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CJ-ONLINE  June 2010

CJ-ONLINE June 2010

Subject:

CJ ONLINE 2010.06.04 GOLDHILL, HALL, Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition

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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.

Order this text for $99.00 from Amazon.com 
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


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 
tradition.

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 
certain.

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 
appearance.

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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