Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus – In Conversation with Jenny March

Jenny March’s new translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus brings alive the power and complexities of Sophocles’ writing; Oedipus’ fate is cruel and undeserved, but his courage and compassion endure to the end. This new edition includes an introduction, the Greek text, facing-page translation, and commentary. We discussed this new publication with the author.

Firstly, what drew you to work on this new edition of Oedipus Tyrannus, and did your perception of the play change as your work progressed?

In the first place it was something like curiosity, the desire to discover just what it was that made this play universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – of all Greek tragedies.  But I see now, looking back, that although I could recognise intellectually that this was a great play, my feelings about it were not truly engaged.  That changed, and I have come to recognise its greatness to the full, and to care passionately about Oedipus and his tragic fate.  I hope that something of my enthusiasm for the play will come across to those who read this book.

What do you feel contributes to the power of the play in performance?

Much of the power of the play in performance stems from the audience’s prior knowledge that Oedipus killed his father Laius and married his mother, the two fundamental elements of his story familiar from Homer onwards.  Sophocles manipulates this knowledge in a masterly fashion to create dramatic tension and suspense.

Early on in the action, Oedipus learns that for the sake of his city he must find out who killed Laius, and from this point on the audience eagerly waits for answers, not to the question of who did the deed, as in a detective story (to which the play has often been likened) – that fact is already quite clear to them – but to the questions of how, and more pressingly when, Oedipus will find out the truth of what he has done and who he really is. 

The spectators can see that truth inexorably approaching with a doom-laden inevitability.  Time and again Oedipus seems to come close to it, but is veered away by Sophocles at the last moment.  Only way through the play at verse 1182 does the axe fall and everything, at long last, become clear to him.  And even then Sophocles keeps his audience in suspense, because they don’t know whether Oedipus will live or die: there are hints that Oedipus will kill himself; and only at 1267ff. do they discover that, instead of death, he chooses to blind his eyes. 

Is there a particular section or line of the play which stands out to you as a favourite?

The section would have to be the brief scene where Oedipus interrogates the Theban Herdsman and learns the full truth about his birth.  We have just had his gripping scene with the Messenger from Corinth, who told him that he was not the true son of Polybus and Merope, but adopted: long years ago, he himself took the new-born Oedipus from a Theban shepherd and gave him to the Corinthian king.  Jocasta stands silently nearby, hearing everything but saying nothing.  Her silent presence is dramatically powerful, with the audience’s attention riveted on her quite as much as on Oedipus and the Messenger, as they wonder at what point she will realise that this was her own baby, the child she sent out to die.  Perhaps she begins to fear the truth when she hears Cithaeron mentioned; but she will know for certain when she hears the name of Laius.  She must surely make a wordless gesture of horrified recognition.  The spectators would have no doubt that when she rushes indoors at the end of the scene, it is to commit suicide in despair.

          There follows a brief choral interlude of joy and hope (always an ominous sign in Sophocles).  Then comes the scene with the Herdsman, where Oedipus finally drags the full truth out of him.  The audience can see the moment approaching when he will at last realise it, but Sophocles spins out the suspense over seventy-six whole verses – what Kitto aptly describes as “the longest seventy-six verses ever written” – all absolutely transfixing from start to finish. 

          And that brings me to the particular line of the play that I would pick out as a favourite, line 1170, at the devastating climax of Oedipus’ interrogation.  The Herdsman knows that he is on the brink of disclosing the final dreadful facts, that Oedipus is the son of Laius, the man he killed, and of Jocasta, the woman he married.  “Ah, I’m close to telling the terrible thing itself”, he cries (1169). And Oedipus replies, with unflinching courage, “And I to hearing it.  But even so, it must be heard.”  He knows that what he is about to hear is the ultimate in horror, and yet, being the man he is, he cannot turn away from the truth.  He must hear it.

Do we have the authentic Sophoclean ending of the Oedipus Tyrannus?

No, I don’t think we do.  I argue that there are good dramatic grounds – linguistic, stylistic, dramaturgical – for believing that the original ending has been modified.  The final 115 verses of the play have long raised doubts about their authenticity; Roger Dawe, for instance, argues that much of this scene is doubtful and that everything from line 1458 should be deleted.  I am by no means as brutal as this.  But there are three short passages, some twenty-four lines in all, which seem to me so inept and incoherent – so not Sophocles – that they suggest a later interpolation and should be deleted.  This leaves the ending open, with Oedipus free to stumble his way into exile, towards Cithaeron, if so he chooses, so as to save his beloved city.  In the theatre of my mind – as it was, I believe, in the eyes of that fifth-century audience in the Theatre of Dionysus – he does so.

What are you working on next?

I can’t seem to keep away from the story of Oedipus.  I’ve started to work on an edition of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, the play in which Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other while fighting over the rule of Thebes.  The fate of the house of Oedipus was not a happy one!

Find out more about Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus on the Liverpool University Press website.

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