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Three Paths to Destiny
|Birth Year:||c. 495 BCE|
|Death Year:||406 BCE|
|Biography, Lectures, and Research Links:||
Greek tragic poet, was born at Colonus in the neighbourhood of Athens. His father's name was Sophillus; and the family burial-place is said to have been about a mile and a half from the city on the Decelean Way. The date assigned for the poet's birth is in accordance with the tale that young Sophocles, then a pupil of the musician Lamprus, was chosen to lead the chorus of boys in the celebration of the victory of Salamis (480 n.e.). The time of his death is fixed by the allusions to it in the Frogs of Aristophanes and in the Muses, a lost play of Phrynichus, the comic poet, which were both produced in 405 B.C., shortly before the capture of Athens. And the legend which implies that Lysander allowed him funeral honours is one of those which, like the story of Alexander and Pindar's house at Thebes, we can at least wish to be founded on fact, though we should probably substitute Agis for Lysander. Apart from tragic victories, the event of Sophocles' life most fully authenticated is his appointment at the age of fifty-five as one of the generals who served with Pericles in the Samian War (440 - 439 n.c.). Conjecture has been rife as to the possibility of his here improving acquaintance with Herodotus, whom he probably met some years earlier at Athens. The testimony borne by Aristophanes in the Frogs to the amiability of the poet's temper agrees with the record of his biographer that he was universally beloved. And the anecdote recalled by Cephalus in Plato's Republic, that Sophocles welcomed the release from the passions which is brought by age, accords with the spirit of his famous Ode to Love in the Antigone. The Sophocles who, according to Aristotle (Rhet. iii. 18), said of the government of the Four Hundred that it was the better of two bad alternatives (probably the same who was one of the probuli) , may or may not have been the poet. Other gossiping stories are hardly worth repeating - as that Pericles rebuked his love of pleasure and thought him a bad general, though a good poet; that he humorously boasted of his own "generalship" in affairs of love; or that he said of Aeschylus that he was often right without knowing it, and that Euripides represented men as they are, not as they ought to be. (This last anecdote has the authority of Aristotle.) Such trifles rather reflect contemporary or subsequent impressions of a superficial kind than tell us anything about the man or the dramatist. The gibe of Aristophanes (Pox 695 seq.), that Sophocles in his old age was become a very Simonides in his love for gain, may turn on some perversion of fact, without being altogether fair to either poet. It is certainly irreconcilable with the remark (Vii. anon.) that in spite of pressing invitations he refused to leave Athens for kings' courts. And the story of his indictment by his son Iophon for incompetence to manage his affairs - to which Cicero has given some weight - appears to be really traceable to Satyrus (fi. C. 200 u.c.), the same author who gave publicity to the most ridiculous of the various absurd accounts of the poet's death - that his breath failed him for want of a pause in reading some passage of the Antigone. Satyrus is at least the sole authority for the defence of the aged poet, who, after reciting passages, is supposed to have said to his accusers, "If I am Sophocles I am no dotard, and if I dote I am not Sophocles." On the other hand, we need not the testimony of biographers to assure us that he was devoted to Athens and renowned for piety. He is said to have been priest of the hero Alcon, and himself to have received divine honours after death.
That the duty of managing the actors as well as of training the chorus belonged to the author is well known. But did Aeschylus act in his own plays? This certainly is implied in the tradition that Sophocles, because of the weakness of his voice, was the first poet who desisted from doing so. In his Thomyras, however, he is said to have performed on the lyre to admiration, and in his Nausicaa (perhaps as corypbaeus) to have played gracefully the game of ball. Various minor improvements in decoration and stage carpentry are attributed to him - whether truly or not who can tell? It is more interesting, if true, that he wrote his plays having certain actors in his eye; that he formed an association for the promotion of liberal culture; and that he was the first to introduce three actors on the stage. It is asserted on the authority of Aristoxenus that Sophocles was also the first to employ Phrygian melodies. And it is easy to believe that Aj. 693 Seq., Trach. 205 seq., were sung to Phrygian music, though there are strains in Aeschylus (e.g. Choeph.152 seq., 423 seq.) which it is hard to distinguish essentially from these. Ancient critics had also noted his familiarity with Homer, especially with the Odyssey, his power of selection and of extracting an exquisite grace from all he touched (whence he was named the "Attic Bee"), his mingled felicity and boldness, and, above all, his subtle delineation of human nature and feeling. They observed that the balanced proportions and fine articulation of his work are such that in a single half line or phrase he often conveys the impression of an entire character. Nor is this verdict of Antiquity likely to be reversed by modern criticism.
His minor poems, elegies, paeans, &c., have all perished; and of his hundred and odd dramas only seven remain. These all belong to the period of his maturity (he had no decline); and not only the titles but some scanty fragments of more than ninety others have been preserved. Several of these were, of course, satyric dramas. And this recalls a point of some importance, which has been urged on the authority of SuIdas, who says that "Sophocles began the practice of pitting play against play, instead of the tetralogy." If it were meant that Sophocles did not exhibit tetralogies, this statement would have simply to be rejected. For the word of Suidas (An. 950) has no weight against quotations from the lists of tragic victories, which there is no other reason for discrediting. It is distinctly asserted that the Bacchae of Euripides, certainly as late as any play of Sophocles, was one of a trilogy or tetralogy. And if the custom was thus maintained for so long it was clearly impossible for any single competitor to break through it. But it seems probable that the trilogy had ceased to be the continuous development of one legend or cycle of legends - "presenting Thebes or Pelops' line" - if, indeed, it ever was so exclusively; and if a Sophoclean tetralogy was still linked together by some subtle bond of tragic thought or feeling, this would not affect the criticism of each play considered as an artistic whole. At the same time it appears that the satyric drama lost its grosser features and became more or less assimilated to the milder form of tragedy. And these changes, or something like them, may have given rise to the statement in Suidas.
The small number of tragic victories attributed to Sophocles, in proportion to the number of his plays, is only intelligible on the supposition that the dramas were presented in groups. If the diction of Sophocles sometimes reminds his readers of the Odyssey, the subjects of his plays were more frequently chosen from those later epics which subsequently came to be embodied in the epic cycle - such as the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Iliupersis, the Cypria, the Nosti, the Telegonia (all revolving round the tale of Troy), the Thebaica and others, including probably, though there is no mention of such a thing, some early version of the Argonautic story. In one or other of these heroic poems the legends of all the great cities of Hellas were by this time embodied; and though there must also have been a cloud of oral tradition floating over many a sacred spot, Sophocles does not seem, unless in his Oedipus Colonus, to have directly drawn from this. He was content to quarry from the epic rhapsodies the materials for his more concentrated art, much as Shakespeare made use of Hollingshed or Plutarch, or as the subjects of Tennyson's Idylls of the King were taken from Sir Thomas Malory. As Sophocles has been accused of narrowing the range of tragic' sympathy from Hellas to Athens, it deserves mention here that, of some hundred subjects of plays attributed to him, fifteen only are connected with Attica, while exactly the same number belong to the tale of Argos, twelve are Argonautic, and thirty Trojan. Even Corinthian heroes (Bellerophon, Polyidus) are not left out. It seems probable on the whole that, within the limits allowed by convention, Sophocles was guided simply by his instinctive perception of the tragic capabilities of a particular fable.
To say that subsidiary or collateral motives were never present to Sophocles in the selection of a subject would, however, be beyond the mark. His first drama, the Triptolemus, must have been full of local colouring; the Ajax appealed powerfully to the national pride; and in the Oedipus Coloneus some faint echoes even of oligarchical partisanship may be possibly discerned (see below). But, even where they existed, such motives were collateral and subsidiary; they were never primary. All else was subordinated to the dramatic, or, in other words, the purely human, interest of the fable. This central interest is even more dominant and pervading in Sophocles than the otherwise supreme influence of religious and ethical ideas. The idea of destiny, for example, was of course inseparable from Greek tragedy. Its prevalence was one of the conditions which presided over the art from its birth, and, unlike Aeschylus, who wrestles with gods, Sophocles simply accepts it, both as a datum of tradition and a fact of life. But in the free handling of Sophocles even fate and providence are adminicular to tragic art. They are instruments through which sympathetic emotion is awakened, deepened, intensified. And, while the vision of the eternal and unwritten laws was holier yet, for it was not the creation of any former age, but rose and culminated with the Sophoclean drama, still to the poet and his Periclean audience this was no abstract notion, but was inseparable from their impassioned contemplation of the life of man - so great and yet so helpless, aiming so high and falling down so far, a plaything of the gods and yet essentially divine. This lofty vision subdued with the serenity of awe the terror and pity of the scene, but from neither could it take a single tremor or a single tear. Emotion was the element in which Greek tragedy lived and moved, albeit an emotion that was curbed to a serene stillness through its very depth and intensity.
The final estimate of Sophoclean tragedy must largely depend upon the mode in which his treatment of destiny is conceived. That Aeschylus had risen on the wings of faith to a height of prophetic vision, from whence he saw the triumph of equity and the defeat of wrong as an eternal process moving on toward one divine event - that he realized sin, retribution, responsibility as no other ancient did - may be gladly conceded. But it has been argued that because Sophocles is saddened by glancing down again at actual life - because in the fatalism of the old fables he finds the reflection of a truth - he in so far takes a step backward as a tragic artist. This remark is not altogether just. His value for what is highest in man is none the less because he strips it of earthly rewards, nor is his reverence for eternal law less deep because he knows that its workings are sometimes pitiless. Nor, once more, does he disbelieve in Providence, because experience has shown him that the end towards which the supreme powers lead forth mankind is still unseen. Not only the utter devotion of Antigone, but the lacerated innocence of Oedipus and Deianira, the tempted truth of Neoptolemus, the essential nobility of Ajax, leave an impress on the heart which is ineffaceable, and must elevate and purify while it remains. In one respect, however, it must be admitted that Sophocles is not before his age. There is an element of unrelieved vindictiveness, not merely inherent in the fables, but inseparable from the poet's handling of some themes, which is only too consistent with the temper of the "tyrant city." Aeschylus represents this with equal dramatic vividness, but he associates it not with heroism, but with crime.
Sophocles is often praised for skilful construction. But the secret of his skill depends in large measure on the profound way in which the central situation in each of his fables has been conceived and felt. Concentration is the distinguishing note of tragedy, and it is by greater concentration that Sophocles is distinguished from other tragic poets. In the Septem contra Thebas or the Prometheus of Aeschylus there is still somewhat of epic enlargement and breadth; in the Hecuba and other dramas of Euripides separate scenes have an idyllic beauty and tenderness which affect us more than the progress of the action as a whole, a defect which the poet sometimes tries to compensate by some novel denouement or catastrophe. But in following a Sophoclean tragedy we are carried steadily and swiftly onward, looking neither to the right nor to the left; the more elaborately any scene or single speech is wrought the more does it contribute to enhance the main emotion, and if there is a deliberate pause it is felt either as a welcome breathing space or as the calm of brooding expectancy.
The result of this method is the union, in the highest degree, of simplicity with complexity, of largeness of design with absolute finish, of grandeur with harmony. Superfluities are thrown off without an effort through the burning of the fire within. Crude elements are fused and made transparent. What look like ornaments are found to be inseparable from the organic whole. Each of the plays is admirable in structure, not because it is cleverly put together, but because it is so completely alive.
The seven extant tragedies probably owe their preservation to some selection made for educational purposes in Alexandrian times. A yet smaller "sylloge " of three plays (Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus) continued current amongst Byzantine students and many more copies of these exist than is the case with the other four. Of these four the Antigone seems to have been the most popular, while an inner circle of readers were specially attracted by the Oedipus Coloneus.
No example of the poet's earliest manner has come down to us. The Antigone certainly belongs to the Periclean epoch, and while Creon's large professions (lines 175 - 190) have been supposed to reflect the policy of the Athenian statesman, the heroine's grand appeal to the unwritten laws may have been suggested by words which an Attic orator afterwards quoted as having been spoken by Pericles himself: "They say that Pericles once exhorted you that in the case of persons guilty of impiety you should observe not only the written laws, but also those unwritten, which are followed by the Eumolpidae in their instructions - laws which no man ever yet had power to abrogate, or dared to contradict, nor do the Eumolpidae themselves know who enacted them, for they believe that whoso violates them must pay the penalty not only to man, but to the gods".
Modern readers have thought it strange that Creon when convinced goes to bury Polynices before attempting to release Antigone. It is obvious how this was necessary to the catastrophe, but it is also true to character, for Creon is not moved by compunction for the maiden nor by anxiety on Haemon's account, but by the fear of retribution coming on himself and the state, because of the sacred law of sepulture which he has defied. Antigone is the martyr of natural affection and of the religion of the family. But, as Kaibel pointed out, she is also the high-born Cadmean maiden, whose defiance of the oppressor is accentuated by the pride of race. She despises Creon as an upstart, who has done outrage not only to eternal ordinance, but to the rights of the royal house.
The Ajax, that tragedy of wounded honour, still bears some traces of Aeschylean influence, and may be even earlier than the Antigone. But it strikes the peculiarly Sophoclean note, that the great and noble spirit, although through its own or others' errors it may be overclouded for a time and rejected by contemporaries amongst mankind, is notwithstanding accepted by the gods and shall be held in lasting veneration. The construction of the Ajax has been adversely criticized, but without sufficient reason. If it has not the concentration of the Antigone, or of the Oedipus Tyrannus, it has a continuous movement which culminates in the hero's suicide, and develops a fine depth of sympathetic emotion in the sequel.
In the King Oedipus the poet attains to the supreme height of dramatic concentration and tragic intensity. The drama seems to have been produced soon after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, but certainly not in the year of the plague - else Sophocles, like his predecessor Phrynichus, might be said to have reminded his countrymen too poignantly of their home troubles. "The unwritten laws" are now a theme for the chorus. The worship of the Delphic Apollo is associated with a profound sense of the value and sacredness of domestic purity, and in the command to drive out pollution there is possibly an implied reference to the expulsion of the Alcmaeonidae.
The Electra, a less powerful drama, is shown by the metrical indications to be somewhat later than the Oedipus Rex. The harshness of the vendetta is not relieved as in Aeschylus by longdrawn invocations of the dead, nor, as in Euripides, is it made a subject of casuistry. Electra's heroic impulse, the offspring of filial love, through long endurance hardened into a "fixed idea," is irrepressible, and Orestes, supported by Pylades. goes directly to his aim in obedience to Apollo. But nothing can exceed the tenderness of the recognition scene - lines 1098 - 1321, and the description of the falsely reported chariot race (681 - 763) is full of spirit.
In the Trachinian Maidens there is a transition towards that milder pathos which Sophocles is said to have finally approved. The fate of Deianira is tragic indeed. But in her treatment of her rival, role, there are modern touches reminding one of Shakespeare. The play may have been produced at a time not far removed from the peace of Nicias; and if this were so Deianira's prayer that her descendahts may never undergo captivity - lines 303-305 - might remind Athenian matrons of the captive Heracleids from Pylos, descendants through Hylhis of Deian.ira herself. The "modern" note is even more conspicuous in the Philoctetes, where the inward conflict in the mind of Neoptolemus, between ambition and friendship, is delineated with equal subtlety and force, and the contrast of the in.genuous youth with the aged solitary, in whom just resentment has become a dominant idea, shows great depth of psychological insight. The tragic catastrophe of the Oedipus Tyrannus and the Trachiniae is absent here. The contending interests are reconciled by the intervention of the deified Heracles. But even more clearly than in the Ajax the heroic sufferer, rejected by men, is accepted by the gods and destined to triumph in the end. The Philoctetes is known to have been produced in the year 408 B.C., when Sophocles was 87 years old. The Oedipus Coloneus is said to have been brought out after the death of Sophocles by his grandson in the archonship of Micon, 402 B.C.
The question naturally arises, why a work of such surpassing merit should not have appeared in the lifetime of the poet. The answer is conjectural, but acquires some probability when several facts are taken into one view. It is surely remarkable that in a drama which obviously appeals to Athenian patriotism, local sanctities should obtain prominence to the exclusion of the corresponding national shrines on the Acropolis. It has been thought that the aged poet felt a peculiar satisfaction in celebrating the beauty and sacredness of his native district. This may well have been so, but could hardly supply a sufficient motive for a work destined to be presented to the assembled Athenians in the Dionysiac theatre. But there was a crisis in Athenian politics when "Colonus of the Knights" acquired a national significance. Those who organized the constitution of the Four Hundred made the precinct of Poseidon at Colonus the place of meeting, and probably sacrificed at the very altar which is consecrated by Theseus in this play. There must have been some reason for this. May it not have been that the occupants of the whole region, including the Academy, belonged mostly to the oligarchic faction? May not those who honoured Colonus by frequenting it - lines 62 and 63 - have belonged to the order of knighthood? The name Colonus Hippius would then have an appropriate meaning, and the equestrian statue of the eponymous hero (line 59) would be symbolical. In times of political agitation Colonus would then be regarded like St Germain, as the aristocratic quarter, while the Peiraeus was that of the extreme democracy, a sort of Faubourg St Antoine. It was there that the counter-movement reached its culmination. If so much be granted, is it not possible that this play, so deeply tinged with oligarchic influence, may have been thought too dangerous, and consequently withheld from production until after the amnesty, when the name of Sophocles was universally beloved, and this work of his old age could be prudently made public by his descendant? The knights in Aristophanes (424 B.C.) make their special appeal to Poseidon of the chariot race and to the Athene of victory. The Coloniates celebrate the sons of Theseus as worshippers of Atbene Hippia, and of Poseidon.
Theseus in Euripides (Sup plices) is the first citizen of a republic. In this drama he is the king whose word is law, and he is warned by Oedipus to avoid the madness of revolutionary change. The tragic story of Oedipus is resumed, but in a later and deeper strain of thoughtful emotion. Once more the noble spirit, rejected by man, is accepted by the gods. The eternal laws have been vindicated. Their decrees are irreversible, but the involuntary unconscious criminal is not finally condemned. He has no more hope in this world, but is in mysterious communion with unseen powers. The sufferer is now a holy person and an author of blessing. An approach is even made to the New Testament doctrine of the sacredness of sorrow.
Whatever may have been the nature of a Sophoclean tetralogy, the practice which at one time prevailed of describing the Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Coloneus and Antigone as "the Theban trilogy" was manifestly erroneous and misleading. The three plays belong to different periods in the life-work of the poet, and the Antigone is the earliest of the three.
The spectator of a Sophoclean. tragedy was invited to witness the supreme crisis of an individual destiny, and was possessed at the outset with the circumstances of the decisive moment. Except in the Trachiniae, where the retrospective soliloquy of Deianira is intended to emphasize her lonely position, this exposition is effected through a brief dialogue, in which the protagonist may or may not take part. In the Oedipus Tyrannus the king's entrance and his colloquy with the aged priest introduce the audience at once to the action and to the chief person. In the Ajax and Philocteles the entrance or discovery of the hero is made more impressive by being delayed. Immediately after the prologos the chorus enter, numbering fifteen, either chanting in procession as in the Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus, or dispersedly as in the Oedipus Coloneus and Philoctetes, or, thirdly, as in the Electra, where, after entering silently during the monody of the heroine, and taking up their position in the orchestra, they address her one by one. With a remarkable exception, to be noted presently, the chorus, having once entered, remain. to the end. They always stand in some carefully adjusted relation to the principal figure. The elders of Thebes, whose age and coldness throw into relief the fervour and the desolation of Antigone, are the very men to realize the calamity of Oedipus, and, while horror-stricken, to lament his fall. The rude Salaminian mariners are loyal to Ajax, but cannot enter into his grief. The Trachinian maidens would gladly support Deianira, who has won their hearts, but they are too young and inexperienced for the task. The noble Argive women can sympathize with the sorrows of Electra, but no sympathy can soothe her distress.
The parodos of the chorus is followed by the first scene or epeisodion, with which the action may be said to begin. For in the course of this the spectator's interest is strongly roused by some new circumstance involving an unforeseen complication-the awakening of Ajax (Aj.), the burial of Polynices (Ant.), the dream of Clytaemnestra (El.), the dark utterance of Teiresias (Oed. Tyr. ), the arrival of Lichas with lole (Trach.), the report of Ismene announcing Creon's coming (Oed. Col.), the sudden entreaty of Philoctetes crossed by the entrance of the pretended mariner (Phil.). The action from this point onwards is like a steadily flowing stream into which a swift and turbulent tributary has suddenly fallen, and the interest advances with rapid and continuous climax until the culmination is reached and the catastrophe is certain. The manner in which this is done, through the interweaving of dialogue and narration with the various lyrical portions, is very different in different dramas, one of the principal charms of Sophocles being his power of ingenious variation in the employment of his resources. Not less admirable is the strength with which he sustains the interest after the peripeteia, whether, as in the Antigone, by heaping sorrow upon sorrow, or, as in the first Oedipus, by passing from horror to tenderness and unlocking the fountain of tears. The extreme point of boldness in arrangement is reached in the Ajax, where the chorus and Tecmessa, having been warned of the impending danger, depart severally in quest of the vanished hero, and thus leave not only the stage but the orchestra vacant for the soliloquy that precedes his suicide.
No such general description as has been here attempted can give even a remote impression of the march of Sophoclean tragedy - by what subtle yet firm and strongly marked gradations the plot is unfolded; how stroke after stroke contributes to the harmonious totality of feeling; what vivid interplay, on the stage, in the orchestra, and between both, builds up the majestic, ever-moving spectacle. Examine, for example, the opening scene of the Oedipus Tyrannus. Its function is merely to propound the situation; yet it is in itself a miniature drama. First there is the silent spectacle of the eager throng of suppliants at the palace gate - young children, youths and aged priests. To them the king appears, with royal condescension and true public zeal. The priest expresses their heartfelt loyalty, describes the distress of Thebes, and, extolling Oedipus's past services, implores him to exercise his consummate wisdom for the relief of his people. The king's reply unveils yet further his incessant watchfulness and anxious care for his subjects. And he discloses a new object to their expectancy and hope. Creon, a royal person, had been sent to Delphi, and should ere then. have returned with the response of Apollo. At this all hearts are trembling in suspense, when Creon is seen approaching. He is wreathed with Apollo's laurel; he looks cheerfully. What has Phoebus said? Another moment of suspense is interposed. Then the oracle is repeated - so thrilling to the spectator who understands the story, so full of doubt and hope and dread to all the persons of the drama: "It is for the blood of Laiiis - his murderers are harboured in the land of Thebes. The country must be purged." That is the culminating point of the little tragedy. While Oedipus asks for information, while in gaiety of heart he undertakes the search, While he bids the folk of Cadmus to be summoned thither, the spectators have just time to take in the full significance of what has passed, which every word that is uttered sends further home. All this in 150 lines!
Or, once more, consider the employment of narrative by this great poet. The Tyrannus might be again adduced, but let us turn instead to the Antigone and the Trachiniae. The speech of the messenger in the Antigone, the speeches of Hyllus and the Nurse in the Trachiniae, occur at the supreme crisis of the two dramas. Yet there is no sense of any retardation in the action by the report of what has been happening elsewhere. Much rather the audience are carried breathlessly along, while each speaker brings before their mental vision the scene of which he had himself been part. It is a drama within the drama, an action rising from its starting-point in rapid climax, swift, full, concentrated, until that wave subsides, and is followed by a moment of expectation. Nor is this all. The narrative of the messenger is overheard by Eurydice, that of Hyllus is heard by Deianira, that of Nurse by the chorus of Maidens. And in each case a poignancy of tragic significance is added by this circumstance, while the speech of the Messenger in the Antigone, and that of Hyllus in a yet higher degree, bind together in one the twofold interest of an action which might otherwise seem in dan.ger of distracting the spectator's sympathies. So profound is the contrivance, or, to speak more accurately, such is the strength of central feeling and conception, which secures the grace of unity in complexity to the Sophoclean drama.
The proportion of the lyrics to the level dialogue is considerably less on the average in Sophocles than in Aeschylus, as might be expected from the development of the purely dramatic element, and the consequent subordination of the chorus to the protagonist. In the seven extant plays the lyrical portion ranges from one-fifth to nearly one-third, being highest in the Antigone and lowest in the Oedipus Tyrannus. The distribution of the lyrical parts is still more widely diversified. In. the Electra, for instance, the chorus has less to do than in the Oedipus Tyrannus, although in the former the lyrics constitute one-fourth, and in the latter only one-fifth of the whole. But then the part of Electra is favourable to lyrical outbursts, whereas it is only after the tragic change that Oedipus can appropriately pass from the stately senarius to the broken language of the dochmiac and the "lamenting" ananaest. The protagonists of the Ajax and the Philoctetes had also large opportunities for vocal display.
The union of strict symmetry with freedom and variety, which is throughout characteristic of the work of Sophocles, is especially noticeable in his handling of the tragic metres. In the iambics of his dialogue, as compared with those of Aeschylus, there is an advance which may be compared with the transition from "Marlowe's mighty line" to the subtler harmonies of Shakespeare. Felicitous pauses, the linking on of line to line, trisyllabic feet introduced for special effects, alliteration both hard and soft, length of speeches artfully suited to character and situation, adaptation of the caesura to the feeling expressed, are some of the points which occur most readily in thinking of his senarii. A minute speciality may be noted as illustrative of his manner in this respect. This is called synaphea, and is peculiar to Sophocles.
He differentiates more than Aeschylus does between the metres to be employed. The dochmius, cretic, and free anapaest are employed chiefly in the Kouuoi. In the stasima he has greatly developed the use of logaoedic and particularly of glyconic rhythms, and far less frequently than his predecessor indulges in long continuous runs of dactyls or trochees. The light trochaic line so frequent in Aeschylus, is comparatively rare in Sophocles. If, from the very severity with which the choral element is subordinated to the purely dramatic, his lyrics have neither the magnificent sweep of Aeschylus nor the "linked sweetness" of Euripides, they have a concinnity and point, a directness of aim, and a truth of dramatic keeping, more perfect than is to be found in either. And even in grandeur it would be hard to find many passages to bear comparison with the second stasimon, or central ode, either of the Antigone or the first Oedipus. Nor does anything in Euripides equal in grace and sweetness the famous eulogy on Colonus (the poet's birthplace) in the Oedipus Coloneus. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikiedia article on Sophocles and Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).]
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Three Paths to Destiny
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
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The moment of decision in the life of Oedipus occurred at Delphi. An oracle there shared with the future king the following thought: You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see--you will kill your father, the one who gave you life.
The play unfolds as if this horrific Delphic destiny was the only option? open to Oedipus. That is part of the horror. The specifics are bad enough but the fact? that destiny -- fate -- is hardwired -- preprogrammed -- that the universe works this way -- that's the chill -- we mortals we are mere marionettes manacled to malevolent and mischievous gods. The play unfolds as if Oedipus had no options. These unfortunate events seem to lie before Oedipus as surely as death. I will argue a less hopeless possibility -- suggest Oedipus does in fact have options -- and provide evidence that the real meaning of Oedipus blindness is the pride that prevented him from understanding what his true options were. My path to this radical interpretive possibility will include a brief detour through the Book of Job -- my purpose there is to offer a few examples of just how radical and different interpretations can be.
We need to forget here that in real 5th century Greece, the oracle at Delphi was in fact a human person, endowed with certain mystique, and a degree of credibility because of the oracle's alleged pipeline to Apollo.
Real Greek men and women had as many doubts about all of this as real moderns do about the alleged mystique and connections of contemporary oracles. Perhaps for political and social reasons, believing in oracular proclamations served a purpose. If nothing it kept a segment of the population in line, much as popular religions do in our world today. There was a great deal of private debate, cynicism and scorn over such things, but for official consumption, the gods provide a gluing function, then, as now.
It is useful to remind ourselves of this and to remember that this is a play, a highly secular one at that. In fact, there isn't a single divine intervention or godly appearance in it at all. It was designed for a sophisticated audience and intended, among other things, to provoke, to tease, to satirize, to politicize, to amuse, to horrify, to entertain, and to play with ideas about the meanings of things. As far as meanings go, this is a play about destiny, its significance, and the price one man pays in the relentless pursuit of its truth.
So, back to the play, as play.
Destiny is destiny. There are two dictionary meanings to the word destiny. One: what becomes of a person in the end; and, two, what is predetermined to happen in spite of all efforts to change that.
One thing that is always true about destinies is that they are, by definition, irreversible--after we get there--after they are achieved. Another thing that is certainly true about destiny is that each of us has one.
The one thing about destinies around which there was and still is confusion is whether they are predetermined--hardwired at the play offers, self-determined -- as we moderns wish they were, or completely indeterminate? We capture the meanings of those three options as : Fate, choice, or chance.
Does that cover all of the possibilities? These are fundamental questions. What kind of universe is this anyway?
Destiny, being destiny, however it emerges, from fate, choice, or chance, is unavoidable. Destinies simply are. That the gods had a copy of the tapes of Oedipus' life (gods can do this because they are outside the normal space-time continuum) and that they chose to reveal to Oedipus piece of his destiny--in advance--does not--of necessity--change anything.
Does this thought experiment bother anyone?
Whether destiny comes about from fate, choice or chance, the gods -- real gods, or imaginary -- Euclidian Gods -- ones any of you can create and project onto a thought experiment like this -- if these gods think some lesson is to learned--or point to be made--or fun to be had- -by sharing this foreknowledge -- they could let us in on the knowledge in advance. The gods needn't be well intentioned in this -- their motivations might be benevolent or malevolent. We don't know yet. But one of the reasons for trying on a thought experiment like this is to try to develop some thinking about cosmic motives-- in other words how and why the world works.
I can play the oracle here in one small respect. Each of us here is destined to die. This particular destiny fits both dictionary definitions of the word. It IS what becomes of each of us in the end, AND, it is also predetermined. It WILL happen in spite of all of our efforts to alter it! And, its one piece of the picture we definitely do not need to call those gods on to tell us about. In fact, death is the one thing the gods don't do.
The Greek poet Sappho -- who died about 150 years before this play was written -- mused that the fact that gods did not die was proof enough for her that death was an evil -- they too would die, she said, if death were a good thing.
So let's suppose you had been unaware that death was in the cards for you. Some of us think we are gods -- especially in our youth. How would this new awareness affect you? What options are there??? Deny?? Run like hell?? Or Embrace.
You could deny. Destiny wins. You could run. Live well, eat carrot cake, do push ups. Yet, in the immortal words of the old blues song, Death comes a creepin'. Destiny gets you in the end. You could embrace: accept the inevitability of your destiny and make the best of your mortality. Destiny wins. The gods have us in their grip.
Nothing we chose affects the outcome -- unless we somehow miss the point. Perhaps the outcome is not what matters -- what matters is the path.
Perhaps how we play the game is important? Is this not what the paths represented in the text as intersecting at Phocis -- and radiating from Daulia, Thebes, and Delphi signify?
Contrast this with Jocasta's philosophy. Line 1069; It's all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random. Live Oedipus, as if there is no tomorrow. Jocasta's vision of destiny is markedly different from this--a polar opposite. Destinies are indeterminate and uncontrollable.
I'll come back to these possibilities -- that one there in particular -- in a moment. I want to take a detour first through the Book of Job. The point of the exercise is to illustrate just how different interpretive possibilities can be.
What is the Book of Job about? What is the meaning of Job's suffering? Why -- as Anne put it in our meeting -- do so many of us now -- and in the past -- turn to Job -- for comfort -- when hardship strikes?
Simply put -- and in a funny backhanded way -- the message gleaned by those who read the book in time of need -- remember -- God loves you. I think too the book celebrates god's greatest gift -- the gift of freedom -- the antithesis of that there -- our greatest fear; slavery. The book reminds us though that freedom carries a cost -- innocent suffering.
When William Blake analyzed the Book of Job in the last century he became disturbed at the so-called arrangement between God and his servant Satan to test Job. That idea was unsatisfactory to William Blake. Who is this Satan who introduces guilt and doubt into heaven? Only a false God would have listened to Satan. Once this fact is apprehended, the text becomes clear. Job's disasters are not punitive, but educational. They rouse Job from his complacent submissiveness to tradition, and start him on a search for the true God. The entire drama of the Book of Job is acted out in Job's soul. His wife is part of him, his emanation, who shares his errors. So too are his children and friends who speak for his submerged sense of guilt. Satan is the Accuser but an internal artifact--in Job's mind. The boils are not a skin disease, but a disease of soul. And God is none other than the God of his own creation, his own ideal, a God made in Job's image, and not the true god at all. The true God transforms our human agony into justice, kindness, love and joy.
A more recent analysis of Job in Job the Silent by Bruce Zuckerman presents the Book of Job in far more radical terms. Zuckerman argues that this story like other stories in Jewish Scripture is the sanctioned or codified version of older traditional oral tales that cover much of the same terrain but are in effect parodies of the originals. In an earlier traditional story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, Isaac is sacrificed -- as god demands -- but is later resurrected. The story we read is a parody of the original; in that an angel stays Abraham's hand. The tension between these two readings is always there in the collective consciousness of Judeo-Christian readers and the two rival stories act as historical counterpoints -- concurrent musical melodies complementing each other.
Zuckerman identifies several Job legends in ancient near eastern wisdom literature -- that lays story lines similar to but different in one key respect. the legendary Job is Silent -- he is patient -- he does not question -- he does not curse the day of his birth -- he does not demand answers from God. The author of the Book of Job -- says Zuckerman -- is clearly aware of the legend but crafting a parody of the original -- these two stories also operate concurrently, and -- using the same musical metaphor -- in contapunctal harmony with one another.
We see how creative and variable interpretive schemes can be.
You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see--you will kill your father, the one who gave you life. What does that mean? Is the prophesy meant to be as literal as the events in the story -- or -- is the story that does unfold simply one of the possible ways in which the prophesy could have been fulfilled? This ghastly and literal fulfillment of prophesy was a consequence of Oedipus blindness to alternate meanings alternate paths.
Had Oedipus seen his prophesy in a clearer light it could have been fulfilled allegorically -- in ways in which the mother, father, child and monster of prophesy acquire more esoteric -- sphinx-like -- meanings. What blinded Oedipus? Did the blindness cause Oedipus to miss the central point of his existence -- a path to destiny that gave him free reign over his existence? Was this blindness pride?
Listen to the chorus helps.
Destiny guide me always Destiny find me filled with reverence pure in word and deed. Great laws tower above us, reared on high born for the brilliant vault of heaven-- Olympian Sky their only father, nothing mortal, no man gave them birth, their memory deathless, never lost in sleep: within them lives a mighty god, the god does not grow old.
Pride breeds the tyrant violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting with all that is overripe and rich with ruin-- clawing up to the heights, headlong pride crashes down the abyss--sheer doom! no footing helps, all foothold lost and gone. But the healthy strife that makes the city strong-- I pray that god will never end that wrestling: god, my champion, I will never let you go.
Seeing this play in terms of a model in which one's life is guided by an idea of destiny within which we are still free to move can be liberating. Blindness to destiny gives rise to pride, tyranny, and unhealthy strife.
We need not see this play as freedom limiting. Accepting destiny--in these terms--no more limits freedom than accepting the destiny of certain death limits our freedom to enjoy a rewarding life. Awareness of destiny allows us to actualize a life path that conforms to our personal uniqueness and makes our destiny meaningful whatever it is.
At the core Oedipus is a loving father and husband, a paternal and responsible leader, respectful, generous, compassionate, god- fearing, intelligent, inquisitive, quick thinking, as well as fearless and relentless in the pursuit of truth.
Oedipus' only flaw -- a big one -- was his blindness to destiny. If Oedipus had accepted and embraced his destiny, and carved out for himself a life path that would give that destiny meaning. Who knows what that might mean. Oedipus was a solver of riddles and a seeker of truth--a man who sought meaning in life with mathematical zeal. He knew that in the end. He knew that had he owned this destiny he would have given it meaning by creating a different path and actualized his life as no other man before or since has ever done. But he was blind to this, and horrified in the end by the realization. He screwed up. Had he embraced destiny, he would have solved the riddle, not only of the sphinx, but perhaps of the cosmos as well.
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