previous next

Character of the composition.

Another species of internal evidence has been sought in the character of the dramatic composition. It has been held that the Oedipus Coloneus shares certain traits with the Philoctetes, the other play which tradition assigns to the latest years of Sophocles. One such trait is the larger scope given to scenic effects which appeal to the eye and the ear,—such as the pitiable garb of Oedipus, the personal violence of Creon, the scenery of Colonus, the thunder-storm. Another is the change from a severer type of tragedy, which concentrates the interest on a single issue—as in the Tyrannus—to a type which admits the relief of secondary interests,—such as the cult at Colonus, the rescue of the maidens, the glory of Athens, the fortunes of Thebes. A third trait of similar significance has been recognised in the contemplative tendency of the play, which leaves the spectator at leisure to meditate on questions other than those which are solved by a stroke of dramatic action,—such as the religious and the moral aspects of the hero's acts, or the probable effect of his pleas on the Athenian mind1. Akin to this tendency is the choice of subjects like those of the Coloneus and the Philoctetes, which end with a reconciliation, not with a disaster. And here there is an analogy with some of the latest of Shakspeare's plays,—the Winter's Tale, Tempest, and Cymbeline, —which end, as Prof. Dowden says, with “"a resolution of the dissonance, a reconciliation."2

It may at once be conceded that the traits above mentioned are present in the Coloneus, and that they are among those which distinguish it from the Tyrannus. The Coloneus is indeed more picturesque, more tolerant of a distributed interest, more meditative; and its end is peace. But it is less easy to decide how far these traits are due to the subject itself, and how far they can safely be regarded as distinctive of the poet's latest period. Let us suppose for a moment that external evidence had assigned the Coloneus to the earlier years of Sophocles. It would not then, perhaps, seem less reasonable to suggest that these same traits are characteristic of youth. Here, it might be said, we find the openness of a youthful imagination to impressions of the senses; its preference of variety to intensity, in the absence of that matured and virile sternness of dramatic purpose which can concentrate the thoughts on a single issue; its affinity to such themes as temper the darker view of human destiny with some gladness and some hope. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the latter view of the traits in question is actually more correct than the former, but merely to illustrate the facility with which considerations of this nature can be turned to the support of opposite hypotheses.

Another feature of the play which has been supposed to indicate the close of the fifth century B.C. is the prominence of the rhetorical element in certain places, especially in the scenes with Creon and Polyneices. We should recollect, however, that the Ajax is generally allowed to be one of the earlier plays, and that the scenes there between Teucer and the Atreidae show the taste for rhetorical discussion quite as strongly as any part of the Coloneus. Rhetoric should be distinguished from rhetorical dialectic. Subtleties of the kind which appear in some plays of Euripides are really marks of date, as showing new tendencies of thought. But the natural rhetoric of debate, such as we find it in the Ajax and the Coloneus, was as congenial to Greeks in the days of Homer as in the days of Protagoras.

1 See Campbell, I. 259 ff.

2 Shakspere—His Mind and Art, p. 406.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: