Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.31

Seth L. Schein, Sophocles: Philoctetes. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xii, 375.  ISBN 9780521862776.  $36.99 (pb).  

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


The series 'Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics' was inaugurated in 1970 with an edition of Sophocles' Philoctetes by T. B. L. Webster. The limitations of Webster's commentary, particularly its lack of interest in literary analysis, were recognised at the time,1 and more than four decades later a replacement was urgently needed. That need has been fully met by this excellent commentary by Seth Schein, which deserves to become both a frequent point of reference for scholars and a welcome resource for teachers and their pupils. Undergraduate students reading the play with me this term have reacted very positively to the book, especially to its careful explanation of the Greek and its full discussion of the play's dramatic and literary qualities.

After the Contents, Preface, and list of Abbreviations comes a fifty-nine page Introduction, with eleven sections: 'Philoktetes in mythology, literature, and figurative art', 'The historical context', 'Setting', 'Staging', 'Intertexts', 'The Chorus and the characters', 'Language and Style', 'Metre', 'Key to metrical abbreviations, terms, and symbols', 'Reception', and 'The transmission of the text'. There follows 'A note on the text and apparatus criticus', after which is found, sensibly enough, the text and apparatus. The main part of the book, the Commentary, then follows, taking up two hundred and thirty-five pages. Twenty pages are devoted to the Bibliography, and nine to two Indexes (of Subjects, and of Greek). In all, Schein's book is more than twice as long as Webster's; but mere length is not what makes this book impressive. Schein has thought hard about what his target audience needs, and the fruits of that thinking are everywhere palpable.

Schein's introduction is brisk, wide-ranging, and informative. His account of previous versions of the myth is not only instructive in itself, but also points out distinctive features of Sophocles' treatment. His analysis of the historical context wisely denies that the play has 'a straightforward relationship to Athenian politics and history' (p. 10); instead, he considers several passages where 'some members of an Athenian audience in 409 might have been reminded more generally of contemporary Athenian society and politics' (p. 11). Schein is right to express himself cautiously here, as several of the points that he raises seem to pertain more widely than merely to Athens (as many Athenians will have been aware); moreover, the audience at the Dionysia itself will have been far from exclusively Athenian, and the putative reactions of these other Greeks should not be neglected by the literary historian. What would the Lemnians in the audience have made of it all, I wonder?

Sections on the setting and staging provide a useful overview in preparation for the detailed consideration of the performance seen in the commentary; perhaps a complete list of entrances and exits would have helped to further this aim? Schein then considers possible allusive links between Philoctetes and Achilles, Odysseus, and the Cyclops (the latter both in Homer and in Euripides); in three marvellously efficient pages he sets out an analysis that will stimulate any attentive reader. The solid and substantial discussion of the chorus and characters (in that order, perhaps to encourage readers not to neglect the former?) is succeeded by an excellent account of Sophoclean language and style. As befits the author of The Iambic Trimeter in Aeschylus and Sophocles. A Study in Metrical Form (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 6; Leiden 1979), Schein pays considerable attention here and in the commentary to the placing of words within the trimeter; just as importantly, he does so in a way that will not terrify the metrically uninitiated. After a descriptive section on metre, and a guide to metrical symbols (better placed with the Abbreviations at the start of the book?), we encounter a detailed account of the play's reception, and a briefer description of the transmission of the text. Might these two sections have been merged? As it is, there is a gap in the reception section of over a thousand years after Servius;2 yet some people were reading the play during this time, and their story too deserves to be told.

Schein's text differs in just over a hundred places from that of the Oxford Classical Text by H. Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson (Oxford 1990, revised 1992). In about a quarter of these places the manuscripts offer different readings, and Schein chooses one, Lloyd-Jones and Wilson another. Ten percent of the differences involve the selection of different conjectures in the two editions. In a further ten percent of cases, Schein prints a conjecture where Lloyd-Jones and Wilson print a manuscript reading. That leaves over fifty percent of these instances where Schein retains a manuscript reading and Lloyd-Jones and Wilson print a conjecture. Many conjectures which Lloyd-Jones and Wilson print in their text are not even mentioned by Schein in his (relatively generous) apparatus. It would thus be fair to characterise Schein's text as a fairly conservative one.

This conservatism certainly leads to improvements; there are places where Lloyd-Jones and Wilson (and still more so Dawe in his Teubner) were too quick to resort to emendation, and some of these were recognised by the Oxford editors themselves in their thoughtful volume Sophocles. Second Thoughts (Hypomnemata 100; Göttingen 1997; see their notes on lines 22, 43, and 236). On other hand, conservatism can go a bit far. To take one example, it is a pity to see lines 1218-21 accepted as genuine Sophocles more than four decades after Taplin's powerful case against their authenticity, in what remains an outstanding demonstration of the essential unity of textual and dramatic criticism.3 Schein cites Taplin but does not counter his arguments; the ethic dative σοι remains unexplained, and the only defence offered of ὁμοῦ plus genitive is a passage of Xenophon where (as Taplin said, and as Schein admits) the dative exists as a variant reading. This passage (not unfairly characterised by Taplin, p. 43, as 'doggerel . . . a rambling and ugly sentence') obscures the 'extraordinarily abrupt transition' (Taplin, ibid.) created by Sophocles at this point, where the play seems to end with Philoctetes withdrawing into the cave before Neoptolemus and Odysseus burst on stage and wrench the drama in an unexpected direction. On the other hand, the very fact that experts such as Schein, Taplin, Lloyd-Jones, and Wilson can disagree so profoundly over so many textual points, which often have considerable implications for our understanding of Sophocles' literary and dramatic technique, is itself a sign of the enduring vitality of this aspect of the subject, and the need for further work. Careful comparison of the Oxford Classical Text with Schein's will be an essential exercise for anyone interested in working out what Sophocles actually wrote.

Perhaps the most notorious note in any Sophoclean commentary is Webster's on Phil. 931 ἀπεστέρηκας τὸν βίον τὰ τόξ᾽ ἑλών: 'Note that the accent and therefore pitch distinguishes βίον "life" from βιόν "bow" so that no pun is intended or heard.' Generations of readers have, I suspect, had difficulty swallowing that. Schein, by contrast, cites a passage from Heraclitus that shows that such a pun was well within the bounds of possibility (fr. 48 D–K τῶι οὖν τόξωι ὄνομα βίος, ἔργον δὲ θάνατος), before briefly pointing out its possible effect on the audience ('Phil<octetes> evokes compassion by reminding not only the Chorus but a viewer or reader that Ne<optolemus> has robbed him of his life by stealing the bow that enabled him to remain alive'). Throughout we find careful attention to the nuances of language. So on ἀμφοῖν in line 25, Schein shrewdly notes how 'Od<ysseus> uses a dual form persuasively, in order to make Ne<optolemus> feel that the two of them are on an equal footing, though the antithesis in 24-5 implies that he himself will tell Ne<optolemus> what to do and Ne<optolemus> will obey his directions'. His analysis of 932 ἀπόδος, ἱκνοῦμαί σ᾽, ἀπόδος, ἱκετεύω, τέκνον emphasises how 'the repetitions, resolutions, and broken rhythm reflect Phil<octetes'> urgency and distress', pointing out the unusual metrical features and comparing other lines within the play with similar effects. Some of the most effective and sophisticated notes are on staging: so on 814-18 and 894-7 he canvasses different possibilities for the physical interaction between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus at these critical moments, and the significance for their changing relationship.

Schein rightly spends a great deal of his commentary explaining the Greek: no mean feat when it comes to Sophocles, and a welcome feature of the book that will interest not just students. Citing secondary literature is not his focus, and rightly so; but occasionally there were places where such citation might have assisted his linguistic and literary analyses. So in 22-3n. Schein justifies his (in my view correct) decision to print σήμαιν᾽ unemended and without obeli, even though the word has been taken as a breach of Porson's law. But his explanation would have been strengthened if he had summarised Renehan's clear and detailed analysis of the problem,4 and he would have saved words in the process. As it is, Schein does not cite any literature on the subject apart from Porson himself. The great scholars of the past do merit direct consultation; but our understanding of metre has advanced a little since 1802. Schein's notes on the significance of Neoptolemus' tears in 367, and on Philoctetes’ singing at 1081-1217, are both good, but would have been sharpened by reference to T. Fögen (ed.), Tears in the Graeco-Roman World (Berlin and New York 2009) and A. Suter (ed.), Lament. Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond (Oxford and New York 2008) respectively. But on the whole, Schein is right to place the emphasis where he does: a direct personal engagement with Sophocles' words (as far as these can be reconstructed, of course). The indexes are full and generally well organised.

The book is well printed and designed, and misprints are few.5 Cambridge University Press can set Schein's Philoctetes as a worthy companion alongside Easterling's Trachiniae and Griffith's Antigone in their series of excellent Sophoclean commentaries.6 Let us hope for a full set before long.


1.   See the reviews by P. Pucci, AJP 94 (1973) 197-201 and H. Lloyd-Jones, CR NS 22 (1972) 102.
2.   There is a reference to Ovid's retelling of the myth as 'the best-known version of the myth in western literature from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance' (p. 45), which invites the question, what about the east, where Greek continued to be spoken and read?
3.   O. Taplin, 'Significant actions in Sophocles' Philoctetes', GRBS 12 (1971) 25-44.
4.   R. Renehan, review article on Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, Sophocles OCT, CP 87 (1992) 335-75, at 367-9.
5.   (p. 20 n. 63) Read εὐήθης. (p. 29) Read Ἡρακλῆς. (p. 73, line 222) Read ὑμᾶς. (p. 74, line 237) Read ὁ. (p. 85, 2 down, third word) 'o' is in wrong font. (p. 140, 7 up, middle) 'O' is in wrong font. (p. 148, middle) 'α' is in wrong font. (p. 182, 7 down) Read εὐγενής. (p. 182, 3 up) Read 'rhēsis'. (p. 283, last line) inverted comma the wrong way round. On the back cover, read 'century'.
6.   Of the other two plays in the series, Kells's Electra is not really satisfactory for any readership; and although Dawe's idiosyncratic Oedipus Rex will certainly provoke thought, it does not do all the things that we expect from a commentary today (see Classical Bulletin 83 (2007) 287-8).

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