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Classics Sophocles
by
Ruth Scodel

Introduction

Sophocles won his first victory as a tragedian in 468 BCE (according to the ancient tradition, with his first production) and died in 405. He produced about 120 plays: 90 tragedies and 30 satyr plays. Seven complete tragedies of Sophocles survive. The principles on which these were selected are not known, but the three plays involving Oedipus and his family were probably chosen to form a pseudo-trilogy. He particularly favored plots drawn from the stories of the Trojan War.

Biography and Dating

We can be reasonably confident of some aspects of Sophocles' life, since his acquaintance Ion of Chios wrote a book that included anecdotes about him, and since he had a public career. Like other ancient biographies of poets, however, the Life of Sophocles (translated in Lefkowitz 1981) is more valuable as a reflection of how people imagined the author than of what they knew about him. The ancient biography stresses Sophocles' piety. It even says that he “received” the god Asclepius and was honored with a cult after his death. All the ancient evidence for Sophocles' life is collected in Radt 1999. Although the results of the tragic competitions were a matter of public record, we have dates for only two of the seven extant plays, Philoctetes in 409 and Oedipus at Colonus, produced after Sophocles' death in 401. Reinhardt 1979 (first published in 1933) influentially argued that Sophocles developed greater dramatic flexibity through his career. There is general consensus that Electra was produced in the decade before Philoctetes, while Women of Trachis, Ajax, Antigone are earlier. Antigone is often put in the 440s because the ancient biography attributes Sophocles' election as general to its success. The anecdote is unlikely, but the chronology could be right. Many attempts have been made to date individual plays on the basis of apparent allusions to recent events or borrowings from other plays of known date. For the dating of each tragedy, consult the recent commentaries.

General Overviews

For a long time, interpretation of Sophocles emphasized the hero and his relation to the gods, although studies giving attention to plot construction, dramatic structure, and characterization, such as Kirkwood 1958 and Gellie 1972, also appeared. Easterling 1977 reflects a new awareness that modern categories cannot simply be applied to ancient texts. Blundell 1989 brought a new approach to Sophocles' ethics. More recent English-language scholarship has reflected the concerns of literary studies more generally; Segal 1981 and Segal 1995 show the influence of contemporary theory. The New Historicism in particular has been influential since the early 1990s.

Bibliographies and Surveys

Friis Johansen's 1962 report on Sophoclean scholarship is invaluable. L'Annee philologique lists everything published in the field of classics, and can be searched by a number of modes, including ancient author. The scholar David Hester has published articles that provide extensive doxographies on the main issues in the tragedies he discusses (Hester 1971, Hester 1977).

Reference Works

The Thesaurus linguae graecae can be used to search the complete works of Sophocles. Consult Ellendt and Genthe 1965 for a lexicon, Moorhouse 1982 for syntax and grammar, and Pohlsander 1964 for a study of Sophoclean meter.

Texts

Lloyd-Jones and Wilson (Sophocles 1990) is the standard text of the seven extant plays; Radt 1999 contains the fragments. There are a few fragments of non-dramatic poetry collected in Page 1962 and West 1972.

Recent English Translations

There are many translations of Sophocles serving different purposes—teaching, theatrical production, reading, or scholarship. This is a selection of recent translations of different types. The Focus translations (Sophocles 1990 by Blundell, Sophocles 2003a by Schein) are literal and generously annotated, intended for students. Oxford's series Greek Tragedy in New Translations provides versions by poet-scholars or poet and scholar in collaboration and seek to convey poetic qualities (see Carson's Sophocles 2001). Meineck and Woodruff (Sophocles 2003b and Sophocles 2007) are aimed at the stage as well as the classroom. The Loeb Classical Library edition (Sophocles 1994–1996) is Lloyd-Jones's translation of his and Wilson's text. Many translations of Sophocles put the two Oedipus plays and Antigone together as a trilogy, which is potentially misleading (Sophocles 2004). Sophocles 1892–1900 is a useful place to check translations online.

Recent Adaptations

In antiquity and since the Renaissance, Sophocles' tragedies have inspired new plays and several operas. These are some recent free translations or new works based on Sophoclean texts. Heaney 2004, Heaney 1991, and Müller 1975 take a political approach. Breuer and Telson 1989 transform Oedipus into a church service.

Commentaries

There are two series of English commentaries on all the extant plays. Richard C. Jebb's series (available via Index of Sophocles) was first published from 1892 to 1900. Although the approach to Greek meter of Jebb's time has been superseded, his understanding of Sophocles makes his commentaries still a basic resource. They have been reprinted with new introductions by Bristol Classical Press, but earlier editions, including reprints by Hakkert of Amsterdam in the 1960s, are available in libraries and in the used book market. Abridged versions for schools, without the translations, are also in circulation and should not be confused with the full-scale commentaries. Kamerbeek published his commentaries from 1953 to 1984. These do not offer a text or translation. Kamerbeek is textually conservative and unexciting as an interpreter, but he is useful for advanced undergraduates and beyond. The Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics were originally aimed at advanced secondary students and undergraduates; recent ones are livelier and of more interest for graduate students and scholars. The Bryn Mawr Commentaries provide basic help for students who may be reading a tragedy in Greek for the first time.

Ajax

Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1963 are for advanced students and scholars. Garvie (Sophocles 1998) is intended for those with limited or no Greek but is valuable for all readers. Stanford (Sophocles 1981) is intended for students, but scholars need to consider his views.

Electra

Finglass (Sophocles 2007) and Kaibel (Sophocles 2008) are for scholars; Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1974 for all readers with advanced Greek. Kells (Sophocles 1973) is primarily for advanced/intermediate students, while March (Sophocles 2001) is accessible for those with little or no Greek.

Oedipus the King

Rusten (Sophocles 1991) is aimed at those who need basic help with Greek, while Dawe (Sophocles 2006) is for students who are further along. Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1967 are most valuable for advanced Greek students and scholars, while Bollack 1990 is for those studying the play intensively.

  • Bollack, J. 1990. L'Œdipe roi de Sophocle: Le texte et ses interprétations. 4 vols. Villeneuve d'Ascq, France: Presses Universitaires de Lille.

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    This is a postmodernist commentary that does not so much try to establish a meaning as to explore the history of the meanings that have been found. It contains extensive summaries of the opinions of scholars about particular lines and passages.

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  • Kamerbeek, Jan C. 1967. Plays of Sophocles: Commentaries IV. The Oedipus Tyrannus. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

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    Pedestrian but useful; essential for serious scholarship.

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  • Sophocles. 1991. Oedipus tyrannos. Edited by Jeffrey Rusten. Bryn Mawr Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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    For intermediate students, with emphasis on help with the Greek.

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  • Sophocles. 2004. Oedipus tyrannus. Edited and translated by Richard C. Jebb; general editor, P.E. Easterling; introduction, Jeffrey Rusten. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press.

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    Reprint of 1893 Cambridge University Press edition. The most important commentary.

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  • Sophocles. 2006. Oedipus rex. Edited by Roger D. Dawe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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    Revision of a commentary originally published in 1982. It is eccentric, responding to Freud but ignoring most modern interpretations. Dawe believes that the final scene is spurious, having been rewritten for a production after Sophocles' death as part of a trilogy with Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.

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Antigone

Gross (Sophocles 1988) is for students who need basic help with Greek, while Griffith (Sophocles 1999) is aimed at more advanced students and is very broadly useful. Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1978 are most valuable for advanced Greek students and scholars, and Müller 1967 is for those carefully studying the play.

Women of Trachis

Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1959 are most valuable for advanced Greek students and scholars. Easterling (Sophocles 1982) is accessible for students, while Davies (Sophocles 1991) is mainly for scholars and those studying the play carefully.

Philoctetes

Ussher (Sophocles 1990) is accessible for readers with little or no Greek; Toretti (Sophocles 1997) is for students who need help with basic Greek. Webster (Sophocles 1974) is intended for students who have basic Greek but still need grammatical help, while Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1980 are most valuable for advanced Greek students and scholars.

Oedipus at Colonus

Rose (Sophocles 1988) is intended for students who need help with basic Greek. Jebb (Sophocles 2004) and Kamerbeek 1984 are most valuable for advanced Greek students and scholars.

Fragments

Fragments present complex problems. For the plays in Sommerstein, et al. (Sophocles 2004), their help is immensely valuable. Pearson (Sophocles 1917) is often outdated, but it is a useful start for examining the evidence for lost plays.

  • Sophocles. 2004. Fragmentary Plays I. Edited and translated by Alan Sommerstein, David Fitzpatrick, and Thomas Talboy. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips.

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    Translations of the fragments and hypothetical reconstructions of Hermione, Niobe, Polyxene, Syndeipnoi, Tereus, Troilos, Tyro A, Tyro B, and Phaidra, accessible to students.

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  • Sophocles. 1917. The Fragments of Sophocles. Edited and translated by A. C. Pearson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,.

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    This is the completion of Jebb's edition and follows its format. Where new discoveries have not made it completely outdated, its English commentary and translation may be easier for students than Radt.

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Scholia

The “old” scholia on Sophocles (those encapsulating scholarship of the Hellenistic and Roman periods) have not been edited in full since the 19th century. Christodoulou 1977 and De Marco 1952 have edited those for Ajax and Oedipus at Colonus.

  • Christodoulou, Georgios. 1977. Ta archaia scholia eis Aianta tou Sophokleous. Athens, Greece: Ethnikon kai Kapodistriakon Panepistemion Athenon Philosophike Schole.

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    This is the edition used by the Thesaurus linguae graecae, the online database of Greek literature. Since the Thesaurus does not have an apparatus criticus, serious scholars need the print editions.

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  • De Marco, Vittorio. 1952. Scholia in Sophoclis Oedipum Coloneum. Rome: Bretschneider, 1952.

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    This is the edition used by the Thesaurus linguae graecae, the online database of Greek literature. Since the Thesaurus does not have an apparatus criticus, serious scholars need the print editions.

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  • Papageorgius, Petros. 1888. Scholia in Sophoclis tragoedias vetera. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1888.

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    This edition is based exclusively on ms. L, as its title page announces. For the five remaining tragedies, it is the edition used by the Thesaurus linguae graecae. the online database of Greek literature. Since the Thesaurus does not have an apparatus criticus, serious scholars need the print editions.

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Transmission and Textual Criticism

Scholars have disagreed about whether all interesting readings in later manuscripts are Byzantine conjectures. Turyn 1952 examined a large number of manuscripts and created a stemma; Dawe 1973–1978 then showed that there is horizontal transmission or contamination (borrowing of readings from manuscripts of other branches). The preface to the Oxford Classical Texts edition of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson 1990 (in English) offers a brief introduction to the manuscripts. This edition places new value on ms. K, which Wilson 1983 has redated to the 12th century. Sophocles' idiosyncratic Greek makes textual criticism especially difficult.

Language

Campbell (Sophocles 1871) is the most useful of these works for students. Budelmann 2000, Long 1968, and Sullivan 1999 are all studies of particular themes, while de Jong and Rijksbaron 2005 is a collection of essays that treat a variety of topics in Sophoclean language.

Hero Worshippers and Pietists

Whitman 1951 developed Reinhardt's 1979 (originally 1933) emphasis on the isolation of the Sophoclean protagonist but argued more aggressively than others that the lonely Sophoclean hero is admirable. Much criticism of the next thirty years debated Sophocles' attitudes to the gods and to his stubborn main characters; Winnington-Ingram 1980 called the two sides “pietists” (those who insist on divine justice in Sophocles) and “hero worshippers” (who argue that the audience identifies with the defiant hero). This debate has ceased to be the focus of interest in the English-speaking world, but it is still influential in German scholarship. See Knox 1957 and Lefèvre 2001 for the pietist approach.

  • Knox, Bernard M. W. 1957. Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles' tragic hero and his time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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    Reprinted in 1999. A careful discussion of how Oedipus the king alludes to contemporary intellectual developments, as well as an influential general interpretation (moderately “pietist”).

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  • Knox, Bernard M. W. 1964. The heroic temper: Studies in Sophoclean tragedy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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    Reprinted in 1983. Emphasizes the difficult qualities of the Sophoclean protagonist, with two chapters on Antigone, one on Philoctetes, one on Oedipus at Colonus. Ajax is also discussed several times.

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  • Lefèvre, Echard. 2001. Die Unfähigkeit, sich zu erkennen: Sophokles' Tragödien. Mnemosyne Supplement 227. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

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    An intensely “pietist” book—Sophocles' characters should be judged by the extent to which they know their mortal limits.

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  • Lurje, Michael. 2004. Die Suche nach der Schuld: Sophokles' Oedipus Rex, Aristoteles' Poetik und das Tragödienverständnis der Neuzeit. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 209. Munich and Leipzig, Germany: Saur.

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    Polemic against the pietist treatment of Oedipus the king and tragedy generally.

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  • Reinhardt, Karl. 1979. Sophocles. Translated by H. Harvey and D. Harvey. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    Originally published 1933. Important for dating, the book looks especially at the exceptional Sophoclean heroes in their struggles with the divine. Its German existentialist style may be difficult for some undergraduates.

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  • Whitman, C. H. 1951. Sophocles: A study of heroic humanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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    The hero worshippers' case.

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  • Winnington-Ingram, R. P. 1980. Sophocles: An interpretation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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    In many ways transcended the pietist/hero worshipper division, stressing Sophocles' relation to Aeschylus and the difficulty of understanding Sophocles' gods. Many close readings, especially of lyrics.

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Dramatic Technique, Metatheater

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1917 argued that Sophocles did not seek coherence or dramatic unity, and this has been an ongoing topic of discussion. See Lloyd-Jones 1972 for an introduction to Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1917. Recently there has been new interest in stagecraft (see Ringer 1998, Seale 1982, Taplin 1978, and Taplin 1983).

Chorus

The central issue is to what extent the chorus is a character whose views are as limited as those of other characters (Gardiner 1987), and to what extent it has special authority, as Henrichs 1995 implies. Kitzinger 2008 points to differences among different plays in the treatment of the chorus.

Narratology

Narratology is the study of how a series of events, real or imagined, becomes a narrative; its application to drama, apart from narratives embedded in drama, is controversial. Barrett 2002 examines messenger-speeches, which are pure narrative. Roberts 1989 looks at the varying stories of Philoctetes. Goward 1999 applies the narrative theories of Greimas to tragedy.

Relation to Contemporary Thought

Since Nestlé 1910 there has been a consensus that Sophocles was hostile to sophistic thought and to the contemporary “Enlightenment” more generally, though he shows the clear influence of Herodotus, who is often linked to the Pre-Socratics. For Knox 1957, Oedipus the king is in part a critique of contemporary rationalism. Rose 1976 is an important step toward a more nuanced view of Sophocles' engagement with his intellectual surroundings.

Women

Women in Sophocles have been a focus of intense interest. Foley 2001 is the most accessible study; Wohl 1998 and Ormand 1999 are both theoretically sophisticated and provocative.

Politics

Scholars continue to debate how Sophocles' plays comment on contemporary affairs and on the democracy. Knox 1983 and Griffin 1999 are skeptical about political readings. Meier 1993 is a broader study of tragedy and Athenian democracy, while Vickers 2008 sees political allegory in Sophocles.

Ajax

Topics of particular concern have been the guilt of Ajax and the relation between the two halves of the play (“diptych” structure). A particular focus of debate in this play has been Ajax's speech at 646–692, which Tecmessa and the chorus understand to mean that he has decided to seek reconciliation with his enemies, although it could be understood as a cryptic suicide announcement. Critics disagree about whether he intends to deceive. Knox 1961 argues that he does not; Taplin 1980 is a response. Hesk 2003 is a general introduction.

Electra

Critics of this tragedy largely divide into “optimists” and “pessimists”—the first group think that the play unproblematically endorses the matricide, the second that the play is darker than it superficially appears. A particular issue for this play has been its relationship to Euripides's tragedy on the same theme. Both evidently respond to Aeschylus and one answers the other, but scholars disagree about which was first. Neither has a date based on external evidence. Vögler 1967 is the most thorough treatment of the dating problem. Lloyd 2005 is an introduction to the play.

Oedipus the King

Discussion of this play has centered on whether Oedipus is guilty or somehow responsible for his misfortune, and on the implications of this question for divine justice. Griffith 1996 argues for a guilty Oedipus; Knox 1957 exculpates Apollo; Dodds 1966 argues that the gods are not just. Ahl 1991 argues that the patricide and incest are not really proven. Vernant 1981a links the play to Greek scapegoat ritual; Vernant 1981b in the same volume is a polemic against Freudian interpretation.

  • Ahl, Frederick. 1991. Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and self-conviction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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    Argues that Oedipus does not actually prove that he killed his father or that Jocasta was his mother, but jumps to this conclusion.

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  • Dodds, E R. 1966. On misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex. Greece and Rome 13: 37–49.

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    Reprinted in Dodds, The ancient concept of progress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); in Oxford readings in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); and in Twentieth century interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by M. O'Brien (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968). A famous paper that starts from typical student responses about whether the play “justifies the ways of God to man” to argue that Sophocles' gods are mysterious and not necessarily just.

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  • Griffith, R. Drew. 1996. The theatre of Apollo: Divine justice and Sophocles' Oedipus the king. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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    Argues for Oedipus's guilt.

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  • Knox, Bernard M. W. 1957. Oedipus at Thebes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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    Argues for a strong distinction between divine foreknowledge and divine will (Apollo predicts but does not directly cause); sees Oedipus as representative of the Athenian character.

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  • Vernant, Jean-Pierre. 1981a. Ambiguity and reversal: On the enigmatic structure of Oedipus rex. In Tragedy and myth in ancient Greece. Edited by Jean-Pierre Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, translated by Janet Lloyd, 87–119. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

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    Oedipus is both “divine king” and ritual scapegoat. First published in Mythe et tragédie en grèce ancienne (1972).

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  • Vernant, Jean-Pierre. 1981b. Oedipus without the complex. In Tragedy and myth in ancient Greece. Edited by Jean-Pierre Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, translated by Janet Lloyd, 63–86. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

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    Freudian interpretation of the play is misguided. First published in Mythe et tragédie en grèce ancienne (1972).

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Antigone

Older discussion of this play has focused on whether Antigone or Creon is the “tragic hero,” and on whether Antigone is entirely in the right. Newer work takes a variety of approaches, from Oudemans and Lardinois' 1987 anthropology, to Sourvinou-Inwood's 1989 attempt at defining the assumptions of the original audience, answered by Foley 1996.

Antigone 904–920

Scholars have often debated lines 904–920, in which Antigone explains that she would not have defied the edict for anyone but a brother. These lines often been regarded as interpolated, but recent work, such as Neuberg 1990 and Cropp 1997, contextualizes them.

Women of Trachis

Issues in this play include Deianeira's character, the diptych structure, what actually happened between Heracles and the family of Eurytus, the oracle (which changes each time it is cited), and the problem of whether the end hints at the apotheosis of Heracles. Levett 2005 is a general introduction. Easterling 1981 is a good treatment of the apotheosis; Stinton 1986 argues that interpretation should not go beyond the play. Kane 1988 addresses the structure, Halleran 1986 the difficult backstory. Heiden 1989 is an overall deconstructive reading.

Philoctetes

Critics disagree about whether the final epiphany of Heracles really solves the play's problems. An ongoing discussion concerns the meaning of the crucial oracle. Roisman 2005 is a general introduction. Easterling 1978 and Gill 1980 deal with the oracle, and Visser 1998 treats both the oracles and the epiphany. Nussbaum 1976–1977 and Blundell 1987 study the characters philosophically.

  • Blundell, Mary Whitford. 1987. The moral character of Odysseus in “Philoctetes.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 28: 307–329.

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    Argues (especially against Nussbaum 1976–1977) that Odysseus is an amoral opportunist, a politician who uses sophistic ideas for self-justification.

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  • Easterling, P.E. 1978. Philoctetes and modern criticism. Illinois Classical Studies 3: 27–39.

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    Reprinted in Oxford readings in Greek tragedy, edited by Erich Segal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 217–228. A sensitive treatment of the oracle and other issues in dramatic terms.

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  • Gill, Christopher. 1980. “Bow, Oracle, and Epiphany in Sophocles' ‘Philoctetes.’ “ Greece & Rome 27.137–146.

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    The oracle is not about a correct wording; it is a moral test.

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  • Greengard, Carola. 1987. Theatre in crisis: Sophocles' reconstruction of genre and politics in Philoctetes. Amsterdam: Hakkert.

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    Argues that the play mixes elements from different genres (Euripidean tragedy, comedy, satyr-play, romance) to respond to the difficulty of Athens's situation in 409. Little scholarly documentation.

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  • Nussbaum, M. C. 1976–1977. Consequences and character in Sophocles' Philoctetes. Philosophy and Literature 1: 25–53.

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    Argues that Odysseus is a utilitarian.

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  • Roisman, Hanna. 2005. Sophocles: Philoctetes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth.

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    An introduction to the play for students, including a short discussion of its reception.

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  • Rose, Peter W. 1976. Sophocles' Philoctetes and the teachings of the sophists. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 80: 44–105.

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    Also in Rose's Sons of the gods, children of earth: Ideology and literary form in ancient Greece (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 266–330. An important paper on how the play alludes to sophistic anthropology (Philoctetes's life is that of primitive humanity) as well as relativist ethics.

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  • Taplin, Oliver. 1971. Significant actions in Sophocles' Philoctetes. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 12: 25–44.

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    A study of four actions in particular: Neoptolemus's revelation of the truth to Philoctetes; Philoctetes's despairing exit; the return of the bow; Neoptolemus's and Philoctetes's move to exit together.

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  • Visser, Tamara. 1998. Untersuchungen zum Soph Philoktet: Das auslösende Ereignis in der Stückgestaltung. Stuttgart and Leipzig, Germany: Teubner.

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    A detailed discussion of the oracle problem.

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Oedipus at Colonus

Older discussion focused on the episodic structure and on the character of Oedipus. More recent studies, including Markantonatos 2007, have emphasized the political themes. Edmonds 1996 applies metatheatrical and deconstructionist theory, Travis 1999 is Freudian, while Markantonatos 2002 uses narratological theory.

Fragments

Sommerstein 2003 consists of essays discussing lost plays and how the fragments affect a general view of the author.

  • Sommerstein, Alan, ed. 2003. Shards from Kolonos: Studies in Sophoclean fragments. Bari, Italy: Levante.

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    The papers by López Eire and Redondo on distinguishing satyr-play from tragedy are especially valuable, and Zacharia's points to the prominence of Italy and Sicily in the fragments.

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Reception

The afterlife of Oedipus the King in Freudian theory would require a separate bibliography. Interest in the history of reception and in modern productions has greatly increased in recent years. Flashar 2009 is the standard history of productions of Greek drama.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389661-0063

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