Gods and Heroes

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Sophocles: An Interpretation by R.P. Winnington-Ingram
    Cambridge, 346 pp, £25.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 521 22672 4

The vast number of books and articles devoted to Sophocles since the Second World War shows he arouses great interest, but, though we now have an English translation of Karl Reinhardt’s famous book about him, which first appeared in 1933, we have so far had no general study of the seven complete plays that was of high quality throughout. Professor Winnington-lngram has brought out many excellent interpretations of Greek tragedy: now he offers us a study of Sophocles that is not likely to be improved upon for many years.

John Jones has rightly protested against the mistranslation of Aristotle that gave authority to the opinion that each tragedy must have a single ‘hero’, in the sense of a central character in relation to whom the whole action must be viewed. But each Sophoclean tragedy contains at least one heroic figure: that is to say, at least one character whose physical and moral courage exceeds the human norm. In each play, such characters come into conflict with the order of the universe as the Olympian gods maintain it, and suffer grievously in consequence. Some modern scholars, whom Winnington-lngram refers to as ‘the pietists’, insist that the divine government of things is necessarily just, and that the heroes must learn wisdom by means of suffering; others, whom he calls ‘the hero-worshippers’, hold that the poet’s sympathy is altogether with the heroes as they defy unjust and ruthless gods.

We know the dates of only two of the seven complete plays, the Philoctetes (409 BC) and the Oedipus Coloneus (produced after its author’s death in 401 BC); as he died in 406/5 BC, and was born perhaps as early as 497/6 BC, both are very late works. Winnington-lngram thinks that the Antigone was produced in 440 and the Oedipus Tyrannus not long after 430; in both cases there is grave doubt. He argues that the anecdote in the ancient life of Sophocles of how Sophocles was made general against Samos because of the success of the Antigone would not have been invented unless the Antigone had been produced shortly before that date. One might as well maintain that the anecdote told by the same authority of how Sophocles died by choking on a grape-pip while reading the Antigone showed the Antigone to be a very late play; the two stories show only that the Antigone was very famous; the value of the generalship story for dating it amounts to zero. The popular biographies of ancient poets have not emerged with much credit from the critical examination they have undergone in a number of recent articles by Professor Mary Lefkowitz. Winnington-lngram is also inclined to accept the view of Bernard Knox that the plague in the Oedipus Tyrannus was suggested to Sophocles by the plague that attacked Athens in 430 BC. But there is a plague in the first book of the Iliad, and Sophocles hardly needed a real plague to cause him to add plague to the other conventional kinds of blight; though the war god Ares does not figure elsewhere as a god of pestilence, we have no need to assume that he is made one here because pestilence accompanied war in 430. Still, Winnington-ln-gram’s conjectural chronology – with Ajax, Trachiniae and Antigone relatively early, Oedipus Tyrannus in the middle, and the Electra close to the two plays whose dates are known – corresponds with Reinhardt’s theory of the poet’s artistic development, and in a general way is probably correct.

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[*] Oxford, 336 pp., £16.50, 3 April, 0 19 814374 5