Author Archives: Edwin Wong

About Edwin Wong

I'm Doing Melpomene's Work by writing a book on how the art form of tragedy functions as a valuing mechanism. "The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected" is due for release 2019 and examines how heroes assign value to their human assets in their high stakes games. In 2015 I started the blog to share the self-publishing experience with assiduous readers.

Orlando, Here We Come! – Risk Theatre 2023

Yeah! Just got accepted into the Comparative Drama Conference in Orlando, Florida, March 30 to April 1, 2023. The Comparative Drama Conference is an international, interdisciplinary conference founded by Dr. Karelisa Hartigan at the University of Florida in 1977. Every year, approximately 200 scholars are invited to present and discuss their work in the field of drama and 2-4 new plays receive a staged reading. The conference draws participants from both the Humanities and the Arts. The papers delivered range over the entire field of theatre research and production. Over the past 40 years, participants have come from 32 nations and all 50 states. Each year a distinguished theatre scholar or artist is invited to address the participants in the Keynote Event.

Here’s a copy of my proposal and bio that I went in a few months ago:

How to Set Up an International Playwriting Competition


Have you ever wanted to take a dramatic theory from the page to the stage? One way to do this is to create a playwriting competition. In 2018, I did exactly this. I had a new theory of tragedy identifying the dramatic fulcrum as a low-probability, high-consequence event. After teaming up with a local theatre, I launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition ( The competition awards $14,000 in cash prizes each year in addition to running a workshop and staged reading for the winner. The competition is now in its fifth year.

Over the years, people have asked me for advice on how to set up a playwriting competition. In this talk, I’ll go over the logistics from partnering with a theatre to setting up the website, finding jurors, funding, and getting the word out. I’ll also share with you the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In every way, it’s been an amazing journey. The competition has opened doors for me and introduced me to new friends and experiences along the way. I’d love to share my story with you. Bring your questions.


Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” by David Konstan at NYU for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books and over a dozen articles and book chapters on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, and has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

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The nice thing about this acceptance is that it shows that the Risk Theatre Competition–now in its fifth year–has reached a certain stage in its development. I’ve proposed talks on how I set up the competition at different conferences in prior years, but there was little interest. With people I’ve known, run across, and chatted with in the past, however, there always was interest: “How did you set this up?” has always been a common question. But, until the competition got into its fifth year, it didn’t have enough “street cred” to interest conference organizers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences at the Comparative Drama Conference in 2023. And the experience has taught me a critical lesson: when you have a dream, persistence over time is the key. Success isn’t measure in months and years, but in decades.

Keep going, friends. Never stop.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of Franky D. Gonzalez’s THAT MUST BE THE ENTRANCE TO HEAVEN

Edwin Wong here, founder of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. I’m delighted to announce that Dallas playwright Franky D. Gonzalez’s boxing play: That Must be the Entrance to Heaven or, The Dawn Behind the Black Hole is the winner of the 2022 competition. The prize includes $10,200 in cash and a workshop culminating in a staged reading over Zoom. The competition is going strong, now in its fifth year ( Its goal is to invite playwrights to dramatize risk, otherwise known as unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events. In 2018, I founded the competition because I’m fascinated with risk. Risk shapes our lives. Risk shapes our lives because it is not what we think will happen, but what we least expect that has the greatest impact. It’s not the calculated risks that matter, but rather the uncalculated risks. Lots of people don’t get that. They think they can do away with risk with insurance, diversification and hedging strategies, clever planning, and so on. To remind people of the true power of risk, there is a dramatic art form in theatre known as “tragedy.” In two books—The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022, cowritten with past winners)—I overturned the traditional reading of tragedy that has a hero make a mistake and lose all. In the risk theatre reading, the hero actually has quite a good, foolproof plan. But then something unexpected happens: an unforeseen chance event like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or meeting a man not of woman born. Because the hero has taken on too much risk, the hero is exposed to the highly improbable. It’s the opposite of the old folk saying to “keep some powder dry.” Because the hero has “burnt up every last match,” when the shit hits the fan, well, the hero is done like dinner. Now, it is easy to write two books about how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. But does the risk theatre theory of tragedy work on the actual stage? That question remained unanswered. And so the competition. The cool thing about the risk theatre theory is that the competition will be the proof of the pudding. If the competition, in the next thirty years, can produce a number of plays that enter the canon—that is to say, plays that will stand shoulder to shoulder with Aeschylus, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and the other tragedians of repute, then it can be said that risk theatre works. Literary theories, just like scientific theories, must go through the chicane of the scientific method.

Every year I sit in anticipation, praying that one of the risk theatre winners or finalists can take their play to the next level: audiences queueing in long lines, sold out shows, people talking in the streets. But to take it to the next level is hard. First, the play must be great. It must be unique. From the inception of the competition to this day, there have been great winners and great plays, beginning with Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, to Nicholas Dunn’s The Value and Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor. And now Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven. But, for a play to make it, it has to be more than great. At this point, luck is involved. The right person has to hear about it. They have to have time to explore it. Then the right theatre has to hear about it. Someone has to take a chance on the play. Should we produce a Shakespeare or an Ibsen or a Miller that is guaranteed to sell out so many seats or take a chance on a new play? There are many obstacles. To put it in terms of probability theory—another pastime of mine—there are many paths to failure, and few paths to success. One way, however, to increase a play’s chances is to write about it. And that is what I’m going to do here. I’m going to write about Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven as though it were already a classic, as though it had already entered the playwriting canon. And yes, if I were writing an essay on Shakespeare or Sophocles, it would go without saying that there are going to be spoilers. So, too, there will be spoilers in this essay.

Although by no means equal repute attends those who write about the great playwrights and the great playwrights themselves, those who write about the great playwrights also play an important role because one of the things that makes a play great is the volume of discussion and scholarship behind it. That this is a boxing play itself is a topic that can lead to discussion. When I think of theatre, boxing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Theatre is perceived as a high art. Boxing is perceived to be a low art. The people that partake of theatre likely do not cross over with the boxing community. The same is true vice-versa: the theatre isn’t the place where you would expect to bump into Arturo Gatti, Mickey Ward, Floyd Mayweather, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, or the other fighters that Gonzalez references in his play. Gonzalez, by putting together boxing and theatre, is bringing together different worlds with different outlooks not only about life, but about each other.

There is a quartet of main characters in Entrance to Heaven: Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando. They’ve all sacrificed big time for a shot at the title. Edgar is an undocumented fighter who’s fighting to stay in the country. He’s also fighting for the memory of his mother, who died getting him into the country. Juan is fighting to keep his family afloat, to make good all his broken promises he made to his wife and his child. Manuel is fighting to emerge from his brother’s shadow, a former five-division and  pound-for-pound champ. Armando defected from Cuba and left his family to become world champion. They all have ghosts. Family members who no longer talk to them or have passed away. Entrance to Heaven, in this light, is about the price you pay. The weight of your dreams like a gravity crushing you down. What happens in the play is beautiful and unexpected: it is when they fail and fall short of their dreams that they feel the lightness of an inner peace.

The first and most crucial question that must be asked is: how do you play the quartet of boxers? Option #1: you play them as characters that the audience feels sorry for. There would be many ways to defend this reading: the characters lack resources. The characters have had poor upbringings. They face inequality. Their education has been less than stellar: one of the Latino characters cannot speak Spanish for which he is mercilessly attacked by a boxer who is good enough to teach him how to count in Spanish. If only someone would help them. Option #2: you play them as fiercely proud individuals for whom no quarter is asked, and none given. They box because that is who they are. No apologies. The boxers are Latino “overmen” who overcome obstacles on their way to their title shots. Option #1 is the more humane reading, but takes away their dignity. Option #2 is full of the spirit of Ares, but glosses over inequality. The character Juan seems to encourage option #1 (he is truly tired of getting punched on his granite chin). The character Manuel, with his no-holds-barred relentless forwards-moving trash-talking style encourages option #2. The true way to play the play, probably lies somewhere in between options one and two. But the wonderful thing about Entrance to Heaven is that it encourages the discussion. The path to the canon lies through controversy.

As it happens, I enjoy both theatre and boxing. Four years ago, I started kickboxing. Last August, I started going to the boxing gym. I used to think the MMA (mixed martial arts) and the boxing gyms were dangerous places, full of savage people. They were places where you had to watch yourself. Now I think different. There are, indeed, savage folks in these places. You can tell just looking at their muscles what they can do. The people with the ripped muscles that are really defined where they connect to the bones are always deadly. There is something about how the muscles connect to the bones that defines how hard someone can hit. The people who are big, but move quickly are perhaps the deadliest. There are brawlers. And then there are assassins, the ones who set traps for you. Fighting some of these people is like playing chess. I used to be nervous going to class. I still am. But after getting to know the people, I came to realize this is their home. This is where they belong. Some of them are amateurs. Some are pros, or at least semi-pro. They make money fighting, coaching, and promoting. It is their life. What I also realized is that the MMA and boxing world is quite diverse. Women champions can make as much as men: think Rhonda Rousey. In UFC, the current heavyweight champ, Francis Ngannou, left Cameroon to pursue his dream. When he started training in France, he was homeless. Now he’s world champ. Look at the referees, fighters, and announcers: they’re from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. Fighters of all religions, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or others, train side by side. Though they don’t talk about inclusivity, they are inclusive. But they are not known for that. That is too bad. Take a look at your local theatre. I am sure they talk of welcoming and friendship. But how diverse are they? If yes, then great. If not, perhaps they could take a page from the MMA and boxing community. I’m not saying that the fighting community is perfect, but what I am saying is that there is much for communities to learn from one another. When Entrance to Heaven enters the canon, another way I foresee it encouraging different communities to come together is that scholars studying it, scholars who are used to academic references, will have to take a deep dive into boxing to properly analyze it. They will have to watch footage from some of these fights Gonzalez talks about in his “references” section: the action in the play is modelled after specific real-life fights. Who knows, perhaps no one will remember Eubank or Klitschko or Corrales if Gonzalez had not brought them into his play. Don’t laugh. I remember a story of Cus D’Amato training a young Mike Tyson, telling him that one day no one would remember the great boxer and (at that time) world celebrity Jack Dempsey unless they talked of him. Tyson laughed. He couldn’t believe it. But that came true. The only reason I know about Dempsey and started reading about him is because I heard about him through Tyson always bringing him up. Fame works in strange ways.

I should talk about Entrance to Heaven and risk. The point of the competition is to encourage dramatists to dramatize risk. There is plenty of this in Entrance to Heaven: each of the characters is “all-in.” And then, because they have taken on inordinate risk, the unexpected happens. In the case of this play, the unexpected is the realization of the price our dreams exact upon us. Be careful what you wish for. Dreams are funny; they sometimes leave you with nothing. They are full of fire on the way, but after the fires have burnt out, all that remains is smoke and burned out remnants. The thing about risk that Entrance to Heaven taught me most, however, was how much personal risk the playwright undertakes to write an honest play. Just like in Albert Camus’ The Plague where the leading quartet of characters—Rambert, Rioux, Tarrou, and Grand—are aspects of Camus himself, I can’t but imagine that the prizefighters Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando are reflections of Gonzalez. Their struggle is his struggle. Entrance to Heaven is a play full of the most convinced courageousness. It took courage to write it. It makes the play beautiful because it is human. I can’t be sure that I’m right, of course. But, from having followed Franky’s star the last four years and having chatted with him a handful of times, the likelihood is high (here’s a link to an interview we did in 2022 He has that same drive and ambition his fighters have. I know that because he is one of the few playwrights to have entered the Risk Theatre Competition each year. Sometimes he was be close. When he didn’t take the grand prize, he kept going. Like they say in boxing, you have to keep going because you never know how close you were.

I have read and also seen a reading of another of Gonzalez’s plays, Paletas de Coco. It was a finalist in one of the previous years. It’s about a playwright searching for an absent father. It too was a courageous play that opened my eyes to how risk doesn’t have to be internal to the action. Risk is also beautiful when you can tell the writer has taken risks or wears his heart on his sleeves. The risk in Gonzalez’s plays that is really different than what other people are doing is that there isn’t a separation between his art and his life. They are a unity. Bravo. Usually when playwrights write close to home, they lock their work in a vault, only to be produced so many years from now. Think of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night: O’Neill said no performances or publication until twenty-five years after his death. Gonzalez, unlike O’Neill, is putting himself out there, right here, right now. For that reason, it feels like I am witnessing something truly unique and wonderful. I read a lot of plays and Gonzalez is the only living writer I know who breaks down the divide between art and life so relentlessly. I feel he encourages this self-identification in his plays as well. For example, he names one of his fighters Juan David Gonzalez. The dramatic effect of this identification is that when the fighters talk about their dreams and their sacrifices, the audience (or reader) also wonders how much Gonzalez has sacrificed to get to where he is. This double identification deepens the stage and makes risk more palpable. One gets the feeling that Gonzalez talks about risk because he has walked the walk. During our interview, I remember him telling a story of how he went out on a limb, going all-in and using his own money to self-produce a play. I thought: “Here is someone who will go far because he believes in himself and has something to say.”

Another feature of That Must be the Entrance to Heaven that stands out is its language. Stylized. Often, tragedies are written in a rhythmic language that sets it apart from speech. Greek tragedy favours speech in iambic trimeters; Shakespeare likes blank verse. Gonzalez, as well, has adopted a unique playwright’s cant to express his ideas. Each line averages five words. A few are shorter, some are a few words longer. Here’s an example:

Armando. I have come to learn a deep truth.
Every human being,
Whether the mightiest emperor
Or the lowest of nobodies
Is born with a tremendous weight
Pressing down on their souls.
We call that weight our Dreams.
And this life
The whole of our existence
Is spent trying to force that weight
That chimera, that Dream, from our souls.

Each line contains an image or an idea. By setting the lines in quick succession, he builds up great crescendos in thought. For example, Armando’s first six lines builds up to “We call that weight our Dreams.” Then, following that pronouncement, he builds up again to another pronouncement on the effect of our dreams. His technique fascinates me. It really allows devices like repetition to shine. For example:

Juan. I kept losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
Until my promises
Turned into lies.

The repetition and brevity of each line really allows the concluding pronouncement of “Turned to lies” to hit home. There, too, is risk in the language, of repeating a statement seven times before the taking it home. If, on the stage, the actor pulls it off, it will hit home. In language as in life, no risk, no reward.

Dramatically, That Must be the Entrance to Heaven brings to life a tour de force in risk and unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: nothing goes according to plan. I suspect that is why the jurors nominated the play as the 2022 winner. From what I can see on social media, there is great interest in this play: it is the first winning play from the competition that will have a full production (in 2023, next year). Wow. The action promises to be breathtaking. It would be fascinating to have actors with a boxing background play the parts. They could reenact the sequences in a theatre of the great fights Gonzalez draws from: Gatti vs. Ward, Klitschko vs. Joshua, and others. This is the play can make boxing fans out of theatre fans. There is so much in boxing that is theatrical. In one of the Gatti vs. Ward fights, Mickey Ward hit Gatti with one of his trademark liver shots. The shot that makes other fighters black out and crumple to the canvas. I remember that moment to this day. Gatti doesn’t go down. He looks at Ward with such eyes, eyes that say: “Bro, why did you have to hit me so hard??!?” Ward, in turn, doesn’t go in for the kill. He looks at Gatti looking at him. Time in the ring is frozen. They say boxing is a low art. But this moment reminded me of the most beautiful moment in all of literature, when time stands still in the Trojan War back in the old days. Achilles finally meets Hector. The war around them, all the chariots and spears and dust and yelling pauses. On the battlefield it is only them. They chat like friends as they kill one another. Somewhere, far away, Andromache is pouring a hot bath for Hector. He will not require it. The whole scene is unbelievable. All the cosmos stands still for them. But, even though it is unbelievable, it is the most believable thing ever, because it is the most beautiful moment in literature. In That Must be the Entrance to Heaven, during the fights, I experienced this same relaxation of time. It is beautiful. It is seldom that I have seen it in drama. It will take most talented actors to bring this effect about, which, like all the most beautiful moments in art, is the most fragile of things. If it can be pulled off, this will be a play to be remembered, for all time.

For me, what opened my eyes the most was what the play taught me about risk. Not risk as I had been thinking about it. But risk in terms of how much great writers take in drawing from their own lives to produce the most honest and beautiful literatures and dramas. Read and see Gonzalez’s plays. We are witnessing a writer that comes along once a generation. From the black hole, a star is born. But, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [2019] and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre [2022]) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

The Dramatic Fulcrum of the Action

Risk is inherently dramatic. This can be demonstrated through a familiar example. If you drive through town at thirty miles an hour, following the rules of the road, little drama results. If, however, you drive through town at a hundred miles an hour, drama lies in wait around every corner. You will, with Shakespeare’s Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (Julius Caesar 3.1.98). The reason is that, by weaving through traffic at inordinate speeds, you are taking maximum risk. Around every hairpin turn, you dance on the edge. An unexpected pothole or a blowout at thirty miles an hour is manageable. At a hundred miles an hour, a deer leaping out of the woods is less manageable. Risk is inherently dramatic because it exposes you to unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events. The more risk you take, the more you expose yourself to loose gravel, fresh tarmac, drivers around you deviating from the line. At high enough speeds, the hand of God could strike from any direction.

Because risk is inherently dramatic, playwrights have made, in many tragedies, risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is going too fast trying to solve the riddle of the regicide. By taking on inordinate risk, Oedipus triggers the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event: he finds out that he himself is the regicide he seeks. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet are going one hundred miles an hour too fast. As a result, they die when the post is delayed: when risk is elevated, one letter can make the difference between life and death. In Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains, husband and wife Jim and Della Young find out that the more risk they take to become parents, the more reality twists and forks in unexpected paths.

Action is what triggers the risk events that audiences look forward to with anticipation and apprehension. Drama, from the Greek drān is “to do” or “to act” (LSJ s.v. dráō). By killing Duncan, for example, Macbeth triggers unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. In other words, it is by the act of casting the die that the die is cast. In this essay, however, I want to look at the verbal components of risk. The first verbal component of risk is the use of words and speech to highlight, accentuate, and draw attention to impending risk events. The second verbal component of risk involves using dialogue to draw taut the string of suspense. Finally, the third verbal component is where words themselves perform actions. Let us explore the ways of performing risk by saying words.

The Very Firstlings of My Heart

One way to signal to the audience that events of great daring are forthcoming is to tell them. Macbeth, for example, announces his intentions before storming Macduff’s castle:

MACBETH. Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done. (4.1.143–48)

Antonio in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi also tells the audience to watch out for dramatic fireworks. Before risking all on a doubtful reconciliation with the Cardinal, who has murdered his wife and children, he announces the enormity of his task:

DELIO. What course do you mean to take, Antonio?
ANTONIO. This night I mean to venture all my fortune—
Which is no more than a poor, ling’ring life—
To the cardinal’s worst of malice. (5.1.60–63)
In the event that the audience missed Antonio’s first declaration, Webster has Antonio repeat himself a few moments later. He is definitely throwing caution to the winds:
ANTONIO. Come, I’ll out of the ague;
For to live thus is not indeed to live.
It is a mockery, and abuse of life.
I will not henceforth save myself by halves;
Lose all, or nothing. (5.4.45–49)

By daring to “venture all my fortune” and wagering to “lose all, or nothing,” Antonio signals that he is on the verge. Because he has taken on inordinate risks, he can no longer cover his position, leaving himself exposed. The scene, therefore, is set for the low-probability, high-consequence event to surprise the audience. The audience will not be disappointed: as Antonio sneaks into the Cardinal’s chamber, he will be struck down by the very friend who has come to save him.

Because audiences are unaware when the risk event takes place, playwrights give audiences a heads up that the dramatic fulcrum approaches: anticipated moments are memorable moments. In the past, the cue took the form of highly artificial forms of speech. Though Macbeth is ostensibly talking to Lennox when he says: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand,” his words really are thoughts spoken out loud for the benefit of the audience. The same is true when Antonio tells Delio “This night I mean to venture all my fortune.” It is spoken as a sort of soliloquy. Certainly, when Hamlet says to himself: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” it is part of a soliloquy proper (4.4.64–65). In an age, however, where more naturalistic patterns of speech are preferred, the playwright can embed the announcement in dialogue. McClain adopts this technique in Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Della, rejected at the adoption agency, lights the dramatic wick when her nurse, Esther, tells her of a promising but unlicensed fertility clinic:

ESTHER. I can give you his contact information. But you have to promise me that you won’t mention my name or how you found out about him to anyone. Not your husband, not anyone! I could lose my nursing license!
DELLA. Esther, of course not. I won’t say anything. I just—I’m ready to try something different. My current treatment isn’t working and I—I can’t look back on this as another opportunity I screwed up by being overly cautious. (155)

Ostensibly, Esther shares with Della her contact at the unlicensed fertility clinic. The audience, however, hears a dramatic subtext in their conversation, hears Della throwing caution to the winds. When the audience hears her go risk on, they sit on the edge of their seats, expecting the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event to happen at any moment.
Because risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, playwrights have at their disposal various ways of drawing attention to the impending risk event. A direct method involves having characters say that they are going all-in by speaking their thoughts out loud in a soliloquy or an aside. Alternatively, the declaration of risk could take place indirectly in the dialogue between characters. Either way, through speech and voice, the audience is primed for what is to come.

The Dialogue of Rising Risk: Stichomythia

Not only can words signal risk, words can also themselves set off risk. A common example of how speech elevates risk is stichomythia, from the Greek stíchos “line of verse” (LSJ s.v. stíchos) and mūthos “speech” or “talk” (LSJ s.v. mūthos). In stichomythic speech, two characters exchange rapidly alternating lines while voicing antithetical positions. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, after Creon sentences Antigone to death, Haemon (Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé) attempts to persuade Creon to change his mind. Stichomythia begins as Haemon’s attempt breaks down:

CREON. Why, you degenerate—bandying accusations,
threatening me with justice, your own father!
HAEMON. I see my father offending justice—wrong.
CREON. Wrong?
To protect my royal rights?
HAEMON. Protect your rights?
When you trample down the honors of the gods?
CREON. You, you soul of corruption, rotten through—
woman’s accomplice!
HAEMON. That may be,
but you will never find me accomplice to a criminal.
CREON. That’s what she is,
and every word you say is a blatant appeal for her—
HAEMON. And you, and me, and the gods beneath the earth.
CREON. You will never marry her, not while she’s alive.
HAEMON. Then she will die…but her death will kill another. (831–43)

In alternating lines, the characters lay down antithetical standpoints. While Creon emphasizes his position of authority as king and father (“your own father,” “my royal rights,” “You will never…”), Haemon points out that Creon, by sentencing Antigone to death for burying her brother, is going against what the gods want, which is for the dead to be buried. By rapidly alternating the dialogue between antithetical positions, stichomythia raises, through words and speech, tension to the point of breaking.

Though an artificial device to raise the tension, stichomythia, by closely approximating patterns of speech in everyday life, is a versatile device. Consider, for example, how easily it makes the transition from ancient to modern drama. Here is an example from Gabriel Jason Dean’s play In Bloom. Dean’s play examines power, imperialism, and privilege. In this scene, British-Indian professor Kashi Jones awards American writer Aaron Freeman the prestigious Sommerville Prize, but not before asking the hard questions before a packed Cambridge auditorium. As she presses and Aaron resists, the dialogue goes stichomythic:

AARON. Doctor Jones, I gotta be honest, I’m feeling a bit sabotaged up here.
KASHI. I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll understand. I can’t let your achievements or your confessional book get in the way of asking important questions.
AARON. Are you Hindi?
KASHI. I suppose you mean Hindu.
AARON. OK. Yes, I beg your pardon. Hindu. Are you?
KASHI. I don’t see how this is relevant.
AARON. Come on. You read my book. You know everything about me. Are you Hindu?
KASHI. Culturally yes. Spiritually no.
AARON. Are you Muslim?
AARON. You’re an Indian woman, living and working in Britain, judging by your last name, Doctor Jones, you’re probably married to a Brit, which I think means you know a thing or two about imperialism—
KASHI. Mr. Freeman!
AARON. And your work is about women in Afghanistan. What qualifies you to tell their stories? You’re not Afghan.
KASHI. I’m not a storyteller. I’m a scholar.
AARON. So academics get a pass?
KASHI. No, that’s not what I’m saying—
AARON. Is my perspective on this irrelevant becasue I’m not brown…enough? (48)

As Kashi and Aaron spar over right, privilege, social justice, identity politics, and cultural appropriation, the risk of their debate exploding increases. Stichomythia, by allowing two antagonists to concentrate their positions in the alternating lines, takes them towards a point of no return. With each line, they dig in, raising the stakes. The rising pitch is unsustainable: something will give, and, when it does, the repercussions will be consequential.

How to Make Risk with Words

Risk is associated with physical actions. In Pierre Corneille’s The Cid, for example, the Count makes risk by performing the physical act of a slap. Don Diego, who has received a promotion, meets the Count, who feels the promotion was his. They argue:

THE COUNT. The honour then was due to me alone.
DON DIEGO. Who was not given it deserves it not.
THE COUNT. Deserves it not! I?
THE COUNT. Your impudence,
Reckless old man, will have its due reward.
[He gives him a slap.]
DON DIEGO [drawing his sword]. Go on and take my life after this slight—
The first at which my line has bowed in shame.
THE COUNT. And what, old weakling, could you hope to do?
DON DIEGO. O God! my failing strength abandons me! (222–30)

The physical act of the slap marks the moment the die is cast. A chain reaction of events ensues: Don Diego’s son, bound to defend his father’s honour, will to duel the Count to the death. Unfortunately, Don Diego’s son is also betrothed to the Count’s daughter. The physical act of the slap is the trigger of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.
Although risk is associated with action—a slap, casting the die, crossing the Rubicon, dropping the gloves—in his 1962 book How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin defined and explored a class of words which are performative in nature. Utterances such as “I do” (during a marriage ceremony), “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” (while dedicating a vessel), “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother,” (in a will), or “I bet you sixpence,” argued Austin (1968, 5), are activities that are done with words. Because these utterances constitute actions, he called them “speech acts” (Austin 168, 40). As risk is associated with action, speech acts make it possible to make risk with words.
Nicholas Dunn, in his play The Value, makes risk with words. Nickel-and-dime criminals Ian and Zoey discover that the painting they stole is a modern masterpiece worth much more than tens of thousands they were hoping for. They have a buyer that can give them, right here and right now, tens of thousands. Zoey wants to take the buyer’s certain offer. Ian wants to hold out for more, but could wind up with nothing. Zoey, preferring the bird in hand and tired of Ian’s “woulda,” “coulda,” and “shouldas,” issue him an ultimatum:

ZOEY. No! Ian, no one understands when you talk like that! If you’re after more money just fucking say it!
IAN. I’m not talking about money! You guys think money is the end of all this, but it’s not. It never is! I been hustlin’ my whole life and it just bets me to the next one and the next one. This is about means. This is about access. About power. About the ability to go up. Beat. ZOEY looks at VICTOR, who remains shrunken against the wall.
ZOEY. Did that make any sense to you?
VICTOR doesn’t reply. She turns back to IAN.
ZOEY. My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that—finally—but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that. [Pause]
IAN. Zoey…
ZOEY. You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle, it’s the goddamn truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?
There’s a soft know on the door. Beat.
ZOEY. Well? What will you do?
Pause. Another knock.
ZOEY. Ian? [Beat]
IAN. I. Can’t. Settle. (128–29)

Ian’s “I. Can’t. Settle” is a performative utterance. It commits him to a course of action. It is the exact opposite of saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. By saying it, he irrevocably rejects Zoey. By a toss of words, the die is cast; there is no return. It is like a slap. By performing risk with words, Ian triggers unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events: Zoey, speechless, exits and goes deep into the underworld to find another buyer for the painting, one who will leave Ian with nothing. In the speech act, the word is equivalent to the physical act. With speech acts, one makes risk by saying words.

Why Risk?

In drama, the relationship between words and risk is threefold. First, words may be used to announce that the risk event is imminent. When Hamlet says: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” he is telling the audience that he is ready to take on danger, and the unexpected events that come with danger. Second, words may be used to set off the risk event. Stichomythia, by rapidly alternating between antithetical positions, is a verbal device that quickly escalates tension. Third, words may be used in lieu of actions to perform risk. A class of performative utterances—“I dismiss,” “I convict,” or “I bet” (Austin 1968, 152–57)—are able to engender risk the same way as physical acts. Speech acts are spoken with power.

Today is a fascinating time to explore risk because risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy. I introduced my theory in a 2019 book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In this book, I likened the thrill and rising action of theatre to the delirious wagers gamblers place at the no-limit tables. The book then became the centrepiece of an international playwriting competition inviting playwrights to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action ( The response was overwhelming: playwrights from seventeen countries have participated. Then, in early 2022, the second risk theatre book came out: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. The second book is an anthology. It brings together a sampling of plays from the competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Along with the plays are six new essays on the intersection between theatre, probability theory, chance, and risk. These essays respond to the criticisms of the first book—that it had too little engaged with existing theories of drama—and lay out a new path forwards for writers, students, and teachers to engage with risk. By bringing together risk theatre plays and risk theatre essays, the goal of the book is to bring together the practice and theory of drama in a new unity.

The first four years of the competition have brought about two milestones: playwrights discovered they love working with risk and audiences discovered interpretations based on risk unlock drama. These are still the early days of exploring how risk functions as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Much of the grunt work is still to follow. This essay on how voice and speech on stage anticipates and triggers risk events represents a start, the next leg of the journey into researching risk on stage. Many pathways, and unexpected, are opening up. Let us see where they lead.


Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford.

Corneille, Pierre. 1975. The Cid. In The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion, translated by John Cairncross, 23–109. London: Penguin.

Dean, Gabriel Jason. 2022. In Bloom. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 5–80. Victoria: Friesen.

Dunn, Nicholas. 2022. The Value. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 77–146. Victoria: Friesen.

McClain, Emily. 2022. Children of Combs and Watch Chains. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 143–97. Victoria: Friesen.

Shakespeare, William. 1984. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys. Oxford: Oxford.

– – -. 2016. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare.

– – -. 2015. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Sophocles. 1984. Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 33–128. New York: Penguin.

– – -. 1984. Oedipus the King. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 129–251. New York: Penguin.

Webster, John. 1997. The Duchess of Malfi. In Six Renaissance Tragedies, edited by Colin Gibson, 243–347. Houndmills: Palgrave.

Wong, Edwin. 2019. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Victoria: Friesen.

Wong, Edwin, Gabriel Jason Dean, Nicholas Dunn, and Emily McClain. 2022. When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. Victoria: Friesen.

Edwin Wong is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. In 2019, he launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition ( The competition invites playwrights around the world to explore risk. He is also the author and coauthor of two books examining the intersection between theatre, chance, and probability theory: The Risk Theory Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022). He was educated at Brown University and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Is Eteocles in Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES a Capable Leader?–The Siege with a Single Casualty

Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS)
118th Annual Meeting in Winston-Salem, NC
Wake Forest University
March 23-26, 2022
Edwin Wong

Hello everyone, thanks for coming. I’m Edwin Wong, a theatre researcher from Canada. I specialize in the theory of tragedy and I’ve created one called “risk theatre” that makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It’s launched an international playwriting competition, now in its fourth year, check it out at

Today, I’m here to rehabilitate Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes. This is the play that drew me into the classics decades ago. I found it quite by chance and though it was the best ever. I finally cracked why it’s so fantastic, and I’m here today to share my vision with you. By the way, Theater in Greece and Rome (TIGR) is performing a staged reading of Seven Thursday night. Check it out.

You know, Aeschylus was a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marthon to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea. On his epitaph, he doesn’t even mention anything about playwriting: it only records his valour in the grove of Marathon. A type of person such as this, I would expect, when writing a martial play, would create a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader.

Not only that, Aristophanes remembers in Frogs that Seven inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.” Now, if Eteocles was perceived to be a bumbling idiot, it would be hard to see how it would have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Let’s take a look at how Eteocles lays down his masterclass in patriotism. In his opening words, he says:

For if we win success, the God is the cause
but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,
throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,
a multitudinous swelling prelude
cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans.

His asymmetric “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic seems confused. Shouldn’t it follow that, if the gods take credit, the gods also take blame? This happens in other cultures. In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer records how, when there was a disastrous six-month draught, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker, stripping him, reviling him, putting him in irons, and drowning and hanging him. In another example, he records how praise and blame is symmetric in the Far East where the Chinese would, by imperial decree, elevate compliant gods to higher levels of godhead and strip recalcitrant gods of their divinity.

I think that what Eteocles realizes is that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Risk must be asymmetric. Take a look at what happens in the Iliad where Agamemnon, while apologizing to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, transfers the blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys. “They made me do it,” he says. It is a daft apology; Achilles spits it out. So too, when, facing mounting losses, Agamemnon points his finger at Zeus. Now it may be true that it happens by the will of Zeus, but, you can’t say that.

So, Eteocles—unlike Agamemnon—by holding himself responsible, aligns himself with his constituents’ interests. In other words, he has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game find is that, to succeed, one must be invested in the successful outcome. Skin in the game is a concept from the business world, where it was observed that startups where the founders invested their own seed money were more likely to succeed. For example: want to create the world’s most successful theatre company?—well, make Shakespeare and Richard Burbage your shareholders. The skin in the game idea caught my attention when mathematician, philosopher, and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb elevated the idea into a way of life in his 2018 New York Times bestselling book Skin in the Game. When I read it, it occurred to me that this is the policy Eteocles is pursuing.

To see how skin in the game works, look at the chorus. They’re in a panic. They come to the acropolis to prostrate themselves on the gods’ altars. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says the chorus, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” “Do not betray this city,” says the chorus. As the chorus prays, Eteocles rebukes them, calling them “insupportable creatures” and “an object of hatred.” Why the harsh words? The chorus protests. They have done nothing wrong. They were afraid. They ran to the altars. Their actions fall in line with custom.

Skin in the game can explain Eteocles’s exasperation. Take a look at another prayer—from Marlowe’s play—when the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, at perhaps too high a price, looks for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair.” Like the chorus’s prayers saying “Grant me not be a slave” and “do not betray the city,” these are negative prayers lacking skin in the game. They are the prayers, like Faustus’ of someone who is already defeated.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one that motivates people and gods by promising them a share of the victory. The new prayer invokes the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths abounding with sacrificial animals and altars adorned with spoils. The chorus get it: from singing the fall of Thebes at the beginning, by the time the action moves to the sixth gate, they are calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay the foe.”

It shouldn’t really make a difference whether you have skin. When Agamemnon says it was Zeus, you know, he was correct. And if you’re a playwright, it shouldn’t really matter if you’re a shareholder: you try your best to do your job, right? Well, wrong. It’s not logic that counts because we’re not machines. We’re humans and we’re wired a certain way that having skin in the game works. What Seven suggests is that patriotism is a behaviour, and if you start looking at a behaviour logically, it doesn’t work. To analyze behaviour, look at the biological basis of behaviour as an inherited trait conditioned by natural selection.

Consider, now, another logical anomaly: how Eteocles polarizes attackers and defenders into a binary “us and them.” While the defenders are nurtured by the motherland, honour the “throne of Modesty,” and enjoy the favour of the Olympian gods, the attackers stand ready to “strike like a serpent,” abuse one another, speak blasphemy against the gods, and carry on their devices images of night and darkness. In an insult to fact checkers, they even call the attackers a “foreign-tongued enemy.” What is more, Eteocles takes the binary “us and them” mentality and asks his constituents to take a side. Talk about divisive. Why does he do this?

If patriotism is a social behaviour, then it probably can be observed in other times and other species. You can see this behaviour in the social insects. In times of prosperity, honeybees are tolerant of bees from neighbouring hives entering their nests and borrowing supplies. In times of dearth, however, they attack every intruder at the gate. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari Desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons.”

This is where I turn to biologist E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology where he posits that human behaviours, being encoded in the genes, have been selected through the long process of evolution. Reason and logic is a relatively new thing. These feelings of territoriality are a more ancient device, seeing that the behaviour of territoriality can be traced back from humanity all the way back to the social insects. Kinship is an old thing that ties together groups through behaviours and customs. We see it in the patronymic: by calling the defenders the “son of Astacus,” “Creon’s son,” or the “son of Oenops” Eteocles shames his defenders to at least equal their fathers. Skin in the game and patriotism may be, speculates Wilson, a behavior encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the animals who exhibited such impulses to multiply.

Though a valuable behaviour, patriotism or territoriality comes with pros and cons. Take Lasthenes, the defender at the sixth gate, who is described, positively, by Eteocles as being echthroxenos, or “hateful to strangers.” He is useful. But how useful is he in a time of peace? We can see in Lasthenes, how patriotism, being a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands, can go too far. Here’s the issue: too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” he is an effective sentry. But what happens when the siege is lifted?

To sum up, I’ve looked at Seven through the concept of skin in the game, an idea found in political and economics discourse. By giving the chorus skin in the game, Eteocles unites the war effort inside the city. That this is an example of successful generalship can be seen by comparing what’s going on outside the gates with the attackers, who hurl insults at one another. I’ve also looked at Seven through a sociobiological lens. Sociobiology argues that patriotism and territoriality is a behaviour. By activating this behaviour, Eteocles mobilizes the defence of the home range. None of these tactics is logical. But then, human biology is illogical, an archaeology of many behaviours accumulated over an evolutionary timespan that’s hard to imagine.

Seven, by dramatizing patriotism highlights the advantages and disadvantages of biology. It is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century: the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

And, to get back to the original question: is Eteocles a capable general? By giving the defenders skin in the game and creating a divisive “us and them” heuristic he carries the day, raises the siege and destroys the enemy at the cost of only one casualty. Not good. But not bad, either. Just all too human.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR

On 12 June 1599, Julius Caesar premiered at the grand opening of the new Bankside Globe, a three-thousand seat custom-built theatre (Sohmer 3–16). As Shakespeare had taken personal and financial risks to build and become a stakeholder in the Globe, it is fitting that he made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare explores risk in all its guises: first, as danger, second, as exposure to danger, and finally, as the trigger of devastating low-probability, high-consequence events.

It is 44 BC.1 History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the Republic and the Empire, the last of the Romans and the first of the Caesars. On one fork lies dignity, uncomfortable liberty, and the rule of the unhappy many. On the other fork lies new things, comfortable servitude, and the rule of the one. Though history’s wheel inclines towards empire, the furrows, four-and-a-half centuries deep, follow the familiar ways. Risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because the wheels are flying off the tracks. It is a time of risk and a time to take risks: at stake is the soul of Rome.

Four risk-takers—Caesar, Antony, Brutus, and Cassius—will clash as they wager all-in on the fate of the Eternal City. This daredevil quartet will trigger the improbable acts, accidental judgments, and unintended consequences that ensure Julius Caesar will be acted in new Globes many ages hence. As freedom is to the soul of Rome, so is risk to the soul of tragedy.

Risk as Hazard – An Improbability unto Truth

Polysemous risk has many faces. The first face of risk is its most familiar: risk is “danger” and “the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance” (“Risk,” n. 1, 4b). From the get-go, warnings, prophecies, prodigies, omens, thunderstorms, and supernatural events, the shadows of unhappened things, simultaneously flash danger. It begins with the Soothsayer telling Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March” (1.2.23). Casca’s amazed “never till tonight, never till now” declaration quickly follows, amplifying the Soothsayer’s forebodings:

Thunder and lightning. Enter Casca, with sword drawn, and Cicero, meeting
Cicero. Good even, Casca. Brought you Caesar home?
Why are you breathless, and why stare you so?
Casca. Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th’ambitious ocean swell, and rage, and foam,
To be exalted with the threat’ning clouds;
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. (1.3.1–10: Oxford edition)

To impart upon the audience the singularity of the moment, Casca adds to his litany of prodigies: a lion fascinating Romans, a slave impervious to fire, men on fire, the bird of night calling during day (1.3.15–28).

To Casca, the prodigies are illegible signs. Cassius, however, can see that the portents are physical manifestations of nature’s consternation that one man should wear the crown. Caesar had recently been proclaimed dictator for life (Plutarch Caesar 57). Now he would be king. Nature retches.

Brutus also sees nature’s goings-on. “The exhalations whizzing in the air,” he says, “Give so much light that I may read by them” (2.1.44–45). The prodigies, blazing across the sky, ensure that 14 March is a night to remember. As the scene shifts to Caesar and Calpurnia’s on the morning of the ides, the portent sensory overload continues. “Thrice hath Calpurnia,” says Caesar, “in her sleep cried out ‘Help, ho! They murder Caesar’” (2.2.2–3). She sees a dream where Caesar’s statue “with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood” (2.2.76–77). He asks the haruspices for insight. The priests cut open the sacrificial animal to discover that, though lacking a heart, it had lived, breathed, and ran. Even the omens about the other omens cry nature’s revolt.

Calpurnia continues reciting litanies of prodigies, recounting how the watch has witnessed a whelping lioness, graves yielding their dead, warriors fighting in the clouds, blood raining on the Capitol, neighing horses, the groans of the dying, and shrieking ghosts (2.2.15–24). The portents connect together the Capitol, the noises of battle, and the forms of war. It so happens that Caesar is heading to the Capitol to prepare for war. He will go east to recover the standards Marcus Crassus carelessly lost. At the Capitol, the senators will declare him “King of all the provinces outside Italy with the right of wearing a diadem in any other place except Italy” (Plutarch Caesar 64; 1.3.85–88, 2.2.93–94). Their declaration would fulfil an oracle in the Sibylline books that Rome could only conquer Parthia if led by a king (Plutarch Caesar 60). Calpurnia recognizes the portents presage ill. She tells him to stay home.

The portents heighten, increase, and augment the suspense. They activate our intuitions and speculations on the probable, the improbable, and the impossible. A black cat or comet is commonplace. So many cats are black. Every few years a comet visits. It is probable, therefore, that, every so often, one sees a prodigy. To see a flurry of prodigies, however, is improbable: a prodigy, by definition, is unusual and, therefore, unlikely. Calpurnia argues from probability to persuade Caesar:

Calpurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch. (2.2.13–16)

While unsuperstitious (“I never stood on ceremonies”), she argues that the flurry of portents is overwhelming (“these things are beyond all use,” 2.2.25). In a stroke of dramatic economy, we are never told “the things we have heard and seen.” By tacit accord, however, unspoken things intensify the prodigiousness of the supernatural. To see so many prodigies is improbable, and, being improbable, likely presages catastrophe: in these portents are no rainbows and halcyon beaks, but the shapes of apocalypse now.

Calpurnia’s probabilistic argument echoes that of Casca, who says to Cicero:

Casca. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons, they are natural’;
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate they point upon. (1.3.28–32)

Casca drives home the point, that, while natural explanations may account for scattered prodigies, they fall flat when so many prodigies “conjointly meet.” Although Shakespeare’s Cicero downplays Casca (1.3.34–35), the historical Cicero may well have agreed. In his treatise on divination, Cicero classifies the highly improbable in a category outside chance:

Can anything be an ‘accident’ which bears upon itself every mark of truth? Four dice are cast and a Venus throw [where each of the four four-sided dice displays a different value] results—that is chance; but do you think it would be chance, too, if in one hundred casts you made one hundred Venus throws? (On Divination 1.23)

Each prodigy is like a Venus throw. A Venus throw results: that is chance. If the dice were fair (and not the rectangular knucklebones of livestock), the probability of rolling a Venus throw is 1:256 (the outcome of four independent rolls being the product of their individual probabilities: 4 * 4 * 4 * 4). Two Venus throws result in succession: the probability is 1:65,536 (1:2562). This, too, chance will produce. But, should a hundred Venus throws happen in succession, it is no longer chance, as the odds—1:256100—are beyond all use. The number lies beyond nature’s ken. In powers of ten, you could scale the universe from Planck’s infinitesimal length to the broadest expanses of its outermost limits, and never encounter such an abomination.

Through a superabundance of prodigies, Shakespeare fills Julius Caesar with such abominations of probabilities that, whatever it is, it is no longer chance. It is something greater than chance. Nature, imbued with hylozoism, the idea that all matter is somehow alive, is partaking in history’s grand march. Improbability can supply the proof.

In the old day, they discovered that improbability could be the basis of something to believe in. Centuries before French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was credited with putting belief on a probabilistic footing by making his famous wager known as “Pascal’s Wager,” an obscure theologian writing on the shores of North Africa found a way.2 Sometime in the early third century, Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, demonstrated that the higher the improbability, the greater the cause for belief:

The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. (On the Flesh of Christ 5)

Over the centuries, his conclusion certum est, quia impossibile (“the fact is certain, because it is impossible”) led to the anti-rationalist declaration credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd”). Improbability, by being unlikely, becomes the highest of signs and the most assured of proofs. It is a proof that dumbfounds naysayers because the unlikelihood of it being mistaken can be stated in figures which are ovewhelming.

I know not whether people today still believe it is impossible for the dead to rise. It is likely that some do. Myself, however, believe that Shakespeare uses improbability to announce that the Ides of March is a moment like no other. Revolution is in the air. The world will never be the same because the odds of so many wonders happening at once transcend reason. That the prodigies signify imminent historical metamorphosis is certain, because they are impossible. This is the improbability unto truth. Probability, the familiar stranger, is truly one of the least understood yet most potent of devices, whether on the stage of theatre or on the stage of life.

Risk as Opportunity – Caesarism’s Paradox

The contact point between the bicycle and the road is all but two square inches of rubber, one square inch per tire. Upon two rubber inches, riders ride. To hobby riders, harrowing alpine descents, hairpin corners, poor visibility, slick roads, and raging crosswinds are signs to ease off. Risk unnerves. To riders riding the Tour de France, however, these are signs to attack. Some attack to help teammates, some attack out of envy and spite, some from principle, and some for the thrill of it all. Descending the Col de Vars, a high alpine pass with gradients of twelve percent, at 80kph is pedestrian; go into the supertuck and scream down over 100kph. Attack them at the switchbacks on the world’s edge. Attack them where the road is slick or the visibility poor. Carve a line and drop them on the S-curves. If two square inches suffice, you will wear the coveted maillot jaune, the yellow jersey. Down they go on history’s slopes into time’s valleys, the Cassiuses, Brutuses, Antonys, and Caesars, blazing into glory or riding into ruin; it is uncertain whither.

This brings us to the second face of risk. Risk as a noun denotes hazard. As a verb, however, risk paradoxically denotes the exposure to danger (“Risk,” v. 1). Risk refers to both danger and its exposure because it derives from the early Italian risicare meaning “to dare” (Bernstein 8). To those reckless of danger, risk is opportunity. In Julius Caesar, many opportunities arise.

In the daredevil quartet, Caesar speaks least: he has 1126 words to Brutus’s 5394, Cassius’s 3709, and Antony’s 2540 (Rowe 152-53).3 His words, however, fascinate: with each utterance he is, curiously, assessing, defining, and saying out loud his relationship with risk. The Soothsayer warns him of grievous danger. Caesar looks him straight in the eye. “He is a dreamer,” says Caesar, “Let us leave him. Pass” (1.2.24). In a perfect pentameter line, he reveals his DNA. “Pure gold,” says Granville-Barker (374). “A line of magisterial finality,” says Humphreys (1.2.24). Though it is the holiday of the Lupercalia, Caesar is ever the general, his ear (the one that works) ever attentive. Like a general on the field, he is constantly identifying, evaluating, and negotiating risks. Risk affords Caesar an existential opportunity to be Caesar. Caesar becomes Caesar by walking the line.

Now, contrast Brutus’s attitude to risk-taking. As soon as Caesar’s Lupercalia train exits, Brutus finds himself alone with Cassius. Now, it is Brutus’s turn to confront risk. Cassius warns him of grievous danger. Brutus looks away (“If I have veiled my look,” 1.2.38). Cassius presses on, prompting Brutus to ask: “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius / That you would have me seek into myself / For that which is not in me?” (1.2.63–65). Brutus’s dithering reply, full of question marks, is a far cry from Caesar’s “pure gold.” Another fifteen lines later, they come to the elephant in the room: Caesar is fast becoming a god. Brutus awakens:

Brutus. What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
Cassius.                                 Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
Brutus. I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye, and death i’th’other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death. (1.2.78–89)

Risk presents him with an ethical-political opportunity to demonstrate his ancestry: he is descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, expeller of kings. For the good of Rome, he would die.

Like Caesar, Brutus sees risk as opportunity. But, unlike Caesar, Brutus is slow on the uptake. “For the present,” he says, “I would not, so with love I might entreat you, / Be any further moved. What you have said / I will consider” (1.2.165–67). He retrenches into endless musings. It is not until the beginning of act two that he finds his magisterial line: “It must be by his death” (2.1.10). Caesar found his gold in one line and Brutus his after tens and hundreds. Their appetite for risk lies powers of ten apart because risk encapsulates the idea of both opportunity and loss.

Brutus appears to lack nerve. It is an illusion. Shakespeare has him hesitate for another reason: to show that Brutus has more to lose than Caesar. Once Brutus commits, he puts at risk his friend and benefactor Caesar (who, rumour has it, is his father; see Plutarch Brutus 5.2; Shakespeare 2 Henry VI 4.1.136–37), his wife Portia, his boy Lucius, and many Romans’ safety. Caesar, on the other hand, gives the impression that he has too little to lose. Brutus and Caesar’s differences are encapsulated in another work of art: the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais.

Rodin’s monumental six-figure bronze sculpture depicts a tragic moment in Calais’s history. In ad 1347, Calais falls after a difficult siege. The English victor, Edward III, will tame the conquered: if six of Calais’s leaders voluntarily give up their lives, he will spare the people. The sculpture depicts the six volunteers walking to the gallows. Three burst out. The next three, with wandering steps and slow, stumble out. One interpretation is that, while the former are bona fide heroes, the latter deserve less commendation. Rodin rejects this interpretation:

While these three men of Calais may be less brave than the three first, they do not deserve less admiration. For their devotion is even more meritorious, because it costs them more. (Rodin Conversations 36)

The case between Caesar and Brutus is analogous: Brutus is held back not by a lack of nerve, but by a higher estimation of all he leaves behind. Shakespeare captures the beauty of all Brutus leaves behind in his final scene with Portia. He loves her more than he dares to tell:

Brutus. O ye gods
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
            Knocking heard
Hark, hark! One knocks. Portia, go in awhile
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee,
All the charactery of my sad brows. (2.1.303–9)

Adding credence to this view is his reaction to her death. Although he is a philosopher, his philosophy fails: “I am sick of many griefs,” he says (4.3.142).

Caesar’s final scene with Calpurnia lies in stark contrast. He chides Calpurnia, who rolls her eyes as she hands him his death robe:

Caesar. How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go. (2.2.105–7).

She recognizes in this terrible moment her perceived smallness—and indeed, the smallness of all the world—when set against Caesarism’s immensity. This is the horrible contradiction of Caesarism, that, because everything must be on the line, and all the time, nothing can be worth much. It is easy come and easy go. That is the price Caesar pays to create the Caesar myth.

Risk speaks differently to Cassius. It presents him with an opportunity to reclaim his dignity. Cassius is a person we all know: the smartest kid in school, the valedictorian who was marked for celebrity. But somewhere along the line, he lost his way. Now you can find him in the taverns talking about his glory days: his 8.93 GPA, how he was recruited like a rock star, how he used to do things no one else was doing, and easily. Cassius is a has-been.

When Brutus and Cassius squabble, Brutus, in a fit of rage, takes a swipe at his dignity:

Cassius. Urge me no more, I shall forget myself.
Have mind, upon your health. Tempt me no further.
Brutus. Away, slight man!
Cassius. Is’t possible? (4.2.86–89)

Brutus’s “Away, slight man!” stops Cassius because the truth hurts. Back in the day, Cassius and Caesar would campaign together, colleagues in arms (1.1.119–121). At home, they would swim together in the Tiber’s flood (1.2.100–15). They grew up together, went to the same schools. Now Caesar has overleapt him. Now Caesar favours others (1.2.310). Now Caesar no longer returns his calls. They were equals. Now, when Caesar lifts his legs, Cassius, like a cur, stoops down. Cassius is envious.

Envy drives Cassius to distraction. On the night of the prodigies, he walks the streets, raving:

Casca. Who ever knew the heavens menace so?
Cassius. Those that have known the earth so full of faults.
For my part, I have walked about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And thus unbracèd, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.
Casca. But wherefore did you so much tempt the heavens?
It is the part of men to fear and tremble
When the most mighty gods by tokens send
Such dreadful heralds to astonish us. (1.3.44–56)

Not only is his shirt undone, he taunts the thunderclouds. Envy emboldens him. Recent events, however, are handing him an opportunity to regain his mojo. Although Caesar has not gone all the way, Cassius can convince others that Caesar will go all the way. That will be the basis of his sham conspiracy to liberate Rome. Once Caesar is dead he will walk his streets again, again the cock of the walk. That is his opportunity and his risk.

As Brutus and Caesar reflect one another’s genius—the former with too much to lose and the latter with too little—so too are Cassius and Antony mirrors. While envy prompts Cassius, the opposite emotion—friendship—moves Antony. Antony is “beloved of Caesar,” is the one who walks on Caesar’s right hand (2.1.157, 1.2.213). Caesar’s assassination affords Antony the opportunity to demonstrate the ties that bind. To memorialize Caesar, Antony, like a proper friend, will do cosmic terrors:

Antony. A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds.
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (3.1.262–75)

To do cosmic terrors, however, is easier said than done. It involves risk.

Caesar is dead. A void opens. Antony steps up to fill the void. That he does so is unexpected. Antony is the Roman Hal. Like Hal from Shakespeare’s Henriad plays (which were written concurrently in the century’s last lustrum), Antony is perceived as “gamesome” (1.2.28), a lover of plays (1.2.204), “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company” (2.1.189-90), one who “revels long a-nights” (2.2.116), and “a coward or a flatterer” (3.1.193). He is “but a limb of Caesar,” incapable of grand politics (2.1.166). Like Hal becoming Henry V, Antony surprises all. The surprises begin with Antony pledging allegiance to Brutus (3.1.133–34). If the conspirators look him askance, he offers his life (3.1.159–63). So far so good: he is welcomed by Brutus. Then, in tragedy’s white heat, he takes their hands, dripping purple gore:

Antony. Let each man render me his bloody hand.
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now, Decius Brutus, yours; now your, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and, my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius. (3.1.184–89)

Perhaps Homer’s Iliad—an ancient Greek epic that Shakespeare alludes to in the next act (4.2.180-82)—was on his mind here as well. In the crowning moment of the Iliad, Priam takes the hand of the man who has murdered his son [Priam to Achilles]:

“I have borne what no man
Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne.
I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.” (24.535–43)

Shakespeare exploits the full dramatic potential of Homer’s narrative by investing Antony with Priam’s lines: as Priam’s words awed Achilles, Antony’s actions awe the conspirators. Awestruck, they allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony, in making the most of his opportunity, pulls off a coup.

Antony’s transformation into the man of the hour highlights the face of risk as opportunity. When dangers proliferate, the hero may be who you least expect. In ad 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, it was the transfigured Hal, now Henry V. In 44 bc at the Battle of Philippi, it will be Antony. To do tales of glory is different than talking about tales of glory. The difference is risk. Talk is cheap. Doing involves exposing yourself to risk, kissing the hand of the murderer. Risk, though it denotes “danger,” is not all downside. Sometimes, when one takes risks, things swing to the upside. Risk opens doors. “Fortune is merry,” says Antony after his coup, “And in this mood will give us anything” (3.3.259-60). This brings us to the third, and final face of risk: risk as uncertainty, and even as destiny. Risk is truly a familiar stranger, one with the power to transfigure either a person or an entire world.

Risk as Uncertainty and Destiny – Crossing the Rubicon

But when at last the fatal die is thrown,
The hollow mask no longer serves, they fall
Into the mighty hands of nature, of
The spirit that obeys none but itself,
Knows of no treaties, and will deal with them
Not on their terms, but on its own alone. (Schiller, Wallenstein’s Death 343)

When one confronts risk, whether by throwing Schiller’s “fatal die” or by crossing Caesar’s stream, one opens the uncertain doors behind which peer snake eyes, black swans, unsolved mysteries, unintended consequences, unknown unknowns, and many things that were—before they happened—unthinkable. Risk, in this guise, is “uncertainty” (“Risk,” n. 2a, 2b). Uncertainty arises because risk-takers, having spread themselves too thin, can no longer cover their positions. Containing chance involves keeping some powder dry. Keeping powder dry, however, is the last thing on risk-takers’ minds. Risk-takers prefer to light up the stage with the fireworks of their all-in bets. When risk-takers leverage and multiply their positions beyond what they can cover, chance is in the ascendant.

In Schiller’s memorable phrase, when players play with risk, they fall into “the mighty hands of nature.” In this sense, the term “risk” recalls its derivation from the Arabic “rizq” denoting “fortune, luck, destiny, chance, and lot” (“Risk,” etymology). Risk becomes destiny. We think we master destiny, but chance is the true master. How we encounter and provoke chance is through risk. Risk is a gateway from a place where events occur in terms of probability or necessity into a place where wild improbabilities play.

Antony throws the fatal die by approaching the conspirators alone and unarmed. He pledges allegiance; he bares his neck; he takes their hands. It may turn out poorly. Instead, Brutus allows him to speak last at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.251). It is a boon he could hardly have anticipated. He will attain his finest hour in his funeral oration by inciting the mob to riot, lynch, set fire to the conspirators’ houses, and drive them running from Rome (3.2.246–52). Having thrown himself into the hands of nature, he feels a rising tailwind. Chance has his back.

After the funeral oration, the second half begins. It will culminate in the final confrontation at Philippi where they decide the fate of Rome. Brutus and Cassius have applied the tyrant’s emergency brakes, have activated powerful kill and dead man’s switches in a last-ditch attempt to save the Roman machine. But Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, will have none of it, knows of no fail-safes, having now shed the mortal form of risk to take on risk’s incorporeal form. Risk is becoming destiny.

Brutus throws the fatal die when he decides Caesar must die. Caesar’s death opens a can of worms. First, he discovers that, to do God’s work, he must conspire with the devil: “O conspiracy,” he says, “Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night, / When evils are most free?” (2.1.77–79). Next, he discovers that, by pre-emptively striking, Caesarism grows stronger, not weaker. Ere Caesar’s blood cools, Caesarism grows warm. Ere he finishes his funeral oration, Caesarism stirs:

Brutus. With this I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
All the Plebeians. Live, Brutus! Live! Live!
Brutus comes down
First Plebeian. Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Fourth Plebeian. Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Plebeian. Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Plebeian. Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crowned in Brutus. (3.2.43–51)

As Caesar triumphed over Roman friends instead of foreign enemies, the plebs will bring Brutus home with triumph. Brutus will be a new Caesar, crowned their new king. Brutus had little idea the precariousness and power of risk.

Brutus preferred liberty because he had the luxury to ponder the constitution, the history of Rome, and the nature of freedom. It had not occurred to him that the tired plebeians, working nine-to-five, would prefer comfortable servitude to uncomfortable liberty. Though he dies, Shakespeare vouchsafes him the deeper understanding that comes with death: he will see the new direction the world turns. “O Julius Caesar,” says Brutus in his apotheosis of Caesar, “thou art mighty yet!” (5.3.94). As his day sets, Brutus understands how, in saving the Republic, he destroys the Republic.

Cassius likewise plays with the fates. He has assembled the right conspirators to access and assassinate Caesar. His band, however, is short on nobility and long on “youth and wildness” (2.1.148). They lack the cachet to usher in the new world order. To gain respectability, Cassius enrolls Brutus. By doing so, Cassius brings into the conspiracy the ineptitude of the good. The train wreck of unintended consequences quickly follows.

Cassius foresees division among the conspirators. To forestall division, he would have them swear an oath (2.1.113). Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.114–40). Cassius foresees the benefits of inviting Cicero into the conspiracy (2.1.141–42). Brutus vetoes Cassius (2.1.156–62). Cassius, foreseeing the cunning of Mark Antony, proposes to kill him. Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.163–84). Cassius, foreseeing mischief, opposes Antony’s request to speak at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.231­–35). Brutus, by the ineptitude of goodness, overrules Cassius (3.1.235–42). Cassius, foreseeing the advantage of rested troops, proposes to wait for the enemy. Brutus, thinking fortune favours the good, marches to Philippi. Cassius had little idea the ruinousness of virtue.

Like the others, Caesar triggers unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of Caesar’s daring is that it makes him hated and a hazard to the Republic. He can see how some are envious of his person, but he fails to see his threat to the Republic. He thinks the risks he takes benefit the Republic. “What touches us ourself,” says Caesar, “shall be last served” (3.1.8). He is there to guide the Republic: “What is now amiss,” he asks, “That Caesar and his Senate must redress?” (3.1.31-32). Like Brutus, Shakespeare vouchsafes Caesar the higher understanding that comes with death. Even after so many wounds, he would have lived, but when Brutus strikes, he realizes how odious he has become:

Caesar. Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
Casca. Speak, hands, for me!
They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last
Caesar. Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar! He dies. (3.1.76–77)

He conveys his astonishment at how hated he has become by speaking Latin. Ever the Caesar, he commands himself to die for Rome’s sake.

Each character, by taking inordinate risks, triggers indeterminate, out of control anarchy. Risk is the dramatic mechanism animating Julius Caesar. The more risk they take, the more they expose themselves to chance, the principle of which may be illustrated through the bicycle analogy. If you eschew risk, descending the Col de Vars on the brakes and black winds batter you, you will have a fright, falling like Gloucester in King Lear (Shakespeare 4.5.41). If you embrace risk, however, descending at terminal velocity where the wild winds blow, you will, with Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (3.1.98). Risk makes a difference.

When players stretch their means beyond what their means will allow, they expose themselves to “incertain affairs” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error” (5.1.96, 5.3.110, 4.2.268, 5.3.67). Because he has set too much at stake, a trick of the light compels Cassius to kill himself: he thinks Titinius has been taken when, in reality, Titinius is hastening back to crown him in laurel (5.3.78-90). So, too, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus are, like Cassius, desperadoes on history’s verge, leveraging their mortal positions many times beyond their mortal prowess.

Wong contra Aristotle – Risk contra Hamartia

Ever since Aristotle, there has been a tendency for armchair quarterbacks to see personal fault, mistake, or error—otherwise known as hamartia—as the dramatic pivot in tragedy. The change from “prosperity to adversity,” says Aristotle, is brought about “by a great error [hamartia] of a character” (Poetics 1453a). If only the characters had been listening to the armchair quarterbacks shouting from their couches, they would have avoided the fall. From their couches, the armchair quarterbacks shouted: “Antony, do not party so hard, Caesar needs you to be sharp.” From their couches, they shouted: “Brutus, less principle and more ruthlessness, please.” From their couches, they shouted: “Cassius, be not so envious, accept your lot.” From their couches, they shouted: “Caesar, why go for a home run, when you can get by with a hit?” Many thought, and perhaps some still do, that these critics expressed high literary theory’s most profound truths.

The reason why Aristotle focused on agency in bringing about the fall was to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had labeled the art degenerate, banning it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a–e; Republic 607b). By theorizing that: 1) the fall results from error, and 2) the sequence of events follows a probable course (eikos, Poetics 1454a), Aristotle could argue that the events in tragedy, because they are “the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity,” are replicable in life (Poetics 1451a; Wong “Faces of Chance” 98–99). Being replicable, the audience, by seeing the mistake on the stage, would avoid it in life. It is a brilliant argument, and one that restores tragedy’s social function. But it is wrong. While it is highly questionable whether the great error could so easily be subtracted from the individual, it is patently false that hamartia is the dramatic pivot of tragedy.

To Aristotle and the armchair critics, if Brutus had been more ruthless, he would have carried the day. If Caesar was not always hitting home runs, he would have lived, and so on. To others, however, Caesar’s confidence and Brutus’s goodness, far from being errors, were written in their DNA. Without confidence, Caesar would not be Caesar. Without goodness, Brutus would not be noble. Each great error is written into the DNA of a character’s blended humours. Aristotle’s “You would have scored had you not fumbled the ball” is impudent and unhelpful. The good and evil geniuses are bound together by the Gordion knot of human nature.

In this essay, I have offered you another reading, one in which the pivot of hamartia was unnecessary. Instead of error, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Instead of straight line runs of predictable and probable events following a tidy cause and effect causality, improbable events abound. “Et tu Brute?” says Caesar (3.1.77). “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!” says Brutus (5.3.94). To Aristotle and the armchair critics, these words signify the characters’ reactions to the culmination of a sequence of events that followed a necessary or probable course. With their last words, the characters offer helpful advice to playgoers by recanting their errors. To keener critics, however, these words signify the characters’ utter surprise over the complete disproportion of their improbable losses in the face of the probable risks they took. Hamartia was the old dramatic fulcrum. Risk is the new dramatic fulcrum. The probable and the necessary were the old mechanisms: make mistake x and y will certainly occur. Improbability and risk are the new mechanisms: wager everything and anything can happen. When anything can happen, actions are no longer replicable. Risk falsifies the hamartia hypothesis.

Risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy called risk theatre (Wong Risk). Risk theatre is, in turn, the basis of the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (Wong Competition). Risk theatre is my daring attempt to restore tragedy’s legacy of audacity. Once upon a time, the greatest poet, inaugurating his new theatre, elected tragedy.

If tragedy is not about avoiding the same mistakes, then what is it about? These days we concern ourselves with statistics and awards, honours and accolades. The Pulitzer Prize is the measure of a writer. The best basketballer is the one with the most rings. The boxer dreams of going 50–0. Conversely, the self-published writer is scorned, the street-corner basketballer is a nobody, and the defeated boxer yesterday’s headlines. What a shame. I think the sensibility Shakespeare presents is that, whether 50­–0 or 0–50, the final record of victories, losses, awards, and accolades is inconsequential. What is important is how we comport ourselves on life’s journey.

In Julius Caesar, there are no “bad guys.” Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and Caesar shine. I think they are bright because they dared to overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring: Caesar by daring majesty, Brutus nobility, Cassius choleric envy, and Antony friendship. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare administers a concoction of ancient Roman values as an antidote to American virtue with its base preoccupation with statistics, accolades, and awards. Some win all and others lose all. That is inconsequential. What is important is how greatly one dares. The agon is for a moment; the beauty is forever.

If, in future ages, theatregoers exiting the theatres say: “I should be less envious; I saw what happened to Cassius” or “I should be less ambitious; I may die for my ambition,” then Aristotle will be proved correct: we can learn, in life, to foresee the things that the characters could not even imagine. Tradition vouches for Aristotle: for a long time teachers taught and students learned by pointing fingers, remonstrations, and assigning blame. If, however, risk is the trigger and do-gooders keep doing themselves in and politicians keep blowing up, then, perhaps, the dawn of the new day breaks here. On this new and blameless day, teachers and students, imbued with a higher sensibility than the rod, will insist that—instead of hamartia—risk is the great pivot because the soul of drama is less about fault-finding and more about entertaining. Risk, being danger, opportunity, uncertainty, and fate entertains in a way hamartia never could.

While we render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar, Caesar renders unto risk what is due to risk. What is due to risk are the entertaining and unintended consequences of “incertain affairs,” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error.” Risk entertains because what they thought would happen did not happen, and in a way they least expected.

The year is 2021. Wonders and signs return. History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the poetics of the probable and the poetics of risk. On one fork lies Aristotle, hamartia, and didactic theatre. On the other fork lies risk theatre, a magic gateway into the world of clouds, dews, and dangers. At stake is the soul of drama. Whither, Roman, will you choose?


  1. In an act of dramatic compression, Shakespeare binds three years of events (from Caesar’s triumph over the sons of Pompey in October 45 bc to the festival of the Lupercalia on 15 February and the Battle of Philippi in October 42) tightly around the centrepiece of Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 bc.
  2. In the game of chance known as Pascal’s Wager, Pascal sets the existence of God on a probabilistic footing by arguing for God’s existence based on the expected future value of the belief in God:

Let us examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.…

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (81)

For a discussion of the wager—which is more complex than it appears on a first examination—  see Hacking 63-72.

  1. In terms of line numbers, Brutus speaks 738 lines, Cassius 513, Antony 361, and Caesar 155 (King 199).

Works Cited

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Bernstein, Peter L. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Cicero. On Old Age. On Friendship. On Divination. Translated by W. A. Falconer, Loeb- Harvard UP, 1923

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. 1930. Vol. 2, B. T. Batsford, 1958.

Hacking, Ian. The Emergence of Probability. 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2006.

Homer. Iliad. Translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett, 1997.

Humphreys, Arthur, editor. Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare,     1984.

King, T. J. Casting Shakespeare’s Plays: London Actors and Their Roles 1590–1642. Cambridge, 1992.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. The Provincial Letters. Translated by W. F. Trotter and Thomas M’Crie,            Random House, 1941.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett, 1997.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by Rex Warner, rev. ed., Penguin, 1972.

___. Lives: Dion and Brutus. Timoleon and Aemilius Paulus. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin,     Loeb-Harvard UP, 1918.

“Risk.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed., 2010. Accessed 5 July 2021.

Rodin, Auguste. The Burghers of Calais. 1895, Town Hall, Calais.

___. Rodin on Art and Artists: Conversations with Paul Gsell. Translated by Romilly Fedden,      Dover, 1983.

Rowe, Nicholas. “List of Roles.” Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden        Shakespeare, 1998, 152-54.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers and Wallenstein. Translated by F. J. Lamport, Penguin, 1979.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI Part One. Henry VI Part Two. Henry VI Part Three. Edited by   Lawrence V. Ryan, Arthur Freeman, and Milton Crane, The Signet Classics Shakespeare,       2005.

___. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys, The Oxford Shakespeare, 1984.

___. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Jay L. Halio, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1992.

Sohmer, Steve. Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: The Opening of the Globe Theatre 1599.      Manchester UP, 1999.

Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translated by Peter Holmes, edited by    A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 3, New York, 1885.

Wong, Edwin. “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and            Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem,   2021.

___.  The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen,          2019.

___.  The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Risk Theatre, 12 April 2018, Accessed 18 July 2021.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine audacia nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

In 1874, Thomas Hardy was thirty-four and moonlighting as a writer. His day job as an architect paid the bills. Far from the Madding Crowd, his fourth published novel, was being anonymously serialized in the popular London magazine Cornhill. Rumor had it that it was George Eliot’s new novel.1 It was a hit. Its success allowed Hardy to become a full-time writer. Like the fictional events in the novel, the real-life events that led to his breakthrough were full of chance, risk, and the random element.

The coincidences that led to Hardy’s rise began in 1862 when he started working for Arthur Blomfield, a London architect located at 9 St. Martin’s Place (Millgate 74). In the same building, at 8 St. Martin’s Place, was the Alpine Club (Halperin 740). Its president was Leslie Stephen. In 1862, Stephen published Peaks, Passes, and Glaciersrecounting his ascent—the first—of the Schreckhorn, a 4078 meter alpine peak. Hardy was familiar with Stephen’s book (Halperin 740–1). His familiarity was unsurprising: it was the golden age of mountaineering. What is surprising, however, is that years later, Stephen would be the one to give Hardy his golden opportunity. By chance their paths had crossed and by chance their paths would keep crossing.

Flash forward ten years. Hardy has moved to Dorset, where he was working on his third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. In November 1872, he picked up a copy of Fraser’s Magazine. One of the pieces was Stephen’s fictional short story, “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps,” about a fall that leaves a mountaineer two hundred feet above a torrent hanging by a rhododendron stem. Hardy, captivated, rewrites Stephen’s story into his own (literal) cliffhanger scene in A Pair of Blue Eyes (Halperin 742–4).2 Their paths were crossing again.

That same year, Stephen became editor of Cornhill. He came across Hardy’s second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. He must have been captivated, because he wrote Hardy asking for a novel. His letter, however, was dropped in the mud on a Dorsetshire lane. If a laborer had not seen it, the winter rain and wind would have carried it away (Hardy Life 98). Hardy received the letter in late November, even as he was rewriting “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” He wrote back. Yes, he had a novel in mind. Its name would be Far from the Madding Crowd.

For over a decade, Hardy and Stephen’s literal and literary paths—though they knew not why—had been crossing. Then, chance made something happen. For Stephen to have offered the little-known Hardy an opportunity to join the Cornhill’s roster—which included heavy hitters Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Anthony Trollope—was a godsend, and one that was lost and found, almost blown away by an errant gust.

Perhaps it was the impact of so many low-probability, high-consequence concatenations in life that led Hardy to foreground chance in his new novel. Far from the Madding Crowd entertains by flitting between tragedy and comedy. Chance is the narrative fulcrum between the two. The pastoral idyll, with its unchanging agricultural rhythms, highlights through contrast how accident, coincidence, and the unexpected rule life. Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, and Francis Troy—like Hardy and Stephen in life—wander their desultory circuit. For a duration, the steady state prevails. Then chance romps through, changing all. Chance is the invisible hand of the new god writing life’s text.

Between Tragedy and Comedy

Just as the architectural marvel of the great barn is built from arches, buttresses, and structures counterbalancing opposing forces, the narrative is built upon counterbalancing binary propositions. It is the work of an author-architect. On a macro level, the novel’s title announces the opposing forces between town and country: Far from the Madding Crowd is how Londoners would describe rustics, not how rustics would themselves describe. On a micro level, binary propositions can be seen in the narrator’s love of antithesis: “Deeds of endurance which seem ordinary in philosophy,” says the narrator in one example, “are rare in conduct” (368).3

In chapter three, a crucial binary proposition emerges. In their first conversation, Gabriel unintentionally provokes Bathsheba’s anger and embarrassment. She turns red. He turns away. When he turns back, she is gone. “With an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy,” says the narrator, “Gabriel returned to work” (24). The air is comic insofar as the conversation kindles his interest and tragic insofar as she leaves. The proposition between tragedy and comedy provides the key to the novel’s structure. As the suitors—Gabriel, the stalwart farmhand, Boldwood, the older gentleman-farmer, and Troy, the young and dashing libertine—vie for the hand of the independent and recalcitrant Bathsheba, the action veers between tragedy and comedy. Far from the Madding Crowd, as it counterbalances the ancient forces of comedy and tragedy, is, like the great barn, a marvel to behold and a work for all time.

The tension between tragedy and comedy is palpable when Troy tells Bathsheba that, while she means nothing to him, his previous lover, though dead, means everything. Distressed, Bathsheba barricades herself in the attic. To pass the time, she asks Liddy Smallbury, her servant-companion, for some books:

“Bring up some books. Not new ones. I haven’t heart to read anything new.”
“Some of your uncle’s old ones ma’am?”
“Yes: some of those we stowed away in boxes.” A faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said: “Bring Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; and the Mourning Bride; and—let me see—Night Thoughts, and the Vanity of Human Wishes.”
“And that story of the black man who murdered his wife Desdemona? It is a nice dismal one that would suit you excellent just now.”
“Now Lidd-you’ve been looking into my books without telling me! And I said you were not to. How do you know it would suit me? It wouldn’t suit me at all.”
“But if the others do—”
“No they don’t. And I won’t read dismal books. Why should I read dismal books indeed? Bring me Love in a Village, and The Maid of the Mill, and Doctor Syntax and some volumes of the Spectator.” (300)

Her initial choices assimilate her situation into tragedy. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy and William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride are both tragedies of passion. The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality by Edward Young is a didactic poem reflecting on loss, fortune’s wheel, missed opportunities, and other tragic commonplaces. Samuel Johnson, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, likewise sets into poetry the follies preceding the fall.

Liddy picks up her mistress’s cue, suggesting another tragedy of passion: Shakespeare’s Othello. Then, as though to demonstrate life’s mutability, Bathsheba requests four comic works: two comic operas (librettist Isaac Bickerstaff’s Love in a Village and The Maid of the Mill), William Combe’s comic poem, Doctor Syntax, and the Spectator, a periodical featuring comic essays and character sketches. She signifies through her choices that life pivots between tragic exhaustion and comic rejuvenation.

Tragedy and comedy can be conceptualized as life’s two opposing poles. Such is the polarity the narrator presents when introducing Boldwood:

He saw no absurd sides to the follies of life, and thus, though not quite companionable in the eyes of merry men and scoffers, and those to whom all things show life as a jest, he was not intolerable to the earnest and those acquainted with grief. Being a man who read all the dramas of life seriously, if he failed to please when they were comedies, there was no frivolous treatment to reproach him for when they chanced to end tragically. (122)

In the narrator’s eyes, because life is a drama, it vacillates between drama’s two classic forms: tragedy and comedy. In this synoptic view, while comedy is associated with folly and jest, tragedy is associated with seriousness and grief.

As the novel takes on the qualities of tragedy and comedy, theatrical references accumulate. While daydreaming, Bathsheba imagines her future romances would be “dramas in which men would play a part” (12). Unexpected announcements create an “intensely dramatic effect” (252). A pause in conversation is an “entr’acte,” a French term for the interval between two acts of a play (106). The flames lighting the kiln at Warren’s Malthouse are theatrical footlights throwing onto the ceiling the shadows of the assembled rustics, who are themselves likened to the theatre troupe Her Majesty’s Servants (46: Penguin edition). In a serious turn, when Gabriel hands Fanny Robin a shilling, he can feel in her wrists the “throb of tragic intensity” (54). In a lighthearted moment, the narrator says that Bathsheba’s face appears to Gabriel, who is admiring her, “as the uncertain glory of an April day” (124). The passage draws from Shakespeare’s comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Proteus. O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away. (1.3.84–87)

At that moment, as though on a cue, a cloud arrives as Boldwood takes Bathsheba away.

As theatrical references accumulate, Hardy transforms Shakespeare’s well-loved characters into the rustics and farmhands that populate the novel. Shakespeare’s characters strut out again, this time on the pastoral stage of Hardy’s novel. While Shakespeare’s Antony in Julius Caesar leads the plebs on, saying: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,” (3.2.210–1), Troy leads Bathsheba on, saying: “Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind” (169–70). In Laban Tall, a second Morton arises and a second tragedy unfolds: “Tall came into the enclosure, and leapt off—his face tragic as Morton’s after the Battle of Shrewsbury” (139). Just as the messenger Morton announces the tragedy in 2 Henry IV (1.1.70–1), so too, the mock-heroic Tall announces the pastoral iteration of the Battle of Shrewsbury: Bathsheba’s flock is dying and help is wanting. In a lighter moment, the narrator likens Gabriel to Guildenstern, a source of comic relief in Hamlet. “Like Guildenstern,” says the narrator, “Oak was happy in that he was not over happy” (145). Gabriel is happy, and, like Guildenstern, a step away from tragedy.

Hardy’s references to theatrical conventions and works familiar to the madding crowd—the educated big-city readers of Cornhill—translate the Wessex countryside into the Londoners’ idiom: a shepherd’s loss of a flock is “a pastoral tragedy” (38); Joseph Poorgrass and the rustics, thinking the farm will be ruined, think they are living “in a tragedy” (105); Bathsheba, confronted with an errant husband, cannot decide if farm life is more like the comic Love in a Village or the tragic A Maid’s Tragedy. Not only do the allusions draw cultivated city readers into the rustic country setting, once the novel has become a stage, Hardy has at his disposal all the elements of tragedy and comedy—such as tragic omens and stock comic characters—to use as narrative building blocks.

Tragic Omens and Stock Comic Characters

Omens precipitate negative turning points. A cat and dog presage Gabriel’s initial, unsuccessful courting of Bathsheba: “just as he arrived by the garden gate,” says the narrator, “he saw a cat inside, going into arched shapes and fiendish convulsions at the sight of his dog George” (31). A harbinger likewise attends Bathsheba’s disastrous journey to Bath:

“I hope nothing is wrong about mistress,” said Maryann, who with some other women was tying the bundles (oats being always sheaved on this farm). “But a’ unlucky token came to me int’house this morning. I went to unlock the door, and dropped the key, and it fell upon the stone floor and broke into two pieces. Breaking a key is a dreadful bodement. I wish mis’ess was home.” (215)

So too, before Boldwood’s fateful Christmas party, “a shadow seemed to rove about the rooms saying that the proceedings were unnatural” (348).

Omens, being chance events, amplify chance’s dominion. Nature communicates through chance. When omens congregate together, it is, to those in the know, a “direct message from the Great Mother” (239). “I’ve had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I’ve seen a magpie all alone!” says Poorgrass the night Fanny goes missing and the rickyard fire breaks out (70). After Bathsheba fires her bailiff, the farmers worry about the impact of her inexperience upon their livelihoods. They begin seeing tell-tale signs:

“Ay—there’s some sorrow going to happen,” said Matthew Moon. “I’ve had three very bad dreams lately; and Sally put the bellows upon table twice following last week.”
“A sure sign that sommat wrong is coming,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “I had a white cat come in to me yesterday breakfast-time. And there was a coffin-handle upon my sister-law’s candle last night.”
“And I’ve seed the new moon two months following through glass. I was told, too, that Gammer Ball dreamed of bees stinging her.” (105)

The wicked storm is also presaged by signs: a toad crosses the path; a slug goes indoors; spiders drop from the ceiling; sheep crowd together. The sky itself, in a display of hylozoism, expresses solidarity with the animal kingdom:

The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky, dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon as seen through these films had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution. (236)

The portents are the pastoral equivalents to the tragic omen, a commonplace in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, wonders presage Caesar’s doom:

Calphurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol.
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (2.2.13–24)

So, too, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, omens anticipate the death of the king:

Lennox. The night has been unruly: where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion, and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3.54–61)

Far from the Madding Crowd, like the art of tragedy, uses chance to anticipate what is to come.

If omens move the action towards tragedy, the likeness of Bathsheba’s suitors to stock comic characters moves the narrative towards comedy. One of comedy’s stock characters is the adulescens amator, the young man in love. The adulescens amator was such a standard fixture in Roman comedy, that, should he fail to appear, the playwright would be obliged to explain his absence (Plautus Captives 1032; Casina 64–5). The prototypical young man (such as Shakespeare’s Proteus with whom Gabriel is explicitly identified) falls in love and asks for the hand of the first lady that comes his way. So too, it is love at first sight for Gabriel: he meets Bathsheba and is on his knees. Just as the adulescens amator in comedy has to overcome blocking characters, Gabriel will have to overcome Boldwood and Troy.

One species of blocking character is the old man in love, the senex amator. From Olympio in Plautus’s Casina or Demenetus in his Asinaria to Chaucer’s January in the Merchant’s Tale, the senex amator is a common rival. Although the old man is wealthier and starts off from a position of power, he gives place, in the end, to his younger rival, and at a high cost to his dignity. Boldwood plays the old man in love. He is forty-one when he proposes to Bathsheba: twice her age and much older than the other suitors (127).4

As Boldwood plays the senex amator, his progression, mirroring that of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, takes on further comic dimensions. Malvolio, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (2.3.151–57); Boldwood, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (98). Malvolio has a puritanical bent (2.3.142); Boldwood’s house has the atmosphere of “a Puritan Sunday lasting all the week” (99). Malvolio is transformed into a fool as he woos an unwilling lady (3.4.17–60); Boldwood woos an unwilling lady and is made a fool by Troy (224–31). Malvolio rues his loss of dignity (5.1.338–39); Boldwood rues his loss of dignity (202–03, 252). Malvolio is sent to the madhouse (4.2.7–9); Boldwood is sent to the madhouse (373–75).

The braggart soldier, or miles gloriosus, is another stock character, and an audience favourite. He is a dashing rogue, a libertine whose tales are greater in the telling than the doing. Examples of the miles gloriosus include Plautus’s bombastic Pyrgopolynices (“terrific tower-taker”) in The Braggart Soldier and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Sergeant Troy plays the miles gloriosus. “Whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech,” says the narrator, “he fell below the commonplace in action” (167). “He could,” says the narrator, “be eager to pay and intend to owe” (167). Troy would be at home in the tavern with Falstaff, Shakespeare’s jolly knight. Like Troy, Falstaff is eager to pay, but intends to owe: if only his pockets had not been picked, he would pay his “four-and-twenty pound” tab to Mistress Quickly (1 Henry IV3.3.73). Like the braggart soldier, Troy’s daring is better suited to charming ladies and circus tricks than fighting. When it comes to blows, he is bested by Boldwood and, if we admit the brawl in the unpublished “Sheep-Rot Chapter,” by Gabriel as well (228, 397). Like the comic soldier, Troy is the object of ridicule for those who see through his facade (193–94, 220–21).

Wessex is a stage. The malthouse kilns provide the theatrical footlights lighting the way for the new adulescens amator, senex amator, and miles gloriosus to walk the stage. When the action is grave, pulsing with disintegration, the countryside breaks out in strange omens presaging tragedy. But, when the action is gay and laughter-loving, when fortunes rise and marriage beckons, the novel approaches comedy.

Upside Risk and Downside Risk

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Monk connects tragedy with downside risk:

I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode,
The sufferings of those who once stood high,
Who fell from eminence, so that none could
Deliver them out of adversity.
For when Fortune makes up her mind to fly,
Her course no man is able to withhold;
Let no one trust in blind prosperity;
Be warned by these examples true and old. (178)

The Monk makes it through seventeen tragedies before the Knight interrupts. “‘Halt!’ says the Knight. ‘No more of this, good sir!’” (201). It is perhaps unsurprising that the Monk’s stories of one-percenters being cut down annoys the Knight, who is himself one of the elites. Instead of downside risk, the Knight would rather hear of upside risk:

And as for me, it is a real discomfort
To hear of folk who live in wealth and comfort,
And then, alas, learn of their sudden ruin.
But on the other hand it’s gratifying
To hear about a man of low estate,
How he climbs up and becomes fortunate,
Thenceforth abiding in prosperity. (201)

From the quarrel between the Monk and the Knight a revelation flashes: tragedy is the art that dramatizes downside risk and comedy the art that dramatizes upside risk (Wong Risk 233–43).

In both comedy and tragedy, chance, coincidence, sliding doors, mysterious synchronicities, the unexpected, accidents, improbabilities, the random element, unintended consequences, and mischance are ubiquitous. In tragedy, chance waylays the hero. In comedy, chance helps the hero. “Coincidence must be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s fourth century bce comedy The Girl from Samos, “She looks after many of the things we cannot see” (163–4). Demeas has good reason to say this. Contrary to every expectation, accusations of fornication and adultery give way to a joyful wedding.

In comedy after comedy, chance brings the action home against a million to one odds. To end the internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War, the women of Sparta and Athens stage a sex strike. Their unlikely plan works (Aristophanes Lysistrata). In Greek New Comedy and its Roman emulators, the miser recovers the stolen gold (Plautus The Pot of Gold), kidnapped children are reunited with their family against all odds (Plautus The Captives), and young lovers  marry in spite of cantankerous patriarchs (Menander Old Cantankerous). So, too, in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Egeon’s execution is stayed when, a thousand miles away from home, he, his wife, his two sons, and their two sons’ slaves “accidentally are met together” (5.1.352). Comedy is an agglomeration of the most improbable events that work to the upside. The conditions of comedy represent such an extreme that a character can say, in a metatheatrical turn: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction” (Twelfth Night3.4.125–26).

While chance, daring, and luck swing to the upside in comedy, the opposite happens in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief. Desdemona, Emilia, Othello, and Roderigo die. In Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, the murder investigation reunites Oedipus with the Corinthian Messenger and the Shepherd, three characters long separated by both time and distance. Unlike the happy reunion of comedy, this reunion brings about a weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, civil war rages at Thebes, the city of seven gates. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 25,401,600 permutations of attackers and defenders are possible. Against 1:25,401,599 odds, Aeschylus brings about the permutation most inimical to the hero’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions (Wong “Aeschylus’s Seven”). Comedy and tragedy both dramatize risk events. When chance skews to the upside, we call it comedy. When chance skews to the downside, we call it tragedy. Hardyan chance works similarly as it maneuvers the narrative between the two.

The language of chance pervades Far from the Madding Crowd. There are “whimsical coincidences” (20). Mischance is referred to as “a freak,” something that happens “contretemps” (24, 119). Laborers “wait upon Chance” (43). Chance is capitalized, as though a god. Elsewhere, chance, as an active agent, can be seen to have “offered” something to someone (38). “Heartless circumstance” preys on unsuspecting characters (146). A “singular accident” ruins the best-laid plans (308). Eyes that “had been accidentally lifted at that moment” see things they ought not to (265). Comings are “sudden and unexpected” (89). A misunderstanding between All Saints’ and All Souls’ means the difference between life and death. The outcome of a marriage hangs on how much liquor the hired help drinks (276–83). Chance is everywhere.

The omnipotence of chance forces characters to make best guesses based on “reasonable probabilities” (317) and to warn one another “not to be too sure” even when the outcome seems certain (354). There is everywhere “many a slip” (354). Steeped in the world of chance, the characters gloomily admit that “nothing happens that we expect” (252). Chance is so pervasive that it fuels dramatic irony. At the shearing supper, Bathsheba sings “The Banks of Allan Water.” “One of the verses,” says the narrator, was “remembered for many months, even years, by more than a few of those who were gathered there:”

For his bride a soldier sought her
And a winning tongue had he:
On the banks of Allan Water
None was gay as she. (157)

In a few hours, she will meet Troy. So too, when Boldwood asks Bathsheba to marry him barring any “unexpected accidents,” (343) the reader hears irony, hears echoes of tragedy, of King Duncan saying: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” as he approaches Inverness where he goes to die (Macbeth 1.6.1).

Chance pivots the action between tragedy and comedy. Having begun in low estate, Gabriel has saved for ten years to become an independent farmer. He begins the fortunate climb of Chaucer’s Knight. A random act, however, triggers his pastoral tragedy (38–42). One morning, his overenthusiastic sheepdog drives his flock through the fence and down the precipice. Ten years of labor is lost. While Gabriel moves from comedy to tragedy, Bathsheba heads the other way. She begins in a state of destitution. Her uncle dies, however, and leaves her the Weatherbury Upper Farm. It is her turn to climb the ladder and grow fortunate.

After losing his livelihood, Gabriel hits the road looking for work. On his way to Shottsford, he passes a farm. A fire has broken out in the straw ricks. After putting it out, he asks for a job. Little does he know, he has stumbled onto Bathsheba’s new farm. Bathsheba marvels at chance’s power: “She scarcely knew,” says the narrator, “whether most to be amused at the singularity of the meeting or to be concerned at its awkwardness. There was room for a little pity, also for a very little exultation; the former at his position, the latter at her own” (52). Like Hardy and Stephen in real life, Bathsheba and Gabriel’s paths keep crossing. She hires him.

As is often the case between the sexes where feeling runs hot, Bathsheba, over a perceived impropriety, fires Gabriel. Or he leaves. Whatever the case, the day after he departs, she runs into her own pastoral tragedy: her sheep have gotten into the young clover. Blasted, they will die and are dying (136). Only Gabriel can save them. Through another coincidence, mistress and shepherd are reunited.

Chance also triggers the other two romantic interests. Bathsheba and Liddy toss a hymn book to see whether the anonymous Valentine sealed with the words “Marry Me” goes to Boldwood or Teddy Coggan (98). Chance selects Boldwood. The Valentine has an unanticipated and deleterious effect on him. He is transformed into the senex amatorblocking Gabriel, the hapless adulescens amator. In a world mindful of class, he easily bests Gabriel, his social inferior.

It is likewise “by chance or by devilry” that Bathsheba meets Troy (165). While walking a dark path, Troy’s spur and Bathsheba’s dress become entangled. In extricating themselves, their hands touch “by accident or design” (163). Her beauty’s flicker entices him. Their tragicomedy begins. If the novel had ended a few chapters earlier, Troy would have fulfilled his comedy by marrying Bathsheba. The novel, however continues. As it continues, chance works its strange ways, saving Troy from drowning only to kill him by a blast from Boldwood’s shotgun.

With Boldwood in jail and Troy dead, laughter-loving Bathsheba “was beginning to know suffering” and turns into a “bust of Melpomene,” the Muse of tragedy (270, 370). She marries Gabriel, the last suitor standing. The ending, perhaps, could have been foreseen: just as the adulescens amator prevails in comedy, Gabriel could have been expected to prevail. What Far from the Madding Crowd offers that is new, however, is an anastomosing path to the finish that is full of possibilities and rife with branches: this is not the unidirectional path of comedy or tragedy proper. “History,” says Hardy, “is rather a stream than a tree. There is nothing organic in its shape, nothing systematic in its development. It flows on like a thunderstorm-rill by a road side; now a straw turns it this way, now a tiny barrier of sand that” (Hardy Life 179). Like history, the narrative flows from the highlands down to the sea. The topography of comedy and tragedy proper presents a single, deep channel. The topography of Far from the Madding Crowd, however, presents a myriad forking, complex, and anastomosing branches through valleys dividing once, twice, and thrice.

Works set in the meridian times of chance, of which Far from the Madding Crowd is a signal example, remind us of the limitations of the straight line of want, will, and intention. They show us how the unexpected happens not some of the time, but rather, all of the time. Trouble happens because everyone has a plan until they run into the unexpected. The unexpected prevails over the expected because, while expectation aims towards one eventuality, the unexpected takes the shape of any eventuality. A successful harvest, for example, depends on multiple factors from the availability of labor to the climate. Many events must occur in the desired sequence. Any one wayward event, however, could ruin the entire sequence. In short, expectation is fragile because one path leads to success and the unexpected is robust because many paths lead to failure.

The Eternal Pastoral

The perfection of the pastoral world highlights by contrast life’s random walk. In contrast with the imprecision and instability of human affairs, the pastoral world is precise and self-regulating:

The river would have been seen by day to be of that deep smooth sort which races middle and sides with the same gliding precision, any irregularities of speed being immediately corrected by a small whirlpool. (87)

Troy hopes “in the nature of things that matters would right themselves at some proper date and wind up well” (309). The possibility of self-regulating human mechanisms, Troy comes to realize, is illusory. While self-regulating systems occur in the pastoral world, randomness prevails in the human world.

Like the river, the pastoral sky is a portrait of precision:

After placing the little creature with its mother he stood and carefully examined the sky to ascertain the time of night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were half way up the southern sky, and between them hung Orion which gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now as it soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west: far away through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the leafless trees; and Cassiopeia’s Chair stood daintily poised on the uppermost boughs.
“One o’ clock,” said Gabriel. (18)

Perfection is for the heavens. The sky is the dial and the constellations the hands of the great clock. Human time, in contrast, is aleatory and subject to chance, breakdown, and malfunction. Gabriel’s watch “had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all” (10). Bathsheba’s watch stops on the night before her wedding (387). While Jan Coggan’s pinchbeck repeater retains traces of the divine by speaking in the “still small tones” that recall the “still small voice” of God talking to Elijah, Coggan is already fuddled beyond hearing (279; 1 Kings 19.12). The pastoral timepiece of the sky, unlike human time, is perfect: its motions are the moving hands of time itself.

The pastoral calendar, insofar as it is linked to the celestial clock, is likewise robust. The hiring fair takes place in February on Candlemas (43) Lady Day in March sees the renewal of labor contracts (380). May is the month for sheep washing and June the month for shearing and the shearing supper (125, 142, 151). The harvest supper follows in August (236) and the sheep fair in September (331). The further away from the perfection of the seasons, however, the greater the dominion of chance. Lambing season ends some years in February, and other years goes past March (107). So too, the swarming of bees in a given month is a probability rather than a certainty (178). The helter-skelter lives of individual human beings lies at the far end of the range. Here, there is no certainty. Only probability remains. Certainty is reserved for the rivers, the sky, and the other furnishings belonging to the order of the eternal pastoral. Of these furnishings, the greatest is the great barn.

The Lindy Effect

A book that has been in print a hundred years can be expected to be in print a hundred more and a book in print for two hundred years can be expected to be in print another two hundred (Taleb Antifragile 318). Scientific theories, religions, and technologies that have stood the test of time for a thousand years can be expected to survive another thousand. This is the Lindy effect, the idea that the older something is, the longer its projected lifespan:

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy effect. (Taleb Skin 141)

The oldest Wessex artifact is the great barn. An architectural design concept triumph, it exemplifies the Lindy effect. Like the unchanging constellations overlooking the countryside, the older the barn gets, the older it is likely to become:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediævalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout, a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. (143)

To measure change, one needs a point of reference from which the change is measured. To see the gradual sweep of the heavens, one needs to find a fixed point, as Gabriel does when he stands atop Norcombe Hill: “To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness” (15). In the world of the novel, the great barn is the fixed object past which mortal stars glide. From its vantage point, one can reckon the palpable movement of human activity.

Two major episodes—the sheep shearing and the harvest dinner—take place in the great barn. As the characters fuss, fret, flirt, and flutter, the great barn, though itself unchanging in its pastoral persistence, watches their changings of the guards, over and over. It had stood while the Hundred Years’ War raged. As the Tudors rose and fell, it stood. It stood during the Interregnum and it stood during the Restoration. As the Great Fire of London burned, it stood. When the printing press came to England, it stood, and it stood when steam engines arose. When Napoleon went on his wars of conquest, it was there, and having gained four hundred years of momentum, it could be expected to endure another four hundred: that is to say, to the mid twenty-third century. That the tithe barn at Cerne Abbas—the actual structure upon which Hardy modeled the great barn—stands today in the twenty-first century, however, means that the prognosis is to be moved upwards: by the Lindy effect, the great barn, having stood nearly six centuries, can be expected to endure deep into the twenty-sixth century (Bullen 35–38). Imagine that.

The pastoral world and, in particular, the great barn, highlight, by way of contrast, the role of chance in the characters’ lives. Time changes humans because human are perishable, but the more time goes by, the more the great barn stays the same because the great barn represents another order of things: the eternal pastoral. As a survey marker of eternity, it provides a frame of reference against which human transience may be measured.

Littlewood’s Law

Too often we ignore chance, relegating it into a footnote adorning the text of life. Chance in tragedy and comedy entertains, but the odds of an event a million to one against in life lay beyond the prospect of belief. We read Far from a Madding Crowd to experience the wildness of chance vicariously. That the real world is more stable than the fictional world, however, is a conjecture that, despite its appeal, is demonstrably false.

J. E. Littlewood, a Cambridge mathematician, demonstrated through the law that bears his name that, not only do improbable events happen more often than we expect, but that, when they happen, they impact us more than we expect: in fact, when they happen, they are called miracles. Beginning with the observation that we experience many events each day, Littlewood concludes that, by the action of chance, we should experience a miracle once per month:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happens to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month. (Dyson 273)

In the span of the novel, it would not be far off the mark to say that Gabriel has seen, on the average, one miracle every month. Low-probability, high-consequence events in the novel are like low-probability, high-consequence events in life: though predictable in their unpredictability, when they happen, they overturn all things.

Far from the Madding Crowd, in acknowledging the dominion of chance, presents an order of existence where intention is the slave of want, and want is chance’s fool. The ever-present eternal pastoral is like a rich, unexpected shadow over the narrative throwing in relief the indeterminacy of the all too human. Though the characters’ lives are thrall to chance, the rural-idyllic novel offers a folk consolation. “You should take it careless-like,” says one of the rustics, “and your time will come” (67). In a world chance has driven mad, it is best to keep going.

When we are “excessively hopeful and blithe,” or, in other words, in the midst of comedy, we keep going because “a trouble is looming in the distance” (350). When we confront tragedy, we keep going because it is during these worst of times that our “malignant star was assuredly setting fast” (323). In both the novel and in life a “not frequent disregard of the probable in the chain of events” may be observed (Hardy Preface 437). Whether chance crowns us or sells us down the river, however, is beyond our control. What is in our control is to believe, hope, err, and strive. To some, this consolation may seem insufficient. But, in the face of chance, the upstart god, to rear ourselves up forthwith upright is all that may be said as a certainty. If you keep going, you just might receive the letter, the one dropped in the mud on a country lane.


  1. An anonymous review from the January 1875 Westminster Review remarks how, when the novel was first anonymously serialized “many good judges pronounced it to be a work of George Eliot’s” (Cox 41–43).
  2. Stephen’s “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps” is reprinted in Mallet 61–82. The cliffhanger episode in A Pair of Blue Eyes takes place in chapters 21 and 22.
  3. Unless noted, quotations are from Falck-Yi’s Oxford edition.
  4. Bathsheba is “Sweet-and-twenty” in the first February (67: Penguin edition). When Boldwood proposes to her in May, she is twenty or twenty-one (birthdays being unstated). Although the narrator says in the closing pages of the novel she is “three or four and twenty,” it is likelier that she is twenty-three—the novel covers three years and some odd months. In the first February, Boldwood is forty (76, 118). In May, when he proposes, he says that he is forty-one. At the end of the novel, he must be, therefore, forty-three. Troy dies on Christmas Eve two years after the novel begins (377). He is twenty-six. As the novel begins in December, he would have been twenty-four at that time, possibly twenty-three if his birthday is in December. In the first month of the novel, Gabriel is twenty-eight (11). By the end of the novel, Gabriel will be thirty-one and perhaps thirty-two if his birthday falls in the beginning of the year. It is difficult to square characters’ stated ages with their relative ages. At one point during June in the first year, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is six years older than her and that Boldwood is ten years older than him (190). If we go by Boldwood’s stated age of forty-one, this would make Gabriel thirty-one and Bathsheba twenty-five, considerably older than their stated ages. If we go by Gabriel’s stated age of twenty-eight from the previous December and allow that he may be twenty-eight or twnty-nine at this point, Boldwood would be either thirty-eight or thirty-nine and Bathsheba either twenty-two or twenty-three. The stated ages, however, appear to be more accurate than their relative ages: in another passage that takes place around the second September, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is eight—and not six—years older than her (345). Gabriel is either twenty-nine or, more likely, thirty at this point, making Bathsheba, in this reckoning, twenty-one or twenty-two.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Clouds, The Birds, Lysistrata, The Frogs.            Translated by William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglass Parker, Penguin,     1994.

Bullen, J. B. Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels. Frances Lincoln, 2013.

Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by David Wright, Oxford 1985.

Cox, R. G. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1979.

Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist as Rebel. New York Review of Books, 2006.

Halperin, John. “Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hardy, and ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’.” The Modern            Language Review, vol. 75, no. 4, 1980, pp. 738-45.

Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree. London, 1872.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. 1993. Edited by Suzanne B. Falck-Yi, Oxford UP, 2002.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. Edited by Rosemarie Morgan and Shannon Russell,                       Penguin, 2000.

_____. General Preface to the Wessex Edition of 1912. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Hardy,             Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 437-42.

_____. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Edited by Michael Millgate, Palgrave Macmillan,                1984.

Holy Bible. King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Mallett, Phillip. “Leslie Stephen’s Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” The Hardy Society Journal,     vol. 10, no. 2, 2014, pp. 58-84.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated by Norma Miller, Penguin, 1987.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revised. Oxford UP, 2004.

Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives. Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

_____. Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses. Edited and                  translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Edited by Charles Whitworth, The Oxford Shakespeare, 2002.

_____. Four Histories: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V. Penguin, 1968.

_____. Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden Shakespeare, 1998.

_____. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.

_____. Twelfth Night. Edited by Andrew Worrall, The Heinemann Shakespeare, 1994.

_____. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Edited by Clifford Leech, The Arden Shakespeare,           1969.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus.     Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1984.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.

_____. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018.

Wong, Edwin. “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s Portrait of a Patriot.” Critical       Insights: Patriotism, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem Press, 2021.

_____. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

Review of “Tragedy in Performance” – Michael R. Halleran

pages 198-214 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

For everyone who’s wondered how the stage and physical spaces of the ancient Greek theatre were set up, Halleran’s essay is a great place to start. His essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Theatrical Space,” “Actors and Chorus,” “Conventions,” “Stage Properties,” and “Gestures and Silence.” Here is a summary of the main points from each of the sections.

Theatrical Space

Moderns are used to reading ancient Greek tragedies. Texts of tragedies, in the ancient world, however, were rare: ancient were more used to watching drama in performance. Drama itself means “something done.” To understand ancient tragedy, it follows that we should understand how and when it was staged.

Ancient tragedy was performed at the City Dionysia, a springtime festival that honoured Dionysus. Each year, three dramatists would be selected to stage four plays: a tragic trilogy connected by mythological elements or three separate, unconnected tragedies followed by a boisterous satyr play. Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, was followed by a satyr play called Proteus that dramatized Menelaus’ homecoming after the Trojan War and spoofed his brother Agamemnon’s tragic return.

Plays were staged at the Theatre of Dionysus, an outdoor theatre that sat between 15-20,000 on seats carved into the south face of the Athenian acropolis. The semicircular “theatron” or seating area carved into the Acropolis encompassed another space, the “orchestra,” a circular space in front of the seating 70′ in diameter where the chorus would sing and dance. Behind the orchestra was the “skene” or stage building. Since most tragedies revolved around royal families, the skene would often represent a palace. The stage building was a rectangular structure elevated 3′ from the ground and rising 12′ high. It was 35′ in length and 15′ deep.

Two long ramps on either side of the skene called “eisodoi” led to the stage building. Here, actors could make their way to the stage by walking on the ramp between the stage and the theatron. Since the eisodoi were close to 60′ long, grandiose entrances from stage left or stage right were possible.

Finally, there were two additional stage devices for special effects: the “ekkyklema” and the “mechane.” “The ekkyklema,” writes Halleran, “was a wheeled platform that could be brought forth from the opened doors of the skene to reveal an interior scene.” The mechane was a crane that carried characters aloft. Plays employing deus ex machina ending would use the mechane to stage the sudden arrival of the god.

Actors and Chorus

Greek tragedy employed three actors who would (primarily) speak their lines on the skene. The actors would wear a full-length robe (chiton), an outer garment (himation), a linen mask, and flat-soled shoes or boots. Doubling, or the use of one actor to play multiple parts, was common, and could lead to intriguing possibilities: for example, in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, the male actor who plays Deianira (Heracles’ wife) could poison Heracles, and then come back in the next scene as the poisoned and dying Heracles.

In counterpoint to the actors on the skene, Greek tragedy also employed a chorus, who would sing their lines in the orchestra. Halleran disagrees with those who see the chorus as a superdramatic entity commenting on the action, citing plays such as Aeschylus’ Suppliants where the chorus of suppliants takes part in the action. For Halleran, the distinction between actor and chorus is that actors used the language of “declamation, explanation, debate and argument, while the sung verse of the chorus was the language of evocation, imagination, fractured narrative, and highly charged images.” In the interplay and tension between the actors on the skene and the chorus in the orchestra Greek tragedy generates its particular excitement.


Enjoying the show involves a willing suspension of disbelief. Many elements of theatre are highly artificial, from men playing womens’ roles to characters speaking in verse. While comedy likes to poke fun at its artifices, tragedy prefers to maintain the “fourth wall” of drama. When tragedy does break the fourth wall, however, the affect can be profound. At line 896 of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, when it seems as though the oracles of the gods were failing, the chorus asks “Why should I dance?” This metatheatrical line breaking the fourth wall is astounding, as the chorus at the moment is, in real life, performing a dance in a religious festival. Their threat to quit the dance unless the oracles of the gods ring true reminds the audience that they are watching a chorus who are both actors and fellow citizens. If Dionysus is not real in real life, there is no reason to dance, either on stage or in life.

Stage Properties

The stage of Greek tragedy–by today’s standards–has an uncluttered, sparse, and open aesthetic. The simple qualities of the ancient stage allowed ancient playwrights to powerfully focus the audience’s attention on whatever happened to be on the stage. Common stage properties were: corpses (Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax, Alcestis in Euripides’ Alcestis, and Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus), a weapon (Heracles’ bow in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), altars (the various suppliant plays), and buildings (a palace in Aeschylus’ Oresteia or a house in Euripides’ Alcestis).

The ancient stage gave an incredible concentrated power to the drama. Halleran, for example, discusses how Ajax’ corpse (Ajax impales himself on his sword midway through the play) stays on stage the whole play. Thus, while the other characters argue over the good and bad qualities of Ajax, his corpse is in plain view. In the end of the play, it is predicted that the death of Ajax will lead to the creation of a hero cult. But, seeing that Tecmessa and Eurysaces, during the play, already take refuge at his corpse, the play intimates powerfully that the hero cult of Ajax is already begun. There is power in the archaic simplicity of the stage properties of Greek tragedy.

Gestures and Silence

Halleran concludes his study of tragedy in performance by examining two extra-textual elements of performance: gestures and silence. The gesture of supplication–touching the supplicated’s knee and chin from an inferior position–often provided an impetus for a dramatic turn of events. Euripides writes memorable supplication scenes in both Medea (when Medea supplicates Creon to delay exile a day) and Hippolytus (when the Nurse supplicates Phaedra to reveal her secret).

“Characters on the stage but not speaking,” says Halleran, “can be lost on the page but not in the theater.” Aeschylus was so fond of this technique that he was satirized for it: Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, is plainly visible but silent as Agamemnon comes home to Clytemnestra. Cassandra’s presence is a foreboding presence, since she knows (being a prophetess) the tragedy that will shortly unfold. Sophocles too uses this technique to great effect in Oedipus rex: Jocasta is silent while the Shepherd and the Messenger unravel Oedipus’ identity. While they uncover the truth, Jocasta figures is out as well, and her silence testifies to just how bad the situation has become.


Sometimes, with all the talk of the connections between ancient Greece and modernity, it’s easy to forget about how much has changed in the two-and-a-half millennia between then and now. Halleran’s essay on tragedy in performance is a good reminder that those were different times. Yesterday: open-air theatre, masks, choruses dancing in the orchestra, theatre as a religious service, simple sets, limited special effects, dying (usually) not dramatized on stage, concentrated focus on singular stage properties, theatre for all citizens, frequent doubling of actors, maximum three actors on stage. Today: indoor theatre, theatre as entertainment, elaborate sets, many special effects and lighting, dramatic dying scenes, theatre for elites, many characters on stage, busy stages, (usually) no chorus.

Halleran mentions a peculiar convention of Greek tragedy: death is usually not dramatized on stage. It usually takes place offstage. I wonder if this convention arose because Greek tragedy, as part of the ancient liturgy, was conceived of as a show that is put on for the gods? That is to say, they imagined that they gods would also be watching (Halleran notes that the Temple of Dionysus would have been in plain view beyond the skene) and, since the gods (at least the Olympian gods) distanced themselves from death, they, as a gesture of goodwill to the gods, spared them the sight of death? I’ll leave you with this conjecture. It is an interesting conjecture since the dying scene, as we know from modern drama, is quite dramatic. There must have been a reason why they did not take advantage of it.

Author Blurb

Michael R. Halleran is Professor of Classics and Divisional Dean of Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington. He is the author of Stagecraft in Euripides (1985), Euripides: Hippolytus, with Translation and Commentary (1995), and numerous articles and reviews on ancient Greek literature and culture.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Ronin Scholar

ronin (noun) In feudal Japan, a lordless wandering samurai; an outlaw. Origin: Japanese, lit. ‘drifting people’.

Nietzsche, though himself sickly, of poor constitution and poorer eyesight, saw beyond what others could see, and had the power to ignite and explode all he came in contact with.

Nietzsche’s chosen field was Altphilogie, or the study of the ancient languages and literature (i.e. Greek and Latin). It was the late 1800s, the days when Otto von Bismarck was unifying Germany and when philology was still unified, the days before the awful schism that separated Altphilologie into the branches of linguistics and classics. His teacher was none other than the great Plautus scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who himself traced a line back to Richard Bentley. Not only did Nietzsche have great teachers, he had the best of classmates too, chief among them Erwin Rohde, the author of Psyche, a monumental study of the idea of the soul and ancient Greek cult. They would be friends, on and off, until Nietzsche’s demise.

In his youth, Nietzsche went from peak to peak. As an undergraduate, he published an article in one of the leading journals. That was unheard of. What is more, he was granted a professorship at the University of Basel prior to receiving his doctorate. This was simply unprecedented. His good fortune was likely due to Ritschl’s glowing letter of recommendation, which closed with these words: “He will simply be able to do anything he wants to do.”

Nietzsche’s undoing after being appointed to Basel quickly followed. The “publish or perish” credo prevalent today was equally prevalent then. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was an imaginative work weaving together many themes of the day: the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Wagner, Dostoyevsky’s forays into the world of the subconscious, the mysteries of Greek tragedy, and the meaning of German culture. It was a timely book. But with its unsubstantiated musings on the Apollonian and the Dionysian, it was also a wild book. It wasn’t philological. It was, instead, speculative, and speculative to an extreme. Ritschl, in horror, panned it. Rohde tried defending it at first, but realized, on further examination, that to distance himself would be professionally astute. Nietzsche’s adversaries, chief among them the celebrated Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, pounced. Overnight, Nietzsche went from star to persona non grata. He had been cancelled.

The students taking his classes dropped precipitously. After an extended leave of absence, he was forced to resign, in 1879, his professorship at Basel altogether. But now something strange happens. Not only did his production increase following his resignation, with each publication (and in many cases self-publication), the scope of his intellectual freedom also expands. In the years that followed his resignation, he is writing quickly, purposefully, and becoming more himself. His greatest works all follow: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, The Wagner Case, and The Antichrist (1888). Here’s the question: if he had stayed within academia, would we still remember him today? By the time he started writing Daybreak (a fitting title, if any), he had already become a ronin scholar, a scholar without a university, an outlaw. But perhaps it is because he was a ronin that he was able to do what he did? Has anyone considered this possibility?

Today, these ronin scholars still exist. While “ronin scholar” is a cool, badass term, they are not so-called by academia. Instead, these scholars are pooh-poohed by academia as “cottage scholars” (a quaint and pastoral image) or “independent scholars.”  Both terms, while ostensibly neutral, are somewhat derogatory, a reminder that this person hasn’t quite made it.

In this blog, I’d like to celebrate these “ronin scholars” by drawing attention to how Nietzsche wouldn’t have been able to do the things he did unless he was a “cottage scholar” or “independent scholar.” As those within academia–at that time–pointed out, Nietzsche had to go because he was simply saying things that could not be said. Many of the things he said were, gasp, unsubstantiated by their sound “scientific” and “philological” approach. But, you know, when we look back now on what the other “scientific” and “philological” scholars were publishing, a lot of it looks pretty dated and just plain wrong to us today, easily as “speculative” as Nietzsche himself. Could history repeat itself? How will the scholarship of today be viewed in a hundred years?

This brings me to my point: how much freedom is there in academia today to truly express oneself? How much of academia is an echo chamber that talks of “method,” “science,” and “progress,” but is merely repeating the myths of what it needs to believe to perpetuate not knowledge, but the power structures and the institution of knowledge? Was Nietzsche critiquing academia by calling his first post-resignation book, of all things, Daybreak?

Was Daybreak so-called because it was a daybreak from having to hold back, having to self-censure any thoughts that went against the political ideologies of the academy? Consider his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, written while he was still in academia. Though scandalous, it is quite conservative when compared to his later works. In The Birth of Tragedy, he says the right things: he is pro-Wagner, the consummate German; Germany is leading the way by returning to the ancient past with Wagnerian music-drama; German philosophy is also leading the charge with the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and so on. Now, compare The Birth of Tragedy to his later writings when he was free from academia. In his later works, he rails against Wagner, Schopenhauer, and all the glories of Bismarck and German culture which he values at the worth of German beer: intoxicating but hangover inducing. The question is simple: could he have written these later works if he were still Professor of Altphilologie at Basel University? Or, are there freedoms one only enjoys when one is a ronin scholar, an outlaw, a drifter without allegiances.

The received wisdom is that if one is a cottage, independent, or ronin scholar, one cannot make it all the way. The cross-pollination with colleagues is insufficient. One is not inspired by students. One may lack access to libraries. Conferencing, done on one’s own dime, is more difficult. It is harder to come by ideas. But the received wisdom can be flipped around as well. What if all the cross-pollination, inspiration, books, and conferences condition participants into a sort of groupthink? Classics in the 1800s was part of the gentleman’s education, almost an extension of the state. If you had asked classicists in the 1800s whether this was true, they would have said: “No, that is ridiculous. We are advancing the field. In fact, with our philological science, we are even more Greek than the ancient Greeks were. With philology, we will bring back the glory days of the past.” Now, the conventional story with Nietzsche is that he left academia because of failing health and declining enrollment in his classes (because of the scandal of his first book). This story safeguards the legitimacy of academia: Nietzsche left due to health reasons and because he couldn’t make it as a teacher. But is it true? Perhaps he left because the atmosphere stifled what he had to say. Sure, Nietzsche complains about his health, but, if he was in such poor health, how did he travel so extensively and average over a book a year in the 1880s? And really, was the attendance in his classes dropping that much? Daybreak doesn’t much sound like the title of a book of an author is dire health and spurned by students. It sounds like the title of a work of someone who has found freedom of expression: it is the dawn of a new day. He had become a ronin scholar. Today, I’d like to raise a glass to toast these ronin scholars. They deserve a salute. They have paid a price.

In the late 1800s, nationalism was in the air. Academia never questioned it. Consider what is in the air today. Does academia call the dominant trends into question? And does academia ever call itself into question? Does academia argue for and against, or does it argue for the received wisdom in its halls? Who are the dominant voices in academia, and who are the intellectual ronin of our day and age? Are there, gasp, advantages of being a ronin scholar? These are all worthwhile questions.

In his youth, Nietzsche shone like a star. Then, like a Homeric hero, he paid the price for his aristeia, his finest moment. But, in paying the price, he discovered freedom. He became a ronin scholar, an outlaw working on the peripheries, a writer without allegiances. Though free, he was scorned. His books were self-published, and in small runs of a few hundred copies. Today, he is remembered as someone who saw through the veil. He was the original ronin.

If Nietzsche could make it, why couldn’t I?

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of “Tragedy and Epic” – Ruth Scodel

pages 181-179 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This insightful essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Epic Stories and Allusions,” “Epic Thematics,” “Epic Style and Decorum,” “Epic Narrative,” and “Tragedy and Epic.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with epic. Here is a summary of the main points from each of its sections.

Epic Stories and Allusions

Although epic and tragedy arose from different political and social backgrounds (epic from a monarchical and fragmented world and tragedy from a democratic world of city-states), tragedy borrowed much from the older art of epic. From the epic recitations of the legends of Thebes, Heracles, and the creation of the cosmos, the tragic poets got many of their stories. From the technique of Homer–who favoured more dialogue and more developed plots than the simple narration of the other epicists and rhapsodes–the tragic poets got their chops.

Epic Thematics

Tragedy got two of its major themes from epic. The first theme is that of fate, free will, human causality, and divine meddling. The second theme is related to the first: the recognition scene when the human recognizes that there is a higher power at play, whether it is fate or the will of the gods. Chance and fate, for example, come together in the Odyssey when, just as Odysseus happens to return, Penelope challenges the suitors to string Odysseus’ bow. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to fulfil the fated ending of killing the suitors: disguised as a beggar, he strings his bow and starts firing. So too, in tragedy, fate seems to happen by chance. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, although all the attackers and defenders are assigned their gate assignations by chance, it just so happens that the two brothers are assigned the seventh gate where they will kill each other as fate wills.

The tragic recognition scene is also borrowed from epic. In epic, the best characters are often given an insight into the grand workings of the cosmos. Achilles recognizes in the Iliad that his time will come when Hector, unexpectedly, kills his friend Patroclus. So, too, in tragedy, a hero such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ play has a moment of recognition where he realizes that all is not what it seems.

The difference between epic and tragedy, notes Scodel, is that tragedy is much more concentrated in its presentation of fate, free will, and recognition. The reason is that tragedy is much shorter than epic, which is recited over many days.

Epic Style and Decorum

Tragedy also gets its style and decorum from epic. Early tragedy modelled its speech in the ornamental dactylic rhythms commonplace in epic. Tragedy’s sense of decorum is borrowed from and perhaps even more stringent than epic: weeping and bleeding are permitted, farting not; horses are preferred to mules; heroes may forget to pray to the right god, but they never forget their helmet when arming; epic infrequently allows joking amidst discussions of gods and war but tragedy allows for even less ribaldry.

Epic Narrative

In a memorable phrase, Scodel says that tragedians used the epic as a “repertory of the possible.” In epic, prophecy is always correct (if sometimes misleading); so too in tragedy prophecy is ultimately correct, if initially misleading. In epic, messengers enjoy quasi-omniscience; so too, in tragedy, messengers can oversee the entire battlefield and yet hear individual conversations. Epic draws together two adversaries (think Achilles and Hector in the Iliad); so, too, tragedy often draws together two adversaries (think the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes).

Tragedy and Epic

Scodel closes her essay by reminding readers that tragedy’s debt to epic was not all one way. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other fifth century tragedians who took Homer as their model became in turn the model for future writers of epic such as Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid. “Epic, having created tragedy,” says Scodel, “recreated itself on the model of its creation.” Art is alive, constantly making and remaking itself anew in all the images of the human imagination.


This has been a fascinating essay because I can now see plainly how tragedy must have arisen from epic. In Homer’s epics, Homer, or the voice of the rhapsode, would sing the tale of the anger of Achilles or the return of Odysseus. In singing the tale, the singer would give life to all the different characters within the tale. But there were so many characters that we would only learn a little bit about each character–the minimum that was required to keep the story going. In a way, the better the singer is at drawing out the characters, the more the characters grow larger to demand a voice of their own, and not simply be recited by the rhapsode-singer. The transition from epic to tragedy is the tension of the characters wanting their own voice by a dedicated actor instead of one Homer telling the whole tale. The transition from epic to tragedy is the path of going from one Homer-rhapsode who narrates the tale to many Homer-actors who act out the tale. In epic there is one Homer, in tragedy there are many Homers, who are now playing individual roles. For this insight I have Scodel to thank. It is reverberating in my head and someday I will do something with it. The idea is quite powerful. The path from epic to tragedy is the path from one Homer to many Homers. Each character in Homer was seeking to break free of the oral tradition, to become themselves a Homer. When tragedy arose, this happened.

Another point Scodel touches upon–and one that can’t be stressed enough–is that fate in epic and tragedy is, in a way, synonymous with “what has to happen.” Since epic and tragedy drew from the same myths the audiences learned as toddlers, the outcome from beginning to end was well known. The audience’s knowledge could have been a spoiler. But what the rhapsodes reciting epic and the tragedians did was amazing: instead of myth being a detriment to the suspense, they used myth to augment the suspense by turning the known story into a “fate” that hung over all the characters. Two decades ago, I wrote an article for Antichthon that explored how “fate” is nothing more than a dramatic device which guides the narrative towards resolution. You can read the article here. That was a fun piece to write.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing?–that would be so cool if someone did a genealogy of fate. I think fate is ultimately an example of art shaping life. Could it have been that, prior to the rhapsodes–the singers of tales–and the tragedians inventing fate as a narrative device to make the narrative end where everyone knew the stories ended, there was no conception of fate in real life? For example, it was only after watching an Achilles or an Oedipus struggle with fate in epic and drama that people in real life started wondering if some majestic fate stood watch over them. Then, these people in real life, their imaginations fired from the magic of tragedy and epic and always on the lookout for fate, when some low-probability, high-consequence event happened in their life by chance, they would ascribe what chance had wrought as evidence of fate in actual life? It is an interesting hypothesis: that what people call fate in real life is actually just chance misunderstood. And chance is misunderstood because there is a fundamental difference between narrative (where nothing happens by chance since everything happens by the design of the writer) and real life (where chance is quite active). They talk of mimesis, of how art imitates life. But when it comes to chance, art imitates life very poorly, since for a narrative to make sense, what was really chance in real life has to be “explained” to have taken place for a reason, even if that reason ends up being fate.

This essay has also been fascinating as, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth. It was a lifetime ago, years before she even wrote this essay. Back in those days, I was being courted by different grad schools, the University of Michigan Classics program being one of them. In preparation for meeting her, I had read her book Credible Impossibilities. If you are interested in how ancient writers generate credibility, this book would be an excellent read. To this day, I remember some of her colourful examples. One rule of creating credible impossibilities is to go into great detail. I think in Polyphemus’ cave in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus escapes by clinging under one of the Cyclops’ rams. This is impossible for a grown man. What Homer does to make it believable, writes Scodel, is that he goes into great detail over how Odysseus does this. Voila: the impossible becomes, in the unsuspecting reader’s mind, possible.

It’s funny what I remember. I don’t recall that much of the trip. But I do remember where all the offices were of the profs I chatted with. Richard Janko had his office slightly across the hall from Scodel’s. Of all things, I remembered that he wore his wool socks over his pant cuffs. And James Porter’s office was at the end of the hall. It was fascinating to meet him as well–one of his research interests is Nietzsche and the reception of Classical studies, that is to say, how each generation of classicists is remembered by future classicists. The tiles on the floor were those old square ones, an off-white hue. The university itself was majestic, on a hill overlooking the city, which was in bad shape. But the university was gated, and had security. The air was crisp, and the people walked with a fierce determination. Those were the days.

Author Blurb

Ruth Scodel was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, and has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 1984. She is the author of The Trojan Trilogy of Euripides (1980), Sophocles (1984), Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (1999), Listening to Homer (2002), and articles on Greek Literature.

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.


In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.


I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil