Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.18

Andreas Markantonatos, Tragic Narrative: A Narratological Study of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.   Berlin:  de Gruyter, 2002.  Pp. 296.  ISBN 3-11-017401-4.  EUR 82.24.  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Perseus Project, Tufts University (
Word count: 2162 words

The first question that comes to mind upon receiving a book that aims to apply a new method to an ancient text is, why this text? What's special about Oedipus at Colonus (henceforth OC) and why is it a good candidate for narratological analysis? Several recent books1 demonstrate a growing interest in Sophocles' last play. Is Markantonatos (henceforth M) simply following the latest critical fashion? No: he has chosen OC for this study because of the prominence of narrative in the play. One of the main themes of the play, M argues, is the way Oedipus tells his own story -- in fact, the several different ways he tells it. Instead of an arbitrary, relatively sterile exercise (of the sort than can result from the desire to apply a given technique whether it works or not), M has produced a study that illuminates the play in new ways.

Narratology is probably best known to classicists through the work of Irene J. F. de Jong, who has focused largely on epic.2 Her book on the messenger speeches in Euripides3 treats these embedded recitations as quasi-epic elements within tragedy. N. J. Lowe's The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (Cambridge: 2000) includes a narratological analysis of tragedy in general, though not in very great detail; he devotes one thirty-page chapter to tragedy within a book ranging from Homer to the Greek novel, and his treatment is therefore relatively abstract and theoretical. Although narratological techniques are common in film studies, according to M's preface the present book is "the first full-scale study of a play, ancient and modern, in narrative terms" (p. xiii). Narratology is most naturally applied to genres that tell stories, whereas drama enacts them; it is therefore not surprising that prior narratological studies of tragedy, like de Jong's, have concentrated on the stories told by characters in the plays. M's study is no exception, yet because of the prominence of story-telling in OC, he ends up analyzing the entire play. Moreover, as he argues, "narrative is not an adjunct to dramatic technique but part of its very essence" (p. 221), and therefore narrative theory can be useful in the analysis of drama.

Much of what happens in OC involves Oedipus telling stories, either of what has happened in his life up to this point or of what will happen in the future, for example to his sons. In addition, because Oedipus is blind, other characters must tell him things, starting at the very beginning when Antigone describes the setting. For M, then, "this play is centrally preoccupied with narrative access to off-stage worlds, and particularly to versions of the past and the future, seen and focalized through a variety of contrastingly imperfect perspectives in the present" (p. 17). The complexity of the play comes from the various contesting versions of events, especially of the life of Oedipus, and the narrative gaps and "barriers to information flow" (p. 17) that Sophocles sets up. Oedipus aims to control the flow of information, doling out what he wants other characters to know and even contradicting himself when he wants to make a different point. For example (as M observes, p. 69), although Oedipus has first said that he was exiled from Thebes by the wishes of Creon and the Theban people, when Polynices appears he blames him, making his son appear as the villain of this particular story.

Although Oedipus controls the main narrative, there are two off-stage events which are also narrated: the battle between Theseus's men and Creon's for the kidnapped Antigone and Ismene and the final disappearance of Oedipus. The latter, of course, is recounted in a messenger speech (1586-1666) in the usual way. The battle, on the other hand, is never directly narrated at all. When Theseus returns, he declines to give details (1143-1144). Instead, we hear the chorus fantasizing about the battle, in the ode at 1044-1095. The facts of the battle are elided, even "blotted out" (p. 77) from the text; the audience neither sees it nor hears an eyewitness account of it. The chorus narrates a version of the battle while it is going on, even though they cannot see the action. Their narrative is part prophecy (or narrative prolepsis), part imagination. As M points out (p. 100), no other tragic chorus gives this kind of prophetic account of something that goes on during the play.4 This indirect narration challenges the audience, who must work to piece together the story.

An even more important event in the play is also a locus of narrative discontinuity. On a first viewing or reading of the play, it seems that we are told everything there is to say about the death of Oedipus. Everyone exits (1555), there is a brief choral ode (1556-1585), and a messenger returns to tell the chorus about offstage events. This pattern is familiar from nearly every extant tragedy, so the audience does not question it. Yet in this case there are some surprises. First of all, the play has been quite vague about exactly when Oedipus is to die; we could believe that he will have several years of peace in Athens before meeting his end. Thus the thunder clap at l. 1456 is a real surprise: "Contrary to expectation, the much-anticipated apotheosis of Oedipus does not only take place within the time-frame of the tragic narrative, but also becomes the main focus of the remaining action" (p. 123). Even though the play has already gone on as long as many entire tragedies, there is one more essential episode, one that M suggests the audience would not have expected to see at all.

The second surprise is that we do not actually hear what happens to Oedipus. He has insisted that his resting place must remain a secret, known only to the king of Athens, and therefore the messenger cannot witness or report on his actual disappearance. This deliberate narrative gap, introduced and enforced by Oedipus, is respected by everyone else in the play, as a feature of the hero-cult that will be given to Oedipus. M makes the striking observation (p. 125) that "this is the only instance in extant tragedy where a powerful ritual barrier is erected to information flow" (italics added); Oedipus controls his own story even after he is gone, through the rules of his cult.

M analyzes the messenger speech in detail. Because the messenger does not understand everything he has seen, he merely reports it without too much interpretation, though he tries hard "to show the amazing nature of what happened in the inner part of the holy meadow" (p. 132). An astonished tone dominates his narrative. M notes how the messenger shifts from indirect to direct speech in reporting what Oedipus and others say; the use of direct speech for Oedipus's last words to his daughters, in particular, makes this emotional moment vivid as an indirect report could not (p. 141). Oedipus reviews his life for the last time, bringing the past and the future together as he as done throughout the play, then he and Theseus walk off as the others turn away. M calls attention to an intervention here by the messenger, who notes that the noble Theseus obeys Oedipus without lamentation (l. 1636, p. 145); the adjective calls attention to the messenger as narrator and the statement foreshadows Theseus's calm in the final moments of the play, as he "attempts to contain the emotional energy of Antigone and Ismene" (p. 145). But the messenger's account must omit the climactic moment, which he does not see; even though he speaks for 80 lines, the messenger leaves a significant gap. We learn everything except what we really want to know: exactly what happens to Oedipus? Just like the battle between Theseus and Creon, the transfiguration of Oedipus is elided from the narrative.

M's discussion of the relationship between OC and the earlier Theban plays, especially Antigone, is particularly good. He notes that at the end of OC, Antigone wishes to see her father's grave to perform final rites for him, just as she does for Polynices in the earlier play. In both cases "she deals with the same feeling of ritual frustration at the denial by the civic authorities of offering the traditional funerary services to the dead" (p. 163). In OC, "she yields to the civic discourse of Theseus and the chorus" (p. 165), because Athens is "a polis which shows consideration for the religion's agenda" (p. 165), in contrast with Thebes where religious and civic ideas are perverted. The audience, presumably knowing the earlier play, might well expect that the emotions of the last scene of OC will lead to a similar kind of disaster, yet these expectations, raised by the narrative as M points out, are frustrated when Antigone gives in to Theseus.

Ultimately, the plot of OC is relatively simple: Oedipus goes to Athens and dies there. M argues that Sophocles uses a wide range of narrative techniques to keep the audience engaged, as they must work to solve the puzzles posed by the overlapping versions of Oedipus's story. Intertextual engagement with the earlier plays is one of these techniques; setting up expectations and then frustrating them is another.

M's reading of the play is on the whole compelling, though I am somewhat skeptical about his insistence on Colonus as "a variation on Eleusis" (p. 198); as he points out himself, "in view of the scarcity of evidence the mystical association of Oedipus, Colonus, and Eleusis can be established with some degree of certainty in no other play than OC" (p. 199).5 Since this is a somewhat experimental study, using a technique that has not previously been applied to a sustained reading of a single play (p. xiii), it is not surprising that sometimes M pushes his chosen tool a bit too far. For example, at 1036-1037, Creon has been "forced to cede his narrative prerogative to the Athenian king" (p. 99); in fact, Theseus and his men are forcibly escorting Creon from the stage. Similarly, throughout the play, "in finely-timed spurts of narrative, the gods securely lead Oedipus to his miraculous death" (p. 118); is it really narrative that they use to bring him where he must go? But these are minor points; M is correct that narrative is central to this play, more so than in most tragedies, and the narratological analysis gives a good account of how Oedipus holds the audience's attention.

M suggests that narrative theory can be more widely applied in the study of drama. An appendix to chapter 1 raises another, more specific question which would benefit from further study: the place of music and dance within the narrative of Greek tragedy. Although, as M acknowledges, the evidence is scanty and difficult to work with, these "non-textual narrative threads" (p. 26) were part of the ancient audience's experience, essential to the theater as they knew it. M cites narratological studies of film music and its effect on the audience and observes that "the musical dimension of tragedy ... must have affected the reception of scenic action" (p. 26). Reconstructing the music and choreography of the Athenian theater is of course a long-standing fantasy among classicists, but M's re-framing of the question in narrative terms rather than strictly musical or metrical suggests new approaches which may prove fruitful.

M cites the text of the play from Lloyd-Jones and Wilson's OCT. When it is necessary to discuss a line in detail, he relies primarily on Jebb's 1900 commentary, an excellent work but no longer the last word. It is odd to see a discussion of the force of γε, for example (p. 79), or of καί (p. 134), that does not cite Denniston's Greek Particles, which is not even in the bibliography. In the note on the god's summons at 1627 (p. 144), reference to Dickey's treatment6 would be welcome; she notes that this οὗτος is not only impatient but colloquial, treating Oedipus almost as a peer. Although M's main interest in this study is clearly literary rather than grammatical or textual, he should nonetheless have taken advantage of the most current work in these areas.

Aside from the omission of some technical works, the extensive bibliography (63 pages) is admirably up to date. There are a short general index, an index of Greek terms, and an index of passages in OC, though not of other ancient works cited. Footnotes are conveniently located at page-bottom. It should be noted that none of the quoted Greek is translated; this is unfortunate, as the book would otherwise be useful to students of drama who are not classicists.

I once heard an older professor telling a group of students that the study of classical literature is essentially dead: there's nothing more to be said about these old, well-worn texts. Studies like this one, creatively applying techniques originally developed by humanists in other areas, go a long way toward proving him wrong.


1.   Elefteria A. Bernidaki-Aldous, Blindness in a Culture of Light, New York: 1990; Lowell Edmunds, Theatrical Space and Historical Place in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Lanham: 1996; Joseph P. Wilson, The Hero and the City, Ann Arbor 1997; Roger Travis, Allegory and the Tragic Chorus in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Lanham: 1999.
2.   Most recently in A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey, Cambridge: 2001 (reviewed in BMCR 2002.06.12).
3.   Narrative in Drama: The Art of the Euripidean Messenger-Speech, Leiden: 1991.
4.   Both here and in his introduction, p. 11, M overstates his point a bit: "Mantic inspiration is another way of presenting synchronous images of off-stage action; the only instance of this is Sophocles' OC 1044-1095" (p. 11). He means the only instance in which a chorus is thus inspired; Cassandra's scene in Agamemnon, also an inspired narrative of off-stage events, is different because the chorus there function as an audience for a prophetic character. There are other places where M's formulations go beyond what he intends, notably the statement on p. 129 that βαρυαχεῖ is a hapax (it is a hapax in Sophocles, but also occurs at Bacchylides 16.18, Birds 1750, and Clouds 277). Tighter editing would have helped.
5.   Most of the last chapter discusses Colonus as a mystical location and Oedipus as an initiate into some sort of chthonic mystery. This chapter makes much less use of narratological theory and seems imperfectly integrated with the rest of the book.
6.   Eleanor Dickey, Greek Forms of Address (Oxford: 1996), p. 155-156 (reviewed in BMCR 1997.11.09).

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