BMCR 2008.01.02

Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles, Athens, and the World

, Oedipus at Colonus : Sophocles, Athens, and the world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 360 pages).. ISBN 9783110920482 €91.59.

In 2002, Andreas Markantonatos published a specialized study of narrative in Oedipus at Colonus.1 This is an original and lively book that has made a significant impression. The focus of this book, however, did not allow him to give as much attention to other aspects of the play, especially its historical and religious contexts, as he thinks they deserve, and so he offers this sequel, which attempts a general historicizing interpretation of the play. The first chapter addresses various issues of context, including Sophocles’ biography and the dramatic festival. The second examines earlier versions of the story, attempting to point to significant Sophoclean innovations. In the third, M. goes through the play, looking at each episode and song. The fourth looks at the many rituals enacted, described, or evoked, while the fifth studies intertextual connections, especially with Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone. A sixth surveys adaptations and modern productions, and there is a short summary of the results. While this last chapter is entirely new, and this book is indeed much broader than the first, there is some repetition. The introduction promises that the book will solve “long-standing problems.” I do not think that it has actually solved any, though it has made me think differently about some. It treats many issues, often thoughtfully, but it does not offer new and convincing solutions. Sometimes it states instead of arguing.

M. is wildly enthusiastic about the play. Indeed, the central argument of his book is that it is a masterpiece. He interprets it primarily as a call for civic unity and reconciliation and sees the amnesty negotiated and upheld after the restoration of the democracy as profoundly in the spirit of the drama. His Sophocles is a democrat, who has nothing to apologize for in his actions of 411, and the Theseus of the play is emphatically a king only as a device to create distance. He has no truck with critics who have found its structure episodic; in his view it is dramatically gripping as well as profound. He also has little sympathy with interpreters who are critical of Oedipus’ character and his anger against his sons, and he firmly believes that the original audience would have regarded Oedipus’ final heroic status as adequate recompense for his sufferings. His reading is optimistic, only slightly clouded by the intertextualities that point to the coming fate of Antigone. He sees parallels between Oedipus and an initiate into the mysteries, so that he also sees the peaceful and redemptive death of Oedipus as close to the hopes of the original spectators. (He argued this point at greater length in the first book.) His survey of earlier treatments of the myth is interesting, stressing Sophocles’ innovations. I am not convinced when M. follows Hutchinson in thinking that Aeschylus’ Septem 772-91 presents an Oedipus who curses his sons because of their incestuous origins. M. thinks that Aeschylus innovated in presenting Oedipus’ realization of his guilt, which was not so intensely felt in epic versions—this is surely impossible to know.

M. seems to have read everything of importance that has been published about OC. However, he rarely argues directly with those whose views he rejects. He doesn’t just avoid polemic; while a few times he calls an opinion “misguided,” he does not say who has held this opinion. Indeed, he often refers to other views only in a very general way. The book is therefore hard to locate within the state of scholarship for a reader who is not very familiar with recent work. Sometimes, indeed, he explains his own views only in a general way. Hence I was often frustrated, because while I can certainly say in broad terms what M. thinks, I am sometimes not at all clear about the details of his arguments, even though he does not indulge in jargon or use esoteric methods. He tends to write more abstractly than the subject calls for. So, for example, he repeatedly talks about how the play substitutes reconciliation for the retributive justice of Sophocles’ earlier Theban plays, but I am not sure that I know exactly what retributive justice he is talking about. There is no question that Oedipus at Colonus places great emphasis on the moral innocence of Oedipus. But I am not clear whose vindictiveness M. has in mind in the earlier plays. In the OT, nobody behaves vindictively towards Oedipus—the cruelty that forms part of the backstory of OC is not part of the action. That of the gods, perhaps? I am simply not sure. While he argues vigorously that Oedipus’ curses on his sons are justified, he does not really incorporate this aspect of the play into his general interpretation.

The English style of the book is a real barrier. Some of the problems are matters of idiom, and it would be churlish to complain because a non-native speaker has not mastered the peculiarities of the definite article or uses the wrong word now and then. The problems, though, are deeper. M. regularly uses wordy periphrases. So on p. 94: “He [sc. Creon] is even quick to alert Oedipus to the fact that Thebes, the home of his fathers, should be respected more than any other city.” “Even” is wrong, for there is nothing extraordinary in such an argument. Creon is not especially “quick” in making it. “Alert” is a peculiar expression for reminding someone of a general principle. Even if “the fact that” were not unnecessarily wordy, Creon’s claim is not a fact, but a normative rule. The last part of the sentence is a bad passive, particularly since only Thebans have an obligation to respect Thebes most.

M is prone to hyperbole. When he quotes another scholar, his excessive praise has a comic amiability. On p. 83, for example, he says ” in David Seale’s most eloquent words ‘it is as though the play begins again.'” Seale’s formulation is worth quoting, but I wouldn’t call it “most eloquent.” At other times he overstates his point. Again on p. 83—I have selected examples from within a few pages so that it will be clear that the problems are frequent—”The Colonans outstrip the Stranger in their frenzy at the violator of the pathless grove of the awful maidens.” Io in PV is frenzied. The Stranger is pretty calm, although he is clearly not pleased that Oedipus is in the grove, and the elders, though very distressed, are certainly not frenzied. And since we, the readers, know whose grove Oedipus has violated, we don’t need “pathless” or “of the awful maidens.” On p. 85: “While the spectators are looking forward to the advent of Theseus, by a deft stroke he brings Ismene onto the stage, thereby pushing the dramatic tension to the limit.” There is a good point here. The arrival of Ismene does perhaps create dramatic tension by forcing the spectator to wait further for Theseus. But I find it hard to imagine that any spectator experiences this episode as heart-pounding suspense. This kind of statement infects the arguments. So he argues that episodes of OC evoke the themes and situations of the earlier Theban plays, but with milder outcomes: if Oedipus’ violation of the grove in some sense repeats the act of incest, this time a ritual can remedy the situation; Antigone may in her grief demand to go to her father’s tomb, but Theseus successfully controls her. Yet M. discusses these episodes as if the spectators would really expect a disastrous conclusion. (This, too, was already in the earlier book.) The weaknesses of the prose magnify the effects of the author’s occasional lack of clarity. M. repeatedly stresses the importance of O.’s status as hero, and refers generally to recent work on hero-cult. Yet it is not clear that there actually was any cult, even if there was a local tradition that Oedipus had died in Colonus. Oedipus does not say what rituals Theseus and his descendents are to perform, if any. The recompense the gods give Oedipus is not cult as such, but the power to help his friends and harm his enemies after his death. While normally these go together, the play emphasizes only one.

The last chapter is useful but slightly disappointing. M. relies heavily on others’ accounts of adaptations and productions. OC has mostly been adapted or performed in combination with OT or in a Theban trilogy. Because his own treatment of the play is biased toward intertextuality, he approves of this practice; I admit that I am inclined to the opposite tendency and would prefer to try to see OC as an independent work. It presupposes the events of OT and Antigone, which it anticipates, but is not a sequel or a prequel. More important, perhaps, following OT directly with OC in print or in production substantially changes the dramatic effect of the first play.

In the end, M’s best contribution to the study of this play was the earlier book. There is much intelligence here and a profound devotion to the text, but too much is hazy.


1. A. Markantonatos. Tragic Narrative. A Narratological Study of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Berlin and New York, 2002.