BMCR 2006.06.20

The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama

, , The soul of tragedy : essays on Athenian drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. vii, 323 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226653595. $22.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama is a collection of essays in honor of Charles Segal (1936-2002), whose contributions to the study of Greek tragedy over several decades give him a fair claim to the title “soul of tragedy.” This collection is more than a standard Festschrift, however, as it comprises the efforts of some of the field’s top scholars, working with several different plays, in several different methodological traditions (primarily, but not entirely, structuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminist criticism). The book is not only an important resource for any professional student of Greek tragedy, but, in the richness of its methodological approaches, would also serve as a helpful introduction in a graduate seminar on literary criticism and tragedy.

In keeping with the book’s title, Pedrick [P.] in her introduction asks, intriguingly, what would a theory of Greek tragedy look like? Would it have the simplicity, elegance, beauty, and comprehensiveness of a unified field theory of physics? P. cautions that such a theory may always elude us because of our insufficient data. We possess only a fraction of the tragedy (and comedy) that was composed; we know very little about tragedy’s literary and cultural beginnings; and we have limited perspective on the tragic audience. On the positive side, there are many competing contexts and methodologies for viewing Greek tragedy, each with its own explanatory potential. Athenian notions of masculinity and femininity, the social and cultural sensibilities of an audience member, the inter-textual references and correspondences among different tragedies, contemporary history, traditional ritual practices, class tensions, the nature of the dithyramb, ancient literary criticism, the reception and reinterpretation of tragedy over time, the inner workings of the human psyche, and the structures of thought with which humans treat the world, all of these, so far as we can reconstruct them, are valid contexts within which to form theories about a particular Greek tragedy, or about Greek tragedy in general. The scholars in this collection are to be commended for their innovative exploration of the (multiple) possibilities of all these contexts.

Some of the essays in this collection rely on what may be termed “hard-core” philology (careful attention to word morphology, parallel passages, grammar, syntax, and word usage across many texts), but the overall selection of essays tends to favor three methodologies—structuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminist criticism — and the essays are accordingly grouped into three main sections (see below), with one concluding section, which is designed to serve as a check on the potential dominance of any one methodology.

Of the thirty-three extant Greek tragedies, the following seven are treated at length: from Aeschylus, the Agamemnon and the Suppliants; from Sophocles, the Philoctetes and the Antigone; from Euripides, the Bacchae, the Helen, and the Iphigenia at Aulis. Also treated at length are Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Acharnians, and an epitaph for a putative female kithara player, named Protis, in Poem 58 of the New Posidippus.

For those who may wish to browse the essays in this book, the following is a very brief summary of the content and methodology of each essay.

Section I: The Geometry of Suffering

1. Aristotle on the Tragic Emotions — David Konstan

Building on his extensive work on the emotions in antiquity, K. explores the meaning of the feeling, τὸ φιλάνθρωπον, which, according to Aristotle ( Poet. 13.1453a2-6), the tragic audience may feel for the misfortunes of thoroughly bad men. Scholars have interpreted τὸ φιλάνθρωπον in the Poetics as anything from satisfaction and pleasure at the bad man’s misfortune to the basic sympathy that everyone feels for a fellow human being. To settle this dispute and to understand the role of τὸ φιλάνθρωπον in the context of the other emotions discussed in the Poetics and Rhetoric, K. builds from the usage of φιλανθρωπία in Demosthenes and elsewhere in Aristotle. He locates τὸ φιλάνθρωπον in a quadrangle of three other emotions: ἔλεος (pity, which is akin to a fear felt for ourselves brought on by the undeserved misfortune of others), τὸ νεμεσᾶν (indignation, which is felt for the undeserved good fortune of others), and φθόνος (envy for someone else’s good fortune, irrespective of merit). For K. τὸ φιλάνθρωπον is a feeling of sympathy that arises from considerations neither of whether a person’s suffering is merited nor of whether the person’s suffering is fearful. It is thus contrary to pity (whose opposite is τὸ νεμεσᾶν) and opposite to φθόνος (envy).

2. Divine and Human in Sophocles’ Philoctetes — Seth L. Schein

S. outlines four different perspectives on the relationship between the human and divine in the Philoctetes. For Odysseus, the gods are a tool for his own ends and may be invoked to exploit and defeat others. Neoptolemus initially adopts this view, but, either out of pity for Philoctetes or out of a new understanding of the divine, comes to see the gods as instrumental in both Philoctetes’ salvation and his own. Philoctetes first sees the gods solely as agents of justice and injustice, a persistent moral presence in human life. After his acquiescence to the proposal of Herakles (that he return to the Greek army to win glory at Troy), Philoctetes regards the gods, particularly the divinities of Lemnos, as benign and supportive. Herakles, as a divinity, allows Philoctetes at once to return to his notions of heroism and to give up his fantasies of punishing his enemies through divine agency. For S. the Philoctetes does not end in an altogether happy way on the divine score, however, because Herakles cautions Philoctetes and Neoptolemus to observe a code of piety which ultimately the audience knows they will not.

3. Euripides’ Heaven — Pietro Pucci

P. discusses three of Euripides’ usages of the word αἰθήρ : (1) Zeus as a divine cosmic element, (2) the seat of Zeus and the gods, and (3) the seat of the souls of the dead. The effect of the first usage is to separate and elevate Zeus from the other gods, whom Euripides does not identify with any other celestial body. As Zeus’ abode, αἰθήρ may have connotations distinct from other terms, such as Olympos and ouranos (which is sometimes synonymous with αἰθήρ): P. argues that “starry ouranos and shining aither connote especially light, ironical, edifying, benevolent, intellectually engaged functions of the gods” whereas ” Olympos in its traditional epic usage seems to connote the gods when they are described in their less edifying behavior” (55, 54). Finally, Euripides, at least in part, treats the αἰθήρ as an escape for mortal souls who have fallen into a “hermeneutic void” and thus find themselves longing to escape the known world.

4. Dionysiac Triangles: The Politics of Culture in Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides — Barbara Goff

G. explores the relationships between three terms (Africa, Greece, and the West) in Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripdes and his autobiographical novel, Ibadan. One straightforward relationship between these terms is dispersal of Greek culture to Africa from the West via colonialism, but G. points out that this influence is problematic in that the West often does not allow the African to possess Greek culture as his/her own. In such a situation the civilized and the barbarian becomes reversed. Another relationship has ancient Greece and Africa sharing similarities that exclude the West’s participation, such as the similarity between the worship of the Yoruba god Ogun and the Greek Dionysus. Finally, G. argues that not only do Africa and ancient Greece share certain similarities, Africa, in its reception of Greek culture, is also an ironic reversal of the traditional colonial system, in that it is a pathway for the West to rediscover parts of Greece otherwise inaccessible.

Section II: A Vast Continent of Sorrows

5. The Subject of Desire in Sophocles’ Antigone — Mark Griffin

More than any of the other essays in this collection, G. first defends the methodological underpinnings of his interpretation. He provides a useful and stimulating summary of the application of psychoanalysis to the literature, drama, history, and film; the author, characters, and audience, he points out, may all be analyzed. From this framework G. challenges the notion that Antigone is the unqualified hero and victor in the play by arguing that the drama’s central conflict hinges on the fact that Antigone (whose behavior reflects an Electra complex) is ultimately trapped between two ideas of the Father, one the exogamous political figure of her uncle, Creon, and the other the endogamous and incestuous figures of her father, Oedipus, and brother, Polyneices. The first of these figures is paranoid, irrational, and autocratic, whereas the second, though appealing to Antigone’s (and the audience’s subconscious) desires, is both socially taboo and ultimately deadly. For G., this conflict between two fathers is resolved by the chorus, who becomes increasingly more authoritative, and Teiresias, the spokesperson for the symbolic order of the Father. In the end, however, both Creon and Antigone must be removed from the drama for this order to be restored.

6. Beyond Sexual Difference: Becoming-Woman in Euripides’ Bacchae — Victoria Wohl

W. challenges the structuralist approach of Segal and others who see the Bacchae as an affirmation of the Oedipal order through the triumph of Dionysus and his paternal line over the failed Oedipal transition of Pentheus. Nor, for W., is the Baccae fully explained with reference to Pentheus’ negative Oedipality, whereby the son identifies with the mother out of his desire for the father. The play is only partially about sexual difference. Instead, W. proposes an “anti-Oedipal” Baccae : applying the work of Deleuze and Guattari ( Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia) to the Baccae, and in particular, lines 453-459, where Pentheus seems erotically preoccupied with Dionysus’ feminine aspect, W. argues that “desire and identification converge in a narcissistic doubling in which Pentheus becomes what he desires” (144). This “dynamic of becoming,” as opposed to the rigid demarcation of sexual difference proposed by the Oedipal model, pervades much of the play. It is a dynamic whose resolution is neither depicted in the play in the play nor truly conceivable.

7. The Comic Soul: Or, This Phallus That Is Not One — Martha C. Nussbaum

N. challenges the claim put forth by Eric Segal that the triumph of comedy is (symbolically) the triumph of an erect phallus, a symbol of masculinity, aggression, dominance, sexual potency, and, ultimately, misogyny. N. points to instances in comedy where the possessors of such a phallus (e.g., Lamachus in the Acharnians, or the aroused and frustrated husbands in the Lysistrata) do not “triumph” at all and are in fact be humiliated for their rigid phalluses. N. proposes a different notion of the phallus, one that triumphs for its softness, as it were, a symbol of peace, relaxation, reconciliation, and festivity. It is with this type of phallus, N. argues, that the women of Lysistrata are able to triumph.

Section III: The Ordinary Horrors of the Feminine

8. Women in Groups: Aeschylus’s Suppliants and the Female Choruses of Greek Tragedy — Sheila Murnaghan

M. argues that female choruses, who are nearly twice as prevalent as male choruses in extant Greek tragedy, play vital roles in their plays and inform our understanding of other groups of women in Greek culture and myth. At times wandering, socially marginalized, and servile, female choruses often support female protagonists on the verge of becoming married or struggling with an unhappy marriage. (M. also discusses the roles of female choruses outside of Greek tragedy in the marriage rite.) In Aeschylus’ Suppliants, the Danaids are central to the action of the trilogy of which the tragedy is a part. The pattern of action whereby one of the Danaids, Hypermestra, distinguishes herself from her sisters by not murdering her husband recalls the historical origin of tragedy, as explained by Aristotle, where the leader of the dithyramb came to distinguish himself from the rest of the chorus.

9. Redeeming Matricide? Euripides Rereads the Oresteia — Froma I. Zeitlin

Z. reads Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris as a kind of sequel to the Oresteia, in that it addresses the disturbing implication of the latter work that civilization must be predicated on the defeat of women and an exonerated matricide. Z. argues that Euripides’ work redeems both Apollo (whose oracle until the IT had been unable to exonerate Orestes) and Orestes, who must reenact his matricide by being the sacrificial victim of his sister, aided by Artemis. While Z. acknowledges that the Iphigenia in Tauris in the end affirms masculine authority, she observes an emphasis on the interests of mothers and children throughout that is lacking in Aeschylus.

10. Clytemnestra’s First Marriage: Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis — John Gilbert

G. argues for a greater appreciation of Clytemnestra’s speech at IA 1148-1156, where, in an attempt to convince Agamemnon to give up the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra references her prior marriage to Tantalus. Many facets from this marriage, including the male child that Clytemnestra claims to have had with Tantalus, Agamemnon’s brutal murder of it, the Dioscouri’s interference in the new marriage, and Tyndareus’ ultimate decision to assign Clytemnestra to Agamemnon, have relevance for the rest of the play and would have found resonance with the Greek audience’s attitude toward the legitimacy of marriage and the woman’s participation in the selection of her husband. For G., the monody that Iphigenia sings near the end of the play, perhaps holding Orestes, and attended by Achilles, is a reminiscence of this first marriage of Clytemnestra and its tragedy.

Section IV: Cautionary Tales

11. Visuality and Temporality: Reading the Tragic Script — Karen Bassi

Drawing on studies of tragic performance (e.g., by Oliver Taplin ) and theories of visual representation, B. treats Attic drama as a “kind of visual turn” in hopes of better understanding how practices of visualization may be productive of temporal relations. B. is particularly interested in two scenes in the Agamemnon where, in the prologue, the Watchman, figures the readers of the play in imagining the beacon fire and the stars, independent of their actual representation on stage. Cassandra, too, is of primary interest for her role as seer and in her refusal to see the final blow struck by Clytemnestra. Cassandra’s refusal is for B. a striking contrast to the Watchman’s enforced seeing (in his reluctance to sleep).

12. Music, Gender, and Hellenistic Society — Simon Goldhill

G. disputes the manuscript supplement (of thirteen letters) to Poem 58 of the New Posidippus, which has a woman, Protis, being celebrated in her epitaph for inheriting the professions of hetaira and kithara player from her mother—an uncommon resume for a woman either in ancient Greece or Rome. To propose such a profession for Protis, G. cautions, is to rely too heavily on scant verbal parallels and the hopeful fantasy that the Hellenistic period provided myriad new opportunities for female achievement. G. suggests, alternatively, that Protis was not a hetaira, that the lacuna in the manuscript could have detailed Protis’ civic or ethnic origins, and that the putative metronymic fragment could as easily have been patronymic. The poem, as a whole, G. contends is celebratory of Protis’ transition from maidenhood to marriage and motherhood.

13. The Tyranny of Germany over Greece — Page duBois

In her survey of the study of Classics in America from colonial times to the present, d. discusses the influence 19th-century German scholarship in America, which she attributes to a sense of devotion and “perhaps a new-world sense of inferiority and emulation” (298). This “tyranny” that Germany had over American classics was challenged by French theory in the 1960s and led by Jean-Pierre Vernant. For d. the advantages to French theory over philologically-based German scholarship are its ready engagement with other human sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. Citing the career of Vernant as an example, d. also disputes the charge that French theorists have been aloof from the contemporary political and social struggles. The most encomiastic of all the essays in this collection, d. celebrates Charles Segal (among other American classicists) for championing French theory, but also for striving to fuse the German, British, and French traditions, especially in his presidential address to the American Philological Association in 1994.


The Soul of Greek Tragedy is an excellent tribute to Charles Segal, not only for the quality and diversity of its scholarship and the prestige of its scholars: Segal’s contribution to tragedy is discussed, if not celebrated, in virtually all of the essays. The tone is both affectionate and reverent, from Nussbaum’s fond reminiscence of the older, pudgier Segal, jogging around the track at Stanford (the model of Nussbaum’s conception of a comic hero) to duBois’ tribute to Segal as the spokesman of French structuralism who sought to break Germany’s tyranny over the study of Classics in America.

As an investigation into the heart, essence, or soul of Greek tragedy, as it were, most of the articles work from within a theoretical framework, but do not discuss or argue for the validity of that framework at great length. Therefore, the success of any given article will depend largely on whether or not the reader is already open to such theoretical approaches; that is to say, one will already need to have some preconceptions of what the soul of tragedy must look like if one is to believe that this book has identified it. Two essays which do involve lengthy theoretical discussions are Griffin’s article on psychoanalysis in the Antigone and Nussbaum’s article on the comic soul, which draws heavily on the notions of the body that she has recently discussed in her book, Hiding from Humanity. Yet, promising though they be, both of these works are too short, and too narrow in application, to convince me that they have application to all, or even many, of the works they hope to explain. Nussbaum, for example, criticizes Erich Segal for his theory of comedy because it leaves out the possibility of a female triumph (for example in the Lysistrata), but she confines the application of her own theory to only two comedies. One can only hope for further book-length work from these scholars with a wider application of their interesting approaches.

Finally, in many of the surface ways in which a book may be called “good,” this one is. The book is inexpensive and the bibliography is generous. Where methodology is not discussed explicitly, the reader is led to many helpful secondary sources; and many of the footnotes are even a pleasure to read. I found only one minor mistake of editing in the entire work; on page 187, there is, I believe, an unintended “have” in the phrase, “in the context of ancient Greek culture it is impossible for have young women to remain unmarried.”


Introduction — Victoria Pedrick

I. The Geometry of Suffering

Aristotle on the Tragic Emotions — David Konstan

Divine and Human in Sophocles’ Philoctetes — Seth L. Schein

Euripides’ Heaven — Pietro Pucci

Dionysiac Triangles: The Politics of Culture in Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides — Barbara Goff

II. A Vast Continent of Sorrows

The Subject of Desire in Sophocles’ Antigone — Mark Griffith

Beyond Sexual Difference: Becoming-Woman in Euripides’ Bacchae — Victoria Wohl

The Comic Soul: Or, This Phallus That Is Not One — Martha C. Nussbaum

III. The Ordinary Horrors of the Feminine

Women in Groups: Aeschylus’s Suppliants and the Female Choruses of Greek Tragedy — Sheila Murnaghan

Redeeming Matricide? Euripides Rereads the Oresteia — Froma I. Zeitlin

Clytemnestra’s First Marriage: Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis — John Gibert

IV. Cautionary Tales

Visuality and Temporality: Reading the Tragic Script — Karen Bassi

Music, Gender, and Hellenistic Society — Simon Goldhill

The Tyranny of Germany over Greece — Page duBois.