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The Critical Reception of Sophocles in the Ancient Scholia

Clinton Douglas Kinkade

Duke University

In this talk, I argue that early readers of Sophocles saw persuasiveness, logical plot construction, and emotional impact as particularly Sophoclean qualities. As evidence, I use the ancient tragic scholia, where these terms from ancient literary criticism cluster together frequently and significantly in the scholia to Sophocles. In particular, the clusters of terms in the scholia to Electra show that some of Sophocles’s ancient readers had specific criteria for evaluating and praising his poetry distinctly from Aeschylus’s and Euripides’s, a rare justification for his preeminence in the canon.

Discussions of Sophocles’s ancient reception have focused on texts like Aristophanes’s Frogs, the anonymous Vita, and a wealth of ancient testimonia. These sources present Sophocles as almost universally adored (unlike the more qualified reputations of Aeschylus and Euripides), but they give little detail about what made his poetry so valuable and distinct from his peers’. The scholia, however, reveal traces of what aspects some of his audiences considered notable. Although Easterling (2006, 2014, 2015), Jouanna (2001), Turano (2011), and others have used the scholia to reveal the scholarly interests of these commentators, scholars have not yet explored how the commentators viewed Sophocles as a unique artist. To answer this, I show how certain evaluative criteria predominate in the scholia to Sophocles, both in terms of their frequency and in the variety of ways that the commentators express them. For example, my analysis shows that πιθανός (“persuasive” or “plausible”) appears 57 times in all the Sophoclean scholia, but only 13 times in Euripides’s and three times in Aeschylus’s, though each corpus is of roughly equal size. The terms that cluster so powerfully in Sophocles’ scholia tend to address persuasiveness, logical plot construction, and emotional impact, suggesting that the underlying concepts, and not the individual words, were noteworthy to these commentators. Using the scholia to Electra as a case study for closer analysis, I show that these different concepts also often appear together and influence one another within the same scholion; this indicates that they all form part of a general method of reading and evaluating Sophocles’s poetry, one that is not found in the scholia to the other two tragedians.

This pattern of commentary on Sophocles's plays reveals that his ancient readers saw certain poetic qualities as belonging particularly to his works. Scholarship such as Falkner (2002) has shown the benefits of using the scholia to understand the relationship between ancient commentator and text. Similarly, the scholia discussed here provide a window into the criteria that this audience employed to appraise Sophocles and distinguish his poetry from that of his Athenian competitors. This allows us to add nuance to the more lofty and uncritical impression of Sophocles we have so long inherited from Aristophanes and others.

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Tragic Tradition

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