The “Aias” of Sophocles, from the perspective of a novice

Greek tragedy is an area of literature that both attracts me, and, at the same time, keeps me at a distance. The reason for the attraction is obvious enough: the intense dramatic power of these works leaps across yawning chasms of time, and differences of cultural expectations, and of theatrical forms. But there remains that nagging question of how much of this can survive translation in the first place.

Of course, for any literature not written in English or in Bengali, I am beholden to translators. But I do get the impression that the dramatic verse in which Greek drama was written is particularly resistant to translation: even in the most highly regarded of translations, I find occasional lines or passages that appear bathetic, and I am sure that is not the intended effect of the original. Also, when I compare translations, I find quite often a surprising variation in what is communicated by different translators (this is particularly so in translations of Aeschylus): this gives me the impression that the original is knotty and often ambiguous, and capable of being interpreted in many different ways. No doubt those who know these works in the original will tell me of the myriad subtleties and profundities, and of effects that only register in the rhythms and sonorities of classical Greek, that are beyond the reach of even the finest of translators. That may well be so. But something, surely, must survive. When I thrill to such passages as the agony of Cassandra before the palace of Argos, where she knows she will meet her death; when I read of Philoctetes howling in physical and moral agony in his lonely exile on the island of Lemnos; when I read of Hercules awakening from his god-induced madness and becoming aware of what he has done; I know that, even in translation, I am in the presence of something immeasurably wonderful: I know that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides have looked into the same depths that Shakespeare had looked into in the greatest of his tragedies, and with the same unblinking gaze.

Of course, I am no expert in either Shakespearean or in Greek tragedy, but with Shakespeare, I can, at least, claim to have read and re-read his works over several decades in the original language; my contact with Greek tragedy falls far short of that. So unfathomable are the depths I discern, and so superficial my acquaintance, that I had, and continue to have, great doubts about the advisability of writing anything at all on the matter. However, as long as it is understood that my comments here are no more than the rather diffident observations of a mere unknowledgeable novice, I suppose there can’t be too much harm done. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

It was the contemplation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus that prompted me to try again Sophocles’ Aias (Ajax). In both cases, two supremely great tragedians have turned their attention to “beef-witted lords” – insensitive, unintelligent brutes, mere fighting machines lacking not merely self-awareness, but incapable even of acquiring it. The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon had told us that knowledge comes from suffering, but to Aias, suffering leads not to any kind of knowledge at all: it leads merely to despair. He is one of the very few Greek tragic protagonists who commits suicide: even Oedipus stops short of that.

This play, certainly by the standards of modern stagecraft, is curiously structured. Aias kills himself in shame some half way through the action, and the rest of the drama focuses on a debate over his corpse on whether or not he should be buried with proper rites. Of course, we know from Antigone, or from the later books of the Iliad, how important in Greek culture was the ritual of burial; but even so, a debate, even an impassioned debate, seems something of an anti-climax after the suicidal despair of Aias that we had earlier witnessed at first hand. It seems almost like two rather different plays joined together.

It is difficult possibly impossible, for someone like myself, with so little understanding of the form of Greek drama, to come to a full understanding of this; but in some ways, it rather encourages me that even scholars learned in this area have felt the same way about this play. But the more I think about this, the more it seems that the tragic despair of Aias, while certainly an important element of the play, is not really at its centre: at the centre is the question of the significance of the character of Aias in a changing world. Aias had been the strongest and the bravest of Greek heroes: his standing, and the esteem in which he was held, owed nothing to such qualities as nobility, or of sensitivity, or even of intelligence: he provided the brute physical strength that had been needed. However, the armour of Achilles, after his death, is awarded not to the great strong hero Aias, but to the cunning Odysseus: times have changed, and it is the brains of Odysseus that are of greater value than the muscle of Aias: Aias is in danger of becoming but an obsolete reminder of the past, a superfluous being.

The opening scene of the play is startling. Athene leads Odysseus towards the tent of his great rival Aias, and exults at having driven Aias mad. Odysseus, although on the same side as Aias in the war, is also the personal enemy of Aias: indeed, had Athene not made Aias mad, Aias would have murdered Odysseus in cold blood. And so, as Athene exults in the madness of Aias, she expects Odysseus to do the same: but he doesn’t. Unlike the immortal, he, the mortal, is horrified by the depths to which his fellow mortal Aias has sunk. Compassion, it seems, is a quality possessed by humans, not by divinities.

When we first see Aias, he is still in grips of madness. He is covered in blood (as, interestingly, Coriolanus is at one point in Shakespeare’s play), but it is not, as he thinks, the blood of those who have humiliated him: it is not the blood of Agamemnon or of Menelaus, or of Odysseus: it is merely the blood of animals that he in his madness has slaughtered. The great hero is shown to us at the very start of the play at his most unheroic. Athena finds this comical, but we, like Odysseus, may think otherwise.

Once the madness dissipates, Aias is filled with shame. Here is a man who has no conception of himself other than as a great hero, a powerful warrior, and when he can no longer see himself in such terms, he cannot see himself in any terms at all. Aias’ occupation’s gone, and with it, his sense of his own identity. So great is his despair, that he takes his own life. And it is only then that the true theme of the play comes to the fore: what is the value of an Aias within a society in which his qualities, once so valued, are no longer considered so important?

The second half of the play is taken up with an impassioned debate over Aias’ lifeless body. His half-brother, Teukros, demands the burial and the funeral of a great hero; Agamemnon and Menelaus, on the other hand, aware that their authority has been flouted, and aware also of Aias’ intention of killing them, refuse. The issue is resolved only when Odysseus, now very much the Man of the Moment, demands that Aias be buried with full honours. He doesn’t debate the issue: he merely demands it. And against Odysseus’ demand, not even Agamemnon and Menelaus can prevail: a person such as Aias may no longer be required, but a person such as Odysseus is.

Odysseus provides the resolution to the play, and the memory of Aias is honoured; but it is clear that we are but honouring a relic of the past. We may be honouring this relic as a remembrance of the service he had once given; we may be honouring him for reasons of sentiment. But the very unsentimental truth is that the beef-witted lord Aias, now that his purpose has been served, is surplus to requirements: he is superfluous. And that, as I see it, is the essence of his tragedy, and of this curious play which, despite two very different halves, does, I think, hold together thematically.



A note on the translation:

The translation I read was by James Scully, in a recently published volume containing all the existing plays of Sophocles translated by James Scully and by Robert Bagg. In the introduction, the translators tell us that the impression we have of Greek tragedy as that of unrelieved lofty grandeur is erroneous, and that the plays contain a wide range of tone and of mode of expression. This does come over admirably in the translation, although there were occasions on which it seemed to me to descend into bathos: but since this is a fault with just about every translation I have come across, I won’t count this as too black a mark. Generally, it did read very fluently, and I think it would sound very well if spoken on stage.

There were, inevitably, a few liberties taken: in translating verse – especially from so different a culture – one cannot always be ideally true both to the letter and to the spirit of the original, and if forced into a choice, it seems to me preferable to err on the side of the spirit. For instance, Aias refers to Odysseus at one point as a “fox”, but that doesn’t convey the level of disgust and contempt in which the Greeks held foxes; so Scully lets Aias refer to Odysseus as a “foxfucker”. I personally have no objection to this, and rather enjoy the alliterative vituperation, but other readers may, I suppose, react differently. Certainly, I have enjoyed this translation sufficiently to make me want to read the others in this volume; but of course, I am in no position to say how close or otherwise this is either to the spirit or to the letter of the original.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on October 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Himadri – I have had similar thoughts. Also having read and reread Shakespeare myself, when I read the Greek playwrights I think that what I am doing is like someone reading in translation and I am troubled by what I must be missing.

    I have not read Aias is years. Your analysis is encouraging me to reread it soon.


    • I suppose we always lose something through translation – although there may well be cases where someting is gained also to compensate for the loss (e.g. Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam). But in Greek tragedy, I feel I may be losing too much. Some of its greatness is clearly coming across – otherwise, these works wouldn’t affect me as they do – but there does seem to be far too much that isn’t, and possinbly never can.

      I don’t mean to sound ungracious about translators: were it not for their work, these plays would be completely inaccessible to me!


  2. I’ve never read Aias but will try to remedy that soon as I’ve never come away from reading (or re-reading) Sophocles without feeling that everything that came after has been a kind of fluff (I exaggerate, but still – the themes are so stark and elemental and recognizable). I love that daring structure – who thinks today of writing a play in which the main character dies halfway through?


    • I love that daring structure – who thinks today of writing a play in which the main character dies halfway through?

      Well, there is Hitchcock’s Psycho … 🙂

      But yes, I know what you mean. Sophocles’ plays can still hold the stage well, I think: I remember seeing a nerve-janglingly intense production of Electra on stage once, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, directed by Deborah Warner.


  3. Scott has obviously never heard of Tarantino’s play Pulp Fiction where the Travolta character dies in the middle and…well, never mind. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on Greek tragedy and translation, Himadri, although my Greek and Roman literature reading in general unfortunately has declined since I took up blogging (I read more novels and less nonfiction today also). Not sure why that is, but I do blame blogging for it!


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