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Is Oedipus Ugly? Deliberative Spectatorship at Colonus

Alexander C. Duncan

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Is the eponymous hero of Oedipus at Colonus ugly — and if so, what makes him appear as such? This paper studies how Sophocles’ final play frames the theatrical spectatorship of its protagonist in order to underscore the drama’s central thematic concerns. Drawing upon close-readings as well as insights from the cognitive humanities, including joint attention (Duncan), the paper argues (1), that Oedipus’ personal aesthetics are less determinate than most scholars (e.g., Jebb, Van Nortwick) have hitherto assumed and (2), that in embodied and material production, conflicting verbal reports about the hero’s appearance trigger a collaborative and dialectical response as theatergoers seek to resolve the propositional ambiguity and establish of what psycholinguistic Herbert H. Clark (1996) has called “common ground” for continued conversation. Such “deliberative spectatorship” — based not only upon theatergoers’ shared visual attention but also upon incommensurate verbal evidence from the play — parallels and ultimately reinforces play-internal debates over the hero’s value that are thematically central to the tragedy (Burian, Hesk). In short, the “problem” of the Oedipus’s personal aesthetics offers an exemplary case for shedding light on how the collective processes and epistemologies of dramatic vision interacted with other sensory modalities (Noel, 2019) and broader considerations of value in Attic theater.

Oedipus at Colonus opens when the titular hero, a self-proclaimed “blind, old man” (1) enters from the wings, leaning upon his daughter for support. When the Chorus of Coloneans discover Oedipus profaning the grove of the “dread-faced” (δεινῶπες, 84) Eumenides, they proclaim this man to be, like the divinities themselves, “terrible to behold, terrible to hear” (δεῖνος ὁρᾶν, δεῖνος κλύειν, 141). In both the eyes and ears of the Chorus (their synesthetic response is suggestive), Oedipus embodies his awful fate. He is the antithesis of the celebrated Athenian ideal: the young, athletic, civically embedded and religiously pure man whose kalokagathia, “beautiful goodness,” elides distinctions between personal appearance, social class, and moral probity. Positioned at the opposite end of such spectrums, Oedipus naturally attracts a wide range of negative descriptions. Not only is he “terrible” (δεινός, in the passage above and passim) but also “wretched” (ἄθλιον, 222), “ill-fated” (δύσμορος, 224), etc. In addition to such holistic descriptions, Oedipus is also specifically presented as — I know no better word for it —ugly. His mutilated face is “unlovely to behold” (δυσπρόσοπτον εἰσορῶν, 286), his whole form (at least according to one manuscript reading) “misshapen to see” (δύσμορφ᾽ ὁρᾶν, 327).

And yet, the personal aesthetics of the hero are neither as simple nor as definitive as these descriptions first suggest. Moments before the Chorus’s arrival, an Attic “Stranger” chancing upon Oedipus deems him “noble, at least to an onlooker” (γενναῖος, ὡς ἰδόντι, 71). This initial description of Oedipus’s appearance, so at odds with what later seems to become an aesthetic consensus, raises a host of interconnected issues that are crucial to our understanding of ancient spectatorship. Why, within a span of minutes, might Oedipus be described as both “noble” and “terrible” to behold? How might communities of spectators (play-internal, play-external, or perhaps even both in unison) resolve this apparent contradiction? And why are personal appearances, described by a diverse array of characters and repeatedly underscored (as seen above) by the vocabulary of vision, used to establish Oedipus’ character when tragic characters typically resist such explicit aesthetic assessment?

Although it resists offering simple answers to such questions or proposing specific “solutions” for a production (many are feasible), by attending the collective cognitive processes which continually underpin dramatic spectatorship, this paper ultimately proposes that this seemingly offhand (and even off-base) comment by the Attic Stranger is, in fact, strategically timed.  The aesthetic ambiguity this character introduces early in the play primes theatergoers for the collective deliberation and decision-making that lie at the heart of this — and arguably every — tragedy.

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New Approaches to Spectatorship

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