Posts Tagged ‘Sophocles’

“Aias” by Sophocles

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tale of the downfall of Aias (or Ajax) lends itself easily to a satisfactory dramatic form. The tragic drama may start with a council scene, where the leading figures of the Greek forces meet, and decide to award the armour of the dead Achilles not to the great warrior Aias, but to he wily Odysseus. Aias could then be given a monologue where he expresses his sense of humiliation (there are other works that have a major council scene near the start, and from which the principal character emerges feeling humiliated and alienated: Hamlet, for instance; or The Iliad). Or perhaps the play could start immediately after the council scene, with the hurt and humiliated protagonist. Then, after the monologue, Aias, his immense pride wounded beyond repair, could have an exchange with a chorus consisting of his men: he wants to slaughter the Greek leaders who, in his opinion, have dishonoured him; and the chorus could try, but fail, to dissuade him from this course of action. Aias could then exit, sword in hand, and after the chorus has expressed its fears, a messenger could come in with a long narration: instead of slaughtering the Greek leaders, as Aias had intended, he has been driven mad by the goddess Athena, and has merely slaughtered animals instead. Aias now enters, filled with shame, and, after another monologue, and another exchange with the chorus, he goes offstage to kill himself. In an epilogue, Tekmessa, his concubine, and Teukros, his half-brother, could enter and, with the chorus, deliver a lament.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable dramatic arc. All the characteristics that we imagine define Greek tragedy are present and correct. We see the downfall of a great hero; and we can even identify the hubris that brings about his downfall. Audiences can go home happy, having learnt the moral that pride comes before a fall; and for centuries, this play would have been held up as the archetypal Greek tragedy – one where everything is so clearly and precisely laid out.

The only problem is that this is the play Sophocles chose not to write. And we must, I think, ask ourselves why.

Instead of starting with the council scene, or immediately after it, Sophocles starts at a point here the slaughter of the beasts has already taken place; and instead of starting with Aias, he starts with the goddess Athena, who gloats in the further humiliation of Aias, and with Odysseus, whom she invites to gloat with her. It may seem a strange place to start.

And neither is the suicide of Aias the culminating point of the drama: this suicide comes not at the end, but at a point where there is still nearly half the play remaining. The latter part of the play is taken up not with the themes of Aias’ pride and Aias’ shame, but, rather, with a squabble over how his body is to be disposed of: the Greek commanders, Agamemnon and Menalaos, who show themselves as somewhat petty and mean, refuse to accord Aias a proper burial; however, Teukros, Aias’ half-brother, is openly hostile, and even, at times, insulting to the commanders, reminding them of Aias’ heroic courage, and of his skill and prowess in the war which he had fought on their behalf. The unseemly squabble over the hero’s body only comes to an end when Odysseus, Aias’ greatest enemy, overrules Agamemnon and Menelaos, makes peace with Teukros, and orders Aias to be given a funeral befitting a hero.

This curious construction has not escaped censure. Sophocles, it has been claimed, has written here a curiously disjointed play – a play in two parts which don’t really fit together, and which, as a consequence, lacks unity. It is certainly true that the play falls into two distinct parts, almost equal in length; and it is true also that the narrative arc of the first part is very different from the narrative arc of the second. But, unless we want to accuse Sophocles of being an incompetent dramatist who gets wrong even basic things that any journeyman playwright would have got right, we have to ask ourselves why Sophocles has chosen to write it in this manner – why he was happy to introduce a narrative discontinuity that could so easily have been avoided. Clearly, Sophocles must have felt that this discontinuity was a price worth paying; but worth paying for what?

I think we may get the earliest intimations of this in the first scene, where Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at Aias’ madness, but Odysseus instead pities him. And the reason for his pity is interesting:

… I pity him

as he is now, although he is my enemy, because

he has been bound fast to a terrible downfall.

In this, I think no more of him than of myself.

I see that all of us who live are nothing else

but phantoms, empty shadow.

Odysseus’ pity and compassion, his humility in this situation, are not entirely altruistic. Humility as a virtue in itself is more a Christian than a Greek concept: Odysseus’ humility is, as he says himself, occasioned by his thinking of himself. For he recognises that all humans, himself included, are subject to the same forces, since they are all “but phantoms, empty shadows”. And the terrible downfall to which Aias has been bound fast could be his own downfall too, since he too, like Aias, is human.   

This sense of the mutability of the state of human affairs becomes a central point of the play. We are all phantoms and empty shadows: he who was yesterday a great hero and an invincible warrior is now a laughable figure, reduced to slaughtering mere animals. Tekmessa, in a moving speech, tells of her own past reversal of fortune as she pleads with Aias:

… Your spear destroyed my native land:

another cruel fate seized both my mother

and my father; they are now in Hades, dead.

I have no other home except your house,

no money; my whole life depends on you.

Odysseus is today a revered leader of men, famed for his guile and his intelligence; but what will he be tomorrow? What will any of us be tomorrow? For Athena, “the sweetest of all laughters is to laugh at enemies”. But she is an immortal, not subject to the mutability to which humans are subject: she is no mere phantom, no mere empty shadow. But we who are, like Odysseus, mortal, have to ask themselves how we should behave, given that phantoms and empty shadows are precisely what we are. As Athena herself says:

One day can weigh down everything a human being is or has

or lift it up again.

Aias too becomes aware of the mutability of the nature of things – how friends may become enemies, and enemies friends:

… I now know that an enemy

should only be so hated, as a man who will

become a friend again; and I wish

only to help a friend so far – because I know

he won’t always be true.

But this understanding has come to him too late: he is already in disgrace not only in other’s eyes, but in his own – to such an extent, indeed, that he cannot think of any way out other than suicide. And suicide is not noble in Greek culture: in all the extant Greek tragedies, there are only two suicides – that of Antigone, and that of Aias, and in neither is there any intimation, as there frequently is in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that it was a noble act. But even if this understanding had come to Aias earlier, it is doubtful whether he would have had the intelligence to act upon it. For what he had planned to do to the Greek leader – his erstwhile companions in battle – was hideous. When we see him still in the grips of madness, he actually boasts with joy that he has Odysseus his prisoner, and will torture him before killing him. And all this because he feels he had been slighted – although it is worth noting that, apart from his own followers, no-one else seems thinks so. It would be hard to imagine a tragic protagonist less worthy of the audience’s sympathy.   

It is perhaps not very surprising, therefore, that Agamemnon and Menelaos should be so spiteful towards Aias, even after his death, refusing him even a burial. What is more surprising is Odysseus’ generosity to his fallen enemy – the man who not only intended to kill him, but to torture him first. Agamemnon and Menelaos aren’t convinced by Odysseus’ generosity – and in this, we may well sympathise with them, despite their pettiness: but they do not oppose him.

At the conclusion of the play, Odysseus makes peace with Teukros, and agrees to help him bury the fallen hero: the understanding that had come to Aias too late – that friends may become enemies, and enemies friends – proves true.

And this, I think, is at the heart of the play. It is not so much a character study of Aias – who has, frankly, not enough depth to his character to carry the burden of an entire drama: it is, rather, an examination of the question of how we are to live, how we are to behave with each other, given the mutability of everything, given the constant flux that is our lives, and given that we are all but phantoms and empty shadows.

But I would, however, be interested in other interpretations.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Aias.]

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven


A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.


so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.




The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony and reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but where we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

What makes characters tragic?

Imagine, in the final chapter of a novel, the protagonist taking a walk in the park on a windy day; and that the wind very suddenly becomes a violent storm; and that the protagonist, before she can head home, is killed by a tree falling upon her. I think we can agree that this would be a deeply unsatisfactory ending, and few would describe it as “tragic”. But why? People in real life have indeed been killed by trees falling on them is high winds, and when it happens, it is most certainly tragic. However, we reply, the rules that govern art are not quite the rules that govern real life; and in art, one simply can’t kill off a protagonist by dropping a tree on her head.

Of course, the idea of “rules governing art” is problematic, to say the least. Who formulated these rules? we may well ask. And why should we be expected to conform to them? The answers to these questions seem to me to be, respectively, “No-one”, and “You needn’t”. The idea of prescriptive rules in art is nonsense: what we sometimes think of as “rules” are really no more than observations on what tends to work, and what doesn’t. So if there exists a “rule” that a narrative should not be resolved by some arbitrary event unconnected with the protagonist’s character or actions, then that is not because some pedantic busybody has made it up; rather, it is because we observe that arbitrary endings tend to leave the reader unsatisfied. We may allow chance to play its part in narrative, but when it plays a decisive part, then, irrespective of how true-to-life it may be, the narrative seems unresolved and incomplete.

This consideration, together with a misreading of the concept of “hamartia” in Aristotle’s Poetics, has led to the much cited principle of the “tragic flaw” – the idea that tragic protagonists must have some shortcoming in their character, and that, because of this shortcoming, they come to a sticky end. This has always seemed to me disastrously reductive: far from helping us understand profound and difficult works, it diminishes their richness and complexity to a mere barren formula. So Hamlet is indecisive, Othello jealous, Macbeth ambitious, and so on; and once the boxes are all routinely ticked, the plays can be marked as “solved” and folded away, like completed crossword puzzles. But I remain unconvinced that this takes us any closer to understanding the work. Even if the idea of the tragic flaw were but a “tool”, I cannot see what aspect of our understanding this this tool has helped enhance.

Of course I agree that Hamlet, Othello et al all play their part in their own tragedies: were that not so, their stories would be of no more than that of the tree falling on the head. But to obtain even a basic understanding of these complex characters, we must delve deeper, far deeper, than merely sticking simple labels on them. And what labels we observe others sticking on them, we must question. For instance, is Hamlet really indecisive? He is certainly not indecisive when he plunges his sword through the arras and kills Polonius; neither is he indecisive when he jumps onto the pirates’ ship; or when he confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral. Yes, he is indeed unable to act in carrying out his father’s commandment, but to ascribe this merely to “indecision” seems to me not merely an over-simplification, but worse, a distortion.

Nor can Hamlet’s “flaw” be described, as it sometimes is, as that of “thinking too much”. Hamlet himself, admittedly, speaks of “thinking too precisely on the event”, but should we see this as a flaw? Since when has depth of thought been a flaw? Would Hamlet have been free of his tragic flaw had he thought too little? Or maybe he should have thought just enough – neither too much, nor too little? Maybe his tragic flaw lies in his not finding that precise level beyond which intellectual activity becomes tragic?

This sort of thing quickly becomes a bit silly, and does not, I think, lead to any greater understanding of the work. And worse, in presenting works of moral complexity and of psychological depth as essentially moral fables, it distorts. For in seeing tragedy as essentially a consequence of shortcomings in the protagonist’s character, there seems to me to be an implication that were it not for those shortcomings, were it but possible for the protagonist to be at some ideal level free of flaws, then there need have been no tragedy at all. And this strikes me as deeply wrong-headed.

Let us stick with Hamlet. Let us imagine a Hamlet free from the supposed flaws of indecision, or of “thinking too much”. This Hamlet wastes no time mobilising his forces, killing Claudius, and establishing himself as king. But would such a Hamlet be free of flaws? Such a Hamlet would, after all, fail to think about, and, indeed, be insensitive to, the various complex moral issues in which he is enmeshed. And in killing the man his mother loves, he must either be insensitive to the distress he causes his mother, or he must bear the guilt for it. For, as the Greek tragedians knew too well, even a killing that is committed in the name of justice carries with it an intolerable burden of guilt.

In short, whatever sort of person Hamlet is, whatever he does, his fate is tragic. This is because the world itself is tragic, and we cannot escape it. We must beware of reducing works of complexity to a “message”, but if the great masterpieces of tragic literature were to have a lesson at all, it is not that we may avoid tragedy to the extent that we are successful in minimising the effects of our flaws, but rather that whatever we do, however we act, the tragic world, the essence of which we have witnessed on stage, is our world also.

Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness … this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding. But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue. All natural and almost all political evils, are incident alike to the bad and good: they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest, and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience, a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience; but remember that patience must suppose pain.

– from “Rasselas” by Samuel Johnson, Chapter 27


There is one undisputed masterpiece of tragic drama in which the concept of a “tragic flaw” breaks down completely, and this is the very work that Aristotle focussed on in his Poetics: King Oedipus by Sophocles. In Aristotle’s formulation, Oedipus’ “hamartia” was killing his father, and marrying his mother: these aren’t “tragic flaws” because he did all this unknowingly, but it is, nonetheless, “hamartia” in the sense that Aristotle had intended it – i.e. it is an “error”. However, commentators have frequently tried to interpret Oedipus’ tragic fate in terms of some character flaw of his, and, in the process, have tied themselves in all sorts of absurd knots.

We are sometimes told, for instance, that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is that he is arrogant and hot-tempered. Indeed he is: Sophocles was too fine a dramatist to present us with major characters who are morally perfect. But neither his arrogance nor his hot temper is the cause of his downfall.

Or we are sometimes told that his downfall came about because he was too inquisitive – because he continued searching for the truth even when told to stop. But is searching for the truth not a noble activity? And, as king responsible for his subjects, is he not duty-bound to search for the truth that, according to Apollo’s oracle, will free his people from the plague that is devastating them?

I suppose when all else fails, we could see it as a grave moral warning not to kill our fathers and then marry our mothers! Absurd as it may seem, some have seen the play in such terms also.

But once we move away from the “tragic flaw” theory of tragedy, we may, I think, approach a better understanding of this elusive and difficult play. For if Oedipus’ fate is not a consequence of any conscious action of his, we are seeing on stage a vision of humans but as playthings of the gods. Sophocles depicts , in effect, the tree falling on the protagonist’s head, deemed to do so by gods who, but for the oracular edicts from Delphi, remain absent and silent. That Sophocles could create from this drama that grips as no other, drama that thousands of years later is regarded as the very epitome of tragic action, is a testament to his genius, and a reminder that the literature at this level is not subject to any of our “rules”.

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.