Sophocles: An Interpretation
R. P. Winnington-Ingram
The list of those who have misinterpreted Sophocles is long and distinguished. Confusing theater with therapy, Freud called the action of Oedipus Rex "a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis." Misguided by late-18th-century aesthetics, Hegel saw Antigone as the paradigmatic tragedy, a conflict of the individual against the state. Yet Aristotle was perhaps the worst offender. His analysis of Sophoclean drama bequeathed to millennia of critics innumerable idiosyncratic notions. For example, that the ideal tragic hero should be an essentially good man with a single "flaw." Subsequent scholars (again misreading Sophocles) concluded that the quintessential tragic flaw was hubris. In classical Greece this term actually meant outrage or assault and battery, but since St. Paul used it to mean pride, and since hubris cometh before the Sophoclean hero's fall, it follows—as Simone Weil and others have argued—that Sophocles was a proto-Christian. The ending of Oedipus at Colonus is often adduced to support this: divine grace visited upon the longsuffering hero as the heavens open to receive him. (Yet note Oedipus's final words as he leaves this vale of tears. He turns to Antigone and Ismene and says, "all you need is love." Could this perhaps mean Sophocles was also a proto- Beatle?)
Sadly, Sophoclean criticism has not yet achieved catharsis from most of this silliness, despite several excellent modern studies of the playwright, e.g., by Karl Reinhardt (1933), Cedric Whitman (1951), Bernard Knox (1964), and the admirable book here under review. Sophocles was a great man who lived during one of the most significant periods of Western history. He was a close friend of Herodotus and of Pericles—to whom he rendered distinguished service as a general. Renowned for his piety, he was elected to the priesthood. After his death, he was worshipped as a demi-god ("hero"). He also wrote plays —130 of them, according to an ancient source—of which only seven survive.
Most of these dramas depict the fall of a "tragic hero." Though gods exist in the Sophoclean world (even if they rarely appear onstage), he is not dealing with crime and punishment. His heroes may be intemperate, but they are not "guilty," as critics like the late C. M. Bowra would have us believe. Yet it is understandable that scholars would want to think so, for the fate of the Sophoclean protagonist is usually so catastrophic that the rational mind struggles desperately to justify it in some way. This is why the notion of hubris provides the disquieted critic with some moral balm.
Ajax, the earliest extant Sophoclean play, tells of the hero's madness after he is denied the armor of Achilles which was rightfully his as the greatest surviving warrior. Athena blinds his senses, however, and instead of murdering his enemies, he unwittingly slaughters a herd of cattle. Unable to bear the double disgrace, Ajax commits suicide, believing "a man should either live nobly or die nobly." The story is Homeric and, as we recall from the Odyssey, the hero carries his anger beyond the grave. In Book 11, when Odysseus visits the underworld, the shade of Ajax avoids him, still furious with the man who had stolen his prize. Is this itself not a heroic subject—a wrath that is stronger than death? We recall that Achilles, in that same chapter, confesses to Odysseus that he would rather be unheroically alive, regretting his own anger on the plains of Troy. Still this was not enough for Sophocles. He gives us two further incidents of Ajax's "pride," most egregiously his refusal of Athena's assistance in battle. Since Ajax "was not thinking like a mortal," she resolved to destroy him. Although this new bit of information could strengthen the case for pride preceding, indeed precipitating, Ajax's fall, Winnington-Ingram notes, "the play should not be taken as a story of hubris punished."
In a sense, Sophoclean heroes are "sacrilegious." They are (justifiably) proud, and remain adamant in their beliefs. The problem is—and Winnington- Ingram constantly reminds us that we are dealing with a value system light years from our own—that the Greek gods were not necessarily morally superior to men, merely stronger. Athena has the power to lay the mighty Ajax low. On a celestial level, might makes right. There is no way to rationalize the gods' behavior with notions like guilt or innocence, (indeed, this was why Plato banned tragedy from his ideal Republic.)
It was not always this way in Greece. Once upon a time there had been a belief in cosmic "justice" in the modern sense, a rational link between crime and punishment. In the Illiad, "good and evil" are never an issue, but there is some rough "justice" in the Odyssey when the hero returns and punishes the wicked suitors. It is only with Solon in the early sixth century that we find a fully articulated notion of divine justice at work in the world. This religious faith was perpetuated by Pindar and especially Aeschylus. Sooner or later evildoers will be punished; good will triumph in the end. It is perhaps oversimplified, but not inaccurate, to call divine justice the essential theme of Aeschylus's trilogies.
But Athens in the last third of the fifth century was a hotbed of new philosophies, most of which called Aeschylean optimism into doubt. Sophocles was, of course, aware of the intellectual upheaval; Odysseus in Philoctetes is a portrait of a contemporary Sophist, a moral relativist. Still, he was writing dramas, not philosophical treatises. And though Euripides focused on the futility of the moral choice, Sophocles celebrated the glory in maintaining one's principles regardless of the consequences.
"If the gods are unjust, they are not gods," says one character in Euripides. This is not Sophocles's view, which is purely anthropocentric: "what a piece of work is a man." Cedric Whitman called him the poet of heroic humanism. True, every one of his heroes displays hubris, and the chorus is constantly urging humility upon them. But why accept the "justice" of the gods, if it makes no sense by human standards? Humility was never a Greek virtue. Moreover, as Winnington-Ingram reminds us, if the Sophoclean hero were pious and godfearing (like Seneca's trembling Oedipus, for example) his would not be a world for genuine tragedy.
Winnington-Ingram offers incisive analyses of all seven extant tragedies. He is especially good in his explications of the choral odes and their dramatic relevance. We know Sophocles to be the supreme ironist; Winnington-Ingram shows how this is reinforced in his language, e.g., the passages in Oedipus Rex which speak of divine laws in metaphors of parentage. He also stresses how Sophocles is constantly wrestling with the mighty precedent of Aeschylus, a classical example of Harold Bloom's concept of the "anxiety of influence." Curiously, little is said about the influence of Euripides, perhaps because Winnington-Ingram has already written a book on Sophocles's younger contemporary.
There are minor points with which one might take issue. The author probably gives too much attention to the now-discredited Hegelian views of Antigone And occasionally he may lose the reader in his labyrinthine analysis of certain odes. Still, in general, Sophocles is brilliantly limned; new subtleties are revealed; essential themes are reinforced.
Perhaps the most significant is anger. Oedipus at Colonus does not go gentle into that good night. The old king rages, not at the imminence of death, but at the inequity of life. He still furiously maintains his "innocence." Suffering has not taught him humility, as it does the Aeschylean hero. Indeed, Winnington- Ingram reminds us that since Oedipus had acted in genuine ignorance, under Attic law he would have been absolved.
To the very end, Oedipus has maintained the heroic inflexibility typical of all Sophoclean heroes: "it is just because they have this almost superhuman capacity of holding to their principles that the poet, through extreme cases, is able to unfold the tragic implications of those principles."
Sophocles has been called the most Homeric of the Greek tragedians. But this is a bit simplistic. Contrast the rage of Oedipus and the wrath of Achilles. The latter, after all, was offered a choice of destinies. The Sophoclean hero has no choice.
Erich Segal teaches at Dartmouth and Wolfson College, Oxford.