Sophocles: Tragedy and the Limits of Knowledge
What kinds of knowledge can be found in the fraught space between insight and taboo, between enlightenment and horror? In Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, once the truth Oedipus’ paternity has been revealed, the Chorus cries to its king: “I pity you, but I cannot look at you, though there’s much I want to ask and much to learn and much to see.” Continuously in Sophocles’s work, in the Oedipus plays and beyond, heroes and heroines tread the border between life and death, nature and civilization, and freedom and taboo—and in their predicaments raise questions of the human condition that have proved enormously generative for centuries of philosophers, political theorists, psychoanalysts, and artists. Are some rules unbreakable? What does it mean, nevertheless, to break them? Does moral law supersede the political? In what ways might the social body readmit—and be re-enlivened by—the transgressive hero?
In this course, an exploration of the form, themes, and legacy of Sophoclean tragedy, we will read Sophocles’s epochal Theban plays—Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—as well as his perhaps lesser read, but no less compelling plays: Ajax, Electra, and Philoctetes. As we read, we’ll seek to understand tragic form, the aesthetic experience of tragedy, and the possibility of catharsis. We’ll explore the kinds of knowledge and tragic emotion that come into being in Sophoclean tragedy; and we’ll consider, as well, the playwright’s relation to Athenian democratic thought and practice, contemporary ideas of gender and sexuality, and the ideal of rational enlightenment. Throughout, we’ll give close attention to Sophocles’s transformation of the heroes and heroines of myth into figures of enduring philosophical and emotional resonance. Why does Sophoclean tragedy remain so emotionally and artistically powerful to this day?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 28 — February 18, 2021
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