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Performing Archaic Ethics and Religion in Sophoclean Tragedy

Alexandre Johnston,

University of Edinburgh

This paper argues that the dramatic fabric of Sophocles’ extant tragedies is closely intertwined with their ethical and religious content, so that each play functions, on one level, as a dramatization or mise-en-scène of human existence in its relationship with the divine. This interrelation of performance, ethics, and religion, as well as the specific view of humanity enacted by the plays, reflects Sophoclean tragedy’s embeddedness in intellectual and poetic traditions that can be traced back to archaic thought and literature.

The relationship between the form and meaning of tragedy has been a topic of discussion at least since Aristotle’s Poetics, a work which emphasises the role of dramatic structure, particularly reversal of fortune, in the creation of spectators’ emotions. The idea that the dramatic and performative fabric of tragedy reflects a particular understanding of the human condition and the divine has been developed in a number of recent interpretations, including research on Sophoclean choruses (Kitzinger 2008) and tragedy in general (Judet de La Combe 2010). A number of contributions have discussed the ways in which the structure and meaning of Attic tragedy are indebted to archaic models, particularly Homer’s Iliad (Rutherford 1982, Cairns 2006 and 2013). Finally, my paper builds on a strand of scholarship emphasising the multiform nature of tragedy, which assimilated other intellectual and literary forms in a complex, allusive polyphony (Griffith 2009). Thus, tragedians incorporated archaic and classical songs (Herington 1985, Swift 2010, Rodighiero 2012) as well as earlier and contemporary theoretical and philosophical discourse (Allan 2005, Seaford 2012, Wilson 2012) into their plays.

The paper begins by briefly discussing the interaction between structure, performance, and ethical and religious content in archaic poetry, with particular reference to the Iliad and to Solon’s “Elegy to the Muses”. It traces a direct lineage between this tradition, in which narrative and performative devices are used to dramatize the existential gap separating humans from gods, to the fully dramatic form of Attic tragedy. Because of the staged, theatrical nature of tragedy, human characters deliberate and act against a complex and fluctuating causal background – frequently involving the divine – which they often cannot control or comprehend. Thus, individual tragedies enact particular aspects of the experience of being human in a shifting, obscure world that cannot be bent to our will. The second part of the paper argues that these remarks are particularly applicable to certain Sophoclean plays. After analyzing a few examples from Ajax, Trachiniae, and Oedipus Tyrannus, I focus on Antigone. I examine the play’s representation of human perception, deliberation, ignorance, and error, particularly as they relate to Creon and Antigone. I explore the various ways in which this theme is articulated: in characters’ statements and theoretical discourse, as well as in the play’s dramatic structure, which exposes the limits of their attempts to grasp the reality of events. I argue that through its dramatic and performative fabric, the tragedy raises questions regarding the capacity of humans to control their own lives and the world in which they operate. In this way, Antigone dramatizes a particular vision of the relationship between humans and the supernatural forces which influence and shape their existence. The theatrical and performative nature of tragedy enables Sophocles to present his audience with a microcosm of the archaic cosmos, encompassing and confronting the perspectives and temporalities of humans and gods.

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Drama and the Religious in Ancient Greece

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