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At the end of the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus, a lyrical argument develops which is without any exact parallel in Greek tragedy. Our single, badly corrupted, manuscript does not name the combatants; at the most crucial section it does not even indicate change of singer by the customary dash; it has no list of dramatis personae. The chorus of Danaids has long been arguing against a forced marriage, and it is generally accepted that they are one of the participants in the argument. But who are their antagonists? On the older view, the chorus is divided against itself; on the more recent one, another group of singers is disputing with them. Who these singers are is not generally agreed, though the majority vote is for a chorus of handmaidens. It will be my concern in this paper to argue that the antagonist is one person and that person is Hypermnestra, who, in the sequel, alone of the Danaids spared her husband, Lynceus, and thus founded the royal line of Argos, where the play is set. The exact way in which Aeschylus portrayed her action, and the fate of her sisters, are quite uncertain.
The Choephori and the Bacchae remain masterpieces of Greek literature although an unkind fate has removed a leaf (or more) from their texts. For the first part of this article I would like to assume that an unkinder fate has deprived us of the end of that greater masterpiece, the Oedipus Rex. The play (as we have it) now concludes with the heart-breaking farewell of Oedipus to his infant daughters. We could wish no better end, but it is not characteristic of Greek tragedy in general or of Sophoclean tragedy in particular to end on a dramatic high-point; loose ends must be tied up and the tension must be eased. We may reasonably assume that some such development occurred at the end of the Oedipus Rex. Fortunately, there is a good deal of evidence to tell us (in general) what happened. The versions of Euripides’ Phoenissae and Seneca’s Oedipus may be useful, particularly the latter (which is much closer to the Sophoclean original); there is, of course, Sophocles’ own Oedipus Coloneus; most important of all, there is the evidence of the Oedipus Rex itself, to which I shall now turn.
Oracles, and especially the Delphic oracle, are notorious for the ambiguous and deceptive nature of their responses. Fontenrose has recently suggested that this notoriety is undeserved, firmly labelling ‘quasi-historical’ the celebrated anecdotes of Herodotus on which, above all, the reputation of the Delphic oracleis based. I do not intend to enter into controversy on the historical Delphic oracle; this paper deals exclusively with the literary Delphic oracle, enshrined in the pages of Herodotus; of its reputation there can be no doubt.
Attempts to interpret the Oedipus Tyrannos of Sophocles have been so numerous that anyone who seeks to add to their number is almost compelled to start by apologising for being so presumptuous as to think that he could offer anything new. I would incline to classify these attempts under four ‘main’ and three ‘ancillary’ headings. The ‘main’ interpretations are those which seek to interpret the play as a drama, and vary according to the view they take of the guilt of Oedipus. There are those who assert (with or without qualification) that Oedipus is to be viewed as guilty; those who see him as a victim of a malignant fate (and hence innocent); those who are content to assert his innocence without stressing the element of fatality; and those who leave the question of guilt or innocence aside. The ‘ancillary’ interpretations are those which seek to find in the play a non-dramatic relevance, i.e. a political relevance, a religious relevance, or a psychological relevance.
The most commonly held interpretation of this play has been well summed up as follows: ‘Ismene utters in the words addressed to Oedipus in line 394 “Now the gods are setting you right; previously they ruined you” the object of our play.’ On this view, the main theme of the play is the divine restoration of Oedipus. ‘He whom the gods have smitten as a criminal, whom men have rejected as impious, is seen rehabilitated, venerated, glorified almost equally to a divine being, and will find a compensation for his undeserved sufferings in an apotheosis which will make of him the benign genius of a country.’ Oedipus’ sufferings have taught him humility: ‘I ask little, and get even less than that little, but this suffices me, for my suffering, my companion the length of time, and my nobility have taught me patience.’ ‘Precisely because he is a hero, he is humble.’ The combination of moral exaltation and physical degradation generates a new spiritual power which becomes increasingly evident as the play progresses: ‘Foreknowledge of the future belongs to Oedipus because he is more than man... To Creon’s taunts he replies with a declaration of his own superior power. Only a hero can do this with assurance.’ The process culminates in his mysterious end, whether we can call it an apotheosis or not: ‘We do not know precisely what his state will be, but we can be sure that he will be conscious and active, rather as Protesilaus was believed to be able to punish the wrongdoer from the grave because the gods gave him special favour.’ He is thus a kind of anticipation of Christ.
Ever since A. W. Schlegel the role of the Sophoclean chorus has been the subject of debate. To him the chorus was ‘the ideal spectator’, by which he meant that it moves at a deeper level than the actors and interprets the meaning of the play to us: it is as Schiller put it, ‘not an individual, but a general reflection’. This might be called one of the extreme views of the role of the chorus; even those who do not take it in general, such as Helg and Helmreich, still see some of the choral odes as a kind of parabasis, in which Sophocles lets the plot go and speaks to us in person. The main candidates are the first stasimon of the Antigone and the second stasimon of the Oedipus Rex. It is not clear whether these ‘messages’ were for posterity or Pericles; in my view these odes are entirely explicable in the dramatic context in which they occur; at least, the burden of proof lies with those who would maintain otherwise.
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