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When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy. By Sarah Nooter. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. viii + 200. $95.00 ISBN 978-1-107-00161-9.
Reviewed by Sheila Murnaghan, University of Pennsylvania
In this innovative and rewarding study, Sarah Nooter assesses the "poeticity" of the Sophoclean hero. In the context of tragedy, itself a form of poetry, poeticity (a serviceable, if ungainly term) denotes instances of sung or heightened language that depart from ordinary speech as presented through the unobtrusive, conversational rhythms of the iambic trimeter. The clearest cases are passages in which actors actually sing, often in alternation with the chorus, and Nooter’s focus on Sophocles’ protagonists is grounded in the fact that Sophocles gives sung lyrics to his main characters much more often than either Aeschylus or Euripides.
But Nooter is also concerned with spoken utterances that are variously marked as lyrical by their emotional intensity, use of repetition and word play, dense imagery, and expansive range of reference. She pays particular attention to apostrophe (making good use of theoretical treatments by Jonathan Culler and Thomas Greene) as a means by which speakers reach beyond their immediate interlocutors. Such features distinguish poetic from everyday discourse in many settings, but for Athenian tragedians and their audiences, they were especially associated with the non-dramatic lyric genres that figured among tragedy’s sources. Nooter’s book thus shares in the current interest in tragedy’s debt to its lyric roots and its mixture of multiple styles and meters-an overdue response to John Herington’s groundbreaking Poetry into Drama (1985), propelled by a swing of the pendulum from sociological to more formalist approaches in tragic criticism.
Examining the protagonist’s speech patterns in six of the surviving plays, Nooter shows how Sophocles stretches ordinary language to produce the voices of out-sized characters facing extreme, uncharted circumstances. The effects she discusses are diverse, and the lines between poetic and unpoetic expression are inevitably fluid. Her willingness to allow poeticity only to the central hero of each play can certainly be questioned. It seems arbitrary that Deianira’s gnomic, metaphor-filled speeches in Trachiniae should be ruled unpoetic because they lack addressees or are indirectly quoted, and Teiresias’ enigmatic, disorienting words in Oedipus Tyrannus could surely be classed as poetic.
Nooter herself admits the artificiality of her boundaries when she declines to discuss Antigone because the play features two main characters who meet her definition of speaking poetically. But this limitation is not a serious problem for her argument because her greatest interest is in the efficacy, rather than just the expressiveness, of heightened language; it is the strong-willed heroes who most conspicuously make things happen with their extraordinary words, especially when more tangible resources fail them.
Surveying the plays in presumed chronological order, Nooter finds a progression from earlier heroes (Ajax, Heracles, Oedipus at Thebes) who gain "authority" through poetic language to later ones (Electra, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus) who gain actual "power," making things turn out as they wish. Along this trajectory, her readings acutely delineate the various formal means by which particular situations are dramatized. The painful lyric outbursts with which Ajax responds to his situation drive home his isolation from other human beings, not least because they meet with sober trimeter answers from the chorus. In his own great trimeter speeches, Ajax uses riddling language, arresting metaphors, and addresses to gods and nature to make contact instead with superhuman forces.
Heracles in Trachiniae and Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus are treated together as figures who turn to lyrics to construct new and compelling identities when their seemingly-secure positions and enviable reputations have been destroyed. In one of the book’s strongest discussions, Electra is shown to dominate and direct the other characters of her play through relentless deployment of lamentation. For Philoctetes, apostrophe is the poetic trope through which he most effectively shapes his circumstances-articulating his abjection, soliciting Neoptolemus’ sympathy, conjuring Heracles’ epiphany, and mastering his Lemnian surroundings. Finally, in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus relies on elevated language to bring his Athenian interlocutors a proper appreciation of his unfathomable, paradoxical, and superhuman status and then falls silent as his survivors take over his lyric mode to express what they have witnessed.
Throughout this discussion, Nooter maintains that the power these heroes gain by using poetic language is specifically the power of a poet. This claim seems doubtful and even somewhat anticlimactic. Sophocles may have drawn on lyric poetry for his protagonists’ modes of speech, but it does not follow that he has characterized them as lyric poets. Nooter rightly stresses the authority of poets in the Greek tradition (and might have said even more about their associations with seercraft, priesthood, and magic), but that authority hardly matches the singular strengths of the Sophoclean hero: the worldly prerogatives gained and lost, the special closeness to the gods, the uncompromising will and sense of self, the driving awareness of deprivation and injustice-powers conveyed in tragedy through heightened, hyper-poetic language. As the author of this language, it is Sophocles who emerges from Nooter’s suggestive treatment as an impressively powerful poet.
[©2013 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.]