* 2007
topics: shakespeare * plays * shows * classics : dramatic literature I + dramaturgy & playwrighting * mini-history *
references

"Research Athenian democracy and compare and contrast it to the democracy of the United States. What is similar? What is different? Could Athenian democracy as practiced in the 5th century B.C. exist today? After you’ve seen the show, identify elements within the play that refer to democracy either in Thebes as depicted in the play or Athens as the audience for Sophocles’ original production." guthrietheater.org

1. Introduction: Oedipus the Best?

One of the most widespread assumptions about a good Greek tragedy is that it must have an unhappy ending. Aristotle himself, in Poetics 13, seems to sanction this persistent misunderstanding with his remarks on Sophocles' most famous work, the Oedipus Tyrannus. For this reason, commentators have long puzzled over Aristotle's subsequent ranking of Oedipus Tyrannus as a kind of second-rate tragedy in Poetics 14. The puzzle over the apparent contradiction between Poetics 13 and 14 has not been resolved by philologists, but recent scholarship has nonetheless argued persuasively that Aristotle must be read as making a coherent argument across both chapters (see Belfiore 160-176 and Halliwell 202-237).

In this spirit, then, that is, in defense of the coherence of Aristotle's argument about the best esthetic experience that tragedy can offer, I would argue that the Poetics needs to be read more carefully (and more anthropologically) in order to recognize that, in Poetics 13, Aristotle is discussing the content of tragedy, and, in Poetics 14, the form of tragedy. For such a reading, Eric Gans's understanding of esthetic experience as an oscillation between form and content can help to clarify Aristotle's argument, because Gans's theory of esthetic history also helps to clarify, with the benefit of hindsight, the discussion of high culture and popular culture also embedded in the Poetics' treatment of tragic form and content.

As Matthew Schneider has observed, "Aristotle anticipates Gans" in many ways, because the key insights of the Poetics into the esthetic experience of tragedy in fact address key anthropological questions:

The durability of Aristotle's theory therefore results neither from historic accident nor scholarly conspiracy: discovering that an anthropologically-grounded theory of the sign could sidestep Plato's fears about art initiating the contagion of conflictive mimesis enables the classical aesthetic eventually to achieve its logical end point: the exploration [of] the scene of representation qua scene.
Subsequent literary criticism may have abandoned Aristotle's rigorous anthropological questioning, as Schneider notes, in exchange for a much more sloppy "sacred ambivalence" about esthetic experience. But in addition to shrinking from the anthropological desacralization of tragedy, literary criticism has also made Sophocles' Oedipus into a sacred cow, by propagating (on the authority of a hasty reading of Aristotle) the idea that the Oedipus Tyrannus is Aristotle's favorite tragedy.

While the play's peculiar construction of tragic irony is a unique case (and hence a special case that tests the esthetic rule about the best tragedy),(1) apart from its irony the play is a textbook example of clichéd form and content in tragedy: a hero learns the truth too late, and comes to an unhappy end. It is this clichéd form and content that makes it exemplary for Aristotle's purposes in the Poetics. For Aristotle thinks, and says (1453a27-30), that Euripides, not Sophocles, is the gold standard in tragedy. To understand Aristotle on this point, we need to see that he is not contradicting himself between Poetics 13 and 14 on the matter of Oedipus. Generative anthropology can help us here to make a closer reading of Aristotle's discussion of form and content, and of high and popular culture, with regard to the esthetic of tragedy. In particular, such a closer anthropological reading solves philology's special difficulties with the received text of Poetics 13 and 14. But it also serves a more general and salutary purpose. It argues against the popular prejudice of many readers of Aristotle and Greek tragedy, a prejudice to which even writings on generative anthropology have hitherto not been immune: the notion that Aristotle gives preeminent esthetic rank to the Oedipus Tyrannus. On the contrary, Aristotle's Poetics gives no warrant for us to see this play as the "perfect" tragedy (Schneider) or as the "greatest tragedy" of Sophocles (Gans 1993, 139). It is, rather, in Aristotle's eyes, a compendium of exemplary tragic clichés.(*) [Christopher S. Morrissey] ***

guide *** index

http://www.kat.gr/kat/history/Greek/Tr/Sophocles.htm * Sophocles (new) page (for DramLit class, 2007).

Sophocles:

H. Muller : Sophocles: Oedipus the King (1967) [adaptation of Sophocles] tragedy]

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"Oedipus" : mini-theatre history