in our white Colonus, stranger guest,

of all earth’s lovely lands the loveliest,

Fine horses breed, and leaf-enfolded vales

Are thronged with sweetly-singing nightingales,

screened in deep arbours, ivy, dark as wine,

and tangled bowers of berry-clustered vine;

To whose dark avenues and windless courts

The Grape-god with his nursing nymphs resorts”                    Chorus, page 92

and Antigone describes the last moments of her beloved father

 “As you would have wished for him;

Not in the peril of war,

Nor in the sea ;

But by a swift invisible hand

He was lifted away to the far dark shore.

And dark as death shall our night be.”                                     Antigone, page 121.

Personal rating : The third of Sophocles’ plays of the Oedipus legend only gets a 6, probably as I tire of the story more than any particular fault with the play. I gave the other two instalments, Oedipius the King and Antigone both 8, so the ‘trilogy’ is definitely worth reading.

Also in that year : Around this time (407 BC) Plato becomes a student of Socrates. More of them later.

Next: Sophocles’ last play, Electra.


60. Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BC)

60. Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BC)

Plot :

Philoctetes, arms bearer to Heracles and one of Helen’s suitors, was on his way to fight in the Trojan War when he stopped to visit the temple of the goddess Chryse and was bitten on the foot by a venomous snake, either the guardian of the temple or an agent of Hera’s revenge on Heracles. The incurable wound was so repulsive and Philoctetes in such pain that his fellow Greeks, notably Odysseus , Agamemnon and Menelaus, decide to maroon him on the isle of Lemnos.

Ten years later, the Siege of Troy continues. The Greeks capture the seer Helenus, who foretells that they will only defeat the Trojans if they can regain the unerring Bow of Heracles, which was left in the hands of Philoctetes.

Reading the Penguin edition Electra and other plays translated by E. F.  Watling (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts :

As I read through the surviving plays from Ancient Greece, it is refreshing to find a story not already told.

Two parts of this story strike me immediately :

the shocking treatment of the badly injured Philoctetes as his fellow Greeks abandon him on an uninhabited island, and now crazed with pain, loneliness and betrayal ; and

the “end justifies the means” dilemma faced by Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son) as he is encouraged by Odysseus to lie to Philoctetes, promising rescue and friendship until he can get his hands on the all-important bow – necessary to the Greeks to end the war, but just as necessary to the lame Philoctetes to feed himself.

Odysseus is again shown as a devious, unscrupulous and untrustworthy man – almost a stock villain and very different from the hero portrayed in The Odyssey.  And again we have the last minute appearance of a God to set everything straight and reverse the adamant decisions of the protagonists.

Knowing that the Hippocratic writings will appear on my reading list (probably in August) it was interesting to see the sons of Asclepius the healer are with the Greek forces at Troy and may be able to now cure Philoctetes.

Favourite lines/passages :

The fate of Philoctetes, summed up by the Chorus

 “And now, lost and alone

With the furred and feathered creatures,

Tortured with want and the pain

He can never cure,

And none to answer his cries

But the echo in far-off hills”                                                                                         Chorus, page 170


And Philoctetes’ horror as he realises he has been tricked

“O fiend! Monster, quintessence of vilest duplicity!

Have you done this to me? Played me this trick?

And can you face me unashamed, your suppliant

Who crawled to you for pity? Heart of stone!

You take my bow from me, you take my life.

O, give it back to me son, give it back to me!

Gods of our fathers! Give me back my life!                                               Philoctetes, page 194.

 Personal rating: 6

Next:   Cyclops by Euripides

39. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (429 BC)

Plot : Plague is ravaging Thebes, and according to the oracle, bringing the murderer of the old King Laius to justice is the only way to bring relief. Oedipus vows to do so, thus realising the most dreadful curse afflicting both himself and his family.

Again my copy is the The Three Theban Plays translated by Robert Fagles and published by Penguin Books (ISBN 0140444254)

My thoughts : Finally we reach the story that made Sigmund Freud famous.

Oedipus’ life is fated to be cursed – his own father is warned that he will be killed by his son, so Oedipus is sent away to be killed as a baby. Saved from this cruelty, he inherits a far worse infamy as he does indeed become his father’s murderer, his own mother’s new husband, and the father of his own sisters. He is torn down from the heights of power and fame to the lowest : self  loathing, blinded beggar and outcast.

To quote Aristotle, this is “the most brilliant example of theatrical plot” (although he probably said it in Classical Greek). Despite all advice, Oedipus drives forward in his quest for the truth about the death of Laius and his own mysterious birth, only to discover he has unwittingly brought disaster on himself. His opening speeches are full of irony as he promises to discover the murderer and save the city, and brings his own curse down upon himself.

“Whoever he is … let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step”

“I am the king now, I hold the throne that he held then, possess his bed and a wife who shares our seed ….. So I will fight for him as if he were my father”

He refuses to listen to the blind prophet Tiresias’ warnings until the cruel truth hits him

“I have a terrible fear the blind seer can see”

Once the dreadful truth is revealed and Jocasta (his wife and mother) has taken her own life, Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch pins and begs to be cast out of the city. Before he leaves, he embraces his two young daughters and is heartbroken when they must be taken from him.

Favourite lines/passages:

“I’d never have come to this,
my father’s murderer – never been branded
mother’s husband, all men see me now! Now,
loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled
coupling in my father’s bed, spawning lives in the loins
that spawned my wretched life. What grief can crown this grief?
It’s mine alone, my destiny -I am Oedipus!”                                            Oedipus, page 242

“I’d wall up my loathsome body like a prison,
blind to the sound of life, not just the sight.
Oblivion – what a blessing …
for the mind to dwell a world away from pain”                                         Oedipus,   page 243

Diversions/digressions : Recoiling from the tragedy of Oedipus and his family, I found myself wondering about his encounter with the Sphinx, the monster with the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, a serpent tail, (but no nose as Napoleon’s soldiers had knocked it off 😉 ) Hera (or Ares) sent the Sphinx to Thebes where it asks each traveller the same riddle, (what has only one voice but travels on four legs, then two, then three?) then devours them when they fail to answer correctly. Of course Oedipus solves the riddle, hence gaining access to the City and his fate. Comes of being too clever for your own good, eh?

Personal rating : Much more satisfying and robust as a play, yet still with only one dominant plotline, I think this deserves an 8

Next : Another incestuous mother and son (or step-son) tragedy in Hippolytus, by Euripides



37. The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (430 BC)

37. The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (430 BC)

Plot : Deianeira, long-suffering wife of Heracles, has her prayers answered as news reaches her that he is finally freed of his labours and returning home. But upon receiving a group of women slaves brought to her house as part of Heracles’ spoils in battle, she discovers he has fallen in love with one of them, the princess Iole. Deianeira then sets in motion a plan to regain Heracles’ love, and falls into the trap of a dead enemy.

My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles’ plays Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis and Philoctetes, translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts :
A few disjointed thoughts
• At least one very long speech was written for each of the characters. Not sure that the actors would have loved Sophocles for that.
• Deianeira’s opening line recalls Croesus’ words to Cyrus in Herodotus’ Histories : “call no man (or in this case, woman) happy until he has reached the end of his days”
• The foretelling of the fate of Heracles ; doomed to die or live peacefully in retirement sounds like the clichéd “cop about to retire” story. Next time I see that storyline, I will imagine the police officer in a lion skin and carrying a club
• Finally, why did Sophocles name this play after the chorus (Women of Trachis) rather than the tragic Deianeira, or even Heracles?

Favourite lines/passages :
Leaving aside the agonies of Deianeira and Heracles, I preferred some of the lesser characters’ outbursts.

“O master of my soul,
I float on air, the sweet
Music of flutes would win me now,
And twining ivy-tendrils whirl me round
In Bacchanalian dance”
Chorus, p. 126

“Tomorrow – what is tomorrow?
‘Tis nothing, until today is safely past”
Nurse, p. 150

Personal rating : 5
Next : Staying with the family : Euripides’ Heracleidae (Children of Heracles). This  will be title number 38.

If you have just started following, you may be wondering what happened to number 36?

Title 36 (Prometheus Bound) was blogged out of order, before 34 (Euripides’ Medea) and 35 (Thucydides’ History of …)

Today’s entry 37 gets me back on track.

32. Ajax, by Sophocles (440 BC)

32. Ajax, by Sophocles (440 BC)

Plot : Back to the aftermath of the Iliad, and Achilles has died from an arrow in the heel. Ajax and Odysseus both claim his armour, and after days of tied competition, Odysseus’s smooth tongued rhetoric wins him the booty. Ajax in a fit of rage sets out to kill Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, but Athena intervenes and tricks Ajax into slaughtering sheep and cattle instead. Embarrassed by his actions, Ajax falls on the sword he took from Hector. Agamemnon and Menelaus give orders to leave the body on the sands for the seagulls to pick apart, but Teucer his brother, and surprisingly Odysseus, defend Ajax’s right to a proper burial.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles’ plays Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis and Philoctetes, translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts: Once again, Sophocles bases his story on the conflict between two parties arguing over the fate of the dead body of a once respected soldier now held in contempt for his ‘treasonous’ actions.
While the scale of Tragedy did not match that of Antigone, I was most impressed with Odysseus’ defense of his ‘enemy’ and his stand taken in front of Agamemnon.

Diversions/digressions: I thought back to the Iliad to see if the enmity between Ajax and Odysseus was evident. I didn’t remember any rancour, so perhaps the feud between them only arose over the possession of Achilles’ armour after those events. I remember being impressed by Homer’s depiction of Greater Ajax and had him marked down as a valiant and honest fighter, so was surprised by his treatment and fate in this play.  Apparently Ajax had been boastful of his spurning of any aid from the Gods, so he had brought this calamity down on himself.

Personal rating: 6/10

Next : Alcestis, by Euripides.

31. Antigone, by Sophocles (441 BC)

31. Antigone, by Sophocles (441 BC)

Plot : Following on directly from the deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices at the end of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. The new king Creon decrees that the ‘patriot’ Eteocles be buried with all due honours and rites, whereas the ‘traitor’ Polyneices’ body be left for the dogs and vultures to rend. Antigone, one of the two daughters remaining to the House of Oedipus, resolves to disobey.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles “Theban plays”, translated by Robert Fagles (ISBN 9780140444254)

My thoughts: Wow, what an overwhelming tragedy! Easily worthy of comparison with Shakespeare in its depth and horror. I will not describe too much here as I feel the new reader coming to this play will be more affected (as I was) the less they know of the outcome of Antigone’s resolve and Creon’s unrelenting stance.
Antigone seems surely doomed, but what of Ismene her sister who refused to act, but was willing to die alongside her? Will the family curse wipe out every single member? And what will be the impact on Creon as sentiment in Thebes swings to Antigone?
The conflict between Creon and Antigone is based not only upon the loyalty to the city state versus the loyalty to friends and family, and also the conflict between divine versus civic justice.
Also we can see three actors on stage plus the Chorus as the ‘rules’ of Greek drama begin to evolve.

Favourite lines/passages: The play rockets along without giving the reader pause to admire the language. At best I can offer the following from the Chorus on the family curse

“..once the gods have rocked a house to its foundations,
the ruin will never cease, cresting on and on from one generation on throughout the race
like a great mounting tide
driven on by savage northern gales, surging over the dead black depths
roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
and the headlands taking the storm’s onslaught full-force, roar
and the low moaning echoes on and on ……
one generation cannot free the next – some god will bring them crashing down”
(Chorus, lines 657-671)

By the end of the play, I wondered if perhaps the curse has been lifted from one family only to fall onto another. Can curses never be defeated but merely transferred, like some virus-borne disease, to run their course again elsewhere?

Personal rating: 8/10. It might have reached a 9 if I had been swayed more by the language.

Next : Ajax, by Sophocles.