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Electra and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) Paperback – June 24, 2008
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About the Author
Sophocles first won a prize for tragic drama in 468, defeating the veteran Aeschylus. He wrote over a hundred plays for the Athenian theater, and is said to have come first in twenty-four contests. Only seven of his tragedies are now extant, these being Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, and the posthumous Oedipus at Colonus. A substantial part of The Searches, a satyr play, was recovered from papyri in Egypt in modern times. Fragments of other plays remain, showing that he drew on a wide range of themes; he also introduced the innovation of a third actor in his tragedies. He died in 406 BC.
David Raeburn is a lecturer in classics at Oxford University. He has translated Sophocles and directed numerous school and university productions of Greek tragedies.
Top Customer Reviews
The four plays by Sophocles in this collection deal with Iliad spinoffs---events connected to that ancient epic with some of the Trojan War characters already known to the Greeks of the author's time---with legends of the gods (Hercules or Heracles, as they write it) or with both at once. Each play uses a chorus to reflect inner thinking or thinking by "other people", whoever they may be. The translation in this volume brings a modicum of modern English to the plays, rendering them very understandable. Purists might not appreciate that, but I, for one, found myself better able to follow the deeper meanings of the plays because I didn't have to wade through archaic English. (Remember how we struggled through Shakespeare?) AJAX, ELECTRA, WOMEN OF TRACHIS, and PHILOCTETES jolted me out of my neo-airhead tendencies and amazed me by their modernity. Their form may be ancient, stilted to modern eyes, and lacking much action, but the themes reveal human nature as if these plays all were written yesterday. The same dilemmas pose themselves, the same contrasts in human character---the straight and the crooked, the mean and the noble, the forgiving and the vengeful. Actions well meant turn out to have disastrous consequences. Greed and jealousy run rampant. AJAX, the earliest work here, is a little less dramatic than the other three, but does deal with "temporary insanity". I don't have the silver tongue and deconstruction abilities of a literary expert, but if these plays don't knock your socks off---just because of their relevance to 2003 if for no other reason---then I don't know what will. Don't wait 40 years. Delicious cod liver oil, no lie.
The overall theme is `war': In 'Ajax', the warriors are fighting among themselves; Electra and Orestes in `Electra' revenge the sacrifice of his daughter by Agamemnon to win a war; in `Women of Trachis', Heracles conquered a new concubine in a war, and in `Philoctetes' the Greeks need a bow to win a war.
The consequences of this relentless fighting are death, destruction and enslavement: `battle and lust of blood move onward step by step to the inevitable end'. `Where is now the spear of victory?' `War never picks the worst men for victories, but always the best.' `sad sight, the poor unhappy exiles, homeless, fatherless, waifs in a strange land, daughters of free-born families now condemned to slavery.'
For Sophocles, man is a ballgame for the gods. `The future is hidden'. `The gods delight to turn away all deep-dyed villains from the door of death and hale in all good men.'
But Sophocles' vision on religion is extremely ambivalent. He sees around him `the malevolence of the unforgiving gods'. `God is an awful hand of death, new shapes of woe, uncontrolled sufferings.' Eros is destruction: `her beauty has been her ruin; she has brought her country down to slavery and destruction.'
So, `why then praise we gods, when we find them evil?' And ultimately, who is responsible? `Say that it was the while of heaven; but your hand did it.' Is it not `Everyman for himself': in Ajax, Teucer forces a human burial for his half-brother.
Of the four tragedies, the `Women of Trachis' are more a long meditation, `Philoctetes' ends with a deus ex machina, `Ajax' is the most lively, but `Electra' shines through the intensity of the head-on confrontations.
These formidable texts, written some 2500 years ago, are a must read for all those interested in highlights of world literature.