Thursday, December 17, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Simon Goldhill, Edith Hall (ed.), Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 336. ISBN 9780521887854. $99.00.
Reviewed by Richard Rader, University of Southern California

I had a dismaying experience recently while introducing Greek tragedy in my Mythology course. Out of curiosity I asked how many students (of 700) had at some point prior to my class read Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. Only about 10 percent raised their hands. Slightly shocking. What really struck me was that the question I followed with--how many were at least familiar with the story of Oedipus--elicited the same number of hands. That's simply frightening. It's one thing to be unfamiliar with Trachiniae or Seven against Thebes, quite another to be unacquainted with perhaps the most notorious figure of Western literature, one especially with such a memorably sordid life.

I suspect Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall, two of the most prolific supporters of Greek tragedy and editors of Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition, a Festschrift in honor of Pat Easterlin, have had similar experiences in the classroom. I wish I could say their book is likely to right this pedagogical situation, but I'm not going to hold my breath. All the same, Goldhill and Hall have produced a fine book, one that re-appraises Sophocles' legacy in a way that repays consideration. I have (at times serious) differences regarding the premises and conclusions of some of the essays, but these I see primarily as the negotiations of a dialogue initiated by this book, one that I hope will continue even after the ink has dried on my review.

Goldhill and Hall offer a succinct but comprehensive history of the Sophoclean terrain ('Sophocles: the state of play,' pp.1-24) starting with Richard Jebb, whom they situate within the major intellectual transitions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though we are unlikely to see his name in the reviews that grace the London Review of Books, Jebb's influence as Professor of Greek at Cambridge and his facing-page English translation are paramount. Juxtaposed with Jebb is Hugo von Hoffmannsthal's 'dark' production of Sophocles' Elektra, influenced by advances in anthropology, psychology, dance and ritual (pp. 7ff. ). Goldhill and Hall acknowledge the artificiality of constructing a history around Jebb and Hoffmannsthal, but this juxtaposition leads to a provocative question about twenty-first century criticism: 'Can it, should it, will it escape the agendas established by nineteenth-century scholarship and its discontents?' (p. 10) The tradition of criticism they sketch out is indeed a formidable one: from Reinhardt, Kitto, Bowra, Whitman, Knox and Winnington-Ingram to Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, Segal and Zeitlin. Apart from the scholarly tradition, though, Goldhill and Hall also stress the impact of stage production on our understanding of Sophocles' legacy, a refreshing inclusion that by now should be common sense.

Goldhill and Hall see four areas where Sophoclean criticism is developing: (1) the political sphere; (2) performance; (3) tragic language and the problem of ambiguity; and (4) tradition. I wondered whether this list reflects trends Goldhill and Hall see in recent or current Sophoclean scholarship, or whether it was the drawing of a sort of boundary. I'll come back to this point at the end.

Part One: Between Audience and Actor

Goldhill jumpstarts the book proper with an excellent essay, 'The audience on stage: rhetoric, emotion, and judgment in Sophoclean theatre' (pp. 27-47 ). Starting with a compact discussion of the opening scene of Ajax, Goldhill shows how the interactions of Odysseus, Athena and Ajax create an 'image of the critical observer' in Odysseus coming to terms with his own mortality. Goldhill uses this observation as a catalyst for his exemplary reading of Philoctetes, where Neoptolemus moves from an initial sense of pity and compassion for Philoctetes to a seeming hard-heartedness and back once again. As Goldhill points out, Neoptolemus is strikingly silent during the row between Odysseus and Philoctetes. Later in the play when he intends 'to undo all the wrongs I have done previously' (Phil. 1224--quoted by Goldhill on p. 35 ), we are invited to 're-read' his steel [steely?] reserve: 'Now we are encouraged to see more tension beneath his performance, more doubt within him than was expressed to Odysseus. His role as audience develops as a fully active process, part of the questions of character, truthfulness, deception...' (p. 35 ). This simple but beautiful observation, which Goldhill elicits as well from OT, Electra and Antigone, nicely demonstrates the interpenetrating relationship of scholarship, performance, translation and pedagogy. For the visualization and revisualization of tragic performance will always have the potential to bring more insights to light.

Ismene Lada-Richards ('"The players will tell all": the dramatist, the actors and the art of acting in Sophocles' Philoctetes,' pp. 48-68) sees metadramatic reflection on acting and role-playing in Philoctetes. Interestingly, she connects this with the growing role of prominent actors in the mid-fifth century: 'The missing pieces of the puzzle notwithstanding...Sophocles' play does bear the traces of its creation in a period when the text/performance dialectic was particularly fluid, in a dynamic state of realignment and recomposition' (p. 65 ). 'The missing pieces of the puzzle notwithstanding' is surely a euphemism for the gaps in our evidence, but Lada-Richards' speculation is grounded and smart, and I especially appreciated the way she returns in the end to the dynamic relationship between performance and value that the book as a whole aims to demonstrate.

Edith Hall's contribution, 'Deianeira deliberates: precipitate decision-making and Trachiniae' (pp. 69-96), treats Trachiniae as an education in 'how not to deliberate' (p. 69 ). On the one hand, this is a sensible read: Deianeira's sudden move from public display of deliberation to 'precipitate' action (deciding to send a poisonous robe to her husband) is arresting, and Sophocles' dramatization of the fall-out is accordingly vivid. On the other hand, however, under the light of Goldhill's analysis from above, perhaps her change of demeanor is not from deliberation to a lack thereof, but rather from public to private (or silent) deliberation. Thus when Hall notes that 'we do not know how she will explore her dilemma nor what she will eventually decide' (p. 76 ), a more modest approach would be to say not that her decision was precipitate but that our confusion regarding her motives recapitulates her own confusion about Heracles' motives. What would we do in her situation? Whatever the case, we surely don't know better than she does what she's thinking (or not thinking). So judging her decision as precipitate is itself precipitate, shading even toward uncharitable ('[T]hroughout these fifteen months [Deianeira has been living in exile], she has displayed no functioning dimension that might be called moral agency...' (p.85)--How could we possibly make this claim?). Hence, while it is 'up for discussion whether more and more effective deliberation would have prevented Deianeira from sending the robe' (p.83), can we be entirely sure that more and more effective deliberation wouldn't have precipitated Deianeira's decision all the more? This hinges on the meaning of 'effective'. Hall's Aristotelian definition finds Deianeira lacking; but 'effective' for Deianeira (as for Hyllus and the chorus) means something else. Any discussion of decision-making thus requires an understanding of situation: surely we are meant to imagine Deianeira is devastated that her husband, who for ill-defined reasons left her in a foreign land for fifteen months and who might never have returned, is finally coming home but with a new (younger) wife in tow. Little of this is explicitly 'deliberated' in the play, to be sure, but it is a part of Deianeira's (self-) representation. This in no way justifies her decision; it simply provides context. And context is one of tragedy's greatest insights about the human condition: we are all situated in the world in complex ways with complex desires. We may not make the right decisions, but that doesn't mean we're not thinking.

Part Two: Oedipus and the play of meaning

Peter Burian teases out the ambiguity of the end of OT in his 'Inconclusive conclusion: the ending(s) of Oedipus Tyrannus' (pp. 99-118 ) and asks why Sophocles offers but ultimately withholds the possibility of exile for Oedipus. For Burian, OT refuses the easy judgment of the dominant scapegoat theory and thus denies a convenient or palatable formulation of the meaning of his fall. Burian's final thoughts on the 'overflow of signification', ambiguity and contradiction (p. 115 ) are eloquent and attractive.

Chris Carey closely examines the third stasimon of OC ('The third stasimon of Oedipus at Colonus,' pp. 119-33 ) and elicits thematic connections between the chronologically disparate plays of the 'Theban trilogy'. The force of his analysis, as is inevitable, rests more on conviction than explicit evidence.

Michael Silk's essay, 'The logic of the unexpected: semantic diversion in Sophocles, Yeats (and Virgil)' (pp. 134-57 ), is probably the trickiest of the lot to characterize. He traces in a number of passages from Sophocles (and beyond) the employment of unexpected words or phrases. Silk labels this 'semantic diversion', which he defines as 'a sudden adjustment of reference, which was always possible (is seen to be so in retrospect), but which was not apparent, and which seems to displace what was apparent' (p.142). This works sometimes. When Oedipus mysteriously disappears at the end of OC, the messenger's use of bathron ('a topographical agency') at line 1662, where we might have expected personified beings, is 'remarkable': the semantic sleight-of-hand maps nicely onto the indeterminacy of Oedipus' vanishing act. But as a general mode of interpretation 'semantic diversion' is far too restrictive. I'm sure Silk is aware of the formalistic trap of assuming that all readers come to a text with the same mind or horizon of expectations, but his rhetoric is just as unself-conscious as those he's taking to task (like Lloyd-Jones, somewhat unfairly). Anyone even grudgingly familiar with Derrida will likely find Silk's formalism (of language and poetics, of intention, of reception) retrograde: 'Semantic diversion has nothing directly to do with [the] exploratory use of language: not enactment, as such; not with the activating of inactive connotations, as such; not with defamiliarization, as such' (p. 144 ). There are a lot of 'nots' in that definition. I wonder whether the 'sharp' distinction Silk draws between the diversionary, exploratory and defamiliarizing is itself one of diversion, exploration or defamiliarization. I say that not to be cute. Indeed, language depends in large part upon expectations. But, as Derrida has shown, signifiers carry along their expected or unexpected differences and deferrals--what he called 'différance'. The linguistic relationship between words anticipates (and, more radically, animates) their individual meanings. On a linguistic level then the unexpected isn't necessarily all that unexpected, just hidden in plain sight. So perhaps unexpectation is the primary engine of language, and expectation, which gives order and sense (the semantic level), the secondary. Thus when we approach the elusive language of poetry, our principal concern should not just be 'Why is this word/phrase unexpected?' but also (or rather) 'Why did I expect something else?'

Fiona Macintosh offers an historical account of the proliferation of productions of Sophocles' OT in inter-war France ('The French Oedipus of the inter-war period,' pp. 158-76 ). Amid the heated debates over the value of classical education in France, Macintosh singles out one fascinating actor: Jean Mounet-Sully, whom she sees as a proto-avant-garde artist radically recasting the myth of Oedipus and liberating it from its 'Sophoclean straitjacket' (p. 167 ). She then traces some of the manifestations of this influence in the 20s and beyond. This chapter was an informative and rewarding read.

Part Three: Constructing Tragic Traditions

Kostas Valakas' 'Theoretical Views of Athenian tragedy in the fifth century BC' (pp. 179-207 ) is a dense and rich analysis of the tragic theory inherent in the Greek tragic tradition itself: '[I]ndirect self-references in the extant fifth-century tragic texts, combined with other forms of evidence from the late fifth century onwards, can be used as sources for exploring the creation of theoretical themes and terms which served for the reception of tragedy in comedy and philosophical criticism' (p.182). One of the implications of tragic self-theorization is that Plato and Aristotle are less the inventors of a discursive tradition than its inheritors. I don't know if this is a radical idea, but after reading Valakas' excellent essay I was convinced it was one worth pursuing.

Angus Bowie's contribution, 'Athens and Delphi in Aeschylus' Oresteia' (pp. 208-31 ), argues that the Oresteia privileges Athens over Delphi in terms of civic and religious procedure. In a way this argument recapitulates a familiar line of thought on the movement within the trilogy from religious authority to democratic deliberation. Bowie believes like most that socialized justice is more effective than pus-oozing hell-hounds. I'm less convinced that Eumenides is clear about this evolution. To be sure, Athena embodies the (nominally) democratic virtue of flexibility--ultimately, she has to convince the Furies that it's okay to change one's mind--but it is still up for discussion whether it is a good thing that Orestes is acquitted, or whether a democracy that looks the other way concerning an admitted matricide is really a 'much more civilized' institution.

In 'Feminized males in Bacchae: the importance of discrimination' (pp. 232-50 ) Richard Buxton takes an interesting approach to the play's transgressive nature: instead of collapsing sexual distinctions, Bacchae in fact does much to uphold them. A consideration of the play's 'feminized' males yields surprisingly divergent fixations; for nearly all of the characters, including Pentheus, feminization is not the principal focus of transgression. Cadmus and Tiresias famously don the garb of Dionysiac ritual, but 'the point which is repeatedly stressed is not their dress but their age' (p. 238 ); Dionysus' femininity goes unremarked by most, whereas 'it is exclusively Pentheus to whom [his] look seems to evoke strong associations of the feminine' (p. 243 ); and ultimately, 'the feminization of Pentheus belongs at a certain phase of the plot, after which the play moves on' (p. 246 ).

Oliver Taplin performs some excellent investigative work in his piece, 'Hector's helmet glinting in a fourth-century tragedy' (pp. 251-63 ), in an effort to suggest that fourth-century tragedy wasn't as derivative or manneristic as it has come to be judged. Taplin focuses on the Hector of Astydamas, of whom only one fragment is securely attested, and finds him to be an ambitious inheritor of the tragic tradition. He adds to the mix a late fourth-century Apulian vase depicting separate scenes with Hector and an entranced Cassandra. It would be nearly impossible to recreate Taplin's argument regarding this vase without the figure included in the book, so I encourage readers to check out for themselves the conclusions he superbly draws.

Finally, Christopher Pelling traces the tragic 'Greekness' of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar back to Plutarch ('Seeing a Roman tragedy through Greek eyes: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,' pp. 264-88). He points out interesting divergences from and 'uncanny' similarities between the play and two influential translations of Plutarch's Lives of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Antony, having fun where necessary with various details of translation and mistranslation. Ultimately, Pelling sees an essential tragic arc in Plutarch that would have been attractive to Shakespeare and which is thus reflected in the shape of the story and the depiction of the main characters (Caesar, Brutus and Cassius).

It is unclear to me exactly how the essays in this section related to the book's aims--unless one assumes the 'and' in the book's title is meant to carry a lot of weight. All the same, this is an impressive and thought-provoking collection. Pat Easterling, the book's honoree, will be proud of its achievement.

Let me now register some of my reactions and questions:

First, a minor pet peeve: I was disappointed to read in a few of the chapters some unnecessary (and by now tired) 'theory'-sniping. Michael Silk, for example, claims semantic diversion presupposes a sense of stability in language, but adds in an aside that this is 'an age hostile to all stabilities' (p. 147 ). I presume this is a criticism of postmodernism. But is it really the case that our age is 'hostile' to stability? It may be 'critical' of it or 'challenge' it, but those don't necessarily imply hostility. On the other hand, what's wrong with hostility toward a normative (i.e., stabilizing) claim like 'Torture is effective'? Destabilizing truth-claims generally mistaken for truths can be a good thing. Richard Buxton attacks Michelle Gellrich for saying that Dionysus 'does not so much destroy or confuse distinctions as configure the nondifferentiation out of which such distinctions eventually arise' (in Goff 1995, p.53): 'Now that the tide of deconstruction has ebbed, one sometimes comes across assertions like this, dying on the shore' (p.234 n.14--my emphasis). It should be clear that the hostility Silk laments resides firmly in the anti-theory camp. Gellrich's phrasing may be ungainly (to Buxton at least), but the case she was making about Dionysus was (and still is) a refreshing departure from interpretations of the play insisting exclusively on binaries. She was proposing that Dionysus scrambles the human experience of the world in such a way as to reconfigure one's ability to differentiate within it--as opposed to simply undoing or reversing the differentiations already inherent in it (which aren't really inherent in the first place). One may well disagree with that conclusion, but a dismissive appeal to the 'death' of theory doesn't invalidate it. I wondered whether Buxton would characterize Goldhill's Language, Sexuality, Narrative, one of the most challenging and enduring forays into deconstructive criticism, as 'dead on the shore'. 25 years on it is still one of the best comprehensive interpretations of the Oresteia.

Second, the place of ethics. A few of the essays in the collection address this issue indirectly (Hall, Goldhill, Bowie), but it is generally associated with the behemoth we call 'Athenian democracy'. Under this light tragedy provides ethical fodder for theater-going democrats: Don't judge a book by its cover; don't murder your husband; don't entrust the dispensation of justice to the bible-monger with bloody teeth. This is plausible but also kind of vague. All the available symbols of the theater provide for a certain type of ideological presentation (see: Nothing to Do with Dionysus?), but was the ability to deliberate and make decisions, abstractly imagined, the primary (or only) motivation for participating in Athenian institutions? Perhaps your average citizen attended in order to see friends or get a free meal. I raise this point only because a cultural poetics model cannot entirely account for the excessiveness of tragedy, which as art has a disjointed relationship with the world. It is both of and beyond its cultural and temporal horizon. And this excess, it seems to me, requires a more broadly conceived idea of ethics than the narrow prism of democratic politics. For the ethical dimension of tragedy frames a much longer horizon than the moment of performance. In this regard it's unlike comedy; there's something meaningful in the fact that only one tragedy survives dealing with a proper historical moment. What that ethical dimension is exactly I'm still wrestling with,1 but I would love to get a conversation going with the contributors of this book about how to get at the question and possibly reach some answers.

And finally, something that left me conflicted. We are informed in the introduction that the contributors of this volume also collaborated on the Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy in 1997. (To be exact, five of this volume's contributors--Goldhill, Hall, Burian, Macintosh and Taplin--took part in the original, which also included Easterling and Paul Cartledge.) I'm unsure what to think of the fact that 12 years on the same people are offering their thoughts on tragedy. Many of these contributions are excellent, but some are less ground-breaking, and others still problematic. On the one hand, Sophocles offers an opportunity for the 'young Turks [who have] become old authorities' (p.12) to survey the field and its changes. And years from now I'll still be all ears for a Taplin or Easterling to weigh in on tragedy. But, on the other, I worry it reflects a sort of insularity: it is itself the construction of a tradition, only without apologies or confessions of self-consciousness. (Here I impute no intentions to Goldhill and Hall. Perhaps others were unavailable?) In this regard I feel it would have been valuable to include other, perhaps newer voices in the mix, those who have inherited the critical legacy handed down by Goldhill et. al. and who will carry the torch for the next generation. This entails simply the acknowledgment that tradition is always moving forward.


1.   'On the Fate of Humanism in Greek Tragedy,' Philosophy and Literature Vol. 33, No. 2 (2009): 442-54.

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