Places: Sappho

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1819 (English translation, 1928)

First produced: 1818

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Sixth century b.c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Lesbos

*Lesbos Sappho (lehz-bos). Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea, off the coast to the east of what is now Turkey. The play calls for a highly romanticized re-creation of the place. At the rear of its stage setting, the sea surrounding the island is meant to be visible, and the sea is bordered on the left by rising rocks. On the right, there are steps and a colonnade leading into Sappho’s home, which itself is imagined offstage. The center is occupied by an altar to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite (equivalent to the Roman Venus). A grotto, or small cave, overgrown with vegetation, lies at the front, to the right; it provides a convenient hiding place for characters to sneak in and overhear and watch the actions of others. To the left is a rose bush and a grass-covered bench. Many characters reveal their innermost thoughts on this bench, which is designed to lend itself to romantic musings with its blend of the natural and the human.

As re-created in the play, Lesbos is a romantically idealized place. The comfortable attraction it holds to Sappho is clear to see. The people of its capital, Mytilene (Mitilini in modern Greek), add to Sappho’s sense of safety, an important aspect of a good home, because they love and protect her.

Phaon’s home

Phaon’s home and Melitta’s home (FAY-on; meh-LIH-tuh). Unnamed and offstage, these places are described and evoked in the lines of these characters, who speak with romantic longing for their faraway homes. Phaon’s strong attachment to his own home reflects the rise of European nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, shortly after which Franz Grillparzer wrote this play. Invited to Lesbos by Sappho as her young lover, Phaon also utilizes his longing for his native place as an excuse for leaving Sappho, who is too powerful for him in her own home. The playwright’s yearning for his own Germanic homeland is involuntarily revealed when Phaon, a Greek youth, speaks of the linden trees shading his parents’ home; however, while linden trees grow in northern Europe, they do not grow in Greece.

Melitta’s longings for the place of her birth overwhelm Sappho’s love for her, although Melitta spent only the first two years of her life there, before pirates raided her village, enslaved her, and sold her at Lesbos. Melitta asks the gods either to bring her home or to take her life. However, when Phaon contemplates asking Sappho to allow Melitta to go home, Melitta reveals that she cannot even remember the name of her native country, which lies somewhere in Asia. This lapse of memory enables Phaon to promise Melitta to marry her and take her to his own home–a plan that will allow them to leave Sappho on Lesbos and escape from the place that she rules.


*Chios (KEE-as). Greek island immediately south of Lesbos to which Sappho plans to send Melitta to live with a friend, after she learns of Melitta’s love for Phaon. Sappho hopes that the separation will cause Melitta to stop loving Phaon and thereby make it safe for Melitta to return to Lesbos.

*Aegean Sea

*Aegean Sea. The waters surrounding Lesbos are used both metaphorically and literally. The sea is a powerful symbol for fear, loneliness, and desolation, when characters consider how the sea separates them from their families. In typical German Romantic fashion, characters find insight and resolve from contemplating nature, including the sea. For example, while Sappho is gazing at the moonlit ocean, she feels inspired to send Melitta into exile. After her plan backfires, and Phaon and Melitta try to escape from Lesbos together, their boat is chased, captured, and brought back to shore by Sappho’s loyal islanders. This action is narrated as it takes place offstage, but its drama is highlighted by the visual presence of the sea at the rear of the stage. When she finally realizes that Phaon is lost to her, Sappho decides to commit suicide by throwing herself from the rocks in the background into the raging sea. That place, the characters believe, will bring her into the presence of the gods.


*Olympia. Plain in southern Greece’s Peloponnesus region that was a center devoted to the worship of Zeus and the site of the original Olympic games. Sappho meets Phaon at the games. The beginning of their love affair at such an important Greek place is told by other characters as Sappho returns home to Lesbos.

BibliographyCoenen, Frederic. Franz Grillparzer’s Portraiture of Men. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951. Focuses on the depiction of Phaon and Rhamnes in Sappho. Calls the former a “delightfully youthful figure” who grows in self-knowledge during the drama; asserts the latter figure is better drawn than most servants in similar dramas.Thompson, Bruce. Franz Grillparzer. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Surveys Grillparzer’s poetry, prose, and drama. Reviews the critical reception of Sappho, and examines the author’s handling of the psychological dimensions of his heroine. Concludes the work is an example of Grillparzer’s treatment of the theme of the artist’s tragedy.Wells, George A. The Plays of Grillparzer. London: Pergamon Press, 1969. Excellent scholarly analysis of Sappho, summarizing earlier critical opinion and providing detailed examination of character, plot, and structure. Notes the technical advancements over Grillparzer’s earlier work.Yates, Douglas. Franz Grillparzer: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1946. Insightful study of the writer’s major works, organized chronologically to show his development as a dramatist. Chapter on Sappho examines Grillparzer’s intentions and his handling of the theme of the artist’s tragedy.Yates, W. E. Grillparzer: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Provides brief sketch of Grillparzer’s life. Analyzes his works, focusing on themes such as love, duty, and the role of the artist. Describes the genesis of Sappho and provides extensive discussion of character development, showing how the heroine achieves self-knowledge through her tragedy.
Categories: Places