Tag Archives: Rebecca Bushnell

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

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

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

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

Review of “Tragedy and Materialist Thought” – Hugh Grady

pages 128-144 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

What is Grady’s Materialism?

Grady comes from a line of critics that include Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Like Williams and Eagleton, he approaches tragedy from a political perspective. “Materialism” to Grady is a combination of three strands of theory that began in the 1980s: American new historicism, British cultural materialism, and international feminism. Marx and Engels themselves used the term “materialism” to describe their method of analysis, and, in the end, these three strands can be traced back to the founders of Marxism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “dialectical materialism” as:

The Marxist theory of political and historical events as due to the conflict of social forces caused by humans’ material needs and interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions.

In this article, Grady argues that materialists who deny that tragedy has a universal meaning go too far. Materialists have denied the view that tragedy has an unchanging and static form because such as view smacks of right wing conservative political views. Materialists, by definition, espouse left wing Marxist political views. Materialists who deny tragedy’s universal significance, argues Grady, do disservices to the Left, as it surrenders the art of tragedy to the Right. If materialists can allow that tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill has a universal function, the Left can wrest the discourse of tragedy back from the Right. Underlying Grady’s view is the belief that materialist thought can decode tragedy’s secrets:

Materialist thought, I believe, if it is redirected, is a major, probably the major vehicle through which to rethink tragedy for the twenty-first century.

If tragedy does not have a universal significance, it at least appears to have a transhistorical dimension: it springs up in fifth century Athens, in the English Renaissance, in the neoclassical French writers, the German romantics, and finally arrived in America with Miller and O’Neill. How can materialism, which denies tragedy’s universal significance, take into account tragedy’s transhistorical dimension? Grady grapples with this question in this article.

Look to Hegel

If Marx’ struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is Hegel made political, then perhaps there is also some kind of universal, transhistorical, and Hegelian dynamic at play in tragedy. Or so Grady argues. Grady finds this dynamic in tragedy in the collision between two problematic forms of rationality. Hegel’s model of synthesis and antithesis provides the bridge for the Left to incorporate tragedy’s transhistorical dimension into a new theory or materialism.

Grady illustrates Hegelian dialectic at work in tragedy through Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The play seems to follow a more Hegelian pattern, posing two problematic forms of rationality against each other, enacting the defeat of tradition by modernizing instrumental reason, only to show the subsequent collapse of instrumental reason. At the end of King Lear, especially, the audience is teased, made to imagine hope and despair, as Cordelia and Lear appear now to have lived, now to have died. The space is created for a new form of rationality, which would be neither of the other two. But the space is, as it were, blank, not filled in, symbolized but not enunciated in discourse. In short, the dialectic is a negative one, never arriving at a final synthesis, but certainly going beyond its two previous stages.

To Grady, when this Hegelian dialectic plays out at critical junctures in history, tragedy becomes possible. In fifth century Athens, as mythos (stories) gave way to logos (rhetoric), tragedy became possible. In the English Renaissance, as instrumental reason was replacing the Great Chain of Being, tragedy became possible.

Grady’s argument here is of interest, as he arrives at roughly Nietzsche’s position on the birth of tragedy through Hegel, an avenue that Nietzsche would not have taken. It appears in scholarship that you can arrive to the same place by different avenues.

Materialist Thought and Tragedy

For Grady, tragedy arises during a cultural and political changing of the guard. In fifth century Athens, traditional wisdom was giving way to logic and rhetoric. In Renaissance England, feudalism was giving way to modernity. And in our own time, religion is giving way to a post-religious society.

When this cultural sea change occurs, the definition of good and evil is blurred. In a materialist interpretation, tragedy, says Grady, helps us “to assess and understand good and evil in a post-traditional world.” Tragedy, in materialist thought, dramatizes how difficult it is to stand upon the firm ground of good and evil, right and wrong. By problematizing morality, tragedy invites us to ponder how societal changes impact traditional moralities. When we revaluate all values, tragedy is there, dramatizing, in a Hegelian dialectic, the struggle between old and new.

First Question for Bushnell

This Blackwell edition, being a guide for students and available “on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level” would surely present a balanced perspective to students? So far, the book chapters have been left leaning. Grady’s article, for example, debunks right wing perspectives. But the attacks are directed to a book over a hundred years old and already falling into discredit by the 1950s. I would be interested in seeing a more balanced perspective, with some contrasting viewpoints of tragedy from the right. My question for Bushnell: why does this companion to tragedy give voice to the left and not the right?

First Question for Grady

Grady shows how materialism offers a superior way of looking at tragedy and debunks conservative points of view. On the materialist side he primarily cites: Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966), Raymond Williams (Modern Tragedy 1966), Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy 1989), and Terry Eagleton (Sweet Violence 2003). On the conservative side, he has A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy 1904) and E. M. W. Tillyard (no specific work, but was active in the 1940s and 50s). The conservatives hold that tragic heroes, because human nature is everlasting and unchanging, fall victim, over and over again, to an equally everlasting and unchanging idea of evil. When heroes go to the dark side, they upset the play’s internal moral order.

The materialist view denies all this because, first of all, human behaviour is a product of social structure. Nurture over nature. Because human behaviour is a product of society, evil likewise, far from being fixed, changes over time. What is more, tragedies, argues Grady, dramatize the changing of the guard, insofar as moral orders are concerned. The two great flowerings of tragedy (5th century Athens and Renaissance England) both occur in ages where one moral code was giving way to the next.

My first question for Grady: why not pit Eagleton and the other materialists against more recent conservative adversaries? Grady pits Foucault (1966), Williams (1966), Dollimore (1989), and Eagleton (2003) against E. M. W Tillyard (who, as he admits, does not directly write about tragedy) and A. C. Bradley, a bag of bones who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. The tale of the tape shows a heavyweight pitted against a dead guy. I mean, who’s going to win? And, if more recent conservative critics are nowhere to be found, then the question becomes: is the bogeyman of conservative criticism is a straw man?

Second Question for Grady

To Grady, tragedy is about morality. If you’re on the left, tragedy dramatizes the clash between socially constructed moral values (the correct view). If you’re on the right, tragedy dramatizes the clash between everlasting and metaphysical moral values (the incorrect view, as good and evil are transient social constructs). If you don’t believe tragedy is about morality, you don’t get it. Chaucer, for example, writes that tragedy dramatizes “the fickleness of fortune” in the world. Chaucer, according to Grady, doesn’t get tragedy because the medieval world had separated common human experience from the misfortune of the great. I would trust, however, the instincts of Chaucer–a preeminent artist–over the instincts of an academic. Perhaps Chaucer “gets” tragedy and it is the academics who do not “get” it?

My second question for Grady is: what if tragedy is not about morality? What if both the right and the left are mistaken? What if there’s a new paradigm?–instead of morality, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. This is the point I argue in my 2019 book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In my reading, each dramatic act of tragedy is a gambling act. Tragedy makes risk palpable. By the high stakes action, heroes trigger unexpected outcomes. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, tragedy is a theatre of risk. This theatre of risk entertains by showcasing the impact of the highly improbable. These risk acts can be good or bad, but the point is not that they are good or evil, but that they are high risk gambles that trigger unexpected outcomes.

Tragedy has long been an intersection point for human intention and chance outcomes. For some reason, scholars have passed this over. When Chaucer and others point to chance, they are pooh-poohed. Let’s see what the tragedies actually say. In the ending to many of Euripides’ plays, Euripides has the chorus tell the audience that the point of tragedy is to dramatize the unexpected. Take the ending of Bacchae:

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

Then compare this to Chaucer’s understanding of tragedy, taken from the Monk’s tale of the tragedy of Croesus:

Thus hanged at last was Croesus the proud king,

His royal throne to him of no avail.

Tragedy is no other kind of thing,

Nor can lament in singing nor bewail,

Except that Fortune ever will assail

With unexpected stroke the realms that are proud;

For when men trust in her, then will she fail

And cover up her bright face with a cloud.

And then look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Horatio sums up the action:

And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Professors and philosophers enjoy looking at moral issues. But playwrights are not professors and philosophers. Playwrights, I think, are primarily concerned with writing an exciting play. And risk, rather than morality, is the dramatic fulcrum because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk is inherently dramatic because it triggers the unexpected ending. As we can see from the passages from as varied sources as Euripides, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, risk and the unexpected is a cornerstone of tragic writing.

Are playwrights thinking about risk and exciting plays, or are they thinking about the Hegelian dialectic and how instrumental reason clashes with tradition as they write their plays? Risk theatre, I think, presents a new and welcome apolitical and amoral interpretation of tragedy, and one grounded in the process of playwriting, which, first and foremost, strives to create a captivating play that has the audience on the edge of the seat.

Third Question for Grady (and also Raymond Williams)

Grady writes:

Tragedy is a concept that has been falsely universalized over and over in its long critical history, both in its guise of designating a particular set of perceptions and feelings and in naming a literary genre of differing times and places. Raymond Williams eloquently wrote on this issue, “Tragedy is … not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences and conventions and institutions.”

My question for Grady (and Williams), is whether they would say the same thing about comedy, philosophy, and history. Like tragedy, these three other genres also came to us from ancient Greece. Certainly tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are products of the time: English Renaissance tragedy is not modern tragedy. But when authors write comedy, philosophy, history, or tragedy, do they not take part in the conversation and tradition of that genre as well? If there is nothing universal about tragedy, how could, say, Anouilh rewrite Oedipus (The Infernal Machine) in the twentieth century? Just as comedy is about laughs and the us/them mentality, philosophy is about categorizing and understanding nature with the categories of the mind, and history is an inquiry into an event, it strikes me that one should be able to look at tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill and identify a common denominator because we identify all these works as tragedy.

Grady proposes a solution: “Tragedy, we might say, is universal in its exploration of human suffering.” But, what if, instead, a more primary consideration is that tragedy is universal in its exploration of downside risk? The suffering is secondary, and risk is primary. Most playwrights (unless it is Howard Barker) do not start by saying: “I want to make characters suffer,” but rather “I want to thrill audiences by dramatizing the impact of downside risk, of how, when the hero least expects, Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill.” Risk is primary; suffering is secondary.

Fourth Question for Grady

Grady debunks the notion that tragedy presents a moral world order by drawing attention to Nietzsche:

Tragedy reveals the disorder inherent in human nature underneath the ego’s Apollonian appearances. This is particularly true of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, with its critique of Apollonian rationality and its assertion of the reality of power and desire.

Nietzsche did not give priority to either the order affirming Apollonian or the order denying Dionysian: both are parts of a larger whole. So, I would ask Grady why he gives priority to Nietzsche’s Dionysian over the Apollonian. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are world orders, albeit incomplete. It is in their clash that the true nature of reality emerges.

Fifth Question for Grady

Grady see tragedy as the product of colliding and problematic rationalities. When a newfangled instrumental reason collides with traditional reason, tragedy emerges. Grady argues that tragedy was popular in fifth century Athens and Renaissance England because, in both these time periods, a new instrumental reason was displacing the old traditions (in Athens it was the rise of rhetoric and in Renaissance England the possibility of post-religious society).

My question to Grady: if it is true that tragedy arises during a societal changing of the guard, then why, in the 2600 years from the origin of tragedy to today we only have two great flowerings of tragedy? Is Grady’s theory of tragedy statistically robust? Perhaps it is if in the last 2600 years there has only been two major paradigm shifts. That cannot be true by any stretch of the imagination. For Grady’s argument to hold, he would also have to explain why, during other sea changes in society–of which there have been many in the last two millennia–tragedy did not arise.

First Question for Bradley and Tillyard

Grady writes that it was supposed that Shakespeare was a traditionalist since Bradley and Tillyard demonstrated that the malicious characters in Jacobean tragedy practised instrumental reason, the rationality of the voices clamouring for change. My question for Bradley and Tillyard: why is it that we must fight over the classics to own them and control them? This scholarly wrangling reminds of how, back in the old day they used to fight over the bodies of the saints. By possessing such artifacts, the possessors could benefit themselves and hinder enemies. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, for example, dramatizes the fight over Oedipus’ corpse.

Scholars fight over the right to claim the classic texts. While most of us no longer fight over saints’ bones and ancient relics, it surprises me, in this so-called enlightened age, how we continue the same sort of behaviour fighting over the classics like they were the bones of old saints. Playwrights, most of the time, are thinking: “How can I create an entertaining play that will thrill all sorts of audiences?” rather than “How can I demonstrate the superiority of traditional or avant-garde rationalities?” Scholars, by ascribing traditionalist or liberal viewpoints to playwrights, turn playwrights into versions of themselves.

A playwright who makes risk the fulcrum of the action is not a priest who makes morality the fulcrum of the action. And a playwright who presents fruitfully ambiguous points of view is not an academic who breaks down these viewpoints into definitive for/against positions (which often coincide with their own views). Playwrights are, first and foremost, entertainers. They are aiming to tell a good story, that is all.

First Question for Raymond Williams

Scholars have questioned why tragedy could not arise in the Middle Ages, but had to wait until the early modern period of Shakespeare’s time. They frequently cite the Monk’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to support how people just didn’t get tragedy in the Middle Ages.

In this article, Grady talks about how tragedy critic Williams explains the failure of tragedy to emerge in the Middle Ages and the emergence of tragedy in the early modern period. Grady quotes Williams as saying: “The dissolution of the feudal world allows tragedy to reunite what the medieval era had separated, common human misfortune and the misfortune of the great.”

I just happen to be reading the quintessential work of literature in the Middle Ages: the very same Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. And, as if by some coincidence, the same day I was reading the passage from Williams, I read this passage from the Knight’s tale:

Thus man and woman also, foe and friend,

In either term, in youth or else in age,

Must die, the king as truly as the page;

One in his bed, and one in the deep sea,

One in their open field, their ends agree.

There is no help; we go the common way.

All things must die, it is but truth to say.

It cannot profit any soul alive

Against this everlasting law to strive.

Having read this passage in the Knight’s tale, I would like to ask Williams who his authority is that says in the Middle Ages that common human misfortune is in a different category than the suffering of the masters of the universe.

Author Blurb

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (1996), and Shakespeare Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from “Richard II” to “Hamlet” (2002). He is editor of Shakespeare and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor (with Terence Hawkes) of Presentist Shakespeares (2007). His newest book is Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (2009).

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

Freud and Psychoanalysis

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

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

The Basis of Psychoanalyzing Literary Persons

Lupton identifies four directions in psychoanalytic literary criticism that Freud launched with his comments on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are: character analysis, hermeneutics, narrative structure, and the dynamics of the psychoanalytic situation (how the unconscious brings about catharsis).

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Character analysis is the act of putting the character on the couch. It is, as Lupton describes, what “unfolds between the poles of brute personification or impersonation.” In English that means pretending that the character is a real person you could psychoanalyze. Of course, the character is not a real person, but hey we can look over this small detail, right? In the old day before psychoanalysis, character analysis would be a study of a character’s conscious motives and intentions. In psychoanalytic criticism, character analysis consists of looking at the unconscious or repressed neuroses that influence action.

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

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty

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

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

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

Antigone: Had I had children or their father dead,

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

In such a case to cross the states’ decree.

What is the law that lies behind these words?

One husband gone, I might have found another,

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

But with my parents hid away in death,

No brother, ever, could spring up for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychoanalysis and Citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of the Psychoanalysis of Literary Persons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freud’s Error

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jocasta: Fear?

What should a man fear? It’s all chance,

chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth

can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.

Better to live at random, best we can.

And as for this marriage with your mother–

have no fear. Many a man before you,

in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed

Take such things for shadows, nothing at all–

Live, Oedipus,

as if there’s no tomorrow!

Oedipus: Brave words,

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

But mother lives, so for all your reassurances

I live in fear, I must.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To give these mourning duties to your father;

But you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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