Sophocles: The Trachiniae, and tragedy under patriarchy

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Oh, welcome back Rufus.

    How I’ve missed you!Report

  2. Avatar JL Wall says:

    (A warning: Rufus, you’ve finally gotten around to the one play of Sophokles I’ve read fully in the Greek.)

    And there is, I think, something in this play that points out the fragility of that “natural order of things.” The chorus famously goes silent about 3/4 of the way through the play, after they learn of D’s suicide and H’s pain/dying: if you look carefully at their language, they tie him — and what D’s reaction (grief, not suicide) should be to H’s death — to the various cycles of nature. (I wrote a term paper on this, more or less; I’ll try to spare everyone the details, unless you REALLY want them.)

    What I want to bring up in relation to that breaking of natural patterns of expectations is that everything still follows with what the oracles, correctly interpreted, say. This chorus does what that of Oidipous Turannos threatens to do if the oracles fail — except the oracles didn’t fail — the natural order breaks down, but the gods aren’t absent. (And here, because I don’t feel like re-phrasing it, I’ll just give the final paragraph of my paper — forgive me):

    The world has not descended into anarchy. The natural cycles they had depended upon do exist—but only so long as the gods allow them to. The laws of nature, it seems, must be renewed day by day. In a way, they had already known this—what is revealed is the ease with which such interference may occur; that the gods are not content to create a cycle of nature and let it run its course. They grow bored, and certainty is impossible and knowledge overturned. It is, perhaps, a call to remember the numinous—in all its beauty and its danger—in a natural world that is felt to be increasingly explained through words that would leave it behind.

    It’s important to remember, also, when speaking of the Greeks that however much their socio-political-economic orders may have seemed the “natural way of things,” they were inherently fragile — war, famine, and disease (among others) were proximate. Sophokles is getting at two (at least) things here, re: natural orders: the danger of inverting, or attempting to invert, that order; but also that even this order is fragile, dangerous — and potentially destructive.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @JL Wall, I’m certainly glad to have evoked this comment! Admittedly, my Greek is about kindergarten-level. My Latin’s better (although my Latin teacher advised me never to become a classicist!), and my French and Spanish are great, so long as no French or Spanish people expect any detailed responses from me!

      Anyway, what do you make of the last line in the play? I wanted to talk about it, but was afraid that would be a thesis paper in itself! Pound has Hyllos say: “And all of this is from Zeus.” My other translation puts it as, “and there is nothing here that is not Zeus”. Both of them seem to suggest just what you’re talking about here.Report

  3. Avatar JL Wall says:

    Pound’s is smoother, but less literal; for a very literal but inelegant translation, I’d say, “Nothing of these things which is, is not from Zeus.” (There may be a degree of importance to beginning the line on “nothing”/kouden.)

    These are also the only four lines the chorus speaks in the last 1/4 of the play — and they were important to my thesis. But there’s a question about who’s speaking — the Chorus, or Hyllus (the are, it appears, agreed to be written by Sophokles). Here’s the Cambridge edition’s commentary:

    “A notorious crux. The MSS are divided over the ascription of the last lines; evidently, there was doubt already in antiquity: “The Chorus says this, or Hyllus.”* (schol.) (i) If the Chorus (or the Chorus leader) are the speakers the ending would conform to the norm . . . But some endings are probably spurious . . .” etc., for another paragraph, and then 2 pages on the meaning of the final 4 lines. The editor of this edition leans toward the Chorus as speaker; so did my professor; so do I — if for no other reason than that I think it’s a more meaningful statement that way. And I probably err on the side of over-estimating the power of a convention — such as ending on a choral statement.

    Closing lines have a habit of saying things like “the gods/Zeus control all things,” at very disconcerting moments — for some of them, this is why they’re thought to be spurious (the most “famous” of these is probably at the end of the Medea). But here, I think it’s not incongruent with the play’s content — even if it’s worthy of several theses! Thematically and linguistically, there’s a major concern with natural order, which would be associated with Zeus. And he can do what he wants, natural order be damned.Report

  4. Avatar David Schaengold says:

    “Perhaps the play also confuses us because we see Deianira’s error as a matter of her being deceived…”

    I’ve often heard it said that the Greeks did not make the same distinction between inclupating and non-inculpating misfortune, so that “being deceived” could as much be the basis for a tragedy as some more recognizably moral failure.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @David Schaengold, I think that’s right. I tried to say this with Aristotle’s famous description of tragedy- I think we’re wrong in taking him to talk about a character’s “flaw”, which sounds like a failing of character, when he probably more accurately talks about their “error”, which can just as easily be a matter of deception as personal failing.Report

      • @Rufus F., Do you think Shakespeare drew on that when he made Othello’s “flaw” as “prone to deception” and Hamlet’s “flaw” as the opposite? In the case of both of those early-modern tragedies, this theme seems to be fully developed and reconciled. Or was it just some coincidence that Shakespeare’s characterization seems to satsify both definitions?Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          @Christopher Carr, It’s been so long since I’ve read either that I’d have to go back to the plays- no great pain there. It did always seem to me that Hamlet’s problem was just this- all too much awareness. But I’ve never tried reading them together. It might be an interesting exercize.Report