Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.29

Sarah Nooter, When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. viii, 200.  ISBN 9781107001619.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

[A chapter list appears at the end of the review.]

Greek tragedy was a musical genre, but some characters were more musical than others. Sarah Nooter argues that Sophocles' heroes, even when they are not actually singing, use a language "inflected with lyrical markers" (p. 1) giving them a voice and an identity different from those of the society around them. She studies the heroes' voices in 6 of the 7 plays, noting how their "poeticity" (her word) gives them authority, or power, or both (pp. 25-26). Although this is rather a short book, it is dense with close readings of Sophoclean passages and comparisons to a broad range of Greek poetry from Sophocles' time and before. Nooter has good observations on every play, and a strong sense of how the musical forms and marked language of a play contribute to its overall effect. Readers interested in stagecraft, rhetoric, or poetics (of tragedy and beyond) will benefit from the book.

Nooter's main argument is that the main character of a play by Sophocles is different from the other characters because his or her language is more poetic. This is easy to see in a play like Ajax, where Ajax uses elaborately poetic language both in the "deception speech" (lines 646-692, pp. 41-45) and in his final monologue (lines 815-865, pp. 47-53), and sings more lyric lines than any other character in the play apart from the chorus. Similarly, in Philoctetes, Electra, and the two Oedipus plays, the title character's language is marked both by its diction and by its meters.

A model that makes good sense of five of the seven plays is certainly useful, but what about the other two? Both Antigone and Trachiniae arguably have two main characters – Antigone and Creon in the one, Deianira and Heracles in the other. Here Nooter's model helps clarify something important about the structure of these two plays. She argues that "Heracles' marked language is partly what sets him, as opposed to Deianira, apart as a hero" (p. 24, and ch. 2 pp. 63-81); thus Trachiniae can in fact be taken to have a single more important character. In Antigone, however, it is not possible to separate Antigone and Creon, who both "use highly poeticized language when their other resources have run dry" (p. 24). According to Nooter's model, this play really does have two main characters, two poetic heroes. She leaves it at that, observing correctly that Antigone "deserves separate treatment" (p. 25); this play alone does not get an extended discussion, which is unfortunate: we may hope that Nooter will remedy the lack elsewhere.1

After an introductory chapter, Nooter discusses the "authority" plays first – Ajax in chapter 1, Trachiniae and Oedipus the King together in chapter 2. The discussion of Ajax is particularly strong. Nooter observes that "Tecmessa prepares the audience to perceive how unusual and marked Ajax's language has become" (p. 34): when she tells the chorus about his madness and return to sanity, she describes his voice and how different it is from Ajax's previous behavior. Ajax's lyricism, especially in the long speeches, makes him like a poet, and, for Nooter, "the play...stages the renewal of communication between Ajax and the gods" (p. 53).

The juxtaposition of Trachiniae with Oedipus the King is original: at first, these plays do not seem to be a natural pair within the Sophoclean corpus. Nooter's point is that in each play the main character begins as a conventional hero, praised by the community, then incurs a disaster, losing glory but gaining a new, tragic sort of identity. As she puts it, "at the end of both plays, when both heroes have fallen from the grace of kleos, Sophocles offers them a final recourse: poetic identity and the ability to sing of themselves through lyrics, poetic tropes, and near-prophetic insight. The ascending lyrical abilities of the heroes counterbalance their physical and heroic demise" (p. 61). Nooter shows how at the start of each play the heroes are praised and their stories belong to the chorus and the wider community, but by the end "each hero reclaims and narrates his own story" (p. 98) with the authority of a bard.

The three "power" plays have a chapter each: Electra in chapter 3, Philoctetes next, and Oedipus at Colonus as a conclusion to the whole. Nooter argues that Electra is not the pathetic weakling she is sometimes taken to be (p. 107), but rather a powerful figure who controls both action and dialogue (pp. 102, 123). Although she is outside while Orestes is inside killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, "Electra's role in these two killings at the end of the play is significant" (p. 102) as she not only narrates the off-stage action but makes herself Clytemnestra's "ultimate interlocutor" (p. 122). While Orestes and Clytemnestra struggle inside, "when Electra orders that another blow fall, it falls" (p. 121, referring to line 1415). Electra’s primary linguistic style is lamentation, but she manages to turn this into a powerful tool (p. 123).

"Philoctetes is an ardent speaker" (p. 134) who laments, talks to his surroundings, argues, and calls upon the gods. According to Nooter, his most useful tool is "the capability of his language to express his suffering" (p. 139), and in particular this is what prompts Neoptolemus to change his mind. Philoctetes' poetic voice is characterized by apostrophe (p. 132): over the course of the play, he addresses not only Neoptolemus, Odysseus, and Heracles, but his bow, the mountains, the animals of his island, the gods, the absent Greeks, and even his own diseased foot. As Nooter observes, other Sophoclean heroes use apostrophe too, but none so much as Philoctetes (p. 131). His language thereby takes on the color of lamentation (obviously) and divine invocation – less obviously perhaps, but ably demonstrated with parallels from Pindar, Sappho, and Aeschylus. A character who apostrophizes in a lament is expressing loss or lack. "Invocation as a solely lyrical act, however, entails the assumption of the authority and ability to repair the world" (pp. 132-3, emphasis added), and Nooter concludes that Philoctetes' apostrophes move from those of lament to those of lyric invocation; Philoctetes himself therefore becomes increasingly able to affect the world around him (p. 146). This is a subtle argument, but persuasive.

The culmination of Nooter's discussion is her treatment of Oedipus at Colonus, a play that "marks irreparable changes in the sound of tragedy and poetry more generally" (p. 147), coming as it does at the very end of the fifth century. In this play almost every character joins in lyric dialogue: it is not Oedipus alone who uses lyric language, but everyone else as well. Nooter's formulation is neat: "lyricism spreads to the community as the hero ascends to a divine identity" (p. 147); "the lyrical hero disappears, but the dramatic world inherits his lyricism" (p. 146), at least within this play. Oedipus starts this play in the "lyrical mode" (p. 148) of the end of Oedipus the King but moves through more ordinary language to silence, then disappears. The play ends in lyrics (and of course, anapests), though Oedipus himself has been off stage for over two hundred lines and is not named in the last one hundred (cf. p. 176).

Nooter's model of lyrical language brings out important features of the plays and provokes comparisons: the margins of my copy of the book are filled with cross-references as Nooter shows Polyneices reacting to his silent father as Philoctetes does to Neoptolemus (pp. 127, 169; OC 1271-4, Phil. 230-1); major characters heard, disruptively, before they are seen (pp. 34, 72, 126: Ajax, Heracles, Philoctetes); and so on. She pays attention to meter – for example, noting that the change from iambics to trochaics at Philoctetes 1402-8 marks "a moment during which a tragedy's final departure is at issue" (p. 140) – but readers will not find metrical analyses of the lyrics. Indeed, though the title of the book is When Heroes Sing, part of Nooter's point is that they are sometimes more "poetic" when they are not singing.

The volume ends with an extensive bibliography. The single index includes references to the fragments of Sophocles and to works by other authors, but not references to the seven complete plays; on the other hand, discussion of the characters in the plays is quite well indexed.

In short, this is a creative reading of six of the seven extant plays of Sophocles from a new point of view, filled with fascinating observations.

Chapter List

Poetic progress in Ajax
Waxing heroic in Trachiniae and Oedipus Tyrannus
Addressing lament in Electra
Philoctetes’ apostrophes
The end and afterlife of poeticity: Oedipus at Colonus.


1.   The absence of Antigone is presumably due to the book's origin as a dissertation; omitting this one complicated play would have helped keep the project to a manageable size. Of course that is entirely reasonable. But now that it is a book, the argument seems almost incomplete without discussion of how Creon and Antigone dispute power and authority.

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