Ancient Greece and the Formation of the Western Mind
In the tenth year of the Achaean siege of Troy, a rich city in Asia Minor, Agamemnon, the most powerful king among the Achaean allies, quarrels with the bravest of them, Achilles. Agamemnon had taken as his concubine the captive daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo; at the priest’s request, the god had sent a plague to devastate the army. Agamemnon agrees to give back the girl but demands compensation from the army for the loss of his share of the spoils of war. Achilles opposes this demand as unreasonable and Agamemnon, at the end of a furious argument announces he will take away Achilles’ girl Briseis, whom Achilles had captured in a raid. Achilles draws his sword to kill Agamemnon but is dissuaded from violence by the goddess Athena, who promises that he will be amply recompensed for Agamemnon’s insults at some future date. He goes back to his tent and pulls his men out of the fighting. But he also asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to intervene. She is to use her influence with Zeus, the king of the gods, and ask him to inflict defeat and suffering on the Achaeans, so that they will turn against Agamemnon. She goes to Olympus and, in spite of the opposition of Zeus’ wife Hera (who favors the Achaean side), Zeus grants her prayer.
In books II–V (not included in the anthology) Agamemnon calls an assembly of the troops. In an attempt to test morale he suggests abandoning the war; the ensuing stampede for the ships is stopped only by Odysseus with the aid of the goddess Athena. The Achaeans then muster for battle and the poet describes each contingent in what is known as the Catalog of Ships; he then proceeds to list the Trojan forces. The two sides join battle but Hector, the Trojan leader, proposes that the war be settled by a duel between Menelaus, the Achaean king, and Paris, the Trojan prince who had run off with Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Both sides agree; Menelaus wins the fight and is about to kill Paris when the goddess Aphrodite, who protects Paris because he gave her the prize for beauty, rescues him and sends him to join Helen in Troy. Agamemnon tells the Trojans to give back Helen and all her possessions and also to pay an indemnity; it looks as if the two sides will make peace on those terms but the gods, at the urging of Hera and Athena, prevent it. Athena persuades Pandarus to shoot an arrow at Menelaus during the truce. Menelaus receives only a light wound, but the truce is broken; the battle resumes. Zeus’ promise is not fulfilled immediately; the Achaean hero Diomedes dominates the battle and the Trojans are hard pressed.
In book VI Hector goes to Troy to organize prayers to Athena; the poet gives us a glimpse of the rich, civilized city which the Achaeans will in the end destroy. Hector meets his mother, Hecuba; his brother Paris; and Helen, the cause of the war; he then sees, for the last time as it turns out, his wife, Andromache, and his infant son.
In books VII and VIII (not in the anthology) the promise of Zeus is fulfilled. After an inconclusive duel between Hector and Ajax the Achaeans are driven back and the Trojans, who usually retire behind their city walls at night, camp out on the field, ready to deliver a decisive assault in the morning.
In book IX Agamemnon summons a council; they advise him to make amends to Achilles. He agrees and proposes not only to give a magnificent list of gifts but also to restore Briseis (whom he swears he has not touched) and to offer one of his daughters in marriage to Achilles after the war. This offer is made to Achilles by Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix, an old retainer of Achilles, but Achilles refuses outright. The insult to his honor is too great to be wiped out by gifts. He will go home, with all his men. Phoenix tries to persuade him, reminding him of the story of Alcmaeon, who also withdrew from the fighting alliance in anger, was begged to return, and refused. When in the end he came back to the fighting, he had forfeited all of the gifts he would have been given if he had complied earlier. Achilles still refuses to fight, but he has been moved; he will stay at Troy. And the final appeal from Ajax moves him still more; he will not join the battle, he says, until Hector fights his way to the Greek ships and sets them on fire. Phoenix stays with Achilles; Odysseus and Ajax return to report the failure of their mission.
In book X (not in the anthology) Odysseus and Diomedes make a successful night raid on the Trojan lines, but this is the last Achaean success for some time. In books XII to XVII (not in the anthology) the tide of battle turns against the Achaeans. Paris wounds Diomedes with an arrow; Odysseus is wounded and withdraws; Machaon, the Achaean physician, is also wounded. Achilles, who is watching the fighting and rejoicing in the Achaean losses sends his friend Patroclus to see if the wounded man he saw was indeed Machaon and this, the poet says, “is the beginning of his evil.” For Patroclus, moved to pity by the wounded men he sees in the Achaean camp and by Hector’s assault on the wall the Achaeans have built to protect their ships, will appeal to Achilles on the Achaeans’ behalf (books XIII–XIV). Achilles refuses to join the fighting himself but allows Patroclus, equipped with his own armor, to take the field. After driving the Trojans back, Patroclus is killed by Hector, who strips off the armor of Achilles and puts it on. After a desperate fight, the Achaeans recover the body of Patroclus and take it back to their camp (books XV–XVII).
When Achilles hears of the death of Patroclus, he resolves to avenge him by killing Hector, but he must wait until his goddess mother brings him new armor; it is forged by Hephaestus, the divine smith, and includes a marvelous picture shield. Achilles then calls an assembly of the Achaeans, accepts Agamemnon’s apology and, after mourning over the corpse of Patroclus, puts on the armor and goes into battle.
In the final battle (not in the anthology) even the gods take part, but Achilles drives all before him as he cuts the Trojan warriors down. He drives the Trojans inside the gates of the city but is distracted by the god Apollo, a protector of Troy who, taking the shape of a Trojan warrior, leads him on a futile chase. Hector, feeling responsible for the defeat of his people, stays outside the gate to face Achilles.
In book XXII the two great adversaries face each other at last. Hector is beaten but before he dies prophesies Achilles’ imminent death. Achilles ties the corpse to his chariot and drags it out to his camp.
Book XXIII (not in the anthology) deals with the burial of Patroclus and the funeral games in his honor. Achilles distributes rich prizes to the winners of athletic events: chariot race, boxing, wrestling, foot race, armed combat, weight casting, and archery.
In the last book (XXIV) Priam, king of Troy and father of Hector, is led by a divine messenger, Hermes, to the tent of Achilles to offer a rich ransom for his son’s body. Achilles has been told by Thetis that Zeus is angry with him for his desecration of Hector’s corpse and Achilles agrees to give it up. But he is not prepared to see Hector’s father, king of Troy, a suppliant at his feet, and his pity for the old man puts an end to the inhuman fury that has ruled him since the death of Patroclus. He lets Priam take the body, gives him eleven days for the burial of Hector; on the twelfth day the war will be renewed. Hector’s people lament for him and give him a magnificent funeral; the last line of the poem—“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses”—reminds us that the fighting will begin again at once and that Achilles, in his turn, will face the death he has inflicted on others.
Nothing is known about Homer’s life or personality. It has even been thought that there was no one poet who composed the Iliad, that it was the creation of many generations of illiterate bards, the product of an epic tradition. That it comes out of some such background there can be no doubt; not only does it contain linguistic forms and refer to customs that predate the Greek adoption of literacy in the middle of the eighth century b.c., but it also shows in its repetition of epithets (“Achilleus of the swift feet”), phrases, lines, and even whole passages (compare I.13–16 and I.25–29 with I.439–41) the characteristic features of oral composition. The products of such a tradition are, however, usually much shorter than the Iliad and Odyssey; further, they rarely display the masterly construction and internal cross-reference that distinguish the Homeric poems.
Critical opinion now tends to assume a poet who was a master of the oral techniques and repertory but who exploited the new resource of the alphabet (adapted from a Phoenician script) for the construction of large-scale epics. This does not mean that overnight the Iliad and Odyssey became poems for reading; they were still performed by professional reciters, but the poem was no longer the creation, from memory and improvisation, of an individual bard; it was the dramatic recitation of a known and admired text. By the late sixth century b.c. public recitation of the poems was a highlight of the great festival of Athena at Athens, and the poems were also studied in schools. Scholars of the library at Alexandria in Egypt worked on the text in the third century b.c. and from that time on written copies for readers were the almost exclusive medium for Homer’s survival to our own day.
1. Book I
2. Books VIII and IX
3. XVIII and XIX
4. XXII and XXIV
The longer assignments, 3 and 4, are possible because in the first two the student will have become familiar with the style and character of the work.
One thing that may puzzle the student is the organization (if it deserves that name) of the Achaean army. It should be explained first of all that the poem does not reflect any real historical situation; the oral tradition on which Homer draws is not concerned with historical fact but with stories of heroes who surpass ordinary human standards of courage and martial achievement. The Achaean army is simply an alliance of independent chieftains, each one in command of his own men, who have come together to help Menelaus recover his wife and punish the Trojans and also to share in the plunder that will result from the capture and destruction of Troy. They owe no loyalty to Agamemnon, as feudal nobles did to a king; Agamemnon has to command by a diplomatic exploitation of the fact that he is in control of the biggest contingent of armed men. On every important decision he consults his “council”—the chieftains of the separate bands; when he acts impulsively and without consultation, as in the quarrel with Achilles, he eventually comes to regret that action and comes as close to an apology as he can (XIX.99ff.).
The political organization of the army is an imaginary, epic phenomenon, and the fighting is just as unrealistic. There are large numbers of nameless infantry who presumably fight with spear and shield, but we never hear about them; the poem deals exclusively with the duels of the chief heroes. These heroes have horse-drawn chariots, but they do not use them against the enemy infantry; they ride to the battlefield in them, then dismount to fight. This is not the way war chariots were in fact used, as we know from the art and historical literature of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians; the epic poets had kept the memory of the chariots but forgotten how they were used. From the point of view of the epic bard, the chariots would in any case get in the way of his story, for time and time again he pits one hero against another not just in combat but in verbal exchanges of threats, insults, taunts, and boasts, which would not have been possible if they had been racing past each other in chariots.
This does not mean that Homer’s picture of war is totally unrealistic; his descriptions of what happens when bronze weapons cut human flesh are all too accurate. But the realistic wounding and killing are set in a framework of single combat that allows the heroes to speak to each other before, during, and after the fighting and allows the poet to create dramatic tension out of these exchanges. See especially the speeches of Hector and Achilles, XXII.296–321 and XXII.390–432.
Topics for Discussion
1. Freedom and responsibility. To what extent are the decisions made by the heroes independent, individual decisions? Discuss, along these lines, Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis from Achilles.
Agamemnon’s decision is presented in book I as completely independent of divine persuasion or command (unlike Achilles’ decision not to kill Agamemnon); his motives are anger (line 121), hatred for Achilles (lines 208ff.), a wish to assert his superiority (lines 219ff.). And when in book IX he regrets his action and wishes to be reconciled with Achilles, he blames his action as “madness” (line 138) and speaks of being “lost in my own inhuman rage” (line 143). It is noticeable, however, that he uses these words in a council from which Achilles is absent; the ambassadors to Achilles carry no apology from Agamemnon, only the offer of gifts. When finally, after the death of Patroclus, the two men meet, Agamemnon denies responsibility, claiming that his decision was not free. “But I am not to blame,” he says (XIX.100); he blames his action on Zeus and Ruin, the daughter of Zeus, who took his wits away. In this case Homer shows us a man who evades responsibility for his free decision by blaming a god, but sometimes a god did in fact affect human decision as in the case of Achilles in book I who had clearly, after thinking over the alternatives, decided to kill Agamemnon (line 225) but was dissuaded by the goddess Athena.
2. Discuss the statement (from the sweep introduction, 108): “Morality is a human creation, and though the gods may approve of it, they are not bound by it.”
The fate of Troy depends on the will of the gods, and its final destruction is a product of a power struggle among them: Hera, Athena, and Poseidon are inexorably hostile to Troy, Apollo its champion, and Zeus is swayed now by one side, now by the other. The fact that Troy is a civilized city besieged by soldiers bent on its destruction, the massacre of its men and the enslavement of its women and children, plays no part in the gods’ decision, nor does the fact that, as Zeus says, Hector, the Trojan champion, worshiped Zeus with gifts and sacrifice (“the immortals loved Prince Hector,” Zeus says, “best of all the mortals born in Troy,” XXIV.81–82). Hera and Athena have no pity for Troy, even though the Trojans (in book VI) make offerings to Athena and pray for her help. They and their children will pay with their lives and freedom for the injury done to Athena’s (and Hera’s) pride when the Trojan prince Paris chose Aphrodite over them for the prize of beauty (XXIV.33ff.). However, in book XXIV, the gods (with the exception of Athena, Hera, and Poseidon) are appalled by Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body and finally agree to order Achilles to give it up to his father, Priam.
Topics for Writing
1. Aristotle said that the man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast or a god. Discuss the figure of Achilles in the light of this statement.
2. In spite of the constraints imposed by the formulaic language of the oral tradition, Homer, according to one critic, “sees his people as individually distinct and makes us aware of their individuality.” Discuss the ways in which Homer succeeds in presenting as differentiated individuals Hector, Nestor, Ajax, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Priam, and Phoenix.
3. Homer’s preferred medium of poetic comparison is simile rather than metaphor and his similes are “extended”: the simile does more than establish a likeness between A and B, it goes on to describe B in great detail, some of the details not like A at all. Yet these details, the apparent development of B for its own sake, often do suggest points of comparison that lie below the surface, and often, too, they make significant comments on broader aspects of the situation in which they appear. Discuss the function of the extended simile in the following passages:
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Achilles set the model for a kind of heroism still immensely influential in the imagination of the West. Compare the motives that drive his tragic, obsessive behavior with those moving the heroes of the epics of other ancient civilizations, who have had equal influence in their cultures. See the Bhagavad-Gita for its treatment of Arjuna’s reluctance to fight and Krishna’s defense of the warrior’s violence, or the Ramayana for its depiction of Rama’s gracious self-control, or Gilgamesh for its account of a hero closer to Achilles in his rage and egotism.
2. A significant number of the world’s great epic poems pay particular attention to the relationships of fathers and sons and their surrogates. Speculate on the critical nature of this tie in warrior cultures. Compare the paternal roles played in the Iliad by Peleus and Priam and relate them to the behavior of fathers in other epics: the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Epic of Son-Jara, the Shâhnâme.
See also the suggestions in the anthology, pp. 120–21.
Chadwick, John. The Mycenean World. 1976. An up-to-date and critical survey of Mycenean civilization (including full discussion of the Linear B tablets and the light they throw on the period). Chadwick concludes that the Homeric poems preserve very little of the real facts of the Mycenean period.
Dodds, Eric R. The Greeks and the Irrational. 1951. Chapter 1, “Agamemnon’s Apology,” deals with the problem posed in the first topic under “Topics for Discussion.”
Hogan, James C. A Guide to the Iliad. 1979. Based on the Fitzgerald translation. A volume similar to Willcock, but based on a different translation: reference is more difficult but not impossible. It often explains passages Willcock passes over and also contains a valuable introduction.
Kirk, Geoffrey. Homer and the Epic. 1965. A masterly survey of the whole field of modern Homeric controversy distinguished by its firm grip on the historical background, the fairness of its critique of the various theories, and the reassuring moderation of its conclusions.
Lloyd-Jones, H. The Justice of Zeus. 1971. Chapter 1 makes a case for the Homeric gods as dealing justly with humankind. Relevant to the second topic under “Topics for Discussion.”
Lord, A. B. The Singer of Tales. 1960. Lord explains the background and methods of composition of Yugoslav oral epic and compares the results of his researches to the Homeric text. This is the authoritative treatment of Homer as an oral poet.
Luce, J. V. Homer and the Heroic Age. 1975. A survey of all the archaeological and historical evidence for the Mycenean and Dark Age periods, evidence that may have some bearing on Homer; Luce is much less skeptical than Chadwick.
Owen, E. T. The Story of the Iliad. 1947. For ordinary readers, probably the most exciting account of the Iliad ever written. Brief but stirring.
Schein, Seth L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad. 1984. A brilliant literary study of The Iliad as a tragic poem, which concentrates attention on the moral values of the Homeric world and which summons to its literary purpose the latest results of linguistic, archaeological, and historical research.
Whitman, Cedric. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. 1965. Contains a brilliant literary analysis of The Iliad that, though its elaborate analysis of the poem’s structure fails to convince, is rich in revealing insights.
Willcock, Malcolm M. A Companion to the Iliad. 1976. Based on the Lattimore translation. A detailed commentary that deals with difficulties in the text, explains mythological and historical details, and provides internal cross-references. An extremely useful volume for the teacher.
At a council of the gods on Olympus (book I), Athena pleads the case of Odysseus. It is now ten years since Troy was captured, but Odysseus, shipwrecked on his way home, is stranded on an island where the goddess Kalypso keeps him as her mate. The sea-god Poseidon—angry with Odysseus because the hero had blinded Poseidon’s son, the Kyklopês Polyphêmus—is absent from the council; Athena has her way, and Hermes, the messenger god, is sent to Kalypso with the order to release Odysseus. Athena goes to Odysseus’ home in Ithaka to encourage his son Telémakhos, whose household is occupied by the young and violent suitors of his mother, Penélopê; they are convinced Odysseus is dead and demand that she marry one of them. Athena, taking the shape of Mentês, king of a neighboring city, advises Telémakhos to visit old Nestor at Pylos and Menélaos at Sparta to see if they have any news of his father.
Encouraged by the goddess (Book II), Telémakhos calls an assembly of the people of Ithaka and assails the suitors for their unlawful occupancy of his house; he announces that he is off to find news of his father. The suitors realize that this is no longer a timid boy but a resolute and dangerous man; when they find out that he has actually left, they decide to set an ambush for him at sea and kill him on his way back. At Pylos (book III) Telémakhos meets old Nestor and hears from him how Agamémnon was killed by his own wife when he came home from Troy and how Menélaos, blown by adverse winds as far as Egypt, came home in the seventh year after Troy’s fall. Accompanied by Nestor’s son Peisístratos, Telémakhos goes to Sparta (book IV) where he is welcomed by Menélaos and Helen and told by Menélaos that, when last heard of, Odysseus was on the island of Kalypso, without ship or crew, longing to return home.
Meanwhile, the god Hermês arrives (book V) to bring Kalypso the command of Zeus. She accepts it with reluctance and when Hermês is gone makes one last attempt to keep Odysseus; she offers to make him immortal if he will stay with her. He refuses, and she helps him build a boat and sail off. The god Poseidon wrecks his boat, and Odysseus eventually crawls ashore naked and battered, on the island of Skería, home of the Phaiákians. Here he meets the daughter of the king Alkínoös, Nausikaa (book VI), who had come down to the shore with her retinue of girls to wash clothes. She is charmed by him and sends him off to the palace where he is hospitably entertained (book VII). The next day, at a banquet in the hall (book VIII), Odysseus, moved to tears by a minstrel’s tales of Troy, is challenged to reveal his identity. He does so (book IX) as he tells the Phaiákans (and us) the whole story of his wanderings since he left Troy (books IX–XII).
Rounding the southern cape of Greece on his way to Ithaka he was blown out to sea, southwest presumably, but from this point on his itinerary leaves real geography behind. His first landfall is the country of the Lotus Eaters from which he rescues those of his crew who have tasted the Lotus and lost their wish to return home. From the next trial, the land of the Kyklopês, he does not escape without casualties; four of his men are eaten by the one-eyed giant in his cave, and Odysseus would have been eaten, too, if he had not made the Kyklopes drunk and then put out his one eye. After escaping from the cave, Odysseus, taunting the blind giant from shipboard as he prepares to leave, tells Polyphêmos his name and the giant prays to his father Poseidon to make Odysseus’ homecoming a hard one. On the next island (book X) he reaches Aiolos, King of the Winds, who gives him a bag containing all the winds except the one that will take him home. But, in sight of Ithaka, his crew, thinking the bag contains treasure, open it and the winds, let loose, blow the ship back to where it came from.
At his next landfall he loses all his ships but one to the Laistrygonians, giants and cannibals. He goes on to the island of Kirkê, who turns his advance party into swine, but dominated by Odysseus, she restores their human shape and entertains them all in royal style. They stay for a year but before they leave, Kirkê tells Odysseus that he must go to the land of the dead and consult the seer Teirêsias. There (book XI) he is warned by Teirêsias not to eat the cattle of the Sun when he lands on the island of Thrinakia; speaks to the shade of his dead mother, who tells him what is going on in his house at home; sees a procession of famous women; and then meets the ghosts of his companions at Troy—Agamémnon, Akhilleus, and Aîas.
Back on Kirkê’s island (book XII), he bids farewell to her and passes the Seirênês who lure men to their doom by their song, makes the passage between the monster Skylla and the whirlpool Kharybdis, and lands on the island of Thrinakia where, in spite of his appeals, his men eat the sacred cattle of the Sun. Once again at sea, the ship is sunk in a storm, the crew lost; only Odysseus survives, to land at last on Kalypso’s island.
The Phaiákians take Odysseus home to Ithaka (book XIII); Poseidon, with the consent of Zeus, punishes them for helping his enemy. Odysseus meets the goddess Athena, and they plan a stealthy approach to his house in disguise: if he goes home in his own person the suitors may kill him. She transforms him into an aged, ragged beggar, and he goes to his swineherd Eumaios for hospitality (book XIV). He tells his generous host a tall tale of wanderings in Egypt and the story of Odysseus at Troy. Meanwhile, Telémakhos returns from Sparta (book XV), avoiding the suitors’ ambush. While Eumaios tells Odysseus how he was kidnapped as a child and sold to Odysseus’ father as a slave, Telémakhos makes his way to the swineherd’s hut. Without letting Eumaios know the truth, Odysseus reveals his identity to his son (book XVI); together they plot the overthrow of the suitors.
Odysseus and Telémakhos make their separate ways to the palace (book XVII). As Odysseus comes into the palace yard Argos, his dog, on the point of death from old age, recognizes his master. Odysseus goes begging bread from the suitors; Antínoös, the most violent of them, throws a stool at him. Odysseus is challenged by a real beggar, Iros (book XVIII), but beats him handily in a fight and wins the exclusive right to beg at the palace. Another prominent suitor Eurymakhos, insults Odysseus and throws a stool at him. Later that night (book XIX) Penélopê sends for Odysseus to see if the beggar has any news; he tells her of meeting Odysseus on the nearby mainland and assures her he will soon return. The old nurse Eurykleia, told to wash his feet before he goes to bed, recognizes him by a scar on his leg, but he silences her.
Penélopê decides to announce for the next day an archery contest that will decide which of the suitors may claim her hand. The suitors feast and revel (book XX); one more of them, Ktésippous, throws something at Odysseus, a cow’s hoof this time. They all start to laugh hysterically; the tension is mounting. The archery contest is set up (book XXI); the bow of Odysseus is brought out but none of the suitors can string it. Telémakhos tells Eumaios to give it to Odysseus who strings it and kills Antínoös (book XXII), Eurymakhos, and then—with the help of Telémakhos, Eumaios, and some loyal servants—all the rest of the suitors. Only the poet-minstrel Phêmios is spared. When Penélopê is told the news she cannot believe it (book XXIII); she tests Odysseus’ knowledge of a detail in their bedroom (the fact that the bed could not be moved since it was carved out of a standing olive tree) and accepts him as her husband.
But trouble is brewing in Ithaka. As Odysseus goes off to the country to see his father, Laèrtês, and the ghosts of the suitors go to the land of the dead (book XXIV) to be interrogated by Agamémnon and others, the relatives of the suitors gather to attack Odysseus and his family. But their attack is thwarted by the goddess Athena, and the two sides make peace.
There was a theory in the ancient world that the Odyssey was a work of Homer’s old age and that this accounts for the more mellow tone and the happy ending. Modern scholars have claimed that it must be later than the Iliad on other grounds: they discern a closer connection between human morality and divine judgment (in, for example, the speech of Zeus in I.45ff.) and assume that a higher morality must belong to a later age. Others have based the same later dating on the wanderings in books IX–XII, seeing in them a reflection of the early days of Greek colonization. Since, however, the geography of the wanderings suggests fairyland rather than the real western Mediterranean, this thesis, like the other, is controversial. There have been many attempts to identify the island of the Kyklopês and the land of the Lotus Eaters, but none of them has won general acceptance. The ancient critics were skeptical on this point: the great Greek geographer Eratosthenes of Alexandria (third–second centuries b.c.) said that you would be able to place the site of Odysseus’ wanderings when you had found the cobbler who sewed up the leather bag containing the winds.
It is true, however, that the Odyssey takes for granted a knowledge of the Iliad on the part of the audience; it is remarkable that in all the tales told about Troy and the heroes of the war, by Odysseus, Menélaos, Nestor, Demódokos, and the ghost of Agamémnon, not one single episode is duplicated in the Iliad. Such a complete avoidance of the material treated in the Iliad suggests knowledge of it in something like its present form.
The obvious assignments are I–IV (Telémakhos), V–VIII (Odysseus and the Phaiákians), IX–XII (the wanderings), XIII–XVI (at the hut of Eumaios), XVII–XX (the beggar in the palace), and XXI–XXIV (revenge and reunion). If shorter assignments are desired, take two books at a time.
If there is not time to read the whole poem, an Odyssean core (the wanderings) can be used: V–VI, VIII, IX–XII (from Kalypso’s island back to starting point). In this case, you will have to supply the bridge between VI and VIII, e.g., “Odysseus follows Nausikaa’s instructions and is received as a guest in the palace by her mother, Arêtê, and her father, Alkinoös, who promises to help him return home.”
Perhaps the main possibility of misunderstanding for today’s students lies in the nature of the heroic ideal presented in the Odyssey. Odysseus is not an Achillean character (see p. 120 in the anthology), but he is bound by a heroic ethic just the same. Lies and stratagems are his natural weapons, since most of the time he is pitted against superior force; he is a survivor, one who fights “to save his life” (I.9), but there are limits to what he will do to save it. On Kirkê’s island, for example, he will not abandon his advance party, which has not returned, even though the rest of his crew urge him to leave. He fights not only “to save his life” but also “to bring his shipmates home” (I.9). In this he fails, but at least in the case of those who killed the cattle of the Sun, this is no fault of his.
In the famous contrast between Odysseus and Achilles in the lower world, many critics have seen a repudiation of the heroic ideal of the Iliad; Achilles would rather be alive and a peasant than a king over all the dead. Yet when told of the heroic achievements of his son Neoptólemos, he goes off “glorying” (XI.604) and in book XXIV the shade of Agamémnon contrasts the glory of Achilles’ funeral with the ignominy of his own death and burial. As for Odysseus, in the last books of the poem, he exemplifies one heroic ideal in spectacular fashion. The hero avenges insults to his honor, and Odysseus’ slaughter of the entire younger generation of the nobility of Ithaka is a heroic revenge on a grand scale. It is also a revenge that the poet obviously approves of and expects his audience to admire.
Topics for Discussion
1. The heroic ideal in the Iliad and the Odyssey. See “Backgrounds.”
2. Hospitality as a criterion of civilization in the Odyssey. Polyphêmus and Kalypso as opposite extremes—no hospitality at all and too much; the Phaiákians as ideal hosts; courtly hospitality at Pylos (Nestor) and Sparta (Menélaos and Helen); hospitality abused (the suitors), etc. Students should discuss the startling fact that the Phaiákians, the most civilized hosts in the epic, are punished for it by Poseidon and Zeus, who make sure they will not help travelers again. Does this conform to the picture of divine good intentions thwarted by human wickedness offered by Zeus in his speech in book I?
3. Telémakhos’ growth to manhood. Analyze the stages of his assumption of responsibility and the recognition of the fact by others. His mother’s reaction is fear and anxiety; Nestor and Menélaos recognize him as Odysseus’ son (whereas Athena in book I professes not to); the suitors recognize his attainment of maturity by planning to kill him—now he is dangerous.
Topics for Writing
1. Two ancient Greek critics, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus, thought that Homer ended his poem on the lines “So they came/into that bed so steadfast, loved of old,/opening glad arms to one another” (XXIII.298–300). In other words, they thought book XXIV unnecessary. What in fact does book XXIV contribute to the epic?
The ending at XXIII would have been a romantic ending: husband and wife reunited, nothing else matters. In fact there are still a great many problems to be solved, especially the consequences of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors. Homer sees that Odysseus, who has established himself as master in his own house by violence, still has to be accepted by the community—the succession of his line depends on the community’s goodwill. The epic ends with a reconciliation, engineered by Athena, but before the threat of conflict is removed, we are shown three generations of Odysseus’ family—father Laèrtês, Odysseus, son Telémakhos—standing side by side ready for battle. Odysseus has been reintegrated in his family as he shortly will be in the community of Ithaka.
2. Woman’s role in the Odyssey.
Faithful consort (Penêlopé, Arêtê) or temptation (Kirkê, Kalypso, the Seirênês, even Nausikaa). Helen has been one and is now the other. How “female” is Athena?
3. Odysseus and Athena. Compare their relationship with that of Job and God. What does this suggest about the religious attitudes of the Hebrews and the Greeks?
For Odysseus-Athena analyze carefully the long interview between them in XIII.267ff.
4. From the moment he hears from Athena in XIII how things stand in his own home Odysseus, in his disguise as a beggar, puts everyone to the test, to see if they are loyal to him or even whether they are decent human beings. List the incidents in which he puts people to the test and the results in each case.
Eumaios with the story of the cloak at Troy in XIV; the suitors by begging—Antínoös in XVII, Eurymakhos in XVIII, etc.
5. List and differentiate the different recognitions of Odysseus, intended and unintended.
Intended: Telémakhos in XVI; the suitors in XXII; Eumaios and Philoétios in XXI; Penélopê in XXIII; Laèrtês in XXIV. Unintended: Argos in XVII; Eurykleia in XIX.
6. Penélopê and Telémakhos: a complicated relationship between mother and son. Analyze the process of Telémakhos’ assertion of independent manhood and Penélopê’s reluctant acceptance of it.
Telémakhos’ first action after Athena encourages him, is to contradict his mother (I.386–96); she “gazed in wonder and withdrew” (line 397). Telémakhos forbids Eurykleia to tell his mother he is going to Sparta (II.391–95). Penélopê is distressed when she hears he has gone: “Why has my child left me?” (IV.740–43, 852–58). Athena inspires Telémakhos with suspicions about Penélopê’s intentions—or does he have them anyway (XV.14ff.). Telémakhos is afraid she has already married one of the suitors (XVI.38–40). Their meeting after his return (XVII.43ff.). She reproaches him (XVIII.242ff.). Penélopê on Telémakhos (XIX.567–71); Telémakhos on Penélopê (XX.137–40). Telémakhos sends her out of the hall (XXI.359–70). Telémakhos berates her for not recognizing Odysseus at once (XXIII.97–104).
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Hospitality is one of the chief virtues of ancient and heroic cultures. Consider why this should be so, paying attention to the experience of Odysseus in his travels. How would you compare the nature and extent of the hospitality displayed in other narratives, including the Aeneid, which is consciously modeled on Homer’s poems, and those which are not; the Mahabharata, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
2. Compare the reasons why Odysseus visits the Underworld and what he experiences there with, as appropriate, Gilgamesh’s visit to Utnapishtim, The Kingdom’s Dead in The Nine Songs, Aeneas’s in book VI of the Aeneid, Dante’s in The Divine Comedy, the hero twins’ in the Popol Vuh.
3. Many epic heroes struggle to return home. What keeps Odysseus from Ithaka? Compare his exile and return with those central to, as appropriate, the Ramayana and/or the epic of Son-Jara or with the theme of exile as developed in Genesis 4 and/or 37–49.
4. Why is the bow Odysseus’ weapon of choice? What strategic feats does it make possible that would not otherwise have been available to him? What do we learn about his use of arrows in book I.300–4? Compare other great archers and the way they use their weapon: Rama, Dusyanta in Sakuntala, and/or Son-Jara.
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, pp. 120–21.
Finley, M. I. The World of Odysseus, rev. edition. 1978. A historical-anthropological approach to Homeric “society” (in fact, to the “society” of the Odyssey) based on a study of the function of the gift in primitive societies. Stimulating, like everything Finley writes, and extremely good background for a discussion of the “economic” aspect of Homeric hospitality.
Kirk, Geoffrey. Homer and the Epic. 1965. A masterly survey of the whole field of modern Homeric controversy, distinguished by its firm grip on the historical background, the fairness of its critique of the various theories, and the reassuring moderation of its conclusions.
Lord, A. B. The Singer of Tales. 1960. Lord explains the background and methods of composition of Yugoslav oral epic and compares the results of his researches to Homeric text. This is the authoritative treatment of Homer as an oral poet.
Stanford, W. B. The Ulysses Theme. 1968. A rich and suggestive examination of the figure of Odysseus from Homer to James Joyce. Chapters II–V deal with Homer’s hero. (Chapter V, “The Untypical Hero,” is reprinted in Steiner and Fagles.)
Steiner, George, and Robert Fagles, eds. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1962. George E. Dimock’s “The Name of Odysseus” is a brilliant discussion of the hero’s identity, contained in a name he is proud to proclaim but must time after time conceal, a name that announces his nature and destiny. This volume also contains Erich Auerbach’s famous but controversial essay on the scar of Odysseus (book XIX), that explores fundamental contrasts between Homeric and Old Testament biblical narrative, and W. B. Stanford’s essay “The Untypical Hero” on the character of Odysseus.
Whitman, Cedric. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. New York, 1965. Contains the chapter “The Odyssey and Change,” which deals sensitively with differences of tone and feeling between the two epic poems.
Sappho of Lesbos
In some ancient texts Sappho is referred to as a teacher, and the girls whose names recur so often in her poems are said to be her pupils; a papyrus fragment published in 1974 (it was written in the late second century a.d.) speaks of her as “teaching in peace and quiet the noble girls not only from the local families but also from families in Ionia.” A fragment of one of her poems, addressed, we are told by the writer who quotes it, to an “uneducated woman,” begins with the words “But when you die, you will lie there in the grave and no one will remember you afterwards or long for you.” All this seems to suggest that the context of her poetry may have been a sort of aristocratic finishing school in which girls were given instruction, in music and the dance, for example, to prepare them for their later careers as wives of the nobility.
Many of Sappho’s poems were epithalamia, marriage songs, composed presumably for her favorite pupils; others were heartbroken laments for the loss of a loved companion. “‘Honest, I want to die,’” runs one fragment. “That’s what she said to me, when in tears she was leaving me. ‘Oh, what we have suffered, Sappho. It’s not by my choice that I’m leaving you.’ And I answered her: ‘Go and fare well and remember me. For you know how we cared for you.’” And the second poem included in the anthology sounds like a recreation of Sappho’s passionate reaction to the sight of a beloved pupil visited by her future husband. But Sappho’s poetry is not always so tensely passionate; she can also treat the pangs of unrequited love with an ironic wit. The first poem in the anthology, for example, Sappho’s invocation of the love goddess Aphrodite, starts out as a conventional appeal to a deity to come to the suppliant’s help. It employs the usual formulas—“you came before, now come again”—but then it departs sharply from the established pattern. Instead of dealing with the present occasion, Sappho’s need for help, it gives a vivid account of the goddess’s previous visit. And we are told what Sappho’s “griefs and bitternesses” are all about: she has been crossed in love, someone is rejecting her suit. On that previous occasion Aphrodite was gracious and promised her aid; Sappho now asks for the same promise: “accomplish all those things my heart desires to be done; appear and stand at my shoulder.” The Greek for the final phrase means literally: “be my ally.”
The poem is a brilliant example of self-mocking wit. The whole religious terminology of a hymn, the appeal to a god, including the epiphany of the goddess concerned, is put in motion so that Sappho can win the heart of some recalcitrant girl, and furthermore, the poem shows us that this is not the first time Sappho has brought the goddess down from Olympus.
This lighthearted invocation of Aphrodite is, however, an exception; elsewhere Sappho is well aware of the awesome and terrifying powers of the goddess. “Once again,” runs a fragment, “limb-loosening love makes me shiver, that bittersweet irresistible creature,” and another speaks of love that shakes the heart “like the mountain wind when it falls on the oak trees.”
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Compare Sappho’s rhetorical strategies to those of Catullus and Petrarch. How does she view the competition for a loved one? Is hers a sentimental poetry? What moments in erotic relationships does she focus on in these few poems?
2. Sappho’s poems show an exquisite awareness of the body. Compare her appreciation for somatic textures with similar details in other love poetry.
[The Kokinshu, Rumi’s accounts of the mystic “pull” of the “friend” (in Robais 25, An Empty Garlic, and Dissolver of Sugar), and Donne’s The Apparition or The Funeral.]
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, p. 504.
Greek Lyric, Vol. 1. (Loeb Classical Library), 1982. Contains the complete text of what remains of Sappho’s work, with an English translation by David A. Cambell.
The scene of the first two plays in the trilogy is the entrance to the palace of Agamemnon at Argos; the time is the tenth year of the Trojan War. A watchman on the palace roof sees the fire signal that announces the fall of Troy. A chorus of old men comes into the orchestra (the circular dancing floor in front of the stage area) and sings. They remember the departure of the army ten years before; adverse winds delayed the sailing and, at the command of the goddess Artemis, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to release the fleet. Clytaemnestra enters and tells the chorus the news—Troy has fallen. She describes the chain of signal fires across the sea from Troy and speculates about what is happening in that city now.
After her exit the chorus sings; the song begins as a hymn of victory for the Greek success but ends on a note of fear and foreboding. Enter a herald who has come to announce Agamemnon’s arrival; he speaks of the suffering of the Greeks at Troy and also reveals that Agamemnon will come alone—Menelaus was blown off course and no one knows where he is. Another choral song begins with a meditation on the name and destiny of Helen but ends with a fearful vision of the recurrence of violence in one generation after another, as Agamemnon enters in a chariot. With him is a female figure who is not identified until later but the audience knows, from Homer, that it is the Trojan princess Cassandra. Agamemnon, boasting exultantly of the destruction of Troy, is welcomed by Clytaemnestra in a speech full of menacing ambiguity. She invites him to walk into the palace on blood red tapestries; at first reluctant, he eventually does so, after recommending Cassandra to her care. The choral song now is full of vague apprehension; they sense that something is wrong. Clytaemnestra comes on stage again to order Cassandra inside but meets only silence and departs.
Now Cassandra speaks. In a long exchange with the chorus she prophesies, at first in riddling images and finally in clear statement, all that is to come—her own death, the murder of Agamemnon, and even the death of Clytaemnestra at the hands of her son. She has been given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo who loves her. But when she refused him her love he added the proviso that though she could tell the future no one would believe her—as the chorus refuses to believe her now.
She goes off to her death and almost at once the chorus hears Agamemnon’s death cries from inside the palace. As they discuss what action to take, the doors open and the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra are brought out; over them, Clytaemnestra makes a triumphant speech of self-justification. But as the chorus, recovering from its initial shock, rejects her defense and prophesies retribution, she retreats from the high confidence of her opening speech and appeals to the “savage ancient spirit of revenge” (line 1534) that plagues the house of Atreus to let it end here, shed no more blood. At this point, its very embodiment, Aegisthus, enters, with an armed bodyguard, and threatens the chorus. Clytaemnestra prevents their coming to blows with her plea—“No bloodshed now” (line 1694)—and ends the play with her hope to “set the house in order once for all” (line 1713).
[The second play, The Libation Bearers (not included in the anthology) opens with the arrival of Orestes, now a grown man, from the north of Greece where his mother sent him as a boy while his father was at Troy. Accompanied by his friend Pylades, he has come to avenge his father, to whose tomb, onstage, he pays his respects. He is interrupted by the arrival of the chorus (who are slaves, perhaps captives from Troy) and his sister Electra. The two young men stand aside to hear the chorus sing about the nightmare of Clytaemnestra, who has sent Electra to Agamemnon’s grave; she is to placate Agamemnon’s angry spirit by pouring libations (liquid offerings of grain, honey, and oil) on his grave.
She sees the footprints of Orestes and a lock of hair he has laid as an offering on the tomb. He comes out of cover and identifies himself; brother and sister are reunited. Orestes tells her that he comes under direct orders from the god Apollo to avenge his father. And now brother and sister and the chorus, in a long lyrical scene, address prayers, demands, and finally reproaches to the body in the grave, calling for Agamemnon’s help in what they are about to do. Electra tells Orestes what Clytaemnestra’s dream was: she gave birth to a serpent that bit her breast when she suckled it. He interprets the dream: he is the serpent.
Electra goes into the house; Orestes and Pylades plan to knock at the door and kill Aegisthus when he comes out. The chorus sings about the “high daring spirit” of a man (line 579), but that is surpassed by the daring of women; they include Clytaemnestra’s crime in a list of mythological female outrages. Orestes and Pylades knock at the door but it is Clytaemnestra who comes out. Orestes tells her that Orestes is dead; she welcomes him into the house. Orestes’ old nurse Cilissa comes on stage; Clytaemnestra has sent her to summon Aegisthus and his bodyguards but the chorus persuades her to tell him to come alone. A choral song encourages Orestes not to flinch when he faces his mother—“When she cries ‘Son!’ cry out ‘My father’s son!’” (line 816)—and Aegisthus comes on stage on his way to the door.
He goes in and soon a servant comes out shouting to Clytaemnestra that Aegisthus has been killed. She comes on stage, sends the servant for a weapon, but too late: Orestes and Pylades come on stage to face her, Orestes with a drawn sword. Before his mother’s appeal Orestes does in fact flinch; he turns to Pylades, who has not spoken yet but who now speaks, for the first and last time. He reminds Orestes of Apollo’s orders. Orestes drives his mother into the house to kill her.
The choral victory song is followed by a repetition of the climactic scene of Agamemnon: the doors open and two bodies are laid on the steps; over them the murderer justifies his act. But as he goes on, Orestes loses control of his emotions and his words; he is, he says, a charioteer with his horses out of control. He starts to leave, bound for Delphi and Apollo’s protection, but sees suddenly the Furies, the spirits of vengeance, “the hounds/of mother’s hate” (lines 1054–55). Only Orestes can see them now but in the final play we see them, too; they are its chorus.]
The scene changes for the opening of The Eumenides: it is the temple of Apollo at Delphi. His priestess goes in to officiate but comes out terrified; she has seen, at Apollo’s altar, a suppliant, Orestes, and the Furies sitting round him waiting. The audience now sees the scene she described: Apollo enters and sends Orestes off to Athens where he will find “judges of [his] case” (line 84). The ghost of Clytaemnestra (or is she a dream in the Furies’ heads?) spurs the chorus to action and they exchange taunts and threats with Apollo before rushing off in pursuit of Orestes.
The scene is now Athens, where Orestes comes to clasp the statue of the goddess Athena; the chorus follows and after singing a song designed to “bind” and paralyze him, they move on to take their prey just as Athena arrives. After hearing both sides she determines to summon judges and set up a court; she has shown such fairness that the Furies accept this decision. They sing of their ancient duties, the punishment of criminals who would otherwise escape; they are confident they will win their case.
As the trial begins, Apollo arrives to speak for Orestes. Under the skillful questioning of the Furies, Orestes breaks down and has to turn to Apollo for help. Apollo proclaims the priority of the father over the mother: Orestes’ duty to avenge his father outweighed his link to his mother. Athena addresses the jury, stressing the importance of this “first trial of bloodshed” (line 696) and repeats a theme of the Furies: that without fear there can be no order. She herself will vote for Orestes, since as a goddess born directly from her father, Zeus, without the intermediary of a mother, she favors the male.
The votes are evenly divided, which, under Athenian law, means acquittal; Orestes goes free, but the Furies now threaten to turn their rage against Athens itself. Athena finally wins them over by an offer of a home and worship in her city and the Furies, who have been outcasts even from the gods because of their function as executors of blood vengeance, accept her offer and become “Eumenides,” kindly protectors of the institutions and lands of Athens.
Aeschylus (524?–456 b.c.) belonged to the generation that saw the establishment of democracy at Athens (in the last decades of the sixth century b.c.) and the heroic defense of that democracy against a Persian expeditionary force at Marathon in 490 b.c. as well as the decisive Athenian contribution to the defeat of a full-scale Persian invasion on the sea at Salamis in 480 b.c. and on land at Plataea in 479 b.c. Aeschylus fought as an infantry soldier at Marathon and, probably, in the naval battle at Salamis: on his tomb at Gela in Sicily, where he died, a verse inscription commemorated his combat service at Marathon and did not even mention his plays. Yet his plays so impressed the Athenian public that they were revived after his death, to compete with the offerings of his successors at the Dionysiac festival—an honor accorded to no other dramatist in the fifth century. In The Frogs, a comedy produced in the last decade of the fifth century, Aristophanes staged a contest in the lower world between the ghosts of Aeschylus and Euripides, old-fashioned patriotic virtue versus newfangled intellectual fashions, and of course, Aeschylus was the winner.
How closely this nostalgic vision of Aeschylus the Marathon veteran as an arch-conservative corresponded to the reality we have no means of judging, but he was certainly an innovator in the world of theater. Aristotle, in the Poetics (in a portion that is not included in the anthology), says that he was the first to increase the number of the actors from one to two, a move that “reduced the role of the chorus, giving first place to the dialogue.” It also made possible dramatic confrontation instead of the predominantly narrative mode that must have been characteristic of performance with a single actor. Aeschylus was far from conservative, too, in his treatment of myth and especially in his manipulation of mythical material to give it contemporary resonance; in this field he had no equal.
The Eumenides, for example, put the court of the Areopagus on stage shortly after its status had been the key issue of a political struggle that threatened to lead to civil war. The Areopagus, its ranks filled by exmagistrates, had become in the years after the Persian War a powerful political force, a sort of senate of elder statesmen that was an obstacle to reformists who wished to make Athenian democracy more radical and egalitarian. Just a few years before Aeschylus’ play was produced, the reformers, led by Pericles and Ephialtes, had taken away all the court’s powers except its legal right to try cases of homicide; feeling ran so high on both sides that Ephialtes was murdered. Hence when Aeschylus dramatized the foundation of the Areopagus by Athena he was treading on dangerous ground.
Modern critics are divided in their assessment of his position: was he acquiescing in the reform by emphasizing the solemn antiquity of the court’s judicial function or was his reminder of the divine origin of the Areopagus a protest against the reforms? The fact that there is no agreement on this point suggests that in fact he did not take a position one way or another: the point he emphasized, in the song of the Furies and the speech of Athena (lines 526ff., cf. lines 711ff.) was moderation, the avoidance of extremes—“Neither the life of anarchy/nor the life enslaved by tyrants, no,/worship neither./Strike the balance” (lines 538–41)—and the civil war that extreme measures are likely to lead to. “Brutal strife,” the Furies sing, “the civil war devouring men, I pray/that it never rages through our city” (lines 991–93).
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus was dramatizing a story known to the audience from Homer (cf. Odyssey I.42ff., III.248ff., IV.543ff., XI.425ff.), but the climactic action of The Libation Bearers, Orestes’ murder of his mother, is not explicitly mentioned there. The action of the last play, The Eumenides, has no Homeric model at all; in fact, it has been thought that Aeschylus may have invented the story of the trial of Orestes at Athens. Cassandra is mentioned in Homer (she is the first to see Priam coming back to Troy with Hector’s corpse [Iliad XXIV.819ff.] and is killed with Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra [Odyssey XI.463ff.]), but in neither passage is there any hint of her prophetic powers. Aeschylus’ adaptation of the standard version is very bold; the Attic dramatists, who worked almost exclusively with traditional tales, were allowed, perhaps even expected, to present the familiar figures and situation in a new light. Both Sophocles and Euripides, for example, wrote plays called Electra, that present the same action as The Libation Bearers, but though in both of them Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus are killed by Orestes, everything else is changed. Both dramatists, in contrast to Aeschylus, make Electra the central figure of the play, on stage throughout; but in Sophocles she is a heroic figure, while Euripides gives her a near-criminal mentality and has her collapse in bitter remorse after the murders. The fact that the poets used familiar stories did not rule out innovation and the element of suspense. The fact that the dramatists had to work with three actors was also not as much of a limitation on creativity as might appear. A change of mask and costume enabled an actor to reenter as a different character. Agamemnon, for example, has six speaking parts (Watchman, Clytaemnestra, Herald, Agamemnon, Cassandra, and Aegisthus) and The Eumenides five (Pythia, Apollo, Orestes, the Ghost of Clytaemnestra, and Athena). In addition the leader of the chorus could play an important speaking part, as he does in the trial scene of The Eumenides.
But the main function of the chorus is not the spoken word; it dances and sings. The word itself in Greek suggests dancing above all (our word choreography preserves this emphasis), and the long choral sections of the texts must be imagined as delivered by fifteen dancers whose movements emphasized their words. This movement, however, could not have been as athletic or complex as that of the modern ballet, for the chorus also sang, in unison, and their words, unlike those of modern opera, had to be intelligible to the audience, for they are vital for the significance of the dramatic action. Unlike the actors, who by the time the Oresteia was produced were professionals, the chorus consisted of citizen volunteers, trained in their part, like the actors, by the playwright himself. The chorus is, as it were, the onstage representative of the citizen audience; it observes and comments on the action and motives of the actors, reacts to their announcements and commands, opposes or supports them, and above all—and this is especially true of the chorus in Agamemnon—tries to understand, to interpret. It is rare to find a chorus that, like that of The Eumenides, assumes a decisive role in the action; this may have been a characteristic of Aeschylean drama, for we find it also in his Suppliants.
For the modern student perhaps the most disconcerting feature of the trilogy is the trial scene in The Eumenides, particularly the argument put forward by Apollo and approved by Athena, that “the woman you call the mother of the child/is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed” (lines 668–69). This claim that the mother’s role in the procreation of children is purely passive, that she is a mere incubator for the male seed, is the basis for Apollo’s case that murder of a father is a more heinous crime than matricide.
This strange biology is not peculiar to Aeschylus; it appears also in the works of the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote a good hundred years after the death of Aeschylus. It is a theory that reflects the masculine bias of Athenian thought and feeling. The Greek city-state, and especially Athens, excluded women from political action and even in private life severely restricted their activities; they had no legal standing and were kept, in respectable families, out of sight in a special section of the house reserved for women and children. This male domination stemmed in part from the fact that most city-states, and especially Athens, were at war with their neighbors more often than they were at peace; treaties were always made with a time limit and even so, it was rare for the truce to last the full term fixed in the treaty. War, that in the ancient world meant close combat where physical strength was a crucial factor, was the exclusive business of men (cf. Hector’s speech to Andromache in the Iliad: “Go therefore back to our house, and take up your own work,/the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens/ply their work also; but the men must see to the fighting,” lines 490–92, not included in the anthology). As combatants who were often called on to risk their lives to save the city from destruction and its women and children from enslavement, men assumed the prerogatives of a ruling caste and developed an ideology of male supremacy to justify their dominance. (When Medea, in Euripides’ play, makes her famous protest against a woman’s subordinate position, she cites this military basis for male supremacy only to reject it.)
The goddess Athena explains her support for Apollo’s position in mythological terms: she was born directly from the head of Zeus and had no mother. But it is understandable also in terms of contemporary realities. The goddess Athena, who was the guardian and protector of Odysseus in the Odyssey had another side to her nature: in the Iliad she is a relentless opponent of the Trojans, a warrior-goddess intent on the destruction of Troy and all its inhabitants. In Athens, the city that bore her name and worshiped her in the Parthenon on the Acropolis, she was thought of as the protector of Athens in war; her images in sculpture and painted on vases show her armed with a spear, shield, and helmet, sometimes actually in combat in the war with the Olympian gods against the Giants. “I honor the male,” she says (line 754), as she casts her vote for Orestes, and later, when she urges the Furies to accept her offer of a home in Athens, she predicts a great future for her city: “As time flows on, the honors flow through all/my citizens” (lines 864–65). The source of such honor is made clear later in her speech: “Let our wars/rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy/our powerful lust for fame” (lines 874–76).
Topics for Discussion
1. The theme of conflict between the sexes dominates the trial scene of The Eumenides but it is operative, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, in Agamemnon as well. Trace its appearance and discuss its significance in both plays. [In the opening scene of Agamemnon, the Watchman calls Clytaemnestra “that woman” who “maneuvers like a man” (line 13), and later, when she persuades Agamemnon to walk on the crimson tapestries, we are shown how she works on his pride to bend him to her will. “Spoken like a man” (line 355) says the Leader of the Chorus to Clytaemnestra as she rounds off her vision of Troy’s destruction with an ironic prayer for Agamemnon’s safe return. Her lover, Aegisthus, plays the woman’s part: “Coward,” says the Leader of the Chorus, “why not kill the man yourself? Why did the woman... have to bring him down?” (lines 1680–82). Apollo, the male god par excellence champions the father’s rights against the Furies, female deities, champions of the cause of Clytaemnestra.]
2. The question (which will recur in the discussion of Oedipus the King) of the independence of the characters: how far are their actions directed by the gods or by that Fate that seems even more powerful than the gods, until, at the end of the The Eumenides: “All-seeing Zeus and Fate embrace” (line 1062). [The main question here is Agamemnon’s responsibility for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The goddess Artemis demands it as the price for the release of the fleet from adverse winds. But, as in so many Greek stories of divine interference, Agamemnon is given a choice—he could abandon the expedition (indeed he mentions this possibility only to disregard it in Agamemnon, lines 213–16). Aeschylus, in a paradoxical phrase, characterizes Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter as a free acceptance of destiny: “He slipped his neck into the strap of Fate” (line 217). Once he took this step, however, his heart hardened, “he stopped at nothing,/seized with the frenzy” (lines 219–20) and gave the orders to gag his daughter and hold her ready for the knife in cold unfeeling words. Orestes too acts under orders from the oracle of Apollo and the threat, if he disobeys, of dreadful disease and a miserable death (in The Libation Bearers). But he goes on to reveal that he has his own motives for action that would urge him to kill his mother even without the gods’ command. There is not only “mounting sorrow for father” but—a revealing detail—“the lack of patrimony presses hard” (The Libation Bearers, lines 306–7). His only route to the repossession of his father’s kingdom and wealth lies through his mother’s death.]
3. Many of the images of the Oresteia recur throughout the trilogy, gaining fresh significance with each new appearance (for an example see the discussion of the “net” imagery in the headnote, p. 510). Trace through Agamemnon and The Eumenides the pattern of images connected with (a) lions or (b) dogs.
Lions. The lion is the heraldic device of the house of Atreus as the lion gate at Mycenae reminds us. The choral parable of the lion cub that, brought up as a pet, turns savage when full grown (Agamemnon, lines 713–32), prepared for by the choral reference to Artemis as “so kind/to the ravening lion’s tender, helpless cubs” (Agamemnon, lines 140–41) is the nexus of a widespread pattern of references to lions. This cautionary tale is offered by the Chorus as a comparison with Helen and the destruction she will bring to the Trojans who welcomed her. But in Agamemnon, the lion is used to characterize other figures as well: Agamemnon, who boasts of the slaughter at Troy as the work of “the beast of Argos... our bloody lion lapped its fill,/gorging on the blood of kings” (lines 810–14); Clytaemnestra appears in Cassandra’s vision as “the lioness” who “rears on her hind legs” and “beds with the wolf/when her lion king goes ranging” (lines 1276–78); even Aegisthus is “a lion who lacks a lion’s heart” (line 1236). They all began as “a captivating pet... like an infant just born” (lines 717–20) and ended as “a priest of ruin” (line 731). But the real lion cub is Orestes. In The Eumenides when Apollo orders the Furies out of his temple he tells them where they should be: “your kind/should infest a lion’s cavern reeking blood” (lines 192–93). To which they might have replied that the House of Atreus, whose last male descendant they are in pursuit of, is just such a lion’s den.
Dogs. The Watchman on the roof in the opening scene of the Agamemnon keeps his vigil “propped on my arms... like a dog” (lines 3–4). He is a faithful dog, loyal to Agamemnon; we remember him when Clytaemnestra falsely claims that she is a “watchdog gentle to him alone, savage/to those who cross his path” (lines 604–5) and salutes the king as “watchdog of the fold” (line 887) as she plans his death. When Cassandra sings of the crimes committed in the House of Atreus the chorus recognizes her as “a keen hound... trailing murder” (lines 1094–95); but when she foresees the king’s death at the hands of “that detestable hellhound/who pricks her ears and fawns” (lines 1241–42), the Chorus cannot connect her word with Clytaemnestra. And Aegisthus, when the Chorus defies him in the final scene of Agamemnon, calls them “insubordinate dogs” (line 1702): “We’ll see if the world comes dancing to your song,/your absurd barking—snarl your breath away!/I’ll make you dance, I’ll bring you all to heel” (lines 1667–69). And in The Eumenides when we see the Furies, they are hounds, trackers of the scent of blood. Like hounds, they bay in their sleep (line 133) and like hounds they follow the prey: “blood of the mother draws me on—must hunt/the man for Justice. Now I’m on his trail!” (lines 229–30). This is their exit line in the scene set at Delphi; their entrance speech, delivered by the leader of the chorus when they reenter now at Athens, uses similar language: “At last!/The clear trail of the man..../He’s wounded—/go for the fawn, my hounds, the splash of blood,/hunt him” (lines 243–47).]
Topic for Writing
Zeus, so the Chorus sings, “lays it down as law/that we must suffer, suffer into truth” (Agamemnon, lines 178–79). Trace the steps by which the Chorus of Agamemnon comes through suffering and a series of misapprehensions to a true vision of the situation.
[At the beginning of the play it believes that the war against Troy was just (lines 66ff.); the kings are sent by Zeus. Yet it is clearly disturbed by Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter (lines 210ff.). The Leader reacts with joy to the news of Troy’s fall (lines 269–70), which will of course mean Agamemnon’s return. In its second choral ode it begins a victory hymn to celebrate the Greek triumph but as it describes the process by which men are led to tread “the grand altar of Justice/down” (lines 385ff.)—though it claims it is singing about the Trojan Paris—its words are reminiscent of its description of Agamemnon’s change of mind that enabled him to kill his daughter. The Chorus returns to the theme of the righteous war with an indictment of Helen (lines 403ff.) and expressions of sympathy for the grief of Menelaus (lines 411ff.) but soon turns to the grief of mothers and fathers who have lost their sons at Troy, “all for another’s woman” (line 444). The image of the war god as a broker who exchanges living men for funeral ashes is in flagrant contradiction with the opening of the ode. The Chorus goes on to speak of the “people’s voice” that is “heavy with hatred” (line 451) and the victory ode ends with a wish to be neither victor nor vanquished. But the sight of the herald who brings news from Troy raises its hopes again; it returns to the illusion that Agamemnon’s return will put an end to its doubts and fears. The herald’s tale of victory renews its confidence, and the Chorus sings of Helen and the destruction she wrought on the Trojans who greeted her arrival with such joy (lines 683ff.). And when Agamemnon enters it greets him with enthusiasm. The Chorus tells him it was against the war at first “But now from the depths of trust and love/I say Well fought, well won” (lines 789–90). But when its king, whose sacrifice of his daughter it has almost forgotten in its joy at his return, goes into the palace treading the bloodred tapestries like some proverbial man of pride destined for a fall, it sings in fear of some unknown terror; it senses that something is badly wrong. Cassandra tells the Chorus, first in riddling, then in plain terms what it fears but dare not face: that Agamemnon must die, that according to that standard of Justice it has often invoked itself (lines 374ff., 751ff.) Agamemnon must pay for the blood of Iphigenia and perhaps for the blood of all those who fell at Troy (lines 455ff.). Cassandra tells it the truth in plain terms, but it cannot accept it; only as she goes into the palace to her death does it dare ask the question: “now if he must pay for the blood/his fathers shed, and die for the deaths/he brought to pass” (lines 1367–69). The answer comes at once; it is Agamemnon’s cry of agony from inside the palace. Confronted with the corpse of the king and the defiant boasts of Clytaemnestra, the Chorus tries to lay the blame on Helen (lines 1485ff.), a patent evasion, that Clytaemnestra bluntly rejects (lines 1495ff.); it then casts the blame on the spirit of vengeance that plagues the House of Atreus from generation to generation, a view that Clytaemnestra accepts, for she sees it as absolving her of responsibility. To this the Chorus reacts violently, but, reminded of the murder of Iphigenia, it loses its bearing: “The mind reels—where to turn?” (line 1563). In the end it recognizes, at last, Agamemnon’s guilt: “None can judge between them. Justice./The plunderer plundered, the killer pays the price.... the one who acts must suffer” (lines 1593–96). It has learned, through suffering, to see the truth. But by that same law Clytaemnestra too must pay, and stung to fury by the sight of Aegisthus lording it in the house of Agamemnon, the Chorus calls on Orestes as its only hope for justice; it now understands, too late as always, the full meaning of Cassandra’s vision of the future.]
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Most of the world’s great dramatic traditions have their roots in religious rituals, yet not all of the world’s great religions have nurtured drama. What role do the Greek gods play in The Oresteia? Compare the way God in the Old Testament of the Bible and Allah in the Koran interact with human beings and try to explain why neither Judaism nor Islam gave rise to a classical theater.
2. Many great classical plays revise and recast plots and characters first given shape in extended narrative forms like the epic. Compare Aeschylus’s treatment of Agamemnon with Homer’s. How do Aeschylus’s methods of portraying dramatic characters with roots in epic story compare with those of playwrights in other classical traditions? [As appropriate, ask students to assess the relation of Sakuntala to the Mahabharata, or of Atsumori to The Tale of the Heike.]
3. A recent performance of The Oresteia covered the faces of English actors with masks and in its staging attempted to reproduce authentic Greek practices in a style appropriate for audiences today. Assess the impact of performance styles, including the presence of a chorus and the use of masked actors (with men playing women’s roles), on the dramatic structure of Greek and no drama. How closely do they resemble each other?
[See “An Annotated Biography of Media Resources” for this Oresteia, a video version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production.]
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, pp. 510–11.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated by Robert Fagles. 1984. Contains a long and stimulating introductory essay by Robert Fagles and W. B. Stanford, as well as helpful explanatory notes on selected passages.
Kitto, H.D.F. Form and Meaning in Drama. 1956. In the first three chapters, Kitto discusses the trilogy in an attempt to answer a series of questions, for example: “Why in the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides are Agamemnon’s sins entirely forgotten even by his adversaries? Why does Aeschylus so arrange Agamemnon that the events earliest in time, namely Atreus’ feud with Thyestes, comes at the end of the play?” Kitto tackles these and many other puzzling aspects of the trilogy with probing analysis; his answers may not persuade everyone but his great merit is to have recognized and explored the problems.
Knox, Bernard. Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater. 1979. Contains the essay “Aeschylus and the Third Actor,” which deals in some detail with the Cassandra scene and also with the way the chorus comes to understand and face, too late, the truth (see “Topic for Writing”).
McCall, Marsh Jr., ed. Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1972. Includes an important article on freedom and its limitations by N. G. L. Hammond (see “Topics for Discussion”) and a brilliant essay on symbolism in the Oresteia by R. F. Goheen. There is also an interesting survey of “tradition and method” in translating Aeschylus by Peter Green.
Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action. 1978. A book on the ancient staging of Greek tragedy by a scholar who has become perhaps the foremost expert in this field. The book proceeds by subject rather than play by play, but discussion of passages in the trilogy can quickly be located from the index.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Studies in Aeschylus. 1983. Contains interpretive essays by a recognized authority on Greek drama: “Agamemnon and the Trojan War,” “Clytaemnestra and the Vote of Athena,” “Orestes and Apollo,” and “Zeus and the Erinyes.”
Oedipus the King
The city of Thebes is ravaged by a plague, and in the opening scene of the play a delegation of its citizens comes to urge Oedipus, king of Thebes, to find some remedy. They have confidence that he can somehow help them, for he has been their efficient and benevolent ruler ever since, many years ago, he came to Thebes and rescued the city from the Sphinx, a creature with a bird’s body and a human female head, that preyed on the city’s young men. Those who encountered it and failed to answer its riddle were killed. Oedipus volunteered to face the Sphinx and answer the riddle correctly; the Sphinx died and Oedipus was given the reward proclaimed for the deliverer from the monster—the throne of Thebes and the hand in marriage of its recently widowed Queen Jocasta.
Her husband, Laius, had been killed on the way to Delphi in a quarrel over precedence at a junction of narrow roads; his killer was the young Oedipus, who does not realize that the man he killed in the fight was the former king of Thebes. Nor does he realize that Laius was his father and Jocasta is his mother. The play presents his discovery of this dreadful truth.
This situation is the result of a whole series of coincidences or perhaps the work of some power that guides the course of events. Laius and Jocasta heard a prophecy from the oracle of Apollo at Delphi that their son would kill his father and marry his mother. They sent a Shepherd out to leave the newborn child on the mountainside to die of exposure; to make doubly sure that it would die, its ankles were pierced and fastened together. But the Shepherd had pity on the child and gave it to another shepherd, one from the other side of the mountain range, the territory of Corinth. Knowing that his king and queen, Polybus and Merope, were childless, this shepherd took the baby down to them and they adopted it. Because his ankles were swollen from the wounds the boy was called Oedipus (“swollen-foot”).
Oedipus grew up in Corinth, believing he was the son of Polybus and Merope. But as he grew to manhood rumors began to circulate about his legitimacy; to know the truth he went to Delphi to consult the oracle. All he heard there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; appalled, he resolved never to return to Corinth and set out in the opposite direction. At a place “where three roads meet” he was crowded off the narrow road by a man in a chariot; a fight broke out and he killed the man and (he thought) all of his companions. (But in fact one escaped and brought the news back to Jocasta.) Oedipus kept on his way and at Thebes defeated the Sphinx, married Jocasta, and became king. Apollo’s prophecy was fulfilled.
Now, many years later, the plague rages in the city, and Creon, Jocasta’s brother, comes back from Delphi where he was sent by Oedipus to ask what to do. The answer: find the killer of Laius, then kill or banish him. And Oedipus undertakes to find him. He puts a dreadful curse on the killer, cutting him off from all contact with his fellow citizens; he also sends for Tiresias, the blind prophet, who is believed to know all things. He does in fact know the truth but refuses to tell Oedipus; the king reacts with fierce anger, accusing him of betraying the city and then of conspiring with Creon to overthrow him. His anger blinds him to the truth that Tiresias, now angry in his turn, begins to reveal, although in riddling terms; he speaks clearly in the end, but Oedipus leaves in a fury, paying no attention.
In the next scene, Creon is directly accused of conspiracy and sentenced to death; at the request of the Chorus and Jocasta, who now comes on stage, Oedipus reluctantly retracts the death sentence. Wishing to calm Oedipus, Jocasta asks the reason for his rage; he replies that Tiresias accused him of the murder of Laius. She tells him to pay no attention to prophets, they know nothing more than ordinary men. To prove it she tells him of the prophecy that her son would kill his father and marry his mother. In fact the child, she says, died on the mountain and Laius was killed by a stranger at the junction of three roads.
This detail terrifies Oedipus; he now tells her the story of his encounter at such a place. He is afraid he may be the killer of Laius, the cause of the plague, the victim of his own solemn curse. (He does not connect the prophecy with the one given him by Apollo, for he is sure that his father and mother are Polybus and Merope at Corinth.) But he knows that he was alone, and Jocasta spoke of “robbers” as the assailants of Laius. He needs an eyewitness to reassure him, and there is one: the survivor of the fight, whom Jocasta has sent away into the country to be a Shepherd. It is the same man who took the baby Oedipus to the mountains to die, and when he comes he will bear witness to more than the death of Laius.
But meanwhile a Messenger comes from Corinth: Polybus is dead and the Corinthians want Oedipus to come back to reign over them. The news of Polybus’ death is a great relief; Apollo’s prophecy at Delphi was wrong—Oedipus did not kill his father—but he will not go to Corinth because the second half of the prophecy, that he would marry his mother, will best be falsified if he stays in Thebes. The Messenger now tells him there is nothing to fear; Merope is not his mother. The Messenger, when he was a shepherd, was given the baby by another shepherd; its ankles were pierced.
By this time Jocasta has realized the horrible truth; she tries to stop Oedipus, to make him give up the search. But he insists he will know the truth, whatever it is. Jocasta rushes off stage (to hang herself, as we find out later) and Oedipus waits for the Shepherd Jocasta sent for in the previous scene. When he comes, the man from Corinth recognizes him and Oedipus forces the whole truth out of him. Then Oedipus too rushes off stage as the Chorus sings a despairing ode about the nothingness of men.
A messenger comes on to tell of Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-blinding; soon the blind king himself comes stumbling on stage. His laments turn to stubborn resolution as he demands that the Chorus obey the oracle of Apollo and drive him out to die, on the mountain where he now wishes he had died as a child. Creon, now king of Thebes, comes on to take charge. Oedipus is allowed to embrace his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, and then is ordered into the palace; about his eventual disposition Creon will consult the oracle.
The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was, in Sophocles’ time, a powerful religious institution that wielded considerable political influence. Greek states and foreign kings consulted it about the future, as did also private individuals; their sacrifices and offerings made it one of the greatest concentrations of art and wealth in the Greek world. Apollo, through his priestess the Pythia (cf. the opening scene of The Eumenides) answered requests for advice; his advice was treasured because he was believed to know the future. During the last three decades of Sophocles’ life, Athens was at war with Sparta; before declaring war, the Spartans had consulted the oracle and had been told that they would win (as they did).
But this belief that the gods know the future was no longer universally held in Sophocles’ day; like many other features of traditional religion it was subjected to critical examination by the new philosophers who speculated about the atomic constituents of matter and by the Sophists who applied the canon of probability to religious myth. The attack on the belief in divine prophecy was in fact the most dangerous of all the new attempts to reject tradition; if the gods do not know the future, they are no more in control of the universe than we are.
This intellectual conflict is reflected in the play. Jocasta sums up her argument that Oedipus should disregard the oracles with a contemptuous rejection: “So much for prophecy. It’s neither here nor there./From this day on, I wouldn’t look right or left” (lines 948–49). The reaction of the Chorus is to call on Zeus, the supreme god, to make the prophecies come true, horrible as that will be for Oedipus; otherwise, it says, there will be no point in worshiping the gods at all: “Never again will I go reverent to Delphi... or Apollo’s ancient oracle at Abae... unless these prophecies all come true” (lines 985ff.). Prophecies are despised and “the gods, the gods go down” (line 997). Later on, when he hears of the death of Polybus, Oedipus echoes Jocasta’s disbelief: “Why, why look to the Prophet’s hearth” (line 1054), and “all those prophecies I feared... They’re nothing, worthless” (lines 1062–64). And Jocasta draws the ultimate conclusion, that human life is a meaningless chaos, a chain of mere coincidences: “What should a man fear? It’s all chance,/chance rules our lives... Better to live at random, best we can” (lines 1069–72). They do not know it, but the truth of prophecy is about to be revealed, to Jocasta before the end of this scene, to Oedipus in the next. The play uses the myth to present the most controversial religious and philosophical issue of the day; it comes down decisively on the side of prophecy, divine knowledge and design.
The Oedipus story was of course well known, but it is likely that Sophocles reworked it along lines suitable for his own artistic purpose (as all the Greek poets did when they handled mythical themes.) In Homer’s Odyssey the hero Odysseus sees, in the lower world, the mother of Oedipus (she is called Epikastê); she married her son who had killed his father. The gods revealed the truth to humankind; Epikastê hanged herself but Oedipus, though he suffered from the sorrows that the Furies of a mother bring to pass, lived on as king of Thebes (Odyssey XI.293–304).
There is no mention here of Oedipus’ children, of his self-blinding and expulsion from Thebes, of Apollo’s oracle, or of the Sphinx. All these details presumably came into the story later, in other epic tales or lyric poems, now lost. But we do know that Aeschylus produced a trilogy dealing with the house of Oedipus (we still have the final play, The Seven Against Thebes); from that play and the fragments of the others we know that the Aeschylean trilogy referred to the story of the Apolline oracle and the exposure of the child, the encounter where three roads meet, the self-blinding of Oedipus, and the part played by the Sphinx. This suggests that Sophocles could rely on audience familiarity with the main elements of the story to ensure appreciation of this masterly use of dramatic irony in the first two-thirds of his play.
We have only a version of the riddle of the Sphinx that comes from sources much later than Sophocles’ time, but there is good evidence that it was known in this form in the fifth century. It is in hexameter verse; here is a literal translation:
There is a two-footed thing on this earth, four-footed (but only one voice) and three-footed. It changes its form and is the only thing to do so of all the creatures that move on land, in the air or in the sea. Now when it walks supporting itself on most feet, the speed of its limbs is at its weakest.
There may be an allusion to the text of the riddle where Creon says “The singing, riddling Sphinx/She... persuaded us to let the mystery go/and concentrate on what lay at our feet” (lines 147–49). In any case, the fact that the answer is “man” is singularly appropriate for a hero who begins the play as a representative of humanity as master of its environment and ends it as a blinded outcast.
Modern students will probably find themselves in difficulty when they move from the dramatic exchanges in the spoken scenes to the sometimes meditative, sometimes excited lyric poetry of the choral odes. Yet the choral poetry is not only, for most of its length, a profound meditation on the moral and religious themes of the play but also a reflection of the Chorus’s reactions to and interpretations of the dramatic action. As in Agamemnon, the attitude of the Chorus is not fixed; it varies as the song expresses the hopes and fears of the citizens of Thebes before the words and deeds of their rulers. But whereas in Agamemnon the Chorus learns through suffering to see, at last, the truth of the matter, the Chorus of Oedipus, oscillating wildly between overconfidence and utter despair, serves Sophocles as a dramatic instrument for the creation of suspense, irony, and contrast.
The opening song (lines 168ff.) is a desperate appeal to the gods for relief from the plague. The Chorus does not yet know the message Creon has brought to Oedipus; they await the word from Delphi with apprehension. The vivid description of the sufferings caused by the plague in lines 190ff. reinforces the dramatic effect of the opening scene: Oedipus must act quickly and decisively if he is to save his city. As he comes out of the palace he hears the closing lines of the choral prayer, and Sophocles gives him an opening line heavy with dramatic irony: “You pray to the gods? Let me grant you prayers” (line 245). He will indeed grant its prayers but only at the price of his wife’s death and the loss of his own eyes.
The second choral song (lines 526ff.) follows the scene between Oedipus and Tiresias. The first half of it develops a vision of the man responsible for the plague, the murderer of Laius, as a fugitive in flight from the gods’ pursuit—an outcast in the wilds, in “bristling timber... rocks and caves” (lines 542–43). Evidently, the Chorus does not accept Tiresias’ identification of Oedipus as the killer; as it goes on to discuss the prophet’s charge, it confesses to bewilderment. For all its respect for Tiresias, it can see no reason why a prince from Corinth should quarrel with and kill the king of Thebes. It rejects this assault “without proof” on the reputation of the man who once before saved Thebes. Not that it rejects prophecy “Zeus and Apollo know” (line 561). But a human prophet may err; it will not believe until it sees “these charges proved” (line 568).
But the next choral ode (lines 945ff.) comes after the quarrel between Oedipus and Creon (in which the Chorus intervened on Creon’s behalf) and the revelations that followed; it has heard Oedipus tell how he killed a man at the crossroads and now fears that he may in fact be the killer of Laius—that Tiresias was right—and the Chorus has heard Jocasta reject prophecy altogether, including one that came from Delphi. It is deeply disturbed and sings of the immortal laws as it prays for reverence and purity; it denounces the tyrannical spirit that mounts too high only to crash in ruin. This seems to be a reference to political power (and so to Oedipus); the Chorus qualifies it immediately as it prays that the god will never put an end to the “healthy strife that makes the city strong” (line 969). But dark thoughts return: it sings now of one who has no fear of justice, no reverence for the gods, who “lay[s] hands on the holy things untouchable” (line 980). In that last phrase (and the suggestion is especially strong in the Greek) there might be a reference to incest. If such a man go unpunished, the Chorus asks itself, why join the sacred dance? The dance it is performing as it sings is such a dance; the theater is a place of worship of the god Dionysus. If such crimes go unpunished, the Chorus’s words imply, why worship the gods at all? And it spells this implication out clearly in the final stanza. It will no longer go to Delphi or any other sacred site unless “these prophecies all come true” (line 989). They are ready to abandon their king if the condition of his survival is the failure of divine prophecy.
But the next choral song (lines 1195ff.) is a jubilant speculation about the birth of Oedipus. The Chorus knows now that he is not the son of the royal pair at Corinth; as it waits for the arrival of the Theban Shepherd who carried the baby Oedipus long ago to the slopes of Mount Cithaeron, it indulges in pleasing prospects: Oedipus may be the child of a god, of Pan by a nymph, of Apollo, Hermes, or Dionysus. It is not long before the dreadful truth is revealed, to Oedipus and to the Chorus, that now sings despondently of the fate of humankind: “generations of men... adding the total/of all your lives I find they come to nothing” (lines 1312–14). Oedipus is the example; in his rise and fall the Chorus finds the proof of this gloomy estimate of the human condition. Yet the last scene of the play suggests that just as it went too far before in joyful expectation, it has now gone too far in despair. For in the last scene, the blind Oedipus emerges from his initial abject misery to reassert himself as a man; he refuses to accept the Chorus’s condemnation of his self-blinding: “What I did was best—don’t lecture me” (line 1500). The imperious tone is certainly not that of a man who feels he is nothing, and he uses the same tone to Creon later: “I command you—I beg you.” (line 1584). This return to self-confidence is based on a feeling that his cruel destiny marks him as unique, that, for some purpose undeclared, he has been singled out among humankind: “I have been saved/for something great and terrible, something strange” (lines 1597–98). That “something strange” is the subject of the last play Sophocles was to write, Oedipus at Colonus.
Topics for Discussion
1. The theme of sight and blindness; its importance in a play that turns on human ignorance of the truth.
[Tiresias the blind prophet can see the truth (as Oedipus begins to fear, line 823). Oedipus, who has the use of his eyes, moves blindly toward the revelation of the truth. He sees clearly only when he is physically blind. Compare the emphasis on Oedipus’ sight throughout the first part of the play (lines 17, 28, 70, 96, 119, 394, 427, 597, 830, 885, 1042, 1147, 1153, 1185, and 1190) and contrast the references to the vision of Tiresias (323, 359–60). Also Oedipus’ sarcastic references to the blindness of Tiresias (lines 396, 423, 425ff., 440–42, and 469) and Tiresias’ references to the blindness of Oedipus (lines 419, 470–71, 517ff.; cf. 879, 1082, 1095, 1360, 1406ff., 1567, and 1625ff.).]
2. Oedipus is a figure representative of human confidence that our intelligence makes us master of our world.
[Oedipus is a man of action and experience (cf. lines 55–56), but he himself emphasizes that his action is based on thoughtful analysis (“groping, laboring over many paths of thought... painful search,” lines 79–80). And he boasts that he alone was able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx: “the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark” (line 453). Here he prizes his own human intelligence above the prophetic skills of Tiresias, that are the gift of the gods. His intelligence is displayed in the frequent cross-questioning to which he subjects witnesses in the course of his investigation, an investigation that starts as a search for the murderer of Laius and ends as a search for his own identity. His questioning of Creon (lines 112ff.), Jocasta (lines 804ff.), the Messenger (lines 1114ff.), and the Shepherd (lines 1229ff.) are models of logical pursuit of the truth. And it is through these intellectual efforts that he finally brings about the catastrophe, learns the truth about himself.]
Topic for Writing
Trace the pattern and discuss the significance of the following images throughout the play: (a) Oedipus as hunter, (b) Oedipus as plowman, and (c) Oedipus as sailor-helmsman.
[All three of these images reinforce the central idea of Oedipus as the symbolic representative of human progress, for the conquest of the wild beasts, the discovery of agriculture, and the mastery of the sea are important stages in our long development from “savagery” to “civilization.” (That the Greeks were conscious of this historical view of human progress is clear from the choral ode in Antigone, lines 376ff., where mastery of the sea, the soil, and the animals are the first accomplishments of “man the skilled, the brilliant.”)
Oedipus as hunter. The investigator of the crime is easily seen as a hunter and this image is pervasive throughout the opening scenes of the play. “Where to find it now,” he asks when Creon tells him that Apollo demands the punishment of Laius’ murder, “the trail of the ancient guilt so hard to trace?” (lines 123–24) “What stopped you,” he asks Creon, “from tracking down the killer/then and there?” (lines 146–47) He will take up the chase himself and later claims that if he had been present at the time “there would have been... no long hunt/without a clue in hand” (lines 250–51). Later Tiresias will tell him “I say you are the murderer you hunt” (line 413), but it will be a long time before he realizes this is the truth. The Chorus envisions the murderer of Laius as a hunted animal: “that man who left no trace—/after him, hunt him down with all our strength!” (lines 540–41) It does not realize that Oedipus is both the hunter and the prey.
Oedipus as plowman. The agricultural images are heavily loaded with significance in this play because in the Greek language such words as “plow” and “sow” are familiar expressions for the begetting of children (as they were in the seventeenth-century English of the Bible—“the seed of Abraham,” “the fruit of the womb,” for example). Quite apart from their clear reference to the incestuous begetting of children by the royal pair, these images are strikingly appropriate to the dramatic situation. For the plague in Thebes affects the products of the soil as well as human beings (cf. “The fruits of our famous earth, they will not ripen” and “the women cannot scream their pangs to birth... children dead in the womb,” lines 196–98). This sympathetic relationship between the fruits of the soil and the fruit of the womb is reflected in the transference of agricultural terms to the pollution of the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta; what this suggests is the responsibility of that unholy marriage for the stunted crops and the plague. Oedipus’ first statement about his relationship with Laius is made in terms of this metaphor. Not realizing the hideous ambiguities involved he says, “I hold the throne that he held then, possess his bed/and a wife who shares our seed” (lines 295–96). What he means is simply that he and Laius have had children by the same wife, but the words suggest to the audience the hideous truth. The same image recurs when Tiresias prophesies that Oedipus will be revealed as his father’s murder and his mother’s son: “He sowed the loins/his father sowed” (lines 522–23). After the revelation of the truth, the Chorus asks in horror: “How, how could the furrows your father plowed/bear you, your agony, harrowing on/in silence O so long?” (lines 1339–41) When Oedipus bursts into the palace, he asks, the Messenger tells us, for “his wife,/no wife, his mother, where he can find the mother earth/that cropped two crops at once, himself and all his children” (lines 1388–90). He explains his own polluted state to his daughters with this same image: “I fathered you in the soil that gave me life” (line 1627) and “Your father killed his father, sowed his mother,/one, one and the selfsame womb sprang you—/he cropped the very roots of his existence” (lines 1640–42). The plowman has reaped a dreadful crop, the sower is not only the sower but also the seed.
Oedipus as sailor-helmsman. Oedipus as helmsman is a natural image, for as king he is thought of as guiding the ship of state (a common metaphor in Greek as in English). The city is compared to a ship in the opening speech of the priest—“our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head/from the depths” (lines 29–30)—and Creon, bringing news from Delphi, speaks of the “plague-storm” (line 114) that afflicts the city; he also refers to Oedipus’ rescue of Thebes in earlier days with the phrase “you came and put us straight on course” (118). The Chorus takes up and elaborates this image when it asserts its loyalty to Oedipus after his quarrel with Creon: “You who set our beloved land—storm-tossed, shattered—/straight on course” (lines 765–66). And it exhorts him to do the same thing now: “Now again, good helmsman,/steer us through the storm!” (lines 766–67) But its wish is not to be granted; after Jocasta’s mention of the three roads, Oedipus is distraught. The citizens, in Jocasta’s words, are “passengers in the grip of fear,/watching the pilot of the vessel go to pieces” (lines 1010–11). Oedipus has not yet discovered the full truth. When he does he will understand at last the riddling question Tiresias asked him. “What haven won’t reverberate?... That day you learn the truth about your marriage?... the lusty voyage home to the fatal harbor!” (lines 480ff.). Oedipus, like a navigator, had plotted his course by the stars: “I abandoned Corinth,/from that day on I gauged its landfall only/by the stars” (lines 876–78). But it brought him to an unspeakable destination. “One and the same wide harbor,” sings the Chorus, “served you/son and father both/son and father came to rest in the same bridal chamber” (lines 1336–39).]
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. What kind of correlation exists between the time covered by the action of the play and the time it takes to perform? Compare the management of time and event in other dramatic traditions. Speculate on the extent to which cultural attitudes toward time and human life influence the presentation of dramatic action.
[No drama, Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, Doctor Faustus, Hamlet.]
2. Most ancient theaters relied on props and speech to designate place rather than on elaborate stage sets. Comment on the choice of palace face and altar for Oedipus and compare the stage settings for other plays you have studied.
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, pp. 589–90.
O’Brien, Michael J., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex. 1968. Contains an essay by Eric Dodds (“On Misunderstanding Oedipus Rex”) that with admirable clarity and concision draws on a lifetime of brilliant scholarship and teaching to deal with the difficulties students usually experience on reading this play. There are also essays by Francis Ferguson (on the play as theater), G. M. Kirkwood (on dramatic form), R. P. Winnington-Ingram (on the Old Testament of the Bible and Greek archaic thought), and Bernard Knox (on the ending of the play). The volume also contains useful short quotations from critics ancient and modern, including, for example, Plutarch, Voltaire, Bowra, Freud, and Marshall McLuhan.
Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. 1982. The title speaks for itself: the plays are explored primarily as theatrical performance (but with careful attention to content and imagery). One section deals with Oedipus the King.
Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles. 1981. Pages 207–248 offer a sensitive and rewarding reading of the play that makes use of modern structuralist approaches.
Sophocles. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Edited by R. D. Dawe. 1982. This is an edition of and commentary on the Greek text of the play but the introduction is an especially useful discussion of the problems raised by the intricacy of the plot.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Sophocles: An Interpretation. 1980. Pages 173–204 offer a profound and provoking exploration of the problems of fate in the play and of the moral implications of the “fall of Oedipus.”
After the events dramatized in Oedipus the King, the blind man is eventually expelled from Thebes by Creon; his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, do not protest, and Oedipus, accompanied by his daughter Antigone, becomes a wandering beggar. For their ingratitude, he lays on his sons a curse—that they shall kill each other in a battle for their inheritance. After Oedipus dies the curse comes to fulfillment. The sons quarrel over the exercise of royal power in Thebes; Eteocles seizes the throne and Polynices goes abroad to find allies who will help him regain it. With six allied chieftains and their forces (the besiegers afterward known as the Seven against Thebes—one for each gate) he assaults the city; all seven are killed and Polynices and his brother, Eteocles, kill each other. Creon now resumes power; he orders an honorable funeral for Eteocles, who has died defending the city, and the exposure of the corpse of Polynices, who has led a foreign army against it. The corpse, under guard, is to be devoured by carrion birds and beasts; the penalty for interference is death.
This edict is proclaimed by Creon early in the play but before this happens, the audience has seen Antigone propose to her sister, Ismene, a joint attempt to bury their brother’s body. Ismene is afraid to join her, so Antigone goes off alone to bury the corpse. No sooner is Creon’s decree delivered to the Chorus than a frightened soldier comes on stage; he is one of the guards posted to watch the corpse and he reports that during a dust storm, that made it impossible to see, someone has given the body a symbolic burial, scattered dust on it—enough, according to Greek belief, to ensure passage of the dead man’s soul to the lower world. Creon suspects conspiracy at once, assumes the guard was bribed, and tells him that if he does not produce the culprit he will pay the penalty himself.
The Chorus now sings the famous ode about human ingenuity, that has made us masters of the earth and sea, of the animals, fish and birds, as well as of the political arts of communal life; there seems to be no obstacle to our future development, except that human can go too far, be a force for evil as well as good. The Sentry returns, leading Antigone on stage; she has been captured replacing the dust the guards had swept off the corpse and pouring libations on it as well. Interrogated by Creon she admits her responsibility, defies him contemptuously, claims the authority of higher, divine laws that override Creon’s decree; she is condemned to death. Ismene enters; she now tries to associate herself with Antigone’s action but Antigone denies her any share in what she sees as her glory.
In the course of the dialogue between Ismene and Creon we learn that Antigone is betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon. After the choral ode (a lamentation for the doomed house of Oedipus) Haemon comes to reason with his father but Creon insists that Antigone must die, even though Haemon leaves in desperation, making vague threats.
Antigone is to be buried alive in a tomb (Ismene is released); after a choral song that celebrates the power of love, Antigone enters, led by guards on her way to the tomb where she is to die. In a lyric dialogue with the Chorus she laments her premature death, unmarried; Creon orders her to be taken away at once, and she makes her last speech, which is a declaration of her love for Polynices and which ends with a prayer that her persecutor be punished. The Chorus sings of great men and women of the past who have suffered imprisonment (though the reference of the second half of the ode is obscure) and Tiresias comes on to warn Creon that the gods disapprove of his action. He sends Tiresias packing but then, in fear of the consequences the prophet has foretold (the death of “one born of your own loins,” lines 1185ff.) he gives way; he goes to bury the body and release Antigone. He does bury Polynices but Antigone has anticipated him: she has hanged herself in the tomb. Haemon has found her and, after lunging with his sword at his father, kills himself. All this we learn from the Messenger who is giving the news to Creon’s wife, Eurydice; she goes into the palace and kills herself—she dies cursing Creon. At the end of the play he mourns over the corpse of his son, praying for death.
In Antigone Oedipus is spoken of as already dead (line 61); the plot of the play is taken from a later stage of the house of Laios than that of Oedipus the King. And yet it is almost certain that Antigone was written and produced before Oedipus the King. Ancient sources tell us that because of the great impression made by this play Sophocles was elected one of the ten generals the Athenians chose every year. We know that he was one of the generals in 441 b.c. and took part in the campaign against the large island of Samos that had tried to secede from the Athenian empire in wartime. Whether the success of the play had any influence on the election or not (and we know that Sophocles held other high political offices in the course of his long life) the story could only have started if Antigone had been produced before, but not too long before, 441 b.c.
For the date of Oedipus, on the other hand, we have no external evidence of any kind. But it is generally agreed that the graphic presentation of the plague in Thebes owes something to the real plague that swept through Athens in 430 b.c. and recurred intermittently until 425 b.c. In any case the reference to the death of Oedipus in Antigone—“think how our own father died, hated”—is not likely to have been written after the production of Oedipus, which ends with Oedipus still alive and feeling that he had “been saved/for something great and terrible, something strange” (Oedipus, lines 1597–98).
The political concern of Antigone certainly reflects the career of Sophocles as a holder of high office in Athenian life. He was at various times elected to the board of treasurers of the Delian League (which was in fact the imperial treasury of Athens), to the board of generals at least once, and after the Athenian catastrophe in Sicily in 413 b.c., to a board of emergency commissioners elected to deal with the situation. The play was famous in later times as a mine of quotations useful for political discussion; the orator Demosthenes, speaking a century after the first production of the play, quoted parts of Creon’s opening speech (lines 194–214) as a prime expression of democratic principle.
What tradition (if any) Sophocles was following when he wrote Antigone we do not know. We have no trace of the story in the fragments of Theban epic that have survived and there is no mention of it in Homer. The Aeschylean play Seven Against Thebes ends with a scene that presents in swift and summary fashion Creon’s edict and Antigone’s decision to disobey it. But the scene seems out of place as a kind of hurried epilogue to a play that comes to a fitting conclusion with the death of the brothers; scholars generally consider it a later addition, the work of a producer who, influenced by Sophocles’ play, attached an epilogue to the old play of Aeschylus. The fact that the Antigone story was not fixed by epic tradition seems clear from the fact that in Euripides’ Antigone (now lost) the heroine, as we know from ancient accounts, was not put to death at all but married Haemon and bore him a son. It seems likely that Sophocles was presenting his audience with dramatic events with which they were not already familiar; Antigone, unlike Oedipus, makes little use of dramatic irony.
The natural tendency of modern readers (especially students) is to see Antigone as all heroine and Creon as all villain, and though there is no doubt that Antigone is heroic and that she is right in the issue of burial, Creon, in the opening scenes of the play, is presented in terms that for Sophocles’ audience suggested a patriotic, democratic statesman. His opening speech was quoted by a later orator as a model for democratic conduct (see “Backgrounds”), and some expressions in it recur in the great Funeral Speech of Pericles, a panegyric of Athenian democracy. In his insistence on the safety of the state as a consideration that overrides all ties of friendship and family, he is simply stating what every Greek citizen believed. The small Greek cities, constantly at war with their neighbors, faced, in the case of defeat, not just loss of territory and property but the likelihood of massacre, enslavement, and even physical destruction of the city itself. This had happened to Mycenae in the fifth century; its powerful neighbor Argos reduced it to ruins. In the course of the thirty-year war between Athens and Sparta that raged at the end of the century, Athens three times killed the men and enslaved the women and children of cities that rebelled against its imperial rule. So that when the Chorus sings of the enemy “thirsting for the kill” and ready “to glut his jaws with Theban blood” (lines 134–36) and Creon speaks of Polynices as one who came to destroy Thebes and the sanctuaries of its gods—“to burn their temples ringed with pillars,/their golden treasures—scorch their hallowed earth” (lines 323–24)—the Athenian audience did not dismiss these phrases as rhetoric. The actor playing Creon would have the audience with him unanimously when he said: “whoever places a friend/above the good of his country, he is nothing” (lines 203–4).
As the action develops, however, it becomes clear that for Creon the welfare of the citizen body is not an overriding concern. In the quarrel with his son Haemon, he talks more like a tyrant than a democratic statesman: “Am I to rule this land for others—or myself?... The city is the king’s—that’s the law” (lines 823–25). When Tiresias comes to warn him that his action offends the gods and will bring disaster on the city, he refuses to yield. He does yield in the end, too late to avoid the consequences of his obstinacy; Antigone, on the contrary, never gives an inch and goes to her death, true to her insistence on the right of her dead brother to burial. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Hegel, in a famous analysis of the play, saw it as a “collision between two moral powers”—the demands of the state versus the demands of the family—both of that were “one-sided.” This is a valid estimate of the situation as presented in the opening scene, but Hegel, whose views on loyalty to the Prussian state were very much those of Creon, did not take into account the fact that the favorable impression created by Creon’s first speech is quickly destroyed by his subsequent words and actions.
Topics for Discussion
1. The issue of the proper roles of the sexes that was a major theme of The Oresteia recurs in Antigone but seen from a different perspective. [Clytaemnestra played the man’s part but she was repudiated by the Olympian gods and the court of the Areopagus, which was swayed by the arguments of Apollo and Athena for the supremacy of the male. But Antigone, who defies the power of the state first against the threat and then against the reality of death is vindicated in the end; Tiresias, speaking for the gods, condemns Creon’s action and Creon’s punishment comes immediately after his rejection of Tiresias’ advice. Antigone’s action is more unexpected and courageous than Clytaemnestra’s, for Clytaemnestra was the ruling power in Argos while Agamemnon was away; she succeeded by cunning and concealment, and she had Aegisthus and his guards to support her. Antigone is a young girl who has no position or power; all her male blood relatives are dead and her sister refuses to help her, yet she disobeys Creon’s edict so openly that she gives the impression that she actually wants to be caught in the act. The attitude the Athenian audience expected to find in young women is proclaimed by Ismene in the first scene: “Remember we are women,/we’re not born to contend with men” (lines 74–75). Antigone does not even bother to argue the point; she simply repudiates Ismene as a traitor to the family and proceeds with her plan alone. For Creon, the fact that this edict was disobeyed by a woman (“What man alive would dare?” he says when told the news, line 281) intensifies his rage; and when Antigone proudly proclaims her responsibility and defies him in the name of a higher justice than his, he takes it as a challenge to his manhood: “I am not the man, not now: she is the man/if this victory goes to her and she goes free” (lines 541–42). At the end of the confrontation scene, as he confirms the death sentence, this tone recurs: “While I’m alive,/no woman is going to lord it over me” (lines 592–93). He is sure, however, that Antigone (and Ismene, who has been condemned to death with her) will weaken when it comes to the point; after Antigone’s proud speech about the higher laws, he speaks of “the stiffest stubborn wills” that “fall the hardest,” of “the toughest iron” that cracks and shatters, of “proud, rebellious horses” that can be broken “with a light bit” (lines 528ff). And as he orders the two women inside he expects them to cave in: “From now on they’ll act like women.... even the bravest will cut and run,/once they see Death coming for their lives” (lines 652–55). Ismene is later released, but Antigone shows no sign of willingness to surrender; and this rouses Creon’s anger to fever pitch. Three times in his argument with Haemon he sounds this same note: Men must not, he says, “let some woman triumph over” them, must “never be rated/inferior to a woman, never” (lines 758–61). When Haemon refuses to yield he is denounced as one who “is fighting on the woman’s side” (line 829), as “woman’s accomplice” (line 838), and “woman’s slave” (line 849). Creon speaks of surrender as the woman’s part, but in the end the traditional roles are reversed. Antigone goes to her death defiant to the last and by her suicide brings down on Creon’s head the death of his son and his wife. Creon, too late, gives in abjectly: “It’s a dreadful thing to yield” (line 1220), he says, but yield he does. “What should I do?” he asks the Chorus. “Tell me... I’ll obey” (line 1224). This is Ismene’s word—“I must obey” (line 79); what he feared has come to pass. By his own standards he is proved the woman, Antigone the man (cf. lines 541ff.).]
2. There is a conflict of religious views in the play. This is often overlooked because though Antigone’s religious sanction for her deed is plainly exposed, Creon’s religious point of view is hard for the modern reader to appreciate. Nevertheless, it exists, and as a matter of fact, it must have seemed more acceptable to the original audience than Antigone’s devotion to the gods of the underworld and the dead. [For Creon, the gods are the protectors of the city, and so he can feel that in the measures taken to promote patriotic solidarity—honorable burial for the bodies of its defenders, exposure for those of traitors—he has the gods on his side. The Athenians, who considered themselves under the protection of the goddess Athena, whose temple, the Parthenon, dominated the city from the rock of the Acropolis, would certainly have felt that measures taken in the city’s defense would have the approval and support of the goddess. Creon has no doubt that he has the gods of the city on his side; he mentions them at the beginning of his opening speech: “the ship of state is safe. The gods who rocked her... in the storm/have righted her once more” (lines 180–82). And when he denounces the man who “places a friend/above the good of his own country,” he calls on “Zeus who sees all things, always” to witness his stance (lines 203ff.). His conviction that the gods share his attitude is so strong that when the Chorus suggests that the burial may be “the work of the gods” he rejects the idea as “intolerable” (lines 316ff.). “Was it,” he asks sarcastically, “for meritorious service/they... prized him so?” Polynices “came to burn their temples”; it is “inconceivable” that they should intervene on his behalf. “When did you last see the gods/celebrating traitors?” This is an attitude most people shared, or at least sympathized with, but as in the case of Creon’s devotion to the city (see “Classroom Strategies”) Creon abandons his announced principles as the action develops. When Tiresias, the representative of the gods Creon claims as his, comes to tell him that the altars are polluted by birds that have fed on the flesh of Polynices and that the gods demand the burial of the corpse, he rejects the prophet’s advice. And he does so in blasphemous terms that reveal the falseness of his original claim. “You’ll never bury that body in the grave,/not even if Zeus’ eagles rip the corpse/and wing their rotten pickings off. to the throne of god!” (lines 1152–54).
[Antigone’s religious devotion is to the gods who represent a higher law than any the city can impose. Her claim of divine authority for her action turns out in the end to be justified, though she does not live to see that justification and, in fact, goes to her death in a despairing mood. “Why look to the heavens any more” (line 1015) It is remarkable though Tiresias, the spokesman of the gods, condemns Creon, he does not praise Antigone—in fact he does not even mention her. Perhaps this divine coldness toward Antigone stems from a feeling on Sophocles’ part that her loyalty to the rights of the dead and the divine law that she believed upheld them was so exclusive that she had no room for the loyalty to the city; her motives throughout are personal and private—the highest unit she feels loyalty to is the family (contrast the arguments which Haemon opposes to his father’s decision; they are all based on the ultimate welfare of the community).
Topics for Writing
1. In the ode that sings of our progress from “savagery” to “civilization” (lines 376–416) some of the triumphs of human ingenuity listed there find ironic echoes in the body of the play. Trace the recurrence and discuss the significance of references to or images drawn from (a) our conquest of the sea, (b) our mastery of the animal kingdom—snaring of the birds, and (c) our mastery of the animal kingdom—taming the horse and bull.
[Our conquest of the sea. Man as sailor, master of the sea (lines 378–81); man’s city is a storm-tossed ship now righted (lines 180–82). Only when “she voyages true on course” (lines 212), says Creon, can individual relationships prosper. Ismene, trying to associate herself with Antigone’s action and die with her says: “I’m not ashamed/to sail through trouble with you” (lines 607–08). The Chorus, brooding on the fate of the house of Oedipus, sees ruin as a “great mounting tide/driven on by savage northern gales” (lines 661ff.)—contrast the picture of man who “crossing the heaving gray sea,/driven on by the blasts of winter... holds his steady course” (lines 378–81). Haemon opens his approach to Creon with conciliatory terms (“you in your wisdom/set my bearings for me,” lines 709–10); but later warns his father that he is headed for shipwreck: “haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,/you’ll capsize” (lines 801ff.). Tiresias reminds Creon that he was right to follow the prophet’s advice in time gone by, for “so you kept the city straight on course” (line 1097), and later, the Messenger, about to announce the death of Haemon and the ruin of all Creon’s hopes, speaks of former times when Creon “set us true on course” (line 1283). And when Creon, embracing the corpse of his son, learns that his wife, too, has committed suicide, cursing him, as his son did, he sees himself in the “harbor of Death, so choked, so hard to cleanse” (line 1414).
Our mastery of the animal kingdom—snaring of the birds. In the celebration of human skill and intelligence the Chorus sings of the invention of nets to snare “the blithe, lightheaded race of birds,” (line 386) but there is nothing blithe or lightheaded about the birds that are mentioned in the body of the play. The very first reference to them, in fact, is to the carrion birds that will feed on Polynices’ corpse: “He’s to be left unwept,” says Antigone, “unburied, a lovely treasure/for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content” (lines 35–36). Humans are not seen as master of the birds here, nor are they in the Chorus’s image of the invading army threatening Thebes with destruction: “like an eagle screaming, winging havoc/over the land” (lines 127–28). The carrion birds recur, this time invoked not in indignation by Antigone but in exultation by Creon when he announces his decree; Polynices’ corpse is to be “left unburied... carrion for the birds and dogs to tear,/an obscenity for the citizens to behold” (lines 229–31). When Antigone finds the corpse of Polynices swept clean of the dust she had poured on it “she cried out a sharp, piercing cry,/like a bird come back to an empty nest... all the babies gone” (lines 471–73). Tiresias first realizes that something is wrong when the birds, whose voices he understands, suddenly become unintelligible as they turn on each other “Talons flashing, ripping” (lines 1106ff.); he realizes that the altars of the gods “are fouled,/one and all, by the birds and dogs with carrion/torn from the corpse” (lines 1125–27). And Creon, in his blasphemous rejection of Tiresias’ warning, tells him the body will never be buried, not even if “Zeus’ eagles rip the corpse/and wing their rotten pickings off to the throne of god” (lines 1153ff.). The birds do more than pollute the altars of Thebes; they will carry the infection back to the cities of the other champions whose corpses Creon has exposed—“a wheeling crow that wings the ungodly stench of carrion/back to each city, each warrior’s hearth and home” (lines 1205–6)—and so incite hatred abroad—“cities in tumult” (line 1203)—that, as the audience knew from the traditional story, would eventually result in a second attack on Thebes, this one successful.
Our mastery of the animal kingdom—taming the horse and bull. Humans achieve their conquest of the soil with the aid of domesticated animals—“the breed of stallions turning up the furrows” (line 385)—but first we had to tame them—“training the stallion, clamping the yoke across/his shaggy neck, and the tireless mountain bull” (lines 393–94). But in the body of the play, Creon talks of taming not animals for humankind’s use but of people as subjects of his rule. When he hears of the symbolic burial of Polynices he is sure it is the work of conspirators, “grumbling against me in the dark... never keeping their necks beneath/the yoke” (lines 330–32). Similarly, faced with Antigone’s defiance he expects to break and tame her: “I’ve known spirited horses you can break/with a light bit—proud, rebellious horses” (lines 532–33). When he orders the imprisonment of the two sisters, he says: “Tie them up, no more running loose” (line 653). When the Chorus sings of other mortals who, like Antigone, were imprisoned, the image of the yoke recurs: Danaè was “wed to the yoke and broken” (line 1041) and “the yoke tamed him too/young Lycurgus flaming in anger” (lines 1052–53).
Humankind may have tamed the animals but they themselves are subjected to the yoke, of tyrannical power in the case of Antigone, of the gods in the case of Danaè, Lycurgus, and Creon. Creon bows his neck before it and submits; Antigone goes to her death untamed—“passionate, wild,” as the Chorus says of her, “she hasn’t learned to bend before adversity” (lines 526–27).]
2. Creon, Antigone, and Tiresias all speak at different times and places of the issues at stake in terms of profit and loss, of monetary value. Trace these terms through the language of the play and discuss the light the use of them throws on the attitudes and actions of the protagonists.
[Creon sees all opposition to his will as the product of bribery, as action for profit. The Sentry who brings news of the burial is repeatedly accused of accepting bribes from conspirators (cf. lines 334, 341, 351, 355, 365, 370), and Creon sees in money the root of all evil in the community (lines 335–41). Tiresias, too, is treated to a similar tirade; prophets, says Creon, have tried to sell him short and ship him off for years (lines 1148–49). “Drive your bargains,” he says to the prophet, “traffic... in the gold of India, silver-gold of Sardis” (lines 1150–51, and cf. line 1162 “for their own gain”). When Tiresias is driven to tell Creon that he must reveal the dreadful truth about his future, Creon replies contemptuously, “Spit it out. Just don’t speak it out for profit” (line 1179), to which Tiresias replies, “Profit? No, not a bit of profit, not for you” (line 1180).
Creon can think only in material terms. When the Chorus tells him it will not obey his edict for “only a fool could be in love with death” (line 246) he rejoins: “Death is the price—you’re right. But all too often/the mere hope of money has ruined many men” (lines 247–48). It will prove beyond his comprehension that a woman can defy his edict and risk death for no material motive whatsoever; he can only think that she must be insane (lines 632ff.). Haemon tries to argue with his father by adopting his own terms: “Father,” he says, “only the gods endow a man with reason,/the finest of all their gifts, a treasure” (lines 764–65). But such arguments have no effect on Creon; treasures, for him, are of this world. So it is particularly appropriate that the Messenger, announcing the death of Haemon and the ruin of all Creon’s hopes—“he’s as good as dead, I tell you” (line 1287)—offers the final comment on Creon’s crass standards: “Pile up riches in your house, as much as you like... but if real delight is missing from the lot,/I wouldn’t give you a wisp of smoke for it,/not compared with joy” (lines 1288–92).
Antigone, too, though her standards are not Creon’s, twice uses his language but to strikingly different effect. Speaking of Polynices’ corpse, she calls it “a lovely treasure/for birds” (35–36), and the adjective suggests that she is not thinking of the birds but of herself—her “lovely treasure” is the brother for whose sake she will give her life. And that sacrifice she later refers to in the same terms. “And if I am to die before my time/I consider that a gain. Who on earth,/alive in the midst of so much grief as I,/could fail to find his death a rich reward?” (lines 515–18). Between Antigone and Creon there is no common ground; though they use the same words, they are speaking different languages.]
See also the suggestions in the anthology, pp. 589–90.
Goheen, Robert. The Imagery of Sophocles’ Antigone. 1951. The title speaks for itself; the book analyzes in detail all the different sequences of imagery in the play. “The Money Sequence” discusses the question asked in the second item under “Topics for Writing”; “Images of the Sea and Sailing” will be found useful for item #1. Caution: Goheen is discussing the Greek text and often deals with nuances of imagery that do not appear in the Fagles translation.
Knox, Bernard. The Heroic Temper. 1964; paperback, 1983. An attempt to define the characteristics of the Sophoclean hero. Chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 62–116) deal with Antigone, paying particular attention to the contrast in religious feeling, community loyalties, and heroic temper between Antigone and Creon.
Seale, David. Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles. 1982. The title of Chapter 4—“Antigone: Concrete Visualization”—speaks for itself.
Segal, C. P. “Antigone: Death and Love, Hades and Dionysus.” In Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal. 1983, pp. 167–76. An essay on the conflicting male and female elements in the play, developed along structuralist lines.
Segal, C. P. “Sophocles’ Praise of Man and the Conflicts of the Antigone.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by T. Woodard. 1966, pp. 62–85. Useful for item 1 under “Topics for Writing.”
The background for the events of the play is briefly sketched by Medea’s old nurse, who delivers the prologue. The romantic idyll of Jason and Medea (see lines 1–10 and the footnotes to those lines) has long since come to an end; they are exiles in Corinth, and Jason has married the daughter of the king, abandoning Medea and his two sons by her. She is desperate, and the nurse is afraid of what she may do. The boys’ Tutor brings news that the king (his name is Kreon but he has no connection with the Creon of the Sophoclean plays) intends to expel Medea and her children from Corinth; he is afraid of her.
That his fears are justified is made clear in the next scene; Medea wins over the Chorus of Corinthian Women by her famous speech lamenting the subordinate position of women, and it promises not to betray her plans for revenge. Kreon arrives to expel her but is talked into granting her one day’s reprieve. That is all she needs, she says, when he is gone; she plans to kill him, his daughter, and Jason (lines 371–72). At this stage she has not yet thought of killing Jason’s sons. He now comes in to try to offer her financial help in her exile from Corinth, an offer she refuses with contempt in a speech of violent denunciation; he makes a cynical defense of his conduct but she sends him away with sarcastic wishes for his enjoyment of his marriage and with veiled threats.
One obstacle to her plan for revenge is the fact that if she does succeed in killing Jason and the king and princess of Corinth she will have nowhere to go for refuge; no city will take her in after that. The problem is solved by the chance arrival of Aegeus, king of Athens. He is childless and has been to the oracle at Delphi for advice, but Apollo’s reply to his request was obscure and he is on his way to a wise man at Troezen to ask for an interpretation. Medea tells him her troubles and begs him for a refuge in Athens, promising that through her knowledge of drugs she can cure his sterility. He offers her a home in Athens and she makes him swear an oath to confirm this offer. (She does not tell him what she intends to do before leaving Corinth.)
Now she can plan her revenge. She will send the princess a wedding gift—a robe that will kill her and anyone that touches her. But she will also kill the Children (line 776). Jason will be left wifeless and childless (lines 787ff.). She sends for Jason and with feigned humility she plays the part of the submissive wife; Jason, deceived, leaves with the Children, who carry the poisoned gifts for the princess. When the Tutor returns with the boys and announces that the gifts have been accepted, she prepares to kill her sons. In a famous monologue (lines 995–1054) she struggles with her own soul, changing her mind and then returning to her original resolution. After the messenger comes to report the hideous deaths of the princess and the king, she goes into the house to complete her revenge; she kills the children.
Jason comes on to save the life of his boys (for the king’s friends will kill them otherwise, (lines 1279–80), but Medea appears above the house in a chariot sent her by her grandfather the sun god, with her are the bodies of the Children. She and Jason exchange reproaches and curses (she prophesies the manner of his death); finally she leaves for Athens as Jason appeals to Zeus to bear witness to her slaughter of his sons.
Medea, with its concentration on the status of women, their sorrows and crimes, is not unique in Euripides’ dramatic oeuvre; in fact he was famous (to some, infamous) for his emphasis on such themes. His Hippolytus deals with a stepmother, Phaedra, who falls in love with her stepson; in Andromache a barren, jealous wife plans to murder her husband’s concubine and her son by him; the Sthenoboea had a plot similar to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (see Genesis 39 in the anthology); Aeolus dealt with love of brother and sister, and Auge with a young woman who bore her illegitimate child in a temple. The comic poet Aristophanes, in his Frogs, staged a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides in the lower world (Euripides died just before the play was written) and had “Aeschylus” denounce “Euripides” for his Phaedra and Sthenoboea and some of his plots in the lines: “His nurses go propositioning others/his heroines have their babies in church/or sleep with their brothers” (translated by Richmond Lattimore).
Long before Euripides produced Medea (in 431 b.c.), he had been attracted by the tragic possibilities of her story; his first offering at the festival of Dionysus (in 455 b.c.) included a play called The Daughters of Pelias, which dealt with Medea’s role in the death of Pelias, king of Thessaly (Medea, lines 9–10 and the footnotes; lines 474 and 492). This incident was part of a long saga, the story of the Argonauts, which was well known to the audience that saw Medea; it is the background against which the drama of Medea is played out.
Jason’s father, Aeson, was the rightful heir to the kingdom of Iolcus, in the north of Greece near Mount Pelion (line 3) but the throne was usurped by his half-brother, Pelias. Jason, who had been sent off to safety, came to Iolcus when fully grown to claim his rights. Pelias, who had been told by a prophet that his death would be brought about by one of his own kin, persuaded the young man to set off in quest of the fabulous Golden Fleece, which was guarded by a dragon in the eastern kingdom of Colchis (line 2), beyond the Hellespont, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The king of Colchis, Aietes, was a son of Helios, the sun god (lines 403 and 930); he had a daughter, Medea, and a young son, Absyrtos.
Jason assembled a company of heroes (called Argonauts after the ship Argo, the first long-range ship that was ever built) and set off on his adventurous journey to the east; one of the many dangers he faced was a passage through the clashing rocks (the Symplegades, lines 2 and 423), which may be a mythical representation of the narrow passage of the Dardanelles, the entrance to the Black Sea. In Colchis, Jason had to face a series of ordeals before he could take possession of the fleece. He had to yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls (lines 466–67), plow a field with them, and sow dragon’s teeth. The crop would be armed men whom he would then have to fight. Medea, who had fallen in love with Jason, gave him an ointment that would make him invulnerable, and he came through successfully; the armed men he provoked into killing one another by throwing a stone that each side thought had been thrown by the other.
Aietes suspected Medea’s complicity and planned to attack Jason and the heroes in the night. Medea came to warn them, led Jason to the dragon’s lair, killed the dragon (lines 468ff.), and embarked with Jason and the heroes in the night. When Aietes ships came close in pursuit she killed her brother (line 165) and threw his limbs overboard one by one; Aietes’ ships stopped to pick them up. After a long voyage Jason and Medea came to Iolcus, where Medea tricked the daughters of Pelias into killing their father, persuading them that he would be rejuvenated by the process, which in fact caused his death. Jason did not, however, reap the rewards of Medea’s action; Pelias’ son drove Jason and Medea out of Iolcus and they came to Corinth as refugees.
Medea repeatedly refers to Jason as her husband (lines 227, 254, 259, 260, etc.) and herself as his wife (line 580), and Jason calls himself her husband (line 1312) and says she was married to him (line 1311). Yet he can abandon her and marry the princess of Corinth; though Medea protests passionately, Kreon and the princess find nothing objectionable in Jason’s conduct, and there is apparently no violation of law on his part.
For the Athenian audience this would not have been seen as a contradiction; it was perfectly understandable as a reflection of conditions in their own society. At the time the play was produced an Athenian citizen’s sons could be recognized as citizens themselves only if born of an Athenian mother; “marriage” was a contract entered into by two Athenian families, the bride brought her husband a dowry (which had to be restored if he separated from her), and the purpose of marriage was officially defined as “the procreation of legitimate children.” A marriage with a foreign woman was not a marriage in this sense at all; many Athenian men had, in addition to their legitimate wives, concubines who might well be of foreign birth and had no rights. What sort of a marriage ceremony Medea and Jason went through we are not told, but in the eyes of Athenian law it was not binding. Medea can call Jason to witness “the gods whose names you swore by” and “my right hand, and the knees which you often clasped/In supplication” (lines 481–85), but though it is true that he has broken his word, she has no legal hold on him.
Virgil will later make use of a similar situation in The Aeneid. Dido considers herself married to Aeneas by the pledge of his right hand (IV.409) but Aeneas does not recognize the bond as legal: “I never held the torches of a bridegroom,/Never entered upon the pact of marriage” (lines 443–44).
Medea has no legal recourse; she has to fall back on cunning and violence.
Topics for Discussion
1. Medea’s plan for revenge is not clearly announced until fairly late in the play. Analyze the formation in her mind of the decision to kill the Children.
[The first formulation of Medea’s revenge is vague; she asks the Chorus to aid and abet her by silence if she can find a means or devise any scheme “To pay my husband back for what he has done to me,/—Him and his father-in-law and the girl who married him” (lines 259–60). After she has won her day’s grace from Kreon, she clarifies her intention: to kill all three of them, “father, the girl and my husband” (line 371). She does not know how yet; she talks of the sword (line 375) and of poison (line 381). But she cannot proceed without assurance of a refuge, a city to take her in after she has killed her enemies. When she is sure of such a refuge at Athens, promised by Aegeus and confirmed by an oath, her plan is complete. “I shall tell to you the whole of my plan,” she tells the Chorus (line 756). She will pretend to give way, ask Jason to let the children take gifts to the princess, poison gifts that will destroy her and “all who touch the girl” (line 772). She hopes presumably that both Kreon and Jason will do so. But her revenge now includes the murder of the children. She speaks of this as specifically aimed against Jason; Jason, she says, “will pay me the price.... For those children he had from me he will never/See alive again, nor will he on his new bride/Beget another child” (lines 786–89). Jason, that is, will remain alive, to suffer the loss of his hopes—his sons who would prolong his line and preserve his name and memory; he will suffer also the loss of the hope of new children from his bride.
There has been no overt preparation for this drastic change of plan; Medea gives no reasons nor does she explain, as Euripidean characters often do, the psychological process by which she arrived at this decision. Yet Euripides has in fact prepared the ground carefully, so that the audience can accept this new and dreadful resolve. Right at the beginning of the play, when the audience hears her hysterical outbursts offstage, she wishes first for her own death (lines 96ff.) but then, when she sees the children brought into the house, she turns her despairing rage against them, Jason’s sons. “I hate you,/Children of a hateful mother. I curse you/And your father. Let the whole house crash” (lines 112–14). And the Nurse fears for the Children’s safety (line 118). When Medea speaks rationally and persuasively to the Chorus, her wild rage against the Children is forgotten.
In her fierce exchange with Jason, however, she hears him speak with pride of his sons, of the plans he has for their future (which do not, of course, include her). He has left her, he says, in her best interests (and the Children’s). He wants to bring them up “worthy/Of [his] position (lines 550–51), give them royal step-brothers by his new wife, a royal progeny to be brothers for the children he has now, “a sure defense to us” (lines 584–85). Jason sees the future of his house in these sons. The point is brought home sharply to Medea and the audience by the appearance of Aegeus, an old man who has no sons and who goes from the oracle at Delphi to the wise man at Troezen in search of some remedy for his childlessness, who will promise Medea a refuge in Athens when she offers to cure his sterility.
It is immediately after this scene that Medea announces her intention to kill the Children. She will make Jason a man with no future in his line, a wreck of a man, like Aegeus. She does not announce this motive; she speaks instead of her inability to save the Children after she has destroyed the king and his daughter (line 776). But when the Chorus asks her if she can really have the heart to kill them, she reveals her true motive: “Yes, for this is the best way to wound my husband” (line 801). In the false submission scene, the Children’s fate is sealed. For Jason shows how much he loves them, how much he counts on their future: “And of you, children, your father is taking care./He has made, with God’s help, ample provision for you./For I think that a time will come when you will be/The leading people of Corinth” (lines 890–93). At this point Medea turns white and bursts into tears (line 898); Jason cannot understand why. “I was thinking about these children,” she says (line 901).
We know what she was thinking. Jason’s devotion to them, his rosy vision of their future career, to be men of influence and his support in old age—all this confirms Medea’s feeling that this is in fact the best way to wound her husband. She wavers momentarily from her purpose (lines 1030ff.) but not for long; she kills the boys. And she savors her revenge in her last interview with Jason. She has left him childless, he says, (line 1301), “my life is over!” (line 1325). And she turns the blade in the wound: “The children are dead. I say this to make you suffer” (line 1345). And she reminds him that he will suffer more as time goes by. “I go,” he says, “with two children to mourn for.” And she replies: “Not yet do you feel it. Wait for the future” (lines 1370–71).]
2. Some critics (Denys Page, for example) refuse to see the play as, in part, a comment on woman’s subordinate role in Athenian society; they point out that Medea is a dealer in supernatural poisons, who escapes the consequences of her action on a magic chariot, that she is, in fact, an Oriental witch who cannot be regarded as representative of Athenian women. Is such a view justified?
[It is certainly expressed in the play; it is Jason’s view: “There is no Greek woman who would have dared such deeds,” he says (line 1314), and he calls her “a monster not a woman” (line 1317). It is true that she has at her disposal a poison that seems more magical than real and that she escapes in a chariot that flies through the air. It is also true that she swears by the goddess Hecate, “my mistress,/Whom most I honor and have chosen as partner... who dwells in the recesses of my heart” (lines 392–94). Hecate is the mistress of witches in Renaissance literature (she appears on the stage in this role in an interpolation made to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example) and appears in Greek literature from the Alexandrian age (third century b.c.) on as the patron goddess of sorcery. But there is no text from Euripides’ time or before to connect her with sorcery. She was a goddess particularly associated with women (and is often identified with Artemis, the protector of women in childbirth) and there was an image of her outside every Athenian house. Medea’s invocation of Hecate carries no suggestion of witchcraft.
As for the robe and crown that burst into flames when put on, the audience is not likely to have read any hint of sorcery into it, since such devices are commonplace in mythical tales. In Sophocles’ Women of Trachis the wife of Heracles sends him a similar robe (she does not realize its potency, but thinks it a love charm) which causes his death by fire, and in Euripides’ Ion the Athenian princess Creusa uses a poison that is equally magical—a drop of the Gorgon’s blood. Poison was in any case the natural recourse of a wronged wife driven to desperate action, for she could not hope to prevail in a contest of strength. The flying chariot is, of course, a gift from Medea’s divine grandfather and points up the fact that the Odyssean figure with whom Medea is compared by the proponents of witchcraft, namely Circe, is not a witch at all but a goddess (cf. Odyssey X.233).
It is true that in other plays of the period, a lost play of Sophocles, for example, Medea is portrayed as a woman who works her will through drugs and poisons. But Euripides has been careful to avoid giving such an impression. It is noticeable that though his Jason, in the quarrel scene and in their final confrontation, pours out his contempt and loathing for her, he never uses this particular line of invective. Euripides did not want to undercut the effect of Medea’s great speech on the position of women by any suggestion that she was not herself a wronged, abandoned woman. She tricks Kreon into giving her an extra day, Aegeus into offering her a refuge, and Jason into accepting the false gifts for his bride not through witchcraft but through purely human cunning and resolution.]
Topics for Writing
1. Medea is a woman, but Euripides has presented her as a figure previously thought of as exclusively male—a hero. Analyze her character in the play as an amalgam of the salient qualities of Achilles and Odysseus.
[She expresses the heroic creed in lines 791–93: “Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited,... but rather just the opposite,/One who can hurt my enemies and help my friends.” Such a reputation ensures what Achilles values most—glory. “For the lives of such persons are most remembered,” she says (line 794); so Achilles came to fight and die at Troy because his glory would be everlasting (Iliad IX.500ff.). When he goes to kill Hector even though he knows his own death will follow, he says: “Let me seize great glory” (XVIII.144ff.). Like Achilles (I.201, IX.791), Medea feels dishonored (“slighted,” lines 20 and 26; “scorned,” line 1329; “insulted,” line 591). Like Achilles (I.330, IX.310, IX.828) she reacts with “anger” and “rage” (lines 94, 99, 174), which makes her, like Achilles, impervious to advice, to appeals to reason, or to pleas for moderation (cf. Achilles in Iliad IX and Medea at lines 29ff. and 827ff.). To others her rage seems like that of a wild beast (“wildness,” line 103); she is “like a lioness guarding her cubs” (line 188). So Achilles makes his spirit “savage” (IX.769) and refuses to bend, “like some lion/going his own barbaric way” (XXIV.48–49). Both Medea and Achilles sacrifice the lives of their own people in their fury for revenge (Medea the Children, Achilles his fellow Achaeans), and both become inhuman in their rage (Achilles: “Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now/to hack you flesh away and eat you raw,” XXII.408–9; Medea: “O your heart must have been made of rock or steel,” sings the Chorus, line 1254, and “A monster not a woman, having a nature/Wilder than that of Scylla in the Tuscan sea,” says Jason, lines 1317–18—cf. Odyssey XII.331ff.).
The resemblances between Medea and Odysseus are clear and abundant. She from the beginning of the play and he from the moment he loses his crew are absolutely alone, dependent on their wits and courage; no help comes from their protecting gods either, until Odysseus reaches Ithaca and is met by Athena, and until Medea, her purpose accomplished, is given the winged car. Both play on the gullibility of their enemies, who do not realize that they are being deceived; Odysseus fools Cyclops as Medea does Kreon and Jason. Both assume humiliating disguises: Odysseus as the beggar in his own house, Medea, in her second scene with Jason, the role of fulsomely flattering obedient wife. Both of them triumph over their enemies in a bloody revenge that more than compensates for their sufferings—seems, in fact, to go too far.]
2. Medea is a foreigner, an Oriental princess, and Jason, as well as some modern critics, attribute the ferocity of her revenge to the fact that she is a “barbarian.” How does the contrast between barbarian and Greek function in the play?
[The idea that Medea is a “barbarian” is in fact peculiar to Jason; even Kreon, who fears her, does not speak of her in such terms. Jason, in the quarrel scene, reminds her that she owes him the privilege of living in a civilized society: “instead of living among barbarians,/You inhabit a Greek land and understand our ways,/How to live by law instead of the sweet will of force” (lines 524–26). Medea, of course, has no reason to congratulate herself on living “by law,” a law that allows her husband to abandon her; she later reproaches herself for trusting “the words of a Greek” (line 785). And Jason will later lament the day he brought her to Greece. “Now I see it plain, though at that time/I did not, when I took you from your foreign home/And brought you to a Greek house” (lines 1304–6). He should not have married a barbarian: “There is no Greek woman who would have dared such deeds” (line 1314).
The Chorus, however—who is appalled at her intention to kill the Children (lines 795ff. and 827ff.) and prays to earth and sun to stop her (lines 1225ff.)—never for one moment speaks of her as a barbarian. When she makes her opening appeal for its sympathy (lines 212ff.) she speaks as a Greek wife addressing Greek women; her problem is its. And though the Chorus rejects the murder of the Children (but not that of the king and his daughter) they understand the desperate rage that prompts it. Far from saying that no Greek woman would have done what Medea did, it mentions one, Ino, who “laid her hands on her children” (line 1258). She was, it says, the only one, but the audience would have thought of others, too: Agave, of the royal house of Thebes, who under Dionysiac possession, helped tear her own son Pentheus to pieces; Procne, who, to punish her husband who had raped her sister, killed her son Itys and served his flesh to his father.
Medea, who sacrificed family and country to save Jason’s life, is labeled a barbarian—called unfit for civilized Greek society—by the very man she tried to help. His cynical betrayal raises grave doubts about the civilization he claims to speak for.]
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. If it is inaccurate to see Euripides’ Medea as a witch, she nevertheless has access to supernatural powers. Compare the tactics she uses against Kreon’s daughter with the Rokujo lady’s method of destroying Aoi (in The Tale of Genji, Chapter 4). Or compare the view of magic as a strategic resource in some of the non-Western texts that you are studying. What aspects of Athenian culture may have led Euripides to deemphasize Medea’s reliance on magic? Why do these other works focus on their protagonists’ supernatural powers?
[The power of fetishes in the epic of Son-Jara, the twins’ triumph in the Popol Vuh, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.]
2. Compare Jason’s treatment of Medea to the humiliation of wives in the Mahabharata, the Cilappatikaram, or Kathasaritsagara. If an Indian poet had written of Medea, would her rage have been presented in a different light?
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, p. 669.
Conacher, D. T. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure. 1967, pp. 183–98. A challenging analysis of the play, which is discussed as “realistic tragedy” as opposed to “mythological tragedy” that is concerned with “the individual in relation to the gods.”
Euripides’ Medea. Introduction and commentary by Denys L. Page. 1938. This is a Greek text and commentary that contains an eloquent introduction putting the play in the context of its time and stating the classic case for Medea as barbarian witch (pp. xvii–xxi).
Schlesinger, Eilhard. “On Euripides’ Medea.” In Euripides: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Erich Segal. 1968. Pp. 70–89. An essay (translated from the German) that deals especially with the problems posed by the ending and uses a comparative approach (Goethe, Corneille, and Anouilh, for example, are cited) to throw light on the Euripidean play.
Lysistrata, an Athenian wife whose name means “disbander of armies,” comes on stage expecting the arrival of other Athenian women whom she has summoned to an important meeting. She also expects some women from Sparta, a city with which Athens has been at war for twenty years. When everybody has arrived she announces her plan: a sex strike of the women on both sides to force the men to make peace. In spite of their initial reluctance she persuades them to swear an oath to refrain from sex with their husbands.
Meanwhile, another group of Lysistrata’s women friends has seized the Acropolis in Athens; the Athenian women on stage leave to join them while the Spartan women go home to organize the strike in Sparta. A Chorus of Old Men enters; it is on its way to the Acropolis to force an entry, or if repelled, to smoke the women out with the timber and fire pots the men are carrying. The Chorus are met, however, by a Chorus of Women carrying water to put the fire out; the contest between the two choruses is interrupted by a Magistrate who takes charge of the operations against the Acropolis gates.
But Lysistrata comes out to parley, and in a spirited exchange with the Magistrate she gets the better of the argument. After another rowdy altercation between the two choruses, Lysistrata comes on again; her troops are trying to desert under various pretexts—what they really want is to go home to their husbands. She restores their morale and they go back to the Acropolis.
At this point, an Athenian husband, Cinesias, arrives; he is in a visibly excited state and demands his wife, Myrrhine. In a ribald, comic scene Myrrhine teases Cinesias with the prospect of sexual enjoyment but in the end leaves him still frustrated. As he goes out a Spartan Herald arrives, also visibly excited, looking for the Athenian magistrates; evidently the Spartan women have not let the side down. The Athenian Magistrate tells him Athens is ready to make peace; Sparta is to send ambassadors with full powers to negotiate.
After some more choral song the Ambassadors enter; they too are in desperate condition. Under the guidance of Lysistrata, who prevents disputes over small points in the treaty from becoming major problems, peace is made and the end of the war celebrated with a banquet.
When this comedy was produced in 411 b.c. there was considerable war-weariness in Athens. The war, which began in 431, ended in a truce in 421 but this was not, in fact, the end of hostilities; Athens and Sparta fought each other indirectly through and sometimes directly with their allies, and in 415 Athens had launched a huge expedition westward with the aim of conquering the rich Greek colonies in Sicily. This expedition ended in disaster and inflicted huge losses in ships and men; the Spartans soon resumed hostilities against Athens as its subject allies in the Aegean tried to secede from the empire.
This was not the first Aristophanic comedy to deal with the folly of the war and to express, in fantastically comic terms, a serious wish for peace. In 425 he had produced a play called The Acharnians, in which a citizen who is fed up with the war makes a separate peace with the Spartans and proceeds to enjoy, in the midst of the Athenian war shortages, an abundance of luxury imports not to mention exemption from military service. In The Peace (421), produced as the first ten years of hostilities came to an end, an Athenian citizen flies up to Heaven on a giant dung beetle to demand that Zeus put an end to the war. Lysistrata plays on the same wish, which must have been widespread in Athens, for a return to more peaceful days.
Nevertheless, the war went relentlessly on; even when the Spartans, on several occasions, proposed a truce on unexpectedly favorable conditions, the political leaders of the democracy rejected them and Athens finally went down to complete defeat in 404 b.c.
Aristophanes’ comedies are not to be regarded as political propaganda on behalf of a particular group or party. It was the function of comedy to provide a momentary relief from everyday cares through fantastic visions of freedom, abundance, and self-indulgence. The action was always something that could not possibly happen in real life: the private citizen making a separate peace, a ride to Heaven on a dung beetle, or concerted political action on the part of Athenian women, who had no public function at all and played a subordinate role in private life as well. Athenian comedy was a safety valve not an instrument of political protest or a forum for advocacy of change.
The sexually explicit jokes and action (the Cinesias scene, for example) should not mislead the modern reader into thinking of the play in terms of pornographic shows or “adult movies.” Comedy in Athens was part of a religious festival; the low jokes and obscene gestures of the comic actors were just as much a part of the celebration of the god Dionysus as the dignified language and formal movements of the tragic stage. Dionysus was originally a god of vegetation (and not just of the vine); tragedy perhaps represented the flowering and inevitable death of all things, comedy the fertility of the natural world.
The comic actor wore, as part of his costume, the ancient symbol of fertility, the phallos, a leather replica of the male sexual organ. The joking remarks about the excited state of the Spartan ambassadors at the end of the play had their visual corroboration on stage, and it is not hard to imagine what a comic actor could do with this apparatus in the Cinesias scene. This kind of horseplay was native to the comic genre. In Aristophanes it is used with keen wit and to dramatic and thematic effect.
Topic for Discussion
Both Medea and Lysistrata deal with, among other things, a conflict between men and women and exploit the contrast between their situation and aspirations. But though the two dramatists develop many of the same major themes (and even sometimes coincide in choice of minor details) the two plays are worlds apart: the same basic material from which Euripides produces his shocking tragic effect serves Aristophanes for a series of comic scenes culminating in a happy ending—conciliation and a return to normality.
[Both protagonists are women of courage, determination, and keen intelligence. Medea’s speech to the chorus, appealing to their consciousness of woman’s unhappy condition, is as perfectly adapted to the situation as the repudiation of her reputation as a woman of intellect (lines 290ff.) in her plea to Kreon or as her assumption of the role of repentant wife in her deception of Jason. Lysistrata displays the qualities of a leader in her organization of the conspiracy in the opening scene and in her argument with the magistrate, especially when she gives her recipe for managing the affairs of Athens and “unsnarling the war” (lines 585ff.) shows a statesmanlike intelligence beyond anything the fatuous Magistrate she opposes could even imagine. Both heroines lament the subordinate lot of women—Medea in lines 229ff. and Lysistrata when she details the effects of war on the women of the city (lines 606–7)—but Medea’s speech ends with her plea to the Chorus to abet her in her bloody revenge while Lysistrata’s argument leads up to a ribald joke on the part of the Magistrate, in return for which Lysistrata and the women’s Chorus dress him up like a corpse. Both Medea and Lysistrata speak of woman’s nature as centered on love and sexual passion. “Once she is wronged in the matter of love,” says Medea, “No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood” (lines 264–65), and Jason sees woman’s nature in the same terms: “You women have got into such a state of mind/That, if your life at night is good, you think you have/Everything; but, if in that quarter things go wrong,/You will consider your best and truest interests/Most hateful” (lines 557–61). He does not realize the meaning the audience will attach to these words: Medea will sacrifice her “best and truest interests”—her children—to punish him. In Lysistrata the same Greek cliché about woman’s nature has no such tragic overtones, but is instead the base for coarse innuendo (“something big... and stout,” lines 20ff.), for the wholesale desertion on the part of Lysistrata’s supporters when she tells them her plan, and for the series of preposterous excuses the women give as they try to escape from the Acropolis and go home to their husbands: “my very best wool is being devoured by moths,” “my precious flax... all unpeeled,” “I’m going to have a baby—right now!” (lines 735–54).
Both plays have a scene in which the heroine administers a solemn oath. Medea makes Aegeus swear by earth and sun, repeating the words after her, that he will give her refuge in Athens when she leaves Corinth (lines 730ff.). Lysistrata binds the women, by an oath on a flask of wine, to repeat after her a series of promises to refrain from all manner of sexual enjoyment (lovingly described in detail, in lines 206–40) until their husbands consent to make peace.]
Topic for Writing
In an earlier comedy Aristophanes has one of his characters draw attention to the underlying seriousness of the action by claiming that even comedy (in spite of its buffoonery) can deal with questions of right and wrong. What serious issues are being explored beneath the ribald surface of Lysistrata and how are they expressed?
[The main issue, of course, is the folly of continuing a war between Greeks which has gone on indecisively for so many years. There are serious obstacles to making peace and Aristophanes, right in the middle of the burlesque scenes of the women’s oath taking, brings them to the fore. The Spartan woman Lampito is sure that she and her friends can “persuade the Spartans” to make a fair and just peace but she says, “what about the Athenian rabble?” (line 168) It will be difficult, she says, to convince them “while their ships are rigged so well and they have that mighty treasure in the temple of Athene” (lines 171–72). Lysistrata has already seen to the seizure of the Acropolis and the treasures stored there—the tribute from the subject cities of the Athenian empire. This, of course, is a joke; the fears of Lampito, however, do raise a serious issue.
Though Athens had been reduced to a position of military inferiority by its catastrophic losses of men and ships in Sicily, the Spartans on several occasions showed a willingness to negotiate a peace. The Athenian democratic leaders (“the rabble,” as the Spartans thought of Athenian democracy) were unwilling to make the necessary concessions; they still considered their resources in ships and money sufficient to win them victory or at least a position in which they could negotiate from strength. It was in fact this attitude that brought them in the end to defeat and unconditional surrender. Later in the play Lysistrata answers the Magistrate’s question—“What business have you with war and peace?” (line 506). She tells how the women would ask their husbands what they had decided in the assembly; they would ask about “writing on the treaty-stone” (line 520) that is, about making peace. But all they heard was news of one stupid measure after another. The political content of all this is plain, and when Lysistrata is asked how women can “stop all the confusion in the various states and bring them together” (lines 581–82), she makes her brilliant speech about “unsnarling the war” as if it were a tangled ball of wool and then goes on to give a recipe for cleaning up Athenian politics, including carding out “those who conspire and stick together to gain office” (lines 596–97).
The play ends in fact with a sermon delivered by Lysistrata to both sides, reminding them that they are all Greeks and that as they destroy each other, the barbarians “stand by waiting with their armies” (lines 1150–51). And so negotiations for peace begin and, although the give and take of territory between Spartans and Athenians is made wildly and obscenely funny by a series of double entendres, the fact is that the comic stage is presenting to the audience an image of a negotiated peace—something that no politician dared do in the Assembly.]
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Compare the treatment of sexuality and passionate love in Medea and/or Lysistrata with that in Sakuntala or in Dojoji. How do the plays reflect basic cultural attitudes toward erotic impulses in particular and powerful emotions in general?
2. Although students tend to think that they will enjoy a comedy more than a tragedy, they sometimes learn, to their chagrin, that comedy is in many ways harder to understand. Discuss some of the topical allusions in Lysistrata and compare them to those in other comic and satiric works in The Satyricon, perhaps, or in some of Sei Shonagon’s sketches, or in Gargantua and Pantagruel. What is the connection between social detail and laughter?
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, p. 701.
Easterling, P. E., ed. Greece. Vol. 1 of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. 1985, pp. 355–414. Contains a masterly assessment, written for the classical scholar and the literate general reader, of the whole genre; pp. 370–91 focus on Aristophanes.
McLeish, K. The Theatre of Aristophanes. 1980. This is “an attempt to examine the plays from the point of view of a dramatic critic and to try to discover... what their effect may have been on their original audience.” The approach is by subject, not by individual play but the index lists all the relevant passages under useful headings.
Whitman, C. H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. 1964. An analysis of Aristophanes’ achievement as the creator of “a new kind of hero, the comic hero, who parodies his two solemn older brothers of tragedy and epic, but at the same time challenges their supremacy in expressing human aspirations in the face of the world’s dilemma.” Chapter 6 deals with Lysistrata.
The Apology of Socrates
Apology is the Greek word for “defense”; this speech is Plato’s version of the one in which Socrates defended himself in court against the charges brought by his adversaries. It is divided into three sections, which correspond to the three stages of the trial. The first (pp. 735–50), is the defense proper; at that point the jury decides on a verdict. It is guilty; it is now up to the prosecutors and the defendant to propose what they think an appropriate penalty. The jury will choose one or the other; no compromise will be made. The prosecution asks for death; Socrates, in the second part of his speech, instead of proposing exile or imprisonment for a few years, makes the outrageous suggestion that he be rewarded as a public benefactor. But he then offers a small fine. He is condemned to death. The last section of his speech (pp. 752ff.) is his final address to the court.
In the first and longest part of the speech he deals with the general prejudice against him: the widespread impression that he is a philosophical agnostic and that he is a “sophist”—one who teaches new ideas and rhetorical techniques for high fees. None of this is true. The real reason for his unpopularity, he suspects, is that he has confounded so many Athenians in argument, shown them up as confused and ignorant. In doing so he claims that he was simply trying to test the truth of the god Apollo’s statement that Socrates was the wisest of men. He found that men who thought they knew something did not, so he was wiser than they, since he knew that he knew nothing.
So much for the general prejudice; he turns then on his accusers, who have claimed that he corrupts the youth of Athens, disbelieves in the gods of the state, and introduces new divinities of his own. He cross-questions Meletus, his main accuser, and shows that the charges are invalid. He then announces that he will continue, as he has always done, to question the Athenians about justice and knowledge; this is, he says, his mission in life, imposed by Apollo. This announcement evidently causes an outcry in court, for he asks those present not to interrupt (p. 746); the jury brings in a verdict of guilty. Socrates’s refusal to bargain about the death penalty leads to his death sentence. Socrates prophesies that the Athenians will silence him but will have to listen to younger men who will carry on his mission. He accepts his death calmly, secure in his belief that “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death” (p. 754).
Plato belonged to an aristocratic Athenian family (he was related by his mother’s second marriage to Critias, the leading spirit of the “Thirty Tyrants” who ruled Athens for a short time after the surrender to the Spartans in 404); while still young (he was born in 429) he became one of the group of Athenian men who spent their time listening to and arguing with Socrates. Though Socrates did not, like the sophists, assume the role of teacher, Plato and his companions were in a real sense his pupils. The execution of his beloved teacher in 399 b.c. left an indelible mark on Plato’s thought and writing; in all his philosophical dialogues except the last (The Laws) Socrates figures as one of the principals and, in most of them, as the protagonist. The Apology is Plato’s version of the speech Socrates made before the Athenian court in 399. He was present at the trial (see p. 752) and though his version is hardly likely to be a verbatim transcript of Socrates’ remarks on that occasion Plato could not afford to make radical additions or subtractions; he was writing for an audience that included the crowds who attended the trial, not to mention the five hundred members of the jury.
The speech defies the conventions of Athenian legal procedure and the rules recommended by the sophists, the professional teachers of rhetoric. Instead of a “set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases” (p. 735), Socrates proposes to defend himself in his “accustomed manner”—in other words in the deceptively simple but actually disconcerting manner that has made him so many enemies among those whose ignorance and intellectual confusion he has often exposed. In fact, after disposing of the popular caricature of him as an atheistic philosopher who teaches immorality for high fees—the Socrates of Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds (423 b.c.)—he proceeds to defend the very thing his audience finds most aggravating about him: his habit of arguing with all the experts and proving them wrong. He knows that this has made him many powerful enemies but insists that it is a mission imposed on him by the god Apollo. So much for the actual charge brought against him by his accusers—that he does not believe in the gods the city believes in; to these charges he now turns and in a skillful cross-examination of his chief accuser Meletus he demonstrates in his “accustomed fashion” that Meletus doesn’t know what he is talking about when he claims that Socrates is corrupting the younger generation. From this point on, instead of trying to win the good graces of the jury, he alienates them by insisting, at great length and with unmistakable sincerity, that since what he has been doing all these years is by command of the god, he will continue to do so as long as he lives. To cease would be impious; it would also be dishonorable.
In the course of this defiant speech he also takes time to answer another unstated charge: that though he is so interested in other people’s opinions he never speaks up in the Assembly, never plays his part, like a loyal citizen, in the discussion of public policy. His defense is that if he had done so he “would have perished long ago,” for he would never have acted against his conscience, as a man in political life has to do. He cites two cases in which he had to defy in one case public opinion and in the other tyrannical power. Under the democracy, serving—as every Athenian had to sooner or later—on the steering committee of the Assembly, he refused to vote for what would otherwise have been a unanimous (and illegal) resolution, in spite of threats of impeachment. And under the dictatorial rule of the antidemocratic regime set up in Athens after the defeat in 404 he refused to obey an order to arrest a fellow citizen and escaped with his life only because the regime was overthrown soon after.
Plato does not mention the fact that there was a strong popular feeling against Socrates precisely on political grounds. Socrates mentions in his speech the fact that “young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord” (p. 740); this innocuous phrase masks the fact that many of these rich young men were hostile to the democratic regime and one of them, Critias, was later the leading figure among the Thirty Tyrants who, backed by the Spartan victors, imposed a reign of terror on Athens. This regime had been overthrown by the democrats in 403 but, to avoid a counterterror, the Athenians declared an amnesty (the survivors of the Thirty excepted); no prosecutions for political offenses committed before 404 were to be permitted. The resentment at what many saw as Socrates’ responsibility for the education of such men as Critias could not express itself as a political charge; hence the vague indictment under a law against “impiety,” which could be interpreted in more ways than one.
Socrates’ defiance of the court in his apparently arrogant refusal to bargain by suggesting an acceptable penalty is not hard to understand, since the only penalty the court would have been likely to accept was exile: Socrates would leave Athens for some other city, and the Athenians would have been rid of him without having to put him to death (p. 751). This he refuses to do, just as later, in prison awaiting death, he will reject the offers of his friends to help him escape from Athens. He will remain true to his mission: “the difficulty... is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness” (p. 752).
One assignment if possible; otherwise, divide at p. 744, just before the paragraph beginning “Some one will say.”
The student may well get the impression from the Apology that Socrates’ philosophical contribution is purely negative, that all he does is to convince people that they do not understand the words they are using when they talk about morality; he himself has no definition to offer, but claims only to know that he himself knows nothing. In the other books of Plato that, unlike the Apology, are cast in the form of dramatic dialogues, Socrates emerges in a different light. It is true that he rarely proposes a solution to the dilemmas he uncovers by his questioning, but the dialogues show that his probing questions about the nature of piety, justice, bravery, and all the other moral qualities people think they know the nature of are the necessary preliminary to a definition. Previous philosophers have simply announced their doctrines to the world; the world could take them on or leave them, read them or not. Socrates insisted that true knowledge could not be simply proclaimed and accepted (or rejected); learner and teacher had to find their way, through hard-won agreement on point after point, to definitions they could both accept and act on. This process—“dialectic,” to give it its Greek name—is the so-called Socratic method, and it was, in its time, a startling contrast to the standard procedure of the sophistic teachers, who gave lectures and wrote books but did not expect to be questioned.
But Socrates’ contribution was not merely a revolution in method. He was also responsible for a decisive shift in the area explored by philosophy, which had begun in the Greek city of Miletus as an attempt to understand the material universe (Thales, the first philosopher, thought that water was the basis of all matter). Some later philosophers had proposed more sophisticated and complicated answers (two philosophers almost contemporary with Socrates had in fact invented atomic theory), and others wrestled with the philosophical problems inherent in such concepts as being, becoming, and motion. But it was Socrates who brought philosophy to bear on the moral problems of human life, especially on the problem of justice in individual and collective conduct. Philosophy would after him still deal with cosmological, physical and metaphysical problems, but the question of human conduct would bulk large in the works of Plato, Aristotle (author of the Ethics), and of the later Epicurean and Stoic schools.
Though Socrates is no aristocrat (in fact his father was a stonemason and he himself, at the time of his trial, was penniless, pp. 746 and 751), he cites the example of Achilles for his refusal to be intimidated by the threat of death (p. 744) and, after his condemnation, looks forward to meeting, in the lower world, the heroes Palamedes and Ajax (p. 754). These epic figures seem at first glance strange company for a philosopher whose constant concern was to establish the primacy of justice and righteousness in human conduct but, in fact, in spite of the pride and violence such heroic names conjure up, they are not inappropriate in the context of the speech.
Palamedes was the cleverest of the Greek chieftains at Troy; he was credited with the invention not only of the alphabet and numbers but also of a game resembling checkers with which the Greeks amused themselves when all was quiet on the Trojan front. But he incurred the enmity of Agamemnon and Odysseus by speaking out against the long drawn-out war and calling for immediate return home. Odysseus framed him: Trojan gold was buried in his tent while he was away and a forged letter from Priam produced to convict him as a Trojan agent. In spite of a brilliant defense at his trial, he was condemned and executed. The story was well known to Socrates’ audience; both Sophocles and Euripides (and perhaps Aeschylus as well) had written tragedies on the subject.
The other sufferer from an unjust court cited by Socrates is, however, a very different case. Ajax was the best man among the Achaeans while Achilles was away, Homer tells us in the Iliad, and even his enemy Odysseus calls him the noblest of the Danaans after Achilles. When Achilles was killed and the Achaeans decided to award his arms and armor to the bravest among them, Ajax naturally expected to be chosen, but the judgment went to Odysseus instead. After an unsuccessful attempt to murder Agamemnon, Odysseus, and others whom he regarded as responsible, Ajax killed himself.
When Socrates speaks of talking to Ajax in the next world he is of course recalling to the minds of his hearers the famous passage in the Odyssey XI, where Odysseus addresses Ajax but gets no answer. Socrates, as a fellow sufferer, will not be treated so contemptuously. Yet it is a little disconcerting to find the gentle philosopher, whose sharpest weapon was the cut and thrust of his dialectic, associating himself with the primeval violence of Ajax. Just as surprising is his citation of Achilles, whom he actually quotes as an example to follow. Achilles would not let the prospect of certain death deter him from his purpose, which was, of course, to kill Hector and avenge the death of Patroclus: “Let me die forthwith... and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here... a laughing-stock” (p. 744). Socrates will not retreat in the face of death either: “wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in hour of danger” (p. 744). Socrates remained in his place as a soldier, obeying the orders of the generals elected by the Athenians; now he will remain steadfast in the place ordained for him by the god Apollo, or rather, since this depends on his interpretation of the word of Apollo, in the place that he has chosen himself.
The snub-nosed, poorly dressed old man of seventy, facing adversaries determined to drive him out of Athens or kill him if he will not go, defies them and sees himself, not without reason, as one of the company of heroes whose memory all Greeks held in respect and whose burial places they recognized as holy ground. When he refuses to follow the usual practice of defendants in Athenian courts, to beg for mercy, to produce weeping children and relatives, he speaks in heroic terms, as a man who must be true like Odysseus, to his reputation, to what the world expects of a hero: “Whether this opinion of me be deserved or not, at any rate the world has decided that Socrates is in some way superior to other men” (p. 749).
Topics for Discussion and Writing
Behind the actual terms of the indictment lay a real prejudice against Socrates as an opponent of democracy, and this was not due solely to his association with such figures as Critias. Can you find in his speech any grounds for such a prejudice?
[His abstention from political activity under a democratic regime that encouraged and depended on full participation by all the citizens. In his defense on this point he actually uses clichés of the opponents of democracy: “the truth is, that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly striving against the many lawless and unrighteous deeds which are done in a state, will save his life” (p. 747).
Among the prominent figures he examined and found ignorant were politicians (pp. 737–39), that is, the orators whose speeches in the Assembly shaped public policy (cf. Lycon who has a quarrel with Socrates “on behalf of the rhetoricians,” p. 740).
When he examines the artisans, he finds them, too, wanting: “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters” (p. 739). In Athenian democratic theory an artisan was supposed to have just as much understanding of public policy and, therefore, just as strong a claim to direct it as, for example, a landed aristocrat.
When he proposes that he be rewarded instead of punished he speaks of himself as the man who “has been careless of what the many care for—wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties” (p. 750). There is clearly a certain dislike for the political life of Athens expressed in that list and in fact he continues: “Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.”
Plato himself was no admirer of the democracy that had put Socrates to death; his picture of Socrates may have been influenced by his own feelings. But it is quite understandable that a man with Socrates’s insistence on universal moral standards should have been disgusted with the politics of Athens in the last years of the war; it must indeed have seemed as if the politicians and the assembly that supported them were bent on self-destruction.]
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. Socrates, as the headnote informs us, “wrote nothing,” yet Plato’s Dialogues capture a defining moment in Greek culture, when oral traditions sustained by memorizing poetry like Homer’s yielded to new styles of thought made possible by the writing of prose. What elements of Socratic dialectic seem, on the one hand, to reflect spoken discourse? What qualities of abstract thought expressed in that speech, show, on the other hand, a shift away from the representation of thought through action characteristic of Homeric composition?
[See, e.g., the opening of the Iliad, when the decision made by Achilles not to attack Agamemnon is attributed to the intervention of Athena, unseen by others, rather than to any process of internal rational analysis.]
2. Look at other philosophical texts of the ancient world (the Book of Job, the Analects, Chuang Tzu, and The Sermon on the Mount). Which seem primarily the record of oral discourse? How does the style of composition appear to affect the nature of the ideas being communicated?
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, p. 734.
Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 4. 1975, pp. 70–93. An authoritative discussion of the historicity, organization, and ideas of the speech. See also Vol. III (1969) on Socrates and the Delphic response (pp. 405ff.) and his political views (pp. 409ff.).
Havelock, Eric A. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. 1986.
West, T. G. Plato’s Apology of Socrates. 1979. A new translation with interpretation. A careful analysis of the speech section with helpful chapters on Socrates as a public man and Socrates as a private man.
West, T. G., and G. C. West. Four Texts on Socrates. 1984. Translations of Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Aristophanes’ Clouds. The introduction deals with the Apology.
Backgrounds and Topics for Discussion
The short selection from the work deals with tragedy. It begins with the famous definition of tragedy (for an explanation of the term catharsis see n. 2, p. 758), which is explained, section by section, in the following paragraphs. Aristotle recognizes the importance of character in tragedy—the persons represented “must necessarily possess certain qualities of Character and Thought” (p. 759)—but places greater emphasis on the action, the plot. “It is not for the purpose of presenting their characters that the agents engage in action, but rather it is for the sake of their actions that they take on the characters they have” (p. 759). The plot has to have unity (which is not necessarily attained by telling the story of one individual) and the right “magnitude”—a length “sufficient to permit a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad to come about in an inevitable or probable sequence of events.” Plots can be simple or complex; in complex plots the change of fortune involves a reversal or a recognition or both. (The prime example of change of fortune with both is the Oedipus of Sophocles.) Furthermore, the change of fortune should be from good to bad, and the victim of this reversal should not be a wholly bad man or a completely good one (for in the one case we would be pleased and in the other merely disgusted) but one “whose place is between these extremes... the man who on the one hand is not pre-eminent in virtue and justice, and yet on the other hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity, but falls because of some mistake; one among the number of the highly renowned and prosperous, such as Oedipus” (p. 761). (For the word translated “mistake” see n. 7, p. 761.)
Aristotle’s Poetics is the first treatise ever written on literary composition (the Greek word poietes—poet—means, literally, “maker”); many before him, Plato especially, discussed the nature and effect of poetry but a systematic treatise on the subject was unprecedented. It has had an enormous influence on modern critical approaches to tragic drama; particularly influential in the European Renaissance was the idea of the “tragic flaw,” derived from the Greek word hamartia, which James Hutton’s translation more correctly renders as “mistake.” A classic version of this doctrine can be found in Shakespeare, in Hamlet’s speech about the Danish nation and their penchant for drink: “So, oft it chances in particular men,/That for some vicious mole of nature in them” (1.4.23ff.).
The Poetics, however, was written long after the deaths of the three great tragic dramatists of the fifth century b.c. And Aristotle’s view of the tragic character, as one who “falls by some mistake” is, in most cases, not easily applicable to the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This is a possible theme of discussion with the class: how far does Oedipus, for example, Aristotle’s famous example of the well-made tragedy, fit the definition? Is Oedipus a man “not pre-eminent in virtue and justice” who “on the other hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity, but falls because of some mistake”? If so, what is the mistake? His whole life seems to be a series of mistakes. Does Antigone fit the formula? Hardly. But perhaps Creon does: his mistake is to underestimate Antigone’s heroic stubbornness. It is hard to see how Medea can be understood along these lines, or Clytemnestra either, but perhaps a case could be made out for Agamemnon.
Also essential to Aristotle’s conception of tragedy is the recognition, which in what he considers the best type of plot is identical to the reversal of the protagonist’s fortune. Oedipus is the classic example: he recognizes himself as the murderer he is searching for and also as a patricide and incestuous son; but recognition plays a part also in the Oresteia: when Clytemnestra recognizes her son’s identity, her death is only moments away. Recognition of identity, though it frequently occurs in other Greek tragedies, plays no part in Antigone or Medea; but in a metaphorical sense (one that Aristotle does not express but that he may have realized) recognition is essential to the tragic process. The tragic hero in the end is forced to dispense with illusions of power and claims to godlike superiority; in the reversal of fortune—often brought about, as Aristotle says, by his own actions, which produce the opposite of what he intends—he or she is forced to recognize the mortality and fallibility that are conditions he shares with all humankind. Achilles in the tent with Priam comes at last to see himself as others see him; Antigone in her last speech recognizes that the motive for the action that has brought her face to face with death was in the last analysis purely personal and Creon recognizes, but too late, that there are laws superior to those imposed by dictatorial power.
The class might also be asked to discuss the plays in the light of Aristotle’s concept of unity—the avoidance of plots “in which episodes follow one another in no probable or inevitable sequence” in favor of a “plot so organized that if any one of [the events that are part of it] is displaced or taken away, the whole will be shaken and put out of joint.” Oedipus has the most closely logical plot; comparison with Medea (how organic is the arrival of Aegeus?) should prove interesting and all the plays can be examined to see if there is adequate motivation for new entries and developments.
Some Comparative Perspectives
1. List and define the elements of tragedy named by Aristotle. Note the priority he assigns to a unified plot. In what ways would you modify these criteria to describe the elements of a Sanskrit heroic romance like the Sqakuntala, of the no drama of Japan, or of an Elizabethan play?
2. Explain the distinctions Aristotle draws among poetry, history, and philosophy. Do you accept the idea that poetry tends to express the universal and history the particular? Would a student of Chinese literature agree with Aristotle’s analysis?
See also the reading suggestions in the anthology, p. 758.
Aristotle’s Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. 1961. The introduction, by the outstanding modern critic Francis Fergusson, is a full and brilliant interpretation of Aristotle’s work for the modern reader.
Aristotle. Poetics. Edited by D. W. Lucas. 1968. An edition, with commentary, of the Greek text. The introduction contains a survey of Greek literary theory before Aristotle and valuable appendices: “Pity, Fear and Katharsis” and “Hamartia.”
Aristotle on Poetry and Style. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. 1958. A translation of the Poetics and selections from the Rhetoric. The introduction deals succinctly and clearly with the problems raised by the text.