The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy

Here we present a review of the corresponding book by C. Fred Alford.

Psychoanalytic readings of literature are often reductionist, seeking to find in great works of the past support for current psychoanalytic tenets. In this book C. Fred Alford begins with the possibility that the insights into human needs and aspirations contained in Greek tragedy might be more profound than psychoanalytic theory. He offers his own psychoanalytic interpretation of the tragedies, one that reconstructs the dramatists’ views of the world and, when necessary, enlarges psychoanalysis to take these views into account.


Alford draws on an eclectic mixture of psychoanalytic theories—in particular the work of Melanie Klein, Robert Jay Lifton, and Jacques Lacan—to help him illuminate the concerns of the Greek poets. He discusses not only well-known tragedies, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Sophocles’ Theban plays, and Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae, but also lesser-known works, such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ so-called romantic comedies. Alford examines the fundamental concerns of the tragedies: how to live in a world in which justice and power often seem to have nothing to do with each other; how to confront death; how to deal with the fear that our aggression will overflow and violate all that we care about; how to make this inhumane world a more human place. Two assumptions of the tragic poets could, he argues, enrich psychoanalysis—that people are responsible without being free, and that pity is the most civilizing connection. The poets understood these things, Alford believes, because they never flinched in the face of the suffering and constraint that are at the center of human existence.

C. Fred Alford is professor of government at the University of Maryland. He is also the author of NarcissismMelanie Klein and Critical Social Theory, and The Self in Social Theory.

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