Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.18

Charles Segal, Sophocles' Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Pp. xii, 276. $39.95. ISBN 0-674-82100-9.

Reviewed by Victor Bers, Yale University.

Though I had meant to open by saying that this book is Segal's latest contribution to Sophoclean studies, when I think of his immense output (TA/XUN LE/GEIS ME\N ...) I fear that several more "latest contributions" will make it to press before this deplorably long-delayed review appears, even in its electronic form.

This volume is mostly given over, Segal tells us, to reporting his thoughts on Sophocles since his 1981 book, Tragedy and Civilization. Three of the nine chapters are entirely new. Several chapters are reprintings of material that has appeared in out-of-the-way places, e.g. the Hermann Van Looy festschrift; one chapter derives from a paper presented in different versions at conferences. He is looking, as the Introduction promises, at different aspects of the plays, identified as "the human relations of family and city, the conflicts of complementarities between men and women, the social institutions that the heroes both need and in some measure reject or defy, and the larger framework of nature and the gods" (3). Only a fanatic hedgehog would insist on inspecting a target so complex from a single vantage-point, and no one acquainted with Segal's work will be at all surprised that our fox has worked with a variety of interpretive strategies.

The opening chapter, "Drama and Perspective in Ajax," examines the "contrasting and complementary perspectives" (17) of time and space that Segal sees as pervading the play. I find this an immediately persuasive starting point, since Sophocles gives the revealing and disclosing brought by time very great prominence in the protagonist's own words (readers will immediately think of 646ff., 713f.) and in the plot construction (esp. 778); and Segal demonstrates some not so obvious ways that Sophocles keeps several clocks in the air at once, for instance in making Ajax's corpse continue to pump out bloody foam hundreds of lines after his suicide (25). I balk, however, at several of the extensions Segal builds off the theme and device of multiple perspectives. In particular, the argument that the play works to illustrate characteristics of the dramatic genre in (self-conscious?) contrast to epic strike me as unlikely. For a fifth-century audience, far from tending to present "the full story of its hero ... as the subject of a lucid, perspicuous present" (22), epic narrative tells a story whose location in illo tempore is emphasized precisely by being narrative, not dramatic, literally before-your-eyes enactment. I doubt that references in the Ajax to QE/ASQAI and related words "call attention to the mixture of emotions and responses in the viewers (QEATAI/) of the theatrical spectacle" (24), if that means that Sophocles was out to encourage metatheatrical musings. And Segal seems to me to fetch from afar when he juxtaposes the "'single day' of Calchas' prophecy" and "the concentrated performance at the 'single day' in the Dionysia" (25).

Segal champions the Trachiniae, to which he devotes his second and third chapters, declaring it "one of the boldest and most powerful creations of Greek dramatic poetry," and arguing that critics' "failure to take at full seriousness ... [the] mythical elements and the imagery surrounding them has led to misunderstanding and undervaluation of the play" (26). I found this the most consistently original and compelling part of the book.

The first of the chapters, "Heroic Values in the Trachinian Women," shows very nicely how the play's evidently "intractable mythical material" is used to make a poetic presentation of the persistent "primitive strata of human existence" (26, 29). Among many fine observations Segal offers on the details of the contrast drawn between Deianeira's and Heracles' worlds, I single out his distinction between Heracles' demarcated experience of time and Deianeira's "immersion in time as a current from which she cannot get free" (31f). The chapter goes on to consider, inter alia, Heracles' problematic nature, at the same time brutal to an extent that endangers the audience's sympathy for him, especially vis-à-vis Deianeira, yet inescapably linked to his mythic role as civilizing force (Segal brings very strong arguments against those, like Linforth, who have tried to pry the Sophoclean Heracles away from the apotheosized hero prominent in other cultural monuments). I do not, however, accept the one intrusion of metatheatrical theory into this chapter, Segal's description of the play as a "catharsis of violence ... symbolic of the tragic ritual [emphasis added] as a whole" (59). To my mind, "the tragic ritual" is a "black box," not a handy concept of generally agreed-upon meaning.

The next chapter has a close link to the overarching thesis of Segal's Tragedy and Civilization, for "[t]he Sophoclean Trachis appears as something of a frontier town, a place in which to envisage the breakdown of the most fundamental institution of society," (92), viz. marriage. Segal sees the Trachiniae, and indeed "most of Sophocles ... not as a statement of solutions, but a dramatization of tensions" (64); the play's presentation of this extraordinary couple is "neither a critique nor a defense of a social institution such as marriage or the patriarchal household but an exploration of human behavior within a double set of limits: the mysterious power of the gods and a social order, reflected in microcosm in the rituals of marriage" (93). I write "extraordinary couple" not to be flip, but to indicate an old question, one that might have occurred to the first readers of Poetics 1451b, whether we might be too prone to assume a continuum between the PA/QH of ordinary humans, their culture's social order included, and the exceptionally tormented and favored main characters of the plays. Can we be sure that the contemporary audience thought that Deianeira, object of the lust of monstrous suitors, won and rescued by a son of Zeus bound for apotheosis, "firmly represents" (70) marriage? Segal himself says that "Iole's arrival enacts a horrible exaggeration of the strangeness of bride and groom to each other in the bride's passage to her new abode" and that Deianeira and Heracles, though long married, are "strangers to each other" (78). Segal writes, "This remote geographical and mythical setting serves as the screen upon which can be projected, in terrifying enlargement, the everyday concerns involving household, marriage, property, sexuality" (92). We should at least be on guard for the possibility that a tragedy's mythical billboard does not, at least in any simple way, carry the poet's conception of his own society "writ large."

The chapter on the Philoctetes opens with a generalization: "All of Sophocles' extant work is in a sense a study in piety, eusebeia" (95). For Segal, the special importance of that concept to this play is signaled by having Heracles deliver an admonition on eusebeia ex machina, and delivering it in the play's final iambic lines (96). I doubt that tragic convention justifies the latter argument, but he is right to stress the remoteness of the gods and the elusiveness of their intentions; and he makes a convincing case against those readings that throw excessive attention on the human dimensions of the play, for instance by attempting to reduce Heracles to a "manifestation of the divinity of Philoctetes' heroism" (113).

The fifth chapter discusses "Lament and Closure in the Antigone." Segal's principal topic is the opposition between domestic and disorderly female lament and the ethic of the civic epitaphios. Segal's ingenious proposal that the transmitted reading at 1302-3, KLEINO\N LE/XOS, refers to Megareus' bier, in the context of a civic funeral, would add to the thematic resonances of the play, but I see an impediment to the theory in the absence of the word LE/XOS from our main sources for the epitaphios (Pericles in Thucydides, Lysias 2, Plato's Menexenus, Euripides' Supplices, [Demosthenes] 59). Along the way Segal draws some valuable comparisons to the Electra, a play that gets no chapter of its own.

The final four chapters are devoted to the Oedipus plays, especially the Tyrannus. He opens the first of this set with a lucid overview of the main currents in interpretation of the Oedipus legend brought by Nietzsche, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, and a number of others. I applaud his manifesto on the struggle between the "historicists" and "universalizers": "Each side needs to rescue the work from the other; and the play, like every such great work, needs so to be rescued, from both and either" (142).

In "Time and Knowledge in the Tragedy of Oedipus" Segal presents an astute examination of the play's unfolding of the past in the play's dramatic present, particularly in the charting of the solitary witness to the parricide as he appears in report and then in person. I am skeptical, though, of some metatheatrical readings Segal links thereto, for instance: "[Sophocles] superimposes present acts on a remote past; he fuses, or confuses, the diachronic and the synchronic axes. By deepening the temporal perspective through the motif of discovering and remembering a long-forgotten past, he also calls attention to the representational power of drama, by which a single action unfolding before us on the stage can contain symbolically the meaning of an entire lifetime" (159). Unless he is implicitly employing the terms of Jakobson's famous description of the "poetic function," while denying or modifying Jakobson's thesis, Segal needs to explain why all poetry does not contain within itself a reflection of the particular symbolism he associates specifically with theater.

It is good to see a major figure in Sophoclean studies reject an uncharacteristically silly article of Vernant's, "Oedipus without the Complex," even if Segal seems needlessly anxious to mute a criticism of that great scholar (257 n.8).1 There are some very fine observations on how Sophocles dramatizes the exposure of hidden truths. Especially interesting is Segal's treatment of the "uncanny" in how Oedipus speaks of Merope and Polybus (Vernant, it will be recalled, places great emphasis on Oedipus' belief that they are his parents).

The eighth chapter discusses "The Gods and the Chorus: Zeus in Oedipus Tyrannus." Segal, who sees the chorus as very much a "participating character" in its responses to the play's action, draws an interesting contrast between Jocasta's desperate recommendation at 977-978 that one "live at random" and the chorus's fundamental supposition that the world is the opposite of chaotic (196).

In the book's final chapter Segal explores notions of earth and land in its political and religious aspects. He believes that the OT "enters into a dialogue with thinkers of the fifth-century Enlightenment" (199). This is not, in my opinion, borne out by the passages he adduces, such as ll. 794-795, where the expression A)/STROIS ... E)KMETROU/MENOS2 is said to reflect "his characteristic intellectual mode" (209). By this token, every ancient voyager navigating, faute de mieux, by the stars should be credited with a scientific cast of mind.3 Much more convincing are his remarks on Oedipus' complex relation to the land of Thebes.

My quibbles notwithstanding, Sophocles' Tragic World is another major contribution Segal has made to our understanding of the tragedian. It should surprise no one that this is a lucidly written work of great theoretical sophistication and learning, offering many new insights into the fundamental meaning of the plays.


  • [1] Could it be that a perception that Freud is "out" or that psychoanalysis is now best, or only, represented, by Lacanianism (both notions false, in my view) explains the absence of Freud's name from the dustjacket blurb?
  • [2] Segal rejects Nauck's emendation TEKMAROU/MENOS (253 n.21).
  • [3] No ancient traveler with his wits about him traveled without some calculation of ME/TRA: consider the use of METRIO/W at Od. 3.179.