Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.24

Charles Segal, Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. Twayne's Masterwork Studies, series ed. Robert Lecker. New York: Twayne Publishers (Macmillan), 1993. Pp. xv, 183. Fig. 5. $22.95, ISBN 0-8057-7979-5 (hb); $7.95, ISBN 0-8057-8029-7 (pb).

Reviewed by Laurel Bowman, University of Victoria (

The Twayne's Masterwork Studies series is dedicated to providing introductions to the "classics" of world literature for a target audience of non-specialist undergraduates. Professor Segal's Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge is a useful contribution to this series, providing exactly the sort of information a student encountering the play for the first time will need and enjoy, and much to interest the specialist as well.

The book is intended for the Greekless reader; necessary Greek terms are defined and transliterated. A book of this kind cannot enter extensively into the scholarly debates on interpretation and style, and Segal does not do so. His treatment and notes provide the information a non-specialist will need, and give priority to content over form, myth over style or staging; though all are discussed as occasion arises. The introduction includes a literary and political chronology of Athens from 534 to 399 B.C.

The first half of the book, "Literary and Cultural Context", includes chapters on the historical and cultural background of the play, ancient staging, and the reception, influence, and different interpretations of the myth and the play. The last half, "A Reading", is a running commentary on the play. Segal concludes each section with a chapter derived from his article "Time, Theater and Knowledge in the Tragedy of Oedipus",1 revised, adapted, and divided in two for this volume.

The first and fourth chapters, "Historical and Cultural Background" and "Performance, Theater and Social Context", give the fifth-century B.C. context of the play. Chapter 1 gives a brief account of the political and intellectual background. Segal sketches the important aspects of the burst of artistic and intellectual activity that occurred in Athens under Pericles, as well as the immediate circumstances of the war and the plague, and suggests possible interpretations of the play in this context. Chapter 4 summarizes the setting, staging, and social role of tragedy. Segal describes the various stages of the City Dionysia and its function as a civic and religious festival in a democratic society. The physical setting and the staging of tragedy are briefly described, with emphasis on those aspects unfamiliar to modern readers (e.g. three male masked actors, a chorus, the use of choral odes). He here discusses also the sources of the myths used in Greek tragedy, and Sophocles' manipulation of the expectations of an audience that knew the myths and would appreciate the changes he introduced.

The essential question "Why Read Oedipus Tyrannus?" titles the short second chapter; I suspect most readers will turn here first. Segal answers, in part, that Oedipus' journey of self-discovery and tragic knowledge makes him a hero of Western cultural identity, but that the importance of the work lies even more in its ability always to excite each new audience to ask different questions and find fresh interpretations of the play.

Chapters 3 and 5, "Reception and Influence" and "The Oedipus Myth and its Interpretation", are densely-packed histories of the reception, influence, and interpretation of the myth and the play. Segal's discussion of other versions of the story, from the epic cycle, through Seneca, to the 20th century treatments of Gide and Cocteau, are at once informative and highly entertaining. He surveys the differences in themes emphasized in different ages -- the helplessness and resignation to fate of Seneca's Oedipus, the political emphasis of the seventeenth and eighteenth century treatments by Corneille and Voltaire, and the personal and psychological interpretations of nineteenth and twentieth century writers -- and includes details which will hold his audience's interest and pique its further curiosity. In the twelfth-century Roman de Thebes, for example, Segal tells us that the sons of Oedipus trample his eyeballs into the dirt in horror at his incest; Corneille introduced a comedic subplot (the love of Theseus and Dirce) in deference to the tastes of the contemporary audience; Laius' ghost, invented by Seneca, torments Oedipus in most versions of the story thereafter until the nineteenth century; and -- my favourite aside -- in Cocteau's The Infernal Machine, Oedipus and Jocasta on their wedding night "have just the conversation that readers .. often wonder about; Jocasta talks of her lost child, and Oedipus gives an account of the scars on his feet" (28). The final section of this chapter discusses modern criticism, and provides a good brief introduction to the 20th-century scholarship on the O.T.

Chapter 5 summarizes tellings and interpretations of the myth from Homer on. Segal begins with an account of the different versions of the myth from Homer through to late fifth century B.C. drama. The section "Riddle, Kinship and Language" relies on a structuralist approach to analyse the family relationships, and discusses the linked ambiguities in family ties and language. Segal continues with a brief history of the nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations of the myth. After a brief survey of earlier interpretations, Segal devotes the bulk of this section to a compelling reading of Freud's influential reading of the play as a coded expression of the "Oedipus Complex". Segal finds his reading simplistic, but argues that the play is a good model of the psychoanalytic process, in that it dramatizes the gradual unfolding of coded unconscious knowledge to the conscious mind. He concludes the chapter with a discussion of more recent interpretations by Levi-Strauss, Vernant and Girard. A short chapter follows on "Oedipus and the Trials of the Hero", in which Segal explains the general pattern of the hero-myth -- the hero discovers his true birth, kills the monster, gets the girl, and rules the kingdom -- and shows how it is turned into tragedy simply by inverting the order; Oedipus performs all the requisite tasks, but unfortunately discovers his true birth last.

Segal's reading of the play, which occupies the second half of the book, divides the play into three segments, by chapter: "Crisis of the City and the King" (1-677), "Discovery and Reversal" (678-1185), and "Resolution: Tragic Suffering, Heroic Endurance" (1186-1530). Segal combines a discussion of the text with comments on staging, when these will be illuminating to a reader unfamiliar with ancient Greek conventions. For example, when the messenger from Corinth mentions Oedipus' pierced feet, Segal explains that as the actor playing Jocasta was wearing a mask no change in facial expression was possible; but the actor might still have shown a reaction to this information with a gesture of some kind, e.g., by throwing up his hands. Segal pays close attention to the ambiguities of language throughout the play, explaining the Greek where necessary -- for example, the puns on Oedipus' name, which he translates as "know foot" (i.e., knowing the riddle) and "swell foot". There is a particularly interesting discussion of the difficulties of translating the dense connotations of the Greek, to illustrate which Segal quotes four different translations of the phrase "TEKOU=SA TLH/MWN," (1175; p. 131). His clear explanations of the implications of the Greek text where they affect his interpretation add greatly to the interest of the book, and may persuade some readers to learn the original language.

A summary of Segal's interpretation of the play cannot do it justice, as it excels precisely in close readings of the language of individual passages. He discusses questions of characterization, context, and language as they arise, and emphasizes throughout the linked ambiguities in family relationships and language, and the consequent tragic gap between human understanding and divine knowledge. Segal's treatment of the last scene of the play, which he recognizes as difficult for the modern audience, is particularly useful. Segal argues that Oedipus is here seen struggling with his new self-knowledge, rather than committing suicide in shock and despair, as Jocasta does. He analyses the ways in which Sophocles heightens the audience's expectation that Oedipus will commit suicide, and argues that his continued survival is rendered more emphatic thereby. Oedipus thus serves in the last scene of the play as the model of a man who has both knowledge of the human condition, and the strength to accept and endure it.

Chapters 7 and 11 form a pair. Ch. 7, "Life's Tragic Shape: Plot, Design and Destiny", concludes the section on "Historical and Literary Context". Here Segal analyses the narrative pattern of the play and its effect. The story in the O.T. is in essence told backwards; almost every crucial event in the action has already happened. The reverse structure of the narrative reflects Oedipus' motion geographically, towards his birthplace, and intellectually, in his quest for knowledge. The reverse narrative pattern of the play is shown also in the function of the oracles, which confuse time. Most of the oracles have already been fulfilled, but are interpreted by the characters as predicting the future; some are yet to be fulfilled, but in an unexpected way; only the audience (and the gods) see the entire pattern at once. The oracles govern the circular motion of time in the play, turning it constantly back towards origins and the past. Segal concludes this chapter with an analysis of ways in which the staging of the play also reinforces the reverse order of the narrative; knowledge arrives from the synthesis of past events in present time, before the audience's eyes.

Chapter 11, "Inner Vision and Theatrical Spectacle" concludes the book. Segal here builds on his earlier discussion of theatrical self-consciousness, with reference to the exodos. The most violent scenes, the killing of Laius, the death of Jocasta, and the blinding of Oedipus, are all hidden from the eyes of the audience, and played out instead in their imagination. The emphasis in the messenger speech is similarly on what the messenger himself couldn't see -- because the doors to the chamber were closed; because all eyes were drawn to Oedipus; because Oedipus was standing in the way. The audience's imagination is thus drawn through two filters -- what they cannot see, and what the messenger could not see -- towards the terrible things that cannot be seen in the wedding chamber of Oedipus and Jocasta. Segal argues that the sexual aspect of Oedipus' actions is emphasized in this speech. Oedipus demands a sword -- a weapon of penetration -- and bursts in the double doors of the chamber, "double" as a signifier of the double marriage, the twice-sown womb. When he lays Jocasta down and takes the pins from her recumbent body he is undressing her, as he did on their wedding night in the same room. Thus the final thing the messenger 'can't see', the thing that is too horrible to see, is an act which recalls the original incest; and Oedipus, who does see, immediately cancels out his own vision by blinding himself. The events narrated in the exodos thus recapitulate the major events of Oedipus' life. Sophocles' use of terms for vision in this scene also call attention to the theatrical context in which the story is being enacted; the audience is presented with a double narrative, of what it sees and what it is told, and its own (in)ability to see is emphasized in both.

The original audience responded to the spectacle, Segal concludes, whereas modern audiences, approaching the O.T. as a written text, respond to the psychological and private dimension; but the play can support both interpretations, and many others. Segal's interpretation itself privileges twentieth-century existentialist and psychoanalytic concerns, and can of course be contested at many points. But, as Segal would be the first to acknowledge, no reading is definitive, and his is not intended to be. The ability of his lucidly-phrased and challenging interpretation to provoke debate in the classroom and elsewhere is not the least of the virtues of this book.

The notes provide the information beginning readers will need, without overloading them with details, and generally lead the reader to other Greek authors rather than to secondary literature on the point in question. For example, Segal comments that the "interior space" of the house was the area generally allocated to the female in Greek tragedy and culture; his note here (165 n.2) cites Pericles' funeral oration (Thuc. 2.45.2) rather than the secondary literature on women's space in tragedy or life in ancient Greece. The select, annotated bibliography provides a useful guide to the student who wants more information; works cited range in date from 1893 (Jebb's edition) to 1992 (Pucci's Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father), but concentrate on critical literature published or translated into English from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. The great strength of this book is the clarity of its exposition of the background, context, and later influence and interpretation of Sophocles' play. A great deal of disparate information, together with a thoughtful and challenging interpretation of the play, is here presented in a format and language easily accessible to the non-specialist. I recommend it particularly for undergraduate courses in tragedy or Greek literature in translation. Students reading the play in Greek will likewise find the book a useful introduction to the context, performance, and scholarship on the O.T.

Errata: "Thebes" is printed for "Corinth" (77); the order of Sophocles' and Euripides' deaths is inverted in the chronology (xiv).


  • [1] Charles Segal, "Time, Theater and Knowledge in the Tragedy of Oedipus", Edipo: Il teatro greco e la cultura Europea, ed. B. Gentili and R. Pretagostini (Rome 1986), 459-84.