Sophocles: Four Tragedies: Oedipus the King, Aias, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus
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Sophocles stands as one of the greatest dramatists of all time, influencing a vast array of artists and thinkers over the centuries. Disturbing and unrelenting, his tragedies portray what Matthew Arnold referred to as 'the turbid ebb and flow of human misery', allowing the audience to stand on the verge of the abyss and confront the waste and disorder of human existence. The heroic myths reinterpreted in the plays locate them within a world in which the extremes of human emotion in its darkest hours can be freely explored. It is, however, the creativity of Sophocles' plays which prevents them from descending into unbridled chaos or despair. The unflinching engagement with heartrending suffering reveals strengths held within the carefully crafted poetry, lyricism, and movement. There is, as Taplin writes, 'no blinking, no evasion, no palliative. ... Out of apparently meaningless suffering comes meaning and form.'
This original and distinctive verse translation of four of Sophocles' plays conveys the vitality of his poetry and the vigour of the plays as performed showpieces, encouraging the reader to relish the sound of the spoken verse and the potential for song within the lyrics. Each play is accompanied by an introduction and substantial notes on points of fact and interpretation, drawing on the translator's many years of lecturing on Sophocles at the University of Oxford.
Oedipus the King, often regarded as the archetypal tragedy, follows Oedipus, the 'man of sorrow', who has unwittingly chosen to enact his prophesied course by murdering his father and marrying his mother.
Aias (or Ajax) tells the story of the warrior whose larger-than-life greatness brings him to harrowing humiliation and then to honourable burial.
Philoctetes sees a once-noble hero, nursing his resentment during ten years in marooned isolation, eventually restored to glory at Troy.
Oedipus at Colonus depicts the blind Oedipus towards the end of his life wandering as a beggar, but rewarded finally with revenge and a sublime death.
resulting sounds are over-intrusively alien. In many places I have attempted to use one of the interjections or interjection-like phrases still recognized in English today, such as “ah” or “oh no!”, but in others I have thought it better to replace the Greek interjection with a stage-direction, such as “(cries of pain)”. Finally there is the whole issue of what textual aids the translator should add to help the modern reader. The most prominent is stagedirections. I have followed the usual
expect that this is how the play will conclude: the blind man will make his lonely way off to the trackless mountain where he had been taken to die when two days old. There would be a certain “poetic justice” to this; and there might also be a suggestion of the scapegoat ritual.10 It is obvious that there would be a certain cathartic satisfaction if the play were to end this way. But OT, as we have it, definitely does not satisfy these expectations. Instead Creon says that the oracle must be
as a prophet in those days? creon He was: a wise one, honoured then no less than now. oedipus Did he refer to me at all back at that time? creon No—not at least when I was standing near. oedipus Did you not mount a search to find the murderer? creon We did, of course—but not a thing emerged. oedipus How come, then, that this sage did not speak out? creon I’ve no idea. And when I do not know, I hold my tongue. oedipus Yet this you know, and could admit, were you my friend. . . creon What’s that?
keen to see before. But it’s Iocasta here should know this best. oedipus (turns to Iocasta) Dear wife, you know that man we summoned recently: is he the one this man is speaking of ? iocasta It doesn’t matter who he means. Pay no attention to it. Disregard his words as empty air, don’t give these things a second thought. oedipus That is impossible: when I have got such clues as these, I must reveal my origins. iocasta No, by the gods, if you have any care for your own life, do not pry into
shared in everything that I have put my hands to),° I charge you take good care of them. Please first allow me just to touch them with my hands, and to lament our miseries. Do this, my lord; do this, true noble man. If I could only feel them in my arms, then I might sense that they were mine, as when I used to have my sight. The two little daughters of Oedipus approach, weeping. But what is this? I think that I can hear them—can’t I?— my two dear ones shedding bitter tears. Can Creon have felt