Theses Doctoral

Props and Power: Objects and economies of knowledge in four plays of Sophocles

Pletcher, Charles

This dissertation demonstrates how props act as conduits of knowledge and (thus?) power in Sophocles’ “non-Theban” plays. I show how certain props challenge the definitions and values that they accrue as they move between actors onstage. Key props in these four plays behave unlike other props in extant tragedy, opening up the possibility for a sustained inquiry into the ways that property speaks to and for power. Focusing on the urn in Electra, the bow in Philoctetes, Hector’s sword and Ajax’s own shield in Ajax, and the robe in Trachiniae, this project argues for the centrality of these props in these plays’ verbal exchanges.

The introduction sets up a framework and methodology that draws on Michel Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge (pouvoir-savoir) and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu alongside contemporary thinkers like Jack Halberstam, Jane Bennett, and Sara Ahmed.

The first chapter, “The Urn is the Wor(l)d in Sophocles’ Electra,” builds on prior scholarship on this much-studied stage object by showing how it accrues “symbolic power” and comes to construct reality and the social world. The possibility of that consensus breaks down, however, in the face of the familiar/l strife at Argos, and it is through this breakdown that the urn gives audience members a way to examine the play’s puzzling lack of resolution.

The second chapter, “Stringing a Bow: Learning, use, and power in Sophocles’ Philoctetes,” builds on the previous chapters’ by showing how the bow defines the limits of Neoptolemus’ education on Lemnos and the terms of its own exchange. The bow’s frequent back and forth between characters and its role in Odysseus’s subterfuge belie the fact that it still belongs to Heracles, who alone can authorize its use. This reading draws out the strange relationship between the deceptions of the False Merchant and the divine interventions of Heracles, demonstrating an uncomfortable consonance between the two scenes.

The third chapter, entitled “Ajax’s economy of hostility: the necropolitics of kleos,” explores how Ajax paradoxically gives up his shield even as it merges with his identity as a defense for the Achaeans against the Trojans. Ajax himself attempts to manipulate this threat through the handling and “exchange” of the sword of Hector with its native soil, misleading his compatriots — and possibly himself — about his intentions in his so-called “deception speech.” When Hector’s sword pierces Ajax’s body, Trojan and personal hostilities merge until Odysseus manages to rectify the play’s errant exchanges and restore Ajax’s status as a shield for his companions.

The fourth and final chapter, “Ceci n’est pas un prop: The robe as gift and garment in Sophocles’ Trachiniae,” shows that the robe’s failure to appear onstage as a prop — the audience might see it as part of Heracles’ costume at the end of the play — enacts the conflict between oikos and wilderness that the characters inhabit, exposing them to the threats of order and disorder as they attempt to integrate Heracles’ pure excess into the oikonomia of Trachis. This process ultimately reveals the futility of attempts to analyze the play in terms of its dichotomies: female-male, oikos-polis, concealed-revealed, etc. The circulation of the robe in its box charts a path for understanding the play in terms that defy dichotomization by locating the play’s exchanges along intersecting modes of valuation.

In the conclusion, I widen the perspective of this methodology again, turning to the instrumentalization of bodies in Sophocles’ Theban plays. I raise questions about how meaning, use, value, and power come to be confused via onstage exchanges, and I gesture towards possible future avenues of inquiry that might account for the trouble with bodies that Ajax raises.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-06-30.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worman, Nancy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 12, 2023