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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: Greek (Athenian) Tragedy, esp. Oedipus
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0058.  Monday, 30 January, 1995.
(1)     From:   Grace Tiffany <
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        Date:   Saturday, 28 Jan 1995 18:43:53 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0031  Re: Hamartia
(2)     From:   E. L. Epstein <epstein@QCVAXA.BITNET>
        Date:   Sunday, 29 Jan 1995 00:15:57 EDT
        Subj:   RE: SHK 6.0056  Greek Tragedy
(3)     From:   Victor Gallerano <
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        Date:   Sunday, 29 Jan 1995 15:28:51 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0056 Greek Tragedy
From:           Grace Tiffany <
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Date:           Saturday, 28 Jan 1995 18:43:53 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 6.0031  Re: Hamartia; Keanu's Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0031  Re: Hamartia; Keanu's Hamlet
Especially to Piers Lewis:  I've been teaching the Oedipus Cycle this week and,
with my students, pondering your questions about what moral lesson the plays
contain for us.  I say "plays" because while Oedipus at Colonus was not
initially performed immediately after Oedipus at Rex, it's an indispensable
part of the Oedipus myth, one with which Sophocles' audience was undoubtedly
familiar, and a final phase of the story to which the closing ode of Oedipus
Rex clearly points us ("Count no man happy until he is dead" ultimately
culminates in "his ending was wonderful, if mortal's ever was").
It seems clear to me that the Oedipus cycle, and even Oedipus Rex in isolation,
contains a profound moral lesson, though the lesson is not the simplistic and
wrong-headed one so often taught to high-school students and college freshmen,
i.e., that Oedipus deserves to be a parricide and commiter of incest for
"disobeying" some divine decree (he doesn't disobey, for one thing; there's no
decree, but a prophecy), and this judgment makes no sense as any high school
student can tell because if he had done his best intentionally to fulfill the
prophecy he would have ended up a parricide and committer of incest anyway,
which are precisely the things he curses himself for at the end of the play.
The moral (as opposed to moralistic) lesson of Oedipus Rex, which is enhanced,
deepened, and clarified by the profoundly moving Oedipus at Colonus, lies more
in the area of the teaching of what true hubris is (a lesson elaborated on by
the choral odes): i.e., the wrong-headed and prideful assumption that one is in
utter control of one's fate, that one's personal intellect is sufficient to
supply all the answers to the mystery of life, and that one may in fact
function as God in one's own universe, mistreating and slighting those whose
perspectives don't fit one's own paradigm (note Oedipus's short-sighted
treatment of Tiresias's words).  It seems to me that Oedipus is just BEGINNING
to learn the lesson of openness at the end of Oedipus Rex, beginning to learn
to listen to someone else, to begin on a pathway toward humility, to understand
that his own mind and being are not the central fact of the universe, but he
still has a long way to go as he begins his pain and exile.  For example, the
extended pathos in which he blames and  indicts himself for committing incest
seems a function of his initial hubris, and not an example of humility at all
("How could I, the wisest and best of men, have done this?  MOI?")  He doesn't
begin to reproach himself for impiety, doubt, and skepticism -- the things
whcih the choral odes tell us are really at moral issue in the play. In Oedipus
at Colonus, while Oedipus is not exactly sweetness and light -- that prideful
nature dies hard -- he is MUCH more open and humble, questioning, supplicating,
depending on others for help rather than trying to solve it all by himself,
and, importantly I think, he's reached the point where he can let his former
crimes go by acknowledging that he was following a track laid by god in
performing them -- that he wasn't aware that he was committing incest when he
did it.  Rather than an evasion of responsibility, this seems to be a real
evidence of spiritual growth -- advancing to the point of realizing that he
isn't the omniscient power saving the universe, but a player in a game which is
much larger than he can possibly realize.  And when he reaches that point, he
is fit to be called blessed.
This is a message which Sophocles was clearly inspired by toward the end of his
life; the great "Philoctetes," written around the same time as "OC," also
dramatizes the paradoxical blessing available in the giving up of self to a
greater plan, letting go of control, agreeing to be part of something larger
even when you can't CONTROL (through intellect or in any other way) the larger
plan, and the enlargement of self that's available through that choice (Act 5
of Hamlet also comes to mind in this context).  Anyway, that's how the plays
work for me and that's how I teach them.  -- Grace Tiffany at U. of New Orleans
From:           E. L. Epstein <epstein@QCVAXA.BITNET>
Date:           Sunday, 29 Jan 1995 00:15:57 EDT
Subject: 6.0056  Greek Tragedy
Comment:        RE: SHK 6.0056  Greek Tragedy
Oedipus, the confused old fellow, has to end up in good old Colonus, not by
coincidence the hometown of the author. You can trust Athens suburbs to solve
barbaric problems. ELEpstein
From:           Victor Gallerano <
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Date:           Sunday, 29 Jan 1995 15:28:51 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0056 Greek Tragedy
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0056 Greek Tragedy
Steve Urkowitz,
I'm not sure I follow you.  The action at Colonus is both the last of Oedipus
the character and the last indication of anything Sophocles has to say about
the meaning or importance of the Theban story for Athens. Unless we are going
to commit some species of social science theorizing about Athenian attitudes
toward Thebes, we have to take what's given in that play.
On the issue of what Thebes means to Athens in Sophocles' texts, what we get in
the action at Colonus carries greater weight than the action presented in the
Antigone for two reasons:
First, the Chorus from the Antigone are Theban rather than Athenian and second,
although the action of the Antigone is supposed to occur after the action at
Colonus, the Oedipus at Colonus was written and performed some sixty-odd years
later than the Antigone.  Is it modern condescension to think that Sophocles'
choices in the matter are not meaningless?  Or to think that his last word on
the subject is not undermined by one of his first?
But, you are right that Sophocles' first and last plays seem to offer two,
somewhat different words to Athens.  Perhaps, a ninety year old man recognized
that he was speaking to a different city.  (For which difference see  Bernard
Knox's introduction to the Fagles translation of these same Theban plays, or
better still, consider Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.)
By the time of Oedipus at Colonus (to turn your simile into a metaphor) the
honeymoon was over for Athens, not because of the melodramatic appearance of an
iceberg, but because of the rather tragic recognition that (to paraphrase Pogo)
Athens had met the enemy and married them.
(Forgive me for observing the different emphasis of ancient and modern thought
here.  That the modern, comic version, "we've met the enemy and they are us"
turns on the psychological context of "identity"  while the paraphrase to fit
tragedy turns on the context of marriage and family.)
That's why Sophocles will outlast "As the World Turns." The "action" to which
he attends adds up to more than one damn thing after another.  If it didn't,
I'd join you in line for the Burns and Allen re-runs.
Vic Gallerano

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