Thursday, 27 February 2014

Electra Unchained

I have concentrated on reading the Sophocles version and the translation I have worked with is that of Hugh Lloyd Jones (Loeb Classical Library – Harvard 1994). It is clear that the dramatist has focussed all the serious attention on Electra in this version.  Electra seems more fleshed out than the Aeschylus incarnation taking centre stage but also with very human flaws and ambiguities – it’s not all black and white and this could be said of the other characters too, particularly the pietas scenes of and libation prayer to Apollo of Clytemnestra l.634 ff.

 But the paradox at the heart of this depiction is that she is a rebel but apparently one supporting male values. She is a transgressor but in the end all this wild flouting of a woman’s traditional role results in nothing more than resuming her place in the house of Atreus as a potential noble wife. Could she be both at the same time and be a satisfying character to an ancient audience? Or is this Sophocles playing with female emancipatory urges within the secure trope of the male heir (Orestes) resuming the reins of control and order in the end?

The play opens with Orestes and the Old Slave arriving in Argos in the early hours. The purpose of this interchange is to introduce the plan of faking Orestes death in a chariot race (a significant literary and mythic echo of the death of Myrtilus) and announcing it to the palace while he and Pylades his faithful sidekick prepare to kill Clytemnestra and Aegsithus while disguised as urn bearers of Orestes’ ashes. Orestes then leaves the stage not to reappear until the end – from now on the action focusses upon Electra and her transgressive acts of mourning and plans for revenge.

The chorus of Argive women are initially neutral and react cautiously to Electra’s outbursts of grief countering her transgressive outbursts by warning her that excessive mourning is inappropriate. The metre of anapaestic dimeter lends a chanting marching even drum-like warning to their words:

l.233-235 ‘all’oun eunoia g’audo

                  mater hosei tis pista

                  me/tik/tein s’a/tan a/ta/is

                   ‘Well, I speak as a well-wisher

                  Like a mother-in-law in whom

                  You can have trust, telling you

                  Not to create misery by means of misery’


However, they gradually warm to her cause and end up endorsing her acts outrageous as they are. Electra justifies her excessive mourning as an expression of respect and ‘pietas’ to the unjustly slain dead (her father Agamemnon). She also bewails her lot as having lost her rightful place as a noble woman in the palace of Argos.

 The chorus plays an interesting intermediary role or referee between Electra and her sister Chrysothemis who portrays the obedient daughter willing to compromise as a survival strategy under the new regime of the usurper Aegisthus. Her speech reveals her as an appeaser in Electra’s eyes.

l.335 ff

‘But as things are I think that in time of trouble I must lower my sails, and not seem to perform some deed, but do them no harm; and I would like you to follow suit.

‘but if I am to live in freedom, I must obey those in power in everything.’

Moreover in l.378 Chrysothemis warns Electra of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s plans for her should she continue her rebellious attitude:

‘all’eksero soi pan hoson katoid’ego

mellousi gar s’ei tode me lekseis goun,

entaitha pempsein entha me poth’heliou

phengos prosopsei,’


‘Well, I will tell you all I know!

If you do not leave off these lamentations,

They plan to send you to where you shall no longer see

The light of the sun,’


Electra is having none of this appeasement and remains resolute, almost reckless in her defiance of Aegisthus, daring him to come and dare to do what he is planning. It transpires that Chrysothemis is on her way to Agamemnon’s tomb to offer libations.


The libations are in fact an idea of Clytemnestra, prompted by dreams/nightmares, in which Agamemnon returns from Hades and plants his staff beside the hearth which grows into a fruitful bough. Fearing an adverse portent, Clytemnestra out of guilt tries to appease the dead. Here we see Sophocles painting a sympathetic picture of the queen trying to make amends with an act of piety.


Next we have Electra’s confrontation with Clytemnestra and one of the key themes at the centre of this play – that of justice and piety or rather the conundrum where one individuals pious act can be another’s outrage and revenge lust, and the justifications that opposing sides have for their acts. The two sides are both with their fault lines and we have a very blurred and ambiguous tone with Sophocles, making for a deeply fascinating drama with issues that still burn in our psyches to this day. How much evil is acceptable to preserve a life? The State? Is any kind of bloodshed justified whatever the reason? Is the best course expedience and to tow the official line? Do we trust the state to uphold justice? Or to take things into our own hands when the need arises and is most pressing?


There is no clear winner in the ensuing war of words: Both put their cases eloquently but with their own biases. We hear of the ‘real’ reason for Iphigenia’s sacrifice – Agamemnon had angered Artemis by slaying a stag in her sacred grove and uttering a blasphemy to boot. It was divinely ordered slaughter…so for Electra that makes it alright unlike Clytemnestra’s slaying of her father, an act of lust and greed, mere human directives as matched against those of the gods – the highest evil and arrogance and therefore deserving of scorn and revenge.  There is another interesting aspect to these interchanges – they often have the tone of a teenage daughter railing against the hypocrisy of her parents – subtle and endearing overtones of generation gap which those of the audience with young grown up daughters would surely have identified with!


This is one of the endearing fascinations of the play, how through Sophocles imaginative and dextrous lines Electra displays so many different emotional and psychological levels of engagement as a headstrong young woman with the various characters, all the time holding our attention – she mesmerises as a convincing figure burning with righteous indignation and fury one minute, sobbing her heart out the next and finally bursting with joy when Orestes, deus ex machine like, reveals his true identity and brings her out of the pit of despair. She is a glittering multi-faceted jewel of young womanhood and at one point it looks almost as if Orestes wants her to rule with him by his side, her passions and freedom totally unrestrained…and yet…and yet the slightly unclear ending has Orestes and Pylades marching Aegisthus off to the hearth inside the palace to his doom…to restore male order to the house of Argos. The chorus end with the lines:


l.1508 ff:


‘ho sperm’ Atreos, hos polla pathon

di eleutherias molis ekselthes

tei nun hormei teleothen’


            ‘Seed of Atreus, after many sufferings

             you have at last emerged in freedom,

             made complete by this day’s enterprise!’


The seed of Atreus although referring to both Electra and Orestes seems to imply a male lead in its masculine allusions. Where does this leave Electra? Is she a transgressor merely to enable the male order to reassert itself – to return to a subservient role and married off to a noble suitor to continue the status quo of the palace? I think Sophocles felt that he had to cap her freedom with Orestes finishing off the deed as if to contain the dangerous excess of a young woman breaking the bonds of convention in her quest for justice. Within the confines of the drama it is exciting for Sophocles to explore the female energy unleashed in its various guises but as if to close the lid again upon such dangerous and transgressive thoughts and deeds he must have had the overriding impulse to contain and control such dangerous and potentially revolutionary energy or at least channel it into safer male agendas.  So although I personally don’t think of Electra as a ‘male order bride’…I do think that she has been ‘disarmed’ and rendered harmless to men at the end of the drama, for unchained, she would be too strong.



Saturday, 22 February 2014

Troy on Radio 4

Andrew Rissik - Troy, from @BBCRadio4Extra via BBC iPlayer Radio

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The History and Early Textual Scholarship of Sophoclean Manuscripts

The 1994 Loeb publication of Sophocles (Ajax-Electra-Oedipus Tyrannus, Edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones) contains as part of its introduction to the works an interesting digression on the texts themselves and how Sophocles has come down to us from the Classical era. I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a brief summary.
Ptolemy III Euergetes
The plays were originally composed and performed in the 5th C BCE. It is not entirely clear at this very first stage how many manuscripts would have existed. There must have been a few copies and the master copy of Sophocles’ own hand and perhaps the winning plays might have been deposited at a shrine or temple archive. Whatever the case is the plays were performed again throughout the 4th C BCE and the number of manuscripts must have increased with this activity. As they circulated the texts began to be amended and variants appeared according to the predilections of the particular theatre group or dramatist. This came to a head when the orator Lycurgus (396-323 BCE) issued a decree at some time between 338 and 326 BCE ordering an official copy of all the great tragedians be made and that all future performances should not deviate from this text. 
At the beginning of the 3rd C BCE Ptolemy I established the Library at

Alexandria and scholars were sent out to collect the works of the foremost Greek authors for archiving and classification for further study. Galen refers to Ptolemy Euergetes I (regnat 247-222BCE) who borrowed an official copy of Sophocles from the Athens in return for a security of 15 talents of silver – a huge sum of money for that time. For example during the Peloponnesian War, a 200 man trireme crew would be paid 1 talent or a month’s work – I suppose that for highly trained ancient marines it was probably a decent wage, especially if you take into account that it would been a dangerous job including combat duties on an ad hoc basis!
 In modern money it would be 12,000 pounds so a deposit of 180,000 pounds was pretty substantial amount to leave with the Athenian Treasury. He must have thought it a steal since that is effectively what he did when he failed to return it and forfeited the deposit. This text was duly housed in the Alexandrian Library and became the next link in the chain, the basis for an edition of the text of Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE). However, it is likely that even this ‘official’ version was probably already a modified text with the interpolations and amendments of the era in which it was transcribed (late 4th –early 3rd C BCE).

The Great Library at Alexandria
It is at this point that we start to see the appearance of ancient scholarship on the work as a text with a commentary on Sophocles by Aristarchus (c. 216-144 BCE). In the Roman era, specifically during the reign of Augustus, Didymus ‘Bronze Guts’ (ca. 63 – 10 BCE?) came out with a variorum edition; essentially a mish-mash of different scholars material. He was a complier of the Aristarchus school and although not particularly original in his approach is valuable for his scholia on Sophocles. A much potted version of this work survives in later Byzantine manuscripts (scholia). 
Greek (Hellenistic ) scholarship continued on in much the same way with copies of the plays as well as commentaries and compilations of previous scholars works until some point in the 3rd C AD, when the versions were whittled down to a selected canon of  seven plays each of Aeschylus and Sophocles and ten of Euripides. The other texts and versions of plays start to become very rare after this date.
Byzantine scholarship seems to go through a dark age between the 7th and 9th Centuries CE and it is very probable that not much copying went on and the study of Sophocles petered out for a while. There is one exception; in the 9th C one manuscript of the seven plays was transcribed from the old uncial writing into the new-fangled (for the time!) miniscule script. There are about 200 medieval manuscripts and the majority of these contain only three plays of a later selection, Ajax, Electra and Oedipus Tyrannus. Only three of the manuscripts come from this first Byzantine period of scholarship which lasted from the 9th C until 1204 when the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade ‘liberated’ Constantinople.

Manuscript in Greek Uncials
Adrianus Turnebus
One manuscript of the above period is the famous Laurentianus 32.9 (from the mid-10th C CE), preserved in the Laurentinian Library in Florence, known as ‘M’ in editions of Aeschylus and as ‘L’ in Sophocles texts. Apart from Laurentianus 31.10 (K) from the latter half of the 12th Century, the remaining Byzantine manuscripts are from periods later than the Crusader conquest. Of these there are various groups and it is here where the versions start to fan out into various trees.  The key groups are: - the Roman Family (r) and the Paris Family (a). Other manuscripts from the Paleologan Period (c.1261-c.1350) are known as ‘p’.
Modern texts of the 7 plays of Sophocles are based upon the medieval manuscripts occasionally supplemented with details from papyrus fragments (e.g. P.Oxy.2180 from the 2nd C CE)
We finally move into the print age with an indifferent Aldine edition (Aldus Manutius) in 1502 but the first decent edition was that of Adrianus Turnebus (Paris 1552-3) who based his text on manuscript Paris Gr. 2711, containing a recension of the Byzantine scholar Demetrius Triclinius; not the most accurate version but a step in the right direction.

From this time on there are more and more impressions in Europe and the first English printed edition was that of Peter Elmsley in 1823 based on Laurentinian manuscript L. The latest scholarly edition based on the latest and most accurate research is the Oxford text 1990 by Hugh Lloyd Jones and N.G. Wilson.
I cannot help but speculate on what might have been had Ptolemy III Euergetes returned the manuscript to its rightful place in the Athens treasury instead of ‘permanently borrowing’ it. What if anything at all of Sophocles would we have been left with? A sobering thought indeed!