BMCR 2019.10.54

Searching for Oedipus: How I Found Meaning in an Ancient Masterpiece

, Searching for Oedipus: How I Found Meaning in an Ancient Masterpiece. Lanham; Boulder; New York; London: Hamilton Books, 2018. x, 267. ISBN 9780761870463 $19.99 (pb).


This thoughtful and engaging essay charts the course of an enthusiast’s lifelong engagement with Sophocles’ Oedipus. It does not pretend to be a scholarly or technical contribution to the literature, but is informed by deep study and a wide frame of cultural reference.

The book has a conventional form: its argument unfolds through nine interconnected chapters, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion. The endnotes are full enough to orient the reader in the literature, and there is a substantial and very helpful Appendix containing a summary of many points of critical disagreement that have arisen in this extensively studied play. This reviewer finds no fault with form or presentation; indeed, Glazer’s text has been proofread diligently, though, as we shall see, not to the total exclusion of minor factual errors.

Searching for Oedipus reads the play and interpretative material on it with energy and gusto: ‘[T]he more I’ve studied Oedipus Rex, the more meaningful I have found it. This book is the story of how, over the years, I have come to understand why it has had such an enormous impact on me and why, even after 2,500 years, it has such enduring power’ (p. 7). The nine chapters proceed diachronically through both the play and Glazer’s continuing studies, approximating steadily to an understanding of the work as a whole, viewed as a tragedy of three parts or ‘thirds’. So, for example, Glazer candidly admits that he did not really understand the final portion of the play, the suffering and aftermath, until relatively late in life: ‘…the older I got, the more important it became to me’ (p. 188).

Indeed, the running subtext of intellectual autobiography is the principal charm and quiddity of Searching for Oedipus. Glazer is a lawyer, a cultivated professional person with a love for this particular ancient play, and admits, as a contemporary Classical academic generally would not, that such calamities in his own background as career reverses and the deaths of colleagues in traffic accidents have served to enrich his own character and consequently his appreciation of great art. Ultimately he finds here a play about a great man, Oedipus, who has ‘unparalleled character in the present…the Man Who Manned Up’ (p. 195). The tragedy is not only the first detective story, not only an exercise in tragic irony, not only something that exposes dark parts of the mind, but a study in human strength and decency, something like (though Glazer does not labour the point) Aristotle’s template of the decent individual in the grip of a dreadful reverse.

Inevitably, minor errors have slipped into this text that would be inexcusable in a technical monograph, but which it would be ungenerous to vituperate here. p. 21: ‘Oedipus wears a toga, not a trench coat.’ No, he does not. A toga is specifically the heavy draped cloth garment worn by Roman citizens for certain formal and legal purposes, not the generic name for ancient garments. Neither Oedipus as Sophocles saw him nor Sophocles himself would ever have worn a toga.
p. 52: ‘”peripatea” (reversal)’; and the same spelling in the Index, p. 265. This is false to the Greek. Better to transliterate the word ‘peripeteia’.
p. 77: ‘Apparently, Sophocles held various priesthoods…’ Yes, so we are told. Why ‘apparently’?
p. 145: ‘…there was an important distinction in ancient Greece between a ruler who was a “tyrannus” (“tyrant”) and one who was a “rex”.’ Yes, the distinction between tyrant and king was important, but rex is the Latin word for ‘king’, not a term used in contemporary Greek art or thought.

The cultural range of Searching for Oedipus is wide, involving copious and illuminating reference to cinema, modern literature and theatre. Moreover, many volumes of Classical scholarship have been read and pondered in the course of Glazer’s studies, though he makes little reference to journal articles in Classics. The author is well aware of the various disputed interpretative strategies available to readers of this play, and considers carefully strategies grounded in Aristotle, Freud, heroism and so on, before ultimately opting for a modified Aristotelian view of a tragedy of character in the face of suffering.

The range of reference to ancient primary texts is rather limited: this is very much a book about Sophocles’ Oedipus, and although good use is made of Homer and some other tragedies on occasions, this reviewer would have liked to see more, at a minimum, about Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Yes, Aristotle thought this was a paradigm, but how unique really is the play in question? There are other extant Greek tragedies about the same Labdacid family, and several plays about other characters labouring under dire curses as well.

This personal and entirely non-specialist reading of a great play of Sophocles will not teach much that is new to a typical reader of BMCR. The book does have value to Classicists as a humane engagement with a Classical text, albeit a very focused and therefore somewhat limited engagement. Its principal value, however, is not to the scholar, the teacher or the student but to the uninitiated, whom Searching for Oedipus will both inform and delight.