Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


The following essay was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 161-8.

The critic Dionysius, in his treatise on the art of literary composition, divides the various kinds of diction into three classes -- the "austere style," with its rough force and archaic simplicity, the "flowery style," with its soft and flowing attractiveness, and the "middle style," which comes between the two, and unites the excellencies of both, combining smoothness with power, and grace with dignity. This last kind is in his opinion the most perfect of all forms of diction, and Sophocles its most distinguished exponent among the tragic poets. The propriety of the above description, at any rate so far as it applies to Sophocles, will hardly be disputed. Indeed, there is no Greek poet whose works exhibit in greater perfection the peculiar characteristics of the "middle style" -- the combination of supreme beauty of form with masculine strength and energy. The pre-eminence of Sophocles in these two points was universally recognized by the ancients. The grace and sweetness of his language procured for him, among his contemporaries, the title of "the Bee"; and his lips were said by Aristophanes to have been "smeared with honey." But the incisive force and pungency which accompany this sweetness excited no less admiration, and led the comic dramatists to compare his poetry to "strong Pramnian wine," and to suggest that he was "helped in his compositions by a Molossian hound."

In one of his recorded utterances Sophocles has given us an interesting account of the development of his style. He began, he says, by imitating the pomp of Aeschylus. At a later period the originality of his own genius asserted itself; but the form of diction which he than adopted was disfigured by "harshness and artificiality." Finally he succeeded in weeding out those defects to which he was naturally prone, and evolved a style which he considered the "best of all," and the "most suitable for the display of human character." The remaining tragedies apparently belong, for the most part, to that final period in which he had moulded his style to his own satisfaction. No great variety can be observed in the diction; and there are no visible traces of his first manner, with its Aeschylean pomp and grandeur. But it is still perhaps possible, on comparing the earlier with the later plays, to detect some symptoms of that harshness and artificiality to which he refers. The Antigone, for example, as contrasted with the Philoctetes and the Oedipus Coloneus, is less easy, and mellow, and spontaneous in its diction; strained and violent usages, and artificial involutions of phrase, occur with comparative frequency, and exemplify the vice which Sophocles himself censured in his later years. Hence the Antigone, and in the same way the Ajax, should perhaps be assigned to the end of the second period, in which his final manner had not yet been fully developed.

Few styles could be more opposed to that of Aeschylus than the style of Sophocles in his extant writings. The diction which he there employs is conspicuous, above all things, for its precision, and accuracy, and self-restraint. The various images, metaphors, epithets, and circumlocutions, in which the older poet luxuriated, are introduced by him only with a very sparing hand. It is true that in this respect he makes a difference between the dialogue and the choral odes, in which latter he allows a freer rein to his imagination, and his language, in consequence, becomes more gorgeous and exuberant. Yet even here there is a moderation of tone, and a suggestion of reserved force, which are the very antithesis of Aeschylean profusion. But in the dialogue it is evident that he regarded such ornament as mostly out of place, however appropriate it might be to picturesque narrative or lyrical passion. He considered, as we learn from his own words, that it distracted the mind from the main purpose of tragedy -- the revelation of human character. Not that even his dialogue can be called thin, or bare, or deficient in colour. Epithets and images are introduced, on the right occasion, with powerful effect, and their very infrequency gives them additional force. Nor is it true to say, with Dionysius, that Sophocles is never redundant, and never uses more words than are necessary. On the contrary he shows a certain partiality for pleonastic expressions, when they serve to emphasize and intensify the thought. Ajax, for example, rushes forth "unsummoned and called by no messengers," and Creon "tarries beyond reason more than the fitting time." But these redundancies are never introduced without any special significance, and merely in order to impart resonance to the language.

Among the other qualities of the Sophoclean style one of the most distinctive is the subtlety and intricate delicacy of the phraseology. Sophocles, like Virgil and Tacitus among the Romans, is one of those artists in language who seem to exult in their power over the instrument which they employ, and who love to play experiments with words, to bend them to their will, and to strain their capacity to the utmost. He is a master of those felicitous and artfully chosen phrases, which tantalize the reader by their beauty and suggestiveness, stimulating his curiosity, while they elude exact analysis. His delight, too, in pregnant conciseness of expression often leads him to compress a whole series of ideas into a single noun or verb. Above all he closely resembles Virgil in the half-veiled allusiveness of his style. He chooses some skilful combination of words, which, beyond its obvious significance, calls to mind yet other combinations, and opens out new vistas of thought. Various fancies and recollections appear to hover round the lines, suggested by the subtlety of the terms employed; and the language, in such cases, becomes alive with meaning, like an atmosphere quivering with diverse-coloured lights.

The same masterful supremacy over forms of diction is shown by Sophocles in many other ways, and especially in his bold innovations in grammar, and in his extensions and modifications in the meaning of words and phrases. The licence which he adopts in these matters has often been ascribed to the fluid and unformed condition of Attic Greek in the fifth century. But the fact that similar boldness is displayed in Virgil and Tacitus, though dealing with a language which had been fixed and stereotyped by previous usage, would seem to show that liberties of this kind are not confined to any particular stage of literary history, but are mainly due to the individual bent of the writer's genius. No ancient author, however, has carried them to a greater length than Sophocles. He treats the syntax of the cases with special freedom, employing them in strained and novel constructions. He attaches a new modal significance to verbs. He resembles Antiphon and Thucydides in his frequent coinage of abstract nouns out of neuter participles. He uses words and phrases in their literal and etymological, as opposed to their conventional, meaning. He gives a fresh turn to well-worn idioms by a change of structure. Lastly, he rejoices in those confusions of syntax to which the Greek was always prone, and by which one construction is suddenly merged into another.

It will be seen from these examples that the style of Sophocles is not an easy one, but keeps the reader continually on the alert. There is much more in the language than appears upon the mere surface; and in order to appreciate all the subtle shades of meaning, and all the niceties and intricacies of expression, much study is required. But the labour is well bestowed, and each fresh perusal of his plays reveals some new beauty and delicacy of phrase which had previously escaped notice. Much of this exquisite charm, it is true, must have been lost in the theatre, where the audience would hardly have leisure, during the progress of the actual performance, to unravel all the fine complexities of diction. At the same time, though the language of Sophocles is full of latent meaning, its general significance is clear and intelligible; indeed, in the case of dramas which, like his, were written for the stage, a certain lucidity of expression is indispensable. Still it is evicent, from the minute diligence bestowed upon the style, that his tragedies, though intended primarily for dramatic performance, were also designed as a "possession for ever," to be enjoyed and studied in private; and it is only in this way that their full beauty can be appreciated.

In addition to his innovations in grammatical usage Sophocles was no less prolific than Aeschylus in the coinage of new words, and enriched the language with a whole vocabulary of expressive compounds. But his formations are of a different class from those of Aeschylus, and reflect the peculiarities of his style. The compounds of Aeschylus are mostly formed out of nouns and verbs, which produce in combination, some picturesque and sensuous image, such as "starry-kirtled" and "canvas-winged." In the compounds of Sophocles, on the other hand, one of the component parts is generally a preposition or an adverb, which merely serves to intensify the significance of the whole word, or to convey some delicate distinction of meaning. Hence his new formations have none of the sound and splendour of the Aeschylean epithets. They possess, however, a certain keen and penetrating force which is no less effective in its own way, and which imparts to his language much of that incisive energy and subtle precision which the ancients admired.

The metaphors and similes of Sophocles, like those of Aeschylus and Homer, are of a simple kind, as far as the object of comparison is concerned, being mostly taken from outward nature, or from the ordinary occupations of mankind, such as building and sailing. But the hand of Sophocles is everywhere apparent in the ingenuity with which they are introduced, and the refinement and nicety of expression with which they are worked out. The description of Ajax sulking in his tent, while the insolence of his foes, no longer checked by his presence, "speeds on its way without fear down cool breezy glens," is a delightful example of the grace and originality with which he employs an ordinary comparison. His use of imagery, however, as we have previously pointed out, is restrained within moderate limits; and he rarely confuses two incongruous metaphors, or heaps one metaphor upon another, with the impetuosity of Aeschylus. But he is often no less intricate, though in a different way. After beginning a comparison, he frequently pursues it in language which is partly metaphorical, partly not; and blends the image and the reality into a complex train of ideas which is truly Sophoclean. Thus in the opening lyrics of the Antigone, where the chorus compare the Argive host to an eagle, the two notions of an invading army, and of a bird swooping on its prey, are perpetually passing one into the other throughout the whole of their description. "Like a shrill-screaming eagle," they say, "he flew over into our land, sheathed in snow-white wings, with an armed throng, and with horsehair crests. He paused above our dwellings; he ravened around our seven-fold portals with spears athirst for slaughter. But he went hence ere his jaws were glutted with out blood, or the pine-fed flames of the Fire-god had seized our crown of towers."

Many traces are to be found, even in Sophocles, of that Athenian delight in rhetoric, which was destined eventually to exercise a baneful influence upon Greek tragedy. In Sophocles, however, the evil effects are not as yet very apparent. Though his plays are full of scenes of contention, where one set speech is delivered against another, these scenes rarely degenerate into mere displays of oratory. Perhaps the nearest approach to such a fault is to be found in the concluding portion of the Ajax, where the long altercations between Teucer and the two brothers appear tedious and protracted to a modern reader, their interest being oratorical rather than tragic. But the rhetoric of Sophocles is usually of a higher kind, and avoids the formality of professional eloquence. It appears to come from the heart, and has a psychological significance, revealing the inmost character of the speaker. Take, for example, Electra's contention with her mother on the subject of Agamemnon's murder. Her whole speech, though rhetorical in tone, is thoroughly natural and characteristic. It begins with argument, ends with passion. At first she tries to keep cool, and to answer the various pleas with deliberation; but her feelings soon become too much for her, she is carried away by her indignation, and ends her speech with a long tirade, full of threats of vengeance, and passionate references to her own wrongs, and the wrongs of Orestes. In the gradual rise of her emotion, in her efforts to control herself, and in her final burst of fury, the strength and weakness of her nature are powerfully exhibited.

Back to Sophocles