Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 24.
Jon Hesk, Sophocles: Ajax (Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy). London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 208. ISBN 0-7156-3047-4. UK£10.99.
Victoria University of Wellington
According to the cover, the aim of this (relatively) new series is to provide 'accessible introductions to ancient tragedies'. The deal is stated to be that 'Each volume discusses the main themes of a play and the central developments in modern criticism, while also addressing the play's historical context and the history of its performance and adaptation'. Jon Hesk has duly delivered the goods on Sophocles' Ajax.
Hesk's first two chapters deal with the play's background. Chapter 1, 'Playwright, Plot and Performance' (pp. 9-16) gives a succinct résumé of the plot, while also discussing the questions of where the Ajax fits in terms of Sophocles' overall career, its possible date, and the original performance context. In Chapter 2, 'Context and Tradition' (pp. 17-39), the relationship, in the ancient Greek context, between myth and history is addressed, as is the notion of hero-cult (with specific reference to Ajax himself), and the question of the Sophoclean play's intertextuality with the epic and also lyric traditions (in this connection, Richard Garner's book[] is a notable omission from the bibliography).
The next four chapters offer a sequential treatment of all the scenes in the play, the breakdown being reflected in the four titles: 'Setting the Scene' (pp. 40-51), 'Ajax and Tecmessa' (pp. 52-73), 'Deception and Suicide' (pp. 74-103), 'The Quarrel' (pp. 104-30). The final chapter, 'Criticism and Reception' (pp. 131-62), first draws together in a general discussion threads of some important themes already touched on in the preceding chapters, with the final section then being devoted to a brief history of the literary and theatrical fortunes of the Ajax story after the Sophoclean play. The last forty-five pages of the book contain notes, a guide to further reading, an up-to-date select bibliography (of 215 items), a glossary of terms, a date-line and an index.
There is much here of great value and usefulness. I do, however, have some reservations, which are to some extent concerned with the target readership, presumably for the most part Greek-less undergraduate students. On the one hand, Hesk is obliged to give basic (and very clear) explanations of terms such as 'scholion' and 'intertextuality' at their first occurrence. At the other end of the scale, he can get into quite complicated discussion of the contemporary critical debate on aspects of the play, often at the level of fine detail. I myself, at least from time to time, found it quite a 'heavy' read, and I just wonder what the response of an average student might be. A case in point is Hesk's long discussion of the so-called 'Deception Speech' (pp. 74-95). Here, in addition to statements of his own critical approaches to the problem, we are offered the varying insights of other scholars. Nothing wrong in principle with that. However, Hesk has the somewhat off-putting method of not making it clear exactly where he stands on an issue, or the extent to which he will ultimately agree with any given scholar. His discussion also tends to switch back and forth between his own thoughts and those of others, with the result that a certain amount of confusion is generated (the same problem vitiates his discussion of ethos/character on pp. 131-36). In a sense, of course, this simply reflects the perplexing nature of the problem. After reading Hesk's discussion, in fact, I became tempted by a wicked thought. Do the extraordinary intellectual gymnastics which scholars in the English-speaking world (with slight differences in each case) have to go through to 'explain' what is going on in the speech suggest perhaps that it is time to wipe the slate clean and revert to the unfashionable view that Ajax means what he says, and that the clear verbal ironies are unintentional on his part after all? Heaven forbid!
A few more quibbles (the fact that I'm concentrating on these does not mean that there aren't many features of Hesk's treatment that I thoroughly endorse). On page 12, for example, in connection with Sophocles' life, we're given the party line that 'it is very hard to disentangle truth from falsehood in the biographies and anecdotes about the three Attic tragedians which proliferated from the third century BC onwards. And "biographical" approaches to tragedy are singularly unhelpful given the conventional nature of the genre, its mythical content and its festival context'. We are then told, however, that despite this, certain aspects of Sophocles' life and career (one case in point being the Halon / Asclepius / Dexion connection) 'are still significant for understanding our play'. What is entirely lacking is the statement of any criterion by which some 'biographical' facts are to be rejected, and others accepted.
On page 12 too, there is a rather strange suggestion concerning Sophocles' comparative success at the Dionysia, namely that ' . . . it was perhaps this willingness to experiment which made his tragedies so popular'. How is one supposed to reconcile this with the received wisdom that it was precisely because he was so avant-garde that Euripides was so unpopular and unsuccessful in terms of victories at the Dionysia?
On page 13 we find the even more astonishing assertion that 'Sophocles was immersed in the process of translating his texts into live theatre'. Mehercle! The man was primarily composing plays for performance. We should rather think in terms of 'playscripts' being subsequently subjected by scholars to academic criticism as 'texts'. On this same page too we're solemnly given a quotation from John Gould's entry on Sophocles in the third edition of the OCD: 'much of Sophoclean theatricality resides in his dramatic use of significant objects and significant actions, especially entrances and exits'.[] How restrictive and constricting is that?! Perhaps Hesk's comparative 'blindness' to matters theatrical is summed up by footnote 9 (p. 15, with references on p. 164) where, rather than discussing (even briefly) fifth-century performance conventions himself, he simply refers the reader to three books, without giving the slightest indication that their respective authors differ markedly in their interpretation of the evidence. Hesk should have at least told us that there is debate about issues of fifth century performance, even with respect to the basic conventions (I should perhaps add, in all fairness, that Hesk does give a reasonable discussion, for an introductory type book, of the issues involved in the opening of the prologue and the suicide).
Hesk writes strongly on issues relevant to the Athenian democracy and the clash of conflicting ethical systems. He also identifies the hero-cult factor and the role of Ajax as democratic tribal leader as being significantly reflected in the text. He offers an overall picture of the Sophoclean Ajax figure which is, I believe, well-balanced, in that it doesn't overlook the problems of attitude and behaviour associated with him (Hesk cautiously allows, for example, for a degree of out-and-out hubris in the hero [pp. 141-48]), yet which at the same time highlights the more positive aspects. He argues the case well, moreover, for a distinctive figure, one who cannot simply be categorised as another example of 'the Sophoclean Hero'. He also nicely brings out the big/small polarity, and has many acute observations to make about the Tecmessa figure.
He has no problems with, and devotes considerable space to, the debate scenes in the second part of the play, taking the line that the original Athenian audience would have lapped them up. While not slow to join the deafening chorus of those who brand Menelaus and Agamemnon more or less as villains, he at the same time gives due weight to reasonable arguments that they put forward. Thus we find assessments like: 'However much we feel sympathy for Ajax, his style of masculinity clashes with the demands of civic order. The audience can boo Menelaus because he is a Spartan bully-boy but he reminds them that they are polis- dwellers, not heroic outlaws' (p. 113). In the whole sequence, the centrality and stature of Teucer is interestingly stressed.
All in all, then, a solid reading of the play, well informed by current scholarly criticism, although I do miss any real sense of the poetry and drama, which tends to be choked by the discussions of ethics. And I believe that Hesk underplays the significant difference in tone between the first and second parts of the play (even if we agree with him about the effectiveness and relevance of the debate scenes).[]
[] Richard Garner, From Homer to Tragedy (London and New York 1990).
[] J. Gould, 'Sophocles', in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (edd.), Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford 1996) 1422-25.
[] The presentation is neat and accurate. I just noticed the omission of a full stop on p. 34 after the word 'tragedy' (immediately before the sub-heading 'Kleos and krisis ...'). It would also have been a nice touch to note, in connection with Ajax in the twentieth century, that the play was one of those banned by the military government which seized power in Greece in the late 1960s, presumably because of the 'bad press' given to military commanders!