I don’t know the whereabouts of my copy of Pascal’s Pensées. I imagine it’s lying somewhere in one of my parents’ spare bedrooms, its tricky French languishing there unread, awaiting the time when I discover the urge to locate and read it once again. I won’t pretend. I’ve never spent much time on Pascal. But he’s still a figure who interests me (I have a large soft spot for any good pre-enlightenment philosophe), and I remember reading a particularly interesting and lucid exposition of his famous ‘wager’ in a book by the philosopher John Cottingham.
Pascal’s wager was a topic that came straight to mind early this morning, in one of my A level Classical Civilisation classes. We are currently reading Euripides’ Bacchae, the famous play in which the king of Thebes, Pentheus, refuses to recognise or honour the god Dionysus, despite warnings that he must do so from all and sundry around him. The result of Pentheus’ failure to recognise the god is dreadful: he is brutally dismembered by the worshippers of Dionysus (a troupe of women known as maenads). Before this terrible fate unfolds, Pentheus unwittingly rejects an opportunity to avoid this terrible conclusion, by dismissing the arguments of some of the wise old men of his city – Kadmos and Tiresias.
The arguments of both old men are interesting, but that of Kadmos particularly caught my eye today. Doubtless I haven’t been paying enough attention to the text of the Bacchae when I’ve read it in the past, but I didn’t before realise that right there, in Euripides’ text, is a clear intellectual antecedent of Pascal’s wager itself, placed on the lips of wise old Kadmos.
‘My boy’, says Kadmos, addressing Pentheus, who has already shown himself to be an individual who is going to be difficult to help. ‘Live as we [i.e. Kadmos and Tiresias] do, and not beyond the order of the laws’. ‘Even if this is not the god’, he continues, ‘consider him a god and call him such!’. Kadmos proceeds to warn Pentheus that failing to worship the god could result in a terrible fate, similar to that of Actaion, the hero of Greek myth, who is torn to shreds by dogs. Pentheus is not persuaded.
There is a clear parallel here with Pascal, whose most famous argument (very loosely) is that individuals have very little to lose by believing in and worshipping God (and much, potentially, to gain) – whereas there is much, potentially, to lose by not believing in him (i.e. for Pascal, eternal damnation), and very little to gain…therefore you should believe in him! (A proper and thorough explanation of this wager is offered here for anyone dissatisfied with my cursory description).
Anyway, I found myself feeling surprised by Euripides’ prescience – though maybe I shouldn’t have been. At least one internet encyclopedia of philosophy comments that Pascal’s wager is anticipated in Euripides’ Bacchae – so I certainly can’t claim any great insight in noticing the connection. Nonetheless, I find it a bit strange that some of the most eminent commentators on the text – Dodds, Segal – don’t comment at all on what seems to me a quite remarkable argument (‘worship someone to avoid something terrible – and don’t worry too much if they’re not in fact a god after all!’).
Reading around this topic a little this evening, I am now particularly struck by Eric Csapo’s observation that the whole of the Bacchae, as a play, has occasionally been seen as evidence of a kind of deathbed conversion on the part of Euripides. Euripides is a poet who has often been seen as decidedly anti-theistic. By contrast the Bacchae itself, says Csapo, has been seen as a ‘last cynical Pascal’s wager’ on the part of the poet, particularly on account of its vivid portrayal of the terrible fate that may await an individual like Pentheus who refuses to honour or recognise the gods.
I suppose the lesson of my encounter with the Bacchae today might be summed up like this: there are always new things to discover in ancient texts; or, rather, there are new old things to discover in ancient texts, and unexpected connections to notice too.
I am left to wonder whether Pascal may in fact have read Euripides. This is a question whose answer I haven’t yet been able to find.
Like so many figures in Greek mythology, Oedipus has been the subject of numerous works of art down the centuries. In this post I’ve collected together a few examples of depictions of Oedipus that I find interesting as part of my ongoing project to keep the experience of reading Sophocles’ play fresh for me after five straight years of doing so.
An immediate thought about bringing these pieces together is that this isn’t the sort of collection one would expect to see in a typical display in a gallery or museum. Museums and galleries (at least in my experience) tend to group artwork by period or by artist. Thematic organisation – the tracing of depictions of a famous mythological figure, such as Oedipus, over time – is not something I’ve really seen very often. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention: in any case, for me as a student of history interested in the longue durée, this is a nice way to approach art history.
My first piece is taken from ancient Greece. It is an Attic kylix (Attica being the land around Athens; Kylix being a type of wine-drinking cup) which was produced around 470 BC. It can be seen today on display in the Gregorian Etruscan museum in Vatican City. In this scene, Oedipus is addressing the Sphinx, the mythical being – half-human and half-lion, who blocks the road to Thebes, refusing to allow anyone to pass unless they can solve its riddle. Oedipus – uniquely – manages to solve the riddle: as a consequence, the sphinx (dramatically) kills itself. One thing I like about the scene depicted here is Oedipus’ contemplative pose: his hand is on his chin, his legs crossed. The sphinx, meanwhile, is in a sense unreadable: he has no eyes! He also stands high over Oedipus, on top of a column, but of course his supremacy will not last. Contemplative Oedipus – who certainly doesn’t look like any kind of aggressor or dethroner in this scene – will emerge triumphant over the sphinx in due course.
There have been many artistic depictions of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx. Perhaps the most famous is a painting by the French symbolist Gustave Moreau. I happen to prefer this, by another Frenchman, Ingres. It’s a rich scene: the use of light and dark colour is obviously striking, and the narrowness of the pass into Thebes (which can be seen in the background) is clearly evident. Oedipus himself attracts the eye: he is quite young here, but strong, and his pose exudes confidence and boldness. He also looks like he has no trouble being matter-of-fact. He’s dealing here with a riddle you almost sense he can solve – and I think the rather perturbed expression on the face of the sphinx reflects this. What, meanwhile, is the reaction of Oedipus’ colleague in the background supposed to signify? Fright, in all likelihood: at the bottom of the picture, a skull and crossbones clearly show the unfortunate fate of those who fail to solve the sphinx’s riddle. This draws Oedipus’ phlegmatic daring all the more clearly into focus.
A quite different depiction of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx is presented by Fabre here. Here again Oedipus is strong and muscular, but this time he seems assertive rather than contemplative. He is also set more against the background of the wider (pleasantly rustic) landscape, high up in the mountains, with the city nowhere in sight. The body position of the sphinx makes it look almost ready to pounce on Oedipus, yet this sphinx seems somehow less imposing and menacing: its bodily dimensions aren’t as intimidating as they might be, and (for me) it doesn’t command the space of the painting in a way the sphinx of Ingres – from its dark corner – does.
Brodowski’s Oedipus and Antigone (above) depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Here Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, guides her father as he wanders around in exile outside his city. The dark clouds and dark rock in the background betoken the gloom that has descended upon Oedipus, but also the darkness that affects him personally: he is now blind. The pair look courageous and strong, despite Oedipus’ predicament. Other paintings of this scene depict Antigone looking lovingly at her father: here she is unabashedly leading the way, looking ahead (or to the side), perhaps, to see where they might go next. She, the daughter, is now the lead figure in their relationship.
In this quite different painting of Oedipus and Antigone from 1812, Eckersberg presents a more doting and concerned Antigone and a more elderly Oedipus who is visibly more frail. This Oedipus nonetheless shoulders the burden of carrying some heavy clothing on his back, while Antigone walks more freely, albeit while expending energy tending to her father. I love the bright colours in this scene, but also the way Eckersberg manages to capture the melancholy of both characters and the tenderness between them. On they go, in sadness, across the bridge.
My final Oedipus and Antigone conjures an altogether different impression. Here, in Jalabert’s painting, they walk together through the crowded and chaotic city streets. Antigone leans in toward Oedipus, as if for protection, while towering Oedipus stands strong and tall over the other figures they pass by. His dominant physique suggests his regal credentials and yet, of course, he is now blind and dependent on his daughter. Others – presumably aware that he is a cursed figure – pull away from him in seeming disgust, or, in the case of the woman depicted in the bottom right of the painting, stare at him forbiddingly while pointing toward him. This is a sobering reminder of how Oedipus, once the hero of his city, is now an outcast.
Gagneraux here presents another scene from Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, mourned by his distraught children, seems on the brink of death here. A number of others – a soldier, a beggar woman, a mother and child – loiter around the edges of the family, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in confusion. We see the city once more in the background, and the artist conveys with clarity how deeply loved Oedipus is by his family members.
Another French neoclassical painting with some very clear stylistic similarities to Gagneraux, Giroust’s Oedipus at Colonus depicts a similar scene of mourning. This time only Oedipus’ son Polynices and his daughters Ismene and Antigone attend to him in his distress, while he sits outside what looks like a temple. Polynices wants Oedipus to return to Thebes: he needs help to defeat his vengeful brother Eteocles, who has seized control of the city since his father’s departure. (Tragedy, alas, will mar the fortunes of both brothers, and indeed both sisters: it is not just Oedipus who will suffer).
From French neoclassicism, I turn now to this quite different piece by the surrealist Max Ernst, which was composed at a time when the work of Sigmund Freud (featuring the Oedipus complex) had caused the Oedipus story to be viewed in new and different light. An extended reading of what might be going on in the painting is offered here. Simpleton that I am, I find it baffling.
Continuing the Freudian (and surrealist) theme, here is Dali’s Oedipus Complex. This painting seems to be not so much about Sophocles’ Oedipus as it is about Freud. As with so many of Dali’s paintings, it’s difficult to figure out what is going on and I would be lying if I said I found it one of his most captivating pieces. I am tempted to speculate, though, that the large yellow object depicted at the top of the painting could be a depiction of the human brain, with holes signifying areas of unconsciousness. But I shouldn’t speculate, as I’m probably wrong.
Linda Mota’s terrifying contemporary piece marks a renewed focus on Sophocles’ Oedipus himself, here depicted in frightening agony. Blood streams down his face and his facial features are distorted, in a way that reminds me of the facial disfigurement experienced by the central protagonist of the film Vanilla Sky. This Oedipus seems almost trapped within the painting itself, stuck there in agony.
Finally, Alicia Besada’s recent Oedipus evokes the pity of Sophocles’ character. He cowers, shielding himself from the light, apparently naked. I particularly like the funky elements in his skin tone here, but also the way Besada offers a vision which is somewhat redolent of older depictions of Sophocles’ hero, which capture his sadness, desolation and misfortune.
So that’s it: my (very) brief and incomplete survey of Oedipus in art. Perhaps I should just add that I’m certainly no art historian – but I guess that will be obvious to anyone who has read this far.
One of Bernard Knox’s major suggestions in the opening chapter of Oedipus at Thebes (his major study which I have already begun to discuss in a previous post here) is that Sophocles’ Oedipus, despite being a king, seems to have a ‘democratic temper’. Knox explores this feature of Oedipus’ character, and indeed other ‘democratic’ features of Sophocles’ play, at length in his book’s second chapter.
He makes a rich and bold argument – which he establishes through close reading – to the effect that the tragic story of Oedipus the man resembles the tragic situation of Sophocles’ own contemporary Athens. The play itself, he suggests, is a tragic vision of Athenian splendour and vigour but also of the city’s inevitable military and political demise. Oedipus himself, moreover, is constructed as a character to embody the qualities – but also the limitations – of Athens itself.
In this post I am going to sketch the main outlines of Knox’s argument, before offering some suggestions of my own. Although I find it fascinating, I am not completely convinced by Knox’s argument that Oedipus as a character can somehow be said to embody in microcosm the Athenian cultural and political mindset.
Knox begins his discussion by focussing on the word ‘tyrannos’, which is used to describe Oedipus throughout the play. Why is Oedipus described as a tyrannos (tyrant) rather than a king (basileus)? One part of the answer here is that Oedipus emerges, over the course of the play, as a tyrannos.
Tyrannies were no longer a live political reality in fifth century Greece (when Sophocles wrote). Nevertheless, they were remembered by citizens of the Athenian democracy as a very bad thing. Indeed, to guard against the possible re-emergence of tyranny in the city, anyone seeking to restore tyranny to Athens itself was cursed in recitals of prayers in the city assembly (ecclesia).
The moment in the play where Oedipus’ credentials as tyrannos come most clearly to light, perhaps, is in the aftermath of his discovery of the terrible truth about himself, when the chorus comes to know him as tyrannos – someone they describe as a man of violence and pride’ (line 880). The chorus, previously supportive and even in awe of Oedipus, reaches this judgment on the basis that much that is new (to their ears) has just been revealed about him. That he had come to Thebes with blood on his hands; that he had killed at least one man of some importance; that his response is to say – with apparent pride: ‘I killed the whole lot of them’. Oedipus has revealed himself as having some of the characteristic hallmarks of a tyrannos: the citizens of mythical Thebes react negatively to these, just as the citizens of democratic Athens will doubtless have done too.
Knox notes, however, that there are plenty of good reasons for the chorus (and the audience) not to cast Oedipus as tyrannos: Oedipus doesn’t outrage his city’s women; he doesn’t break any ancestral laws; he doesn’t plunder from his people; he doesn’t distrust what is good and delight in what is bad; and he doesn’t live in fear of others around him. And, as already noted, he has a ‘democratic temper’! How, then, is this apparent contradiction to be resolved?
For some fifth century Athenians, it was possible to speak of the city of Athens itself as a tyranny. Pericles, as reported by Thucydides, gives voice to this very idea in his funeral speech: ‘we are called a democracy, but you call tyrannis to mind’. Other fifth century authors use this same language.
For Knox, this is the key to understanding the tensions within Oedipus’ own character in the play: he is just like Athens, a citizen body and political state in which elements of both democracy and tyranny – and the perception of each – co-exist.
Knox sees Sophocles, then, as writing ‘not historical but contemporary drama’. He points to the overlaps between (mythical) Thebes and (Sophocles’ contemporary) Athens in the play: common to both cities are their use of ships and their use of nautical language, common to both is the experience of plague, and there are important resemblances too between Oedipus and the figure of Pericles, the great Athenian leader.
But further than this, Knox suggests, the character of Oedipus and the character of Athens (in terms of its self-identity as a city) can be viewed as in essential harmony: ‘the character of Oedipus’, he writes, ‘is the character of the Athenian people’. A long list of parallels is enumerated: both Oedipus and Athens are busy and courageous (and pride themselves on both qualities); both take pride also in their powers of speedy decision making and their intelligence, their impatience and their confidence in discussion as a preparation for action. Both also have a keen nose for plots and conspiracies, for acting with confidence as good amateurs who can snuff out the pretensions and mistakes of ‘professionals’. Both are also capable of serious anger.
Knox fleshes out these parallels with reference to the writing of a range of fifth century Athenian authors. More specifically, he suggests that our literary portrayals of a range of leading Athenian citizens – Pericles, Cleon, Themistocles – also invite comparison with Sophocles’ Oedipus.
The final part of Knox’s argument that the play as a whole is an exemplification of Athenian values concerns the legal/legalistic investigation that Oedipus conducts as he interviews those around him in search of the cause of his city’s pollution. Athens, Knox observes, loved its legal institutions, traditions and arguments. In the perspective of some outsiders, Athens was a ‘city of lawcourts’. He goes on to enumerate a range of parallels between Athenian legal processes and those we see in Oedipus (the behaviour of boards of judges, Tiresias’ assertion of his right to a defence speech, Oedipus’ forensic tone, various procedural similarities, the treatment of witnesses etc.). There are indeed many parallels.
For me, Knox’s analysis in all of the above respects is both interesting, well done and convincing. However, for me, there is one major question mark that threatens his overall position. Just how thoroughgoing is Sophocles’ use of themes, character traits and political and legal parallels likely to have been? Was he really trying to create an Oedipus who stood to represent Athens? Or can this quite bold hypothesis be resisted simply by saying that Oedipus can indeed seem very Athenian in certain sections of the play, while pointing out that this – arguably – is pretty much inevitable. If Sophocles is going to depict Oedipus as a figure who will seem heroic in the eyes of his fifth century audience, how can he do this unless he presents an Oedipus whose heroism matches – in some degree – Athenians’ own ideas about heroism?
There is all the difference in the world, I think, between an Oedipus who is designed to appeal in various ways to Sophocles’ audience, and who indeed exemplifies some of the qualities that Athens itself took pride in – and an Oedipus who is the very personification of Athens itself. I am sceptical, then, with respect to the bolder part of Knox’s reading, even as I am impressed by the force of his analysis.
*The featured image is ‘Oedipus and Antigone’ by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
This year I find myself teaching one of the great plays of Greek theatre – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King – for the fifth year in a row for Classical Civilisation A level. Usually, teaching the same play 5 years in a row would not happen (unless one opted to do so beyond the syllabus): exam specs change frequently nowadays, and new texts are prescribed. However, Oedipus – uniquely – featured not just on the old (and much missed) AQA Class Civ A level spec for Greek theatre, but on the new OCR spec that all schools now follow. Arguably, this is no bad thing. If you were to pick a Greek play that all students should read and get to know, Oedipus would be a very good choice.
However, the fact is that now, after 5 years, I can feel myself starting to run out of steam a little with the play. Its brilliant dialogue no longer charms in quite the way it did before; its storyline doesn’t quite bewitch; and its characters don’t fascinate in the way they did a few years back. The dazzle of this great play – which it was once the highlight of my teaching week to explore with students – has dimmed a little.
Few surprises here, perhaps. You can’t expect the same level of freshness and enjoyment when you read a text – any text – time after time. At least, I can’t – and I’m surprised when others seem able to flout this (for me) cast iron law. At the same time, I’ve decided that it might be possible to do something about my fading fascination with Sophocles’ Oedipus by reading, and writing, something new about it. The current post is the first instalment of what I hope will be a short series of posts that will bear the fruit of my resolve to do just this.
For the enhancement of my appreciation of Oedipus, I am very much aware that there is no shortage of astute academic commentary available. There are some excellent pages on the play, for instance, in Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, a now classic treatment written in the 1980s, which I always ask pupils to read. And there is much that is compulsively readable in the work of the American critic Charles Segal and in the lively and punchy work of Edith Hall. However, one of my personal favourite writers on all things ancient Greek – Bernard Knox – also happens to be the author of a renowned book on Oedipus, first published in 1957, that I have never before read: it’s to this text that I’ve decided to turn to reinvigorate my enthusiasm.
What I’d like to offer in this post is a journey in my reading of the first chapter of Knox’s book on Oedipus. The chapter is called ‘Oedipus the Hero’ – hence the title of this post. Rather than (just) offering a dull summary of Knox’s argument in the chapter, I’m going to try to give something of a sense also of how reading the chapter – which is very far from dull – has contributed to my pre-existing understanding of the play (it has done so in several ways).
For Knox, Oedipus the hero is, above all, a many-sided, subtly complicated character: indeed, he is ‘surely the greatest single individual in all of Greek tragedy’, Knox thinks. (We may, perhaps, take this not just as a sober scholarly judgment, but as an existential claim on the part of Knox himself: for this reader, it seems likely that it is Oedipus, above all, who manages to speak to the depths of Knox the man).
Oedipus’ tragedy, as is well known, is that, owing to a cruel turn of events to which he is initially oblivious, he has managed to kill his own father and marry his own mother. Oedipus gradually uncovers this terrible reality over the course of the play through his quizzical intelligence and his forensic questioning of others around him. He needs to find out the truth because he needs to work out who – or what – has ‘polluted’ his city, Thebes, inflicting a plague on his fellow citizens. The answer, he discovers to his horror, is that it is he, Oedipus himself, the king of Thebes, who is responsible.
Oedipus’ unfortunate fate had long ago been predicted by a grim prophecy, of which he himself had been blissfully and tragically unaware. From birth, then, he had been fated to marry his mother and kill his father, in accordance with divine diktat. Cruel Apollo had foreordained that Oedipus would do this. So Oedipus himself is his city’s pollutant – and by killing his birth-father, whom he didn’t previously realise was his birth father, Oedipus has brought Thebes to its knees. Understandably, he struggles when confronted with his new reality when he realises the truth. And he resorts to extreme self-harm – blinding himself, before leaving the city (distraught, dethroned, alone) at the end of the play.
In what does Knox think Oedipus’ greatness – his heroism – lie? In a number of things.
On one level, Oedipus embodies something of a contradiction: he is at the same time a monarch, a ruler and a despot: the solitary tyrannos in overall control of his city. It is he who makes the law, who dictates state affairs and who – single-handedly – leads the search to find the solution to his city’s plague. At the same time, he is a monarch with identifiable democratic instincts – a ‘democratic temper’, as Knox puts it. He wants what is best for his city, for his fellow citizens. He identifies with their suffering and is driven by a clear sense of public duty and public spirit. His incessant questioning in order to find a solution to the problem which confronts him is part of who he is, certainly: a self made man of action, as Knox emphasises. Self-made because he has won his kingship by freeing his city from a curse; a man of action because he is so restless to get things done. But Oedipus is certainly also motivated by unselfish instincts. And this part of his identity is very much in keeping with the spirit of fifth century democratic Athens – where Sophocles wrote, and where the play was first performed.
This much was already clear to me from my previous readings of the play. Knox, however, adds some further shrewd observations which have helped to enlarge my field of vision.
Oedipus is ‘quick’ (tachys): this is a word Sophocles repeatedly uses to describe him throughout the play. Quick in the sense of his intellectual agility, quick in the sense of being in a hurry (he is in a rush to make things better), and quick in the sense of being quick-tempered with people who stall his progress. Indeed, he hates others’ slowness.
He is also fiercely intelligent: he dismisses both Tiresias the blind prophet and his own royal relation Creon as ‘stupid’ (moros) when they don’t answer his questions to his satisfaction. And he trusts his own intellect deeply. He is a forensic cross-examiner, someone who sees himself as a reasoner who can ‘beat the professionals’ (the professional in this case being Tiresias the professional prophet).
Some of these points of detail, for me, represent slightly new slants on what I had already perceived about Oedipus’ relentless questioning and his impatience with others.
Knox also offers a careful appraisal of what we might label Oedipus’ ‘tragic flaw’ (in Aristotle’s terms, his hamartia) as a character. This lies not, Knox thinks, in Oedipus’ sense of responsibility to his people, or his energy, or his anger, or in his refusal to follow his wife/mother Jocasta’s advice not to press further in his questioning. (All of these are important features of his character, but no single one of them trumps the others). Instead, Knox says, Oedipus’ actions which produce catastrophe stem from all sides of his character. The catastrophe of Oedipus is the catastrophe of the total man, and – here’s the rub – the total man is more good than bad.
That, Knox proposes, is Sophocles’ counter-intuitive proposition for his audience: a hero whose whole character is tragically flawed is nevertheless more good than bad. I hadn’t really thought to construe the character of Oedipus – or his flaw(s) in this way before. Nonetheless, I find myself feeling that Knox manages to crystallise and articulate explicitly my somewhat more inchoate understanding here: I agree with him.
Knox’s most interesting proposal, however (and here again he forces me to flesh out my understanding), is that Sophocles’ handling of the story of Oedipus needs to be set firmly within the context of religious questioning and debate in fifth century Athens. It was in fifth century Athens that the whole idea of religious prophecy had been laid open to radical question – undermined, doubted and rejected from a variety of angles. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, the playwright Euripides, the philosopher Protagoras: all of these impressive intellectual figures, and many more like them, had set out their stall against the chicanery and superstition they identified in prophecy, and against the ‘cynical excesses of professional prophets’ (many of whom had gained a reputation as money-grubbing charlatans desperately trying to augur their way to a quick buck).
Within this climate of cool, dispassionate fifth century rationalism, Sophocles comes down for prophecy (and not just for prophecy, says Knox, but, by implication, for the whole traditional religious worldview of which prophecy can be taken as an instantiation). Tiresias, the strange and mystical prophet, is shown by Sophocles to be radically right in his dealing with Oedipus, while Oedipus the arch-rationalist with political power on his side is revealed to be radically in error.
The man who rejected prophecy, Knox says, is the living demonstration of its truth: the rationalist at his most intelligent and courageous is the unconscious proof of divine prescience. This reversal is fully realised when, before he discovers his identity, Oedipus rejects Jocasta’s claim that ‘man must live by chance’. After having made his shattering discovery, however, he comes full circle, proclaiming himself a ‘son of chance’. Chance stands here to indicate the absence of human control over ultimate reality, rather than mere randomness, I think.
Knox also makes the perceptive point that the story of Oedipus would be – frankly – uninteresting and untragic if Oedipus were simply a bad man. The fact that he is a good, rational man is what makes his character and his experience so compelling. Indeed, in one sense, Oedipus is not really at fault at all: he learns his ignorance (and is determined to learn it, as the good rationalist should), even as – by doing so – he comes to appreciate the reality of divine prescience and the existence of an order beyond his understanding. The importance of learning to know what you don’t know: this, admittedly, is a doctrine that also has good fifth century Athenian credentials in the teaching of Socrates.
At any rate, Knox’s big claim is that Oedipus’ discovery of his identity is both a catastrophic defeat (for him personally, but also for his determinedly rational worldview), and also – paradoxically – a great victory. This, then, is what makes him such a complex and great hero. I’ve found it difficult not to sympathise with these arguments – and I sense already that my enthusiasm for the play is beginning to be rekindled.
Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.
The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.
The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?
Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.
Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure. All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.
In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:
‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.
And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.
In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.
For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have
‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.
Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.
Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.
And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.
Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.
These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?
It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.
Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.
the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.
School holidays during the lead-up to summer exams are an interesting time for British teenagers. For the canny teenager, these holidays are a chance to stay productive and focussed on exam revision while enjoying a break away from school. Even for pupils without onerous GCSE or A-level exams to face, the task of putting in good performances in the summer exam room, either with a view to impressing universities they intend to apply to later on, or simply in order to consolidate a year’s work ahead of their GCSEs, tends to be seen as a vital one.
This being the case, I did not expect much interest when I advertised a trip to see the performance of two Greek plays during the June half-term break last term. Maybe, however, I had underestimated two significant factors. First, the Greek plays in question were going to be staged in a very special location: beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford University, outdoors in the beautiful gardens of one of its colleges. Second, the headline character of one of the plays – Oedipus, as depicted by one of Greek theatre’s most brilliant playwrights (Sophocles), is among the most famous and fascinating characters in all Greek tragedy. Perhaps, though, another factor more elegantly explains the attractiveness of the trip: the tickets were refreshingly affordable!
At any rate, as you can see above, there was sufficient interest in the trip for it to go ahead, and what an evening’s entertainment we enjoyed. The encounter with Oedipus – in the lesser known sequel to Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus – was striking and memorable, played as he was by a talented North American student actor who was supported by an excellent cast. The idiosyncratic historian Robin Lane Fox has an interesting review of the play’s performance here, in which (among other things) he wonders how the lead character of the play could ‘strike a chord with readers of the Financial Times’. This was not, I have to say, a question I had in my own mind as I watched, and reflected on, the play…
Closer to my own thoughts was the happy knowledge that for all the pupils who came on the trip, it was their first taste of Greek tragedy in the flesh, and their first (though hopefully not their last) encounter with the story of Oedipus. As a new school year is about to begin, and the cycle toward a fresh batch of summer exams begins to churn into motion, I am struck by the feeling that, although their summer exam performance would probably not have stood to benefit whatsoever by going on this trip, the ‘real’ education of the students who came really did benefit in a way no day spent revising could ever have paralleled.