Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.18

Marco Dorati, Finestre sul futuro. Fato, profezia e mondi possibili nel 'plot' dell’Edipo Re' di Sofocle. Filologia e critica, 101.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2015.  Pp. 293.  ISBN 9788862278072.  €96.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (

An interesting book, with a daft title. For this is not a monograph on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, although that play certainly features prominently; an account of the contents will give a better indication of the book’s central concerns. After a list of abbreviations and a short introduction, the main part of the volume is made up of six chapters. The first, ‘Possible-worlds-theory e racconto fatale’ gives an account of possible worlds theory and its application to literature. Two chapters follow devoted to particular authors: ‘Un mondo parzialmente determinato 1 (Omero)’ and ‘Un mondo parzialmente determinato 2 (Erodoto)’. Only now do we encounter a chapter devoted to Sophocles, ‘Un mondo parzialmente determinato 3 (Sofocle)’. This is the longest chapter, at ninety pages, but it is not anything like a single- minded concentration on Oedipus the King; there are detailed discussions of Trachiniae, Oedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes, and also of Ajax and Antigone, as well as of Prometheus Vinctus. The final two chapters, ‘Un mondo totalmente determinato’ and ‘Dimensione semantica del racconto oracolare’ return to different aspects of possible worlds theory, with some discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King but by no means devoted to it. The book closes with an appendix on Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report and R. Clair’s It Happened Tomorrow, and then a bibliography, index of passages dicussed, and index of subjects.

The real focus, then of the book is on ‘Possible Worlds theory’ as applied to literature and particularly to ancient Greek texts of the archaic and classical periods; this application involves the analysis of texts that raise the question of fate, the gods’ role in enforcing it, and the extent to which human characters enjoy freedom of choice. So the chapter on the Iliad looks (for example) at the poet’s statements that such-and-such would have happened contrary to fate, had it not been for some other eventuality; the discussion of Herodotus deals with the story of Atys and Adrastus, together with others in which prophecy features. Given such a focus it is easy to see why Oedipus the King, the work associated perhaps above all others with ideas of fate and its relationship to the actions of gods and men, should take a central role in the book; but as noted above, it is far from the only tragedy under discussion, and Dorati has in addition interesting discussions of, for example, the one-day limit set to Athena’s anger in Ajax, and the prophecy of Helenus in Philoctetes.

Dorati’s deep familiarity with the authors under discussion ensures that his readings always remain firmly grounded in the texts that he is studying; so the meaning of διώλεσα at OT 318 is carefully teased apart (pp. 206–7, n. 5), as is the wider question of whether or not the prophecy said to have been delivered to Laius at OT 711–14 was conditional (p. 169, n. 2). His knowledge of the secondary literature is outstanding, and completely up to date; this means that he is able to interact with key works as recent as Douglas Cairns’s seminal essay ‘Divine and human action in the Oedipus Tyrannus’, in id. (ed.), Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought (Swansea 2012) 119-71. I would fault only his references (e.g. pp. 168, 177) to ‘Eric Dodds’, who was never known by that name in person or in writing: he was always E. R. Dodds, or just Dodds. It is a pity, too, not to find a discussion of Alan Sommerstein’s article ‘Alternative scenarios in Sophocles’ Electra’, Prometheus 23 (1997), 193–214 = The Tangled Ways of Zeus and Other Studies in and around Greek Tragedy (Oxford 2010) 224–49 (with addenda), a fascinating discussion of possible roads not taken in that play, even if ‘possible worlds theory’ is not invoked there by name.

Dorati’s writing can be dense, and there are some truly epic paragraphs (e.g. pp. 86–8 — I’ve seen shorter articles) and footnotes (e.g. pp. 64–5 n. 3, 169–70 n. 5, 171–2 n. 2, 184–5 n. 3, 212–13 n. 2). Although he is not on the whole difficult to read, I wonder if a snappier style would make his ideas more accessible to a wider audience. We could also probably do with a clearer statement of what gains this particular theoretical approach offers over more conventional lines of analysis.

For all the virtues of this book, specialists in Greek epic and historiography, literary theorists, and indeed people interested in plays other than Oedipus the King may overlook it, deducing (fairly, although incorrectly) from its title that it will mainly or exclusively concern that play alone. It will be a pity if such a poorly chosen designation needlessly limits its readership.

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