Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King begins with a plague in the land of Thebes, in the distant mythological past. A priest has come to ask Oedipus for help. He describes the gruesome effects of the disease, which infects both nature and mankind:
The state, as you yourself can see, is tossed
upon the churning waves, no longer able
to raise its head out of the deadly flood.
A blight is on this city’s fruitful harvest
and on the herd’s increase, and women’s babes
are still-born. A plague, fire-bearing god,
in hideous form descends to vex the city.
When Sophocles wrote these lines, sometime in the 420s B.C., his own native city of Athens was still reeling from a plague that had devastated Greece beginning in 430 B.C. The disease possibly emerged in Ethiopia or Egypt; it arrived in Piraeus, the port of Athens, in the early summer and quickly spread to the main city. The onset of the epidemic coincided with the first year of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was under siege by the Spartan army. As the first cases of plague appeared, fears spread with it, and rumors circulated that the Spartans had poisoned the wells.
We are fortunate to have a first-hand account of the outbreak. The writer Thucydides, who contracted the disease and survived, gives a vivid report in his History of the Peloponnesian War. With a keen eye, Thucydides observes the plague’s physical symptoms: blistering fever, unquenchable thirst, pustules and ulcers on the body, and almost certain death. Modern scholars have tried to identify the disease based on his description, suggesting typhoid fever, smallpox, and measles as possibilities. Whatever its specific agent, the effects were exacerbated by poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding, as the rural and enslaved population from the countryside around Athens sought refuge from the Spartan army within the walled city. The death toll of the plague was enormous: perhaps as much as one-third of the Athenian population died “like sheep,” including the leading statesman Pericles and his two young sons.
For Thucydides, the plague was the defining crisis of the war, an epidemic as much moral as medical. The disease catalyzed a civic calamity, a total breakdown of social order and the rule of law. “Convinced that they would die in any case,” Thucydides relates, “people ceased to obey all laws, sacred as well as profane.” The temples “were full of the dead and dying,” and families, in desperation, would “toss their dead onto the funeral pyres of strangers and walk away.” In Thucydides’ view, Athens did not rise to the challenge presented by the plague. The city’s self-image—exceptional, invulnerable, all-powerful, an example to the rest of Greece—was deeply shaken, and in fact Athens never recovered her former glory. After nearly thirty years of war, in 404 B.C., Athens was subdued by the Spartans, who dismantled the democracy, dispersed the naval empire, and installed an oligarchic puppet government.
Is the plague in Oedipus the King equally hopeless? A new verse translation by David Kovacs invites us to consider this question. Thucydides the historian and Sophocles the poet were contemporaries, and both were active in the political life of the city. Thucydides fought as a general at Amphipolis, while Sophocles held various civic roles, including treasurer, commissioner, and host to the local cult of Asclepius, which involved feeding the sacred snake of the god in his own home. As authors, both are interested what plague can reveal about human ingenuity and fallibility. To test their coinage, the Greeks used a touchstone, a basanos, on which pure gold leaves a yellow streak; for both Thucydides and Sophocles, plague is a touchstone of integrity and moral excellence. And while in Thucydides’ account Athens fails the test, Sophocles’ Oedipus emerges from his ordeal humbled and blinded by his own hands but still recognizably great.
Although Oedipus the King opens with a plague, the epidemic is not the primary topic of the tragedy. Rather, it provides context for the personal disaster of one man. It is Oedipus who is to blame for the plague, because long ago he unwittingly killed Laius, the former king of Thebes, and the oracle of Apollo declares that the murderer of Laius is the cause of the sickness. Of course, Oedipus is guilty of far more heinous offenses against the natural order: Laius was not truly a stranger, but Oedipus’s own father, and when Oedipus married Laius’s queen, Jocasta, he in fact took his own mother as his wife. For the Greeks, parricide and incest were so revolting as to inspire an instinctual horror. Because he has done these terrible things, even though he did them in ignorance, Oedipus is the source of miasma, a religious pollution believed not only to infect those in physical contact with the polluted person but also to outrage the natural elements and the gods.
Oedipus may be the cause of the plague and the source of its contagion, but he is also the only hope of a cure. He has already saved the city once, when it was menaced by the monstrous Sphinx, who posed the riddle, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus, by giving the answer—“man”—loosed Thebes from her strangling grip. Now he must save the city again. Because of the plague, the situation is dire: people are dying, the fertility of the land is blasted. Oedipus sets out to uncover the truth. This second riddle—who killed Laius?—has a more intimate answer than Oedipus anticipates. The king’s struggle to uncover the track of his own past gives the play its rigorous, thrilling central scenes, which barrel forward like a speeding train.
Oedipus’s answer to the riddle of his identity destroys him and drives Jocasta to suicide but sets Thebes free from the plague. There is something redemptive in his sufferings. This unity of pain and healing seems to be true of Greek tragedy more generally, which sets out both to represent and to effect a passage from crime and horror, through pain, to a new order. Even when the Athenian plague was at its worst, the theaters remained open—actors, playwrights, and choral dancers were considered essential workers. The self-questioning of tragic protagonists, along with the celebration of the singing and dancing tragic chorus, were a means of healing the city. The first performance of Oedipus the King took place outdoors, in the theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis; the Parthenon of Athena and other temples built in the years of Athenian hegemony were conspicuous on high as the audience filed to their seats. Tragedy put the city, in its greatness and its grief, on display.
Healing seems to have been central to Kovacs’s particular translation of Oedipus the King as well. As he writes in his preface, he completed most of the play while in the hospital recovering from an illness; it is dedicated to his brother, a physician. Kovacs has been a Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia since 1976. He has a long-standing interest in textual criticism—that is, in the vagaries of the Ancient Greek texts that have come down to us today—as well as in the literary interpretation of Greek tragedy. His most ambitious project to date has been the six volumes of Euripides in the Loeb Classical Library (1994–2002).
In this volume of Oedipus the King, Kovacs offers his translation without a facing page of Greek, which of course his Loeb efforts have. Yet this is not simply a readable version of the play in a contemporary idiom: Kovacs’s translation is intended to take its place among more traditional works of scholarship. His principal ambition, as he writes in his Introduction, is “rendering the meaning correctly.” For Kovacs, this goal calls for poetic language not heard in ordinary conversation; he explains that he uses blank verse because of its heritage in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Some of his phrases recall this tradition of English poetry through self-consciously archaic phrasing: “waken me from slumber,” “a wretch in wretched case,” “seed of mortal woman begotten,” “forebear to leave such taint uncovered,” and “the stain of dire calamity,” for example. This is language in a markedly higher register than the one that Kovacs employed in his Loeb volumes. The lofty diction is intended to give readers who have no Greek “a sense of how Sophocles’ language would have struck its first audience.”
This is certainly a valid strategy, yet there are almost as many ways to be “correct” as to be “wrong” in translating an ancient work of literature. Kovacs takes a very different approach from other modern versions of the Oedipus story, especially those intended for performance. For instance, Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus (1983) brings a full gospel choir onstage to deliver Sophocles’ odes with passion and religious authority; Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey (2017) transports the action of the play to the Chicano gang culture of Southern California; and Brian Doerries’s The Oedipus Project (2020), in free verse, has been staged live over the internet for civilians and frontline workers affected by the covid-19 pandemic. These heterodox translations are powerful recastings that manage to engage the audience in the dramatic project of Sophocles’ original. The key question is: does Kovacs’s translation pass this test? I think the answer is yes, at least for a self-selected group of readers who are willing to imagine themselves in a foreign and stylized world.
Kovacs’s accuracy on the level of the individual word and line works best for the spoken scenes of the tragedy, especially the tightly controlled sections of dialogue where two characters speak in rapid exchange (called stichomythia). Early in the play, the prophet Teiresias tells Oedipus the truth, but Oedipus is not yet ready to accept it. Each line of verse is a stab:
Oedipus: What word? Repeat it so that I may know it.
Teiresias: Did you not hear or are you testing me?
Oedipus: I did not grasp it: say it once again.
Teiresias: You are the killer you would bring to justice.
Not only are these lines “correct,” that is, faithful to the literal text, but they also capture the aggressive insistence in the agonistic struggle between the two men, an effort achieved without linguistic strain. There are many other passages of such precision and spare elegance in the translation.
Yet there is perhaps more that could have been done with the play’s choral odes. We know that these songs were a part of tragedy that ancient audiences especially valued and enjoyed, and that they were composed with an interlocking structure, where the same music was introduced once (the strophe) and then repeated immediately afterwards with different words (the antistrophe). Kovacs marks these strophes and antistrophes with abbreviations in the margin of his text, but he might have brought out the complex mirroring of musical themes and ideas in Sophocles’ Greek.
For example: the second ode of the play culminates, significantly, in a formal prayer. In the preceding scene, Jocasta has ridiculed and rejected Apollo’s oracles concerning the murder of Laius. By discrediting the veracity of the Delphic oracle at a moment of danger for the city, she precipitates a ritual crisis. The chorus respond by linking her questioning of divine authority with their own act of dance and song. Here is the second half of the ode, in Kovacs’s translation:
But if anyone walks haughtily (str. 2)
in deed or word,
with no fear of Justice and no reverence
for the gods’ habitations,
may an evil destiny take him
in requital for his ill-starred pride,
if he makes his profits unjustly
and fails to keep from what is unholy
or in his folly lays hands on what is sacred!
What man involved in deeds like this shall ever
ward off from his life the arrows of the gods?
If such deeds are held in honour,
Why should I worship the gods in dance?
No longer shall I go in reverence (ant. 2)
to the earth’s navel all holy
nor to the temple at Abai
nor yet to that at Olympia
unless the oracles prove true
for all mortals to point to.
But, powerful Zeus, all-ruler
(if these are your true epithets), may this not escape
your notice and that of your eternal governance!
The oracle about Laius is now
set at naught and annulled,
and nowhere is Apollo’s honour manifest:
The close correlation between the religious life of the city and the dancing of the chorus is encapsulated in the final line of the strophe: “Why should I worship the gods in dance?” The corresponding line of the antistrophe, which would have had the same melody, describes the total collapse of worship: “religion perishes.” The phrases are in fact two sides of the same coin, two verses to the same tune. There is thus an argument contained within the strophic form of the ode. As explored in an article by the late scholar Albert Henrichs, in this image the fictional chorus of Theban elders and the actual chorus of Athenian citizens come together, blurring the boundaries between past and present, the illusion of the stage and the reality of public performance. The chorus must dance, because their dance animates the gods. If they stop dancing, the world as they know it will come to an end.
The chorus’s question—“Why should I worship the gods in dance?”—is central to the performance of this play, as it is more broadly to the role of the arts in times of catastrophe. Do we keep dancing because to stop would mean the extinction of everything we value? Or do we dance because, despite loss, suffering, and uncertainty, there are still things to celebrate? The reader of Kovacs’s Oedipus the King will find much to celebrate: a lucid verse translation closely modeled on the original Greek; an introduction and notes building on the author’s extensive experience with ancient literature; and, most importantly, imaginative access to the world of Sophocles’ tragedy, in all its familiarity and strangeness.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 80
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