Monday, February 12, 2007

Week 04, Sophocles' Oedipus the King

Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater

Good Books I’ve Come Across:

Easterling, P.E. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy.

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1991.

McLeish, Kenneth. A Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 2003.
Pomeroy, Sarah. Et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Religious Roots of Tragedy: The Festivals of Dionysus at Athens were called the City Dionysia, which was held in March or April, and the Lenaea, which was held in January. Though classical theater flourished mainly from 475-400 BCE, it developed earlier from choral religious ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus.

The God of Honor: Dionysus was an Olympian god, and the Greeks celebrated his rites in the dithyramb. In mythology, his followers were satyrs and mainades, or ecstatic females. We sometimes call him the god of ecstasy, and as Kenneth McLeish says, he “supervis[ed] the moment when human beings surrender to unstoppable, irrational feeling or impulse” (1-2). His agents are wine, song, and dance. Song and dance were important to Dionysian rites, and the participants apparently wore masks.

At the festivals, three tragic writers would compete and so would three or five comedic playwrights. The idea was that each tragedian would present three plays and a satyr play; sometimes the three plays were linked in a trilogy, like The Oresteia. So the audience had a great deal of play going to do during the festival seasons; the activities may have gone on for three or four days, with perhaps four or five plays per day. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides something like this pace.

Organization: How were the festivals organized? Well, the magistrate was chosen every year by lot – the archon. Then, dramatists would apply to the magistrate for a chorus, and if they obtained a chorus, that meant that they had been chosen as one of the three tragic playwrights. After that affair was settled, wealthy private citizens known as choregoi served as producers for each playwright. The state paid for the actors, and the choregos paid chorus’ training and costumes. So there was both state and private involvement in the production of a tragedy or comedy.

The Playwrights: Aeschylus 525-456 B.C. / Sophocles 496-406 B.C. / Euripides 485-406 B.C.
Aeschylus composed about 80 dramas, Sophocles about 120, Euripides perhaps about 90. Aristophanes probably wrote about 40 comedies. Dramatists who wrote tragedies did not compose comedies, and vice versa.

The playwright was called a didaskalos, a teacher or trainer because he trained the chorus who were to sing and dance. As drama developed, the playwright also took care of the scripts and the music. He was something like a modern director, and may at times have acted in his own plays, especially in the early stages of his career. A successful dramatist could win prizes, but generally, playwrights were able to support themselves independently by land-holdings. Sophocles, for example, was a prominent citizen – he served as a general and treasurer. Aeschylus was an esteemed soldier against the Persian Empire, and his tombstone is said to have recorded his military service, not his prowess as a playwright.

The Theater: The theater for the City Dionysia was located on the south slope of the citadel of Athens, the Acropolis. The Didaskalia Classics site offers 3-D images of a later reconstruction:

The theater had three parts:

Theatron: this was for seating around 14,000 spectators; it was probably at first of wood, but later it was of stone.

Orchestra: this was for the chorus to sing and dance in and for the actors, when their function was developed.

Skene: this was at first a tent-like structure that served as a scene-building, and it had a door for entrances and exits. The Oresteia requires one, though perhaps the earliest plays didn’t.
Costume was important, too, because it could be used to determine factors like status, gender, and age.

The chorus remained important in drama, especially in Aeschylus. At some point, a choregos (legend says it was “Thespis,” hence actors are “thespians”) stepped forth and became the first actor, or answerer (hypocrites). So the composer was the first participant to turn choral celebration into what we call drama, with a plot and interaction between characters. Apparently Aeschylus or Sophocles added a third actor. The former’s early plays required only two actors, but even that was enough to make for interesting exchanges between the chorus and the actors and, to some extent, between the actors and each other. With three actors, of course, the possibilities for true dramatic dialogue and action are impressive.

Audience: Would have consisted mostly of male citizens -- the ones who ran Athenian democracy by participating in the Assembly. There would probably have been very few, if any, slaves or women present, and perhaps some resident aliens or “metics” and visiting dignitaries. Drama was surely a male-centered affair, as was the political life of Athens. Public speaking was vital in democratic Athens -- anyone who was someone in the legal/political system needed to know how to move and convince fairly large numbers of men. Theater and political life, as we shall see from Aeschylus, were in fact closely connected: the same skills were required, and the same class of people participated (male kyrioi, or heads of households who also performed military service). So while the stuff of tragedy seems almost always to have been the ancient myth cycles, the audience watching the plays would have felt themselves drawn in by the dramatists’ updating of their significance for the major concerns of the 5th-century B.C. present. And that present was, of course, the age of the great statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.), who drove home the movement towards full Athenian democracy from 461 B.C. onwards and who at the same time furthered a disastrous course of imperial protection and aggression that had ensued from victory in the Persian Wars around 500 B.C. Greek tragedy grew to maturity in the period extending from the battles of Marathon on land in 490 B.C. and the naval engagement at Salamis in 480 B.C., on through the Second Peloponnesian War from 431-404 B.C., in which the Athenians lost to Sparta the empire they had gained during half a century of glory following the victories over Persia. Athens’ supremacy didn’t last long as such things go, but it burned brightly while it lasted, and festival drama, along with architecture, sculpture, and philosophy, was among its greatest accomplishments. So the dramas took place in one of the most exciting times in Western history – both heady and unsettling at the same time, shot through with violence, democratic and artistic flowering, victory, and great loss.

Tragic Masks: The masks tell us something about tragedy: with linen or clay masks, a single actor might play several roles, or wear several faces of the same character. Wilde said, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” His quip should remind us that masks don’t discourage expression -- as Kenneth McLeish says, they had religious significance in the theater: participants in Dionysian rites offered up their personal identity to the god, and further, he continues:

“Wearing a mask does not inhibit or restrict the portrayal of character but enhances it, allowing more, not less, fluidity and suppleness of movement; and the character created by or embodied in the mask and the actor who wears it can feel as if it has an independent identity which is liberated at the moment of performance – an unsettlingly Dionysian experience” (9).
That emphasis on what we might call expression is important especially because – Aristotle’s claims about plot being the soul of tragedy notwithstanding – not much happens in many Greek tragedies. Instead, chorus members and characters “take up an attitude” towards the few well-packaged, exciting events that take place on or off the stage. The action is important, but the characters’ words and attitudes help us, in turn, gain perspective on the action. Perhaps when Aristotle emphasizes plot so much, he’s taking for granted the great power of the Dionysian mask to support the plot in driving the audience towards catharsis. Character, he says, will reveal itself in relation to the play’s action.

Aristotle’s theory of drama – we didn’t cover this much in our class, but if you would like to read something about it, please see my Fall 2005 E491 Literary Theory blog (, where (in the entry for Week 3) I cover The Poetics in some detail. In Aristotle’s view, a well constructed plot that follows probability and necessity will induce the proper tragic emotions (pity and fear or terror), with the result being “catharsis,” a medical term that may be interpreted as “purgation” (of emotion) and/or as “intellectual clarification.” I should think that the tragic emotions, once aroused, become the object of introspection; thereafter, the audience attains clarification about an issue of great importance – for instance, our relation to the gods, the nature of divine justice, etc.

Oedipus the King

The play is successful because it is perfectly constructed along the lines of probability and necessity -- everything happens like clockwork. Also there’s a kind of tunnel-vision; we know the story and so aren’t in full suspense, but the characters are limited in knowledge -- I mean that at the beginning, Oedipus is handed a very narrow mandate to find out why the city is suffering from a plague. That’s all he knows. Then he learns that it’s because of Laius’ murder. Only later does he find out that he is the cause of it all. Well, that’s the human condition -- we tend to learn things either on the “just in time” system or the “too damned late” system. Here Oedipus’ greatest gift from the gods is the very thing that gets him in trouble with the gods and his people. Connect the issue of intelligence as a human virtue with Prometheus Bound--Prometheus gave humans all the arts they practice, and he stands for the principle of forethought, the ability to take care for one’s course of action and its consequences. But it’s ironic that he can’t help himself, and that even excellent people like Oedipus are so blinkered when it comes to “getting the big picture” and knowing the consequences of their actions. We have intelligence, but it doesn’t go very far and certainly doesn’t embrace the totality of factors we would need to stay out of trouble.

Reputation is everything. Oedipus is called upon to defend his own status as “first of men.” He must match his initial glory in dealing with the Sphinx. It was his quick intelligence and fearlessness that got him through that trial and saved the whole city then; now he must repeat the feat and show the same combination of qualities.

65ff. The Chorus (i.e. “The People”) ask the usual question – “what have you done for us lately?” They demand most of all that Oedipus “be the same” man they’ve always known. What taller order could they lay upon Oedipus? The Chorus apparently believe we can be free of the Sphinx and her question – “what goes on four legs, then on two legs, and finally on three?” Well, that’s a good reason why Oedipus shouldn’t pay attention to the polls, so to speak: I doubt that we can ever really be free of the Sphinx, her question, or the answer. I mean that this monster who propounds the “riddle of man” would have to be invented if she didn’t exist: perhaps her function is to put this riddle before us in the most compelling of circumstances (occupy yourself with the simple answer or die) to keep us from taking ourselves as a deeper object of contemplation. Sophocles’ play – by means of Oedipus’ drive to solve the mystery of Laius’ murder -- poses that we contemplate the question at greater length, to our cost as well as to the cost of the tragic hero. As Wilde would suggest, it’s dangerous to remain at the surface, and just as dangerous to delve beneath it.

245ff. Oedipus promises to fulfill the prayers his citizens have addressed to the gods. He considers that learning the truth and taking right action will set matters right. In a sense, they will.

340-526. As for the Oedipus/Tiresias exchange -- the king interprets what he hears as a political conspiracy. He thinks in political terms, and mocks prophecy, saying that reason alone overcame the Sphinx. In essence, Oedipus considers the prophetic function of religion as “politics continued by other means.” The two men argue over the value of prophecy versus intellectual effort -- fundamentally, Tiresias says our knowledge comes from the gods; they tell us what they want us to know, and that ought to be good enough for us. Tiresias won’t adopt Oedipus’ model of inquiry – the prophet sees with Apollo’s eyes, but for that very reason he would prefer to withhold much of what he knows (388).

573-750. Creon and Oedipus square off – Creon sees little value in wielding direct political power. He would just as well enjoy his power as member of the royal family, without taking on the burdens that go with the ceremony and pomp of actual kingship. On the whole, Creon finds Oedipus an outrageous man – rash, importunate, intolerant and stubborn, even to the point of brutality.

751-953. Oedipus admits that he has been running from the fate Apollo predicted for him, only to arrive at the three-forked road where he killed a man. Oedipus now knows (or rather strongly suspects, since the old witness has said thieves were responsible, not just one man) he is the man who has killed Laius, so he must be exiled -- but he does not yet know that his is Laius’ son and that Jocasta is his mother; he thinks that fulfillment of the prophecy still lies in the future.

954-97. The Chorus begin to think that the oracle may have been worthless, and one need have no reverence for the gods. They seem inconsistent, buffeted by events. Their world view begins to crumble when the supremacy and consistency of the gods is called into question.

998-1182. The irony here is that while the Messenger reveals that Polybus is dead (and so Oedipus now thinks he can’t have killed his father, so his faith in the power of intellect is as yet intact), he also reveals that Oedipus’ father is not Polybus, and explains the details of Oedipus’ discovery in the hills. Now the old Herdsman tasked with doing away with the infant Oedipus is called to court. The royal couple had hoped that chance ruled the universe, but the Corinthian Messenger will be the final blow to Jocasta’s “randomness” theory. Oedipus wrongly thinks Jocasta is simply upset about having married a man of base origins, but now she, at least, knows the awful truth.

Sophocles is very economical in his plot constructions – it turns out that the Corinthian Messenger who brings such terrible news to Oedipus is the same man who received the infant Oedipus from the Shepherd who ends up acquainting the hero with the final truth about his origins and subsequent taboo-shattering career. Incidentally, it’s worth remarking that the Theban Shepherd’s finest quality – his compassion for a poor outcast infant – is turned into a vehicle of tragedy.

The end of the play: self-blinding and exile. Oedipus blinds himself – I have never heard of an actual case of this sort. Many people have killed themselves, but has anyone ever blinded him or herself? Oedipus has apparently committed yet a third crime against nature. How he does this is revealing – he blinds himself with the pins that had kept Jocasta elegantly clothed. This act rejects the “cover story” of civilization (as symbolized by dress), and confronts squarely the naked truth. Oedipus rejects the world and all its sights because seeing can give him no further joy. We, too – because we hear and do not see the terrible event – are blinded for a time, and are made to imagine and interpret Oedipus’ primal and unnatural violence from a certain aesthetic distance. What has been gained? Oedipus becomes an object of contemplation for himself and for us. Now that he can look nowhere but inward, he will be able to bring home to us not joy or comfort, but ultimate knowledge about the relationship between the human and the divine. What the Greeks seem to value most is strength and clarity, not pleasure. If the gods bless the uncanny and the irrational – if they play dice with the universe –this fact must become an object of contemplation for the human intellect. This compulsion is one of the things that Nietzsche analyzes so well in Greek thought and culture: there isn’t a sustainable opposition between reason and unreason, the Apollinian and the Dionysian. Even Oedipus, the Man of Reason, must face the fact.

Oedipus at Colonus.

A comparison to Shakespeare’s King Lear is instructive. If you have read that play, you will remember that in order to go off and practice the art of dying, King Lear foolishly decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. That was not so much his mistake – rather, the mistake is that he wants to keep the name of authority while giving away the responsibility of exercising it. You cannot separate symbol and ceremony from the actual exercise of power; these things must work together, however difficult that achievement may be. In any case, Lear loses his kingdom and is driven out into the storm to rage in his reduced circumstances, and Cordelia’s husband the king of France invades England to rescue Lear, but it is too late to save the King and Cordelia herself ends up dead. The play charts two developments: Lear’s loss of power and his gaining of insight; the problem is that the two processes operate inversely – you can either have power or insight. By the time you gain insight, you cannot do anything in the real world. Lear claims that he and Cordelia will become god’s spies, and speaks eloquently to that effect, but this prophetic rhetoric may be only his own internal reckoning; it is not certain precisely what compensation this amounts to. And by the end of the play, no one really wants the kingdom, so it isn’t certain that the social order has been upheld by King Lear’s personal tragedy.

Oedipus gains insight into his relationship to the gods, but the process of gaining insight is accompanied by, in fact preceded by, a loss of ability to do anything in the political and social world. There is some difference, perhaps, since we have more certainty about the nature of the insight he has gained, and Oedipus remains important to his native Thebes. Moreover, Duke Theseus learns what he needs to know for the welfare and continuity of Athens: Oedipus’ grave will be the site at which the Athenians will defeat an invading Theban army.

What Oedipus learns, however, is not exactly the stuff of Machiavellian political science; the knowledge or insight passed along to him is mysterious, a matter of communion with the gods. Neither is it a matter of “redemption” in the Christian sense -- we are dealing, as Rene Girard would say, with the logic of sacrifice in which individual or dynastic cyclical violence is transformed into unified violence directed at one object.

Oedipus gets some comfort from the gods, though it’s hardly of a sort to puff up humanity about its place in the cosmos. Usually, the gods are nowhere to be found in Sophocles -- he and Bergman would agree in that sense: “God’s silence” is a recurring theme. That is why people sometimes say Sophocles is a true exponent of the Greek enlightenment – whereas Aeschylus seems largely to have accepted Greek mythology as a framework for understanding life, and Euripides is usually described as rather skeptical about the whole scheme, Sophocles is in between. He does not dismiss the old ideas, but does not deal with them naïvely either. As with Ingmar Bergman (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light), the relationship between humanity and the gods is still an important consideration, but not necessarily a matter for simple reaffirmation or outright denial. In Nietzsche’s interpretation in Birth of Tragedy, this play realizes the perfection of passive suffering, while the Greeks usually place a premium on action.

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