Monday, October 5, 2015


Thomas Van Nortwick, Late Sophocles: The Hero's Evolution in Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 148. ISBN 9780472119561. $65.00.

Reviewed by N J. Sewell-Rutter (

Version at BMCR home site


In Late Sophocles, Thomas Van Nortwick makes an incremental addition to our understanding of the Sophoclean hero through a scene-by-scene reading of Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, works of Sophocles' last phase.1 The book does not innovate greatly, but it makes two valuable contributions: it persuasively identifies a diachronic development in Sophocles' conception of tragic heroism; and it reminds us by its example that sensitive and well-judged reading of the tragic texts is itself an interpretative tool of enduring worth that has not been supplanted, but complemented, by the recent study of reception and performance.

Late Sophocles will be of greatest value to students of tragedy and non-specialists with wider literary and dramatic interests, but it will also repay the attention of scholars. It is presented accessibly, using Greek sparingly and in transliteration. The notes, which are concise, are set as endnotes, always friendlier to the general reader. The list of references is sufficient but does not aspire to comprehensiveness, and there is a helpful general index.

Between short introductory and concluding chapters, Van Nortwick reads the three plays in chronological order, allowing his argument to emerge from the texts. He mentions early (p. ix) the pivotal twentieth century scholarship on the hero in Sophocles. It is a distinctive feature of Sophoclean dramaturgy to centre the plays on characters 'defined for us by the exercise of their outsized will' (p. 4). Modifying Bernard Knox's 'recurrent pattern',2 which is most naturally taken synchronically, Van Nortwick finds in the last three plays 'a new paradigm for the hero's agency and relationship to higher forces' (p. 4). The late hero is undiminished in magnificence of temperament, but more marginal in situation and divested of conventional agency. The political impotence of Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus is focused by their ruined, diminished physicality (pp. 117–9), the product of years of suffering, not hours or days as in the previous tragedies.

Late Sophoclean tragedies challenge and provoke largely because of a distinctive 'distancing of the protagonist from the central heroic action of the drama' (p. 4). Electra kills no one herself; Philoctetes actively resists the fulfilment of divine will; Oedipus 'remains apart' (p. 4) from the plans and requirements of other characters. All three plays embody an obliquity to the demands of the underlying myth (p. 38, p. 118): this is used to question tragedy's function for Athens as the polis faces a crisis at the end of the fifth century that conventional tragedy struggles to accommodate (pp. 5–6, 115–6), and as Sophocles lives through his ninth decade (pp. 120–3). The tragedian's late work is not, of course, simply more of the same, but 'might best be understood as combining retrospection with innovation' (p. 121), continuing the Sophoclean pattern of the intransigent individual, but shifting focus away from 'impressing his or her will on other people' (p. 123) and onto a wider, maturer interpretation of self-realisation.

In 'Electra: Glory Bathed in Tears', Electra, the dramatic focus, is rightly read as '[f]orbiddingly austere' and 'isolated by her suffering' (p. 40), a disempowered protagonist facing imprisonment in a sunless dungeon not for acts but for attitude and emotions (p. 17). The chapter stresses the polarity of logos and ergon in a play full of deceit and lies, and is particularly sensitive on the subtle emotional dynamics between Orestes and Electra. Her powerful emotions deflate Orestes' 'glib, can-do self-confidence' in the recognition scene (p. 30), so that his tongue fails him (ll. 1174–5). The lynchpin of her Sophoclean heroism on this account is the terrible obduracy of Electra's grief, occupying an 'impressionistic world' of suffering (p. 10), oblique to the action in that she does nothing concrete to avenge her father.

Though Deianeira is mentioned (p. 13), this chapter nowhere draws the necessary contrast with Antigone, another heroine facing a dark prison. But Antigone's death sentence punishes direct civil disobedience, not the subtler crime of persistent, insidious lamentation. Whose is the more pathetic plight?

The closing pages of this chapter (pp. 36–41) rightly note the open-endedness of the play, the hovering questions of justice and consequences that have perplexed interpreters.3 But Van Nortwick's aporetic conclusions on dike in Electra seem to miss the strong implication of his own otherwise persuasive account of the play. 'Instead of watching Orestes pursuing retribution, we are invited to consider the impact of events on Electra, to look at the myth from her perspective, at an oblique angle' (p. 14). This is well put. But if Electra and her years of pain are our dramatic focus, how do we arrive at the conclusion that, 'From the perspective of the revenge plot, Electra's pain is irrelevant to the achieving of justice, except insofar as it fuels her performance as grieving sister, which can be used by the plotters to deceive the royal couple' (p. 41)? Van Nortwick is quite right that Electra's disempowerment sets her at a distance from Orestes' machinations for vengeance, and that her role in the murders is to lament. But part of the answer to the dike-question in Electra must be that we are left with a sense, not of everything settled for everyone, but at least that Electra, our dramatic focus, has had her satisfaction, which is dike of a kind. The 'intense hatred' of the 'bitter and vengeful' Electra (p. 36) is gratified at last. To ignore this implication is to leave the chapter's reading incomplete: of course Electra is not at all a saint redeemed by uncomplaining endurance, but she has her reward.

'Philoctetes: The Creature in the Cave' evolves Van Nortwick's account of the late heroic paradigm: early in the play, Philoctetes is assumed to be an uncivilized creature evoking Homer's Polyphemus, 'physically repellant' and nurturing 'a powerful anger' in isolation (p. 44). But, though he appears to be a 'repellant curiosity' (p. 52), his heroic obstinacy is proved not pre- or uncivilized but that of a 'guardian of traditional heroic values' (p. 79). He sways Neoptolemus, who has not endured a decade of gangrenous, degrading solitude, by judicious appeals to the younger man's phusis and values (ll. 904–5, p. 66; ll. 971–2, p. 70) – in other words by civilized peitho in addition to the powerfully affecting spectacle of collapsing in the agony of his sickness and then rising in 'rebirth' (pp. 65–8).

To Van Nortwick's great credit, he is not too absorbed in his paradigm to deal appropriately with the play's other significant dramatic focus, Neoptolemus himself, whose 'soul' is one of the prizes fought over in the play (pp. 52, 60). Odysseus' plans are frustrated more by the younger man's honour and pride in ancestry than any failure of intelligence. The metatheatricality of the 'merchant' scene, a semi-improvised deceit between two quick-witted characters (p. 54–6), is read as a late Sophoclean reflection on tragedy's potential for harm.

This chapter's concluding pages (pp. 77–80) are another example of the monograph's tendency to underplay the implications of its own reading. The interpretative disquiet occasioned by Herakles' appearance ex machina (pp. 77–8 with nn. 56–8) is appropriately discussed.4 But what are the implications of this ending specifically for the Cyclopean pre-civilized Philoctetes of the start of the play? He is situated, like Electra, at a distance from the basic demand of the myth, that his bow be used to take Troy. Divine intervention wins where human deceit, force and persuasion fail. Van Nortwick's conclusion (p.79) is unimpeachable as far as it goes: the hero preserves his integrity of character but undergoes an enforced change of location. But the chapter seems to stop just short of stating the stronger conclusion to which it is entitled: Herakles orders to Troy what initially looked, smelt and sounded like a savage beast, not a marooned hero.

'Oedipus at Colonus: Spiritual Geography' gives a persuasive and nuanced account of both Sophocles' and Oedipus' 'great consummation' (p. 82, l. 103). This is not a play primarily occupied with the justice of the Labdacids' internecine machinations (pp. 91, 94–5): in old age, Oedipus transcends his 'terrible history' (p. 89). He spent the earlier tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus attempting to impose his awe-inspiring will, with ruinous consequences. Now he becomes a harmonious part of a larger divine plan. Van Nortwick presents this as the last evolution of the late Sophoclean heroic paradigm and a 'startling…new vision' (p. 113). He accepts in part Knox's model (which he discusses p. 134 n. 17) of Oedipus' journey towards cult heroism: but this is 'an incomplete picture' that underplays Oedipus' humanly intelligible development into a character who sees that there is more to the realization of self than overbearing will and terrible heroic anger. This is not, however, beatification through patience. Oedipus' corpse will drink hot blood in future time of war (ll. 621–2); and the greatest coup de theatre of the play comes when he first turns his face from his son in silence, then curses him (ll. 1383–92, cf. 421–30).

Van Nortwick at last discusses in this chapter the distinctive protractedness of the late Sophoclean hero's sufferings, which in all three cases have occupied years (pp. 96–7). His characteristic modesty of exposition defers this crucial point too long. Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus have all endured a long 'gestation' which lends them the characteristic 'inwardness' of those who have been consistently thwarted (pp. 97, 117). This as much as their nobility (OC 7–8) lends these late Sophoclean characters their strength in weakness, their heroism undiminished by lack of conventional power.

In conclusion, Late Sophocles leads the reader through the last phase of the dramatist's art with sound and reliable judgement, illuminating three great tragedies sensitively. Van Nortwick does not always press his own interpretative advantage, but his contribution to our understanding of the Sophoclean hero provokes thought.


1.   The date of Electra is uncertain, as Van Nortwick acknowledges at the outset (p. 1 with n. 1). But in the absence of a definite year of production, this book's reading of the play will strengthen the majority case for a date in or near Sophocles' last decade: Van Nortwick shows that Electra sits neatly in conception and manner with Philoctetes, produced in 409 B.C., and OC, produced posthumously in 401 B.C.
2.   B.M.W. Knox, The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley, 1964), p. 9.
3.   P. 130 n. 61 gives adequate pointers to the scholarly debate.
4.   The dramatic device occasions critical censure as early as Aristotle, Poetics 1454b.

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