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Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition. By SIMON GOLDHILL and EDITH HALL, 
eds. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi +
336. Cloth, $99.00. ISBN 978–0–521–88785–4.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at

CJ Online 2010.06.04

This Festschrift is a tribute to Pat Easterling’s contributions to the
study of Greek tragedy and the history of its performance. The essays are
divided into three parts. The first explores the relationship of actor and
audience, and how this relationship reflects the political preoccupations
(broadly conceived) of the Athenian polis. The second centers on the figure
of Oedipus, while the third examines the development of the tragic genre in
both ancient and modern contexts. The editors optimistically suggest some
coherence to the offerings, especially in the dust jacket blurb. But the
variety of topics is in fact a strength of the volume, not least because it
is a fitting tribute to the range of Easterling’s interests.

In the first chapter (Sophocles: the state of play, pp. 1–24), Goldhill
and Hall introduce the volume as a whole by assessing how scholarly
interests have developed over the last century or so. Jebb and his 1900
edition of Antigone serve as a watershed for contrasting what went before
(Victorian idealism and obsession with the beauty of tragedy) with what
followed (already in 1903 Hofmannsthal’s dark and violent interpretation
of Electra). What makes this overview particularly valuable is the attempt
to place individual oeuvres in their wider cultural and intellectual
context – by tracing for example, the influences of anthropology,
psychology, and new theories about dance and ritual on Hofmannsthal, and
noting the challenge these interpretations presented to the privileged
position of Greek culture as the intellectual ancestor of Western
civilization. The chapter offers a provocative discussion of the
intellectual pedigree and contributions of scholars such as Reinhardt,
Kitto, Bowra, Knox, Winnington-Ingram, Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, Segal,
Zeitlin and Loraux, and briefly acknowledges the recent explosion in
performance of Greek tragedy. It also makes broader observations about
continuity and change in scholarly trends – the degree, for example, to
whichcritics write against the backdrop of the previous generation’s
work. The chapter then lays out four areas in which Sophoclean scholarship
is currently engrossed (i) the political sphere (how political/how Athenian
is tragedy?); (ii) performance studies, which have now moved from purely
practical/dramaturgical considerations to cultural dimensions of
performance, including other sites of “performance” in the city; (iii)
the language of tragedy (especially its ambiguity); and (iv) the
performance history of plays both in ancient and modern times. These four
areas are the primary focus of the volume.

Part One: Between Audience and Actor

Goldhill (The audience on stage: rhetoric, emotion, and judgement in
Sophoclean theatre, pp. 27–47) makes an ambitious attempt to develop a
theory of the audience that can account for democracy’s belief in the
collective deliberative ability of citizens . He examines how Sophocles
dramatizes the process of being (in) an audience through the device of
creating an on-stage audience [beyond the chorus, which serves continuously
in this capacity, thus offering a helpful alternative model to the
“chorus as sounding-board for the audience”]. For Goldhill, characters
function as an on-stage audience when they serve as critical observers and
respondents to what is occurring on stage, offering a model for the
audience in the theatre, who are developing their own responses. The
metadrama that other commentators see as an end in itself carries for
Goldhill a political function: it encourages the audience to engage the
critical faculties vital to deliberation. It is not always clear from
Goldhill’s analysis what sets a particular character apart as an on-stage
audience beyond his or her silence or function as focalizer, and his
approach could be extended virtually ad infinitum given tragedy’s
tendency to eschew sustained three-way conversation. Goldhill chooses
instances that build suspense about how the character is responding to the
situation and that highlight the multiplicity of possible responses to a
scene. He provides a salutary reminder that the multiplicity of responses
by the internal audience argues an equally wide range of response on the
part of the external audience. The most fully developed case-study is
Goldhill’s discussion of Electra, the most overtly theatrical of
Sophocles’ plays, though he oddly omits the most prominent instance of an
on-stage audience, Electra’s role as witness and mediator of the killing
of Clytemnestra.

Ismene Lada-Richard (‘The players will tell all’: the dramatist, the
actors and the art of acting in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, pp. 48–68) also
examines metadrama. She argues that Sophocles’ innovation in creating the
role of Neoptolemus allows the playwright to explore the relationship
between Neoptolemus’ part in the plot to dupe Philoctetes and his
identity as player. It would be worth noting that a similar interest in the
theatrical implications of disguise and role-playing may have formed part
of Euripides’ Philoctetes, in which Odysseus approaches Philoctetes with
appearance and voice changed by Athene and playing the part of one of his
own victims. But in Sophocles’ play, it is the son of Achilles who is
co-opted to play the deceiver, and the disjuncture between player
(“self”) and part (“character”) is complicates considerably the
issue of whether Neoptolemus’ responses to Philoctetes are genuine or
simulated. Lada-Richards makes a convincing case for reading an interest in
acting into the play, and offers a useful study of ancient responses to
coherence and incoherence between an actor and his part. She argues that a
high degree of expertise is required of the actor in order to pull off the
part of the faltering apprentice-player in the internal plot, just as
Philoctetes’ unremitting pathos requires considerable self-mastery on the
part of the actor. Unlike in real life, Lada-Richards argues, authenticity
in performance is judged by the degree to which a performance is
compelling. She situates Neoptolemus the actor’s derailment of the plot
of Odysseus the stage-director/playwright within the context of
contemporary performance culture, in which the playwright’s control over
performance was diminishing and actors were enjoying increasing prominence.
Some dimensions of the analysis (e.g. the political influence and
diplomatic roles of star actors) run the risk of anachronism, as
Lada-Richards seems to appreciate (“Sophocles’ play was only a hair’s
breadth away from that new chapter...,” p. 65), though in the absence of
sufficient contemporary evidence this remains an argument ex silentio.

Edith Hall (Deianeira deliberates: precipitate decision-making and
Trachiniae, pp. 69–96) considers the function of deliberation in
Trachiniae, noting that the play conveys its importance by offering a
series of examples of how not to deliberate. The essay ranges widely,
drawing on a broad selection of sources to identify the key elements of
good counsel (euboulia); this lays the groundwork for appreciating the
degree to which deliberation in tragedies is usually presented as flawed or
absent, and, in the case of Trachiniae, as compromised in virtually every
conceivable way. Hall discusses the extent to which female tragic
characters are capable of initiating and engaging in deliberation,
concluding that in the case of Deianeira the evidence may say less about
the deliberative capacities of women as a category than about the
democratic polis; the precipitous decision-making and sudden mind-changing
we see in the play are also characteristic of the Council and especially
the Assembly. Hall’s suggestion that the hastiness of deliberation in
tragedy may explain why the genre adopted the convention limiting its plot
to the span of a single day must remain a conjecture. But tragedy certainly
exploits the convention to highlight the dangers of hasty decision-making
and, Hall argues, reflects the Athenian psyche’s essential optimism and
self-sufficiency, since it raises the possibility that with better
decision-making matters could have turned out differently.

Part Two: Oedipus and the Play of Meaning

Peter Burian (Inconclusive conclusion: the ending(s) of Oedipus Tyrannus,
pp. 99–118) takes on the vexed question of the ending of Oedipus
Tyrannus. Rejecting the arguments against authenticity, he seeks to make
sense of the supposed inconsistencies, especially the fact that the
expectation of Oedipus’ exile is suddenly overturned when Creon sends him
into the palace in anticipation of further direction from Apollo. Indeed,
the symmetry of ruler transformed into scapegoat is so compelling, Burian
argues, that some scholars reject or even overlook the lack of exile at the
play’s end. Oedipus’ departure into the palace brings the action full
circle and forces him to return to the scene of his undoing. It thus bears
a symmetry of its own, but this brings with it neither release nor the
redemptive role of the pharmakos that we find in Oedipus at Colonus.
Burian’s argument that the rejection of the pharmakos-ending is a
rejection of polis-centered closure both fits and accounts for several of
the more peculiar aspects of the play. The shift in focus from the polis to
the fate and oikos of Oedipus, for example, is part and parcel of
Oedipus’ fall from power: just as Oedipus the tyrant identified himself
with the state he ruled, so now in his fall from power he can no longer
serve any function within it. Burian provides a compelling characterization
of the end of the play as providing formal rather than conceptual closure,
and his analysis of the exchange between Oedipus and Creon points out its
studied ambiguity. Thus the refusal of exile is a refusal of closure in
which Sophocles masterfully exploits the openness of the mythical

Chris Carey (The third stasimon of Oedipus at Colonus, pp. 119-33) offers a
study of the third stasimon of Oedipus at Colonus. His opening remarks
proposing that OC functions as a cornerstone for the “Theban cycle”,
which he characterizes as the nearest thing to a Sophoclean trilogy, set
off alarm bells, given the many years and plays separating Antigone from
OC. But Carey’s analysis does not, for the most part, insist on direct
verbal echoes. Rather, it offers a thoughtful exploration of this ode and
its reflections on old age and mortality, teasing out the resonances of its
words and motifs, especially the points of intersection with the lives of
Oedipus and his family: time is focalized through the long-standing
sufferer Oedipus; death described as anumenaios suggests his own unclean
marriage; the description of old age as akratesintersects provocatively
with his situation as at once powerless and strangely powerful. Carey’s
greatest insight may come at the end, where he links the chorus’
comparison of Oedipus to a headland to the interest in topography that
permeates the play. Oedipus’ connection to the landscape goes far beyond
the apostrophizing seen in other plays, Carey argues: Oedipus not only
resembles but becomes the rugged landscape into which he will be absorbed.

Michael Silk’s contribution (The logic of the unexpected: semantic
diversion in Sophocles, Yeats (and Virgil), pp. 134–57) examines a
specific feature of Sophoclean use of language: what Silk calls a
“semantic diversion”, usually found at the end of a syntactic unit,
which substitutes a different word for what the listener expects . Silk
claims that this practice is unique to Sophocles among Greek tragedians [I
am not so sure] and draws on instances from Yeats and Virgil to elucidate
it; he compares it to the para prosdokian of comedy, though it lacks the
tendency towards climax of the latter. Indeed, Silk is insistent on
avoiding thinking of semantic diversions as a device at all, perhaps
because this suggests a degree of standardization; the claim that these
diversions have nothing to do with defamiliarization needs more argument.
Silk exposes the facile tendency of commentators to explain these word uses
as metonym or to posit alternate meanings and points out the challenge they
represent to textual critics used to operating according to probability.
Sophocles’ “magisterial elusiveness” causes a wide range of
associations to spill out, including the residual presence of the expected
but supplanted reference, and may reflect the playwright’s Weltanschauung
in constituting completeness and open-endedness at once.

Fiona Macintosh (The French Oedipus of the inter-war period, pp. 158–76)
considers reworkings of Oedipus Tyrannus in France during the 1920s and
1930s. Her analysis sets the approaches taken by Mounet-Sully, Bouhélier,
Stravinsky, Cocteau and others in the context of cultural and intellectual
history. Rejection of the classical heritage as presented by Parnassiens
such as Leconte de Lisle resulted in the Modernist predilection for
dissonance and incongruity. When Modernism became associated with German
cultural imperialism, a classicism emerged that sought the wellsprings of
French culture in a democratic classicism, and reworkings of the Oedipus
myth presented new popularist tendencies and preferred a sequential,
diachronic plot order. Macintosh considers inter alia educational policy,
aesthetic currents, staging choices and biographical information to explain
the peculiar dynamics of the resurgent classical performance tradition in
France two decades after the country seemed to have turned its back on
classicism as a vestige of the ancien régime.

Part Three: Constructing Tragic Traditions

In a dense and often elusive piece (Theoretical views of Athenian tragedy
in the fifth century BC, pp. 179–207), Kostas Valakas attempts to
recreate fifth-century theories of tragedy on the basis of evidence from
the tragedies themselves. He draws attention to affinities with Presocratic
ideas and rhetorical theory, noting for example a growing interest in a
theatrical “reality” seen as distinct from both what it represents and
the world of the audience, and observing that this parallels a shift in the
conception of the relation between artefact and reality in statuary
inscriptions: whereas early inscriptions assume that statue and model are
one and the same, Athenian inscriptions of the fifth century acknowledge
that the statue is a representation rather than the thing itself.
Valakas’ suggestion that the terminology of representation in Plato and
Aristotle (eikōn, mimēsis etc.) was likely already used by fifth-century
intellectuals to discuss the dynamics and interests of tragedy, especially
tragedy’s interest in the capacity and limits of human knowledge and its
treatment of themes of appearance and reality, deception and discovery,
seems reasonable. Whether this interest amounts to an espousal of
Protagorean relativism, as Valakas suggests, and whether one can separate
tragedy’s “moral education” from its “political role” is less

Angus Bowie (Athens and Delphi in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, pp. 208–31)
explores the function of prophecy in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, arguing that it
is an early indication of a shift toward a greater sense of human agency in
understanding causation and interpreting events. Much of the piece is
devoted to close analysis of passages in the Oresteia, elucidating the
degree to which prophecy, and Delphic prophecy in particular, looms as an
interest in the plays. Bowie argues that other forms of sign-interpretation
(e.g. the beacon) are described in oracular terms, and that Cassandra is
described in language reminiscent of the Delphic Pythia. Bowie even
suggests that the description of Agamemnon’s robe as a net alludes to the
Delphic omphalos and its knotted covering. Be that as it may, he
successfully demonstrates that in the Oresteia prophecies are repeatedly
problematized as ambiguous, open-ended, and associated with violent
revenge, and that the plot privileges Athens over Delphi as the locus for
resolving legal and political problems. In an intriguing side-note, Bowie
suggests that psephomancy (divination through the use of pebbles) may have
been the usual form of divination at Delphi, and argues that this might
offer an additional dimension to the contrast between divination’s
failure at Delphi and the successful use of (voting) pebbles in the
Areopagus court at Athens.

Richard Buxton (Feminized males in Bacchae: the importance of
discrimination, pp. 232–50) offers a welcome cautionary rejoinder to the
tendency to see gender-crossing everywhere in the Bacchae. Analyzing
characterizations singulatim, he argues that the play creates as much
meaning by setting up distinctions as by collapsing them. Tiresias and
Cadmus, for example, take up the paraphernalia of bacchants but do not
participate in transvestism, in contrast to Pentheus. In their case, what
matters is whether their behavior is age-appropriate rather than
gender-appropriate. Buxton also cautions that Dionysus’ femininity is not
as ubiquitous a motif as some suppose, since it belongs to the early stages
of the play; later on, his wildness is at issue. So too Pentheus’
feminization is a concern early in the play, whereas later his
identification by Agaue as a wild beast dominates. Zeus is presented as
parent, and specifically as mother; he is feminized in function but not in

Oliver Taplin (Hector’s helmet glinting in a fourth-century tragedy, pp.
251–63) sets out to shine the spotlight on fourth century tragedy. He
convincingly identifies an Apulian vase in the Antikenmuseum in Berlin as
representing scenes from Astydamas’ Hector, though he probably overstates
his case in reading the inclusion of an attendant to receive Hector’s
helmet as an example of a bold aemulatio of Homer, given the ubiquity of
supernumerary characters in both tragedy and vase-painting. Taplin closes
with a thought-provoking analysis of a fragmentary passage (adesp. tr. fr.
649) in which Cassandra is allotted (by Astydamas, Taplin argues) a highly
unusual televisionary “messenger speech” in which she describes
Hector’s death from afar.

Christopher Pelling (Seeing a Roman tragedy through Greek eyes:
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, pp. 26–88) closes the volume with a
delightful look at Shakespeare’s use of ancient source material. After
briefly discussing evidence for the direct influence of Greek tragedy, he
settles into an extended treatment of the ways Shakespeare engaged with
Plutarch. Although his access to Plutarch’s Lives was at two removes
(through North’s 1579 translation of Amyot’s 1559 French translation),
close examination reveals that Shakespeare was often truer in spirit and in
sense to Plutarch than either Amyot or North. Plot devices such as mirror
scenes, motifs including the language of sacrifice to describe Caesar’s
murder, reintroduction of “pagan” elements such as the daimon linking
Brutus and Caesar all show a close affinity to Plutarch’s sensibilities
and especially his vision of the tragic.

This volume was written by scholars for scholars. Much of the Greek is left
untranslated, and footnotes generally do not attempt to provide the
overview of the scholarly terrain an undergraduate would need. Although
there is little here that is radically pioneering, this volume gathers a
collection of well conceived and written essays that will likely spawn
further discussion and frequent citation, and the reader comes away with an
appreciation for the wide variety of approaches to the study of Greek
tragedy that exists in the early twenty-first century.

Eric Dugdale
Gustavus Adolphus College
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