Monday, January 10, 2011


Version at BMCR home site

Adrian Kelly, Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. 176. ISBN 9780715637135. £12.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Andreas Markantonatos, University of the Peloponnese (

Follow this link to buy this book from Amazon and support BMCR

Adrian Kelly offers an accessible and well-balanced introduction to Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, addressing the central issues of the play, while also providing a helpful synthesis of the critical debates on the play as they continue to develop. The book features a concise guide to further reading, a full-scale bibliography, and a useful glossary explaining technical and theoretical terms. This comes as a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding Duckworth series of companions to Greek and Roman tragedy, strengthening Sophocles' presence amidst several other beautifully designed volumes on Aeschylus, Euripides, and Seneca. The new companion to Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus will make a helpful teaching aid in the classroom, as well as encouraging the seasoned scholar to revisit some difficult questions especially concerning the main character of the play, Oedipus, and his miraculous elevation to the level of cultic hero.

In the first chapter ('Sophocles and Athens', pp. 9-25), Kelly discusses those biographical and historical elements which may relate to the subject matter of the work, rightly cautioning readers against using such controversial material to draw wide-ranging conclusions about the play's principal ideas. Nevertheless, there are many things, Kelly thoughtfully adds that one can learn about the play by sifting every scrap of available evidence primarily in connection with its political and religious background. The ancient sources of the life of Sophocles place heavy emphasis on his public persona as well as on his deep spirituality: his election to high offices and his involvement in the remarkably rich Athenian cultic life may have played an important role in the making of Oedipus at Colonus. The same applies to the turbulent historical times during which, as most critics believe, Sophocles worked on his final play – that is, the period between the battle at Cynossema in 411 BCE and the sea battle at Arginusae in 406 BCE. Kelly is sensible of the fact that the Sophoclean play was produced posthumously in 401 BCE and for this reason draws attention to the extraordinary political events of those years, when the restoration of the democracy coming in the wake of an unprecedented general amnesty marked an entirely new phase in Athenian political affairs, thereby paving the way for the phenomenal rise of the city, like a phoenix, from the ashes of war disaster. The equal emphasis on two separate historical narratives, one forming the backdrop to the creation of the play and the other underlying its reception at the turn of the fifth century BCE, makes us see the play from two entirely different perspectives and renders its fiendish complexity far more comprehensible to us than a more ostensibly straightforward historicized explanation with little attention to the impact of the original performance on the Athenian audiences. The chapter concludes with brief but lucid discussions of both the festival and socio-political contexts, making a strong case for reading the play as an insightful meditation on Athenian greatness in the face of immense misfortune rather than another mindless propaganda mouthpiece aiming to cater to the bitter disappointment of war-tired audiences.

In the second chapter ('A Synopsis of the Play', pp. 26-35), Kelly offers a summary of the play, outlining the contours of the plot and discussing the exits and entrances of the characters, while also examining the special setting of the action. He is right to suggest that in the original performance there must have been "at least one stone seat in the acting area" (p. 26), but one might doubt his overconfidence in treating line 59 (cf. also lines 60-61 and 65) as convincing evidence of a material reminder of the hero Colonus on stage, given that there is a wide difference of opinion as to whether the statue of the hero Colonus occupied a place in the orchestra.1 As for the notorious problem of Oedipus' supernatural departure into the grove, Kelly sensibly accepts an exit into the skene (p. 33) without however ruling out the idea of an exit to the right (142 n. 12). Schunk's suggestion, however, unduly resuscitated to play up the spatial ambiguities of Oedipus' tomb, is totally implausible considering the remarkable specificity surrounding the topographical features of the tabooed.2 Even more, the entrance of the skene conveniently symbolizes, among other things, a numinous opening to the Underworld. The chapter is rounded up with a helpful metrical appendix.

In the third chapter ('The Oedipus Myth and the OC', pp. 36-51), Kelly discusses the rudiments of the Oedipus saga, highlighting the special ways in which Sophocles reworked the mythological stories about the House of the Labdacids to give a new twist to a well-known legend. He goes so far as to argue (perhaps rightly) that there might have been a duplication of an Acropolis cult of Oedipus at Colonus in view of the striking similarities between the Colonan shrine and Oedipus' tomb on the Areopagus in Athens (p. 43), while he echoes without sufficient qualification Jebb's suggestion that in lines 1520-1523 the poet by a slip identifies the spot where Oedipus passed away , thereby letting the audience in on the exact location of the hidden sepulcher (p. 44).3 Although there is an obvious discrepancy between Oedipus' injunctions (lines 1520-1525; cf. also lines 1544-1546) and the Messenger's detailed account (lines 1590-1597), the identity of the tomb is far from clear and this is not just because even non-Colonan Athenians would have been puzzled by the exhaustive description of the cultic terrain. Despite some fragments of relevant information in the closing scenes, the exact manner of Oedipus' vanishing is an impossibly difficult problem in view of the notorious ambiguities surrounding Greek notions of life after death: the conditions controlling the soul of the deceased, his lifeless body, his afterlife existence as a shadowy reflection of the real person, and his double habitation in both Hades and his tomb.

The third chapter concludes with an interesting discussion of the close intertextuality between the play and Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. It is perhaps slightly disappointing that the author feels bound to end his clear-eyed examination of the thematic correspondences between the two Sophoclean plays with the commonplace coda that the ancient spectators would have been probably equally attracted by the intertextual allure of innumerable other dramatic versions of the same mythical story (p. 50). But it is obvious, at least to this reviewer (and to the composer of the ancient Hypothesis of the play, for that matter), that Oedipus at Colonus evokes the earlier play at a myriad of points, both thematically and dramaturgically, and this is not by any means a mere coincidence.

In the fourth chapter ('Oedipal Accounts', pp. 52-64), Kelly investigates Oedipus' three apologies (lines 258-291, 510-548, 960-1013). Much as this chapter is by far the most interesting in the book, it is certainly the most controversial. It is generally admitted that any one critic coming to grips with Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus is faced with the major problem of explaining away in purely rational terms Oedipus' ferocious attack on both his city and his sons: Oedipus is enraged with Thebes, Eteocles, and Polynices because over time he has come to recognize his absolute innocence. One suspects that Kelly finds it extremely difficult to accept the shocking fact that Oedipus is given divine status after having hurled horrible imprecations upon his native city and his male progeny, thereby eventually bringing about the destruction of Antigone. Thus, he mounts a painstaking analysis of Oedipus' self-absolving narratives, always keeping an eye open for the weak argument and the lame excuse, but his hairsplitting attempt comes off rather badly. The same applies to the second part of this chapter which focuses on Oedipus' blame accounts: eyebrows will surely be raised when readers realize that the image of Oedipus emerging from the discussion is mainly one of a calculating, rhetorically skilful manipulator desperately trying to get the maximum conviction out of the minimum argument. But in ancient Greece tales of major political figures turning against their motherland with a vengeance abound: it is in fact the heroic spirit, duly transferred from the archaic period into the heart of the new city-state, which often finds expression in personal discontents over the pressing demands of public duty. The same applies to the tense relations of Oedipus with his male offspring: it is absolutely natural for ancient Greeks to seek some sort of retaliation against their progeny, especially when the moral code regulating the father-son intricate circuit of relationships is transgressed. It is true that in ancient Greece any son might find it difficult to navigate through the vortices of familial obligations, but Eteocles and Polynices overstepped the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and, far worse, they did so secure in the knowledge that their father would never be capable of retaliating. Oedipus is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt, and his revenge underlines this same innocence: this hero-god is both beneficent and maleficent like any other hero-god before him.

In the fifth ('Oedipus and the Gods', pp. 65-85) and sixth chapters ('Athens and Attica', pp. 86-106), Kelly investigates in detail the religious and political dimensions of the play, attaching great importance to the suppliant status of Oedipus and his heroization. His preternatural elevation to heroic rank comes as the long-awaited climax of a series of ritual reversals, as the wretched suppliant seeking refuge from Theban aggression becomes gradually a force to be reckoned with. Kelly is justified in thinking that Oedipus' close attachment to the Eumenides is indicative of a wider divine benevolence manifesting itself in the most emphatic way possible in his miraculous disappearance at the closing scene of the play, when the suppliant stranger is gradually transformed into a cultic saviour. His hero worship at Colonus is not a local peculiarity, but turns a small deme into a major stronghold of Athens: if the duplication of the cult is correct, then Colonus and Athens collapse into one invulnerable citadel, the importance of which cannot be overstated in the context of the Peloponnesian War.

In the seventh chapter ('Characters', pp. 107-133), Kelly examines how Sophocles constructs his central characters, giving special attention to Theseus and Oedipus. He fittingly notes that "Theseus is a ruler worthy of both the benefit and the responsibility of being the guardian of Oedipus' tomb", laying particular emphasis on individual merit as a valuable source of communal well-being. The eighth chapter ('Oedipal Receptions', pp. 134-137) is an insufficient treatment of an important subject: the discussion of the play's reception in modern times in three and a half pages does not do justice to those numerous remodellings of the Labdacid myth, on both stage and screen, that include significant references to the wretched peregrination of old blind Oedipus (Rodighiero's excellent scholarship on the play's Nachleben should serve as a most useful starting point for a lengthier discussion).4

All in all, this new Duckworth companion to Sophocles' final play casts a revealing light on several questions concerning the principal characters and the Athenian setting, offering well-judged and helpful introductory observations, thought-provoking discussions of major problems, and tirelessly thorough endnotes. Kelly is absolutely right to counter those critics who see the play's issues from an entirely pessimistic perspective, emphasizing instead the most important ideas of Oedipus at Colonus: the miraculous survival of Oedipus goes against the idea that the sole purpose of life is to end. One cannot help thinking that the same applies to the astounding endurance of Athens.


1.   For a concise discussion of the problem, see principally D. Wiles, Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 147-148.
2.   Schunk, L., Sophokles: Oedipus auf Kolonos (M√ľnster, 1907), p. 75.
3.   Jebb, R. C., Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments Part II: The Oedipus Coloneus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19003), p. 234.
4.   Rodighiero, A., Una serata a Colono: Fortuna del second Edipo (Verona: Edizioni Fiorini, 2007).

No comments:

Post a Comment