• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Obsessed with Scapegoats and Outcasts

Oedipus Rex

by Sophocles, translated from the Greek with an introduction and notes by David Mulroy
University of Wisconsin Press, 109 pp., $9.95 (paper)


With the possible exception of Homer, no cultural phenomenon from the ancient world has had a more widespread or persistent impact on subsequent generations, from Aristotle’s day to our own, than Greek tragedy. It developed primarily in Athens, in the late sixth century BCE, and, as is generally agreed, reached its peak there during the Periclean Age, with the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and, above all, Sophocles. The plays they wrote are still performed today. Many of the problems they confronted are those of our common humanity—love, hatred, jealousy, the stresses of war, conflicting social codes—and remain as urgent now as they were when first staged. Just how urgent, and relevant, is strikingly demonstrated by the wide-ranging essays in a recent special double issue of Comparative Drama (Winter–Spring 2010), not least those, like Eleftheria Ioannidou’s and Gonda Van Steen’s, that see the passions and politics of ancient Athens renewed in the work of modern Greek dramatists.

Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808

But the problems facing their ancestors could, and can, also be difficult and deceptive. Our Western world, permeated by two millennia of Judeo-Christian religious and moral assumptions, makes it a perilous business to try to understand where Greeks then stood on many crucial issues, let alone why. Their heavily anthropomorphized gods had no more moral standards, in our sense, than those primeval tribal elders and aristocratic young studs on whom they were so clearly modeled: powerful and immortal, they followed their own pleasures and whims (though apparently subject, in some sense, to Fate and Necessity), and tended to be actively malign when crossed. Humans learned to petition them for benefits, flatter them hopefully, and otherwise keep well out of their way. Homer—often described, ironically, as “the Bible of the Greeks”—offered a guidebook to what had been regarded as desirable Bronze Age human upper-class behavior: on the battlefield, in society, and when dealing with a pantheon of deities who, all too often, meddled spitefully in the affairs of mortals.

But from before the time of the Persian Wars (490–479 BCE), and increasingly thereafter, this archaic worldview—in essence a legacy from the Mycenaean Era—had come under persistent attack from a new generation of rationalizing Ionian thinkers. Hecataeus of Miletus dismissed many Hellenic myths (which, incidentally, were to provide Greek tragedy with almost all its characters and themes) as absurd. Xenophanes of Colophon attacked both Homer and Hesiod for portraying the gods as acting in ways that would be morally discreditable in human beings, and also pointed out that, just as the gods of the Thracians had red hair and blue eyes, so horses, if they could draw, would delineate their gods as horses. Later, Protagoras of Abdera, a friend of Pericles and an open religious agnostic, famously declared that man was the measure of all things. The validity of oracles became a much-debated fifth-century topic, as did the anti-Olympian myth of Prometheus defying the gods in the name of human progress.

The predictable result was an acute crisis of belief that not only pitted old against young, radical sophist against pious conservative, and the individual against society, but also split the individual’s own inner certainties. For many, while head pursued inexorable reason, heart clung to the comforts of traditional faith. This atmosphere of divided and conflicting loyalties found a perfect outlet for formal debate in the still-evolving genre of drama. Both sides were represented. While Aristophanes satirized the new thinking in The Clouds, Sophocles’ Antigone spoke up for the rights of an individual against Creon’s official trust in authoritarian law and order. In the words of Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall, tragedy, flourishing at this precise historical juncture,

could be put in the crudest terms as the clash between a Homeric world of mythic norms and a civic world of legal norms…. Tragedy thus becomes a key way of viewing the tensions and ambiguities within fifth-century democratic ideology. In this way, tragedy is recouped for history.1

Till very recently, from Aristotle’s Poetics to Bernard Knox’s seminal Oedipus at Thebes, the interpretation of surviving Greek plays has been firmly grounded in textual exegesis. In many ways this was inevitable. Greek drama, with its complex imagery, odd metaphors, and ambivalent phraseology—chiefly, but not exclusively, in the choruses, the metrical arrangements of which were far from clearly understood—has suffered more than most genres from the vicissitudes of scribal transmission. Thus the editing did indeed perform an essential function. Yet even when the text seemed clear, its meaning often remained (and indeed remains) in dispute.

Also, until very recently the plays were treated, like all other ancient texts, primarily as literature to be read, rather than as theatrical scripts to be performed, for which the music, the stage directions—and, too often, any certainty about who spoke which lines—had been irretrievably lost. This literary approach, validated and virtually prescribed by Aristotle’s Poetics, not only shaped the subsequent nature of Greek dramatic criticism; it for a long time dictated—so great was Aristotle’s authority—both who was the greatest playwright (Sophocles) and which of his plays was the most perfect (the Oedipus Tyrannus).

But as Ruth Scodel reminds us in her sensible recent guide, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, when all allowances are made, “there is no reason that we should follow Aristotle’s rules for deciding what makes a tragedy good.” Because Aristotle saw plays more or less exclusively as literature, judged them by their plots and emotional impact (on both of which he had highly personal notions, in part through opposition to Plato), and was indifferent to spectacle, music, and theatricality, there is no reason why we should do the same; recent decades have seen a widespread, and persuasive, preference for approaching ancient theater, in the first instance, as performance.2

This has also led to a welcome new scrutiny of the composition, and participatory function, of the audience. Was it, as has often been assumed,3 a more or less homogeneous body of male citizens, who also voted in the Assembly, thus representing a kind of democratic consensus? No, says David Kawalko Roselli, in Theater of the People, a brilliant and convincing reexamination of all the evidence: these formed only one section of a heterogeneous, demanding, and critical body that included foreigners, slaves, resident aliens, and, yes, women. This picture, too, needs to be integrated into our concept of ancient theater and what dictated its playwrights’ aims. Finally, and perhaps most important, how far, today, can we accept the conventional wisdom (originating with Aristophanes in The Frogs, improved by Aristotle, and given a fresh lease of life by Nietzsche) according to which, Scodel writes, “Aeschylus is grand but primitive, Euripides clever but decadent, Sophocles perfect and serene”? And does the Oedipus Tyrannus in fact deserve the supreme position that Aristotle, and so many critics since, have confidently assigned to it?


Though current conventional wisdom dismisses most ancient accounts of Greek poets as fiction generated from their own works,4 enough reasonably reliable evidence survives to enable us to put together a convincing picture of Sophocles’ life and character. Born probably in 496/495, he was seven years younger than Aeschylus and twenty-four years older than Euripides. As a teenager he is said to have led the victory dances celebrating the Battle of Salamis in 480. He was of good birth, and well educated. The debated tradition that his father was a bronze-smith or swordmaker probably in fact means that he was “in armaments.” Aristophanes, conscious in 421, at the end of the ten-year Archidamian War, that such people would lose much of their income, remarks of Sophocles that in his old age he’d go to sea on a mat to turn a profit.

Sophocles, who in his surviving plays never directly attacks warfare, also knew the dirty work of empire at firsthand. In 443/442 he was a chief tribute-collector (Hellenotamias), and several years later a “general” (strategos) during the campaign against the rebellious island of Samos, though his function then seems to have been largely diplomatic, and he himself admitted that Pericles had told him he might write good poetry, but knew nothing about strategy. Happy, clever, pious (in 420 he gave temporary house-room to Asclepius’ sacred snake), good-natured: these are the epithets regularly bestowed on him. He was much in demand to go on embassies, and he was up on all the latest intellectual trends. His plays won at least twenty victories (the first of them in 468 with the Triptolemus, when he defeated the veteran Aeschylus), and he was never beaten into third place. He sounds like an epitome of the genial, talented, successful conformist.

Yet Sophocles’ work is obsessed with scapegoats and outcasts, with mysterious forces beyond human control. After the disastrous failure of Athens’s Sicilian expedition in 413, by now an octogenarian, he was one of ten emergency commissioners (probouloi) given extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis. He joined in voting authority to the conservative group of Four Hundred citizens, which in 411 emerged as a dictatorial junta. Asked about his decision, he admitted that it was bad, but claimed that there was no better way.5 This left its mark on him. Brute necessity (anankê) and the sly political rhetoric that drives it are central features of his brilliant Philoctetes (409). The apologia of Oedipus in his posthumous Oedipus at Colonus (401) may well have been dictated in part by his own feelings of guilt and remorse over that fatal vote.6

Most important of all, the scattered evidence for his life makes it abundantly clear that in Sophocles those conflicting loyalties described above would find their classic embodiment. In the famous chorus of the Antigone beginning “Many the wonders, but none more wondrous than Man,” he admiringly lists all humankind’s Promethean achievements, but ends, nevertheless, by rejecting utterly any individual who in the pursuit of these achievements abandons not only this world’s laws but, more important, the high justice of heaven. A prominent Periclean intellectual, he still (like his friend Herodotus) takes reputable oracular pronouncements seriously, and his natural piety shies away from arguments leading to atheism. So in his dramatic world free will at times seems circumscribed by fate. Fallible humans variously fail, until it is too late, to recognize the truth (of pronouncements by oracles in particular), especially when the message comes wrapped up in those riddling signs used by the gods to warn mankind. The immutabilities of fate and the gods’ arbitrary fiats are the price that must be paid to preserve traditional civic, moral, and emotional stability. Saving the appearances is never easy, and in Sophocles’ tragedies the difficulties involved can sometimes dictate the action. Of no play is this truer than the Oedipus Tyrannus.


The half-century between the defeat of Xerxes’ Persian expedition (479) and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431) witnessed the peak of Athens’s civic and cultural achievements, and is known, with good reason, as the Periclean Age. But success also brought what many regarded as an alarming change in Athenian goals and ambitions. The city-state that had, against all calculable odds, stood off invasion by the greatest empire then known rapidly acquired imperial instincts itself. The original island members of a naval defense league against Persia now found themselves de facto subjects of Athens, the protection money they had paid turned into tribute, while any—most notably Samos—that tried to break loose were ruthlessly whipped back into line. Meanwhile a new generation of Athenian intellectuals was setting out to prove that rational man, rather than the sanctified tradition of the gods, was indeed the measure of all things.

  1. 1

    Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition, edited by Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 14–15. In a recapitulation of the arguments presented in support of this thesis by its originators, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, most recently in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, translated by Janet Lloyd (Zone, 1988), Goldhill has since, in Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2012), developed these ideas further, analyzing the theatrical implications of Sophocles’ language for actors, chorus, and audience, and then setting his results against the changing contexts of social and critical reception. 

  2. 2

    In this, as in so many other ways, H. D. F. Kitto’s Greek Tragedy (first published in 1939) was decades ahead of its time. The revised third edition (1961) has recently been republished, with a useful foreword by Edith Hall (Routledge, 2011). 

  3. 3

    See, for example, Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall in Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition, pp. 27–47; Victor Ehrenberg, The People of Aristophanes (Blackwell, 1943), pp. 27–28; David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning (Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1997), p. 212. 

  4. 4

    This attitude, largely a somewhat exaggerated reaction to the “biographical fallacy” that interpreted a poet’s work in terms of his own life, owes most to Mary Lefkowitz’s highly influential monograph, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). John Gould, in his article on Sophocles in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (revised third edition, 2003), p. 1423, argues that “there seems to be just enough reliable material to construct a public persona.” 

  5. 5

    See Thucydides 8.1.3, 63.3–70; Aristotle Athenian Politics 29–33, Rhetoric 3, 1419a25–30. See also M.H. Jameson, “Sophocles and the Four Hundred,” Historia 20 (1971), pp. 541–568; William M. Calder III, “The Political and Literary Sources of Sophocles’ Oedipus Coloneus,” in Hypatia: Essays in Classics, Comparative Literature, and Philosophy, presented to Hazel E. Barnes on her Seventieth Birthday, edited by William M. Calder III, Ulrich K. Goldsmith, and Phyllis B. Kenevan (Colorado Associated University Press, 1985), pp. 1–14. 

  6. 6

    See in particular lines 270–274, aptly cited (in R.C. Jebb’s translation) by Calder, Hypatia, p. 10: “And yet in nature how was I evil? I who was but requiting a wrong, so that, had I been acting with knowledge, even then I could not be accounted wicked; but, as it was, all unknowing went I—whither I went—while those who wronged me knowingly sought my ruin.” 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print