In this contribution to Bristol Classical Press/Duckworth’s Classical World Series, A.F. Garvie, well known for his previous outstanding work on tragedy and Homer, offers an excellent brief introduction to Sophocles’ seven extant tragedies. In line with the aims of the series, Garvie addresses his book to students and teachers reading the plays in translation. In only 82 pages plus a five-page Epilogue he offers accurate, instructive, and stimulating interpretive discussions that would be most helpful, to any non-specialist teaching Sophocles in a humanities or world literature course or even to a non-literary classicist teaching classical civilization or classical literature in translation.
Garvie emphasizes the complex, problematic nature of the plays, which challenge audiences and readers to understand their characteristic “blend of optimism and pessimism” (88) and to accept that these dramas neither offer straightforward explanations nor answer the questions they raise about the characters and action of particular plays and about human existence generally — questions that many readers might wish to have answered. Garvie does not use Keats’s term “negative capability,” but in effect, that is what he implies an audience or reader needs to respond appropriately to Sophocles’ representations of “the gap between seeming and reality” (44) and of the impossibility for human beings of complete knowledge or understanding of themselves and their circumstances. This approach particularly informs Garvie’s excellent opening chapter on Ajax, and is at the heart of his discussions of all seven plays, in which he carefully traces and comments on the action from beginning to end, with particular attention to how the it raises, fulfills, or disappoints an audience’s or reader’s expectations.
In so brief a book Garvie necessarily (and consciously) omits much, including discussion of the choral odes, to which he rarely refers but which, he warns readers, “contain no simple lessons” (87). He focuses mainly on the dramatic action and structure of each work, the representation of its “principal character” or “hero” (84), and its distinctive language and themes, in order to elucidate Sophocles'”tragic thinking” (10) on such topics as the relationship between the “hero” and the human community in which he or she is active, and the connections and gaps between human beings and the gods, who clearly exist in a divine order that frames human existence but whose relation to human morality is for the most part inscrutable. Garvie explicitly disavows the “pietist” Sophocles of, e.g. Bowra (whom he does not mention by name). Rather, his emphasis on human beings as moral agents and his understanding of the plays generally are, in different ways, indebted to the work of Blundell, Knox, Reinhardt, Segal, and Winnington-Ingram. Similarly, his ability to make interpretive use of what the individual plays imply about their staging owes much to the work of such scholars as Taplin and Rehm, and specialists will note here and there a debt to recent work on Sophoclean language by such scholars as Budelmann and Hesk. All these scholars are mentioned in Garvie’s brief bibliography, which includes general works on Attic tragedy and Sophocles, along with a few articles by authors mentioned by name in discussions of particular plays.
As one would expect, Garvie’s interpretations are grounded in his close familiarity with the texts. They are clearly and engagingly set forth, though perhaps he is a bit complacent in his repeated, conventional use of “we” and “us” to refer to a presumed interpretive community consisting of himself and his readers ,and in his occasional treatment of members of this interpretive community and characters in the plays as equally and similarly human. Occasionally Garvie mentions in passing that in a particular play, the same actor must have played two roles, e.g. Ajax and Teucer, Agamemnon and Menelaos, and I wondered if in these cases there is supposed to be a larger interpretive significance, such as that given by some critics to the same actor having played Odysseus, the False Merchant, and Herakles in Philoktetes. I also wondered about Garvie’s description of the status of a cult hero as “between human and divine” (12, cf. 75-76), since the posthumous immortality of such heroes would seem to justify thinking of them as chthonic divinities, rather than something in between god and mortal?
The Plays of Sophocles is consistently interesting, engaging, and stimulating. It will serve well its intended audience and left me wishing for a sustained, scholarly treatment by Garvie of Sophoclean tragedy.