BMCR 2019.10.17

Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Sophocles. Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception, 10

, , Brill's Companion to the Reception of Sophocles. Brill's Companions to Classical Reception, 10. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. xiii, 594. ISBN 9789004296299. $216.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Given the length and breadth of this volume, it is impossible to discuss each chapter individually in detail. The editors established a common pattern for each chapter, executed by the authors with varying degrees of success. This approach allows me to discuss the different contributions together, taking a methodological view, with specific comments on how each chapter manages the issues. In summary, the book reads as an annotated catalogue with an excessive literary bent which fails to do analytical justice to most of its case studies, and disrespects the genres with which it deals.

This extremely useful companion series has seen a variety of structures employed. The Aeschylus volume (Brill, 2017, ed. Rebecca Futo Kennedy) treats material in two sections: ancient and modern, structuring the modern section by type of reception, or indeed individual work of reception. The BMCR review 2019.01.10 of this volume notes problems with the approach, including apparent relative weightings of ancient and modern (by chapter count and word count), limitations of the choice of topics, and the breadth of material with issues in its subdivision for ease of use.

The editors of the Sophocles volume have taken a different approach in structuring the volume by ancient play. Their structure allows a thematic development to emerge through each play, but it comes with its own drawbacks. In the introduction the editors claim that it allows for intense cross-referencing to help draw the volume together, but this is not as evident as I would have hoped. Particular problems are seen for the Theban plays, where the myth (as distinct from the plays) and the ways in which the ancient plays merge within modern receptions mean that overlap is inevitable and material is frequently repeated. The tight chapter leads to further awkward repetition within chapters, such as where to place Mason’s Caractacus or Breuer/Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus in ch. 4.

Within each chapter, the editors have set out a consistent structure for all authors to follow. This makes reading the book as a whole more straightforward, although I imagine most readers will be focusing only on the chapter for the play which most interests them. The structure involves an italicised précis and discussion of the Sophoclean text; discussion of the play’s ancient reception, including in biographical writings about Sophocles as well as other Greek works; Roman receptions; in Literature; in Fine Arts, further subdivided into Visual Arts, Music, Dance; On Stage and Screen, subdivided into its sections; Major Works of Scholarship; Bibliography: Further Readings (by subsection) and Cited Bibliography.

Such a formal structure makes sense for those trying to trace a genre through the book, but it does cause a number of issues for which I am not sure the uniformity of approach offers sufficient compensation. It is hard for these chapters to deal with, for example, a literary output that was later staged, or with something that defies genre categorisation. For some of the less well-known plays, the structure leads to sections announcing simply that to the author’s best knowledge there is no material to cover.

As a result of this play-by-play approach, chapter lengths vary enormously, from just 37 for Electra to 176 for Oedipus the King, a book in its own right. One benefit, however, is the clear and explicit inclusion of The Trackers, albeit in an appendix, as a Sophoclean play deserving treatment in its own right. Given this move beyond the canon of complete tragedies, it might have been useful to consider the reception of fragments, particularly given increasing modern interest in these as material for creative receptions.

The focus on particular genres also leaves several important areas adrift. Radio, for example, is barely mentioned, so while the BBC productions of the Theban plays are mentioned, the powerful BBC Radio 3 1997 production of the Ranjit Bolt translations is not, despite the interest in, for example, how the change of medium (stage to radio) affected the consumption and appreciation of the work. The literature section predominates in each chapter. It might have benefited from a clearer subdivision, as here in particular the leap between centuries can feel disconcerting. It might also have worked better alongside the ‘Stage’ section, given the relationship between plays as both read and performed texts (even given their reception into other literary genres), as exemplified in, e.g., Mason’s Caractacus, written in 1759 as a closet drama to be read, and only performed in 1776, without the author’s blessing.

Sometimes this volume leaves me asking, along with the editors, ‘Where is Sophocles?’ Most but not all contributors refer to Taplin,1 who deals with how to tell if a pot depicts a specific play, but this question is not covered systematically. Again, Silva discusses contaminatio, but a more positive understanding of what is derived from Sophocles himself rather than from the stories he presents, esepecially in terms of language and stagecraft rather than plot and character, is largely absent.

A vast amount of material is covered in this book, and for those starting out in reception studies who want to gain an overview of the works of reception mentioned in it, it will prove very valuable. It reads clearly as an annotated catalogue. One problem that emerges from this is the relationship between description and analysis. The prefaces to each chapter themselves demonstrate this. Some chapters summarise plots succinctly. Finglass’s deep knowledge of Electra leads to an extended and slightly idiosyncratic summary, which nevertheless makes sense in the context of the reception angle he takes in the chapter, while Silva offers an extended analysis and description of Antigone, which shapes how the chapter deals with works of reception in being one itself. Description is not neutral.

Some form of survey might have helped to contextualise the examples. Charting relative peaks (and troughs) in receptions of different plays, in different genres, across different eras and areas, might have helped a reader understand more about the choice of examples, and the trajectories of the plays.

Several of the chapters explore how the different potential readings of Sophocles’ plays allow ebb and flow over time. This semi-structuralist approach feels like a Straussian discussion of mythemes, but without the theoretical framework. The lack of theory in the book does make it feel somewhat isolated from its reception framework. Important questions of reception are all here, but mainly implicitly. It might have helped for the introduction to explore how the book conceived of reception and what it was going to do in a clearer methodological fashion; the supposed neutrality of the cataloguing and description, or rather the lack of it, demonstrates the volume’s lack of methodological engagement with reception studies. Some productions, throughout the volume, are discussed in terms of ‘authenticity’, without a clear discussion of what that might mean in reception terms. At the other extreme, there are concerns over what a reappropriation of a work might mean. The confusion is perhaps best expressed by Mills on Women of Trachis (p. 542): ‘The Women of Trachis should be accessible entirely on its own terms, given that almost everyone has experienced romantic insecurity, but it seems relatively rare in modern performance history that directors have allowed it to be so.’ It would be useful to think about what we learn about Sophocles from the changing forms of access to his work, but this angle is only ever implicit.

Silva’s chapter on Antigone deals most sensitively with more theoretical issues. For example, she deals most explicitly with the relationship between aesthetic philosophy and works of reception, discussing the impact of Hegel’s and Derrida’s readings of Antigone on its subsequent reception. Scholarship in/of/as reception, however, is generally relegated to a very small section at the end of each chapter. This is limited to modern works explicitly situating themselves as discussions of reception, where there would have been fruitful room to explore in any given chapter the contemporary intellectual milieus (rather than, for example, political situations), which both influence and are influenced by the more overtly creative receptions under discussion. Reception in education, including the long tradition of school plays and their ability to circumvent censorship rules, would have grounded many of the discussions of why certain plays are, or indeed are not, popular at any given time.

Translation as a form of reception in its own right is largely not an issue. Within the volume, translations are a mix of an author’s own translations or published ones. These are not examined critically, but given the volume’s stated aims of being accessible to those who know Greek and those who do not, such a move is understandable.

Each chapter contains a section on the visual arts. Much space is given to describing a painting. Such a description is itself a work of interpretation and reception, and so it is a little frustrating that there are no illustrations. The only illustration is a playbill for Ajax (p. 57) which is not discussed.

Each author is expected to demonstrate a mastery of a number of genres, highlighting the extent to which reception history is necessarily interdisciplinary. The struggles in this volume thus make an eloquent case for the need for collaborative research, whether or not that is by bringing in specialist musicologists and art historians for relevant chapters (which is not really collaborative) or by co-writing. When Treu says, for example, that she can find no films explicitly based on Sophocles’ Ajax, a quick search of the IMDB yields the 2010 film Ajax, which handles precisely this topic. Similarly, the volume lacks references to resources such as the Grove Dictionary of Music, or of Artstor, basic research tools for their disciplines. Even within a chapter, essential secondary literature is missing (e.g. Brown and Brown, P. and Ograjensek, S. (edd.) (2010) Ancient Drama in Music for the Modern Stage (Oxford: OUP), or Rodighiero (2007) on Oedipus at Colonus). Only in the chapter on Philoctetes does this collaborative approach even begin to be signalled: Eric Dugdale delegated research into different areas to others, and has pulled together the material to form one chapter very coherently, albeit still lacking the richness that would come from the input of disciplinary specialists.

The volume limits itself primarily to European and North American works of reception. In some chapters, the focus is clearly more limited (e.g. a predominance of Italian materials in Treu’s chapter), while the introduction discusses the geographical spread in terms of western civilisation and more exotic lands (vii). Lauriola repeats this language in her own chapter (214, 272). This language feels awkward given the contemporary discourse of privilege and access in Classics, and I fear it may position the book as retrospective in approach as well as content.

The volume would have benefitted from closer proof-reading, as there are significant numbers of errors. In Lauriola’s own chapter I find at least 29 errors, including mistakes in typing Sophocles (twice) and at least six modern names (e.g. Wrinkle for Winkler, p. 300 n. 496). Given the inevitable repetition of sources (primary and secondary), a general bibliography of some kind might have helped. There is, however, a useful Index Locorum (572–584), and index of Modern Adaptations (585–591), as well as an index of Subjects (592–594).

This volume feels paradoxical. Monumental yet superficial, uncomfortable over the boundary between analysis and description, it covers a lot of ground and offers much food for thought, but leaves many of the core issues of the discipline only implicitly engaged with. I would certainly recommend it to the audiences it targets, for its leads and starting points, but also for the struggles it enacts, as a demonstration for the continuing need to engage with the nature of the discipline and the kind of work for which it calls.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Ancient (and Byzantine) Perspectives on Sophocles’ Life and Poetry – Enrico Magnelli
PART 1 – The Tragedies of War
1. Ajax – Martina Treu
2. Philoctetes – Eric Dugdale
PART 2 – The Tragedy of Destiny
3. Oedipus the King – Rosanna Lauriola
4. Oedipus at Colonus – Elizabeth W. Scharffenberger
PART 3 – The Heroines’ Tragedies: Sisters, Daughters, and Wives
5. Antigone Maria de Fátima Silva
6. Electra P. J. Finglass
7. The Women of Trachis Sophie Mills
APPENDIX – Not Only Tragedy: The Fragmentary Satyr Play
The Trackers – Simone Beta


1. Oliver Taplin, Pots and Plays: interactions between tragedy and Greek vase-painting of the fourth century B.C., Getty Publications, 2007.