Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Andreas Markantonatos (ed.), Brill's Companion to Sophocles. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. xxii, 737. ISBN 9789004184923. €180.00.

Reviewed by Lyndsay Coo, Trinity College, Cambridge (lmlc3@cam.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

2012 was a good year for Sophocles: he gained not one but two Companions, published by Blackwell1 and Brill; five scholars contributed to both volumes. In this ambitious and hefty collection, Andreas Markantonatos has brought together a distinguished international team of thirty-two contributors to address a vast range of topics, covering Sophocles' life, works, interpretation and reception from antiquity to the present day.

In his introduction Markantonatos briefly sketches the history of Sophoclean criticism, starting from Aristotle's Poetics and ending with modern developments in deconstruction, psychoanalytic and feminist criticism, narratology and performance history. Part I then opens with William Blake Tyrrell on 'Biography' and Guido Avezzù on 'Text and Transmission'. The latter is a particularly detailed and useful account which traces the history of Sophocles' text from antiquity onwards. This is followed by individual discussions of each of the seven extant tragedies. Some focus on a single interpretative issue or critical approach (Patrick Finglass on the coherence of Ajax, Josh Beer on the significance of the mask in Oedipus Tyrannus, David Carter on the dichotomies of Antigone, Bruce Heiden on Trachiniae as a 'provocation to philosophy'), while others present surveys of a wider range of topics (E. M. Griffiths on Electra, Poulcheria Kyriakou on Philoctetes, Jon Hesk on Oedipus at Colonus). The more successful of these find the right balance between summarising the critical state of play and suggesting new avenues for further research. I found some of these — such as Griffiths' suggestion that the character of Orestes in Electra is to be understood through the paradigm of the reborn phoenix — unconvincing, but nonetheless students and scholars alike should find many stimulating perspectives in these essays. There follow chapters on the fragmentary and lost plays (Alan H. Sommerstein) and satyr-drama (Berndt Seidensticker). Sommerstein includes a particularly helpful table of those plays for which we have enough evidence to make reasonable guesses at their content, although he is sometimes overly optimistic in his confidence in his plot-reconstructions. He concludes with the salutary reminder that what we conceive of as 'Sophoclean' is based on a very small sample of his work, a warning that more scholars would do well to heed. Equally useful is Seidensticker's summary of the basic components of satyr-drama (typical plots, themes, the nature of the chorus, dance, diction, function etc). There is particular focus on Ichneutae, the best preserved of Sophocles' satyr-dramas, but he draws on a wide range of evidence from other plays to set this in context.

Part II ('Sophoclean Intertextuality') contains only two items. John Davidson explores the much-discussed relationship between Sophocles and the Homeric epics. Starting from Polemon's well-known formulation that Homer was the 'epic Sophocles', and Sophocles the 'tragic Homer' (Diogenes Laertius 4.20), Davidson shows how the playwright repeatedly drew on Homeric language and models to develop his own complex poetics. Francis M. Dunn presents a reading of four plays characterised by what he terms 'dynamic allusion', a model of intertextuality based on 'a set of allusions that actively and progressively shapes expectations" (p. 263) as the plot develops. His four discussions are necessarily brief, but they open up paths for further fruitful investigation.

Part III, on 'Sophocles the Innovator', includes two of the book's strongest chapters: Timothy Power on 'Sophocles and Music' and Luigi Battezzato on 'The Language of Sophocles', both of which engage with current developments in scholarship to offer thoroughly up-to-date analyses. Power brings out the complexity and sophistication of Sophocles' engagement with mid-fifth century developments in aulos and kithara music, culminating in a compelling reading of a scene in Ichneutae as evoking the culture of the New Music. Battezzato is similarly successful in tackling a daunting topic, taking the reader on a learned whistle-stop tour of approaches to Sophoclean language encompassing the study of phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, pragmatics, rhetoric, politeness theory and the language of Homer. This section is rounded off by Nancy Worman's discussion of rhetorical persuasion in Sophocles, with particular focus on the characters of Oedipus and Odysseus, and by Andreas Markantonatos' analysis of the manipulation of narrative technique in Ajax. Part IV, 'Image and Performance' has just two chapters. By insisting that ancient art and text are 'parallel worlds',2 Jocelyn Penny Small stands at one extreme of the 'iconocentrists' vs 'philodramatists' debate that has characterised recent scholarship on the relationship between Greek drama and art. This stance is evident in her contribution, '(Mis)representations of Sophocles' Plays?'. After an introduction in which she rightly argues that the notion of image as 'illustration' of text is a modern concept, she considers a number of vases which have been thought to bear some relation to Sophoclean tragedy. Small's concern is simply to establish whether correspondence exists rather than to consider its implications, and she does not acknowledge recent scholarship which has called for a move away from seeing verbatim details as the only positive marker of art–text influence.3 Small offers no discussion of how Sophocles' plays might inflect interpretation of the vase-paintings, even in those cases for which she admits a plausible connection between pot and play. As Oliver Taplin has recently argued, this extreme iconocentric approach can lead to 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'.4 Rachel Kitzinger completes this section with an overview of choral language, identity and performance. She focuses on the tragedies which were not discussed in her recent study of the choruses in Antigone and Philoctetes, and as such this chapter forms a useful supplement to her monograph.5

Part V seeks to locate Sophocles' work within wider religious, historical and political contexts. Rush Rehm on ritual and Jon D. Mikalson on gods and heroes provide concise overviews, while Sarah Ferrario and Kurt A. Raaflaub offer more expansive political readings. All are useful discussions of vast topics. Incidentally, Raaflaub is the only contributor who seems to have engaged with the other chapters, or at least who systematically provides helpful cross-references within the Companion itself.

Part VI, enticingly entitled 'Sophoclean Anthropology: Status and Gender', again contains just two contributions. Judith Mossman's chapter on 'Women's Voices in Sophocles' is an incisive discussion demonstrating how Sophocles used speech to characterise and individualise his female characters. By contrast, at just six pages long and with only very cursory analysis of any examples, Bernhard Zimmermann's chapter on minor characters seems a missed opportunity. We are unfortunately left with the impression that minor characters (a category in which Zimmermann includes messengers) are only of minor interest.

Part VII deals with 'Instructing the Polis: Education, Philosophy, Irony'. Justina Gregory's chapter on education is especially judicious and interesting, exploring how Sophocles' depiction of different types of ethical and cultural development fit into wider fifth-century intellectual trends; this work finds many resonances in Emily Wilson's ambitiously titled 'Sophocles and Philosophy', which is in fact focussed solely on Electra. Michael Lloyd explores the playwright's use of different kinds of irony ('stable' and 'unstable'), and the exploitation of these forms to unsettle the audience's confidence in their own knowledge of events.

In Part VIII, 'Ancients and Moderns: The Reception of Sophocles', Matthew Wright offers a particularly lucid and engaging analysis of the poet's reception in antiquity, while Michael J. Anderson traces the afterlife of Sophoclean models in a huge range of modern artistic works, from Hofmannstahl and Strauss to Seamus Heaney and Martin Scorsese. Next, J. Michael Walton reflects on issues of translation, comparing examples ranging from Christopher Wase's 1649 Electra to the translations of academics such as Richard Jebb and Hugh Lloyd-Jones, to modern poetic versions, in order to illustrate the challenges and complexities of rendering Sophocles' Greek into English. A less successful contribution is Marianne McDonald's 'Sophocles Made New: Modern Performances', which consists of a descriptive list of various modern performances of retellings of Sophocles, but offers little by way of a critical framework within which to situate this material. Both her chapter and Anderson's would have benefited from a tighter focus by selecting fewer examples but analysing them in greater depth.

The volume ends with a huge 54-page bibliography, 'Index of Subjects', and 'Index of Principal Sophoclean Passages'. The last contains references only to the seven extant tragedies, despite the fact that several chapters (Sommerstein, Seidensticker, Power, Mossman) include significant quotations from — or even focus mainly or exclusively on — the fragments.

I noted few errors. One series of mistakes is particularly confusing: in Avezzù's chapter, 'Λ' (i.e. the Leiden palimpsest) has been turned into 'L' (i.e. the Laurentianus) on three occasions (p. 51 'The two most ancient Byzantine MSS of Sophocles L and L'; p. 52 'The palimpsest L'; p. 53 'in a slightly different order from L and L'). Other slips and infelicities include: for 'Socrates',read 'Sophocles' (p. 19, n.1); for 'there' read 'this'; (p. 80, n. 27) fr. 199 is not the only fragment of Eris (p. 219, n. 49); for 'bart', read 'part' (p. 228); accents and breathings have gone astray on the satyrs' cries (p. 235, section a); Sophocles wrote a second Athamas, not a Second Athamas (p. 415, n. 11); current scholarly thinking is that the Theatre of Dionysus held far fewer than 'upwards of 20,000 people' (p. 329);6 Philoctetes was produced in 409, not 408 BC (pp. 330, 344). It is unfortunate that Seidensticker's footnotes contain a great number of mistakes, which have necessitated an ungainly Erratum slip.

Markantonatos ambitiously declares that he aimed to assemble 'the most comprehensive and authoritative treatments of the subject and of the key debates ever attempted' (p. 15), while the blurb promises 'state-of-the-art' surveys of current research and 'compelling fresh perspectives'. The result is certainly impressive in its breadth of learning and richness of detail. As with most Companions of this size, it is also uneven — not only in the selection and balancing of topics and emphasis, but also in quality and approach. A few of the contributions struck me as being conservative rather than cutting-edge, and surveying well-worn arguments rather than striving to break new ground or establish fresh critical frameworks; often this was as a consequence of tackling too large a topic. I found Part VIII particularly frustrating. The corresponding section in the Blackwell Companion to Sophocles covers several of the same works — e.g. Jean Anouilh's Antigone, Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus — but devotes a chapter to each, resulting in focussed, detailed and stimulating discussions. By comparison, the Brill Companion comes across as somewhat staid, providing hand-lists of Sophoclean retellings rather than developing original and incisive methods of analysing modern criticisms and receptions. But it is perhaps unfair to compare this volume to its Blackwell competitor, since the two have clearly been put together for slightly different audiences, and under different editorial visions and intellectual aims. Whereas the stated Brill objective is to provide authoritative overviews of central areas of Sophoclean scholarship, Blackwell focuses on more manageable topics, under the explicit directive of looking forward as much as backward. As a result the Companions are in many ways complementary, and Sophocleans are lucky to have two such volumes available. Markantonatos' book is a significant achievement: it contains a wealth of information, and many of its chapters are outstandingly good. Nonetheless, in the tighter focus of its contributions, and in setting as its central principle the development of genuinely new critical directions, Blackwell emerges with the edge in the 2012 Battle of the Sophoclean Companions.


1.   Recently reviewed for BMCR by Rosa Andújar (BMCR 2013.01.24).
2.   Jocelyn Penny Small, The Parallel Worlds of Art and Text (Cambridge, 2003).
3.   See especially Michael Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, (Cambridge and New York, 2009).
4.   Oliver Taplin, Pots and Plays: Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase-Painting of the Fourth Century B.C. (Los Angeles, 2007), p. 24.
5.   Margaret Rachel Kitzinger, The Choruses of Sophokles' Antigone and Philoctetes: A Dance of Words (Leiden and Boston, 2008).
6.   See e.g. David Kawalko Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens (Austin, 2011), p. 65: 'Revised estimates for the capacity of the early Classical Theater of Dionysus range from about 3,700 to 6,000 spectators, a far cry from the traditional estimates.'

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