BMCR 2021.07.17

Sophocles. “Oedipus Tyrannus”

, Sophocles. "Oedipus Tyrannus". Aris and Phillips classical texts. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020. Pp. 324. ISBN 9781789622546 £95.00.


In this translation and commentary, March makes Oedipus accessible to intermediate-level Greek students. The extensive introduction (48 pages) gives background about the play and the myth; the 10-page bibliography includes all the basic scholarship on Sophocles and this play. As always with the Aris & Phillips series, there is an English translation facing the Greek text, and a commentary afterwards, keyed to the translation. March comments on staging, on the characters’ attitudes and knowledge at each point in the story, and on how Sophocles manipulates the audience’s expectations. She also comments on the Greek itself, more than I expected to see in this series, and these comments are particularly strong, calling readers’ attention to metrical points, vocabulary, idioms, and sound play. The text is “a slightly modified version” (p. 48) of the OCT; one striking difference from that text is that March brackets the end of the play, from 1515 on.

The introduction deals briskly with evidence for the Oedipus story before Sophocles, including epic, Stesichorus, Pindar, Aeschylus, and visual arts. March then moves to the play itself, beginning with its date: she tentatively puts it “somewhere in the 420s, and perhaps earlier rather than later” (p. 11), accepting the idea that the plague that kicks off the play’s action was prompted by the historical Athenian plague; as she observes, quoting Knox, prior versions of the story don’t involve a plague, so this seems to be a Sophoclean innovation.

A brief summary of the plot comes next, followed by discussion. “Much of the power of the play in performance stems from the audience’s prior knowledge that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother,” she says, though Sophocles will make his own choices about the rest of the story. The point of the play is not for the audience to find out who killed Laius, then, but “how, and more pressingly when, Oedipus will find out the truth of what he has done and who he really is” (p. 17). March says several times (p, 12, p 17, p. 198 on 300–462, p. 204 on 362) that Tiresias speaks enigmatically to Oedipus, since he says φονέα σέ φημι τἀνδρός (362), translated as “I say that you are a murderer of the man,” not “the murderer”; as she explains further in the commentary to 362, φονεύς could mean someone who shares blame for a murder, not only the actual killer, and Oedipus of course takes it in this sense. She does not avoid the coincidences and implausibilities—for example, “how is it plausible that, after so many years of marriage, Oedipus and Jocasta speak only now of Laius’ killing and of Oedipus’ past life?” (p. 18)—but observes correctly that “Sophocles has so ordered the sequence of events that in performance everything is convincing” (p. 19).

March also summarizes the innovations Sophocles brings to the story (p. 20–21). The plague in Thebes also allows Sophocles to bring in Apollo and his instructions that the killer of Laius must be exiled or executed. Oedipus himself has received a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, something we see nowhere in earlier versions. Laius is not forbidden to have children, as in Aeschylus, but simply told that if he does, his son will kill him; thus he does not disobey a divine order and call down a curse on the family. Finally, at the end of the play, Oedipus does not curse his sons: “he is all love and care for his children” and “bravely accepts the shame and horror of the incest entirely for himself” (p. 21). Sophocles reserves the curse on Eteocles and Polynices, and their war, for Oedipus at Colonus some years later.

The introduction continues with a discussion of staging, including a sketch of the division of roles between actors, and descriptions of all the speaking characters. Here Oedipus is called “quick-thinking and quick-acting” (p. 24). He’s also quick to anger, but March points out that his anger is “a reactive and righteous anger, which should hardly be condemned, as it too often is, as a serious fault” (p. 25).

Ten pages of the introduction analyze the themes and issues of the play (p. 28–38), such as dramatic irony and recognition. March gives an extended comparison between Oedipus and Euripides’ Ion, another “foundling play” (p. 32) with a similar structure, and the only other foundling play to survive (Euripides wrote half a dozen others). In general, this story-pattern produces a happy ending, as in Ion, but Sophocles has applied several twists to the pattern and produced “not a success story, but a true tragedy” (p.35). While this comparison has been made before, in my experience it comes as a great surprise to students reading these plays for the first time, and March does well to bring it in here.

March also discusses the ending of the play, and concludes that “the ending of OT as we have it is not what Sophocles himself would have written” (p. 41), presumably to make this play fit better with Oedipus at Colonus. In the text, she brackets the last lines, 1515–1530, as well as 1424–1431 and 1438–1445, in which she finds “dramaturgical incoherence” (p. 303, on 1424–1431) and “clumsy reiteration” (p. 304, on 1438–1445).

The introduction ends with a brisk look at some other uses of the story, or of the play: Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Euripides’ Phoenician Women, Seneca’s Oedipus, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, noting, of course, that Oedipus in our play has no “Oedipus complex” (p. 47).

Text and translation follow. March calls her translation “as literal as possible, while still retaining a reasonable fluency” (p. 48). It is literal indeed, attempting to follow the construction of the Greek as much as possible. For example, the opening lines (1–8) read:

My children, latest generation born from ancient Cadmus, why are you sitting before me like this, with wreathed branches of supplication? And the city is filled both with incense and with prayers to the Healer and groaning. Not thinking it right, children, to hear these things from messengers at second hand, I have come here myself, the man renowned to all named Oedipus.

This is accurate, and could be handy for an intermediate-level student, but may strike the Greekless reader as a bit stiff.

On the other hand, the comments on these lines are excellent and thorough. They gloss the proper names, Cadmus and Healer (= Paean, Apollo); call attention to Oedipus’s fatherly attitude; explain the uncommon word θοάζετε “sit,” with a reference to Plutarch; note the contrast between things seen and things heard, marked by ὁμοῦ μέν and ὁμοῦ δέ; and explain that “renowned to all” isn’t a brag but a reminder to the Thebans that Oedipus has accomplished a lot and should be able to help them now (p. 163–165, on 1–8). All of this is exactly what I’d want my students to learn to pay attention to. Throughout the commentary March calls attention to thematic repetitions (for example, “Cadmus” and “Cadmean”), to idioms (such as adverbial ἐν δέ, glossed as “on top of all that” at 27), and to staging (for example, that Oedipus must remain on stage through Tiresias’ speech at 447). There are a few metrical remarks, though she does not give analyses of the songs.

Frequently March calls attention to what the characters are thinking, or what Sophocles wants the audience to think. For example, at 320–323 she observes “These four lines encapsulate the opposing attitudes of Oedipus and Tiresias throughout their following confrontation. Tiresias, all too painfully aware of the terrible truth surrounding Oedipus, persists in speaking in personal terms. Oedipus, on the other hand, is thinking solely in public terms. His entire concentration is on the salvation of his city, and time and again he invokes ‘the city’ in response to what he sees as Tiresias stubborn obfuscations. The escalating anger on both sides is the inevitable result.” This is a nice formulation, sympathetic both to Oedipus and Tiresias, and reminding us that Oedipus does not yet realize that this abstract problem, about a long-ago killing, is deeply implicated in his own life.

The text, though based on the OCT, is not quite the same, as there are a few places where March defends the manuscript readings but Lloyd-Jones and Wilson emend: March proposes to “work on the principle of emend as little as possible” (211, on 424–425). I didn’t collate the text but note differences at 175, 293, 425, and 892, all discussed in the commentary.

All in all, this is a lovely introduction to Oedipus the King for intermediate-level Greek students, giving them the help they need not only to construe the Greek but to appreciate the play as theater and as literature. The copious references to scholarship and the window into textual criticism will also open students’ eyes and prepare them for further work. March gives us a strong, intelligent, caring Oedipus and shows us how Sophocles dramatizes his story.