Sunday, May 01, 2016

Fortnightly Book, May 1

The next fortnightly book will be The Theban Plays of Sophocles, translated by David Slavitt.

Sophocles is said to have written about 120 plays during his lifetime. We have seven of them and various fragments of others. The three extant Theban plays are not a trilogy in the proper sense, but three distinct plays from three distinct periods of Sophocles' life -- Antigone is quite early, Oedipus Tyrannos (also known as Oedipus Rex) is somewhat later, and Oedipus at Colonus is from the very end of his life (such that it was only performed posthumously). There is also no attempt to maintain any consistency among them. An additional complication in reading is that while the composition order is Antigone - Oedipus Tyrannos - Oedipus at Colonus, the dramatic order is Oedipus Tyrannos - Oedipus at Colonus - Antigone. So there's always a question as to the order in which one reads them. I will be following the composition order because that is the one Slavitt uses.

The basic tale of the House of Laius is easy enough to grasp. Oedipus was born to Laius and Jocasta, but there was a prophecy that any son born to Laius would murder his father. Because of this, Oedipus's feet were bound together and he was taken to a place where he could die of exposure. A shepherd saves him, however, and takes him to the court of Polybus of Corinth and Merope, who raise him as his own. When he grows up, however, he hears a rumor that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope, and, just to be sure, asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents are. The Oracle tells him that he will mate with his mother and murder his father. Oedipus misinterprets this as the Oracle refusing to give him an answer, takes it to be claiming that he will kill Polybus and sleep with Merope, and thus flees Corinth so that such a prediction can never come true. Of course, the tragedy lies in that the Oracle did, in fact, precisely identify who his real mother and father were. On the road to Thebes, he meets a man in a chariot and, as men sometimes do, they get into a quarrel over who has the right of way. Oedipus kills the man and proceeds to Thebes. When he eventually gets to Thebes, he saves it from a terrible monster, the Sphinx, and is rewarded by being made king and marrying the now widowed queen. Of course, the man he killed was his father Laius and the woman he marries is his mother Jocasta, although he does not know it. After some time passes, a plague has begun to rage in Thebes, and Oedipus sends Creon, his brother-in-law, to the Delphic Oracle to determine why. It is here that Oedipus Tyrannos picks up.

I've read all the plays before, but not in this translation. I very much liked Slavitt's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy; it's very colloquial and at times paraphrastic, but very nice for conveying the gist of the work. Thus when I saw this work on the dollar rack at Half Price Books a couple of weeks back, I thought I would try out the translation. He gives an account of his own ideas of how Sophocles should be translated here; Eva Brann, who knows whereof she speaks, has an interesting review of this particular translation here, noting its strengths and weaknesses. Somewhere I have Paul Roche's translation of the plays of Sophocles, so I might compare the two on occasion.

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