Gods and Heroes

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Sophocles: An Interpretation by R.P. Winnington-Ingram
    Cambridge, 346 pp, £25.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 521 22672 4

The vast number of books and articles devoted to Sophocles since the Second World War shows he arouses great interest, but, though we now have an English translation of Karl Reinhardt’s famous book about him, which first appeared in 1933, we have so far had no general study of the seven complete plays that was of high quality throughout. Professor Winnington-lngram has brought out many excellent interpretations of Greek tragedy: now he offers us a study of Sophocles that is not likely to be improved upon for many years.

John Jones has rightly protested against the mistranslation of Aristotle that gave authority to the opinion that each tragedy must have a single ‘hero’, in the sense of a central character in relation to whom the whole action must be viewed. But each Sophoclean tragedy contains at least one heroic figure: that is to say, at least one character whose physical and moral courage exceeds the human norm. In each play, such characters come into conflict with the order of the universe as the Olympian gods maintain it, and suffer grievously in consequence. Some modern scholars, whom Winnington-lngram refers to as ‘the pietists’, insist that the divine government of things is necessarily just, and that the heroes must learn wisdom by means of suffering; others, whom he calls ‘the hero-worshippers’, hold that the poet’s sympathy is altogether with the heroes as they defy unjust and ruthless gods.

We know the dates of only two of the seven complete plays, the Philoctetes (409 BC) and the Oedipus Coloneus (produced after its author’s death in 401 BC); as he died in 406/5 BC, and was born perhaps as early as 497/6 BC, both are very late works. Winnington-lngram thinks that the Antigone was produced in 440 and the Oedipus Tyrannus not long after 430; in both cases there is grave doubt. He argues that the anecdote in the ancient life of Sophocles of how Sophocles was made general against Samos because of the success of the Antigone would not have been invented unless the Antigone had been produced shortly before that date. One might as well maintain that the anecdote told by the same authority of how Sophocles died by choking on a grape-pip while reading the Antigone showed the Antigone to be a very late play; the two stories show only that the Antigone was very famous; the value of the generalship story for dating it amounts to zero. The popular biographies of ancient poets have not emerged with much credit from the critical examination they have undergone in a number of recent articles by Professor Mary Lefkowitz. Winnington-lngram is also inclined to accept the view of Bernard Knox that the plague in the Oedipus Tyrannus was suggested to Sophocles by the plague that attacked Athens in 430 BC. But there is a plague in the first book of the Iliad, and Sophocles hardly needed a real plague to cause him to add plague to the other conventional kinds of blight; though the war god Ares does not figure elsewhere as a god of pestilence, we have no need to assume that he is made one here because pestilence accompanied war in 430. Still, Winnington-ln-gram’s conjectural chronology – with Ajax, Trachiniae and Antigone relatively early, Oedipus Tyrannus in the middle, and the Electra close to the two plays whose dates are known – corresponds with Reinhardt’s theory of the poet’s artistic development, and in a general way is probably correct.

Winnington-lngram lays strong emphasis on the influence of Aeschylus, and is everywhere aware of the importance of religion in the work of Sophocles. After dealing with the three supposedly early plays, he frames his chapter on the Oedipus Tyrannus between a chapter on the Erinyes in Sophocles – he calls them by the Roman name of ‘Furies’ – and one about the Sophoclean notion of fate; then come the chapters on the three late plays, followed by one about the heroes and the gods. The plays are examined with great skill and sensitivity, and the poet’s words are virtually never forced away from their natural meaning in the interests of a theory. The author’s early work occasionally tended towards excessive subtlety. If that appears at all here, it is in the ingenious attempt to show why the Chorus of the Antigone chooses to compare her fate with that of three particular victims of imprisonment in Greek mythology; the more cautious treatment of R.W.B. Burton in his study of The Chorus in Sophocles’ Tragedies[*] seems preferable.

Like Reinhardt, Winnington-Ingram takes up a middle-of-the-road position on the once vexed question of the importance of characterisation in the poet’s work. The 19th century’s exaggerated emphasis on the allegedly rounded presentation of each character provoked a sharp reaction in the study of Sophoclean dramatic technique by Tycho Wilamowitz (son of Ulrich), which was published in 1917 after its author’s death in action. Tycho maintained that Sophocles cared only for the immediate effect and had no interest in consistent characterisation; Winnington-lngram, following Reinhardt, holds that, though not concerned with the psychological niceties beloved of fin-de-siécle naturalism, Sophocles presented his characters in sufficient depth to explain the actions they perform.

Winnington-Ingram carefully examines the heroes and brings out the many differences between them. He shows clearly the atrocity of Ajax’s attempt to punish the Greek chiefs for awarding the arms of Achilles to Odysseus instead of to himself by a murderous and treacherous nocturnal attack, and makes no attempt to minimise the hardness and uncompromisingness of Ajax’s nature: yet he remains fully conscious of his heroism and of his clear-sighted courage in realising that he must kill himself if he is not to renounce the proud conception of honour on which his whole attitude to life depends. Like Ajax, the Heracles of the Trachiniae is so much a hero that he behaves more like a god than a human being; Winnington-Ingram shows that his monstrous egoism is inseparably connected with his heroism, and links him with the unforgiving gods whom he will join after his apotheosis.

In the Antigone, he avoids the mistake of ascribing full tragic dignity to Creon, and yet recognises that Creon does what his limited intelligence leads him to suppose is right. His awareness of the nobility of Antigone’s self-sacrifice does not blind him to her obstinacy and hardness – natural, as the Chorus point out, in a daughter of Oedipus.

The Oedipus of the Tyrannus seems to Winnington-Ingram to stand somewhat apart from the other heroic figures, because of his exceptional intelligence and unselfishness; perhaps he takes insufficient account of the ferocity shown when Oedipus unjustly suspects Tiresias and Creon. He shows how Electra, defying her father’s triumphant murderers alone in the palace, knows that she has become a monster of hatred and resentment, but pleads that she has been made one by her situation: at the same time, he brings out her courage and nobility and her passionate affection for her brother. The love of the aged Oedipus for his loyal daughters is equalled by the hatred he feels for his disloyal sons, which will in the end bring about the death of all his children. The only consolation the gods offer him for his sufferings is a death that will bring him power – and that power he will use, in accordance with archaic Greek morality, to benefit his friends and harm his enemies. The heroic nature which Philoctetes and the much younger Neoptolemus have in common brings them together in spite of the unfavourable circumstances created by the plan of the gods to bring Philoctetes and his bow to Troy, and the plot hatched by Odysseus to realise it: but the ending of the play reminds us that they must still struggle with the difficulties which life presents to those endowed with such a nature.

Winnington-Ingram would accept, I think, the general thesis that, though the gods maintain a kind of justice in the universe, their justice preserves the status quo. They ensure that men are punished for their crimes, but since the punishment seldom comes quickly, and may fall not upon the guilty but upon their descendants, the resulting sequences of crime and punishment cannot often be perceived by human beings, so that the gods seem to men arbitrary and remote. Individual gods punish men who have refused them honour: thus Athena punishes Ajax for having, with a pride proper only to a god, refused her offered aid in battle. Having thwarted his plan to massacre his enemies by driving him mad, she invites her favourite, Odysseus, to share her amusement as she mocks him; when Odysseus, painfully conscious that he too is mortal, cannot share her pleasure, she is as surprised as a cat whose fond owner fails to sympathise with his delight in playing with a captive mouse. Similarly, Apollo, in a fragment of the lost Niobe that was recently discovered on papyrus, coolly points out to his sister, Artemis, as she is picking off Niobe’s daughters one by one with her unerring arrows, a wretched girl who is trying to hide behind some great jars: ‘Quick!’ he exclaims, ‘shoot her before she gets out of sight!” The justice of Zeus demands that Ajax, descended though he is from Zeus, must die: yet before he dies he curses the Greek chieftains, with a curse that will be a contributory factor when, on the way back home across the Aegean, they are struck by a storm with fatal consequences for many, including Agamemnon.

Justice demands also that Heracles must pay for his treacherous violence towards the house of Eurytus, but his heroism is such that his agonising death must be followed by his apotheosis. The human characters left alive can see only the horror; the delicate hint at the apotheosis is only for the audience, and even for them it must remain distant. Is it just, we may ask, that the end of Heracles must involve the terrible death of Deianira, who is, to our was of thinking, at least, innocent and sympathetic? Had he wished to, the poet might have offered an explanation by hinting at a curse upon the house of Oeneus. But he took no trouble to do so: in Sophocles the difference between gods whose ways are inscrutable to men and gods who deal with men in an arbitrary fashion often appears minimal.

We can scarcely help asking why the divine justice requires, or indeed allows, the destruction of Oedipus: attempts to show him, or Jocasta, to be guilty of a crime do not convince. In the Aeschylean trilogy on the subject, of which only the last play, the Seven Against Thebes, survives, Oedipus must have inherited his guilt from his father, Laius, as the Aeschylean Agamemnon inherited his from his father Atreus; and a close scrutiny of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus yields certain indications that Sophocles assumed this to be the case. But Sophocles found it unnecessary to be explicit in this matter. He was not writing, like Aeschylus, a trilogy about the successive generations of the Theban royal house: he was writing a single tragedy about the fate of Oedipus, and chose to treat it as an instance of how the most powerful and intelligent of human beings may in a moment be struck down, not arbitrarily, but in requital for misdeeds of his forebears of which he knows nothing. In the Antigone the reasons for the catastrophe of Creon are made singularly explicit, but we cannot help asking why the gods do not intervene to save Antigone. In her quarrel with Creon she is proved to be wholly in the right, and she has done nothing that deserves death. She is a victim of the curse that lies upon all members of the family of Oedipus: yet the poet refrains from insisting on this, since it has no special importance in relation to the purpose that he has in hand.

In the Oedipus Tyrannus Sophocles says little of the Erinyes, preferring, as Aeschylus evidently did, to stress the agency of Apollo. But in the Electra the Erinyes are as much present as they are in the Aeschylean treatment of the subject – as Winnington-Ingram insisted in a famous article published many years ago. Justice demands that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus pay the penally for their murder of Agamemnon. But after the revenge taken by Orestes, the Erinyes will demand that Orestes in his turn be punished; Sophocles makes that clear, though he gives no hint that Orestes will finally escape. In the Philoctetes, the design of the gods requires that Philoctetes must go with Neoptolemus to Troy to help carry out the punishment of Paris and the Trojans which divine justice demands. Philoctetes bitterly resents having to fight at the side of his hated enemies Odysseus and the Atreidae, and he refuses the request of Neoptolemus that he should do so: but when the gods send his old friend Heracles, now himself immortal, to persuade him, he has to consent. The Erinyes have exhausted their wrath against the aged Oedipus, and all they have for him is death, but they have not finished with his family, and will fulfil his curse upon his sons in a way that will bring disaster to his daughters also.

The Olympian gods as Sophocles depicts them, and particularly in his last work, in which superficial critics have so often found an almost sentimental divine benevolence, could scarcely be sterner or more unforgiving. Yet the tone of the speeches which relate to them should warn against being persuaded by those ‘hero-worshipping’ critics who have found that Sophocles is positively hostile to the Olympians; nor does he present his heroes in a way designed to win all possible sympathy for their defiance of the gods. Like other Greek poets of the archaic age, Sophocles does not protest against the way in which the gods control the universe, but neither does he berate his heroes for not meekly submitting to the divine will: not before the time of Plato do Greeks try to determine what the gods want and condemn any opposition to it.

Sophoclean heroes are human beings whose great qualities lead them to behave, so far as they are able, like gods. Mortals cannot do this with impunity, as characters who lack heroic qualities, like the Odysseus of the Ajax or the Creon of the first Oedipus, remain aware: it is bound to lead, if not to their destruction, at least to grievous suffering. But it is in their suffering, or even in their destruction, that the heroes finally demonstrate their heroism. The last moments of Ajax, Heracles and Antigone are depicted with unsparing realism; no more than the Aeschylean Cassandra do they derive comfort from the knowledge that their ends are glorious, and yet the audience is aware of this.

[*] Oxford, 336 pp., £16.50, 3 April, 0 19 814374 5