BMCR 2000.06.17

The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement

, The Language of Sophocles: Communality, Communication, and Involvement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 297. $64.95.

This book explores how Sophocles achieves “commonality among the different,” a dramatic experience that is shared even though individual responses differ. The subtitle is a clearer guide to the contents than the title, for although language is central to the argument and the best sections of the book are those that focus closely on Sophoclean language, language is more a means than an end. This emphasis on sharing without homogeneity is refreshing. It allows for a nuanced view of the original audience, and a reasonable position for modern readers.

Throughout, the emphasis lies on the mixture of information and mystery in Sophoclean language and dramaturgy. Sophocles, B. argues, involves his audience by providing enough information to prevent confusion while leaving many questions unanswered. Language is especially important in achieving this goal, but the process can be examined at many levels: chapters examine in turn sentences, characters, myth and prophecy, gods, and the chorus. In each case (except the last, where the issue is slightly different), B. shows that Sophoclean drama is lucid yet leaves gaps that involve the audience. This is generally convincing. This approach, however, does not pay enough attention to affect, although shared emotional response is an important component of commonality.

This overintellectualization is typical of contemporary scholarship on tragedy, as others have pointed out (e.g. J. Griffin in CQ 48 [1998] 55). This book is very much a product of the present, despite its deliberate rejection of some aspects of New Historicist-style interpretation. B. tends to privilege the political over the individual. He has a presentist perspective, remarking that parallels between scapegoat ritual and OR were suggested “long ago” (i.e. by Girard in 1972; p. 222, n. 54 — “a long time ago” for Jörgensen’s famous paper on Homeric gods [1904] is easier to take, though still a bit odd from a classicist). The bibliography, apart from linguistic and performance studies and technical works on Sophoclean language, is distinctly biased towards recent scholarship in English. (There is, however, an unnecessary Wilamowitz footnote on p. 127-8).

The first chapter argues that the Sophoclean sentence is at once lucid and elusive, illustrating the point through a comparison with Gorgias. Gorgias’ sentences are very highly predictable syntactically and semantically, while Sophocles’ are not. The argument is at once convincing and unsatisfying without any extended analysis of whole passages or any statistics. B. insists that he is studying the language of Sophocles in and of itself, not comparatively; but no poet’s language functions in a vacuum. I do not doubt that the sentences he discusses are typically Sophoclean — they fit my unsystematic sense of Sophocles’ style. On the other hand, though it is not frequent, the highly balanced and predictable sentence is also very characteristically Sophoclean: σὺ μὲν γὰρ ἕλου ζῆν, ἐγὼ δὲ κατθανεῖν.

The close analyses of sentences are perceptive. B. analyses sentences of three kinds — those in which unpredictable material intervenes between the creation of an expectation and its fulfillment; those that change direction after fulfilling the expectations they have raised; and those that either fail to fulfill expectations or contradict them. There is some methodological vagueness here since a hearer’s expectations are both semantic and syntactic. Also, some interventions or changes may be of familiar types that the hearer can easily process while others are harder. B. — rather oddly, given his pragmatic approach — does not look closely enough at the immediate context when considering how an audience understands a difficult Sophoclean utterance, though he often points to the links between sentences and broader themes. In Electra 1260-61, for example, it is surely essential to how a hearer construes the sentence that Orestes, in trimeters, has just told his sister to shut up. The hearer thus has expectations about the contents of her dochmiac reply. Again, at OR 341-342, Tiresias’ ἥξει γὰρ αὐτά is ambiguous, but Oedipus’ οὔκουν ἅ γ’ ἥξει καὶ σὲ χρὴ λέγειν ἐμοί; does not just increase the ambiguity, as B. notes it does; by complaining about Tiresias’ ambiguity, Oedipus unambiguously marks it as such.

The second chapter, on characters, looks at how Sophocles allows the audience to evaluate what characters say while leaving them still partially inaccessible and thus “deep.” He examines examples of agon speeches, general statements, and dramatic irony. So, for example, Clytemnestra in Electra, despite her use of rational argument, refers intensely to herself, and argues in a series of questions. Since even a rhetorical question is more “open” than a statement, these passages leave her partially opaque. Creon’s general statements in his famous opening speech in Antigone (175-206), in contrast, encourage the hearer to feel that he can understand and judge the claims Creon makes; the hearer is “on top” of Creon’s language as he is not “on top” of Clytemnestra’s. Hence critics make clear judgments of the passage, though they may disagree as much as Demosthenes (19.246) seems to disagree with A Podlecki ( TAPA 97 [1966] 359-71).

The chapter depends heavily on P. Easterling’s, C. Gill’s, and S. Goldhill’s contributions to C. Pelling’s Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature. I have considerable trouble with the theoretical assumptions of this section and particularly the use he makes of Easterling’s paper. He suggests that the more spectators are aware of their constructions of character as constructions that are subject to modification the more sense they will have of the character’s having inwardness or depth. There are, surely, two distinct ways in which a spectator may become self-conscious about constructing character. We may respond as B. suggests, by seeing an incongruence as evidence that the character, like a real person, is capable of being surprising while being an imaginable individual. However, we may also react by seeing the effect of conventions or authorial strategies, so that the character acquires less “depth.”

I especially miss affect here. One reason Clytemnestra’s rhetorical questions are effective in giving her inwardness is that they seem impassioned. Furthermore, the question of whether they are “real” or “rhetorical” is more powerful because they are not addressed to the external audience but to Electra. The discussion of Creon’s speech is also weakened by a certain overintellectualization. To be sure, anyone can easily agree or not within a series of generalizations. However, people in all cultures use and cite a repertory of traditional wisdom that is crammed with self-contradiction. They evaluate a gnome not just on whether they agree with it in principle, but on whether it is true in the situation, whether it is wise to say here-and-now, whether it seems sincere. Podlecki sees Creon’s speech as sterile cliché because of the way he reads Creon’s character and the whole play; Demosthenes, on the other hand, has no interest in the whole play but manipulates the passage rhetorically — we don’t know how he would have experienced the passage in performance. However the spectator in the theater judges the speech, its position after the prologue and parodos, with their very different views of events, means that while we may feel “on top” of Creon’s language, we are not “on top” of Creon, because his language does not tell us how he will respond to the complexity that will soon arise — and his language is indeed extraordinarily open to deconstruction.

The chapter on “Myth and Prophecy” is the least interesting section of the book. B shows how traditional story and authoritative prediction are similar to other forms and levels of Sophoclean communication, combining speech and silence, information and concealment in a way that involves spectators. He uses the Philoctetes, and while the discussion well supports the overall argument of the book, the issues discussed are very familiar.

The chapter on the gods begins with the distinction between individual, named gods and “Zeus” or “daemon.” B. takes an unnecessarily long time to conclude that Sophoclean characters resemble those of Homer (Jörgensen) and real life (Mikalson) in finding it easier to speak of “Zeus,” “daemon,” or “fate” than of individual gods. B. has an interesting discussion of problems of specifying gods or the aspects of Zeus, and of the vagueness of Sophoclean passages that blame gods. He suggests that the gods tend to begin stories but not to be present in the dramatic action itself so that they serve to hint that the story must continue. He thus links them to the notorious difficulty of closure and makes them, like the other features he discusses, a device for providing at once knowledge and ignorance.

Chapter Five deals with the chorus as a potential focalizer for the audience, a group with which the audience can “identify and sympathise.” Following a brief but balanced discussion of the different views of how audiences could respond to different figures on stage, B. argues that the chorus has two especially significant aspects: it implies a larger off-stage group that invites audience identification, though its connections with this larger group are complex and variable and its members are safe at the drama’s end (though not “saved”). I am dubious when B. says (p. 203): “The Chorus have no rival for the attention spectators may pay them as a group. They are part of the only group that there is to identify with.” Why must individuals in the theater feel that the audience is a “group” in an especially meaningful way and so look for a group to identify with? Clearly the members of any theatrical audience do form an operative “group,” in that their responses influence each other, but is there any reason why they should prefer to sympathize with groups rather than with individuals? Surely audiences would tend to identify with the choral singers when no actors are present, because they have the audience’s full attention, and because of the affective power of song and dance. Surely also in the sequences where, as B. points out, a chorus becomes less individualized and more a representative of humanity, chorus and audience must to some extent merge. At other times, most spectators will variously identify with characters and chorus. These assumptions sit oddly with B.’s insistence on the differences that underlie commonality. Members of a chorus are, unlike the audience, not differentiated, so that the claim that the audience, as a group, must identify with the chorus undercuts B’s claim to take difference seriously.

Similarly, B says of the house in Electra, “Like all houses, moreover, it is more distant from a fifth-century audience than a polis or an army in so far as theatre-going was a political rather than a private activity.” But while theater-going had political aspects, certainly, why assume that a private house was “more distant” for the audience, or that the Athenian audiences privileged the political aspects of the theater so much? Everybody belonged to an oikos (except hetaerae, if present), while not everyone in the audience was politically active. The emphasis on the chorus’ safety, though, invites thought, and the analysis of how Electra develops the theme of the rescue of the city (in a complex and uneasy relationship with the house) is especially rich.

B.’s extended discussion of Oedipus Rex raises further questions. At the beginning of the play, Oedipus is a potential savior of the city represented by the chorus, which takes the place of the initial suppliants. As Oedipus becomes less concerned with the well-being of the city and more with his own parentage, the chorus tends to follow him; after the revelation, the chorus represents humanity in general as Oedipus becomes paradigm instead of savior. This is an interesting analysis, but throughout B. seems to assume that the spectator will be critical of Oedipus for shifting his focus away from the city; the spectator is assumed to identify with the large group in need of help. How, though, do we decide that the plague is not a MacGuffin — it sets the plot going, but isn’t really all that important, because the spectator, like the chorus, follows Oedipus’ shift of focus?

In sum, this is an often lively and readable study. It is uneven, sometimes truly original, sometimes too dependent on prevailing views. For me, the structure of the project is inherently frustrating — I would have preferred a far richer analysis just of sentences and short passages, with extensive comparisons among the tragedians, and perhaps another quite distinct study of the language pertaining to gods. I would also have preferred closer attention to what differences in audience response are actually likely, and how far commonality really extends. To some extent “commonality in difference” remains a slogan, neither side of which receives the careful thought it deserves. Still, such a remark exemplifies the vice of complaining about the book the author did not choose to write instead of looking at the one he did. By evading some questions, the book achieves a thoughtful exploration of others.