Basic Program Alumni Seminar
The University of Chicago
May 9, 2011
Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos can plausibly be regarded as one of the greatest—if not, indeed, the very greatest—of the plays long available in the Western World. As such, it constantly invites attention and reconsideration. Particularly instructive, of course, should be those works by other poets across millennia which draw upon the story of Oedipus.
The earliest such work available to us seems to be that of Homer, perhaps half a millennium before Sophocles. That poet can have Odysseus encounter, among others in Hades, Oedipus, Iocaste (that is, “our” Jocasta) and Tiresias. Homer’s Iocaste had hung herself and Oedipus is shown as blinded—but Homer’s Oedipus evidently continued to rule in Thebes, eventually dying on the battlefield in her defense. Elsewhere, in Homer, reference can be made to the burial site of the heroic Oedipus.
A quite recent adaptation of Sophocles’ story can be said to be what the somewhat poetic Sigmund Freud suggests about the “Oedipus” in all of us. It has been noticed however, that Oedipus himself may have been one of those rare human beings without the kind of Oedipus Complex celebrated by Freud. A much older, and perhaps more instructive, adaptation of the Oedipus story may be seen in what Seneca (a half millennium after Sophocles) does with the old story.
One can be reminded, upon encountering dramatic presentations of other familiar stories, what can usefully be taken for granted by an artist. I saw, for the first time last week, a famous silent film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (starring Maria Falconetti). It is a remarkably gripping film.
But its full effect depends on the viewer’s familiarity with the traditional story of its heroine. Otherwise, some of the film (perhaps much of it) would be confusing (and this some in our audience testified to). Its original audiences (in France) were within a decade of the official canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920. (I say “official” because the French people had, in effect, canonized her centuries earlier).
Some of those familiar with the story could be troubled by the interpretation offered in this film by its director. Thus, it is said, its exhibition was discouraged in Britain because of the way English soldiers were presented in the film, even as the Archbishop of Paris was troubled by what was done with French churchmen. We can wonder, of course, what Athenian theatre audiences might have been particularly challenged by, especially in the light of the circumstances of the day, in how an old story was offered on any occasion.
That the circumstances of the day can be critical for a playwright is obvious enough in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which we are discussing today. Current events, in the course of the Peloponnesian War, are obviously drawn upon. It can be harder to be sure about precisely what Socrates had been saying and doing that had moved Aristophanes to do what he did in another play of his that we have studied, The Clouds.
Even in the Lysistrata there are references to persons, and evidently to incidents, that are obscure for us. We can wonder how our understanding of Aristophanes’ “message” would be affected by a more reliable grasp by us of the details of the play. Critical details, however, may always be beyond our reach, if not also beyond the reach of many in Aristophanes’ original audience.
Similar, perhaps more serious, limitations confront us upon examining the Oedipus Tyrannos. We cannot even be sure whether Tyrannos was part of Sophocles’ title for his play. And it might help to know what had been happening in Athens when the playwright returned to the story of the family that he had, some years before, drawn on in his Antigone (but for an episode later “in time” than that depicted in the Oedipus Tyrannos).
I have put tentatively a supposition about the relevance of Athenian events for a full grasp of what Sophocles does in his Oedipus Tyrannos. It may be wondered whether the playwright sought to influence future events. When one looks at Seneca’s Oedipus, it can seem even more likely that events of the day (or of the decade) were drawn on by the playwright.
Also drawn on, it seems, is Sophocles’ masterpiece. Indeed, the Seneca play may be, at least for us, most interesting for what it helps us to notice in Sophocles’. It does seem that Seneca had access either to Sophocles’ text or to something that drew substantially on that text.
A critical difference with respect to the standing of each as citizen should be noticed in assessing these two playwrights. Sophocles is remembered as having distinguished himself in the political (including the military) life of his city, while Seneca is remembered as having been obliged, by the Emperor Nero, to commit suicide, having been suspected of at least being sympathetic toward (if not actually involved in) plots against a most tyrannical ruler. Tributes to Seneca’s political interests may perhaps be seen in the uses made of his name in the geography of this Country.
Particularly striking in the Seneca version of the Oedipus story is the muting of the notion of tyranny. In Sophocles’ day, there could still be respectable tyrants—and Oedipus himself was regarded, through most of his career at Thebes, as a most beneficent tyranny. It was only after it became evident that Oedipus could indeed claim to be the king of Thebes that he became dreadfully unacceptable as such.
In Seneca’s play, on the other hand, Oedipus is repeatedly associated with royalty. He is very much the king. Recognition of his status as an outsider is muted, far more so than in Sophocles’ play.
But, unlike in Sophocles’ play, Seneca’s Oedipus labors under a sense of foreboding from the outset. He is particularly troubled by the recognition that the plague that is devastating Thebes has left him personally untouched—and he can be apprehensive about what is destined to happen to him. Should we not wonder whether Nero intuited in Oedipus’ premonitions something that recognized the emperor’s own vulnerability?
Might Nero have been troubled as well by how ineffectual Seneca’s Tiresias can be, so much so that he, unlike Sophocles’ Tiresias, does not know who and what Oedipus is. He does appear on stage—but for far fewer lines than in the Sophocles play. And he, unlike Sophocles’ Tiresias, does not know anything significant that he is reluctant to reveal.
The troubling revelation, about Oedipus as the killer of the late king, is conjured up during a resort to necromancy offstage. Tiresias, it seems, is not a critical agent there. And it is Creon (not Tiresias) who brings in the allegation about Oedipus as a regicide which angers him, even imperiling Creon.
One can wonder what is revealed about Rome both that someone such as Tiresias can now be so ineffectual (compare the remarkable endorsement of him by Homer’s Odysseus) and that necromancy should be so much in favor. Is there implied here a depreciation of Delphi and Apollo, with greater emphasis, than among the Greeks of Sophocles’ day, upon the darker forces of the universe? And, one can also wonder, what is being suggested by Seneca about what has happened to the spirit of the once-celebrated Roman Republic?
One can be reminded, upon considering what Seneca does with Tiresias, that this character may have been added to the traditional story by Sophocles. It is said by scholars, that is, that Tiresias had not been in the story that chanced to be inherited by Sophocles. What does the Greek playwright suggest about the relevance for everyday life of divine inspiration?
The revelations by Tiresias in the Oedipus Tyrannos do seem to be discounted by Oedipus and others (whatever Tiresias had been able to do, if it was he, to frighten Laius decades earlier about the birth of a son). The devastating revelations are made later in Sophocles’ Oedipus by others, none of them obviously guided by divine elements. What is revealed in the encounter of Oedipus with Tiresias (and later with an elderly herdsman) is how furious Oedipus could become in dealing with an offensive old man, perhaps allowing the audience to see what had happened years before during the explosive Crossroads encounter with another such old man recalled by Oedipus.
Seneca’s innovations are not limited to necromancy and the like, with his most significant innovation perhaps being at the very end of the play, where he not only has Jocasta die well after Oedipus had blinded himself, but also has her die not by hanging herself but by using Oedipus’ sword. She had not, like Sophocles’ Jocasta, figured out before Oedipus could the devastating truth about Oedipus’ parentage. It can be suspected that there was in this royal stabbing an allusion to dark deeds in the Roman Imperial family, something that Nero himself might have found troubling.
We return now to The Passion of Joan of Arc film. One may even see there, in the way the judges were used, indications of how the Greek chorus was used in tragedies. It should not be assumed, as some critics tend to do, that the Greek chorus represented the opinion either of the audience or of the playwright.
Anyone familiar with the career of Joan of Arc could be troubled by the show in the film of robust popular opposition as she was being burned at the stake. There does not seem to have been any such manifictation at the time in Rouen. One may be reminded here of the risks a playwright runs when a well-known story is changed significantly—unless, of course, he can suggest that his seeming departure reflects something that somehow was “always there.”
A much more serious problem can be confronted by the observer who comes to sense that almost all of the principals (as they are portrayed in this film) may simply be crazy. And it may usefully be wondered what the more astute members of the Fifth Century Athenian audience really thought of stories in which grim oracles and devastating divinities routinely played so great a role. Should we, in turn, wonder what critical (even “founding”) stories relied on among us are dubious?
We return now to Aristophanes, not to the Lysistrata but to The Clouds. Recall first, however, the repudiation of Socrates immediately after the concluding condemnation of Euripides in The Frogs of Aristophanes, which is done in the closing minutes of this play about the contest among the great tragedians in Hades. We can be reminded here of the tradition that Euripides would discuss his plays with Socrates.
In The Clouds, of course, the explicit critique of Socrates is at much greater length than in The Frogs. Among the charges “filed” in The Clouds against Socrates is that he undermines the generally-received opinions about the gods. Among the Socratic responses to this is what is done with Socrates’ daemonic thing, perhaps somewhat playfully, in Plato’s Apology.
But we recall as well the concluding lines of Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates is reported to have persuaded a comic poet (Aristophanes) and a tragic poet (Agathon) that if one can be one kind of poet, one can also be the other, perhaps suggesting thereby that there are serious limitations in any poet who “specializes” only in tragedy or only in comedy. Are comic poets urged thereby to be more sober, while tragic poets are urged to “lighten up”? And what does “lightening up” do to the curiously engaging stories in which Fate, Oracles, and a sometimes Grim Necessity dominate “founding” stories that somehow encourage gifted poets to experiment with again and again?