Tuesday, September 22, 2015


David Mulroy (trans.), Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison; London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. Pp. lxxii, 100. ISBN 9780299302542. $9.95 (pb).

Reviewed by David J. Hetrick, University of Florida (greyor@ufl.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Midway through his expansive and helpful introduction to one of Sophocles' more difficult plays, Mulroy clarifies his vision of Oedipus in the Oedipus at Colonus:

Each reader has his or her own Oedipus, and that is as it should be. My Oedipus is guilty of his sins to the extent that individuals are responsible for actions involving willful ignorance and subconscious compulsion. (xxxix)

Mulroy explores the character of Oedipus throughout, examining whether Oedipus is ultimately responsible for his actions at Thebes and at Colonus. He notes that

actions, even those that are foretold, are the products of a hero's free choice when he is in full possession of his faculties. That is clearly true of Oedipus' killing of Laius. The fact that the gods have knowledge of the future is no defense. If it were, no one would ever be guilty of anything. (xxxv)

As to whether or not Sophocles portrays Oedipus as morally responsible, Mulroy argues that "the text accommodates both interpretations" (x), and continues to examine this conundrum in greater detail.

Mulroy has produced a lively, engaging translation of an often abstruse play, less celebrated than the Oedipus Rex and the Antigone. He has previously translated both plays (in 2011 and 2013, respectively), and this book provides an excellent finale to the trio. It is neatly organized, comprising a preface, introduction, pronunciation guide and glossary of proper names, then the translation proper. In his preface, Mulroy provides basic information and thoughts on translating the work (ix–xi). Acknowledging that many read the OC after the other two, Mulroy refers to his other translations for more on Sophocles and Greek tragedy.

Mulroy situates his work alongside other recent translations of the OC: "My translations are distinguished by the lengths I go to in order to recapture something of the rhythmic and musical character of the original Greek productions" (ix). He has succeeded admirably, and it is easy to see why his translations are "meant to be read aloud" (ix). He also details his colometry: regular spoken parts in iambic pentameter, while lyrical passages involve rhyming stanzas (ix, 11 nn. 11 and 12). Mulroy used both Lloyd-Jones' Loeb (1998) and Jebb's 1900 edition (repr. 2004) of the OC (xi). He suggests a target audience of high school students or undergraduates (x), yet professional classicists and others will also be pleased. The glossary, however, does seem intended for newer readers.

Mulroy's introduction, occupying around a third of the book, is painstakingly detailed, including an explanation of the surrounding political circumstances, and his copious footnotes aid readers with difficult passages throughout. The introduction enumerates events before and through the OC ("The Story of Oedipus at Colonus"), interspersed with snippets of Mulroy's translation. Mulroy also helpfully defines tragic and literary terms where appropriate (readers may want to reference this detailed summary later). He then explores other matters, such as the question of Oedipus' guilt or innocence, and proposes a Freudian reading of the character of Oedipus:

In modern terms, [Oedipus] was in the grip of the subconscious desire that Freud attributed rightly or wrongly to all young men. Whether the general theory has any validity is an open question, but there is certainly reason to think that Oedipus himself had an Oedipus complex. (xxxvi)

The following section, which continues the Freudian reading, "Oedipus, Meet Dr. Freud: A Poetic Dialogue," is a playful and amusing exercise, although ultimately it does not seem to contribute much to his overarching arguments.

Mulroy then discusses the power of dead heroes' remains (e.g., Theseus' remains at Marathon), and various predominant traditions of Oedipus' death. Oedipus was perhaps buried on the Areopagus (xlv–xlvi, according to Euripides Phoen. 1702–7), or at Colonus (according to Sophocles). Mulroy argues that Sophocles, himself from Colonus, originated the Colonus story (xlvi–xlvii). Since Sophocles' Colonus apparently merges aspects of both locations (xliv), "it is as though Sophocles sought greater credence for his new version of Oedipus' burial by blending details from the inherited account" (xlv).

Mulroy concludes by analyzing and contextualizing the play vis-à-vis the contemporary political situation at Athens (e.g., the end of the Peloponnesian War and its consequences), which certainly may have influenced Sophocles' play (likely composed "shortly before his death in 406 or 405 BCE" (ix)). He argues that "there is no direct connection between the story of Oedipus at Colonus and events in Athens between 408 and 405, but they are not unrelated" (lviii).

The lack of a bibliography to synthesize Mulroy's scrupulous citations throughout is a shortcoming of the introductory materials. Other recent translations of Sophocles, such as Ahrensdorf and Pangle (2014), include a "Works Cited," and Fainlight and Littman (2009) include "Selections for Further Reading" with full bibliographical information. Some citations are incomplete, e.g., Jacoby's Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, at lxii n. 1, lxv n. 26, lxvi n. 31, lxvii n. 35, or Kock's Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta at lxv n. 27. Such references are unproblematic for classicists, but a full bibliography would make these standard reference works more recognizable to a larger audience.

Mulroy's translation is a joy to read, deploying various rhetorical flourishes. The rhyming scheme employed for choral passages makes it more entertaining, and helpfully distinguishes them from the rest of the play. He tends to use conversational modern English, generally eschewing stilted "Greek-lish," and thus renders the action more relatable to a modern audience. Mulroy has successfully bridged the difficult gap between excessive fidelity to the Greek and overwrought English barely resembling the original, especially in the rhymed lyrical passages.

That said, some infelicitous lines occur, including the phrase "inseminate the plain" (Mulroy 688 = πεδίων ἐπινίσσεται, 689). The waters of Cephisus, more literally, "come over the plains of the broad-swelling land" (πεδίων ἐπινίσσεται ... στερνούχου χθονός, 689–91). Perhaps Mulroy instead had in mind Hermann's conjecture σπερμούχου, "seed-holding" (see Jebb (2004) ad loc.). Later, Antigone's line "We long to pleasure you" (Mulroy 1105 = σὺν πόθῳ γὰρ ἡ χάρις, 1106) is also somewhat awkward, especially since Antigone and Ismene are Oedipus' kin. Such infelicities are thankfully few in an otherwise excellent translation.1

Let us compare Mulroy's translation with those of Ahrensdorf and Pangle (2014) and Fainlight and Littman (2009), starting with the Chorus' entrance in the parodos (= Greek 117–26):

117–22 by Mulroy

Who was the man and where's he now?
He's disappeared. We wonder how.
The boldest man of all!

He's surely wandered far and wide.
No native son would step inside
the grove of savage maids...

117–27 by Ahrensdorf and Pangle

Look! Who was he? Where does he abide?
Where has he rushed away,
He of all, he of all, most insatiable!
Look for him! Look closely!
Inquire further on all sides!
A wanderer,
Some wanderer, is the elder,
Not a native of the land. For otherwise he would never
Go to the inviolable grove
Of the Indomitable Maidens...

117–27 by Fainlight and Littman

Who is he? Seek him – where is he hiding?
Where has he hurried
out of the way,
like the most shameless.
Seek for him everywhere
and ask everyone. That old man
must be a stranger,
not someone from here –
who would have known better
than to come to the sacred grove
of the irresistible Maidens

Mulroy's colometry for the choral passages creates some beautifully jaunty English, despite less fidelity to the Greek, producing the shortest of these three (6 lines). Mulroy's translation flows better, and sounds much more natural than a more literal one. Ahrensdorf and Pangle tend to be more literal, though, while Fainlight and Littman fall somewhere in the middle.2

Mulroy loosely translates "the boldest man of all!" The adjective ἀκόρεστος would be better translated "insatiable" or "insatiate." Ahrensdorf and Pangle stay closer to the Greek: "He of all, he of all, most insatiable." Fainlight and Littman arguably punt here, translating as "like the most shameless." Perhaps a merged approach would work: "Of all, the boldest man of all!"

Mulroy next merely alludes to a couple of lines (121–22 in the Greek), glossing the Greek πανταχῇ (122) with "far and wide." Ahrensdorf and Pangle translate 121–22 as "Look for him! Look closely! / Inquire further on all sides!" Fainlight and Littman find a nice balance with "Seek for him everywhere / and ask everyone." While he sometimes avoids potential repetition in the Greek (πλανάτας, 124 and 125; πάντων, 119 and 120), Ahrensdorf and Pangle tend to retain it. Fainlight and Littman offer a slightly compressed version in turn. Overall, Mulroy's translation retains the general sense of the passage without excessive entanglement in the syntax.

Mulroy concludes by economically rendering another long Greek phrase (OC 125–27). Ahrensdorf and Pangle translate rather literally: "For otherwise he would never / Go to the inviolable grove / Of the Indomitable Maidens..." Despite the challenges of Mulroy's rhyming scheme, he masterfully captures the essence of the Greek in two succinct lines. Fainlight and Littman foreground the subtext which Mulroy retains, contrasting strangers' behavior and locals' knowledge to stay away. Mulroy's Furies are "savage"; Ahrensdorf and Pangle's "indomitable"; and Fainlight and Littman's "irresistible."

Mulroy's translation seems fresher and more colloquial, remaining faithful but appealing to a modern audience. I generally prefer more literal translations (e.g., Lattimore's Homers), so I can appreciate Ahrensdorf and Pangle's, but Mulroy's approach is very refreshing. Again, Mulroy has finely translated Sophocles' choral passages into mostly rhyming lines in English. Often this can be a difficult venture, and generally the results do not outweigh the violence done to the Greek.

Another noteworthy passage involves Oedipus' rebuttal to Creon's entrance speech, abounding in rhetorical fireworks (761–67):

What insolence! There's nothing righteous that
your twisted rhetoric would not distort.
Why try such tricks on me? To capture me
a second time in bonds of grief and pain?
When I was sick with self-inflicted wounds,
I yearned for lifelong banishment, that's true,
but you refused to sanction my request!

Mulroy construes ὦ πάντα τολμῶν (761) elegantly as "What insolence," emphasizing the action rather than the agent. Mulroy's phrase "twisted rhetoric" (μηχάνημα ποικίλον, 762) also helpfully approximates the Greek. Overall, Mulroy produces an economical and conversational approximation of the Greek. His phrase "Why try such tricks on me?" foregrounds the subtext, explicitly connecting ταῦτα (763) with the "twisted rhetoric" of the previous line.

Mulroy translates 765–67 excellently, rendering τοῖσιν οἰκείοις κακοῖς as "self-inflicted wounds" (literally, "one's own evils"). The word οἰκείοις has a manifold Greek valence that is difficult to articulate in English, encompassing various aspects of the household and family. Mulroy then neatly compresses the Greek at the end of this passage, despite inserting some words and phrases ("lifelong," "that's true").

I have only minor quibbles with the book itself, as it is finely printed and mostly error-free. On p. xvi, the font-size of the phrase "the marble platform there" does not match the surrounding text. There is a misplaced apostrophe on p. xxvii: "suitor's relatives" instead of "suitors' relatives." On p. xlvii, an argument quoted at the beginning of the section and set off in smaller text is ambiguous; only the endnote indicates that it is a quotation and not Mulroy's words (cf. lxi–lxii). On p. lxiii, n. 2 should list "K. G. Saur," not "K. G. Sauer," and lxv n. 23 should read "Thesprotians" rather than "Thresprotians." These particular issues aside, the book is well made and very readable.

Seasoned scholars and newcomers alike will appreciate Mulroy's translation alongside numerous recent translations of the OC (e.g., Ahrensdorf and Pangle 2014; Fainlight and Littman 2009; Slavitt 2007; Grennan and Kitzinger 2004). With his introduction, Mulroy invites readers to reevaluate and discover a new appreciation for this often difficult play. Readers will appreciate his eye (and especially his ear) for detail, and his talent for recapturing much of the majesty and magic of Sophocles' original.


1.   However, also cf. 1112–13, "Press yourselves against me, let our bodies intertwine," which is remarkably faithful to the Greek.
2.   Ahrensdorf and Pangle admittedly strive for "the most literally exact reproduction of precisely what Sophocles wrote" (p. ix); cf. BMCR 2014.10.44.

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