September 27, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein
Parallel but presumably unconnected
In 2007 Christoph Muelke published a small papyrus fragment (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 4807) containing about a dozen lines of verse, which happened to include six words that had been quoted by an ancient commentator on Aristophanes who attributed them to Sophocles. The context of those six words had not been known, but the new fragment surprisingly showed that they came from a passage describing preparations for war. This prompted Muelke to propose a brilliant emendation of some words of the commentator’s that had previously seemed unintelligible, revealing that the commentator had stated that the six words came from Sophocles’ play The Epigoni. This play was written around the successful revenge attack on Thebes by an army from Argos led by the sons of the famous Seven against Thebes who had all died in the attempt to capture the city a generation before. One of these leaders, Alcmeon, had not one but two duties of revenge to perform. His father, the prophet Amphiaraus, had been tricked by his wife Eriphyle into joining the expedition of the Seven (she had been bribed by Polyneices, one of the Seven, with a precious necklace – see featured image). Knowing he would not survive the expedition, Amphiaraus had laid a solemn injunction on his son to avenge his death – so that Alcmeon, like Orestes, was under a sacred obligation to kill his mother, and had done so before the end of Sophocles’ play.
Here is a provisional translation of the papyrus fragment – provisional because parts of almost every line are missing or illegible. Most of the restorations are fairly secure, but those in the first three or four lines are rather extensive and uncertain; those adopted here were mostly suggested by Muelke.
“For the sharp saw is passing through tree-trunks,
making a gnashing noise like the roar of the sea,
and the effort of every whetstone is engaged
in sharpening the glistening steel;
and helmets without covering plates …
are shaking their crimson-dyed crests,
and for the wearers of corslets the weavers
are making the clever shuttle raise its song,
which wakes men from sleep;
and the carpenter is gluing the chariot’s rail,
and its linchpins, and its wheel-rims …”
A passage strangely reminiscent of another one written a little over 2000 years later:
Good now, sit down and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week.
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint labourer with the day?
This is Marcellus, in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inquring about war preparations being made in Denmark; he is told that they are caused by the threat of a revenge attack on Denmark by Fortinbras, nephew of the King of Norway, whose father had been killed many years before in a duel with Hamlet, the recently deceased King of Denmark. In the end the attack never takes place – though as a result of certain other events, Fortinbras still acquires the throne of Denmark for himself, without firing a shot in anger.
There is no direct connection between the two passages. Shakespeare, almost certainly, never read Sophocles, and if he had, he could not have known this passage, which lay buried and gradually decaying in Egypt. He probably knew the Latin tragedies of Seneca, but they do not contain any passage resembling these. And yet the two passages play rather similar roles in dramas that in some respects have parallel structures. Both The Epigoni and Hamlet open with a state on the brink of war – a war that will be launched to avenge the death of a father or fathers – and in both the main interest turns out to lie in a different act of filial revenge which requires the central character to commit a killing of a peculiarly terrible sort: in The Epigoni, a matricide; in Hamlet, a regicide. (But the fates of the two heroes then diverge. Alcmeon merely goes into exile; Hamlet is killed – by Laertes, in yet another act of filial revenge.)
I have edited the fragments of The Epigoni (together with others quoted from Sophocles’ Eriphyle, which I believe to be the same play) in A.H. Sommerstein and T.H. Talboy, Sophocles: Selected Fragmentary Plays II (Oxford, 2012), pages 25-74.