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Sophocles' Philoctetes and the Great Soul Robbery

Norman Austin

Publication Year: 2011

Norman Austin brings both keen insight and a life-long engagement with his subject to this study of Sophocles’ late tragedy Philoctetes, a fifth-century BCE play adapted from an infamous incident during the Trojan War. In Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” and the Great Soul Robbery, Austin examines the rich layers of text as well as context, situating the play within the historical and political milieu of the eclipse of Athenian power. He presents a study at once of interest to the classical scholar and accessible to the general reader. Though the play, written near the end of Sophocles’ career, is not as familiar to modern audiences as his Theban plays, Philoctetes grapples with issues—social, psychological, and spiritual—that remain as much a part of our lives today as they were for their original Athenian audience.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

I first read Sophocles’ Philoctetes at the beginning of my professional career, while I was a graduate student at Berkeley. At that time I thought of the play as an antique, interesting but certainly enigmatic, something like a fragment of a pediment from some archaic temple. ...

Map of Ancient Greece

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pp. 2

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pp. 3-6

Sophocles was an extraordinary man who lived in an extraordinary time. He was born in Athens in 497/496 BCE and died in 406 BCE, his life span coinciding with the greatest century in Athenian history. He was a major presence in the city in politics, religion, and the theater through the period of its expansion, ...

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1. The Problem of Translation

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pp. 7-16

To read any text is to enter a hermeneutic labyrinth. This is true even for a modern text, but the challenge is magnified when our text is both ancient and a classic. In the case of Greek tragedy, as we delve deeper into the differences between the two media, between the printed text and the public stage, ...

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2. The Strong Poet: Tradition versus Originality

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pp. 17-39

Harold Bloom has meditated throughout his distinguished career on the theme of the strong poet and the strong reader. Many poets may have a measure of greatness by his assessment, but few qualify as a strong poet.1 The poet who is destined to become strong is beset by two powerful but contradictory forces: ...

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3. The Prologos (Verses 1–134)

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pp. 40-70

The prologos in ancient Greek tragedy is the part “spoken before” the entrance of the chorus into the theater. In its origins tragedy was a choral performance, that is, a dance with music and words centered on the pathos of some great legendary or mythical hero.1 ...

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4. The Parodos (Verses 135–218)

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pp. 71-87

“Parodos” in Greek is a passageway or entrance. In the Theater of Dionysus it was the side entrance into the orchestra. The word came to refer to the entrance of the chorus into the theater and also to the first choral ode sung by the chorus after it made its entrance, which preceded the formal agon of the play. ...

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5. The First Episode (Verses 219–675)

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pp. 88-110

We have taken the term “episode” (epeisodion in Greek) from Aristotle to refer to the dialogue sections in tragedy. Epeisodion is that which is “added onto, or inserted into” the song. The word, assuming that it was part of the traditional nomenclature, gives us further evidence of the primacy of the chorus. ...

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6. The Stasimon (Verses 676–729)

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pp. 111-117

Stasimon was the name given in antiquity to any choral ode in a tragedy sung between the entrance of the chorus into the orchestra (the parodos) and its exit from the theater at the end of the play (the exodos). A play could have more than one stasimon. ...

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7. The Second Episode (Verses 730–826)

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pp. 118-124

The stasimon comes to a close as Philoctetes and Neoptolemus emerge from the cave. Everything is ready at last for departure. But a new aporia emerges. Philoctetes stops. He stands transfixed. Sophocles uses the word apoplectos, “struck out of his wits,” a word that the medical writers used for “paralysis” (v. 731). ...

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8. The First Kommos (Verses 827–864)

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pp. 125-133

The second episode comes to an end as Philoctetes sinks down into sleep. We are now given the next choral ode, but instead of a second stasimon the chorus sings this ode in the form known as a kommos. Jebb defines kommos as “properly a lyric lamentation ...

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9. The Third Episode (Verses 865–1080)

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pp. 134-152

The third episode begins as Philoctetes awakes, beholds the light, and to his great joy sees his friend still waiting for him. Neoptolemus has endured to witness the degradation that the Greek commanders could not tolerate, good military men as they were, Philoctetes notes contemptuously (v. 873). ...

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10. The Second Kommos (Verses 1081–1217)

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pp. 153-175

The third episode comes to a close with Odysseus and Neoptolemus exiting the theater, leaving Philoctetes standing at the entrance of his cave and the chorus standing in the orchestra below. Their departure marks the moment for the next choral ode. ...

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11. The Exodos (Verses 1218–1471)

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pp. 176-189

The exodos (English “exodus”) is the final section of a Greek tragedy, the exit.1 Aristotle defines it as that part of the drama after the last choral ode. “Exit” seems an inappropriate description for a passage extending over some 250 verses. This exodos looks more like a fourth episode; ...

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12. Heracles: Deus ex Machina

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pp. 190-206

The most problematic issue in Sophocles’ Philoctetes is the epiphany of Heracles with which the play concludes. One of the stage devices used in the ancient Athenian theater was a platform that could be rolled out above the heads of the human actors when a god made an appearance in the play. ...

Appendix: The Problem of Helenus’s Prophecy and Its Relationship to Neoptolemus

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pp. 207-222


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pp. 223-250


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pp. 251-260


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pp. 261-282

E-ISBN-13: 9780299282738
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299282745

Publication Year: 2011