BMCR 2021.08.36


, Sophocles. Greece and Rome. New surveys in the classics, 44. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. x, 126. ISBN 9781108706094 £16.99.

The discipline of classics is currently—and rightly—engaged in a process of self-reflection about its past and its possible trajectories. This debate depends on a vision of the field’s history, for sure, and on a politics. How you see yourself within the traditions of scholarship —how, indeed, you understand what is at stake in the very term tradition—will necessarily inform your positioning. One genre of publication that is central to such arguments—though surprisingly rarely discussed as such—is the multiform set of books that announce themselves as introductions. They are often the first point of call for scholars and students who want to get a sense of the subject or to find out what is thought about a particular matter. As a publishing phenomenon, the genre has significant roots in the 19th-century interconnection between the growing education system and the new technologies of print and distribution, but in the last decades there has been a boom: you cannot move for introductions, companions, handbooks, to genres, authors, receptions of authors and so forth. There are no doubt many reasons why such books are written. But what is fundamental, especially for the few handbooks that remain successful, is the stamp they put on the self-understanding of the discipline. What you read at the start makes a huge impression, even if in later years you struggle to shake off its impact: introductions, like teachers, lay the ground. Consequently, everyone who writes or edits an introduction sets out to stake a claim on the foundation of the field. This, says an introduction, is what things look like. What, then, is the responsibility of such an introduction?

Some want an introduction to provide a solid, middle-of-the-road view of what the field in general would expect in a student essay; others want an introduction to open up what are seen as the latest and most challenging thinking—to offer only two possible agendas. How you feel about such choices will depend on who you are, who you are writing for—and, most importantly, what you want for the discipline. What is less easy to defend is an introduction that strives, out of ignorance, misunderstanding or ideology, to turn away from what modern scholarship has made a major debate, or an area that is stridently contentious, to rest comfortably instead with the familiar old questions. That’s how the field gets stuck in the mud, intellectually and culturally. All too often, an introduction can become a tool of sluggish conservatism.

Finglass’ introduction to Sophocles is divided into two unequal parts. The first and shorter is entitled “transmission”; the second, “interpretation”. As one might expect from Finglass’ large-scale editions of Sophocles, the first section on transmission is very well-informed, neatly expressed and gives a student a clear introduction to how the manuscripts and, indeed, the image of Sophocles has come down to us. Finglass makes a particularly impassioned plea for the fragments to be taken into account, which is well taken, and will give the student access to some material that is sadly absent from most introductions (though whether we need a whole page listing the relevant papyri is debatable); this interest in fragments, however, as we will see, also leads to some awkwardness as the book unfurls. This opening section is the most useful part of the book, based on deep experience of working with the raw materials of Sophoclean scholarship. It is no bad thing for students to know from the start that texts do not simply emerge from the bookshop, as it were, but that their very existence is the product of a history and a range of critical, technical interventions. The second, much longer section is divided into nine short chapters, each aimed to open a big topic for its intended readership: “Stagecraft”, “myth”, “narrative”, “language”, “metre”, “rhetoric”, “heroism”, “politics”, “endings”. These headings are what one might predict from a traditional approach (though no “gods”?). One could equally well imagine slightly less traditional but equally familiar titles such as “power”, “gender”, “violence”, “knowledge”. Finglass’ very traditional structure nonetheless opens some essential questions that have dominated Sophoclean criticism in recent decades, and that students need to know about. Of these discussions again the technical chapter on metre is the most productive reading for the beginner (and beyond), as metre is one of the least appreciated—but essential—aspect of Sophoclean drama.

Yet it is in these chapters on interpretation where the book falls short, not so much because of its conservatism, but because its conservatism is poorly argued. Consider the section on politics, something you would expect in any contemporary introduction to Sophocles. Finglass bases his discussion around four invocations of the city or citizens (Ant842; El 1227; Phil 1213; OC 834). He concludes where most would start: “These [appeals] invite the question of the relationship of these plays with the community in which they were first performed”, which he archly suggests, is a “favourite topic of scholarship” (though not one he intends to discuss himself). He ends the section instead with a page and a half on the audience, asserting that women were certainly present in the theatre (perhaps), and the need to see the audience made up of diverse groups of opinion (of course). What a student turning to this chapter will not get any help with, then, is telling: (a) the intense modern discussion of how the festival of the Great Dionysia is to be understood as a political event; (b) any sense of why the Antigone, one of his chosen examples, has been a mainstay of political theory and gender studies (Judith Butler and Bonnie Honig, for example, let alone George Steiner, are not cited); (c) what the range of questions invoked by the term politics might include: deliberation, responsibility, care, kinship, duty…?; (d) the difference between Thebes and Athens as political scenes (Froma Zeitlin’s work is not cited), that is, why tragedy’s politics, as opposed to comedy’s, is so rarely explicitly about Athens; (e) why the Philoctetes, another of his examples, speaks not just to clashing values of obligation but also to the failed politics of reconciliation; (f) how Electra’s revenge (another of his cases) might have a bearing on the emotions of politics, a subject Thucydides is fascinated by (as Victoria Wohl, another uncited scholar, has outlined so well); (g) imperialism, class, gender, race, political rhetoric. I could multiply these basic issues, all of which are silenced; yet all are issues that you would expect a decent student to be able to discuss under the heading of politics. In Britain, many of these are topics are staples of the syllabus even at high-school. Finglass promotes a trivializing restriction of what counts as the political; ignores—or at best provides an unexplained bibliographical reference to—works that do suggest a wider understanding of fifth-century politics; and offers the student no access to the violent polemics and profound challenges that run through the political discourse of tragedy. Of course, in a brief space not everything can be covered. But this is neither a solid introduction to the communis opinio, nor an engagement with the cutting edge. It is thin and misleading. It does not fulfil its responsibilities as an introduction.

“Language” is another section where we can see how such a drastic narrowing of the discussion, far from being reliable or sensible, comes close to intellectual dishonesty. Finglass begins with two examples of the dense richness of Sophoclean Greek—which are nicely analysed, and show eloquently why Sophocles needs to be read in Greek—and moves to a statement that “sifting the complexities of Sophoclean language has been a preoccupation of recent scholarship”. So far so reasonable. But rather than explore why and how this debate on language has developed, he turns back to Lewis Campbell in the 19th century. Because Campbell argued for the flexibility of Sophoclean vocabulary and syntax, he should be taken, Finglass insists, as a precursor of modern thinking about ambiguity, as if this case could somehow remove the gulf of difference between Victorian and modern thinking on tragic language.[1] Thus, concludes Finglass, everyone today thinks that “Sophocles’ language is productively complex”. It is significant that Finglass does not cite, let alone show any understanding of Jean-Pierre Vernant, whose discussion of “tensions and ambiguities” was so seminal to modern discussions of the specificity of tragic language. It is profoundly reductive to insist that the question of tragic language is no more than whether it is “productively complex” or not. Of course it is: what poetry isn’t? Who ever claimed tragic language was unproductively simple? The contemporary debate about the specificity of tragic language is more about the public display of shifting and competing senses of political vocabulary in a democratic festival. Equally surprising is Finglass’ unwillingness in this section to consider any ways in which Sophocles is different from the other tragedians, or has his own style. Pat Easterling’s fine work on everyday language in Sophocles has opened a sense of the remarkable shifts of basic vocabulary under tragic pressure—think of labein in Philoctetes as it moves between forms of physical and conceptual grasping, between trickery and holding an object or a man, in care or violence. As with politics, Finglass’ approach here works to close students out from contemporary critical discussion.

When it comes to “myth”, another expected category in an introduction to Sophocles, Finglass announces blithely that he will not consider Homer, the epic cycle or archaic poetry. This is flabbergasting. Tragedy is widely recognized as significantly re-writing the narratives of the Homeric poems for the fifth-century city: how could Ajax be discussed without Homer? (Finglass knows this well enough, which makes the decision to exclude Homer from his discussion of myth all the more bizarre.) But Finglass also excludes all discussion of how myth becomes a contested category in the fifth century, a subject of theoretical reflection (need I add he does not cite any discussion of the sophists, historians, rhetoricians, scientists, philosophers on myth—nor even Euripides­?). In a similar way, the chapter on rhetoric does not mention the development of rhetoric as a self-conscious technê, the role of rhetoric in democracy, the explicit thematization of language’s power in so many tragedies. It looks at three speeches of women (one fragmentary), but no dialogue, nor any speech from a large public scene, like Creon’s first address to the city: in short, there is no attempt to link the chapters on politics, language and rhetoric. In this way, how tragedy is a crucial strand of fifth-century public discourse becomes a mute question.

Finglass is very keen to promote his use of the fragments of Sophoclean tragedy, and suggests that one novelty of his introduction consists in this widening of the corpus. He is right that the fragments, many of which have become available quite recently, are too rarely used by scholars. So how does he use them? In the chapter on stagecraft, he begins with the fragment of Niobe, first published in 1971, along with its hypothesis, published in 1984. These fascinating texts reveal that Apollo and Artemis were represented killing the children of Niobe. This importantly qualifies the standard comment, seen in many an introduction, that Sophocles, in comparison to Euripides or Aeschylus, is much more chary in staging divinities or direct divine intervention in the action, and thus sharply shows the value of including the fragments. Yet the text is only eleven lines, and, as Finglass confesses, does not reveal where the action takes place or how (though scholars have made more and less likely guesses). The only other example of stagecraft Finglass details is the vexing case of Ajax’s death, the staging of which has not been solved even by the book-length collection of essays edited by Glenn Most and Leyla Ozbeck (Staging Ajax’s Suicide [Pisa, 2015]). Consequently, the chapter has two long discussions about what we don’t know, and no space to consider why Sophocles’ use of Electra’s urn or Philoctetes’ bow is so charged, or his manipulation of the third actor, or stage silence, or the remarkable, unparalleled, grim scene of Electra outside the house demanding that her brother, inside, hit her mother a double blow. Yes, fragments matter, but when there is so much stagecraft from the extant plays to discuss, it is a questionable judgment to focus on Niobe as the chapter’s lead example. Similarly, the brief chapter called “narrative” is more than half taken up with a discussion of the mangled papyrus of Eurypylus, which appears to contain a messenger scene. Finglass understands narrative solely as story-telling within a play—such as messenger speeches—and not the narrative of the drama itself. Even so (and it is an idiosyncratic view of what narrative is), to focus so much on a fragmentary speech when there are so many fine examples of complete speeches, seems perverse, especially in an introduction for students.

Finglass uses his introduction as an apologia for his own approach to Sophocles, embodied in his three long commentaries published by Cambridge (Electra, Ajax, OT), which are equally dispiriting when it comes to politics, rhetoric, culture, gender and so forth. In his notes here, Finglass indeed cites no fewer than 63 of his own publications (there are only 65 passages of Sophocles mentioned, including hypotheses and fragments). He is particularly concerned to lay out the foundational status of textual criticism for the study of Sophocles. So let me be clear. Studying Greek tragedy does require the highest level of philology, and establishing the texts is an integral part of this philology. The traditions of this philology, however, also need constant critical attention, not least as part of the intellectual and cultural history of the field. What I found dismaying in this introduction is not that it tried to put a style of philology front and centre of its agenda, but, rather, that in so doing, the scope of questions, range of ideas, and sophistication of argument became so hopelessly, defensively limited. It doesn’t need to be like this. It is possible to imagine an introduction that pays due respect both to the traditions of philology, and to the critical questions that make Sophocles so interesting and important. But we must continue to wait for such a volume.


[1] I have discussed Campbell in “Polytheism and Tragedy” in E. Eidinow, J. Kindt and R. Osborne eds., Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion (Cambridge, 2016): 153-75.