Monthly Archives: April 2020


Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU assiduous playwrights for entering! 70 plays have come in from three continents (North American, Oceania, and Europe) and eight countries (USA, Australia, Canada, UK, NZ, Italy, Ireland, and Portugal). The competition website is at Here are the country breakouts:

USA 58

Australia 4

Canada 2

United Kingdom 2

New Zealand 1

Italy 1

Ireland 1

Portugal 1

Of the American entries, 41 are from the east and 17 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (18 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. There’s a long way to go to hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year.

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 46 men and 24 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know only a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). The times, they are a changing! Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the website averaged 40 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Ireland. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 17,937 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My book THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 (also available in audiobook format, narrated by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street). To date, it has sold 1185 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado (Denver), Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College (Penticton), Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, Russian State Library, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Review of WHY BOB DYLAN MATTERS – Richard F. Thomas

2017, HarperCollins, 358 pages

Book Blurb

Classics professor and renowned Dylanologist Richard F. Thomas makes a compelling case for moving the iconic singer-songwriter out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and into the pantheon of classical poets, based on his wildly popular Bob Dylan seminar at Harvard.

Author Blurb

Richard F. Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard University, a Bob Dylan expert, and the creator of a freshman seminar at Harvard on Bob Dylan. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Dylan and Transfiguration

In a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore, Dylan says: “I went to a library in Rome and I found a book on transfiguration.” This is one of the most interesting points in the book, as Dylan never makes it clear what transfiguration actually is. The dictionary definition of transfiguration reads:

transfiguration: 1) The dazzling change in the appearance of Jesus when on a mountain with three of his disciples (Matthew: 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36); a picture or representation of this. Also, the church festival commemorating this event, observed on 6 August. 2) The action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.

Dylan tells Gilmore that he’s been transfigured, but when asked what he means by transfiguration, Dylan is characteristically recalcitrant. Instead, he gets Gilmore to read some passages out of Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s book–cowritten by Keith and Kent Zimmerman–Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The pages Dylan has Gilmore read concern the motorcycle death of a Bobby Zimmerman.

The interesting thing is that Bob Dylan was born Bob Zimmerman. And like the Bobby Zimmerman of the book, Dylan too had a horrific motorcycle accident in Woodstock. A puzzled Gilmore then asks Dylan: “Are you saying that you really can’t be known?” Dylan replies enigmatically:

Nobody knows nothing [of course Dylan is a fan of the double negative]. Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.

Gilmore presses further, and, like Iago in the Shakespeare play, all Dylan says in response is: “I only know what I told you. You’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.”

If I were to hazard a guess, Dylan has a powerful imagination. Most people, when they listen to a folk song, they don’t hear or understand the words. They just like the music. Then they’re those people who are more analytic. They hear and understand the words. On the next level up, there are the people like Thomas, Harvard professors who analyze the words and their meaning. Then there are the few who become part of the tradition. Their imaginations are so powerful, they enter and live out and are part of the songs they sing. Transfiguration, if I were to hazard a guess, is Dylan taking on the personae of the people and places he sings about. It’s a process of metamorphosis.

If you ask Dylan, he wasn’t born in Minnesota. He was born in Rome. And he had the wrong parents. What is more, he wasn’t born Bob Dylan. He was born Robert Zimmerman. One of his favourite lines from Rimbaud is: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). In a Halloween performance, he tells the audience that he’s wearing his Bob Dylan mask. He has a fluid personality that he reinvents. Perhaps “he” even is too concrete a word for a man who sings, in a song released a few weeks ago, that “I contain multitudes.”

When Dylan saw Buddy Holly a few days before the plane crash, he recalled that:

Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

Compare this to what Dylan said decades later in 1997, after the release of his comeback album Time out of Mind: “On some night when lightning strikes, the gift was given back to me and I knew it … the essence was back.” And then compare that to how he describes his songs as something “that has been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it.” There is no Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a conduit, a lightning rod for the Muse of song that sometimes comes to him and sometimes deserts him. When Dylan says “transfiguration,” he means that the Muse has come to him, inspiring him to take on the spirit that once moved Homer, Virgil, Dante, Woody Guthrie, and the other singer of tales.

The songs that Dylan sings have a life of their own. Through the centuries, they find different hosts: one time they would find expression through Ovid, another time through Dante. In these modern times, they speak through Dylan. When Dylan says he’s transfigured, I take it to mean that he’s taken on the persona through which the tradition can speak out. In the 60s he was the folk singer, the original hobo. In the 70s he became the rock star. In the 80s he became the preacher. In the 90s he went back to his storytelling roots. And most recently, he’s been the mouthpiece of the Great American Songbook. Each time he changes, that’s when he’s transfigured and infused with a new jolt of energy just like that time when Buddy Holly zapped him in the 60s or in the 90s when lightning struck and the gift was given back.

I say all this about transfiguration because I’ve experienced it as well, once. I was in my early twenties. I found a book about transfiguration. There actually is no such book. But there are books that can transfigure you, and I think that that’s what happened to Dylan in Rome: he found a book he felt such an affinity towards it changed his life. The book that transfigured me was Homer’s Iliad.

I read the book in three days. Skipped out of my college classes. Didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. Everything in it made sense to me. I grasped it all at once, and intuitively. Homer relates in the book how everything happens over and over, how the heroes duel again and again in an eerily similar sequence. I got it all: the power of fate, even over the gods. It all clicked: the fatalistic heroes who were caught in the hierarchical power of the heroic code, a zero-sum game. “When my time comes,” they say, “I’ll breathe my last. But until that time comes, I am.” I was struck by the theodicy of the poem: we suffer to become a song for the singers of the future. I was transfigured, transported into a heroic world that had more sense than today’s wild world.

When we are transfigured, we enter into the world of literature or the world of the song. But there is no point explaining the experience of transfiguration to the non-believers. The non-believers will say we cannot experience what has happened so long ago: the long ago was stranger than we think. We can only experience what we thought it was like. But Dylan, I argue, would say different. At the end of the song “Duquesne Whistle,” he tells us that we come back again and again in an eternal recurrence:

The lights of my native land are glowin’

I wonder if they’ll know me next time around

I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing

That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.

I’ll see you down the road, the next time you come around. It could be tomorrow or a thousand years from now. Homer, Achilles, Dylan, Catullus, and the Jack of Hearts are all incarnations of their underlying forms and archetypes. They have been, and will be, again and again, transfiguring and metamorphosing in an unbroken dance.

Why Bob Dylan Matters

“Why Classics matter” has been a rallying cry in Classics departments for some time now, so it’s of little surprise that a classicist would call his book on Bob Dylan Why Bob Dylan Matters. In the words of Thomas:

This is also a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities. We live in a world and an age in which the humanities–the study of the best that the human mind has risen to in art, music, writing, and performance–are being asked to justify their existence, are losing funding, or are in danger of losing funding. At the same time, those arts seem more vital than ever in terms of what they can teach us about how to live meaningful lives.

I’ve always been of two minds when I see the question framed in this way: “Why the Classics matter,” “Why religion matters,” “Why the humanities are important,” and so on. In one way, I see that it’s a natural question to ask, and one that will draw viewers. But in another way, I don’t like the question, because it’s asked from a standpoint of weakness. In ages where the Classics, religion, and the humanities were strong, no one would frame the question that way. Their importance would be axiomatic. No justification required. So the book title, while appealing in one way, is distasteful in another in that it presupposes that Bob Dylan–like the Classics, religion, and other institutions under fire of late–needed the help of academics. Bob Dylan is just doing fine.

Painting Blood on the Tracks

There isn’t enough material on Bob Dylan’s affinity with the Classics to fill an entire volume. Thomas gets around this by integrating his own growing fascination with Dylan over the years into the book’s narrative. Thomas was born in 1950. Dylan, born in 1941, was nine years his senior, the right age to have influenced young Thomas. For example, Dylan’s first original album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would have come out when Thomas was thirteen. That’s about the right age when your ears are alert for brave new songs to follow.

Some of these non-Classical asides are gems. When talking about Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Thomas quotes Dylan giving props to a painting teacher he had found in New York in 1974:

I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt . . . when I started doing it the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks.

To illustrate the principles of fine arts in songwriting, Thomas quotes the lyrics of “Simple Twist of Fate:”

A saxophone someplace far off played

As she was walkin’ by the arcade

As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate

And forgot about a simple twist of fate.

The Hibbing High Years

Did you know Dylan, then called Robert Zimmerman, grew up in small town Minnesota? He was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing, where he attended Hibbing High. As you would expect, Thomas covers Dylan’s membership in the Hibbing High Latin club as well as the escapist sword and sandal movies popular at this time. While Hibbing lacked many of the cultural perquisites of future world-historical figures, it gave Dylan two things: a performance venue at the Hibbing High auditorium–a gorgeous 1805 capacity facility where he would play with his band The Shadow Blasters–and a desire to get out. Dylan would later capture his boyhood memories in song:

They all got out of here any way they could

The cold rain can give you the shivers

They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee

All the rest of them rebel rivers.

The Mesabi iron range–one of the world’s largest open pit mines–was a source of wealth in Minnesota, and one of the reasons why Hibbing High had such a grand auditorium. The mine must be awe-inspiring: it is also a topic in one of Springsteen’s songs of desolation “Youngstown.”

Dylan and Catullus

One of Thomas’ aims is to discuss not so much Dylan’s direct allusions to the writers of antiquity but rather the techniques of storytelling Dylan uses that go back to the ancient writers. One of my favourite points of discussion was how the Roman poet Catullus and Dylan use similar techniques. Thomas compares, for example Catullus poem 11:

You who are ready to try out

whatever the will of the gods will bring

Take a brief message to my old girlfriend

words that she won’t like.

Let her live and be well with her three hundred lovers,

Not really truly loving them

but screwing them again and again.

to Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello:”

If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier

She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear

Say for me that I’m alright though things get kind of slow

She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.

From the 1st century BC to 1975, the poem is a messenger. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Closing Thoughts

The aim of the book was to connect Dylan with the pantheon of classical poets. One question the book left me with: does Harvard Classics professor Richard F. Thomas perhaps enjoy Dylan even more than the classical poets? Perhaps…

There’s more to Thomas’ book than what I’ve described. He goes into Dylan’s set lists, Dylan’s affinity with the road-weary Greek hero Odysseus, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize. This is a book that I’ll be rereading down the road. Would that all books by Harvard professors were such a delight.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan” – Julia Reinhard Lupton

pages 88-105 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she has taught since 1989. She is the co-author of After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (with Kenneth Reinhard, 1992) and the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature (1996) and Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005). She is the founding director of Humanities Out There, a nationally recognized educational partnership between the University of California, Irvine and local schools.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

I remember a funny moment in a third-year drama class Professor Laurel Bowman was teaching. She was talking about Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and she listed on a PowerPoint slide the things she wanted to cover: comparing Oedipus to the Athenian statesman Pericles, comparing the plague in the play to the plague in Athens, narratological approaches to interpreting the play, and so on. The next slide had the heading: “What we will not be talking about,” and under the heading, with a big cross through it, were the words “Freud and psychoanalysis.” This drew a laugh from the students. Freud and psychoanalysis, in vogue for so much of the twentieth century, have fallen out of favour.

Psychoanalysis entered the mainstream in 1899 when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this work, he grounded the phenomenon of the unconscious mind that writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun and philosophers such as Nietzsche had begun exploring on a scientific and medical basis. Though psychoanalysis was developed to treat mental disorders, because Freud used literary texts–primarily Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet–to introduce his ideas on the unconscious, repression, fantasy, and neurosis, psychoanalysis also became a vehicle to interpret literature. “Putting the character on the couch,” as Lupton calls it.

The Basis of Psychoanalyzing Literary Persons

Lupton identifies four directions in psychoanalytic literary criticism that Freud launched with his comments on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are: character analysis, hermeneutics, narrative structure, and the dynamics of the psychoanalytic situation (how the unconscious brings about catharsis).
Character analysis is the act of putting the character on the couch. It is, as Lupton describes, what “unfolds between the poles of brute personification or impersonation.” In English that means pretending that the character is a real person you could psychoanalyze. Of course, the character is not a real person, but hey we can look over this small detail, right? In the old day before psychoanalysis, character analysis would be a study of a character’s conscious motives and intentions. In psychoanalytic criticism, character analysis consists of looking at the unconscious or repressed neuroses that influence action.

Hermeneutics is the study of hidden meanings. Psychoanalytic interpretation, according to Lupton, “follows the operations by which meanings are transformed and redistributed in their passage between conscious and unconscious planes, replacing the search for latent contents with the dynamism of rhetorical transformations.” In English that means proposing that each thought and action in drama plays out on a dual stage: the conscious stage and the unconscious stage. For example, when Lady Macbeth says:

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty

She could be wishing for more power and capacity. Or, there could be a hidden, hermeneutic meaning underlying her words. Perhaps her language breaks out as an ejaculation of repressed desires. In the old day before psychoanalysis, the study of hidden meaning consisted of looking at allusions to other works, the significance of metaphors and images of light, darkness, or colours, repetition, allusion, and other literary devices. In the old day, the study of hidden meanings was grounded to the text and its relation to other texts. Psychoanalysis freed up interpretation and looked for hidden meaning between the text and Freud’s discoveries in the unconscious realms of dreams and inhibitions.

Lupton’s third point of discussion–narrative structure–consists of mapping milestone events in the medical practise of psychoanalysis onto dramatic milestones in the plot. It was Freud himself who provided future critics the initial cue when he wrote: “The action of the play is nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement–a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis–that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta.”

One of the theorists who took Freud up on the psychoanalytical approach to narrative structure was Jacques Lacan. Lacan turns to Sophocles’ play Antigone and, using psychoanalysis on the plot, traces how all of Antigone’s actions return to one defining moment: her troubling declaration of her single-minded devotion to her brother:

Antigone: Had I had children or their father dead,

I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen

In such a case to cross the states’ decree.

What is the law that lies behind these words?

One husband gone, I might have found another,

Or a child from a new man in first child’s place,

But with my parents hid away in death,

No brother, ever, could spring up for me.

Here, Antigone says that she would have risked all for her brother. But not for her children or husband.  In Lacan’s analysis, Antigone’s subsequent actions can all be traced back to this one shocking pronouncement. What is more, in this announcement, Antigone reveals how she is the living personification of the incestuous union between Oedipus and Jocasta.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, structural interpretations consisted of looking at elements of the plot and comparing them with other plots in the same genre and with how plots unfold in different genres. The difference in psychoanalytic structural readings is that, in a psychoanalytic structural reading, the structure of the text is compared with the medical process of psychoanalysis.

The fourth and final direction psychoanalytic criticism has taken, according to Lupton, is to demonstrate how drama brings about Aristotle’s catharsis–the purging of pity and fear through pity and fear–in the audience. In this way, Freudian thought is an extension, and not a replacement of Aristotle’s Poetics.

If the narratological or structural approach of psychoanalysis identifies the root cause for a character’s behaviour, the fourth direction of psychoanalytic criticism called “transference” shows how the structure of tragedy has a social function: to cure the audience of pity and fear. Lupton here turns to the work of Lacan again. On Antigone’s terrifying decision to honour her brother, but not her children or husband (were she to have children and a husband), Lacan writes:

Through the intervention of pity and fear . . . we are purged of everything of that order. And that order, we can now immediately recognize, is properly speaking the order of the imaginary. And we are purged of it through the intervention of one image among others.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, we had all heard about Aristotle’s theory that tragedy purges the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. This was not new. It was never, however, entirely clear what Aristotle meant by the process of catharsis. The contribution of psychoanalysis is that it provides us with a mechanism of tragedy brings about catharsis. It is brought about by transference:

Transference in its imaginary function encourages us to identify with characters at the level of ethos or character–the function of pity as com-passion or sym-pathy that forms one strand of catharsis in Aristotle’s famous formula. Transference in its symbolic and real dimensions, however, locates us in contradictory places within the mythos of the drama, and the mythos of our lives, corresponding to the fear or terror that wrenches us out of imaginary identification with a character and forces us into contact with the unconscious plot and repressed words that shape our desire.

Hermeneutics, narrative structure, the dynamics of the psychoanalytic position, and catharsis: Lupton has identified these four areas as the major points of psychoanalytic criticism.

Psychoanalysis and Citizenship

Lupton ends her essay with a surprising discussion bringing together psychoanalysis and the question of citizenship. Politics and citizenship are thought, generally, to lie outside the realm of psychoanalysis, which examines not the state, but the interior workings of an individual’s unconscious. That Lupton’s question occurs, however, is less surprising if we consider the political aim of this Blackwell companion to tragedy. Here’s how the back cover blurb reads:

The companion is based on the premise that the genre of tragedy is inseparable from history, insofar as it was born in the Greek city-state, and its life has been intertwined with the fate of dynasties, revolutions, and crises of social change.

Since tragedy dramatizes the emergence of democratic sensibilities, the triumph of citizens, and the institution of citizenship over monarchs, tyrants, and despotic rule, then there should be overlap between the unfolding political and psychological action. A psychoanalysis of the dissolving kinship ties holding together monarchies and tyrannies is possible, argues Lupton, where the political and psychological action overlaps.

Psychologically, argues Lupton, both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Oresteia move from pre-Oedipal to Oedipal formations. In the beginning of both plays, the father figure character–Agamemnon in the Oresteia and King Hamlet in Hamlet–perishes. The son–Orestes in the Oresteia and Hamlet in Hamlet–must assume a new relation to the phallus.

In Hamlet, Hamlet assumes a new relation with the phallus and finds a new sense of citizenship in his friendship with Horatio. And in the Oresteia, Orestes assumes a new relation with the phallus by bringing about the trial that transfers the adjudication of murder from the family to the state. In Lupton’s reading, the singular force of repressed and hidden neuroses in an individual can explode onto a national level.

The Future of the Psychoanalysis of Literary Persons

Have you ever read Freud? He is a beautiful stylist. He writes deliberately with clarity and focus. Take this passage. It is beautiful to read:

If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes, becomes intelligible . . . The Greek myth seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy, and this dream-fulfillment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror.

His writing makes me want to believe him, to believe his story. Now compare Freud with one of his followers, Lacan:

[Antigone invokes] a right that emerges in the language of the ineffaceable character of what is–ineffaceable, that is, from the moment when the emergent signifier freezes it like a fixed object in spite of the flood of possible transformations. What is, is, and it is to this, to this surface, that the unshakeable, unyielding position of Antigone is fixed . . . To put it in the terms of Lévi-Strauss–and I am certain that I am not mistaken in evoking him here, since I was instrumental in having had him reread Antigone and he expressed himself to me in such terms–Antigone with relation to Creon finds herself in the position of synchrony in opposition to diachrony.

While Freud was the soul of concision, Lacan is anything but. Here is what I think Lacan is saying:

In burying her brother, Antigone invokes an immutable and unique right. While the world changes around her, the right she invokes is timeless and knows no change. By anchoring herself to the timeless, immutable, and unique right, Antigone herself becomes timeless. To put this in the terms of one of the gods of my field, by this act of invocation Antigone freezes the ever-flowing stream of language while Creon is swept away by the changes. I know Lévi-Strauss is correct in saying this because it is I, Lacan, myself who encouraged him to reread Antigone. Without me, he probably would have overlooked this important finding.

The way Lacan presents himself makes me want to disbelieve him and, what is more, run away as fast as I can.

Lacan, and many of these other practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism remind me of the quants on Wall Street who, from time to time, trigger flash crashes with their financial alchemy. They take an idea, even a viable idea, and dress it up in the finery of mathematics. They flash their equations and formulas to the doubters to silence them. They’re dangerous, because their equations and formulas, even though dependent on many unproven assumptions, have the seeming of certainty. So too the language of the psychoanalytic critics after Freud reminds of the mathematical models and algorithms of the quants. Dense language raises suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I think, if psychoanalytic criticism is going to revive in the future, its practitioners will have to rediscover Freud’s gifts as a stylist. Freud’s followers liked reading Freud, but would Freud have loved reading his followers?

Freud’s Error

Psychoanalysis rests on two emotions: love and jealousy. In a letter to his friend Fliess, Freud lays down the emotional basis of psychoanalysis: “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood.” Tragedy became useful to Freud when he saw in Oedipus rex an unmistakable reference to this belief:

In the very text of Sophocles’ tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend originates in an extremely old dream material, which consists of the painful disturbance of the relation towards one’s parents by means of the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus–who is not yet enlightened, but who has become worried on account of the oracle–by mentioning to him the dream which is dreamt by so many people, though she attaches no significance to it–

“For it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles” (Act iv. sc. 3).

Jocasta’s words seem to anticipate Freud and psychoanalysis. But do they?

Let’s consider the entire passage. The Corinthian messenger has arrived, and tells Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne: his father has died. Since he’s left Corinth a long time ago, Oedipus begins to question the prophecy that he would kill his father. But he still fears the other half of the prophecy that said he would sleep with his mother:

Oedipus: But my mother’s bed, surely I must fear–

Jocasta: Fear?

What should a man fear? 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, best we can.

And as for this marriage with your mother–

have no fear. Many a man before you,

in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed

Take such things for shadows, nothing at all–

Live, Oedipus,

as if there’s no tomorrow!

Oedipus: Brave words,

and you’d persuade me if mother weren’t alive.

But mother lives, so for all your reassurances

I live in fear, I must.

As Freud notes, Jocasta is attempting to comfort Oedipus, who has becoming increasingly agitated. Characters in tragedy use a stock device to comfort one another. Tragedy’s stock consolation is formulaic, taking this form: “Not to you alone has this suffering come. Many others have also suffered this.” In antiquity, the consolation was such a commonplace it was called the non tibi hoc soli “not to you alone” consolation. It was popular enough for Cicero to write about it (an effective consolation, though some spit it out) and for Timocles to base a theory of tragedy around it.

The non tibi hoc soli consolation is a commonplace of consolation in tragedy. Examine the chorus’ consolation to Theseus, who has discovered his wife has committed suicide:

Theseus: What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless man that I am, the greatest of woes! O fate, how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, an unperceived blight sent upon me by some avenging power! Nay more, it is the very destruction of life!

Chorus: My lord, it is not upon you alone that these ills have come: you have lost a trusty wife, but so have many others.

Consider as well Danaus’ consolation to his daughters when they feel the heartbreak of exile: “Pure Apollo, too, who, though a god, was exiled once from heaven.” The pang of exile has not come to the Danaids alone: even the gods felt it. And, for a more recent example, turn to Claudius’ consolation to Hamlet on the death of his father:

Claudius: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father;

But you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

Again, note the formulaic “not to you alone” expression of consolation. Hamlet should feel consoled, once he realizes that he’s not the only one who has lost a father. The consolation works by diluting grief by the pain of others. When the sufferer suffers, there is something in their suffering that wants to exalt itself as the greatest burden that has ever been experienced. The sufferer, with this weight of burden, wants to be the king of pain, wants to take this pain as a proof against existence, wants to cry out: “Look on me, and see what wrongs I have suffered!” The commonplace of consolation brings the sufferer back to the ground. “Your sufferings,” it says, “are not at all unique. Bear it with the others.”

Now, let’s return to the scene where Jocasta is consoling Oedipus. Oedipus is worried that the prophecy that he would sleep with his mother may be fulfilled. If Jocasta were to console Oedipus with the stock non tibi hoc soli (“not to you alone”) consolation of tragedy, it would come out something like this: “You’re not the only one, Oedipus, who’s slept with his mother. Many others have slept with their mothers.” Can you see the problem here?

The first problem of using the stock consolation is that Oedipus hasn’t slept with his mother–at least that’s what Jocasta and Oedipus both believe at this point. Unlike the other sufferers in tragedy who have lost a wife or a father, Oedipus is worried about something conjectural. And the second problem of using the stock consolation is that it just sounds bad. It’s completely inappropriate, as Oedipus doesn’t want to sleep with his mother. What Sophocles has to do is to alter the stock consolation to fit the action. And so he adds a twist. The consolation, like Oedipus’ fear, has to become conjectural. To make the consolation conjectural, Sophocles places it into the realm of dreams, rendering it thus: “Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

Freud thought that Jocasta’s consolation was an universal acknowledgement of a son’s jealousy of his father and love of his mother. Far from it. That would have been the last thing Jocasta would have wanted to convey to Oedipus at this critical moment. Her consolation, in my analysis, takes the form that it does because Sophocles takes the commonplace of consolation the audience expects to see and gives it a little twist to make it work in his play. That’s all. It isn’t some gnostic and universal declaration of the Oedipus complex. It’s taking and adapting the commonplace of consolation so that it makes sense. There’s nothing really complicated or profound in her consolation at all. Freud has overanalyzed the line, and beautifully, I might add.

We often take literature to be more profound than it actually is. Most of the time, if you ask artists, they’re not thinking about universal truths, hidden meanings, or creating a legacy to persevere through time. They’re just trying to make things fit. I think Milman Parry showed us this when he analyzed the oral tradition behind Homeric epic. He argued that Homer and the bards in the epic tradition composed on the fly. They drew on formulaic groups of words to fit the metre in which they were reciting their poems. So, when they used these formulas–such as “Rosy-fingered Dawn” or “Cow-eyed Hera”–that doesn’t mean that they thought Dawn was rosy-fingered or that Hera was cow-eyed or that the sea was wine-dark or that Achilles was swift-footed or that Menelaus was loud. They were just looking for a way to finish the line in the correct metre. We can see this in the instances where Achilles is said to be “swift-footed” even when he’s sleeping.

So too, Jocasta’s consolation to Oedipus is like one of these Homeric epithets–with one exception. Sophocles, unlike the Homeric rhapsode, isn’t composing on the fly. Sophocles has time to adapt. Here’s what happens: Oedipus is upset. The audience is expecting Jocasta to console him. Tragedy uses a stock “not to you alone consolation.” But the stock consolation doesn’t work. So, Sophocles adds a line “in his dreams” to make it work.

There you have it. Was Freud correct in that Jocasta’s line anticipates psychoanalysis? Or am I correct in thinking Sophocles has modified the commonplace of consolation? A good test for Occam’s razor.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.


Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the 2nd annual competition began nine months ago. Fifty-nine plays have come in from three continents (North American, Oceania, and Europe) and five countries (USA, Australia, Canada, UK, and NZ). The competition website is at Here are the country breakouts:

USA 51 entrants

Australia 3 entrants

Canada 2 entrants

United Kingdom 2 entrants

New Zealand 1 entrant

Of the American entries, 35 are from the east and 16 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (17 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. There’s a long way to go to hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year.

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 38 men and 21 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know only a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). The times, they are a changing! Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the website averaged 24 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Germany. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 16,562 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My book THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED (ISBN 978-1-5255-3756-1) hit the bookshelves in February 2019. To date, it has sold 1103 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards. The audiobook, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, will be released next month.

Please ask your local library to carry this unique title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado (Denver), Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College (Penticton), Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, Russian State Library, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

Drama Australia National Journal (NJ) Reviews THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

April 3, 2020

Memorial University

Edwin Wong


Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

A “Classics Coffee and Conversation Hour” Zoom Presentation



Testing, testing: can everyone hear me? Thank you, Professor Luke Roman, for the invitation. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. I’m Edwin Wong and I’ve got a great half hour talk lined up for you called: “Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre.” Grab your coffees, let’s dive in.

We unravel, and to whom should we turn? Many of us, even the older ones, have never experienced a pandemic of these proportions. For direction, let us turn to an unlikely art form that has collected over two and a half millennia of experience in risk management: the art of tragedy.

They’re many ways of looking at tragedy. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of pity and fear, it will not help. Aristotle speaks silence. If you look at tragedy as death and destruction, it will not help. Chaucer’s Monk has nothing to say. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of catastrophe, it will not help. Howard Barker is not your man. If you look at tragedy as a collision of ethical positions, it will not help. Hegel has turned away. But if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, tragedy will be your Muse during this Great Quarantine.

The coronavirus pandemic: it came out of nowhere, yes? It has a large impact, yes? First, I’m going to argue that tragedy is the art that explores these low-probability, high-consequence events. Next, I’ll show how in tragedy and in life we trigger these types of events. Then I’ll show you tragedy’s path forward.


Let’s start with Euripides’ Bacchae. Most of the time the ninety-eight pound weakling spreading a seditious cult isn’t a god. He’s a charlatan. But Euripides doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time. He dramatizes the one time that the stranger is a god. Most of the time, Pentheus would have booted the stranger out of town. But this time, he’s torn apart limb by limb.

Does the Bacchae dramatize a low-probability, high-consequence event? In works of literature, closing lines are critical. Consider the Bacchae’s closing lines, spoken by the chorus:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

What does the action consist of? It consists of “many things the gods accomplish against our expectation.” “A god,” says the chorus, “finds a way to achieve the unexpected.” Point blank the text says that tragedy dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. This isn’t a coincidence either: Euripides concludes three other plays—Medea, Helen, and Andromache—with the same refrain.

Next, let’s consider how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King drives home the impact of the highly improbable. How often does the detective on the trail of murder find out that he was the killer? Not often. It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event, and that’s precisely what Sophocles dramatizes.

Next, let’s consider how Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes brings to life the impact of the highly improbable. You’re in the middle of a civil war. You and six other captains will be posted to each of Thebes’ seven gates. Outside, six captains—with your insolent brother as the seventh—will be posted to attack each of Thebes’ gates. You’re trying to figure out if the gods are on your side.

Each captain bears a shield. You can see whether the gods are on your side by interpreting the shield devices. If your guy bears the device of Zeus and the other guy bears the device of Typhon, that’s the gods telling you they’re on your side: in mythology Zeus tamed Typhon.

Besides seeing whether the gods are on your side, you’re also trying to avoid the worst-case scenario: being posted to the same gate as your brother. There’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood. What are the chances that, just as you’ve established that the gods are on your side, you find out they’re actually calling you do die? In other words, what are the chances that the matchups favour you from gates one to six but you find out your brother awaits you at the final gate?

Seven captain can arrange themselves into factorial seven (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1), or 5040 arrangements at seven gates. Only 1 out of these 5040 permutations yields the sequence of attackers we see: Tydeus at gate one, Capaneus at gate two, all the way up to Polyneices at gate seven. The same goes for the defending captains. They too can arrange themselves 5040 different ways, but only 1 out of these 5040 arrangements sees Melanippus at gate one, Polyphontes at gate two, all the way up to Eteocles at the highest gate.

To find all the permutations possible with seven attacking and seven defending captains, we multiply 5040 by 5040: 25,401,600 different matchups are possible. Now we can answer the question: what were the chances that the matchups from gates one to six favoured you so that, just as you were certain of victory, you are cast down at gate seven? The odds of that happening were 25,401,599:1 against. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen. But Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize “most of the time.” He dramatizes how Oedipus’ curse is fulfilled against overwhelming odds.

I like to think of tragedy as a big risk simulator that dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. Tragedy looked at in this way becomes of topical interest, a mirror into which we can see reflections of the Great Quarantine.


The arrival of a new god, the detective on his own trail, and two brothers called to the highest gate: there’s a name for these events. Like the day JFK died, or when Chernobyl melted, or when the Challenger rocket ship lit up the skies, or when the Berlin Wall fell, we call these events “black swans.”

The term “black swan” originates from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who likens the perfect wife to “A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan.” Since it was thought that the perfect wife doesn’t exist, the black swan became a byword for objects and ideas that lie outside the realm of belief.

When, in the seventeenth century, black swans were sighted in Australia, the long-standing belief that black swans did not exist went out the window. The term “black swan” could take on a novel meaning. Because the sighting of black swans was a low-probability event (Europeans had been looking at swans for millennia without sighting one) and the sighting of one had high consequences (millennia of data was falsified), the black swan could become a visual representation of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.

It was mathematician, philosopher, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb who popularized the term “black swan.” Taleb argues that we are blind to the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Our cognitive and mathematical models underestimate both the frequency and impact of the highly improbable. The timing of his 2007 book, The Black Swan, was impeccable. The Great Recession, a swan event, broke out the following year. The term “black swan” to denote outlier events with profound implications would enter the popular consciousness.

After the Great Recession, there was a rush to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life and the markets. Experts mumbled and fumbled and charlatans spoke out. It seemed to me, however, that there was a ready-made art form to explore how things that pop out of the blue can leave a lasting legacy. That art form was tragedy. Euripides tells us through the chorus that tragedy explores how things happen out of the blue. Aeschylus too dramatizes how life is impacted by events which are 25,401,599:1 against. If we wanted to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life, all we needed to do was to give tragedy a chance. For over twenty-five hundred years, tragedy has been exploring swan events.


In tragedy and in life risk triggers black swan events. By taking risks, Oedipus triggers the black swan event: he is the regicide he is searching for. In another famous tragedy, Macbeth, by taking inordinate risks, triggers the swan event: Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In life, speculators, by taking too much risk, triggered the Great Recession. Risk exacerbates low-probability events because it is a powerful see-saw: it enables you to move mountains.

If you’re in a comedy, you should take risks. The gods are on your side. “Coincidence must really be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s The Girl from Samos, “she looks after many of the things we cannot see.” If you’re in a tragedy, however, the gods are not on your side. Risk skews to the downside. Let’s see how we trigger black swan events in tragedy and in life.

I think confidence triggers black swan events. Take Oedipus. The black swan event didn’t have to happen. He makes it happen with his incessant question asking. Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd all plead for him to stop. But, like a bull in a china shop, he keeps going because he’s sure he can crack the case.

Just like in the tragedy, I think confidence played a role in the black swan event called the Great Recession. Speculators, confident that property prices would continue to climb, leveraged up. Old timers who had seen this movie before plead for them to stop. But, like bulls in a china shop, the speculators charged onwards. Then the bottom fell out. It always does. Not only did the speculators lose their own capital, they lost the capital of others. Many faced ruin.

I think idealism triggers black swan events. Take Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. The unexpected event is that, in defending his homeland, he destroys his family. The unexpected happens because he’s a zealot. His zealotry rises to such a pitch that when his niece gives her brother—who was a traitor—burial rites, he sentences her to death. Her death, in turn, triggers a sequence of unexpected events which ruins his family.

Just like in the tragedy, I think idealism and zealotry played a role in the black swan event called 9/11. Bin Laden appropriated religion to launch a holy war which saw four planes flying where no planes were expected to fly: two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one—were it not for the efforts of heroes—into the White House. In one moment, the world changed.

I believe a concentration of capital and resources triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Aeschylus says: “God’s sharp lightnings fly to stagger mountains.” Shakespeare, many years later, echoes the sentiment: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” When you start a venture, and a low-probability event happens, the consequences aren’t necessarily astounding. If you start up a venture and have access to the wealth of nations, when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be much greater. “The heavens blaze forth the death of princes” because princes have the means to change the course of history. Consider Xerxes in Aeschylus’ Persians. If he had been a minor king, death would not have undone so many.

Just like in the tragedy, if you have capital and resources—say 340 million USD burning a hole in your pocket—when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be extremely high. 340 million is the sticker price for one Deepwater Horizon, a powerful oil rig. It can drill deeper and further than ever before. But if it goes awry and explodes and the blowout preventer fails and the blind shear ram fails, then it will spill 600 thousand tonnes of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. If your capital and resources had been less, you still could have had a blowout, but the consequences would have been less dire.

I believe when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that only have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Prophecy is a good example. Here’s an example from Herodotus. When Croesus, King of Lydia, asks the Delphic oracle whether he should attack Persia, the oracle says: “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” Croesus would only understand afterwards that the oracle meant the destruction of his own empire, a devastating event.

An echo of how the misinterpretation of prophecy can result in unintended consequences occurs in Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis. In prophetic words, a dying centaur tells Deianeira that he will give her a love charm:

Thus shalt thou have a charm to bind the heart

Of Heracles, and never shall he look

On wife or maid to love her more than thee.

When she uses the charm, however, she finds out that it kill Heracles. The charm works, but in an unanticipated manner.

Just like in the tragedy, I think when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Financial algorithms are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s prophecies. While yesterday’s prophecies spoke with oracular authority, today’s algorithms speak with mathematical authority. In both cases, when misunderstandings arise, the results are devastating. Case in point was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund founded by two Nobel Prize winners. Their formulas identified irrationally priced bonds. As the prices of these bonds returned to their expected value, they would profit.

The managers at Long-Term trusted their algorithms. They put their trust on display when they borrowed 140 billion dollars to amplify their returns. It turns out that, like the oracles of old, their algorithms were correct. But, what they also found out was that the market could remain irrational longer than they could remain solvent. When their trades went awry, their lenders issued a margin call. With only 5 billion of their own money, they were unable to repay the 140 billion outstanding. Their lenders, a consortium of international banks, couldn’t cover the losses and the global financial system fell to its knees. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, playing the deus ex machina, were forced to intervene.

I believe that extraordinary situations increase the likelihood of black swan events. In such situations, you have to act with abandon. You have to throw the Hail Mary. When you do so, you throw risk to the winds. Take Oedipus the King. There’s a plague. Oedipus must continue the investigation or else all Thebes perishes. He has no choice. But, by continuing, he triggers the risk event.

Today, we also experience the extraordinary: the coronavirus pandemic. To find a solution, we’re developing vaccines at a breakneck pace. Vaccines typically take a decade to develop. Today, they’re talking about administering a vaccine to healthy populations in a year. On March 16, three months after the outbreak, Moderna began testing a vaccine on human subjects in Seattle. What could go wrong? Our real life setting, like the dramatic setting in Sophocles’ play, encourages us to throw risk to the winds. When we do so, we invite the black swan.


In conclusion, I’ve asked you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk. I do so because tragedy may be a source of wisdom: it is the art that dramatizes downside risk. Because tragedy simulates swan events, it raises our sensibility of how risk impacts life.

I began with Euripides, who emphasizes in the text how tragedy dramatizes swan events. I went on to Sophocles, and pointed out how Oedipus the King dramatizes a low-probability, high-consequence outcome: a man who damns himself. Then, I demonstrated with math that the outcome of Seven Against Thebes takes place against overwhelming odds. I chose these examples to encourage you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre where risk runs riot.

Then I told the tale of how heroes trigger devastating risk events. I talked of their confidence and idealism. I talked of tragedy’s other commonplaces: kings and queens with capital burning a hole in their pockets. I talked of the fools’ gold in oracles and algorithms. And I talked of how dire straits compel us to close our eyes, say “Hail Mary,” and throw the long desperation pass deep into the end zone.

What’s the takeaway? Well, there’s no magic bullet. Black swans are impossible to predict because they’re not known knowns or known unknowns, but rather, unknown unknowns. They’re the arrival of a new god, the invention of the Gutenberg press, or Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Such events lie beyond prediction. But there is something we can do. We can, to borrow another of Taleb’s terms, become anti-fragile.

Look at these heroes of tragedy. Despite their strength, charisma, and cunning, they’re wonderfully fragile. When they make a plan, there’s no plan B. They wager all-in: “Go big or go home,” they say as they hunt their white whales. Fragility is absolute conviction that the oracle is true, that the algorithm is right, and that all swans are white.

What is anti-fragility? Anti-fragility is everything that the tragic hero is not. Anti-fragility is a plan B. It is redundancy. Anti-fragility is keeping some powder dry. It is putting eggs into different baskets. Anti-fragility is fluidity, taking the shape of water. Anti-fragility is skepticism. This time may be different. Anti-fragility is not conviction, but the greater strength that it takes to call into question one’s own convictions, the courage to ask: “What is the downside if I’m wrong?”

You will think: “But the coronavirus is different. The heroes of tragedy brought about the black swan. We have been struck down, but we did not wager all-in like the heroes of old.” Is that so? From my childhood to adult life—I’m forty-five now—there’s been two trends: urbanization and globalization. Urbanization packs more and more people into the downtown cores. Pandemics, as Thucydides recognizes, love crowded spaces. What is more, as we urbanize, we build cities nearer to the jungles and the caves where the bad bugs dwell. Then there’s globalization. Globalization connects all the world’s cities in a tight embrace: Wuhan is connected to Milan, is connected to New York, is connected to Tehran. When Wuhan sneezes, the world catches cold.

If we were to read the art form of tragedy onto today’s pandemic, we are the heroes who have wagered all-in on the benefits of urbanization and globalization. While we were toasting each other, Covid-19 stole up to us like a thief in the night. A few months ago, we stood at the sixth gate, standing in the same place Eteocles once did as he started planning the day of celebration. Funny how that is, how we’re in the gravest danger when we’re the most confident. This is tragedy’s legacy.

What’s the takeaway? Let us be anti-fragile. Let us have a plan B. Let us have redundancy in our social networks and bank balances. Let us keep some powder dry. Let us diversify and let us adapt. Let us urbanize and globalize, but let us also challenge urbanization and globalization. But, if we do not want to do be anti-fragile, then let us go all-in like the wonderfully fragile heroes of tragedy. There is glory in that as well. But, whichever way we go, if we take tragedy to be our Muse, we will go in with a greater awareness of how it isn’t the decades that will define us, but the few, and unexpected moments. We will not be defined by what we will, but by that stray moment that steals up to us like a thief in the night. None of us will be where we plan on being in five or ten years. But we will keep going.

If you’ve enjoyed this talk and are interested in more, ask your local library to carry my new book (and audiobook, narrated by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street):The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In it, I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of tragedy. The book has launched an international playwriting competition with over $15k of prizes each year. It’s hosted by Langham Court, one of Canada’s leading theatres. The competition website is at A transcript of this talk is available on my blog Thank you for Zooming in and stay strong.