Athenian Drama, Attic Salt

Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater

by Bernard Knox
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 378 pp., $20.00

Greek tragedy is a perfect subject for wild theorists. Its origins, for scholars today as for near contemporaries like Aristotle, were, and remain, shrouded in Dionysian ambiguities, mostly of a ritual nature. Fertility ceremonies, some more embarrassingly ithyphallic than others, lurk offstage. With the exception of one or two early ventures into recent history—Aeschylus’s Persians, Phrynichus’s Capture of Miletus—tragedy took its plots exclusively from myth. Direct propaganda, as Phrynichus found to his cost, invited political harassment, whereas a well-handled myth could put the same point across with equal or greater force, and pose a general moral at the same time. But if this practice was designed, in the first instance, to present man’s tragic dilemmas sub specie aeternitatis, it has also given modern academic critics a free hand to reinterpret Attic drama through the refracting lens of their favorite disciplines.

New critics have cut the texts loose from their social and historical background; Jungians have hunted through them for archetypes. Lévi-Straussian structuralists have extrapolated ethnological codes from them, and post-Freudian psychoanalysts examined their characters for everything from narcissism to mother-fixation. The study of dramatic language and metaphor has never looked quite the same since the impact of Saussure, Jakobson, and Derrida on classical linguistics. Some scholars have even combined two or more of these disciplines: we now, for instance, have a flourishing sub-group, dominated by Jacques Lacan, which pursues structuralist psychoanalysis. Anyone who, like Bernard Knox, is in the business of studying Greek tragedy today must deal with these influential new approaches.

The fatal, and prevalent, temptation is to take up an extremist position: either to surf on the crest of a nouvelle vague, or to dismiss the entire phenomenon as pretentious obscurantism. What is needed is someone with the learning and sureness of judgment to see what is fresh and interesting in such new speculations, plus enough sense of proportion to know when the emperor is not wearing his clothes, and to have no qualms about saying so. On the strength of Word and Action, the collected essays of a quarter-century devoted largely to Greek drama, together with his enormously influential Sophoclean studies Oedipus at Thebes (1957) and The Heroic Temper (1964), it seems clear to me that Knox has superbly met this need. (The award of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism—a unique honor for a classical scholar—suggests that I am by no means alone in this belief.) The clarity, common sense, wit, and style that stamp every paragraph of Knox’s prose are, to put it mildly, not prominent in the work of many of his colleagues.

I can think of no other field in classical studies where speculation is so indifferent to such hard evidence as exists. Indifference is particularly evident in the analysis of character, where most scholars seem to think of themselves as novelists manqués, with the result that they come up with diametrically opposite conclusions while claiming to follow strict Aristotelian criteria. In …

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