BMCR 2013.06.09

Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy. Onassis series in Hellenic culture

Simon Goldhill, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy. Onassis series in Hellenic culture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 296. ISBN 9780199796274 $35.00.


In his new book on Greek tragedy Simon Goldhill spares no effort to demonstrate that classical reception can shed a revealing light on ancient texts and their contexts.1 He attempts to combine wide-ranging investigations into nineteenth-century interpretative scholarship on tragic poetry with detailed discussions of certain rhetorical and dramaturgical tropes and devices, as these are deployed and manipulated in Sophocles’ extant plays to highlight the precariousness of human knowledge and the irony embedded in the multiple voices of Chorus, actors, and audience. He also lays great stress upon the special ways in which the literary past has been illuminated and valued within the European intellectual tradition. Thus he sets himself the unenviable task of balancing, within the limited space of a 300- page book, a poststructuralist analysis of a wide variety of Greek tragedy’s most formalist aspects, albeit with the necessary political and anthropological filtering, with a broad array of the most ambitious reception and performance theories. Although he strives fearlessly and enthusiastically to defend the coherence of his undertaking, one cannot help feeling that these meta-languages refuse this well-meaning conciliation. In essence, the two-part structure of the book eventually becomes a fitting symbol for the sharp crystallization of an unresolved contradiction. Nevertheless, his meticulous discussions of certain aspects of Sophoclean drama, especially the rigorous examination of many linguistic niceties and small points of dramaturgy, as well as his clear-eyed evaluation of tragic language through nineteenth- century critical thinking, are not without considerable merits.

The first part of the book comprises five essays on Sophocles’ masterly use of tragic language. A brief but concise Introduction (pp. 3-10) gracefully leads the way into this pentad. Given the limited scope of this review, I shall refrain from offering elaborate analyses of every chapter, preferring instead to draw attention to those points in the author’s arguments which may raise the most questions in his reader’s mind.

The first essay (‘Undoing: Lusis and the Analysis of Irony’, pp. 13-37) is perhaps the most interesting of the five. It builds discussion of Sophoclean irony around the term lusis with a series of close readings of relevant passages drawn from the seven extant plays of Sophocles. Goldhill considers this term to be highly ambiguous, an ironic marker of the uncontrollable slippage in human communication. He wants us to see how ‘ lusis with its cognate vocabulary becomes a sign in Sophoclean theatre for the failures of human control, and ultimately for the only release that is inevitable and sure, that of death’ (p. 15); but one wonders whether he finds adequate support in the cited excerpts for so sweeping a statement. He has two main grounds for this view of Sophocles’ employment of the term lusis. The first is that Sophoclean irony, conceived as an integral part of the action, not only exists when one or more characters are oblivious of the true state of things, but also thrives on the semantic instability of language. The second basis is that time and time again in the Sophoclean plays the vocabulary of lusis is inextricably linked with the vocabulary of telos, the result being that both terms function as alternative words for thanatos and lead the audience through an intricate semantic space, constantly encouraging misreadings and false impressions. There are, however, insuperable objections to the latter argument. The most characteristic example of this striking interface between the two terms is Oedipus at Colonus 1720-1721: ὀλβίως γ’ ἔλυσεν τὸ τέλος, ὦ φίλαι, βίου. But here the language of luein and telos by no means refuses the fullness of meaning through partial revelations and misleading traces. In fact, as Goldhill himself admits (pp. 23-24), thereby contradicting his own theory, this remarkable, metaphorically dense phrase charts a clear relationship between Oedipus’ heroization and fundamental ideas about mystical transcendence. There is no language here sharply edged with irony but rather the Chorus’s singularly un-ironized statement that it was Oedipus himself who ‘accomplished’ the end of his life in true sacredness, thereby belying in the most emphatic way possible the expected course of heroization in which the transition from human to semi-divine status is achieved through excruciating suffering at the hour of death. Even a slight hint of irony at this crucial point would have damaged irreparably Sophocles’ linguistic tour de force of describing Oedipus as at last a moral agent and no longer one acted against. In effect, this brilliant turn of phrase is the culmination and the climax of an extremely important theme pervading the first movement of the play (cf. especially lines 266-267), during which Oedipus strives to transcend the rigid boundaries separating the active voice from the passive in order to draw forth the fund of dread and compassion that his unpremeditated crimes have accumulated.

The second and third essays (‘The Audience on Stage: Rhetoric, Emotion, and Judgement’, pp. 38-55, and ‘Line for Line’, pp. 56-80), as well as the fourth and the fifth (‘Choreography: The Lyric Voice of Sophoclean Tragedy’, pp. 81- 108 and ‘The Chorus in Action’, pp. 109-133), explore important aspects of Sophoclean drama such as the lyric voice of the Chorus and the expressiveness of stichomythia, contextualizing them within the nexus of fifth-century Athenian political and legal discourses, while at the same time attempting to show that theatrical self-reflexivity, facilitated by the on-stage presence of the choral group, ‘is a demand for the audience to be (more) self-reflective’ (p. 54). Much as I favour the idea that tragic self-reflection was capable of giving Athenian citizens a measure of foresight by advising them, among other things, to hold their own fiercest impulses in check, I cannot help feeling that Goldhill’s reading of Antigone as a fanatical ideologue pitted against Creon, an equally thoughtless extremist, greatly oversimplifies an admirable Sophoclean character who is in sympathy with an essential quality of Athenian democracy. In my view, recent research has provided compelling evidence that the conflict of modern judgements upon Sophocles’ Antigone has arisen in large measure from a failure to recognize the fact that Antigone shares contemporary Athenian interests and values: her burning indignation at a sickening breach of divine laws reflects Athens’ tireless promotion of her mythologized self-image as a city ever ready to combat those who think they can outrage the gods with impunity.2

The second part of the book focuses on the nineteenth-century critical tradition about Greek tragedy, laying great stress upon the pervasiveness of German Idealist principles and assumptions in European critical discourses about ancient cultures. All five essays (‘Generalizing about Tragedy’, pp. 137-165; ‘Generalizing about the Chorus’, pp. 166-200; ‘The Language of Tragedy and Modernity: How Electra Lost her Piety’, pp. 201-230; ‘Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood: The Tragic Language of Sharing’, pp. 231-248, and ‘Reading, With or Without Hegel’, pp. 249-263) are intelligently organized and constitute a serviceable guide to the wealth of nineteenth-century theoretical approaches to the tragic phenomenon. In particular, Goldhill’s well-argued critique of universalizing treatments of the tragic (George Steiner and Terry Eagleton figuring prominently in this second part of the book as faithful disciples of German Romantic exponents of Attic drama) throws an informative light on the historicity of critical assessments of Sophoclean poetry. There is not much to quarrel with in these fine essays, which moreover allow readers to acquire a fresh and sharpened sense of the cultural contingencies that are constantly at work whenever we attempt to uncover hidden layers of meaning in tragic works; but the nebulous notion of the dramatic text as merely an elastic script with an indefinite self- presence is another matter (pp. 262-263). Although Goldhill acknowledges the physical existence of the Sophoclean text, he denies its originary moment, arguing that it can never attain any sense of permanence. My main worry is that, while the free-wheeling methods of modern performance theory have undoubtedly added much to our better understanding of tragic poetry, they have often been pushed beyond the frontier of credibility in order to buttress special theoretical agendas. This extremely risky conceptualization of Sophocles’ dramatic compositions as an endless series of historically-charged enactments flies in the face of common sense; for generations of classical scholars have devoted a considerable portion of their energies to restoring the integrity of the original texts.

To sum up, one senses here a continuing development from the author’s provocative deconstructive inroads into the Aeschylean Oresteia, which sought to capture the slips and slides of meaning not only in the text itself but also, and most strikingly, in the critical readings growing up around it.3 It is doubtful, however, whether the integration of ironizing interpretations of ancient texts with historical accounts of some age-old scholarly traditions will infuse fresh vigour into contemporary critical discourse. I therefore hesitate to endorse the author’s controversial agenda; but I am more than willing to appreciate his revealing insights into Sophocles’ dramatic language and craft, as well as the intellectual acumen that he brings to bear on German Idealism and Victorian Britain in their dialogue with our classical heritage.

More generally, Goldhill’s latest book seems to me to provide further proof that the force of ironizing readings has petered out. In our post-modern world (or should I say post-post-modern?) it is all too easy to discover dislocating tensions and undecidable ambiguities even in the simplest of texts; it is also just as easy to extract paradoxes and obscurities as it is hard to encourage the embrace of positive values and unqualified assurances in so complex a literary genre as Greek tragedy. I feel that it is high time for classical scholars to extricate themselves from the notion that the tragic plays were mere focal points of political contestation and controversy within the context of fifth-century Athenian radical democracy – that is, points of friction between heroic and legal values and axioms. This exercise in plain negativity, as well as failing to appreciate the connections between legendary tradition and democratic ideology, sets little store by tragedy’s potential to replace the affectations and uncertainties it debunks with its own specially adapted mythical exemplars of social and political integrity and morality. Goldhill recognizes the need to bring into play tragedy’s educative impact on ancient audiences, and his beautiful prose is at its most compelling when keeping the spotlight trained on tragic education; but calling upon reception aesthetics to salvage what seems to me to be a lost cause for irony detracts from the great importance of Rezeptionsgeschichte. Reception theory has little in common with the ironizing discourse of declining post-modernity; this fact seems to me to be reflected in the discordances between the two parts of Goldhill’s book.


1. On the recent debate about the applicability of classical reception to the interpretation of ancient texts see L. Hardwick and C. Stray (eds.), A Companion to Classical Receptions (Malden, MA and Oxford, 2011).

2. See (e.g.) Wm. B. Tyrrell and L. J. Bennett, Recapturing Sophocles’ Antigone (Lanham, 1998), which seems to me to be one of the most original and perceptive readings of the play in recent times.

3. See principally S. Goldhill, Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia (Cambridge, 1984).