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I am reading James Scully's translation of Aias (also known as Ajax), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully. When Aias enters for the second time, during the scene where he is confronted by fellow Greeks, his speech is quite informal, lacking normal capitalization or sentence structure:

O O
my sailors! friends!
        you alone
alone stand by me still—
        look
what a storm surge of blood wrack
breaks over & around me!
429-435

His odd diction is called out by the chorus leader:

You were right. Look
how far gone he is.
436-437

As the scene progresses he regains capitalization and starts constructing more proper sentences. For example, here's a paragraph from around a hundred lines later:

One thing for sure—had Achilles himself
lived to present his own arms
to the worthiest warrior here, I alone
would have got my hands on them. But
when the sons of Artreus procured them,
giving them to that schemer who works
every angle there is—they brushed aside
all the victories of Aias!
546-553

The writing here is how I expect people in Proper Old Literature Plays to talk. But it's in sharp contrast to how he originally speaks, all over the place and generally out of control. I assume this is to illustrate how Aias gradually is pulling himself together.

Is this (the odd capitalization & grammar) a product of the translator, or is Aias's informality somehow present in the original text? If so, how is it present?

1 Answer 1

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I’m not convinced that the quoted speech lacks “normal capitalization or sentence structure” as suggested in the question. If we remove the line breaks and add a couple of commas (remembering that this is a play and the audience cannot hear the punctuation, but only the actor’s delivery), then we get a single sentence with nothing unusual about its grammar except for a couple of instances of repetition for emphasis:

O, O my sailors! friends! you alone, alone stand by me still—look what a storm surge of blood wrack breaks over and around me!

However, you are quite right to observe that the scene is communicating Aias’s disordered state of mind. There are four aspects of this scene that do so: first, we have already been told that Aias has killed the livestock under a delusion brought about by the goddess Athena, so we expect his words to express his horror as the delusion gradually wears off and he comes to awareness of the true state of affairs; second, his diction is highly fraught, with wild threats to kill other men or himself; third, Tecmessa and the chorus are present on stage and talk to him, but he does not respond, as if he cannot hear them because he is still partly in a world of his own; and fourth, the scene is a kommos, a stereotyped form of ode expressing a character’s lamentation, sung by the actor together with the chorus:

In addition to singing and dancing on their own, the chorus can share the lyric with a dramatic character in a kommos, literally ‘a beating’ of the breasts in mourning. The name indicates that the shared lyric frequently arises at times of grief—the return of Xerxes at the end of Persians, after the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus, and during the final appearance of the heroine in Antigone, where her wedding hopes end in a funeral procession.

Rush Rehm (1994). Greek Tragic Theatre, p. 57. London: Routledge.

An ode is a lyric song (that is, accompanied by a lyre) consisting of alternating stanzas called strophe and antistrophe (literally “turning” and “turning back”). Richard Jebb says of the scene:

348–429 This kommos serves, like the last (201–262), as a lyric expression of tragic pathos; after which the situation is further developed, as in the former case, by iambic dialogue. But in one respect this kommos differs from its predecessor. In order to bring the mind of Ajax into fuller relief, the lyrics are given to him alone, while the Chorus and Tecmessa speak only trimeters. The structure is as follows: 1st strophe 348–355 = 1st antistr. 356–363: 2nd str. 364–378 = 2nd ant. 379–393: 3rd str. 394–411 = 3rd ant. 412–429.

Richard C. Jebb (1896). The Ajax, p. 63. Cambridge University Press.

So the change in Aias’ diction that you observe in the translation corresponds to the end of the kommos and the resumption of iambic dialogue in the original.

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  • The first part of your answer is very fair - I was struggling to express what was so weird about the way Aias was being written
    – bobble
    Feb 14, 2022 at 15:21
  • I'm pretty sure that, in standard English grammar, you'd still capitalize the words after the exclamation points, even if said capitalization wasn't audible. I suspect the exclamation points are intended more as stage direction. And I wonder if there are other plays which use them to show how to say a word.
    – trlkly
    Feb 14, 2022 at 16:49
  • @trikly Exclamation marks are commonly used for emphasis in the middle of a sentence (though maybe it has fallen out of fashion recently?). The Bible ("Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away"); Austen ("What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed"); Eliot ("There, Celia! you can wear that with your Indian muslin"); Melville ("That ship, my friends, was the first of recorded smugglers! the contraband was Jonah"); etc. etc. Feb 14, 2022 at 17:31

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