Friday, April 13, 2018


Bastian Reitze, Der Chor in den Tragödien des Sophokles. Person, Reflexion, Dramaturgie. Drama: Studien zum antiken Drama and zu seiner Rezeption, neue Serie 20. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempo, 2017. Pp. 798. ISBN 9783823380955. €98.00.

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Bristol (

Version at BMCR home site

This book, the published version of a 2015 Mainz dissertation of the same name, is almost certainly the biggest book ever written on the Sophoclean chorus. Indeed, at just short of eight hundred pages, it is the biggest book on Sophocles that I can remember handling—bigger even than the multi-author Companions to Sophocles published by Brill and Blackwell in 2012, bigger than Brunck's massive edition of 1786, bigger than even the biggest modern commentary. The publisher has shown immense confidence in its author by allowing him such generous scope for his reflections.

The book is divided into three sections. The first (pp. 13–78), entitled 'Einleitung: Thema, Instrumentarium, Methode', is divided into several subsections: 'Vorbemerkung: Struktur der Einleitung', 'Meinungen zum Chor: Forschungsabriss', 'Der Chor: Phänomen—Dichtung—Formteil', 'Chorische Reflexion—Reflexionsstrategien—Dramaturgische Funktionalisierung', 'Zielsetzung, Aufbau und Vorgehen der Arbeit—praeliminaria'. The second (pp. 79–762), 'Einzelinterpretationen sowie Gesamtschauen der Großabschnitte', takes up the greatest proportion (some 85%) of the monograph, and is devoted to an examination of the choruses of the seven surviving Sophoclean plays. Reitze takes these under three headings: 'Chöre wehrfähiger Männer' (where he discusses Philoctetes and Ajax), 'Frauenchöre' (Trachiniae and Electra), and 'Greisenchöre' (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonu s, and Antigone). The third (pp. 763–95), 'Synthese und Ausblick', offers some conclusions, divided again into subsections: 'Rückblick auf die Arbeit und ihre Teile', 'Allgemeine Gesichtspunkte der sophokleischen Chorführung', 'Verhältnis der drei Spektren zueinander: chorisches Koordinatensystem', 'Erste Folgerungen', 'Der Chor als Rahmen der sophokleischen Tragödie: Versuch einer Wesensbestimmung', and 'Ausblick: Weitung der Perspektive und mögliche Nutzbarmachung der Arbeit'. The book ends with a disproportionately thin bibliography—fewer than thirteen pages. One sees long articles with bibliographies approaching that extent—in a book of this size, on a topic not entirely neglected by scholars over the past few centuries, we might have expected rather more. There are no indexes of any kind, nor any explanation for why readers of such a monumental study should be expected to do without them.

The analysis of individual dramas—by far the greatest part of the volume—proceeds scene-by-scene, ode-by-ode; there is a lot of plot summary, accompanied by some fairly basic commentary from the author, though nothing that suggests any particular new insight into the Sophoclean chorus; the introduction and conclusion also disappoint on that score. This absence of new insights may be the consequence of the author's lack of familiarity with old ones. It is almost a cliché of reviews of books based on doctoral theses that they spend too long citing everything that could conceivably be relevant, piling up references to secondary literature beyond what is useful in an effort to demonstrate their author's mastery of some tiny field of expertise. No one could justly accuse Reitze of that failing. Indeed, many of his pages have no references at all, as he shares his ideas unencumbered by the findings of other scholars. When he does cite, Reitze relies to a great extent on two types of secondary work: a fairly narrow range of commentaries, and articles from encyclopedias, in particular the 2014 Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy edited by Hanna Roisman. The latter is a fine book and many of its entries are indeed worth consultation (see my review), but I would not expect a major scholarly monograph to be relying so heavily on what is a tertiary rather than a secondary work. As for commentaries, I'm all for citing them—but not to the exclusion of other scholarship. An instance of where Reitze's practice leads him can be observed in his eighteen-page discussion of the second stasimon of Oedipus the King (pp. 470–87), which cites Kamerbeek's 1967 commentary (a work not generally thought to offer a great deal of insight into Sophocles' play) fully ten times, but ignores fundamental discussions by Ruth Scodel, Christopher Carey, and Keith Sidwell, among others. Perhaps Reitze believes that these and other such contributions are totally without value; if so, he probably ought to state that explicitly, given how widely they are cited and given the influence that they have had on all subsequent serious studies of this hugely important song. Alternatively, Reitze has simply never come across these articles, or many other articles of similar prominence on other choral odes; this implies a disregard, even disrespect, for previous scholarship which many will find curious.

Omissions of other kinds are apparent too. One might have thought that a big book on the chorus would have engaged closely with metre; yet there are no citations of Kiichiro Itsumi or Laetitia Parker, to mention only two leading scholars in this field, and correspondingly we find no serious attempt to get to grips with this essential subject. Language, too, is not an unimportant issue for someone studying the Sophoclean chorus, so it is a surprise to see that (for instance) Simon Goldhill's 2012 monograph on this topic goes unmentioned. Reitze's discussion of how the staging of Ajax's suicide was staged (p. 223 n. 263) ignores the volume Staging Ajax's Suicide edited by G. W. Most and L. Ozbek (Seminari e convegni 42; Pisa 2015, reviewed in BMCR here: 2016.12.44) which contains numerous recent approaches to this problem, although it was published in good time for Reitze to have taken it into account in his monograph (if not in his thesis); Reitze prefers to cite (e.g.) Kamerbeek's work from 1953, even though it contributes nothing in particular to our understanding of the issue.

In other ways, too, Reitze's work does not entirely satisfy. His approach to the text is insufficiently critical. He often acquiesces in daft conjectures printed in the Oxford Classical Text (e.g. p. 204 n. 228, p. 358 n. 201), and rarely if ever really engages with a problematic passage: a fatal flaw in any analysis of a text as insecure as that of Sophocles. His subject is supposedly the chorus in Sophocles' tragedies, but in practice he limits his analysis to the seven plays which happen to have been preserved complete; there is no attempt to consider the use of the chorus in any of the more substantial fragments, such as those of Eurypylus or Niobe. Perhaps in a shorter book this might not be so much of a problem, but with eight hundred pages to play with Reitze might have squeezed a fragment or two in somewhere. Reitze's citation practice indicates that he is unaware that the late Stefan Radt's great edition of the fragments, originally published in 1977, came out in a new edition in 1999, which includes new material and must be the first point of reference for anyone seriously concerned with the fragments of Sophocles. The two Aris & Phillips volumes on the fragments by A. H. Sommerstein et al. are also ignored.

This book left me asking a number of questions. First, how did it come about that a PhD student was permitted to write a thesis on such an enormous topic, one that all but the most self-confident and experienced of professional scholars would shy away from? It is certainly the type of subject that some incoming PhD students have in mind as they draw up proposals for their studies, but it is the job of their advisers to help them refine such ambitious schemes into something more manageable, something more likely to yield new and interesting results, something that will help them develop into the sort of scholars who can, in time, take on such daunting tasks. Second, what kind of guidance did the student receive during his PhD studies, if he was allowed to complete and defend a thesis on the Sophoclean chorus which completely ignores so much work that is absolutely central to the subject? Third, what kind of review process did the press undertake before publishing a book on such a colossal scale which is nevertheless so cursory, indeed negligent, in its approach to existing scholarship, and which, partly as a result, has so little of its own to contribute? Some systemic problem seems to be lurking here; whatever it is, I hope that it is put right, for the benefit of young scholars who deserve proper support and guidance.


  1. BrynMawr publiziert mit dieser Besprechung eine Kuriosität. Sie handelt gar nicht von ihrem Gegenstand. Sie gehört gar nicht in ein Rezensionsorgan. Sie ist eine Satire.
    Sie liefert uns das Inhaltsverzeichnis des zu besprechenden Buches, wir erfahren eine Meinung über die Betreuung von Doktordissertationen an deutschen Universitäten, über den Geschmack und die Urteilskraft des Herausgebers der Reihe, in der das Buch erschienen ist, schließlich, daß, wie am geringen Umfang der Bibliographie abzulesen, sein Autor nichts Eigenes zu Sophokles zu sagen habe. Ansonsten? Nichts, außer daß dem an Seitenzahlen umfangreichsten Buch über Sophokles, das er jemals sich erinnere, in Händen gehalten zu haben, das eine oder andere hätte noch hinzugefügt werden müssen.
    Eine unfreiwillige Satire also, die ein Mißverhältnis ans Licht bringt, das Zerwürfnis zwischen dem Wunsch, etwas sagen zu müssen, und der Kunst, es zu finden (Horaz ars 139).
    Immerhin zwingt die Besprechung zu angelegentlicher Lektüre des hier verdammten Buches und bietet dem Leser nebenbei, sofern er sich der Anwürfe noch erinnern kann, Gelegenheiten genug, zu bedauern, daß die Redaktion seine Anzeige in derart gleichgültige Hände gegeben hat.
    An die Adresse der Redaktion von BrynMawr ist freilich (zu Iuvenal sat. 1, 30) nach Cicero als Entschuldigung hinzuzusetzen: nihil est difficilius ut in vita sic in oratione quam quid deceat videre. Eine bleibende, sehr beherzigenswerte Mahnung.

  2. The comment above might require the same time of review Finglass leveled at Reitze's book. It studiously avoids the very serious charges adduced and instead attempts to pigeonhole the review as satire. I am glad, for one, that Finglass saves us the trouble of reading a book which seems to offer nothing new and misses much that is not.