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CJ-ONLINE  June 2008

CJ-ONLINE June 2008

Subject:

CJ Online 2008.06.01 AHL Two Faces of Oedipus

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Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca’s Oedipus. 
Translated by FREDERICK AHL. With an Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell 
University Press, 2008. Pp. 280. Paper, $16.95. ISBN 978–0–8014–7397–5.

Order this text for $55.00 (cloth) from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20


A CJ Online Exclusive

Frederick Ahl is not the first to include the Oedipus plays by Sophocles 
and Seneca in a single volume. [n. 1] But in this new offering, he presents 
highly readable and highly enjoyable translations of these two ancient 
dramatic masterpieces, as well as an essay that will provoke thought and 
further discussion. The book ends with an indexed glossary of names found 
in the plays.

The translations themselves display the outstanding quality we have come to 
expect from Ahl. The Sophoclean dialogue flows and crackles; and the choral 
odes are clear, yet lose none of their poetry. The Seneca is similarly 
powerful and poetic. In Ahl’s English, the Hymn to Bacchus (ll. 409–507) is 
both alluring and terrifying. And his stage directions, suggesting that the 
cattle sacrificed in the extispicium should be portrayed by attendants 
carrying the heads of a bull and a cow (pp. 212, 213), are a brilliant 
solution to a problem that has vexed scholars. [n. 2]

Almost more remarkable is Ahl’s Introductory Essay. This is, rather, a 
collection of essays, commenting on aspects of the two plays that readers 
new to the dramas should know, and of which the more experienced should be 
reminded. Topics include biographical information about the playwrights; 
cultural contexts for the tragedies; and the myth of Oedipus in various 
time periods. Throughout, Ahl strives to leave room for interpretation, 
showing, for example, that the Oedipus we know from Freud is not 
necessarily the one we get from Sophocles (pp. 22–30), and allowing the 
possibility that Seneca philosophus may not be the author of the play (pp. 
14–15). He also stresses that “[t]he views expressed in this introductory 
essay … are the by-product of the translation process” (p. 3). That is, the 
essay contains ideas with which Ahl dealt while rendering the plays into 
English, and he continually reminds the reader that his thoughts have 
practical implications.

In Section 9 (“Questions and Answers,” pp. 42–55), Ahl shows that in the 
original Greek of the OT, when characters are asked questions, they do not 
always actually answer them, and throughout the drama they contradict one 
other. Ahl then provides previous English renditions, to show that other 
translators have made choices that smoothed away these inconsistencies. Ahl 
is adamant that such tampering detracts from our ability to appreciate 
Sophocles’ artistry. He truthfully boasts that “I have made my translation 
conform as closely as I could to the Greek text, pretty well line for line” 
(p. 54). This is a fine sentiment, and Ahl is to be commended achieving 
both accuracy and a readable text. But I question why such an effort is 
required for Sophocles, but not for Seneca.

Ahl has altered the Roman play at many points. For example, he has 
reassigned lines from one character to another [n. 3]. He has altered 
carmen poposci at line 98 to “‘Sing me your riddling song,’ I said,” 
creating oratio recta where none exists in the Latin. At line 708, even 
though Oedipus clearly states that he exits the stage into the palace, 
Ahl’s stage directions indicate that the king “sits down, brooding” (p. 
230). Throughout, Ahl plays fast and furious with the Latin lines. At the 
very start of the drama, it takes him seven lines of English to render the 
first five in Latin. And he often alters Seneca’s effects of having 
characters interrupt each other mid-line. These are all interpretative 
decisions that a translator is entitled to make. But I find it troubling 
that Ahl faults other translators of Sophocles for altering the text, when 
he does the same with Seneca.

My quibbles should not, however, detract from well-deserved praise of this 
book. Ahl’s translations will provide excellent access to the plays of 
Sophocles and Seneca for students without Greek and Latin, and the 
Introductory Essay raises important and interesting issues. I would happily 
use this volume for a course on comparative Attic and Roman theatre, as 
well as a mythology course dealing with different renditions of the same 
story. Ahl is to be commended for providing a text that is useful and 
thought-provoking, but also poetic and dramatic.

[n. 1] See, for example, Clarence W. Mendell, Our Seneca (New Haven, 1941); 
and James L. Sanderson and Everett Zimmerman, eds., Oedipus: Myth and 
Dramatic Form (Boston, 1968).

[n. 2] Among the scholars who have commented on the issue, Otto Zwierlein, 
Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas (Meisenheim am Glan, 1966) 24–5 and 31–2, 
finds the whole episode unstageable, a view seconded by John G. Fitch, 
“Playing Seneca,” in George W.M. Harrison, ed., Seneca in Performance 
(London, 2000) 1–12. Dana Sutton, Seneca on the Stage (Leiden, 1986) 23, 
posits the drugged cattle could be brought on stage and hidden behind mute 
Actors when the time comes to kill them. T.G. Rosenmeyer, “Seneca’s Oedipus 
and Performance: The Manto Scene,” in Ruth Scodel, ed., Theater and Society 
in the Classical World (Ann Arbor, 1993) 242–3, backs the notion that the 
sacrifice occurs off-stage and that Manto narrates what she “sees” to her 
father and the audience. I myself think that dancers portrayed the animals. 
And recently, I saw a performance of the Oedipus at Grand Valley State 
University (April 14, 2007 in Grand Rapids, MI), where no attempt was made 
to represent the sacrificial victims; instead, the actors mimed (in a 
modern sense) the rite, and were able to make the audience believe that the 
beasts were there.

[n. 3] Lines 18 and 103–5 are moved from Oedipus to Jocasta. Lines 202–4 
are given to Oedipus instead of the Chorus. Lines 288–90 go to the Chorus 
Leader instead of Creon. Various lines in 825–36 are given to Jocasta 
instead of the Old Corinthian. All of these changes are identified in 
footnotes, except for lines 202–4. Some of these moves have textual 
support, but not all of them.

Thomas D. Kohn
Wayne State University


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