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bronze mask of Sophocles

The Arundel Head, bronze from a 2nd-century BCE statue, perhaps of Sophocles. © Trustees of the British Museum.

The most celebrated plays of ancient Athens in vivid and dynamic new translations by award-winning poets Robert Bagg and James Scully

The dominant Athenian playwright in fifth-century BCE Athens, Sophocles, left us seven powerful dramas that still shock as they render the violence that erupts within divinity and humankind. Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone trace three generations of a family manipulated by the inscrutably vindictive god Apollo to commit patricide, incest, and kin murder. Elektra and Women of Trakhis begin as studies of women obsessed with hatred and desire but become dissenting critiques of the Greeks’ enthusiasm for revenge and ego-crazed heroics. Two hard-hitting dramas set in war zones, Aias and Philoktetes, use conflicts among Greek warriors at Troy to thrash out political and ethical crises confronting Athenian society itself.

These translations, modern in idiom while faithful to the Greek and already proven stageworthy, preserve the depth and subtlety of Sophocles’ characters and refresh and clarify his narratives. Their focus on communities under extreme stress still resonates deeply for us here and now. This is Sophocles for a new generation entering the turbulent arena of ancient Greek drama

Advance Praise

“Robert Bagg’s new renditions of the Oedipus plays are closer to the Greek, in their rhetorical power, precision of image, rhythm, pace and tone, than any other versions I know….Through his clear and bold translations, the radiant strength of the original shines through. They have the power of a distinctive personal voice, but a voice that never gets in the way of the ancient script by calling attention to itself.”

—Richard P. Martin, Stanford University

“What’s really important is what Scully has done to make these bloody-minded, morally provocative, politically ‘incorrect’ men and women spring into language and action, take their full emotional stage in these measured precincts where all must be achieved through words and the pulse of words, through the gods who are merely human psychology unleashed from human scruples (if I understand these gods rightly). He has opened them out emotionally for fresh audiences through his sinewy, dissonant-chorded poetics, ranging from vernacular to ‘high’ diction. I found the emotional suspense in certain places, in both Aias and Philoktetes, almost unbearable. That’s real theatre.”

—Adrienne Rich

“The complete edition of Sophocles’ plays, as translated by the poets Robert Bagg and James Scully, seems to me splendid for more than one reason. I am not a Greek scholar, but as a college professor I have often taught Sophocles in my Humanities courses at Harvard and Wesleyan, and I know that these accurate, colloquial and vigorous translations would seize the imaginations of students, as indeed of the general reader. Many respectable renderings of Sophocles exist, but too often their themes and passions are muffled by a too ‘classical’ style. Bagg’s Oedipus plays and Scully’s remarkable Aias are as finely wrought as one could desire, but they have a spare impact which gets across the moment-by-moment emotion of the plays, and makes plain the moral or political themes at issue. As a translator who has had much to do with theatre, I see the Sophocles plays of Bagg and Scully as ideal for the contemporary stage, as indeed they have already proven to be.”

—Richard Wilbur