BMCR 2020.09.51

Sophocles. Oedipus the king

, Sophocles. Oedipus the king. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries, 57. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xiv, 708 p. ISBN 9781108419512 £135.00.

[Note: the reviewer solicited comments from the author of the book before submitting the review for publication.]

In his third major Cambridge edition of Sophokles’ plays (Electra 2007, Ajax 2011),[1] Patrick Finglass reflects and improves on a venerable tradition of British textual criticism, linked especially with Richard Bentley under the mantra ratio et res ipsa (“reason and the thing itself are more powerful than a hundred manuscripts”), and continued i.a. by A.E. Housman and in recent generations by luminaries including H. Lloyd-Jones, W.S. Barrett, M. West and J. Diggle (Diggle’s festschrift is titled Ratio et Res Ipsa). This tradition is characterized by brilliant and therefore sometimes over-confident emendations of ancient texts, by scholars showing little patience (a recent American scholar calls them scathing) toward others on textual questions as well as literary and historical interpretations. Finglass has worked closely especially with West and Diggle and is an excellent textual critic, although he is distinct from others in several ways. Rather than proposing new readings, he carefully evaluates existing variants, often in defense of MSS. He modestly acknowledges that his text “will for sure repeatedly fall short” of presenting “what Sophocles actually wrote” (ix). He is courteous to predecessors, and accepts various literary although not historical or political interpretations of Sophokles’ plays. He discusses the meaning of Oedipus (Sophokles’ title for the play) in a 42-page section of the Introduction (“What kind of a play is this?”), assessing six different ways scholars have viewed this work: as suppliant drama, recognition tragedy, nostos-play, foundling narrative, a work of theodicy, and tragicomedy. He admires and defends Oedipus, and therefore comes to judge this play in which Oedipus falls a bewildering paradox (p.76).

To “take us closer” to Sophokles’ text (p.xiii), his principal goal, Finglass has toiled over manuscripts and many editions since the sixteenth century. He is masterly when evaluating readings on the basis of language, grammar, morphology, syntax, meter, usage, and the scholia. He cites a range of parallel passages also from Latin, Egyptian and the Bible, presumably inspired by West’s East Face of Helicon although the significance of such parallels remains unclear. Learned and intelligent textual discussions fill every page. Thus, i.a., he rightly resists Blaydes’ conjecture phthonou for MSS phobou (590); he skillfully defends 611-12 against Lloyd-Jones and Wilson; on 49 he persuasively defends memnômetha(MSS la) against other MSS and scholarly alternatives. To be sure, despite Finglass’s exceptional talents, emendation can be a slippery slope. One reason he deletes 246-51 is 248’s polyptoton kakon kakôs (p.253). Yet compare 334 kakôn kakistê, 642-3 kakôs… kakêi, 1330 kaka kaka, 1364 kakou kakon. In 257 he proposes a single emendation of his own, changing MSS aristou—accepted by all—to aristeôs. He translates aristeus “noble,” which aristos can mean too (LSJ9 1.1). Line 600, which he condemns, parallels 589 and uses Sophoklean terms and concepts. (Kreon is again rather pompous in 617 and the coming dialogue.) Despite questions, however, his evaluations are mostly judicious. While reading this book, I often thought he should collect his many scattered discussions of grammar, syntax and usage into an Ancient Greek Fowler. A week into Oedipus, I ordered Ajax and Electra, as indispensable for controlling Sophokles’ text.

Some points to note. Finglass’s inclusiveness, discussing centuries-old emendations rejected by everyone including himself, sometimes lends his book an antiquarian air, and may not best use readers’ time. Following West, he traces readings back to their first proponent and argues them, mostly without mentioning when other scholars have taken his same position. Frequently he explicates so many textual details that readers lose sight of the play.

In addition to the text, Finglass translates Oedipus literally and clearly. Inevitably, small points arise. I noticed i.a. 337 orgê is not “temperament” but “anger,” a major theme; 628 arkteon is impersonal (a signal error; and compare Aj. 668); 634 aboulon is missing; 1070 genos is “birth” not “background”; 1078 isôs is missing; 1110 “if it is at all necessary,” not “right”; 1246 would the audience understand palaia spermata as “lovemaking from long ago” (from Lloyd-Jones; Finglass cites only Hesiod), instead of the mythologically potent “ancient seeds”? 1241 would the audience understand orgê as “frantic passion” (“apparently uniquely here”) not “anger,” as powerfully throughout Oedipus? LSJ9 translates kakos “bad,” of persons, “ill-born, ignoble” (citing Sophokles), “craven, cowardly, base”; “worthless, sorry; morally bad.” Finglass usually waxes more poetic: “wretch, wrongdoer, criminal, treacherous, traitor.” LSJ9 translates kakon “evil, ill.” Finglass most often offers the fairly dewy “troubles” (Greek pêmata?) or else “disaster, wickedness, quarrels, suffering, sorrows, offenses.” Finglass’s Sophokles seems a richer, even Victorian poet. For me he is more straightforward and bold.

Significant questions are raised by Bentley’s ratio. Rigorously trained in critical thinking, these textual scholars have all the time they want to devise their best Sophokles. But Sophokles was a poet, not a logic-chopper.  As Mark Griffith says, his plays display characteristic ambiguities, and Antigone “a baffling open-endedness” (Antigone [1999] 48-49). He also worked fast, words, action, music, satyr plays, averaging four dramas every two years in a life full of other diversions, for a crowd hearing complex poetry too fast to ponder questionable logic or odd verb moods.  Lloyd-Jones once called West on Aeschylus “occasionally too rational.” Might Finglass’s Sophokles sometimes be sharper-minded than the fifth-century playwright? Finglass and others consider deleting 57 (literally, “neither a fortification nor a ship is anything if it is empty of men living together within”), partly because men do not live together in ships. Surely most people don’t notice this (and is it not a zeugma)? Nor am I troubled by a poetic tês xumphoras (99), which Finglass daggers as a non-sequitur.

Oedipus’s opening reveals characteristic difficulties. First, Oedipus calls the suppliants tekna, paides (1, 6, 58, 142). Seeking clarity from a tangle, Finglass first states that the suppliants are “a group of children accompanied by a single priest” (p.166-top of p.167). However, the priest responds, “Alla, Oedipus, you see how old we are…, some not yet strong enough to fly far, others heavy with old age,… and these others, chosen from the young men [êitheoi].” Finglass p.171 cites Denniston that alla here is not adversative (“but”) but assentient (his translation just omits it). Would Sophokles’ audience understand alla as assentient when the priest immediately contradicts Oedipus’s “children”? (The priest will also clarify things for Oedipus a second time: we are supplicating you but not because you are equal to the gods: 31-32). Finglass calls êitheoi “the unmarried young” (so LSJ9 etc.) but says it “refers to the children.” In 78-9 he silently adds the identifier “children” for those signaling Kreon’s arrival (Lloyd-Jones added “men”). In 91-94, would Oedipus insist that children hear Kreon’s message from Delphi? How then to explain “children”? With many ages present, might Oedipus single out the children because he cares especially about them, just as at the end he cares about his own children? Or is Oedipus an aristocratic paternalist, addressing Theban citizens as children (so Dawe and see Finglass p.167; on p.169 tekna becomes “his people,” and further pp.172, 185, 540, 562 “all the Cadmeians”). So tekna are not children after all? Contrast also p.185, “the Priest is probably the only old man on stage,” with the priest’s opening words.

Secondly, Oedipus enters asking why the suppliants are supplicating and the city full of incense and mourning. Not wanting to learn from messengers, he has come to ask them directly (1-7). Yet after the priest’s explanation, Oedipus replies that he knows these things (58-64), he’s not been sleeping but weeping and thinking, he long ago sent Kreon to Delphi and Kreon has been away too long (65-77). Oedipus first states that he does not know, then that he does. Textual critics have not challenged these lines which seem contradictory. If so, might we also let pass other puzzling words?

While literary or thematic interpretations are not his principal concern, Finglass makes many sensible observations, also often quoting others’ interpretations. The Commentary often buries such observations amid textual discussions where readers won’t easily spot them. The Introduction also discusses Oedipus’s date (best, 430s before Athens’ plague: agreed), production and staging, myth and originality, transmission and text. Various themes are passed over, for example Oedipus’ egotism, from “famous Oedipus” (8) which Finglass denies (p.169 “alleged boastfulness”; p.187) on through his egô-centric speech (219-72), but Finglass does see Oedipus’s self-centered sacrilege (396-8, like Ajax 765-77, not cited). He also does not acknowledge Sophokles’ sexual imagery, “hidden grove, thicket and narrow place where three roads meet… do you remember what deeds I did?” Jocasta slams the double doors to her bedroom, calling out Laios (1244) but Oedipus pushes in (1261, compare Deianeira’s suicide by dagger on the marriage-bed). Finglass and others delete 1280-1 partly because 1281 ends with summigê kaka, calling kaka “unremarkable” and ignoring the sexual “mingled together,” which is hardly “trite.” They are Sophoklean and powerful. Finglass excels on Sophokles’ text. Sophokles’ meanings prove more elusive. I find Oedipus not so much admirable as mixed: energetic, intelligent and caring about his city, but increasingly arrogant, angry, impious, tyrannical, murderous, abusive toward innocent slaves, and bossy. He deserves what he gets. This changes everything.

Finally, a half-century’s work has explored the tragedians’ deep engagement with contemporary social and political issues. In just over one page (Ajax 57-9), Finglass dismissed the politics of tragedy, his lengthy Oedipus bibliographies omitting i.a. Vernant, Goldhill’s main works on tragedy and politics, Peter Wilson on tragic sociology, Ugolini’s Sofocle e Ateneand Jean Bollack’s 4-vol. Oedipus commentary, which despite Lloyd-Jones’ scathing CR review, includes many good observations. Emily Wilson’s CR review of Finglass’s Ajax (63 [2013] 341) sternly rejected his “adamant insistence that Greek tragedy is not engaged in any important or specific way with the religious, political, social or civic life of its time.” Social and political issues dominate Oedipus. While citing numerous verbal parallels between Oedipus and other plays, Finglass does not discuss Sophokles’ earlier plays’ sympathy toward women (Tekmessa, Antigone, Deianeira, Phaedra, Oedipus’ daughters [not his sons], Oedipus’ respect for Jocasta [700], and Jocasta’s anguish [1235-85], parallel with Deianeira’s as Finglass notes). In this same period Euripides staged Alcestis and Medea on mistreated women and piggish men. Law and art were also newly favorable to women (i.a. Robin Osborne, P&P 1997). In another thematic parallel, Ajax, Antigone and Oedipus all describe the devolution of a stratêgos and/or people’s magistrate into a tyrant (see my two-page article in Albert’s Anthology, ed. K. Coleman, Cambridge MA 2017). Contemporaries criticized Kimon, Perikles and Alkibiades for similar devolutions. A recent Cambridge textual critic excoriated an editor who rejected Blaydes’ 1859 idea to switch MSS hubris phuteuei turannon to hubrin phuteuei turannos (873). Finglass rightly defends the manuscripts. 873 summarizes a key theme.

Similarly, tension between nobility and demos is thematic in all the plays, as in contemporary Athens where aristocrats and democrats clashed. Personally nasty, Ajax is a proud eugenês acting kalôs (479-80); his enemy Odysseus hates but honors him as gennaios and esthlos, all four words meaning noble (1344, 1355). In Ant. 37, Antigone asks whether Ismene was “by nature eugenês or esthlôn kakê.” In Oed. 1069-85 (in 1070 Finglass’s translation “background” obscured Oedipus’ genos), Oedipus “child of Tuchê” contrasts his possibly humble origins and dusgeneia with Jocasta’s upper-class snobbery. LSJ9 cites contemporary class connotations of kakos, kalos, esthlos, and aristos. These words in Oedipus need investigating, as do the many words including democratic iso-.

So, too, Ajax (Tekmessa 485-507, Teukros, 1013-20, 1226-35, 1288-98), Trachiniai (49-57, 248-67, 299-302) and Oedipus (1100-85) all defend slaves, as do Euripides and others. When Oedipus threatens to beat, then kill the aged shepherd slave, cruelly twisting his hands behind his back while the slave is trying to save him, Finglass (pp.78-80) and other literary scholars find humorous parallels in comedy (502), or what they call tragicomedy (on 1146). Tragedy, oratory, and law yield different conclusions on mistreating slaves.

I noticed remarkably few slips: at 257 basileus refers to Laios (p.166); p.329 after Moorhouse add (1959); p.375 add Bayliss (2013) to the bibliography; a wrong cross-reference ends 1157n.; a missing “he” in 1159. Well recommended (p.x n.3), Taplin’s translation is not in Finglass’s bibliography of translations.


[1] See BMCR 2009.08.03 Kovacs, and BMCR 2012.11.40 Mastronarde.