BMCR 2004.05.10

Sophocles: Ajax

, Sophocles : Ajax. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2003. 208 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715630474. £10.99.

Hesk’s study is the first on a Sophoclean tragedy to appear in the Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series. This series has four main aims: each companion is expected to discuss the main themes of the tragedy, to outline central developments in modern criticism, to address the historical context of the original performance and to discuss the history of its performance and adaptation. The series is intended to provide “accessible introductions to ancient tragedies”;1 it is, therefore, directed towards a readership who have little or no knowledge of Greek and Roman tragedy and are reading the tragedies in translation. Hesk has addressed the aims of the series, though, on occasion, I thought this study was slightly sophisticated for a readership without any knowledge of ancient Greek and Classical Athenian culture. The ideal readership is the university market, especially students studying Sophocles’ Ajax and/or Greek tragedy, and they have been given an excellent analysis of the play. But there are many ideas and interpretations in this book which will be of interest to an academic readership too.

Hesk’s treatment of the tragedy is broken down into seven chapters. The first two chapters form a general introduction and background to the tragedy, while the next four chapters take the reader through every scene of Ajax sequentially, with important interpretative issues outlined. The final chapter deals with some general issues of interpretation and some aspects of reception.

The first chapter is a brief one (pp.9-16). As its title — Playwright, Plot and Performance — suggests, it covers some basic introductory information about Sophocles and the Ajax. After a brief summary of the entire plot of Ajax, there is a succinct synopsis of Sophocles’ theatrical skills (pp.12-13). This is followed by the usual biographical details, though I did not think the passing analogy between political offices in Classical Athens and modern Britain worked (p.13).2 The second part of the chapter addresses issues of dating, about which Hesk notes that there is only uncertainty,3 and of performance context, for which Hesk provides a concise account of religious and civic aspects of the Great Dionysia.

The second chapter is entitled “Context and Tradition” and illustrates the relationship between Ajax and the earlier literary tradition. The first part of the chapter is a very useful discussion about myth and how it relates to Ajax. As well as looking at myth in general, Hesk also provides an excellent analysis of Ajax as a hero-cult (pp.19-24). The next part of the chapter deals with the relationship between Ajax and the epic tradition, where the majority of the attention is, unsurprisingly, on the intertextual relationship with the Homeric epics (pp.27-34). The chapter concludes with a look at the figure of Ajax in lyric poetry where the focus in on the several references to Ajax in Pindar.4 Hesk uses these Pindaric references to conclude the chapter on a note which sums up his overall approach: when reading Ajax, it is essential to avoid judging its eponymous hero in simplistic negative or positive terms (p.39).

The third chapter — Setting the Scene — examines the tragedy’s prologue and parodos. Hesk takes the reader through a fairly comprehensive list of important thematic and interpretative issues in the beginning of the play. While this also includes various dramaturgical concerns, he overlooked one important aspect of the opening arrangement. Based on Odysseus’ first utterance to Athena (ll.13-4), Hesk appears to articulate the problem as if it is simply a question of whether or not Athena is visible to the audience (pp.43-4). But there is more at issue here. If Athena were visible to the audience, as she surely was, then there is also the significant problem of whether the goddess appeared at stage level or on high.

The fourth chapter is called “Ajax and Tecmessa” and discusses the play from the entrance of Tecmessa to the end of the first stasimon (ll.201-645). Hesk’s discussion exhibits a wide and sensitive reading of the most important recent interpretative works on the tragedy, and he presents a fine assimilation of the various conflicting views surrounding Ajax. This chapter is also marked by its sympathetic analysis of Tecmessa and her exchanges with Ajax. Hesk is careful, as he is throughout his study, to note how the arguments of other characters underline the impossibility of adopting a simplistic, positive attitude to Ajax.

While the analysis and discussion throughout chapter four is excellent, I could not help wondering if it were, on occasion, left behind its intended audience. At one point, for example, Hesk observes how “Some would argue that Tecmessa is appealing to the ‘quieter virtues’ of cooperation and gratitude which, if heeded and followed, would do nothing to enhance Ajax’s heroic excellence ( aretê)” (p.66). The quieter virtues of co-operation is, of course, a reference to the opposition between competitive and co-operative values as articulated in Adkins’ seminal work on ancient Greek moral values.5 This important concept would simply elude a general readership in such a subtle reference as this. (I am not sure that an undergraduate readership would get it either.) Although there is a reference to Adkins’ book a sentence or two later, its separation from the initial point, together with the fact that there is no elaboration on the concept in the accompanying endnote, is not helpful.

The fifth chapter is called “Deception and Suicide” (pp.74-103). Although this title may suggest that both themes will be discussed equally, this is deceptive. The majority of the chapter, twenty of its twenty-nine pages, is given over to the forty-six line deception speech. (The chapter covers three hundred and thirty-one lines of the tragedy; ll.646-977.) This is, perhaps, unsurprising; a lot has been written about the deception speech. Although the chapter follows Hesk’s general approach of outlining the critical reactions to each scene of the tragedy, a great deal of the extended discussion — e.g. references to, inter alia, ‘Anaxamandrian alternation’ (p.86) — is, I think, too sophisticated for the intended readers of this book. In this instance, much of the discussion, which is excellent, should have been put in endnotes or, better still, in a separate section of the final chapter which deals with issues of critical interpretation. Hesk has a lot of very good things to say, for example, about ambiguity in the speech and the privileged interpretative position of the audience, but they got lost in a slightly esoteric discussion.

The concentration on the deception speech and, to a lesser extent, the suicide is at the expense of the intervening scene in which a Messenger arrives and reports Calchas’ explanation of Ajax’s madness and Athena’s one-day anger. Although Hesk here defers discussion of Athena, and whether or not Ajax is being punished for hubris towards her, until the final chapter, this is a mistake. Some of the critical views on Athena’s very unusual one day anger ought to have been outlined at this point. Deferring discussion meant that the immediate dramatic and thematic significance effects of this scene are overlooked in the later general analysis of the hubris theme. The messenger scene is not some sort of interlude:6 it is a crucial scene which precedes the suicide and provides important insights into Athena’s role in the suicide and the (Sophoclean) tragedy overall.

The final part of the chapter deals with three aspects of the suicide. The first is an analysis of whether or not the suicide is a heroic act. Then Hesk looks at the nature of the curse on the Atreids in Ajax’s death speech. The chapter concludes with a look at the problematic issue of how the suicide was staged.

The sixth chapter — The Quarrel — deals with the play from the debate scenes to the end. It is one of the most refreshing discussions of this final section of the tragedy in a very long time. The interpretative approach is characterised, to use Hesk’s own phrase (p.177 n.3), by an absence of “Teucer-bashing”! Hesk’s view is that Teucer’s “vitriol and earthy commitment to his brother have been missed, misunderstood or unfairly downgraded by the critics” (p.105). In respect of the vitriol in particular, Hesk convincingly shows how Teucer holds his own in the debates with Menelaus and Agamemnon by getting the better of them in a type of verbal exchange called flyting (see, e.g., pp.117-8). But the chapter is never a simplistic attempt to advance Ajax’s cause through a positive appraisal of Teucer. Hesk notes how Menelaus and Agamemnon, no matter how unsympathetic their portrayals, advance the negative case against Ajax. The chapter highlights significant interpretative nuances through its close interrogation of what the scenes would have meant for the original Athenian audience, e.g. how the ‘illegitimate’ Teucer challenges the concept of the aristocratic ‘nobility’ (pp.120-2).

The seventh and final chapter — Criticism and Reception — is divided into two very distinct sections. In the first section, Hesk looks at three themes: Heroism and character; Madness, sanity and extremism; and Does Ajax commit hubris ? Hesk’s initial discussion of the ‘Sophoclean hero’ and how it applies, or does not apply, to Ajax together with an outline some of main interpretative views on Ajax is very helpful (pp.131-6). The analysis of madness and sanity is less successful, though there are some good points on extremism. The discussion of critical issues ends with a good examination of whether or not Ajax commits hubris (pp.141-8). The section on Reception is a brief look at some post-Sophoclean representations of Ajax and the Ajax. It deals first with some ancient receptions such as Antisthenes and Ovid (pp.149-53). It then deals briefly with some later artistic representations (pp.155-6): a fresco by the Renaissance artist Giulio Romano and a series of paintings and drawings by the Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). It ends with a discussion of two American dramatic productions from either end of the twentieth century (pp.157-61); greater attention is given to an 1988 production which was a radical reworking of the ancient play to give it a very contemporary relevance.

Arguably, the material in this chapter should have been presented into two separate chapters. For example, the criticism section could have been expanded — the detailed discussion of the deception speech, as noted earlier, should have been placed here — and this would have been extremely useful for students studying the play. The combination of two distinct themes within the one chapter created an impression that the reception element had been tacked on.7

After the final chapter — besides endnotes, bibliography and index — there are three appendix-like inclusions: a “Guide to Further Reading”; a brief “Glossary” of mainly, though not exclusively, Greek words and terms used; and a “Chronology” of some adaptations and receptions of Ajax/ Ajax not discussed in the second section of chapter seven. They serve their purpose well, but I noted two omissions. If intertextuality/intertext made it into the “Glossary”, then metatheatrical/metatheatre ought to have been included too (despite, or because of, pp.46-7). An omission in the “Guide to Further Reading” was Lloyd-Jones’ Loeb edition, which includes Ajax.8

The book is, as far as I could tell, free from major error. There was the very occasional typographical error here and there,9 but nothing serious enough to detract from overall high quality.

In the first paragraph of the book, Hesk observes that ” Ajax may not be Sophocles’ most celebrated tragedy — Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus surely compete for that accolade” (p.9). It is likely that one or other of these two tragedies appear in most Classical Studies degree programmes that have a Greek tragedy component, while Ajax is confined to a peripheral position. But Hesk has produced implicitly an eloquent argument for the greater inclusion of Ajax as a central text in the teaching of Greek tragedy. It arguably contains more content which deals directly with the social concerns of fifth century Athens than Oedipus Tyrannus. Most of all, Ajax, as Hesk shows time and again, is a great piece of literature which poses dark questions leaving them unanswered. Notwithstanding the misgivings articulated at various points in this review, Hesk’s book is a wonderfully full and informative introduction to Ajax. I recommend it highly and think that Hesk has got the contributions on Sophocles in this series off to an excellent start.


1. This phrase is taken from the reverse side of the book’s cover.

2. As the series is directed towards a general readership, this type of undeveloped analogy is a double-edged sword. There is a danger that some may believe the political systems and/or democracy of Classical Athens are identical to that of contemporary Britain. I am reviewing this book at a time when the word “democracy” is being bandied about cheaply and hypocritically by world leaders, and so caution is needed. It is not, of course, within the scope of Hesk’s book to discuss Athenian democracy, but the analogy merited an endnote of explanation. Even if Sophocles were “for a while as important as a cabinet minister in the United Kingdom” (p.13), he does not appear to have been held in as little esteem as a British cabinet minister.

3. Although Hesk goes for “some time in the 440s” (p.14), he had just earlier observed that “Athens’ protracted and costly hostilities with Sparta are important background for our reading of Ajax” (p.13). This is vague, but I assume that he cannot be referring to what is generally known as the Peloponnesian War, i.e. the period between 431 BC and 404 BC, though this might be what immediately springs to the mind of the intended readership. He is probably thinking of the “first” Peloponnesian War ended by the 30 years’ truce (cf. Thuc. 2.2). As Hesk shows later (pp.111-13), relations between Athens and Sparta do have an important bearing on our understanding of the tragedy. The point here could have been better expressed, I think, through the generally accepted fact that war was an essential feature of the ancient Greek male’s world.

4. Hesk believes that the ‘secret votes’ in Pindar Nemean 8.26 allude to cheating rather than a secret ballot. Do these two things have to be mutually exclusive?

5. A. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility: a Study of Greek Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

6. Although Hesk does not suggest this, his treatment gives this impression. And it is a view held by others, e.g. G.H. Gellie, Sophocles: a reading (Melbourne, 1972) p.17.

7. In a brief review of William Allan’s volume on Euripides’ Medea in this series, Michael Lloyd ( Classics Ireland 10 [2003], 98 -101) criticised its handling of the reception. Lloyd notes (ibid. p.100), “The final chapter (painfully entitled ‘Multi-Medea’) gives a brief account of the Medea myth in later antiquity, and a mere two pages on the influence of Medea since the Renaissance. This is an opportunity lost, and a failure to measure up to the declared aim of the series to deal with performance history and adaptation.” I have not seen Allan’s work, and suspect that Hesk’s handling of the reception aspect is better. Nevertheless, I was left with the impression that the discussion was only scratching the surface and it makes me wonder if the series has still got to grips with this particular aim.

8. H. Lloyd-Jones (ed.), Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus (Cambridge MA. and London: Harvard University Press, 1994).

9. Is polis a recognisably English word which does not need italics? At any rate, it is rendered consistently as polis throughout.