Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton

Overview

In Paradise Lost, Adam asks, "Why do I overlive?" Adam's anguished question is the basis for a critical analysis of living too long as a neglected but central theme in Western tragic literature. Emily Wilson examines this experience in works by Milton and by four of his literary predecessors: Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, and Shakespeare. Each of these writers composed works in which the central character undergoes unbearable suffering or loss, hopes for death, but goes on ...

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Overview

In Paradise Lost, Adam asks, "Why do I overlive?" Adam's anguished question is the basis for a critical analysis of living too long as a neglected but central theme in Western tragic literature. Emily Wilson examines this experience in works by Milton and by four of his literary predecessors: Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, and Shakespeare. Each of these writers composed works in which the central character undergoes unbearable suffering or loss, hopes for death, but goes on living.

Mocked with Death makes clear that tragic works need not find their moral and aesthetic conclusion in death and that, in some instances, tragedy consists of living on rather than dying. Oedipus's survival at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus Coloneus is clearly one such instance; another Euripides' Heracles. In Seneca's Hercules Furens, overliving becomes an expression of anxieties about both political and literary belatedness. In King Lear and Macbeth, the sense of overliving produces a divided sense of self. For Milton, in both Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost, overliving is a theological problem arising from the tension between mortal conceptions of time and divine providence.

Each writer in this tradition, Wilson concludes, attempts to diminish the anxieties arising from living past one's time but cannot entirely minimize them. Tragedies of overliving remain disturbing because they remind us that life is rarely as neat as we expect and hope it be and that endings often come too late.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
This book is partly, then, an exploration of figures whose continued lives (Oedipus, Heracles, Lear, Macbeth, Samson and Adam) seem offensive to the presiding powers and narrative decorum of their respective plays, but which may also offer energetic forms of interest and even consolation. As such it is wonderfully persuasive, clear and accessible. It also links the notion of overliving into wider currents of thought about tragedy.

— Raphael Lyne

Renaissance Quarterly
Refreshing because it stimulates the reader to rethink familiar works and to question received concepts.

— Margaret J. Arnold

Times Literary Supplement - Raphael Lyne

This book is partly, then, an exploration of figures whose continued lives (Oedipus, Heracles, Lear, Macbeth, Samson and Adam) seem offensive to the presiding powers and narrative decorum of their respective plays, but which may also offer energetic forms of interest and even consolation. As such it is wonderfully persuasive, clear and accessible. It also links the notion of overliving into wider currents of thought about tragedy.

Renaissance Quarterly - Margaret J. Arnold

Refreshing because it stimulates the reader to rethink familiar works and to question received concepts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801879647
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 12/30/2004
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily R. Wilson is an assistant professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Table of Contents

1 "O darkness" : Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus 24
2 "Never to have lived is best" : Oedipus Coloneus 41
3 " Enslaved to fate" : Euripedes' Heracles 66
4 "Let us live" : Seneca's Epistles and Hercules Furens 88
5 "A wheel of fire" : King Lear 113
6 "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" : Macbeth 129
7 "A moving grave" : Samson Agonistes 145
8 "Why do I overlive?" Paradise lost 164
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