Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy

Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy

Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy

Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy


Written by one of the best-known interpreters of classical literature today, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy presents a revolutionary take on the work of this great classical playwright and on how our understanding of tragedy has been shaped by our literary past. Simon Goldhill sheds new light on Sophocles' distinctive brilliance as a dramatist, illuminating such aspects of his work as his manipulation of irony, his construction of dialogue, and his deployment of the actors and the chorus. Goldhill also investigates how nineteenth-century critics like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wagner developed a specific understanding of tragedy, one that has shaped our current approach to the genre. Finally, Goldhill addresses one of the foundational questions of literary criticism: how historically self-conscious should a reading of Greek tragedy be? The result is an invigorating and exciting new interpretation of the most canonical of Western authors.


You could describe this book both as profoundly conservative and as rashly revolutionary – or as rashly conservative and profoundly revolutionary …

It is conservative in that it takes one of the grandest of all dead white males, Sophocles, and investigates the most canonical of works from the most canonical of genres, Greek tragedy – and does so by looking at some of the most timehonoured categories of analysis, which I am happy to call formalist. Under the general rubric of Sophocles’ language, its chapters treat the use of irony, the use of silent characters on stage, the use of stichomythia (dialogue of single line exchanges), the use of lyric metre, and the role of the chorus. There is a history of criticism on each of these topics stretching back to antiquity. What’s more, the second half of the book continues with some more grand figures – the mavens of German idealism, the celebrities of classical scholarship in the heyday of Victorian Britain, the luminaries of feminist criticism – to see how tragedy has become the canonical genre it is for modern criticism, how the chorus relates to the highest levels of philosophy as well as to the modern stage of opera and theatre – how, in short, tragedy became the most privileged genre of the privileged sphere of classical antiquity for the elite of the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Formalist literary criticism and the high classical tradition: what could be more familiar and more intimately embedded in the institutional and intellectual conservatism of scholarship?

How then can it claim to be revolutionary? It would be easy enough to point out that the return to form is right at the cutting edge of contemporary criticism in classics and elsewhere, and that the treatment of each of the topics – from irony to reception – is an attempt to take forward an already heated current debate into new territory (as we will see, shortly). But for me the revolutionary aspect of this book is in its structure, and the argument this structure embodies and speaks to. Let me try to explain.

There have been in recent years many fine books on Sophocles, from which I, like all scholars of ancient tragedy, have learnt profusely. These have generally . . .

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