BMCR 2021.10.44

The Oedipus casebook: reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

, , The Oedipus casebook: reading Sophocles' Oedipus the King. Studies in violence, mimesis, and culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020. Pp. 360. ISBN 9781611863390 $29.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

‘The empirical question of who killed Laius is, Sandor Goodhart writes, “less important than the universal matrix of scapegoat politics” concealed behind it.’ So begins Mark Anspach in his preface to The Oedipus Casebook, a text, translation and collection of essays about this most revisitable of plays. The text itself is a reprint of the OCT of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, including the full apparatus criticus. The translation by William Blake Tyrrell is new and forceful. The essays are well chosen to provoke debate: I can see the book forming the basis of a successful semester’s undergraduate course on Sophocles, or for master’s students reading their way into some of the bigger ideas around the poet, the play and tragedy itself. While a reader who knows the play will feel quickly at home with this book, a student with no background in Greek theatre will require the support of a plainer synopsis of the actual context of performance or indeed the plot of the play.

The strength of the book lies in the choice of invigorating essays for the main, ‘casebook’ part of the collection. Some of the essays have been translated into English for the first time, others edited to make them more accessible to a monoglot readership. Part one, ‘The Ritual Background’, contains classic discussions of ritual, tragedy and sacrifice by Walter Burkert, Jan Bremmer and Marie Delcourt. Part two, ‘King and Victim’, comprises five discussions on parallels between Oedipus and ritual victims. Part three, ‘Oedipus on Trial’, consists of six analyses about whether Oedipus really did commit the deeds of which he is accused. Mark Anspach has done brilliantly to combine a wide range of scholarly interests, from Burkert and Delcourt’s anthropological history to Terry Eagleton’s literary criticism, while maintaining a clear, common thread in the strong emphasis on the context of ritual, the scapegoat (pharmakos), and the superficiality of Oedipus’ guilt for the crimes with which he is associated.

Particularly exciting is the way that the book plays with ideas of time, place and responsibility. Do we need to understand when and under what circumstances Sophocles composed Oedipus? Should we, like Girard, avoid dwelling on the ‘specific historical context in which the play was written’, preferring, like him, ‘to stress its universal import’ (Anspach, p. 222)? Or do we deny something fundamental about the play if we refuse to admit its specificity to the mid-late fifth century in Athens? Does, as Vernant asks (p. 300), the Oedipus ‘do anything but reflect a structure already given in [contemporary] society and in common thought…[or] call…it into question?’ Helene Peet Foley then goes on to explore how Oedipus’ role as a scapegoat fits with his status as leader. In this way Anspach opens the mind of the reader to the possibility that Oedipus’ performs the role of scapegoat in the community. But did Oedipus even kill Laius? Anspach presents divergent views about Oedipus’ responsibility for the death of Laius, from Sandor Goodhart, William Chase Greene, Rick Newton and Frederick Ahl. These writers show how the commonplace understanding that Oedipus was the son of Laius and killed him at the crossroads is actually based on far shakier testimony than a surface reading might suggest. Karl Harshbarger goes further, by asking what responsibility is borne by the chorus for the death of Laius. Anspach’s playful selection rewards prolonged study, showing us, as Vernant says, how the Oedipus has ‘lent itself to so many counter-readings’ (p. 301).

The Greek text is accompanied by an original facing translation by Wm. Blake Tyrrell and four and a half pages of explanatory endnotes. The translation does what it sets out to do: it is punchy, functional, close to the original Greek, and so a good support for a student trying to pick apart the language; as a consequence, it can on occasion lack some of the smoothness that might be desirable in an English-first course or as a text for performance. There is plenty of opportunity for students to analyse different translations within the same book. Compare Tyrrell’s version of the crucial lines 122-23:

‘Bandits, he kept saying, bandits happened upon and slew him not with the strength of one but with a throng of hands.’

with Harshbarger, who uses Grene’s 1954 version (p. 381):

‘…the robbers they encountered
were many and the hands that did the murder
were many; it was no man’s single power.’

or with Goodhart, who translates as follows (p. 398):

‘He said that bandits fell in with them and killed them, not with a single strength but with a large number of hands.’

There are rich teaching possibilities here, and so the absence of an index locorum is felt especially keenly in this instance; nevertheless, the material is there, and a careful reader will find helpful cross-references in the endnotes. The book does in fact end with a short index, but it lacks, for example, any references to keywords such as ‘Jocasta’ or ‘ritual’ and is not divided by nomina or loci. There is no bibliography or guide for further reading beyond what is already contained in the endnotes for each article. The preface, at four pages, sets out the rationale for the book concisely, but readers new to the play will need to dig around in the essays for their grounding in elementary information such as time and place of performance, details of the myth, the relationship between theatrical performance and religion, and so on.

The editor and his team have not taken an obviously consistent approach with elements from outside the English language. Take Burkert’s article, originally published in GRBS 7.2 (1966). Some of the Greek has been transliterated and some glossed, though by no means all. An intelligent student will undoubtedly deduce what the Dionysia are, but won’t get much help from the editor in doing so. German, too, is translated, sometimes clearly (p. 131: keine Vorform der Tragödie, sondern eine neue Erfindung), sometimes less so. Where Burkert (p. 134) writes “spielend ersonnene aitia,” “Konstruktionen, keine Überlieferung”, the gloss is ‘strikes the note of playing aitia, a fabrication, not a tradition’, changing the syntax of the German and with no explanation of what aitia are: fine for the Classicist, but surely obscure for the non-specialist. A quotation from Ziegler (page 136) is not translated at all, though the sense is arguably deducible from the context; perhaps also in the case of Meuli’s example of ‘Schädel- und Langknochenopfer”. Latin, incidentally, is not translated, whether common in academic English (reductio ad absurdum, p.139), or not (dux pecoris, p. 137; cf. agnus castus, Bremmer p. 170). This extends to points that are reliant on a technical distinction beyond those without Latin training, such as “But to follow them up seems to lead from obscurum to obscurius” or, indeed, four continuous lines of Latin from Diomedes and Euanthius (p. 136). Footnotes are moved to the end of the article but are otherwise left largely untouched, even where Greek is used. To be sure, other explicatory endnotes have been added to individual articles by the editor. Similarly in the reprint of William Chase Greene’s TAPA 1929 article ‘The Murderers of Laius’, single words such as anagnorisis are transliterated and glossed (though the Greek is misspelled, p. 363), while extended quotations are left in Greek. French is also left untranslated, from the simple ‘condition humaine’ (Burkert, p. 147), to phrases that will be obscure to those without the language, such as ‘bien étonnés de se trouver’ (Bremmer, p. 170). In all, the inconsistency in dealing with non-English might be irritating but will hardly be insurmountable for the scholarly reader. Non-experts might find themselves flummoxed at times, and so these decisions make the collection a little less accessible than it would ideally be for what I perceive to be its target audience of students and their professors.

These criticisms notwithstanding, reading this book is a joyful and enriching experience. The editor has selected a wonderfully rewarding, challenging and coherent group of essays and placed them alongside a cogent and helpful translation. No student who reads this book will be left in any doubt about the brilliance and depth of the Oedipus, nor will they be short of tools for probing and analysing Sophocles’ play. I recommend it enthusiastically, especially to those designing a college course on Oedipus the King.

Authors and titles

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, Greek text edited and annotated by H. Lloyd-Jones and N.G. Wilson, translated into English by Wm. Blake Tyrrell
Part One. The Ritual Background
Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual, by Walter Burkert
Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece, by Jan Bremmer
The Exposed Infant, by Marie Delcourt (translated by Malcolm DeBevoise)
Part Two. King and Victim
Imitating Oedipus, by Mark Anspach
Oedipus and the Surrogate Victim, by René Girard
Excerpt from Sweet Violence, by Terry Eagleton
Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex, by Jean-Pierre Vernant
Oedipus as Pharmakos, by Helene Peet Foley
Part Three. Oedipus on Trial
Excerpt from Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, by Michel Foucault
The Murderers of Laius, by William Chase Greene
The Murderers of Laius, Again (Soph. O.T. 106-7), by Rick M. Newton
Who Killed Laius? By Karl Harshbarger
Lêistas Ephaske: Oedipus and Laius’ Many Murderers, by Sandor Goodhart
An Anonymous Namer: The Corinthian’s Testimony, by Frederick Ahl