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Monday, March 28, 2011

cognitive frames & myth in Sophocles’ Electra

Paedagogus in the opening lines of Sophocles’ Electra activates a macro level cognitive frame[1], the story/myth of Orestes the son of Agamemnon the supreme commander of the greeks in the Trojan war.

ὦ τοῦ στρατηγήσαντος ἐν Τροίᾳ ποτὲ

Ἀγαμέμνονος παῖ, νῦν ἐκεῖν᾽ ἔξεστί σοι

παρόντι λεύσσειν, ὧν πρόθυμος ἦσθ᾽ ἀεί.
Son of Agamemnon, who was once commander [of our armies] at Troy …

The mention of Orestes’ father Agamemnon was sufficient for Sophocles’ target audience to know in general terms what this story was about. The audience was expected to be familiar with the whole story, the unfolding of the curse on the house of Atreus, the Trojan War and all the subplots. The function of the play was not to inform the audience concerning these basic elements of the story. For a twenty first century reader[2] who is not familiar with all the details of the subplots,  Sophocles’ Electra can be difficult reading since the whole story is not a part of our culture. Sophocles’ reliance on the ability of his audience to draw on shared cultural knowledge can serve as a model of a macro level cognitive frame.

Ambiguity begins with Sophocles’ opening reference to Orestes which is not by name but using the gender ambiguous παῖ [child] and then on line six we see reference to Orestes by name for the first time. While this isn’t standard protocol for introducing a new character to a discourse, five lines is not a long wait. To avoid confusion the English translations typically provide “Son” as the equivalent for παῖ since both Electra and Orestes qualify as a referent of παῖ and the modern reader is easily frustrated by ambiguous reference. Even then the translator assumes that “Son of Agamemnon” has unique referential identity for the reader. For audiences today that would not be a realistic assumption. 

The epithet of Agamemnon τοῦ στρατηγήσαντος ἐν Τροίᾳ ποτὲ “once commander at Troy” assumes that Agamemnon’s role in that conflict is common knowledge. Again, the translator might find it necessary to make some inferential aspects of Agamemnon’s story explicit in the translation, e.g., “commander [of our armies] at Troy”. 
[1] on scenarios and cognitive frames see: Richard A. Hoyle, Scenarios, discourse and translation.  SIL 2008

[2] The contemporary reader should not jump to the conclusion that Sophocles’ Electra was opaque or obscure to the original audience. Were not dealing with something like “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot.


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