This is a shortened version of a long essay I’m not going to write on this post here by the great Mitchelmore: – but merely the bits about Greek tragedy.
The hero of Greek tragedy was not an autonomous individual. He was caught in and made by a whole web of different interpenetrating elements. These were what led to tragedy but also what absolved him from full responsibility. Terrible things might happen to him, but he could not blame himself, or, to put it in terms of Greek tragedy itself, he might be polluted but he was not guilty.
Romantic scholars who could only see solitary individuals in their isolation [in the figures of Greek tragedy], a tragic hero like Hamlet, at the centre of the story. Like our contemporary critics, they read what isn’t there because they can see only personalities and the weighing of personal responsibility. It’s a habit of mind we see in conventional fiction beginning and ending in a solitary consciousness .
If none of Sophocles’ heroes “blames himself” or feels remotely guilty then: why does Ajax commit suicide, Deianeira commit suicide, Jocasta commit suicide, Oedipus blind himself with a hair-pin, and pretty much everyone in Antigone commit suicide. – Because I’m not convinced pollution can account for this, or really has anything much to do with it. Suicide (and self-blinding) is not part of any purification ritual. Indeed, the shedding of blood is itself an act of pollution. Oedipus does indeed go into exile at the end of Oedipus Rex – there’s one act of purification (and there are a few others specifically in the Theban sequence) – but it’s not a general thing in Sophocles or indeed the tragic point.
No, not merely do ancient heroes “blame themselves”; they have a tendency to blame themselves for things which from which we (and to be honest, people in the ancient world) would normally absolve them. We think perhaps their reaction is a bit extreme and they should think things through a moment. – Take the Ajax for instance: a man kills some sheep in a fit of madness; his immediate thought on discovering this is to kill himself; everyone else in the play (surely representatives of the ancient world) tries to persuade him not to kill himself; he deceives them: he tells them he will just carry out a small purification ritual for the sake of the sheep and forget about the whole matter; later that night, he sneaks away from camp and kills himself. – His essential reason? I could not bear to look upon my parents’ faces after such shame. (Oedipus has the deeper problem: if he kills himself, he will only meet up with his parents sooner, and also by now they’re just the very people he doesn’t want to meet; – so he resorts to self-blinding).
Here’s an essay by renowned classical scholar E.R. Dodds on the subject, for your amusement and comparison [warning: this essay may upset views you learned long ago and which you’ve long maintained through idle complacence]. A few selected quotes:
Oedipus is great because he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are most objectively horrible, though subjectively innocent.
If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid, does this not reduce him to a mere puppet? Is not the whole play a “tragedy of destiny” which denies human freedom? This is the second of the heresies which I set out to refute. Many readers have fallen into it … and you can find it confidently asserted in various popular handbooks, some of which even extend the assertion to Greek tragedy in general – thus providing themselves with a convenient label for distinguishing Greek from “Christian” tragedy.
Which last quote should give you a clue as to the literary cherry-picking going on here – I suspect by both Josipovici and Kierkegaard: – I’d like to see them argue the same notion of Greek/Sophoclean tragedy from the point of view of, say, Electra or Philoctetes.
As the comparison above makes clear, Euripides was the Dickens of his time, Sophocles the Beckett. Why this kind of misreading continues is an issue worth pursuing.
and when we pick ourselves up from the floor, perhaps we wonder for once if Mitchelmore is not here pontificating eruditely on a subject about what he knows nothing. – Why do foolish moderns fall into the trap of believing Euripides to be an example of a “modernist” tendency? – Well, I don’t know: perhaps it’s because he’s generally considered as foreshadowing the kind of existential uncertainty that is characteristic of the subsequent Hellenistic period, historically linked as it is to the collapse of the polis-society under the autocracy of Philip of Macedon, and whose greatest poetic flourishing was to be found in the Alexandrians – those most “modernist” of all the ancients.