BMCR 1998.10.13

History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama



1) B. Goff, Introduction: History, Tragedy, Theory 2) M. Gellrich, Interpreting Greek Tragedy: History, Theory, and the New Philology 3) P. Rose, Historicizing Sophocles Ajax 4) D. Rosenbloom, Myth, History, and Hegemony in Aeschylus 5) H. Foley, Tragedy and Democratic Ideology: The Case of Sophocles’ Antigone 6) B. Seidensticker, Women on the Tragic Stage 7) F. Zeitlin, Art, Memory, and Kleos in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis 8) R. Seaford, Historicizing Tragic Ambivalence: The Vote of Athena

I have often thought that it would be an amusing exercise to construct a history of Augustan Rome by cutting and pasting sentences about the princeps from interpretations of Augustan poetry. This perverse idea holds my fancy because, as anyone who traverses from the world of historians to the world of literary critics will soon discover, the history of a period changes chameleon-like when brought into play as a basis for interpretation. That is not meant as a criticism of Augustan literary critics; merely an observation that history is slippery.

This volume, the result of a 1992 conference, attempts to negotiate similarly difficult ground, presenting a series of historically-based readings of Greek tragedy. In great measure the book is a success. The readings presented here are subtle, interesting interpretations in their own right, and taken as a whole present an engaging dialogue on the relation between Athenian culture and its tragic texts. A lucid introduction by Barbara Goff gives a brief, useful history of several critical currents in studies of tragedy. Her essay is continued in important ways by some of the individual studies that follow, most notably those of Gellrich, Rose, and Seaford.

Michelle Gellrich’s piece is the most overtly theoretical. She traces the rise of “New Philology” (literary interpretation with a sophisticated anthropological and historical bent). Gellrich is correct in pointing out that Classics, unlike several other disciplines has moved towards New Historicism without fully engaging in Deconstruction. As a result, she suggests, Classicists’ use of historical analysis has been flawed in important ways. Her most clearly argued and most significant criticism is that we tend to see history as a stable, objective base from which to interpret literature, rather than as a series of equally shifting and interpretable texts. This concern runs as a minor theme through the book, and the contributors here are already aware of the difficulty. Most of the essays in this volume have, to varying degrees and with varying success, accounted for a notion of history as text.

One essay that could benefit from Gellrich’s critique is that of Seidensticker. Seidensticker sets out to establish that the view of women in tragedy is not, after all, so different from the view that one sees in the legal record. Though Seidensticker does acknowledge that the picture of female seclusion has been modified lately, he generally accepts most of that picture as fact. He then turns to tragedy to show that, despite some women who appear self-willed and independent, the genre as a whole reinforces traditional roles for women. (156) This is an important point, often overlooked, and we should be grateful to Seidensticker for making it so bluntly. But pointing out that Clytemnestra uses the traditional women’s art of weaving to kill her husband and is eventually destroyed for her perversion does not (as Seidensticker implies, 160-61) negate the full force of her disruption of norms. His reading of the end of the Medea is similarly flat. In brief, I find Seidensticker’s reading less subtle than the others in this volume; it is a bit of a disappointment.

The contributions of Rose and Rosenbloom, by contrast, are prime examples of the best work in literary-historical interpretation. Both make use of Marxist theory (Rose is more explicit in this regard) to understand tragedy as negotiating a moment of cultural crisis, an area where the fissures of society are showing (what Rose would call a “problematic,” 62 and 79). Rose reads Sophocles’ Ajax as taking place at a point when Athens was trying to incorporate aristocratic ideals into the developing democracy. In a series of persuasive arguments, he shows that Ajax demonstrates many of the traits of eastern tyrants — hence the necessity for his fall. But as the play develops, his ideological affinity shifts to the side of the Athenians, as he is opposed to the Atreidai, who are aligned with contemporary Sparta. And so Ajax and his half-brother Teucer come to represent what Athenian democracy needs: a sense of social order within isonomia.

Rosenbloom’s essay makes an interesting companion. Though framed in different terms, Rosenbloom argues for a similar cultural space for tragedy: he sees the Oresteia as representing the conflict between Athens’ notion of itself as a liberator of Greece, and the growing Athenian domination of Greece. Bound up in this conflict — indeed, one might say its principal catalyst — is Athens’ move towards naval hegemony. Thus Aeschylus’ plays emphasize the dangers of naval power, the instability of exchange as a source of wealth; these are the demons of imperialism that must be guarded against. In both of these essays, we see tragedy interacting with history rather than merely reflecting it, and we see history not as a cold set of immutable facts, but as a complex interaction of ideas and economics. These two pieces are in my view the highest points in a fine collection.

Similarly worthy of praise, though somewhat anomalous, is Zeitlin’s analysis of the relation of Euripidean tragedy to the visual arts. Zeitlin brings forth considerable evidence that pictorial understandings of events were used in the fifth century to develop systems of memorization, and to educate Athenian citizens about their mythic past. With characteristic ease, Zeitlin then shows how Euripides’ IA is influenced by, and perhaps influenced, large-scale pictorial representation. The description of the Greek army reads like a description of a painting, the likes of which Athenians were used to seeing presented on various public works. Thus this ecphrasis (like others in the Euripidean corpus) is not merely a rhetorical flourish; it also signals to us that this is an epic moment, a moment to be remembered, to be held in the mind’s eye. In such ecphrases, Zeitlin suggests, we see the relation between the theatrical and the present moments — that is, we understand the drama as both immediate (we see the scene from the perspective of the chorus) and distanced (we are viewing an artistic representation, not an event). (179) This essay is unusual in the collection, in that it does not link tragedy to a particular political setting. But the essay is among the most rigorous in the volume in linking this tragedy to a particular cultural moment. Zeitlin offers us a glimpse of how (in a mechanical sense) the Athenians were beginning to think during the period of Euripides’ tragedies.

A second important theme in the book stems indirectly from its historical bent: a number of the authors here have offered comment on the notion of tragic ambiguity. That is, to what extent did the tragedians proscribe moral lessons, and to what extent did they provide mental conundra, challenges designed to leave the audience in a state of aporia ? For the past thirty years or so, the prevailing view has tended towards the latter; as several of the essays in this volume demonstrate, the pendulum is beginning to move in the other direction (see especially Rose and Seaford).

Foley does argue for an ambiguous reading of that most ambiguous of plays, Sophocles’ Antigone. In an important essay, she critiques the recent readings of Sourvinou-Inwood and Bennett/Tyrrell, each of which attempts to answer the perennial question of whom the Athenians would have sided with, Creon or Antigone. Of crucial importance here, Foley demonstrates convincingly that Sourvinou-Inwood simply ignores scenes that conflict with her thesis, that Creon’s actions are those of a good ruler and Antigone’s of a bad woman. For Foley, then, there is no need for a unilateral reading of this play. But we should not mistake this position for a romanticized construct of Dionysiac disruption. Rather, Foley’s ambiguity is historically grounded. As she says, “It seems sensible then to assume … that Athens was in reality populated with citizens with different and changing views… ” (138) That is, Sophocles’ play is here reflecting a real, and unresolved, conflict of social opinion. Because Foley is reacting to Sourvinou-Inwood in some detail, the piece suffers a bit as Foley does not have room to advance her own thesis. A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Foley present her views of Antigone’s position, based on research into fifth-century social expectations. Perhaps because I knew of the existence of this very fine material, I felt its lack here.

The essay that most directly takes on the issue of tragic ambiguity, however, is that of Seaford. Particularly valuable from a theoretical standpoint, Seaford demonstrates that most critics’ notion of tragic ambiguity (from which I would except Foley, above) is based on a romanticized notion of Dionysus that has not been historicized. Originating with Nietzsche, our sense of Dionysus as a perpetual transgressor of norms is, as Seaford shows, based on an ahistorical reading of the plays. Nietzsche explicitly removes tragedy from the realm of the socio-political in order to understand it as a purely religious event, and it is this understanding that allows Nietzsche to understand “the Dionysiac” as an “eternal unity that is also eternal contradiction.” (205). In contrast, then, Seaford suggests that Dionysus is not inherently opposed to order, but rather a deity concerned with bringing disorder into a controlled setting, where it can be successfully resolved (what Seaford calls the “controlled ambiguity” of ritual). That is, here as elsewhere, Seaford sees Dionysus as a god of polis cult.

As an example of this understanding, Seaford takes on that old chestnut, the vote of Athena. He argues, convincingly to my mind, that Athena’s vote does not create a tie, but breaks one. The function of her ruling, then, is not (as Vernant and others have suggested) to perpetuate ambiguity, but to resolve it by providing “mythological grounding for … court procedure.” (211) Here, as Seaford recognizes, we are in a somewhat subjective area: the question is, does the resolution provided by such etiologies sufficiently subordinate the conflict that has come before? For Seaford the answer is yes, and his reading of this trilogy is persuasive. I wonder, however, if the same could be said for some of Euripides’ tragedies, in which the etiology seems, famously, tacked on (e.g. the Hippolytus). The general question is one that will not be answered definitively; but anyone interested in the problem of tragic ambiguity will want to consult Seaford’s piece here.

In brief, this is an impressive book. The conference must have been lively. And if the volume is not always consistent or coherent across contributions, in this case that is a strength. As individual essays, most of the pieces are quite fine. Taken as a whole, the book outlines the central problems an merits of a developing mode of interpretation. In that regard, it is also valuable snapshot of our historical moment, as we struggle to understand the relation of tragedy to that equally elusive text, fifth century Athenian history.

Gellrich’s criticism is easier to make than to work around: one cannot write an interpretive sentence without assuming something. Nor does Gellrich provide an adequate model for a fully dialogic interpretation in which neither “history” nor “tragedy” are stable categories. Seidensticker does not take into account, e.g., C. Patterson, 1987 ” αἱ Ἀττικαί : The Other Athenians.” Helios 13: 49-67; L. Foxhall, 1989. “Household, Gender and Property in Classical Athens,” CQ 39: 22-44. Gellrich adopts exactly this view of Dionysus; see especially p. 53.