Liverpool (2020) p/b 314pp £28.24. (ISBN 9781789627923)

Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus continues to grip theatre audiences all over the world—a new version by Robert Icke (with Mark Strong and Helen Mirren) is due to hit the London stage as soon as covid restrictions are lifted.  It has been adapted, translated, commented on and discussed ever since antiquity and you might think that by now this furrow has been ploughed to death.  There have been at least twelve editions of the play in the last 100 years, culminating in Finglass’ monumental, exhaustive (and expensive) 700-page edition for the Cambridge ‘Orange’ series in 2018.  Why add another one to the groaning shelf?  M. dispels any such doubts in her new book which is constantly aimed at readers who are seeking fresh insights into the text with all its enormous power to move and to shock.   For incisive comment and sharp analysis (as well as obvious enthusiasm for this play) M. is very hard to beat and also refreshingly easy to read.

The substantial introduction is essential reading for anyone studying this play in Greek or in English.  M. (who has also published standard reference works on mythology) gives us an authoritative and informative account of the myth before Sophocles—in the epic cycle, for instance, Jocasta commits suicide after discovering her incest but her son Oedipus marries a second time and has his four children by Euryganeia.  Much of the grisly detail (the children born of the mother-son union, the self-blinding), as well as greater insight into the backstory of Laius, seems to be owed to Aeschylus whose trilogy (Laius, Oedipus, Seven against Thebes) was performed in 467BC—the year after Sophocles began his career as a dramatist.  M. discusses the dating of this play, following Finglass (and others) in seeing it as falling between the early three (Ajax, Trachiniae and Antigone) and the later three (Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus): she also backs (with reservations) Bernard Knox’s theory that Sophocles’ introduction of the plague was inspired by the real plague which hit Athens in the late 430’s and so suggests a date for the play as coming after the disease.

M. analyses the play for its plot-construction and then gives us an excellent summary of Sophocles’ innovations—besides the plague there is the oracle which told Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother and which thus pushes our hapless hero straight into the doom he is seeking to escape.  Sophocles also (she argues) moves away from the Aeschylean account in which Laius was defying the god Apollo (who ordered him to resist procreation) and so was to blame for bringing on his family the curse which persisted to the third generation: in Sophocles, Laius was simply warned against having a son and so did the sensible thing by exposing the infant—no guilt, no curses.

M. spends a sensible amount of time in showing how this text would have been performed in the ancient theatre, commenting on the use of masks, costumes, and props.  The individual characters are summarised and analysed with cross-references to key passages, and the play’s themes and key issues—dramatic irony, recognition, the ‘foundling’ tale, the role of Apollo and the whole key question of Oedipus’ tragic fate—are also eloquently and readably discussed.  The ending of the play (1416-1530) is of very dubious authenticity and this is an area where this edition adds a good deal to the discussion:  M. (in the introduction and especially in her notes on 1416-1530) meets the arguments head on and takes a strong line (e.g. ‘one would not expect a play by Sophocles to peter out into such incoherence’ [p. 312]) but is nothing if not fair to the case on both sides and (again) leaves the reader free to make their own mind up without parti pris.  The description of how ‘the myth lives on’ gives us a quick and judicious tour of Euripides, Aristotle, Seneca and Freud.

Her text is based on the 1990 Oxford Classical Text of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson.  M.’s slimmed-down apparatus criticus lists some variants but does not always print important suggestions for the major cruces (such as 1205).  Where a textual issue has massive importance for the argument of the play (as notoriously with ὕβρις φυτεύει τύραννον in line 873) M. does not hold back and her lengthy note (pp. 250-252) is a masterclass in how textual criticism should be linked to literary and dramaturgical sensitivity.  The translation is accurate and sticks close to the Greek:  it makes no pretensions to being a script for stage-performance but follows the Greek line by line (and often word by word) and will be a massive help to students trying to make sense of the original for the first time.  Where M.’s translation is a touch stilted (545-6, for instance) the reason is explained in the commentary (in that case M. wishes to bring out the enjambed σοῦ) and where the translation is freer (as at e.g. 497) the commentary provides a literal version to help the reader making sense of the Greek.

The commentary is keyed to the English translation and helps readers to see the reasoning and the implications behind this most exciting and ironic text:  see for instance the wonderful note on 362, where Tiresias is (to us) obviously calling out Oedipus as the killer of Laius but (to Oedipus) is just ‘trading insults’.  M. speculates on the creative process by which Sophocles works out his plot, showing the decisions being made by the writer at every step to maximise the effects: see for example the excellent note on 924-6 where she shows how the plot could have managed without the Corinthian messenger.  What does he bring to the play that could not have been achieved simply by the herdsman?  The scene has troubled critics ever since Aristotle for its apparent lack of dramatic motivation but M. rightly sees it as an example of the playwright’s genius for introducing surprise into the myth and also for enhancing the irony of the scene to create unbearable tension.  Look also at the little choral ode (1086-1109) where the chorus wildly and optimistically rejoice at Oedipus’ possible divine origins.  This brief ode is neatly summarised and assessed in a page (p. 271) of superb scholarship and sensitivity to the plot and the characters: she shows how the trope of ‘false joy before certain disaster’ is mirrored in other plays but comes into its own in this play where it marks the last moment at which anyone on stage can feel anything but grief.  M. acknowledges (and quotes) earlier commentators on this play—and her voluminous knowledge of all the secondary literature is itself impressive—but she always passes her own judgements and explains the issues with enormous clarity and enthusiasm to bring the composition as well as the performance of the play to life.

The book is well proof-read and edited, with a full bibliography but (alas) no index.  In 2001 M. produced a much-lauded edition of Sophocles’ Electra in this same series, and on the evidence of that book and of this new volume I would strongly urge her to continue this series with a new edition of (say) Oedipus at Colonus which is crying out for the critical acumen and sensitive exploration which M. has so abundantly demonstrated here.


John Godwin