Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
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Unit III: Greek Tragedy, ca. 480-400 B.C.

Week 11:Sophocles
(495/4 -406/5 B. C.)

The Theater of Dionysus at Delphi
The Theater of Dionysus at Delphi.

Please have read by class time this week:

Sophocles is in many ways considered the greatest of the Athenian tragedians, and though there are ample grounds to support that claim, ultimately the decision is a subjective one. Each of them has his own strengths and weaknesses. Unlike Aeschylus, who had to invent a number of the basic maneuvers of tragedy himself — things as fundamental as the introduction of a second actor — Sophocles inherited a more mature dramatic form, and worked with it in a way that is, above all, balanced. Unlike Aeschylus, he has not such boundless faith that rationality can solve all the problems of the human condition; but neither does he despair of their solution altogether, as Euripides sometimes seems to do. For him, the key seems to be a rightness of action, in which self-reliance and sober piety are both kept in view. Even then, however, people will be susceptible to evil in the world.

The Oedipus plays, though there are three of them, do not form a trilogy. That is, they were performed on separate occasions. Still they form a kind of dramatic unity, and introduce a number of important characters in the Theban cast of characters. Creon and Teirisias will be seen again, for example, in Euripides’ Bacchae.

Oedipus Rex is sometimes considered to be the single greatest product of Greek drama; certainly it is often used as a kind of general point of reference for the rest of the dramatic corpus — not invariably to good effect. There is more event and incident here than in the Aeschylus you read last time, and less seemingly unrelated choral song (though there is still a chorus); the plot moves with an inevitable and relentless pressure to its conclusion.

If you have read your Hamilton or Bulfinch, the following may be superfluous, but just in case you haven’t:

Oedipus was born to Laius and Jocasta of the royal house of Thebes. At his birth, the oracle at Delphi returned the horrifying prophecy that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this, Laius and Jocasta had him killed — exposed on a mountainside with his ankles pinned together. Fortunately or unfortunately, this didn’t quite work: he was taken in and healed by a shepherd on the mountain, and taken into the royal house of another city — Corinth — on the other side of the mountain. There he grew to manhood until he heard from the oracle at Delphi that he was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. In order to avoid this, he left home (as he imagined) right away — coming, of course, to Thebes, where (after killing an aggressor on the road) he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and thus became the hero of the city — where he was given the recently-widowed queen to be his wife. Of course the stranger on the road turns out to have been his father, and the queen his mother, and so he has fulfilled the prophecy despite every attempt to avoid it. Because of the ritual pollution of these transgressions — not dependent on his intention at all — a plague comes upon the city. This is where the situation stands when the story opens — though nobody yet knows the reasons for the plague.

Bronze bust of Sophocles
The poet Sophocles; ancient Bronze. London, British Museum. Photograph © copyright 2007, Bruce A. McMenomy

Antigone (that’s four syllables, as it’s usually pronounced in English — an-TI-go-nee) is more of a problem play, but one that is perpetually timely, it seems: it asks, "What are the legitimate claims of the state over against the claims of one’s private conscience and duties to the gods?" Sophocles seems to have a fairly clear understanding of the problem, and the work has been received with renewed interest in every generation.

Consider these questions for discussion:

  1. What is the source of Oedipus’ guilt? Could he have avoided it? Is he really guilty?
  2. Oedipus was ultimately considered a hero of the Greek world. What does this say about the Greek concept of the hero?
  3. Aristotle talks about a few things in relation to tragedy: look up the meaning of the term hubris. He also claims that the very center of the tragedy is the moment of anagnorisis — recognition, or the point where it all becomes clear. Is this true here? Is it true of the Aeschylus you read? How universally applicable does this theory seem to be?
  4. How does the author use dramatic irony and verbal irony to reinforce each other? (Dramatic irony is irony arising from the intrinsic contradictions of the situation; verbal irony is rather in the ambiguous or insincere use of words.)
  5. What are Antigone’s choices? Do you see similar issues of conscience facing people today?