A bit of a misnomer, actually, seeing as Sophocles wrote over 120 plays. Still, as we only have the seven surviving today, you can easily go around impressing people by saying “I’ve read all of Sophocles’ plays” once you’re through with this book. Although I picked this during my year at teachers’ college thinking that I should read this “for my own good” (whatever that means) I didn’t retain much except for a few vivid images. Reading this a second time has thus been incredibly rewarding.
Translator and scholar Paul Roche is a lively character whose opinions come through in his introductions, descriptions, and footnotes. In short, he’s like many English professors I’ve listened to in class: a little self-important but very much in love with his area of expertise. (Normally I wouldn’t notice or comment on the translator, but his words and work do frame the experience of reading this edition, after all.) He takes great pains to preserve a certain rhythm throughout and, though I have no knowledge of Greek to validate his choices, I enjoyed the plays immensely, seeing scene after scene roll out in my head.
Having just finished reading the whole of Psalms a few weeks prior (my friend invited me to a read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan and it’s quite the whirlwind), I found value in reading aloud parts of the plays for better understanding. There’s nothing like actually hearing rhyme and rhythm when it comes to drama. Sophocles is a real treat in dialogue, too. It has its long ode-like moments (where reading aloud really helps to focus my eyes when they tend to wander down to the next exchange), but the back-and-forth between characters is typically short and witty. I would love to know what the Greek equivalent of “Oh snap!” is, because it happens often enough.
Though these are only seven of numerous plays never recovered, they are enough also to showcase Sophocles’ skill in exploring difficult topics and emotions. Ajax discusses shame, honour, and suicide; Electra, grief; Philoctetes, whether the means justifies the end; The Women of Trachis, marital infidelity and its reverberations; and the Oedipus cycle (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone), the confluence of divine and mortal will. (Note: If you’re interested in reading any of them, I’d strongly suggest Electra or the Oedipus cycle. Freud and Jung did Sophocles dirty by making these characters all about human sexuality. If you read from that perspective, fine, but you’d be missing out on a whole. lot. else).
Though the divine will is featured heaviest in the last three plays, I’d venture to say that it’s the acknowledgement of the divine that makes Sophocles’ stories so refreshing to read, compared to what’s accessible on Netflix (etc.) today. My recent experiences of TV series (The Queen’s Gambit, Jack Ryan, even Titans) has led me to think that moral relativism makes for incredibly boring dramas. A divine presence or higher authority is, in my opinion, essential to establishing a moral compass. To be sure, I’m coming into the year hot from having finished Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but Lewis makes quite the case for acknowledging someone above us humans to determine right or wrong.
Sophocles, of course, does not acknowledge the Christian God, just as Lewis in his chapter does not push immediately for a specific god either (that comes later in the book). Yet all the characters understand what constitutes right and wrong, and attribute it to Zeus and the other gods. Because they have established some sort of absolute good and evil, the characters’ eventual fates are more nobler (or more terrible) and lovelier (or more horrible) than if they were to fix their own rules. Without the divine, we’re just setting rules for each other and, assuming we’re all equal, that can’t be right.
On a final note about the divine, I do think that acknowledging the divine requires acknowledging someone specific as well, and not just “the universe” or whatever lame name is used today. Lewis pieces this out logically, saying:
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?Lewis, C.S. (2009). Mere Christianity. HarperCollins.
There you have it! Sophocles was a treat to read and I would encourage anyone not intimidated by old plays to sit back with a hot cuppa and imagine the rise and fall of the actors’ voices on stage.