BMCR 2008.07.43

Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca’s Oedipus

, , Two faces of Oedipus : Sophocles' Oedipus tyrannus and Seneca's Oedipus. Cornell paperbacks. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. x, 266 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780801446351 $16.95 (pb).

Throughout his career, Frederick Ahl has taken on both long-held canonical interpretations and postmodern methods of reading, in the process provoking confusion, vitriol, and even a few cheers from the scholarly community. Ahl’s most recent book, however, which pairs translations of Sophocles’ OT and Seneca’s Oedipus along with a lengthy introduction and an “indexed glossary” of names and concepts, does not offer much new in the way of unorthodoxy; but rather takes the argument of Ahl’s earlier Sophocles’ Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction,1 adds a discussion of Seneca and his play, and delivers it to a new audience: students, general readers, and those looking to stage one or both of these tragedies. The overall interpretations are familiar from Ahl’s previous work: Sophocles’ Oedipus may not be guilty of parricide or incest, but accepts these conclusions based on faulty, unexamined evidence; Seneca’s play reflects “the frustrated political and moral energy” (22) of intellectual life in the emperors’ brave new world. The mood of this book is one of skepticism, and Ahl uses close reading and rhetorical investigation to explore inconsistencies and to push controversial interpretations large and small. The energy with which Ahl pursues his questions is laudable, as is his refusal to accept the often tautological idées reçues on both Sophocles and Seneca. The book’s success, however, is largely a non-issue; if readers have been following Ahl’s work, they probably already know how they feel about the ideas in the current volume. Given, then, that much of the material has already been subjected to scholarly scrutiny, I shall in this review focus on the differences between this volume and Ahl’s earlier publications on Sophocles and Seneca and the translations themselves.

Two Faces of Oedipus begins with an eponymous introductory essay that, at 132 pages, runs longer than the translations themselves. The style is conversational and avoids excessive jargon; aside from its length, students probably won’t complain about reading it. The essay is subdivided into 26 sections dealing with various issues, interpretive and historical, of the two plays. I confess that Ahl has not persuaded me to acquit Oedipus, and I remain dubious about the methods Ahl uses to support his thesis; but, like many reviewers of Sophocles’ Oedipus, I think there is value in reading an argument that constantly keeps its reader on the defensive.

As most of these arguments are, however, made at greater length and depth in the earlier book, classicists would be better served by turning to Sophocles’ Oedipus rather than Two Faces. The strength of the new book lies in the way Ahl draws contrasts between the plays of Sophocles and Seneca; non-specialists will certainly benefit from the discussions of the changing role of rhetoric in both societies, the impact of Stoicism and its theological implications, tyche vs. fatum, issues of staging and theater, and even the different poetic strengths of Greek and Latin as languages.

Much of the introduction is occupied by a discussion of the Oedipus Nachleben; Ahl repeats his thesis that modern readings of Sophocles’ play derive in large part from back-dating Seneca’s determinism onto its predecessor. Ahl provides a good discussion of words like moira, tyche, casus, and fortuna and Stoic vs. 5th c. Greek views of theology; he is less successful, I think, in constructing a larger framework for Greek religion. On p. 35 he describes as traditional a polytheistic system depicting “a far less authoritarian social and political order” than in Roman or Judeo-Christian religion.

Yet on p. 83 he suggests that the institution of tragedy deliberately subverted traditional religion’s power over the state and that “the dialectical polytheism of tragedy is the religion of democracy.” Why, if traditional religion was non-authoritarian to begin with, would it need to be subverted by anyone? Individual aspects of Greek religion, notably prophecy, are here also regarded warily and politically. Ahl compares Teiresias to a Jesuit inquisitor (19) and suggests that modern readers’ casual acceptance of the Theban prophet’s status stems from Christian familiarity with and belief in prophets, as opposed to Greek skepticism (122). Ahl’s general treatment of Greek religion in his earlier book met with criticism, notably from Goldhill and Segal,2 and readers who shared their opinion then will probably not find much to agree with in the new book.3

The examples used to advance the thesis of Oedipus’ innocence and self-conviction do not much vary from those used in Sophocles’ Oedipus, but here they are condensed and represented for a non-specialist audience. For example, in both books Ahl proposes a connection between the character Creon and the politician Cleon. In Sophocles’ Oedipus this argument includes a lengthier discussion on the rhetorical devise of labdacism ( Sophocles’ Oedipus : 95-97), whereas Two Faces spends only a paragraph on it, but gives greater biographic detail on Cleon (101-102). There are some new points made in Two Faces — such as an argument against reading OT through Oedipus at Colonus 4— and the bibliography has been updated. Some of the excised material might have profitably found a place in Two Faces. I particularly missed a section in Sophocles’ Oedipus in which Ahl laid out his psychological approach to reading, and opposition to, Barthes’s directive against analyzing a fictional character as if he were a real person ( Sophocles’ Oedipus 30-32). Given the wide influence of Barthes, I cannot understand excluding this section that makes clear so many of Ahl’s divergences with what is by now a traditional method of scholarly analysis.

Ahl travels less controversial paths in his analysis of Seneca’s Oedipus, if only because this play is less read and therefore less often interpreted. Although Senecan drama has enjoyed a scholarly revival of late, one hopes that its pairing here with Sophocles’ smash-hit will bring this neglected play to the attention of readers who would never find it otherwise. Ahl insists that “Senecan tragedy demands performance,” by which he means full staging and not just recitation (118), but many scholars today think these plays were performed, as Ahl does, in private theaters (119-120).

Ahl paints a vivid portrait of the paranoid, dangerous atmosphere of the later Julio-Claudians, then surprises with an argument for an Augustan date of composition, with the Elder Seneca as author. His evidence for this is a remark by Quintilian (9.2.42), but certainly it is not the case that the “only reason for attributing the tragedies to the Younger rather than the Elder Seneca” is the presence of Octavia in the corpus (14-15). Further evidence for Ahl is a plague in 22 BCE, although he admits that this step is necessary “only to satisfy those readers who … incline to link the dramatic plagues in both Oedipus tragedies to historical occurrences of plague” (126). I am not one of those readers and, before abandoning the Younger, would like to see Ahl address the play’s style, which seems quintessentially Neronian to me. Ahl also suggests that the play reacts to issues of the Augustan succession and Augustus’ use of the Sphinx on his signet ring; he notes that Seneca’s Jocasta says Laius has been dead nine years, which would be the interval from 22 back to Actium (129-131). Augustus’ problem in 22, however, was that he had no heir; Oedipus has too many. If one seeks contemporary resonance for a play in which a tyrant in an incestuous marriage leaves two sons to fight over his throne, surely the late Claudian period makes more sense — and corresponds to Fitch’s hypothesis that the Oedipus was written before 54 CE.5 Ahl, however, is not adamant about an Augustan date and skillfully manages to have both a Neronian and Augustan Oedipus in play throughout.

All in all, the essay is intriguing and provocative although, as I have mentioned, scholars interested in Oedipus’ self-conviction would be better served by reading the earlier Sophocles’ Oedipus. For non-classicists, the current book provides an introduction to the plays; and students will find many examples of how to read critically, although I think most of us try to discourage our students from psychologizing characters as this book does. Furthermore, his portrait of a deluded, Stalinesque Oedipus surrounded by scheming yes-men in OT is attractively modern after countless portraits of Sophocles’ hero as a relentless intellect striving for truth no matter the consequences. While his views have not won wide acceptance in the scholarly community, I suspect many undergraduates will be won over by Ahl’s pleasant, conversational, and occasionally passionate style — as well as by the catnip of rebellion when he tells them that scholars who discourage questions like his are trying “to intimidate the reader, to maintain orthodoxy, and to defend the faith of the young against subversion by heretics by limiting their choices of interpretation” (28). Those who do not agree with Ahl will need considerable faith in their own charisma before assigning such a text to their students (assuming youthful attention spans persevere through such a lengthy essay).

The translations themselves are delightful. For the OT, Ahl has rendered the dialogue in a versatile English iambic trimeter, keeping a line-by-line corresponsion to the original and trying, he says, to maintain “the neutrality of the Greek text” for those who disagree with his interpretation (ix). In this he is not entirely successful. His stage directions, for one, fully support his reading, e.g. the comment after line 295: “Unnoticed by Oedipus, Teiresias enters, guided by a servant.” Since Ahl’s Oedipus is a sloppy investigator who fails to ask the right questions, having a blind man sneak up on him is neatly symbolic, but this is Ahl’s symbolism, not Sophocles’. For newcomers to tragedy, a note in the text of the play itself mentioning this would be helpful, but these readers must have carefully read the introduction to learn that the stage directions are not original.

The translation is also burdened with occasional footnotes that steer the reader towards Ahl’s thesis. For instance, on lines 407-408, where Teiresias begins his half of the agon by stating that Oedipus, despite being tyrant, must hear a speech to match his own, Ahl comments, “No one has denied Teiresias the right to speech” and characterizes this utterance as a “clever rhetorical ploy” by the seer (151). This ignores Oedipus’ repeated threats against Teiresias, such as l. 367 (“You think you’ll always get away with talk like this?”) — it seems pedantically literal to say that Teiresias’ right to speech has been maintained after such intimidation.

Similarly, a note at 1237, when the exangelos (called “Courtier” by Ahl) reports Jocasta’s death, Ahl adds a footnote to point out that this character “describes in indirect speech what he imagines were the thoughts subtending Jocasta’s actions, which some translators misleadingly transpose into direct speech” (183). Ahl gives no evidence for interpreting this indirect speech as the Courtier’s invention rather than reported speech of a type familiar to all intro Greek students. This is, however, significantly toned down from Sophocles’ Oedipus, in which Ahl went on to hypothesize that Jocasta might not be dead at all (22), a charge that distressed several reviewers.6 Allegations of Jocasta’s survival are not made in the current work.

These notes are an unfortunate addition to an otherwise enjoyable translation. Ahl naturally chooses words to suit his interpretation, but for the most part remains close to the text. The word “insight” shows up quite often, e.g. l. 461-2, Teiresias’ parting shot: “if you catch me in a lie, claim then that, in the mantic art, I lack reasoned insight.” One might object to the rationalizing of prophecy, but since any translation loses the vision-symbolism from all the forms of ‘oida’ in the Greek, “insight” provides a motif that can give readers an example of what they’re missing, even if many instances of “insight” do not directly correspond with word-play in the original.7 At l. 313, Ahl translates ‘miasma’ as “blight,” which neatly looks back to the descriptions of the plague. At l. 973, Oedipus says that new of Polybus’ death makes oracles meaningless, and Jocasta replies, “Wasn’t I telling you that palai ?” Ahl renders ‘palai’ as “for years,” instead of assuming, as most of us do, that she refers back to earlier in the play — although I do like the nagging wife/mother dimension of Ahl’s “years”!

As an example of the translation’s beauty, I quote my favorite lines, from the parodos (173-177): Look! For if you did, you’d see
life after life surging
like birds with powerful wings, more irresistibly
than raging fire,
to the sunset god’s edge of death.

As with the introduction, the translation’s treatment of Seneca is easier to handle. Footnotes and stage directions are far less tendentious, and Ahl’s theatrical experience leads to excellent suggestions for performing a play that includes the on-stage deaths of two cows and Jocasta. Ahl uses iambic pentameter for the dialogue, which helps the expansion of Seneca’s dense, rhetorical Latin into poetic English. Although his line numbering here matches the Latin rather than English text, this translation is less wedded to conforming to its original blow-for-blow, but all the same powerful and faithful to the spirit of Seneca’s dark universe: e.g. l. 93-94, of the Sphinx: cruentos vatis infandae tuli / rictus et albens ossibus sparsis solum is rendered “I faced her bloodstained jaws, / this prophetess too hideous to describe, / the soil beneath her white with scattered bones,” and l. 960-1: violentus audax vultus, iratus ferox / iamiam eruentis becomes “His expression screamed ferocity, / the rashness of violence, / flushed with madness.” Indeed, I found the description of the blinding almost overwhelming. This vivid, modern yet close translation will, I hope, lead to more student readers and theatrical audiences for this play.

Two Faces is a hard book to sum up, but the title is accurate. One face presents Ahl’s iconoclastic interpretation of the OT, which bleeds into his translation drop by drop, tempered by some really lovely poetry. The other face gives a less controversial reading of Seneca’s Oedipus, although even there unorthodoxy occasionally shines through. I do not think I would assign this book to a Greek lit survey or myth course, but I can see profitable discussions arising from it for a course reading the OT in Greek. I will certainly assign this translation of Seneca at some point, and I would buy tickets to stagings of either translation.

I did not find any egregious typos in the book, but, in this coda reserved for quibbling, I will add that the modus operandi for accenting transliterated Greek words eluded me entirely. Some words have accents consistently, some never have them, and some have them some of the time, but not always. So, on p. 26, moira and tyche are discussed and given no accent. On p. 33 all the Greek words have accents: dóxa, pseudés, alétheia, and léthe. On p. 37, ‘Patroklous atla’ has no accent (the spelling mirrors a vase’s inscription), but from the same vase, (e)poíesen and égrapsen both do. A footnote on OT l. 873 gives moîra with accent. And so forth. Since there are so many words in both Greek and Latin in the Introduction, I wonder if this inconsistency might confuse readers with no knowledge of the ancient languages. But, this is a book for celebrating inconsistencies, so I’m going to keep looking for a pattern!


1. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

2. Goldhill: Arion 1996-1997 4.2: 155-171; Segal: CW 1992-1993 86: 155.

3. As a side note, despite the book’s “trust no one” stance, Ahl repeats the oft-debunked urban legend of a Japanese shop displaying a crucified Santa. Claiming that modern Christian culture suppresses the inconsistencies of its pagan inheritances, Ahl notes “the bizarre results when these (inconsistencies) elude outsiders from a polytheistic culture” (34-5). As the crucified Santa, however, is the product of Western culture pondering exactly this process (both convoluted Christmas traditions and Japanese re-mixes of them), it would seem there is more awareness of these inconsistencies than Ahl allows. The only documented instances of actual displays of Santa on the cross are American protests of Christmas commercialism. Readers are referred to Snopes.

4. This seems to respond to points made in Murnaghan’s review of the earlier work: CPh 1993 88: 162-167.

5. Fitch, “Sense-pauses and relative dating in Seneca, Sophocles and Shakespeare” ( AJP 1981 102: 289-307). Admittedly, 22 BCE is earlier than 54 CE, but I don’t think we’re meant to look that far back.

6. On this point see Goldhill (op. cit.), 160-161.

7. As readers of his Metaformations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) know, Ahl is an accomplished word-player.