Sophocles (Classical Writers)/Introduction


Difficulties of the Drama.—The perusal of dramatic works is attended with difficulties of a special kind. Epic poetry abounds with aids to the imagination. Situations are described, characters indicated, motives explained. Although the early epics were meant to be recited and not read, the only serious demand they make upon a reader is that of continuous attention. And if it sometimes requires an effort to realise the drift of lyric poetry, yet, when the single mood of feeling which has prompted the poet is once caught, he is sure to make himself understood, even though his words are no longer sung. But Drama, as the most concentrated and concrete form of imaginative creation, can never be fully presented in writing or in print; and few readers can even dimly picture to themselves the effect which would be produced on a fit audience by the right performance either of single scenes or of a whole play.

This, which is true of all dramatic writing, is pre-eminently applicable to those masterpieces of tragedy which, symbolising as they do each of them some comprehensive aspect of human life, must indeed "be acted ere they may be scanned."

Intelligent study may, however, to some extent supply the want of representation; and the purpose of this little book is to afford some assistance towards a just appreciation of the remaining works of Sophocles, who is certainly the most perfect of the world's tragic writers, although he is surpassed in grandeur by his predecessor Æschylus, and by our own Shakespeare in expansiveness and fulness.

Special difficulties of Sophocles.—We cannot hope to appreciate any ancient writer until we have placed ourselves at his point of view, and understood the circumstances and the general aim of his endeavour. Sophocles is indeed so human, so penetrated with the great primary emotions and universal experience of the race, that he may find a sympathetic audience even amongst those who have given but little attention to his surroundings, just as, without technical preparation, one who has an eye for beauty may admire the Venus of Melos, or the Sistine Madonna. But for one person who receives the entire impress of a play of Sophocles at the first glance there are very many, by no means incapable of understanding him, who pass him by with a disappointed feeling that what is so smooth and finished cannot be otherwise than cold, and who contrast this superficial glimpse of a great poet with the instantaneous thrill which overpowered them at the first reading of the Cassandra scene in the Agamemnon of Æschylus, or the passionate speeches of Medea in Euripides.

Still more must anyone, in passing from the study of Shakespeare to that of ancient tragedy, be warned that he is entering upon a different sphere of art. Our English dramatist, when at his best, has indeed, like all great artists, a glorious simplicity of intention; but in his execution there is hardly any limit to the range and complexity of his modes of expression. In ancient tragedy, on the other hand, the whole work is far more completely dominated by a single tone. What complexity there is, is held firmly within the limits of a conscious harmony. It does not follow from this that Sophocles is monotonous. His art is no less characterised by freedom and variety than by harmonious unity.