Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 24.

D. M. Carter, The Politics of Greek Tragedy. Greece and Rome Live. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 209. ISBN 978-1-9044675-16-7. UK£12.99, US$24.95.

Leona MacLeod,
Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS. Canada

The political nature of Greek tragedy has been a topic of vigorous debate for the past two decades. It is a complex and wide- ranging subject that raises many questions about how we approach tragedy and its relationship to the society which produced it. Not surprisingly, critics have disagreed on just about everything, from the most basic question of how we are to define 'political' to the more difficult question of the political dimensions of tragedy. In its narrowest (and modern) sense, the term generally refers to the topically political, that is, the way in which tragedy references contemporary events. In this respect, Greek tragedy is generally thought to be largely non-political (there are, of course, important exceptions). However, if we understand the term in its ancient sense, as to politika, things which have to do with the polis, tragedy may be said to be an eminently political genre in that it explicitly or implicitly stages matters that are a concern to those who live in a polis. In between these two senses of the term are a host of difficult questions. To what extent does tragedy promote, reflect, question or subvert the ideology of the fifth century polis? Does it reflect Athenian democratic values or simply those of a Greek polis in general?[[1]] Have we overemphasized the centrality of the polis in tragedy, as some have suggested? Aristotle, as we may remember, does not even mention the polis when he speaks about tragedy.[[2]]

David Carter's recent book The Politics of Greek Tragedy is a welcome introduction to this debate. His book is published as part of the Greece and Rome Live series whose mandate is to make the ancient world accessible and relevant to students and the general reader. In this respect, Carter succeeds admirably. He makes a topic that is difficult and potentially confusing for the non-specialist, comprehensible and highly readable. The book combines some very basic introductory material with some fairly sophisticated arguments about Greek tragedy. While its primary audience is students, there is something here for specialists as well.

Carter begins by distinguishing between what he calls the 'weak' and 'strong' senses of the term 'political' (p. 4). The former refers to tragedies in which the main characters are political figures, that is, kings or leaders; the latter refers to the ways in which tragedy may serve a political function. For Carter, tragedy is almost always political in the weak sense of the term and is sometimes political in the stronger sense. While Carter spends a great deal of discussing the concept of the 'political', there is little discussion of the concept of 'political function', an idea which is more complex than he allows.[[3]] He also goes to some length to differentiate the political from the social, an exercise which is somewhat artificial, as he admits (p. 5), but perhaps also a tad unnecessary, given that so many critics use the two terms interchangeably when discussing this topic.[[4]]

After this introduction, Carter gives an overview of critical approaches to this subject. In what is one of the longest chapters in the book (pp. 21-63), Carter selects a number of scholars and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of their work. Anthony Podlecki's work, for instance, is held up as example of an historicist approach that examines tragedy for its reference to topical events.[[5]] Carter's main criticism here is that Podlecki's approach is too limited in scope (p. 29). He next examines Colin MacLeod's article on the Oresteia, which is justly praised for overcoming many of the deficiencies of the topical approach, although Carter does criticize his definition of political (concerned with beings living in a community ) as too broad (p. 34).[[6]] His point seems to be that MacLeod does not distinguish sufficiently between social and the political issues. For instance, marriage and household issues, Carter points out, are social rather than political issues. Certainly today, we would call these social issues but in Greek tragedy, the line between the two is not so obvious. More to the point, it is not entirely clear what the advantage is to distinguishing between the terms, particularly in a trilogy (and even genre) in which the two are so closely intertwined.

Carter devotes considerable space to Simon Goldhill's work 'City Dionysia and Civic Ideology', commending his examination of the political context of tragedy and the relationship between the festival, polis, and tragedy.[[7]] His main criticism of Goldhills argument is first, that there is little that is specifically democratic about the ceremonies and second, that many tragedies do not even mention Athens as a democracy (p. 40). Carter suggests that tragedy does not reflect anything distinctly Athenian but rather represents Greek values in general, and that it plays to an international audience rather than to a specifically Athenian one. This an interesting observation that runs counter to the current viewpoint that tragedy is largely an Athenian enterprise and suggests that the communis opinio may be starting to shift. Turning next to the argument of Mark Griffith, Carter finds much to praise in his view that tragedy expresses the tension between egalitarianism and elitism, and that class differences may be more important than political differences.[[8]] He does, however, question Griffith's claim that audience members would have a difficult time identifying with the heroic figures in Greek tragedy (p. 49).

Seaford's Ritual and Reciprocity is also examined here, despite its very different approach to tragedy.[[9]] Seaford is concerned with finding evidence in tragedy for showing the historical process whereby the social structures of society shifted from the individual autonomous household of the eight century to the fifth century polis and its largely cohesive civic identity. Seaford argues that both homeric epic and tragedy shows traces of this historical process in the form of a dionysiac pattern by which the royal oikos is destroyed for the benefit of the polis. This is a challenging and difficult thesis and not one easily encapsulated for the general reader who may not have the necessary background. While Carter presents it in an understandable fashion, one is left wondering whether Seaford's work really belongs in this chapter. His work is not so much about the political nature of tragedy as it is about the examination of the relationship between ritual and tragedy. The final critic discussed is Edith Hall, again another odd choice given that her work is not precisely about the political dimensions of tragedy.[[10]] She examines tragedy in terms of gender and class and while Carter does not dispute the value of this, he suggests that as the basis for a definition of the political, it is again too broad (p. 57). Carter concludes with the rather unsatisfying observation that to search for a single, unifying theory of the politics of Greek tragedy is hopeless (p. 63).

Overall, this is a very useful survey and Carter offers a fairly representative array of critical approaches to this subject. There are a few gaps but Carter provides a guide to further reading at the end of the book (pp. 187-93). It would have been helpful to see greater connections drawn among the various approaches in order to give the reader a better understanding of what some of the primary debates are. As it stands now, this chapter seems at times more of a sampling of recent approaches to tragedy than an overview of this question.

Carter offers his own contribution to the question in Chapter 3, 'The Political Shape of Greek Tragedy' (pp. 64-89), returning again to the question of what we mean by political. He comes up with a definition that differs only marginally from Macleod's (concerning beings living in a community). Carter adds the words of the polis, arguing that the definition on its own is too broad in that community may suggest sociological concerns rather than just political (p. 65). Adding the word polis perhaps does refine the definition, but whether this is enough to move the debate forward or not is another question. Carter goes on to discuss the different ways in which tragedy may be political: characters may exercise political power; tragedy may be concerned with such things as justice; and finally tragedy may teach its audience, although Carter does not seem altogether convinced that tragedy is political in this didactic sense. What is missing here is any discussion of the ethical world of tragedy. Understanding concepts such as sophrosyne, eusebeia, aidos is crucial for understanding how beings live together in a community like the polis. They are what govern the relationship between individual and the polis, and human and divine. Not only has Carter excluded the social from the political, but he has also excluded the ethical.

As a test or demonstration of his methodology, Carter offers an interpretation of four tragedies (Ajax, Antigone, Suppliants, Trojan Women) in Chapter 4 (pp. 90- 142). This includes identifying three things about each play: the date of performance; the political environment of the play; the political identity of the chorus. There is certainly nothing contentious about these questions, but they do seem rather limited in what they may reveal about a tragedy. Space precludes a discussion of all four, so I restrict my comments to Ajax and Antigone. Carter's questions lead him to suggest that the Ajax can be read as an exploration of citizenship (p. 103). His final conclusion regarding the play is that loyalty within the family or neighbourhood might lead us to question political authority (p. 103). As a reading of Ajax, it is rather disappointing. It says nothing about why Ajax must die, what he represents, and what his salvation signifies. If one uses Carter's definition of political (concerning beings that live in the community of the polis), the play is eminently political in the way it sets the heroic ideology of the past against the more communally oriented ethics of the polis, as represented in the arguments of Odysseus. Sophrosyne, one of the key virtues necessary for beings who live in the community of the polis, is completely ignored by Carter. Yet the presence or lack of sophrosyne is what allows us to understand the ethical codes of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, and Odysseus, and thus the impossibility of someone like Ajax living in a fifth century B.C.E. polis.

The interpretation of Antigone includes a number of useful observations, particularly for the general reader who may be tempted to read in modern terms as a conflict between individual rights and a totalitarian state. Carter reads the play in terms of the city first policy claimed by Creon in his first speech and concludes that the play can only have relevance to the democratic polis if Creon is viewed as a tyrant (p. 113). Perhaps, but what about Antigone's claims for the right of the family to bury its own? Carter warns against reading the play as a conflict between the polis and oikos but surely the audience would have recognized some tension or conflict between the two institutions, especially given that Antigones views are vindicated in the end by the polis and the gods. Carters definition is certainly broad enough to encompass the ethical world of the polis, so it is surprising to find no mention of the communal ethics that inform much of Greek tragedy.

The final chapter examines the political reception of Greek tragedy, that is, the way in which modern performances of plays may acquire a political meaning that was not in the original play, largely because the cultural context has changed so radically. He looks at the reception of two plays, Antigone and Trojan Women. The general reader who may not be all that familiar with the plays or modern performances of them may find this chapter less interesting. For those who persevere, there is some reward. Carter makes the important point that ancient tragedy was political in a far different fashion from modern performances of tragedy, which often attempt to make them politically relevant by using them as a form of political protest. It is a good reminder of the very different role the theatre plays today.

Carter's book is admirable for the clear way it introduces this topic to the general reader. There perhaps is less here for the specialist than one would like, especially given that this topic has been such a contentious one among critics. Judged, however, as an introductory survey book for the general reader, it is an unqualified succuess.


[[1]] P. J. Rhodes, 'Nothing to do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polis,' JHS 123 (2003) 104-19.

[[2]]See Edith Hall, 'Is There a Polis in Aristotle's Poetics?', in M.S. Silk (ed.), Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond (Oxford 1996) 295-309. See also Malcolm Heath's recent article, 'Should there have been a Polis in Aristotle's Poetics? CQ 59 (2009) 468-85.

[[3]] Malcolm Heath addresses this question in 'The Social Function of Tragedy: Clarifications and Questions,' in Dionysalexandros: Essays on Aeschylus and His Fellow Tragedians in Honour of Alexander F. Garvie (Swansea 2006) 253-81.

[[4]] See J. Gregory, 'Euripides as a Social Critic,' G&R 49 (2002) 145-62; J. J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, 'Nothing to do with Dionysos' (Princeton 1990); J. Griffin, 'The Social Function of Attic Tragedy,' CQ 48 (1998) 39-61; R. Seaford, 'The Social Function of Attic Tragedy: A Response to Jasper Griffin,' CQ (2000) 30-44. Critics appear to make little distinction between the two terms.

[[5]] Anthony Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (reissued Bristol 1999).

[[6]] C. W. Macleod, 'Politics in the Oresteia,' JHS 102 (1982) 122-44.

[[7]] Simon Goldhill, 'The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,' JHS 107 (1987) 39-61.

[[8]] Mark Griffiths, 'Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the Oresteia,' CA 14 (1995) 62-129 (Carter gives the wrong year for this article in n. 37 (p. 166) and in Further Reading (p. 190).

[[9]] Richard Seaford, Ritual and Reciprocity: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford 1994).

[[10]] Edith Hall, 'The Sociology of Greek Tragedy,' in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997) 93-126.