Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.22

Thomas Halter, König Oedipus. Von Sophokles zu Cocteau.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1998.  Pp. 169.  ISBN 3-515-07256-X.  DM 68.  

Reviewed by Peter Riemer, Universität Potsdam (
Word count: 1635 words

Writing a book on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and saying anything fundamentally new is impossible nowadays. Recognition of this is the starting point of Th. Halter's investigation. H. quotes Waldock,1 who even 50 years ago uttered the warning: "Possibly the best service a critic can render the Oedipus Tyrannus is to leave it alone." In view of the not necessarily beneficial attempts of the last few years to open up new horizons for Sophoclean research with psychological2 and cultural-sociological3 approaches, H.'s essay -- a comparative analysis of scenes and single verses in terms of aesthetic adoption -- appears surprisingly simple and indeed provides a useful instrument for the interpretation of the works he investigates. The relevant pieces of Seneca, Corneille, Voltaire, Platen, Dryden-Lee, Hofmannsthal, Gide and Cocteau are contrastively confronted with Sophocles' version of Oedipus. Reading the subtitle "Von Sophokles zu Cocteau", the reader will expect the book to describe a large curve from the earliest Oedipus drama to the 20th century, but he will be disappointed until the introduction informs him about the book's particular conception. H. is not trying to deliver interpretations of the various dramas nor to assess them in the light of larger contexts. He rather aims at a commentary on certain sections of this Greek play. By doing this he restricts himself to a relatively small selection of topics on Oedipus' great history. The aim of this investigation is not the pursuit of different motives throughout literary history nor the comparison of entire dramas, but a precise understanding of single moments in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in the mirror of its successors. This restriction of course does not fully do justice to the Greek play. For example H. completely dispenses with the discussion of choral pieces and the chorus's participation in the drama as a whole, since the later plays mostly leave out the chorus altogether. Indeed, H. leaves out the central dramaturgic means of literary creation (p. 13).4 Also, specifically controversial parts are left out in his discussion, for example the hot-headed and finally unresolved controversy between Oedipus and Teiresias, or the king's discussion with his brother-in-law Creon which also includes a disagreement that continues to have an effect right to the end of the drama. Still, his choice appears meaningful in itself and is appropriate for the issue.

German translations of the Greek, Latin and French ones provide a smooth reading, although repeated translations within a chapter are admittedly disturbing (e.g. p. 94 n. 46 and 50, given beforehand n. 40 and 41).

It is always stunning to notice Sophocles' care in composing his dramas. In chapter III "Die Sorge um die Unversehrtheit der Figur" H., with the help of several examples, particularly regarding Oedipus and Iocaste, points out that Sophocles in contrast to all other playwrights managed to save his characters from sinking into a humiliating lack of dignity, in spite of the events' high degree of brutality (a child's abandonment, murder, suicide, self-mutilation). In the Sophoclean drama the young Oedipus is taken into the security of a gorge, while in Voltaire and Cocteau he is left alone on the heights of a mountain (40-42). In the description of Iocaste's suicide and Oedipus' self-blinding, Sophocles suppresses everything concrete, while Cocteau describes the happenings in a detailed and rather disgusting manner, especially considering the fact that the event is reported from little Antigone's mouth. Hofmannsthal makes the Corinthian reigning couple Polybos and Merope simply lie when Oedipus asks them whether he is their son, whereas Sophocles only ascribes to them an evasive answer. This decency is characteristic of Sophocles' dramatic art: similarly the description of the plague at the beginning of the play is kept within general terms, and this is very much in contrast with the "ekelerregende Materialität" ('disgusting materialism', p. 58) of André Gide's version. H.'s examples are well chosen and instructive. I miss, however, a comment on the question that arises regarding the connection between the character's constant freedom from injury and the Sophoclean Oedipus' insults against Teiresias. At any rate some parts of the dialogue between Oedipus and Teiresias are beyond good manners (for example the derogatory manner of address in OT 334: κακῶν κάκιστε and the misrepresentation of Teiresias as having instigated Laios' murder in OT 336-349). At this point H. is too much a protector of Oedipus in his defense against Seneca's character (p. 57); in Sophocles as well we can observe an aggressive monarch who puts the seer under pressure.

H. suggests on p. 76 that by his complicated indication of his brother-in-law Creon's dispatch and departure for Delphi Oedipus shows that he tries to postpone "den Moment der gewiss folgenschweren Antwort -- "des Gottes" ... -- nach Möglichkeit". This psychological interpretation is definitely wrong. In what way at this point could Oedipus cause a delay? Creon's moment of return is completely independent of his words. Isn't it true that Oedipus has sent his brother in law for help to Delphi a long time ago, and without ever being asked to do so? This is striking in contrast to the simpler versions of later authors, for it completely corresponds to classic convention. At most the insistent mentioning of Creon's and Oedipus' relationship (OT 70 ἐμαυτοῦ γαμβρόν, 85 ἐμὸν κήδευμα) would have been worthy of explanation. H. would have done well to go along with his own explanations on the topic of the family relationship (pp. 66-69). On the one hand H. mentions how little Oedipus knows about the current state of his family situation, on the other hand he illustrates that the king does not leave it to any other man to fulfil such an important mission. Just as he steps out of the palace in order to take care of the legation's request himself, so he entrusts the errand only to one of his immediate relatives. At the time he is not aware that his inquiry at Delphi has to do with his own family-relationships, yet this fact is symbolized by the choice of the family-member Creon.

Sophocles' high art is illustrated throughout H.'s book. We also get to know about Voltaire, for instance, who was musically inspired by reading Sophocles (pp. 120-124). His text often shows a sensitive formal imitation of the Greek model: OT 727 πλάνημα Vo 873 plaintive, OT 1143 ἐμαυτῷ θρέμμα θρεψαίμην ἐγώ Vo 1300 qu'au trépas. This of course presupposes that the French poet not only read aloud the Greek original but even knew it by heart. Voltaire himself proves his knowledge of Greek texts: "j'étais plein de la lecture des anciens" (p. 124 n. 43).

Hofmannsthal is also a good example. He best of all managed to express Oedipus' worries when remembering the happenings at the three-way road: the man he killed could have been his father -- a foreboding which he felt right after committing the deed (pp. 60s.).

In chapter IX "Das Schweigen des Sophokles, A. Der Autor -- ein Richter? 'unschuldig!' oder 'schuldig!'?" H. touches on the old question of whether or not the patricide was Oedipus' fault. In contrast with other versions Sophocles' Oedipus (see table on p. 138) seems at the moment of the deed to be acting guiltily in terms of "Zurechenbarkeit" (p. 138), for he does not kill in self-defence and in addition he shows a lack of moderation. Sophocles however, by providing an objective description of what happened, refrains from explicit judgement. His Oedipus does not seek excuses, nor does he deny the deed, nor is he at all proved unguilty by the circumstances of the deed. The case remains unsolved -- and this is the case only with Sophocles -- whether God's will or human misdemeanor or both are responsible for the disaster.

H. barely applies any textual criticism. At places where editors have resorted to conjectures, H. mostly prefers the manuscripts' version without any comment on the reasons of his preferences: p. 18 n. 10 on Se. 656 (repet); p. 54 n. 57 / 60 OT 297 (αὐτὸν ἔστιν codd.). Or else he just leaves it with a glance at the state of research: p. 34 n. 21 on OT 742 (μέγας or μέλας). Yet he goes into more detail with OT 1524-1530 in his chapter IX. B "Das Problem, eine Tragödie zu schliessen" (pp. 142ss.). Ever since Ritter's suggestion in 1861, based on a scholion, to cancel the trochaic final verses of Oedipus Rex, the discussion on their authenticity has not continued. In pp. 142s. with nn. 53-57 H. gives a report on the difficult state of research: there is hardly anything in OT 1524-1530 that is not controversial. To many "scheint der Inhalt ... zu alltäglich zu sein" (p. 142), the text is corrupt at several passages (p. 143n. 57), and the distribution of speakers is anything but clear (p. 143). H. nevertheless believes in the text's authenticity and prints it on the basis of many conjectures, as it is to be found in the Oxford edition of H. Lloyd-Jones and N. Wilson (1526 οὗ τίς Martin: στις codd. ταῖς Canter: καὶ codd. ἐπέβλεπεν Musgrave: ἐπιβλέπων codd. 1528 ἔδει Stanley: ἰδεῖν codd.). In comparison to the endings of other Oedipus plays, H. now confirms that Sophocles' Oedipus is the only one to end with thoughts on man's general fate, and it does indeed have an end, while all the others remain unsolved, categorically deny man's suffering or even criticize the gods (Voltaire). This might be true: Sophoclean tragedies, as far as we know, do end with aphorisms. It remains a riddle to me, however, why the chorus insists once again on the hero's paradigmatic character and even calls him by his name.5 The audience could apply virtually anything to what has just been experienced: a set phrase at the end of the Trachiniae-type (κοὐδὲν τούτων τι μὴ Ζεύς) would have done perfectly.


1.   A.J.A. Waldock, Sophocles the Dramatist (London, 1951), 143.
2.   E. Lefèvre, "Die Unfähigkeit, sich zu erkennen: unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen zu Sophokles' Oidipus Tyrannos", WüJbb 13 (1987), 37-58; A. Schmitt, "Menschliches Fehlen und tragisches Scheitern. Zur Handlungsmotivation im Sophokleischen König Ödipus", RhM 131 (1988), 8-30; and "Tragische Schuld in der griechischen Antike", in G. Eifler and O. Saame (edd.), Die Frage nach der Schuld (Mainz 1991), 157-192.
3.   E. Flaig, Ödipus. Tragischer Vatermord im klassischen Athen (München), 1998.
4.   The chorus sometimes plays a role in Halter's essay nevertheless (pp. 84f.).
5.   The Sophoclean chorus does not usually mention the hero's name in the endings of the plays: cf. P. Riemer, "Chor und Handlung in den Tragödien des Sophokles," in P. Riemer and B. Zimmermann (edd.), Der Chor im antiken und modernen Drama (Stuttgart, 1999), 107.

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