When he left the palace, the streets were nearly empty
Save for the women wailing at the altar, rending air
With sobs and litanies, the smoke from their incense pots
Thick and fragrant, perfuming the shrouded dead.
When I studied and taught Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King,” the stress was on hubris, irony, blindness. What wasn’t emphasized is that the play was written during and is set in the midst of a plague.
As someone who writes about early Greek poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking about why its performance was so crucial to ancient life. One answer is that epic and tragedy helped ancient storytellers and audiences try to make sense of human suffering.