BMCR 2009.09.12

Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Second edition (first published 1982). Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches

, Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. Second edition (first published 1982). Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009. xix, 176. ISBN 9780739125892 $55.00.

Under the Sign of the Shield is a famous study by a most influential scholar, and this second edition is particularly welcome; originally published in Rome, the work’s availability has not been, for some time, commensurate with its importance. The newly set edition contains some very minor changes to argument and footnotes, a new Appendix containing a translation of the entire Redepaare scene, a brief Postscript, an updated Bibliography, and new indices, but it otherwise endeavors to reflect the layout of the original.

Zeitlin’s study is focused primarily on the Redepaare that lies at the heart of the Seven Against Thebes, and uses this episode as a springboard to deeper issues such as theoretical matters of self and other, as well as more sociological and anthropological concerns about family ( genos), state (polis), incest and autochthony. For her, the Redepaare animates the entire play, comprising a cledonomantic and semiological exercise which culminates in Eteokles’ inability to avoid the mutual fratricide, as well as in the larger salvation of Thebes. Her own words sum it up best: “all [Eteokles’] defenses against the end [sc. the mutual fratricide] are, at the same time, symptoms of the family legacy that ensure the inevitability of that end” (p. 14=29). By interpreting the devices on the shields borne by each of the seven, Eteokles gradually counters the threat to his city, though as Zeitlin carefully outlines, by the time he is faced by the fifth (Parthenopaios) and sixth (Amphiaraos) aggressors, the cledonomantic apparatus reflects adversely back on himself and his ancestry, effectively sealing the doom that awaits him. The study is bold and complex, and while its theoretical framework is introduced neatly in Part I, the argument in Part II proceeds cumulatively—gradually weaving in new issues while regularly looking both forward and backward (chronologically—to other pairs—genealogically, and mythologically as well). Many readers have found (and will continue to find) the argumentation and theoretical analysis difficult to comprehend at times (particularly in Part III), but, by the end of the study, the reason for its lasting appeal is clear: it contains a groundbreaking and fundamentally insightful reading not just of the Redepaare, but also of the Seven Against Thebes as a whole.

The appearance of a second edition affords a welcome opportunity, not simply to review the volume in question, but rather to assess its continuing place in scholarship. Although Zeitlin refers to the period in which the book originally appeared as “the heyday of innovative approaches to classical literature” in the new preface (p. xi), one can probably be more specific: the year 1982 lies somewhere between the two principal waves of classical scholarship’s theoretical turn (that is, between structuralism and poststructuralism), and Under the Sign of the Shield was at the forefront of this intellectual transition.1 As such, although critics at the time acknowledged its innovative analyses, it is not surprising that they nonetheless found some of its claims (and its new direction) perplexing.2 The study did not win universal acclaim: it was unfairly attacked by some reviewers for its implausibility and inaccessibility,3 though perhaps somewhat more justly maligned for its diffuse or arbitrary argumentation.4 Even now, the simultaneously prospective and retrospective mode of Zeitlin’s investigation at times inhibits easy digestion of its ideas, but over twenty-five years of perspective have softened the sometimes dismissive tone in the initial critical response. Poststructuralism would become much more complex, and distance has shed light on the climate of that time: for a period in which the theory wars were ongoing, after all, a reading of Aeschylus informed by semiotics and anthropology could not have expected all of its readers to share its theoretical inclinations.

Times, however, have certainly changed, and the combination of theoretical and philological sophistication is now much more prevalent (and accepted) in classical scholarship. A literary scholar trained in the last few decades, for example, will not be fazed by the language of structuralist linguistics or by the poststructuralist notions of ambiguity, différance, the (divided) self, or the Other that are advanced in the study (even if some of Zeitlin’s individual arguments remain difficult to follow). I will not hold Zeitlin or Under the Sign of the Shield uniquely responsible for the change in critical attitude, but it is the influence of works of this kind that underlies the broadening of philology’s scope in recent decades. For, far from representing theory for theory’s sake, Zeitlin’s study provided an example, via a philological analysis of a classical text, of the possibilities and rewards of an interdisciplinary and theoretical approach. And there should be no misconceptions about the work: it remains first and foremost a close, philological reading of the Redepaare, one which happens to benefit from the vocabulary afforded by a larger intellectual framework. Readers may be perplexed at particular aspects of Zeitlin’s investigation, but as it traces its course, there is no reason to accuse the argument of being ( pace Heath) “allegorical” or “of no concern to the Septem.”5 Zeitlin’s arguments are always very much drawn out of the poetry, and so even a reviewer such as myself (who is, by his own admission, not particularly theoretical) both acknowledges their import and expects that, even if the heyday of theory has passed, studies such as this will continue to prove influential for their attention to the language itself.

Beyond the diffuse quality of the writing, which is no fault of the second edition, criticisms of the volume in question are few. My major difficulty is that it seems unsure whether it is a reissue of the first edition or a true ‘second’ edition. Page markers indicate the layout of the first edition and the footnotes retain their original numeration (the sole exception to the latter practice is the new n.20 on p. 151, which affects only one subsequent footnote). Widespread revision or updating has generally been avoided: a number of minor errors from the first edition have been corrected and a few trivial ones introduced; and while there are some changes in the text and notes, they are, more often than not, extremely minor—with only a word or two altered, or individual sentences or paragraphs redefined.6 Furthermore, apart from the survey in the new preface (pp. xiii-xiv), recent scholarship has only occasionally been incorporated (e.g. n.42; n.64; n.83; n.110; p. 126). Other alterations, such as the addition of the pertinent Greek text at the start of the central chapters on the Redepaare and a translation of the entire sequence at the discussion’s end, are not really substantive. Only a brief Postscript, entitled “Tragic Thebes on the Athenian Stage,” (pp. 153-6) and two indices (one general, one of passages cited) are novel:7 the vast majority of the study remains essentially identical to its original.

Only a few of the new errors are serious enough to warrant mention. Page markers from the first edition, for example, are occasionally misplaced, a problem that tends to occur when a similar word or phrase appears twice near the page break: so, the marker for 46 (on p. 28) is placed erroneously after the first instance of the phrase “the axis of” instead of the second; that for 75 (on p. 50) appears after the first instance of “scaling the walls” instead of the second; that for 132 (on p. 88) appears after the first instance of “arbiter” instead of the second. Others are simply out of place: the marker for 81 (on p. 54) should appear in the following location: “which 81 the Argive leaves identity…”; that for 185 (on p. 133) should precede, not follow, the word “will”; that for 188 (on p. 135) should follow, not precede, the word “in”; that for 191 (on 136) should precede, not follow, the words “of the”; and that of 204 (on p. 143) actually belongs on p. 144 as follows: “dangers of the outside by extending its 204 control over the spatial domain”. The other error which should be noted is the potentially hazardous confusion of the names Eteoklos and Eteokles: on p. 54=81 one reads “In this reading, Eteokles would then function as the true antitype of Megareus… and, inversely, as the logical equivalent of Eteokles himself”, the former of which should clearly be a reference to Eteoklos instead. Similarly, on p. 125=174, the name in the phrase “which introduces the new problem, that of the name (Eteokles)” should also read Eteoklos.

A final criticism also relates to the updating of the text. For, although the pertinent Greek now appears at the start of each chapter on the Redepaare, Zeitlin persists in using the Benveniste system of transliteration throughout the work, which seems a strange decision; as Zeitlin herself reports (p. vi), the combination of macron and circumflex utilized in that system (and in the first edition) was not available for the second edition. Furthermore, this persistence is not universal, which leads to inconsistency and confusion: one finds Greek text at the start of each chapter and transliteration (generally) elsewhere, yet at several points, there also appears the redundant concurrence of both Greek and transliteration.8 If printing Greek is preferable (which it apparently is) and the publisher capable of printing it (which it evidently is), one would prefer the second edition to have consistently employed it. In a study as philological as this one, transliteration provides a far less immediate interface with the language in question than the original.

While this is not quite the second edition of Under the Sign of the Shield it is advertised as being, such quibbles ought neither to distract from the happy occasion of its reappearance, nor to replace the gratitude owed to Zeitlin and the press for making it newly available at long last.


1. Cf. the excellent, but more traditionally philological study of Cameron, Studies in the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus (1971), which preceded Zeitlin by only just over a decade.

2. I.e. Citti, Giornale filologico ferrarese 8 (1985): 57.

3. E.g. Parker, G&R 32 (1985): 84-5 ; Heath, CR 35 (1985): 180.

4. E.g. Parker, op. cit.; Murnaghan, CW 80 (1987): 330-1. Goldhill, Phoenix 40 (1986): 454-5, offers the most enthusiastic review.

5. Heath, op. cit. For the importance of language and the text, Zeitlin’s discussion of structure on p. 116=162-3 is particularly incisive as a justification for her methodology.

6. Such changes are more appropriate to a critical edition, with respect to which an editor can make a comment such as ” his curis perpauca mutavi” as sufficient justification for a new edition.

7. By Zeitlin’s own admission, the postscript is “a brief summary” (p. 153) of her previously articulated (and famous) ideas surrounding Thebes.

8. E.g. p. 58=86-7; p. 63=95; p. 70=105-6; p. 84=124; p. 89=133; p. 94=138; p. 96=142; n. 54; n. 106.